Leaving Tehranby Nasinine T.
New York City, June 23, 6 AM.
I don’t know where to start. It is more than strange to be sitting here at my desk in NYC, in total early morning silence, to write about what happened during my last days in Tehran. I got used to writing in my room there, with my friends and comrades at my side, typing away, reading blogs, or making phone calls to follow minute-by-minute news from the city’s corners.
During that long month, unseasonable thunderstorms would mark the beginning of each evening, lightening the heavy moments that we had lived through during that day with sudden and heavy rainfall. Breathing the tense air and waiting for the storm to arrive, we would watch the crows as they would land on a tree in the garden. We would listen to them cry out, almost painfully, as the evening silence would set in once again, reminding us that we would have to wait until the next morning to reconnect to the city streets and with people.
Years ago, a friend told me that Tehran’s crows live to be over a hundred years old. A myth, for sure, but one that I believed in then, and continue to believe in now. My first thought when he told me this was how amazing it must be to be one of those crows: to fly over that immense city for so many years, to be witness to the many changes that it has known, and to live through the incredible events of the last 100 years. Two coups d’etat (and now a third), two revolutions (and now a third, beginning), an eight-year-long war, and all the other moments that have brought people together—that have tested people’s love and devotion to one another and pushed them to transmit their history, culture, and language to each other. Right now, it is almost unbearable for me to be far from my friends in Tehran, far from what is happening there, but it is important to begin to organize differently and to preserve ourselves. This will be a long fight, but one that will succeed.
After Khamenei’s remarks during Friday prayer, we were all afraid to go to the streets last Saturday. I had stopped filming any video since Tuesday, and would only take my photo camera with me wherever I went. By this point, I had hidden my videotapes at a friend’s home and had begun encrypting my files on my hard drives, prepared for anything to happen. Friday evening was strange. I went to a girl’s birthday party where we all got drunk, speaking only about one thing: what was happening, and how we would organize ourselves in the coming months and years. By now, I had pretty much decided to leave the country, since one of the main targets of the arrests had been people working in media (officially or unofficially). By this point, 15 filmmakers had already been arrested on the streets of Tehran. Their homes had been raided, their material confiscated. Despite my personal feelings, I consulted with my friends and family, and made the issue a collective one. We decided to wait until Saturday’s demonstration, to see how things would play out, and then to decide if it would be safer to leave now or later.
Saturday was frightening. Hungover from the night before and worried, we did not want to go so far into the city but felt that we had to at least make it out to see what was happening and to be witness to it. We managed to grab a few cab rides down to Enqelab (Revolution) Street, moving towards Revolution Square where the demonstration was supposed to begin. “Az Enqelab tah Azadi”—from “Revolution (square) to Freedom (square)”, as is the route of massive Tehran marches.
Once we turned onto Enqelab Street, we discovered hundreds and hundreds of riot cops, plainclothes and Bassijis, reinforcements of Revolutionary Guards. They all wore different and until then unseen costumes. I even saw young, teenage boys who had been brought amongst their ranks. It was hard to tell who was who, but it didn’t matter: they were all armed with batons, guns, and other weapons (chains, and other instruments I had never seen before). I was frightened and knew that this would be a bloody day. Our cab could no longer move after a certain point, so we got out. The middle of the streets were filled with these fascist pigs, and we took to the sidewalks, also lined with their threatening presence. Despite their presence, the number of people walking towards the demonstration grew with each street corner. As we approached Tehran University, the Bassijis had blocked the northern side of the street that leads to the entrance to the University. We had to cross and walk on the sidewalk opposite, and discovered that the entrance to the university was guarded by about a hundred of these plainclothes militias and Revolutionary Guards. Regardless, behind the locked gates dozens of students, their faces covered with bandanas, held their fists high and yelled out their slogans. Our crowd raised our fists and peace signs up into the air and just began cheering to show the students our solidarity and support.
There is too much to tell of the events of that dark day, and I don’t know of what value the details are at this point, but I just want to convey to what extent the regime had decided that Saturday would be a bloody day, trying in different ways to terrorize people, no matter for what reason, or where and why they were in the streets, and no matter their age or gender. They were successful.
