TO LIVE OR JUST BE ALIVE – THAT’S THE QUESTION
[An extraordinarily poignant and vividly powerful eyewitness account of the protests for freedom in Tehran yesterday, June 20, by a philosophy professor at Tehran University.]
We gather up with my students on Saturdays for a private class. We cook and eat together, then talk of philosophy. This time there was no class. We only tried to keep up our morale. We were very determined but scared.
That is how I can describe the most people who came out to attend the demonstration today. After the fierce speech [by Ayatollah Khomenei] at the Friday prayers, we knew that today we would be treated differently. We felt so vulnerable, more than ever, but at the same time were aware of our power, which, no matter how influential it is collectively, would have done little to protect us today.
We could only take our bones and flesh to the streets and expose them to batons and bullets. Two different feelings fight inside you without mixing with one another. To live or to just be alive, that’s the question.
Then comes another student who would have her lunch with us, but is not coming to the demonstration. She’s too scared and while pretending to be in control bursts into tears. She says she hates to see people suffer. We tell her we have suffered for years.
She says she doesn’t want people to die. I tell her tens of thousands die each year on the roads in Iran, at least this time it would be for a good cause. She says we are elites and can save ourselves for better times when we can be more useful. We reply there is no difference between people in such a condition and one cannot be more useful than that.
But we have had enough of that. We too have our own fears. So we finish the lunch and sit to read poems of Mirzadeh Eshgi. That’s what I suggest. He was a revolutionary anarchist at the time of Constitutional Revolution 1906-11, killed for his frankness of speech. It fits our situation.
Poems play an important role here. At first, I thought maybe it’s too romantic to send poetry to others in such a situation, but then, said to myself, nothing influences Iranians like poetry. And these days, everything is about influence and fear.
The poems we read are bitter, ironical and extremely laughable. You write such poetry when sorrow is more than you can tolerate. You burst into laughter. Then we get going. It’s a quarter to four. But the following hour proves funnier than we expect.
In the bus, everybody goes to the same destination. All streets to Enghlab are blocked. Two demonstrations were held in Enghelab and Azadi in the past days, correspondingly meaning, revolution and freedom. I tell my students, ‘We’re recycling the names.’
Enghlab is busy, very busy, but no demonstration as such. People show the V sign with their fingers but walk in silence. In front of Tehran University, you see the students inside, clutching to the rails, as if behind bars. They shout. But you can’t hear.
In front of the students on the sidewalk, on the other side of the bars, there are two rows of anti-riot police and a row of Basij militia holding posters insulting the demonstrators of the previous days. We have to keep the street crowded. We walk up and down. We’re a group of four. We meet friends, but don’t join them. We don’t want to change the mood by changing our companionship, we’re enjoying it.
Then comes the attraction of the day. Two water-spraying machines. They’re huge, the size of a bus but taller, with fenced windows and two water-guns on top of each. We burst into laughter. They don’t know how to use it. They shoot second floor windows, anti-riot police and the people, if they do at all, and these including girls in tight manteaus. It’s more Zurich than Tehran.
One machine is stuck. They don’t know how to drive it. It’s a hot day, the sun is intolerably shiny and it feels good to become wet. Much of the time, the sprays are not very powerful. It’s as if they’re watering the grass. And it just does not fit the horror that it’s in the air, the aggression with which the people are hit with batons. A beautiful day. It has been beautiful throughout the past week, you wonder whether nature is ironical.
They push the crowd back and forth, brush them from here to there but soon realize people are on all sides. We hear bullets, but people don’t rush away. They’re fake. Nobody is shot.
Then in a couple of minutes, the crowd goes away, the anti-riot police leaves, and the students are gone. We don’t understand why. Deprived of communication, you never see the big picture. Maybe they have attacked the university from behind.
We hear that there’s a huge crowd in Azadi Square. We start to leave. As we pass along the fences, a student, his face covered, smiles bitterly, ‘They’ll storm the dormitory tonight.’
We have to keep on walking. We have an awful feeling. We wish we were in the middle of a crowd. We have joked for hours now, but need to shout. Something is pressing from within.
