Who voted for Ahmadinejad?
Smoldering in Tehran, Part 2
November 5, 2005
I had not expected to find Ahmadinejad supporters among my own acquaintances. At the home of some friends of my mother’s I nearly choked when the young hostess said sweetly, “I almost called you in the U.S. to ask you to vote for Dr. Ahmadinejad.”
We were visiting the family in their small but cheerfully furnished and electronically equipped apartment. This was a traditional Iranian family, highly observant of form (five main courses for three guests, accompanied by a multitude of elaborate side dishes) and pious (the woman veiled by conviction, the conversation running to the impossibility of explaining to non-Shiites the significance of Hazrat Abolfazl). The bedroom of the three-year old son was crammed with the latest Disney toys and videos.
On his desk was a more powerful and equipped computer than I use, with Internet access and lots of children’s software. The wife was a warm-hearted special education teacher with high moral standards. (Her mother had until recently been a “women’s affairs” advisor to an old-time hardliner who was also running for election this year.) The husband was a graphic artist and an award-winning photographer, his bookshelves packed with art books. He was a two-time voter for Khatami, but the wife had not voted for Khatami on his second term. While husband and wife both were both religious, the husband seemed altogether more liberal than his wife.
“I did not vote,” I said in response to her comment about calling us. “I support neither Ahmadinejad nor Rafsanjani.” And I could not help adding: “I am not religious -- quite, quite secular, in fact.”
That being established to mutual respect, we discussed Ahmadinejad. As it turned out the husband and wife’s candidate in the first round of elections was not the newcomer Ahmadinejad but an old hardliner. In the second round, however, out of severe dislike for Rafsanjani they had voted for Ahmadinejad. “Rafsanjani had already proved himself to be corrupt,” the wife said, “so it was easier to give benefit of the doubt to a new candidate.” “And he’s not inexperienced,” she added. “He’s already been governor of Semnan and mayor of Tehran.”
I asked about Ahmadinejad’s background at Evin. “Rumors, Rafsanjani propaganda…” she said. “Dr. Ahmadinejad was a professor before he became governor and mayor. Besides, back then” -- the executions he is accused of were in the 1980s -- “he was nobody to have a job like that.” I thought that was odd, as if firing last shots was a coveted position reserved for the elite. Everyone knew, for instance, that one of the ways in which the tavvabs, the “repentant” prisoners, proved their loyalty to the Islamic Republic was to volunteer to fire those notorious shots. That particular act seems to have been a way to prove oneself. But I did not push the issue with my hosts.
“Ahmadinejad has plans to develop the country in a way that benefits society,” she said. “And he is just the kind to get rid of corruption. He is an honest man. He is strong and principled. He is not compromising.” The latter, of course, was exactly what was least reassuring to the rest of us. “Just wait and see,” she said.
A second surprise Ahmadinejad supporter was Akram, whom my extended family has known for nearly thirty years. She started by giving my mother and aunts massages and manicures and became a family friend. She is quite a woman. As a single mother she raised her son with hard work through the very difficult years of revolution and war. She is a strong and athletic woman who has climbed the 18,000-feet Mount Damavand a number of times. Her passion is mountaineering and, as a woman, she is a novelty and quite popular in the predominantly male climbing community. Over the years she has picked her boyfriends by testing their endurance in the mountains first. She tells funny stories of how she wears down lightweight men who can’t keep up with her.
Akram is no lightweight in anything she does. In the early years of the revolution, at a memorial service for her brother who was martyred in the war with Iraq, a fleet of mourning ladies, courtesy of the government, had showed up scratching their faces and chanting: “This flower was withered in the path of the Leader.” Even in those fearful days Akram had not been intimidated. “He died for his country, not the Leader,” she had said, throwing the ladies out and threatening to break their necks if they showed up again. Her most recent confrontation was with a neighbor who insisted on leaving the outside light on during the night. The light shone in Akram’s bedroom and kept her awake at nights.
The neighbor who was adamant about having it her way was a basij -- militia -- group leader and confident of her own connections (her husband merely drove a cab and could not be counted on for clout). Altercations between the two women followed, during one of which the basiji woman pulled a knife on Akram. Akram pressed charges and succeeded in taking her to court. After the court hearing, she went home and upturned all the neighbor’s flowerpots into the bargain. “I don’t buy any of that basij stuff,” she said.
I was shocked to hear that Akram had voted for Ahmadinejad. “But you’re no supporter of the Islamic Republic,” I objected. “I hate the mullahs,” she said. “But he’s not one of them. He’s one of us. He is a man of the people. And he’s promised to solve our housing problem.”
