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Death to the Dictator!

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About The Author

Afsaneh Moqadam

Afsaneh Moqadam is a pseudonym. It has been adopted to protect the identity of the author, who witnessed and participated in many of the events described in this book.

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It’s June 8, 2009, a few days before the election, and Mohsen Abbaspour is walking down the hill toward Vali-ye Asr Street. The oriental planes bowing over the street were planted by Reza, the last Shah’s father. Reza was a doer. He did development and railways and a modern army. He did horsewhippings and larceny. Now there is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He does big lies and nuclear centrifuges. He thinks he was crowned with a divine halo.
For the past four years Mohsen has laughed at him. He and his friends made up jokes about him and sent them by text to one another. The nation’s children laughed because Ahmadinejad looked like the monkey on the Cheetos packets sold in Iran. But inside they were sad, because they were ashamed. They were ashamed that he represented their nation.
The Iranians are a cultured people, a people with a past. Did they not give the world Avicenna, squinches, the divine right of kings? Did Cyrus the Great not author the first declaration of human rights? Wasn’t Goethe enthralled by the verse of Hafez, Emerson by that of Sa’adi? Now Iran is represented by a midget with lethal, half-asleep eyes. He prances on the international stage—with Hugo Chávez and the president of Belarus. If he is not a mass murderer, not yet, this is because he is not alone at the top of Iran’s pyramid of power. Make no mistake: he wouldn’t hesitate.
Ahmadinejad must share with Ali Khamenei. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the Supreme Leader of Iran. He should not be mistaken for the Ayatollah Khomeini, even if their names sound alike. Khomeini was the father of the revolution. Love him or hate him (some did both), you couldn’t but admire his courage and absence of venality. Such was his presence and authority that the people called him the Imam. When Khomeini died in 1989, there was no obvious replacement. Khamenei got the nod, a startled apparatchik who admitted to his unfitness for the job of being God’s representative on earth.
On the contrary, the oilers and greasers whispered, the position suits you very well. You are truly a historic eminence, the merest of steps away from divinity. In time, Khamenei started to like the sound of all this. Now he inclines his head graciously when they say that obedience to Khamenei is as important as saying your prayers. Don’t forget to smile, your Grace the Ayatollah! The posters of the Supreme Leader used to show him in a bad mood. Now they show him grinning, above reminders that this year is the year of reforming patterns of consumption.
Khomeini never smiled. He was too big, too awesome, to smile.
In theory Khamenei and his president are great friends. Khamenei helped Ahmadinejad come to power in 2005. Did Ahmadinejad show his gratitude? Like hell he did. Ahmadinejad is dissimilar to Khamenei. He doesn’t lack confidence, doesn’t need puffing up. Ahmadinejad believes he enjoys the favor of the Hidden Imam, whose reemergence among us will begin a period of justice and truth, and the Hidden Imam, as everyone knows, is closer to God than the Supreme Leader is. During his first term, Ahmadinejad professed undying loyalty to Khamenei, but in fact did his own thing. Sometimes Khamenei approved; sometimes he didn’t. To Ahmadinejad, crowned by his halo, it didn’t much matter either way.
Iran’s electorate knows it will never get the chance to sack his Grace the Ayatollah. The constitution doesn’t give them that privilege. Even if they could, there’s a strong chance they would choose not to, for where’s the guarantee they wouldn’t get someone worse? There are rumors, which periodically gust and die, to the effect that Khamenei suffers from an advanced form of cancer, or that he and the opium pipe are inseparable. Then comes another, contradictory rumor: Khamenei’s as fit as a fiddle. So the people don’t occupy themselves with thoughts of dumping Khamenei. The Supreme Leader is supreme for life. Amen.
But the president . . . that’s a different matter. The constitution allows the people to vote for a president and a parliament. Granted, this only happens after the candidates have been vetted by the Council of Guardians for their adherence to Islamic tenets and their aptitude for office. This means that the vast majority of candidates get weeded out, but a certain number get through, and a certain number of this certain number are reformists.
