It seems like only yesterday I was driving, through the middle of the night, down Vali-Asr street in downtown Iran, behind the wheel of a blue truck we called the Bas-Mobile. The flames of workers’ fires lit the streets. The gurgling of small streams beside the long avenues could be heard. The scene was romantic and exhilarating, because so much of what I was finding contradicted Iran’s stern image. And I had encountered someone . My new boyfriend was a young Iranian chemical engineer, and we had fallen in love while I was on assignment for NPR to cover the 16th anniversary of the revolution. That was in 1996—a long time ago.
Yet several trips to Iran thereafter worked the country into my system in a way that few other places have. Ramin and I remain on good terms, and the friends I made then are friends today. With Iranian colleague Davar Ardalan, now author of My Name is Iran, I produced an eight-part series called “Iran at the Crossroads.” Underneath all those black veils and raised fists, it was easy to perceive all the leanings towards self-expression and open dialogue, toward art and thought, that is being expressed by many of today’s protestors. Indeed, repression seems to breed the best in a number of people.
A year later, in 1997, I was back, to cover the election of the then “reformist” candidate Mohammed Khatami. Then again in 1998, and in 2000.
What has changed? Technology is one of the things that has changed. People who are dissenters can be clearly seen and heard now by millions. You do not need “old media,” to see that, not with a kazillion Twitter messages posted on the Atlantic.com allowing you to meet the protesters today at 1400 hours at Vanak Street. While it is important—even essential—for today’s electronic ‘pamphleteers’ to Twitter, frankly, it’s GREAT to get all these people in dialogue (in Farsi, that word is goftegu) the story in Iran is that it is always the people you can’t see that you need to worry about. That is as true today as it was thirteen years ago, before anyone thought of a digital tweet. I will never forget how I felt when my boyfriend arrived to join me in Canada with documentation, in Farsi of course, of our every move over a fourteen-day period. He’d been interrogated twice before being allowed to leave the country. Good thing he was a man—he would have been imprisoned if our roles had been reversed.
Now, over a decade later, I find myself emailing with friends in Iran who are covering this election. My friends are in their early 40’s. That is old enough to have been a child in 1979, been through the ‘Khatami revolution’ of 1997, and be a bit tempered about today. An Iranian friend working for Newsweek – Tehran is their home address—feels privileged to be covering something this monumental. But that does not mean he thinks it is all going to turn well for the forces of ‘change.’ And I am not going to tell him, in the middle of all this, that I feel this is only a penultimate act. Power gives up nothing without a fight— in this case, a bloody fight. Iranians learned that hugely in 1979. Iran’s 1979 revolution never really “took” with all of its people, and was in any case, quickly held hostage by the clerical elites, led of course, by the Ayatollah Khomeni, who banded with elements of the military to oust true pro-Democracy forces. Those forces were even pursued beyond Iran’s borders—another friend’s father was assassinated in Paris, long after the revolution.
That does not mean I’m cynical about what’s happening—not at all. But I keep remembering what was told to me by an Iranian philosopher named Daroush Shaygan. “We didn’t know these people,” he said. Meaning, the intellectuals did not know the masses. And the masses aren’t tweeting to us in English. (That doesn’t mean they aren’t to each other, or won’t be in a few weeks.) But the masses may be the protesters’ biggest problem, even beyond the power split at the very very top. If you care to follow Iranian power politics that closely, know that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was always suspected by other clerics as being a bit fraudulent. Now, he is allied with Ahmadenijad and the military. He needs to consolidate his power—you saw that when he quickly blessed the ridiculous vote outcome. Ousting him, though, may put even harder-line people in power.
I am simply tempered in my hopes, and waiting. I believe the Obama administration is doing what it can. And even if the Iranian Guardian Council succeeds in cementing this false election through violence, which is what I fear is coming, it will not be able to hold back Iran young people who want change forever. In the end, this may be Iran’s Tiananmen Square. We had brave pictures from demonstrators there, too, –100,00 or more of them — but they were crushed. China was forced to moderate, however – but 20 years later, it is still an authoritarian state. And by the way, a close ally of Iran’s.
Still, we have to give our hearts and souls to the people on the street who are bravely showing the rest of us that they will not be bullied, they will not be silent, they will not be annihilated. Technology may not trump bullets, but unless Iran is prepared to massacre and jail every dissenter with a cell phone, this is not going to go away. The genie is out of the bottle, and you can see it on the face of all those supporters of Mir Hussein Moussavi, who is himself, fearlessly defiant.
They’re not going to take it any more – but brace yourself for what’s next. As to all those wonderful pro-democracy people I met in the ‘90s—one is a famous author, now living in Washington, DC, newly an American citizen: Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Lawyer Shirin Ebadi went on to win a Nobel Prize – her office was ransacked for the umpteenth time and her assistant arrested Tuesday. Other women leaders I met then have fled into exile, fearing for their lives. One male philosopher I met, who established a magazine called Dialogue, has spent time in prison and exile. Not a great record.
Their descendants will remain on the front lines—but this is a long, long battle. And the street protests presage that. I’m holding my breath, and applauding their bravery and determination.
Jacki Lyden has been a regular substitute host on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Weekend All Things Considered. Part of the award-winning NPR team that covered the Persian Gulf War, Lyden lives in Washington, D.C. Her 1997 memoir Daughter of the Queen of Sheba is scheduled to become the basis for a feature film starring Amy Adams.