For decades now Akram has lived in a perpetual housing crisis, moving from apartment to apartment, barely able to pay rent and the huge deposits. Her work takes her to all kinds of affluent houses. “I hate it that I have to work so hard when these rich people live in posh towers and make money building and selling them. Ahmadinejad is going to put a stop to all that.”
One morning Akram cancelled a trip to Behesht-e Zahra, the huge cemetery of Tehran, to come see us. She showed up with a plate of nazri halva. It is common to make a nazr, a sort of vow, to distribute halva at the cemetery in memory of a departed loved one. I asked whom the halva was for. “Don’t you know the anniversary of whose death it is today?” she asked with affront. I had no idea. “The Shah,” she said. “May his grave be showered in light.”
“I liked the Shah personally and I like Ahmadinejad personally,” she said. And to seal the conversation she added, “I even like the way Ahmadinejad looks.”
Another interesting supporter of the new president was a young taxi driver I rode with one evening. He was eager to initiate a conversation. “Excuse me, khanom,” he said, “what is the best way to learn English?”
As I was searching for suggestions that would be available to him, he asked if I thought the “Oxford” books and tapes were any good. I did not know what books he was talking about, but I said “Yes, probably.” He asked if it was true that from these books you learn English with a “literary accent.” I said that you probably learned English with a British accent. Then he asked if I thought TOEFL classes were better. I said that as far as I knew TOEFL was a test for getting into American colleges and perhaps a language class less focused on passing a particular exam would be better. He did not know what TOEFL was.
By this time I had chance to check him out a little. He was very young and new to Tehran from Khuzestan. He still didn’t know the city very well and was the only driver I saw who had a map handy. I asked if he went to school. “I used to be a university student,” he said, “but I had to drop out for medical reasons.”
“Why are our youth deceived by the mirage of the west?” he then asked just as abruptly as he had asked about learning English. “Mirage of the west” sounded like a stock phrase that he had picked up somewhere. “Why do they only think about clothes and possessions?” he asked. I said that there are empty-headed youth in every society, and sensing a bit of hostility toward “westernized” youth I added that nevertheless it is not good for anyone to force his own values on others.
“Yes, that’s what I always told them,” he said. “We should allow them to do what they want, I used to say. We should not harass them.”
His use of “we” was interesting. I wondered if he was or had been a basiji and, as such, a quota student at the university from which he had dropped out. I brought the conversation back to learning English and asked if he wished to go abroad to study. “No, no,” he said, “all our young people who go abroad learn bad things. They don’t study and they don’t come back.” I said that a lot of them did study and would come back if there were jobs for them. “Yes, they should come back,” he agreed with me, forgetting his earlier hostile tone. “Dr. Ahmadinejad will create jobs for them.” His mind was all over the place.
Surprisingly, this intellectually struggling young man had more concrete ideas of what Ahmadinejad was going to do than the more educated and experienced supporters I had talked to. Commenting about the traffic problem, he said that the new president had some good plans. “There are many companies headquartered in Tehran whose business is really in other parts of Iran,” he said. “Dr. Ahmadinejad will send all these companies back to the provinces where they do their business.” He did not use the word “decentralization” but tried to explain it to me as one of the president’s plans. “You see,” he said, “there is no agriculture in Tehran. Why should the ministry of agriculture be in Tehran? If some of the companies and government ministries move to different provinces, the population and traffic will be reduced in Tehran.”
He took it a step further. “There are too many people working in the government anyway,” he said. “In Scotland, the ministry of agriculture has only 41 employees. The rest of the work is done by outside companies.” Small government, privatization, outsourcing! How in the world did these ideas creep into the revolutionary discourse of the new president, and from there to supporters such as this young man? And where did the 41 employees of the ministry of agriculture in Scotland come from? Clearly someone was stimulating the minds of young people like this driver.
I did not leave him unchallenged, however. I explained that cutting down government agencies and giving out the work to private companies is called “privatization.” I told him that can eventually cost the government more money and hurt the workers as the companies increase their profit. I also said that as far as I knew Rafsanjani was the champion for privatization; Ahmadinejad was supposed to protect people’s interest, not to further the cause of money-making companies. “That’s not good,” he agreed with me. “It’s not good at all if companies make money off the government. That comes out of the budget of the country.”
Had his views not flip-flopped a number of times already I would have flattered myself that I had made him think. Nevertheless, I had not met anyone so hungry for education as this young driver -- hungry for education at best, at the bid and call of political cynicism at worst. He would have probably pulled the car over and talked all night.
When we got out of the taxi I gave him a good tip. He refused it with the usual ceremony and I pressed it on him with due ceremony. I told him that his time was worth a lot more than this and that he should go back to school. He accepted shyly and as he drove off he beamed a smile at me. >>> Part 3
Smoldering in Tehran: Index