Back at the beginning, the reformists were disciples of Khomeini. They were hostage-takers and, in the manner of ideologues everywhere, advocates of death for anyone who didn’t agree with them. Now they have changed. They are democrats and supporters of women’s rights; they love music and books. They won’t say they are sorry for the past; Iranians don’t really go in for apologies. But they are definitely preferable to the hard-liners, the conservatives—the “Principalists,” in their own jargon—who swarm around Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. Come election time, the only question for Mohsen is whether to vote for the reformists, or not at all.
Mohsen has been debating this question with his friend Amin. Khamenei and some of the other mullahs emphasize the importance of a really high turnout. The enemy, Khamenei says, is working night and day to ensure this won’t happen. Everyone agrees that a high turnout would be read as a popular legitimization of the Islamic Republic. Mohsen and Amin could live with this, so long as someone better than Ahmadinejad gets in. They don’t like the Islamic Republic, this jackbooted kleptocracy with its chorus line of seers and charlatans. They despise its bullying, its dirty fingers touching their beliefs and private lives. But they are prepared to accept it on the condition that it reform itself, adhere to those bits of the constitution that promise freedom, and repair the country’s terribly damaged image abroad.
The reason is simple. Mohsen and Amin don’t want another revolution. Their parents made the last one and look where that got them. Mohsen and Amin don’t want bloodshed and upheaval. They want reform. Perhaps they are yellow, these children of the revolution. Or perhaps they are smart.
There was a time before Ahmadinejad, during Iran’s first and only reformist government, when the bearer of an Iranian passport was not automatically regarded with suspicion and fear. The president was Muhammad Khatami, and he was a good-looking, well-dressed mullah. No matter that Khatami was ineffective at home, or that the conservatives wouldn’t let him carry out his reforms; he repaired Iran’s image abroad, with his white teeth and his call for a dialogue among civilizations. During his tenure, it happened, every now and then, that an Iranian traveling to Europe was not treated as the carrier of a dangerous bacillus.
“Ah.” The customs official smiled. “Khatami! Nice man! Nice hat!”
Since Ahmadinejad came to power and got the Israelis’ backs up, things have changed again, the other way. Iran’s fellow pariahs, the Iraqis, the Libyans, and the Syrians, have been let back into the gang—they are now acceptable members of the community of nations. The North Koreans don’t often let their citizens out; the passport issue doesn’t arise. That leaves Iran.
The Iranian passport is the least cool passport in circulation today. When it falls with a slap on the immigration hall counter, it elicits the same reaction as a warm, dead bird. Nostrils wrinkle.
Get rid of it!
Earlier this year Mohsen decided to go for a short trip. It would be his first trip abroad. He would go to Italy, where his cousin lives. This cousin has a job. He shares a small apartment with several other Iranians.
Italy, the home of Dante, Levi, Fo. The home of hot Italian girls. Mohsen had an invitation. He would go to the embassy and get a visa.
One morning Mohsen joined a forlorn ribbon of people. They were respectable people, giants in their fields, some of them, but they held themselves shoddy and bent. They knew, all of them, what would happen inside. They would be insulted and humiliated by the visa officer who interviewed them. This officer would not be Italian. She would be an Iranian, a member of the embassy’s local staff, a quisling whose long years at the embassy had taught her to regard her own people with warm, dead bird disdain. If, by any chance, she did not humiliate them, they would feel pathetically grateful.
In his hands Mohsen had his forms (in triplicate), his photographs, his fee, and a deed to his parents’ apartment made out in his name, forged that very morning—evidence that he would not do a runner in Italy and become an illegal. Sweating, feeling sick, he stood before the bulletproof glass that walled him from the quisling, and the noise of his anger rose in his ears as he tried to explain away some alleged error in the forms that he had filled out in triplicate, an error that rendered them utterly worthless, worse than worthless, and then as he pleaded and stammered the quisling started examining the nail she had broken that very morning, tilting it in the halogen light.