Then at Towhid Square the scene changes drastically. The streets to Azadi are blocked. But this time, people don’t change their path. They fight for it. There’s a shower of stones. Tear gas. Fire. There is traffic jam and people are in the sidewalks. The battle scene is huge. We cannot see the limits but it extends to nearby streets.
My student is keener to go forward than I am. Her mother succeeded in persuading her to stay home for two days, but now has finally agreed to let her go out on the most dangerous day. People are shouting, ‘Down with the dictator’. Anti-riot police too throws back stones.
People don’t run away anymore. I also grab a broken brick and throw. I’m amazed. Never thought I’d do it. But I need practice: it was a very bad shot. I grab another one, the size of a pomegranate and keep it with me, hiding it behind my back. My feeling is a mixture of a university teacher and a hooligan.
If we want to go forward we need to pass through tear gas. So we ask a car to give us a lift. Then there is the attack. They cannot tell enemy from people although they want to show everything is fine and they’re only chasing trouble-makers. Out there is a woman who is beaten.
She’s horrified and hysteric but not as much as the anti-riot police officer facing him. She shrieks, ‘Where can I go? You tell me go down the street and you beat me. Then you come up from the other side and beat me again. Where can I go?’ In sheer desperation, the officer hits his helmet hard several times with his baton. ‘Damn me! Damn me! What the hell do I know!’
I ask myself, ‘how much longer can these officers tolerate stress? How many among them would be willing to give their lives for somebody like Ahmadinejhad?’
The driver tells us that he has not voted but comes out to the streets these days to beat up the Basijis. At each crossing he is guided by officers to a direction different from what he wants and after a while we realize we are back to the first point. We see officers mount people in a van used for carrying frozen meat.
Then a couple of minutes later, a new scene unfolds. We get off. Here’s a true battle ground. And this time, it is vast. Columns of smoke touch the sky. You can hardly see the asphalt. It’s covered with bricks and stones. Here people have got the upper hand.
The street consists of three lanes, the middle one separated by opaque fences, under construction for metro. The workers have climbed up the fence and show the V sign. They start throwing stones and timbers to the street to supply needed armament. I tell myself, ‘Look at the poor, the ones Ahmadinejhad always speaks of.’ But the president’s name is no longer in fashion.
This time the slogans target the leader, something unheard of in the past three decades. It’s a beautiful sunset, with rays of light penetrating evening clouds. We feel safe among people moving back and forth inline with the anti-riot police attacks.
Two Basijis’ motorcycles are burning. People have learnt how to do it fast. They lie the motor on its side, make a small fire, then spray it to a point where it becomes inextinguishable. We climb up a pedestrian bridge and watch.
People shout from the bridge, ‘Down with Khamenei’ and you think the aura is gone for good. A Basiji is caught: he soon disappears under the crowd beating him. As if in a Roman coliseum, those on the bridge shout, ‘Beat him up!’ I shout with them before coming to my senses. What is with me? He staggers away as a group of ten, kick and punch him all over.
At Gisha, there’s a similar scene. Again the people have the whole crossing in their control and you can hear the uproar and horns. Motors are burning in smoke. But I’m suddenly stunned. I see a red object, which later proves to be a man, a Basiji aged around 50, his head covered with blood, crouching, people passing him by as if he was a garbage can.
Then comes a guy with a long stick who wants to bit up the already beaten Basiji. People gather up and stop him. He’s furious, ‘Why should I not? They beat tiny girls! They beat everyone! Bastard!’
I shout at him, ‘But we’re not beasts! Not like them!’ Somebody takes the Basiji away as people curse him. I think, ‘But the bastard deserves it. Imagine coming out of your house in the morning, just to beat up people you don’t even know.’ I don’t recognize myself and my feelings anymore.
You can get on any car to go back home. People trust one another now. The woman in the back seat sitting next to me says, ‘It’s no longer about Mousavi or election results. We have suffered for thirty years. We didn’t live a life.’
An old man next to her offers me fresh bread. They tell jokes about the political figures and laugh out loud. They feel victorious. ‘I had waited thirty years for this. Now I feel relieved.’