After having run from water cannons and armed Bassijis and having lost my friends, I ended up on Keshavaraz Boulevard (a very wide street) where other dispersed protesters were roaming. After taking time to observe from different street corners, I began to walk towards a main street, decidedly to grab a cab to go home. The sidewalks were full of people, all of which, like me, were wondering where to go and what to do. The police, et al. were yelling out for people to keep walking, not to gather, etc. There was even a car wreck that pushed the guards to panic and yell at anyone who stopped to take a look. Our numbers were threatening, regardless of their hold on the streets that day. As I made my way towards Vali Asr Square, I came upon a reconstituted march; about a thousand people had gathered, silently marching together. I took some photos and noticed that the group was growing. The whole scene lasted for about ten minutes. As we came to about fifty meters distance from Vali Asr Square, we noticed about two hundred riot police blocking the end of the boulevard. Everyone stopped, and although frightened to hell (we all knew that they had orders to kill), people’s first instinct was to sit on the ground. The first few rows sat, but as they noticed that the riot police were approaching at a steady pace, they stood up again, watching intently and baffled at what to do. They defiantly held their arms high in the air, silently.
I began to film with my photo camera and then made my way around the side of the demonstrators, trying to film as much as I could. I saw the riot police approaching quickly, and once I saw them extending out onto the sidewalks, I thought that it was time to get out of there. I began to walk away on the sidewalk, and then heard the shots of teargas (or nerve gas, or whatever they are using—no tears, but intense pain in the throat and lungs). People began to run, and I made it to the sides of the buildings. In a few seconds people began to rush and we were all crushed (something that had not happened to me until now, as people were always careful not to hurt each other). I was shoved against the grate of a building along with other people. I shoved my camera into my bag, and protected my head, as a few people were standing between the riot police and me. I caught glimpses of their faces; they were wearing heavy protective gear and gas masks, and began beating everyone violently. Two young men protected me, and I was not hit directly, but by the time we were able to walk away, I was sure that I would get my share. Somehow, I was lucky and I managed to run into a building where someone was letting people in to hide. Along with about thirty other people, we hid in the entrance of this building, while the owners locked their gate onto the street. Through the gate, we could see the riot police still beating and then retracting. A friend told me later that he had seen that Bassijis would mark buildings with a red “X” whenever the owners would hide people, a way of creating fear and terror, and maybe even to come back later to deal with those people as well.
Once things calmed, we all left the building. Furious and in disbelief, I tried to make my way home. Vali Asr Square was still full of police, but I quickly walked past them and towards the taxis. The sidewalks were full of people, mostly just trying to get away, yet once again, and then the riot police charged, threatening people individually and terrorizing them. I ran into a store (ironically, one that sells veils and fashionable tunics that women have to wear to cover their bodies). The owners shut the metal gate and we could no longer see the street. The police marched by, beating on the metal gates and yelling out, and after about 15 minutes we decided that it was calm enough to leave. I jumped into a taxi along with two other women who had gone through the same painful events that afternoon, and we made our way towards the North. I saw the same scene on every street corner. On my way home, I also saw plainclothes secret service agents in different parts of the city. One of the women in the car said that she had seen Bassijis stopping cars to see if people were wearing green, and even asking people why they were wearing black since protesters had used these colors to show their mourning and as a sign of unity.
By this point, I was just worried about my friends’ whereabouts, and prepared for anything. When I finally made it home, my friends were already there, and relieved to see me. We all shared our stories and what we had seen that day. All of them had been through similar events: violent chases, and many had heard shots. We immediately compiled a video from our clips and sent it out. At this time other friends surfaced, ones who had been beaten badly, and we stood together hugging and realizing that things would move in a different direction now. One friend told us how he saw people in Enqelab Square with their arms linked to create a chain. The police had then handcuffed them to each other and continued to beat them violently. An hour later, we discovered, thanks to Facebook, the video of Neda, the girl who was shot dead in the middle of the street. I’m sure you have all seen it. There is nothing more to say.
That night, we decided that it was getting too dangerous, and it was time for me to leave. And on Sunday, we got word that two more filmmakers had been arrested, and that the secret service had begun forcing confessions while filming the detained. This sent chills down our spines: a harsh reminder of methods used against leftists in the years following the 1979 revolution.
On Sunday night, I left to the airport, prepared for anything. Apparently, if you are on the list to be arrested, they take your passport away, and ask you to report the next day to intelligence services. Having a foreign passport, I would maybe have the option of leaving regardless of a passport confiscation, left with the fact that there would be no return to Iran. I decided that this would be okay and that if I were stopped, I would leave the country anyhow. My friend took me to the airport, and I made it through with no problems. I was lucky. There is no telling what would happen if I stayed longer.