Mohsen and Amin were born in the war. Saddam was firing Scuds at Tehran and anyone who could get away, anyone with relations outside Tehran, fled the game of chance. Mohsen’s father was a junior government official. He told Mohsen’s mother to take the boy and get away to her sister’s place near Tabriz, but she refused to leave her husband. Amin’s father had walked on a mine at the front and was laid up. He needed medical attention and couldn’t go far from the hospital. Amin and Mohsen were both born in Tehran after the city had emptied. It was the height of the air war and some of their earliest memories are of sheltering underground with their respective families, in an old cistern. Another of the neighbors had a good voice and she sang to keep spirits up—love songs by Marsieh, Parveen, Ghamar.
Mohsen and Amin grew up on the same street. In those days, before the construction boom, there were few apartment blocks, just small houses with small yards. Mohsen and Amin climbed over the walls and stole from the yards—quinces, mulberries white and black, persimmons. Amin and Mohsen went through school together. They played truant, went to the cinema, smoked cigarettes, read anything they could get their hands on. They tried alcohol, marijuana. Mohsen wanted to buy some crack but Amin persuaded him to come camping and he forgot about it. They grew up, did their military service, were admitted to university. Amin got in to study computers and Mohsen, Persian literature.
“What are you going to do with a degree in Persian literature?” his father demanded. “It won’t help you get a job.” After a couple of years he bowed to his father’s pressure and changed to engineering, but he hated engineering and spent his time buried in politics and literature. He read Soroush, Popper, Paine. He got hold of some banned copies of Solzhenitsyn. Mohsen’s father had been a Communist at the time of the revolution, a member of the outlawed Tudeh Party; he had saved himself by becoming a Khomeinist, growing a beard and giving up the booze, but many of his friends had been to jail. Don’t get too close to politics, he told Mohsen. Remember Icarus in the old Greek story; he flew too close to the sun and his wings melted.
Mohsen was thirteen when Khatami presented himself for election. He and Amin were too young to vote but they watched with excitement all the same. Khatami represented New Religious Thought and his opponent represented More of the Same. Khatami was an ally of Soroush, and Soroush argued that although religion is immutable, religious knowledge is not; it evolves according to time and place. Khatami was offering to spring-clean the Islamic Republic, to change repressive and anachronistic laws.
The next four years were first a time of hope, then of disappointment, and finally of cynicism and despair. Khatami’s culture minister unbanned hundreds of books and films and music albums. He allowed dozens of newspapers to open. But the conservatives bullied and threatened him and ended up driving him from office. The newspapers were closed down and their owners dragged to court, while the Council of Guardians vetoed every piece of reformist legislation that was passed by parliament.
“Iran cannot be reformed,” Mohsen said. “Khamenei won’t let it happen. The mullahs won’t let it happen.” But he and Amin voted for Khatami when they had the chance, in 2001, the president’s reelection year. Khatami’s second term was a big nonevent and the two friends were glad to see him go when he stepped down, in 2005. Then Ahmadinejad was elected and pretty soon Khatami’s tenure started to seem like a golden age.
Mohsen and Amin didn’t bother voting in the election that brought Ahmadinejad to power. They turned completely off politics and religion and even Soroush—these things only led to disappointment.
Mohsen got a job in a small steel factory east of Tehran. Its owner was a distant relation of Ahmadinejad. He depicted his factory as the acme of modern business practice. In fact it was a sweatshop. The workers had to swipe in at seven in the morning and no one was allowed to go home before 6:00 p.m. Some of them lived in Karaj, an hour west of Tehran, so their day began at 4:30 a.m. If they arrived ten minutes late, the boss would dock their wages. Mohsen said to his boss, “If this is the way you treat your workers, they won’t feel any loyalty to you or the company and they’ll steal from you at the first opportunity.” Mohsen’s boss laughed and said, “First rule of business: know your workers. Don’t let them get above themselves.”
At the factory the workers cursed the president. “Son of a whore!” Then one day he came to the factory to open a new unit and it was like the coming of the Hidden Imam, with the workers crying and pressing chits into his hands, and he smiled sleepily and praised the virtue and industry of the Iranian toiler before getting into his helicopter and flying off again.
One day Mohsen asked permission to take a week’s holiday and his boss laughed and said, “Maybe next year.” That was the last day Mohsen turned up for work at the steel factory.
Mohsen and Amin, who was also unemployed, started talking about going abroad. They would go to Malaysia on student visas and find work. They would go to Istanbul and throw themselves on the mercies of the UN, pretending they were Christian converts, or gay, or both. “If you send us back to Iran, you’ll be condemning us to death!” They would win the lottery for green cards and go to America. But Mohsen made excuses for not carrying out these plans. He found that actually he didn’t want to leave Iran. He would be lonely and homesick. He dressed up his reluctance as political principle. He told Amin, “That would be exactly what they want—a nice empty country to run, free of potential troublemakers. A bit like the Shah when he told the opposition, ‘Leave, or go to jail!’ ”
At the beginning of May, when Ahmadinejad looked like a shoo-in, Amin said to Mohsen, “I don’t know about you, but if he gets reelected, I’m out of here. I can’t take another four years. So I’m going to vote. Not only am I going to vote; I’m going to campaign for the reformists. That way, if the reformists lose I’ll know that I did my best. I won’t carry it around with me for the rest of my life. What do you think? Are you with me?”
Mohsen nodded uneasily. There was another factor. Amin had a new girlfriend, Solmaz. She wore dark lipstick, somewhere between apricot and tobacco. She almost became Mohsen’s girlfriend, but then Amin was given a car by his father and she became his. Every now and then Solmaz gave Mohsen a knotted look, a look that seemed to say, “If you had a car, I would be yours.”
Mohsen thought: “If Ahmadinejad wins and Amin emigrates, Solmaz will need consoling. I’ll emigrate a bit later on, once Amin is settled.”
Mohsen and Amin discussed whom they should support. Apart from Ahmadinejad himself, three candidates had been cleared to run by the Council of Guardians: Mohsen Rezai, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and Mehdi Karrubi. Rezai had been in charge of the Revolutionary Guard during the war. He stood no chance of winning but he might take a few votes off Ahmadinejad. The real choice, therefore, was between Mousavi and Karrubi.
Mir-Hossein Mousavi was a soft, pale man. He had a flowery nose and thick lenses and a white beard.
Mohsen’s father said, “He’s a nonentity.”
Mohsen said, “But he was prime minister during the war! He steered the country through economic peril!”
His father replied, “At least he’s clean. But he didn’t raise a peep when they were busy executing dissidents in jail. Not a peep.”
Since Khomeini’s death and the abolition of the post of prime minister, Mousavi had pretty much stayed out of politics; his withdrawal from public life denoted disapproval of the way the country was being run. The reformists had begged Mousavi to run in 2005. He had refused. This time, however, he felt the state of the country was so bad that he had no choice. Inflation and unemployment were high; Ahmadinejad had squandered the country’s massive oil revenues on handouts. The Revolutionary Guard had spread its tentacles into all areas of Iranian life: politics, the economy, even sports. Many older Iranians remembered Mousavi with gratitude and affection, for keeping the country on its feet at a time of hardship. And he enjoyed Khatami’s support.
Young Iranians knew the cleric Mehdi Karrubi much better. He had been parliament speaker when Khatami was president. After running unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2005, Karrubi had publicly accused Mojtaba Khamenei, the Supreme Leader’s son, of committing electoral fraud in Ahmadinejad’s favor. Karrubi was blunt, even brave, but there were doubts over his probity.
“Show me a mullah,” Mohsen’s father said, “and I’ll show you a thief.”
Solmaz joined the discussion. Solmaz was a women’s rights activist. She was part of the One Million Signatures Campaign, an initiative aimed at gathering signatures for an improvement in women’s rights. Some of Solmaz’s friends in the movement had met Karrubi and he had committed himself to radical reforms in favor of women’s rights. Mousavi, by contrast, had made much vaguer promises. He had not received the activists in person.
“I agree with Solmaz that in some ways Karrubi is the better candidate,” said Mohsen. “But a split in the reformist vote can only benefit Ahmadinejad. Mousavi has been endorsed by Khatami and he stands a much better chance than Karrubi of beating Ahmadinejad, so we are obliged to support Mousavi.”
In this way, Mohsen, Amin, and Solmaz endorsed Mir-Hossein Mousavi for the post of president.

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