Upon arrival to the U.S., I was welcomed in the most aggressive way that I ever have been upon return from traveling—another version of authority. Strangely, I was neither afraid nor worried about the repercussions of my answers. (Maybe I secretly hope to be deported from this awful country too). The immigration officer questioned me at the booth, and I would like to recount our dialogue here, to the best of my memory.
Officer: Do you go to Iran often?
ME: As much as I can, but I had not been able to go for a year before now.
O: How long were you there?
ME: One month.
O: What is your occupation?
ME: I’m a filmmaker.
O: What company do you work for?
ME: I’m independent.
O: Why do you go to Iran?
ME: Because it is my birth country. I have my family and friends there. Should I not go?
O: Well, you know that it is a “country of interest.”
ME: It interests me as well. It’s my country.
He took the stamp and placed it on my passport a few times, hesitating, and finally not giving me the stamps. He put it back to the side and then asked:
O: Have you ever been to places like Afghanistan or Pakistan?
ME: No, I’m not Afghani, and I’m not from Pakistan.
After looking at me in a condescending and suspicious way.
O: What do you think of the U.S.?
ME: Is that a valid question?
O: Yes, it is a valid question. You know, normally we take you to a little room for this.
ME: Yes, I know, I’ve already been there a few times.
O: Answer my question.
ME: Should I put my bag down?
O: If you like.
I put my bags down on the floor.
ME: I am a citizen of this country and have lived here since I was two years old, but I don’t agree with the foreign policy; I don’t know if Obama will make a difference, but I think the wars should stop. I also don’t agree with policy in Iran either, but I will continue going there. Have you seen what is happening there right now?
O: Yes, I know what is going on.
ME: Well it breaks my heart to see people treated the way they are and killed for no reason.
And that’s when my eyes filled with tears, out of sorrow for having left my friends there, but also out of rage for this asshole sitting in the booth with his stamp. When he saw my tears, he dropped his head and immediately stamped my passport, which made me even more furious. He handed it back to me, but I couldn’t keep quiet.
ME: So all you wanted was for me to cry, so that you could feel that you can trust me? You know, they question people in the same way in Iran. This is why I have a problem with government. You are all the same.
“Welcome to the U.S.A.”
Right now, I gather my energy and am strategizing about what needs to be done from abroad. I continue to be in contact with my friends there, every day.
Today’s news is that the many media workers and other active people we know have disappeared. There are also hundreds of university students and activists who have disappeared completely. Apparently they are taking those they arrest to places besides Evin prison, much like the years following the 1979 revolution. What is happening to these people is a nightmare, for sure. It conjures images in all of our minds. Foreign journalists have been thrown out, diplomats are under threat, and soon, the borders will close as well for sure. Shirin Ebadi has asked the E.U. to boycott political ties with the Iranian government. Some sports centers in Tehran have been turned into paramilitary camps, and reserves have been brought in.
There has been further repression and raids in Tehran (and most likely in the provinces). Telephone communication is apparently being screened more seriously. There is rage at Nokia/Siemens who have sold high level screening devices to the Iranian government. The Allah-o-Akbar protesting on the rooftops continues, with more intensity than before. This was such a remarkable and desperate act each day. More a way of telling each other that we are still present and that we still have our voices, than something directed at the government. In a country where people hide their views and themselves indoors, this cry in the dark is a beautiful action that will hopefully continue. Friends told me that today the rooftop cries were louder than ever.
Despite the severe circumstances, we all still have so much hope: Hope that is not replacing indifference or just providing us with a spark of belief, but real hope. Things are changing. The regime is dying, slowly but surely, and we all have a role to play. We are no longer the same as before.
People in Iran need Internet proxies, and other ways to bypass filters and to access sites. We need safe servers, we need bridges to servers abroad. The organizing through Facebook and Twitter, the reporting from the streets, and the images that people continue to take are vital for allowing the movement to grow and continue. It is also essential that foreigners continue to read and watch whatever makes it out of the country. Don’t pay attention to the stupidity of some of the mainstream media’s questioning of the “validity” of images and testimonies coming out of Iran. The people are clear, not only in their defiance, but also in their need for communication and sharing their testimonies with people all over the world.
Dictatorships cannot last forever.
Nasinine T. is a contributing writer for the Rail.