Letter from Tehran, 21 June 2009

Dear all,

First things first: we are safe and sound. I am sorry I haven’t sent a message around for the last three days, but there was little point repeating what is being said already by BBC and CNN – the heavy-handed speech by the Supreme Leader, the suppression of the protests yesterday night. Although the twitterites have now largely pushed aside the official media reports in the country by being a) faster, b) closer to the action, and c) the direct voice of the people involved, no matter what side.

An eerie quiet has descended on Tehran this morning. It belied entirely the terrible events of last night, which are now also being reported by the State media, “to scare the people”, as one of my colleagues said today. Pictures of the (officially) ten people killed are being shown on IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcaster), captioned “terrorists”. The statements of the Iranians around me speak a different language, obviously.

Whilst we’re talking of the media: All international correspondents, as much pundits as they may be, are confined to their offices. Reuters now puts the caveat on top of its reports that correspondents were not able to leave their offices, hence could not confirm the facts they are sending out. State control tries to be all-pervasive: reports indicate that protesters holding cell phones (to video, photograph, or file to Twitter) were selectively targeted by the security forces. Only State TV cameras from rooftops are permitted. Internet access, Satellite TV – are either barred, filtered or scrambled – the latter done with vans that have had their back seats taken out and replaced with state-of-the-art interference hardware (info from an IT friend of mine, who witnessed these vehicles going from district to district in Tehran, randomly cutting out or blurring signals). Another colleague tells me that it allegedly costs the Iranian state close to US$10,000 per second to maintain this scrambling service. SMS has allegedly been put on again; but, again allegedly, only to better track the protesters via the signals their phones emit. Demonstrators have circulated calls to take out the SIM cards to avoid being tracked.

I am distracted these days, and feeling very serious, too. My wife is still not very well (her dizziness and drowsiness attacks keep on disturbing her daily routine, although she says she is starting to get better. Today was a set-back, though). Then, there is the pressure of packing; as it was considered to be unwise to leave the house yesterday, we spent the day packing up. It felt sort of good, sorting out Playmobil from Lego, but I was always uneasy, the whole day long. In the afternoon, uneasiness turned into worry, as I knew that the demonstrations had started in town and it was clear that a lot of my colleagues were out and about as well. Local staff from other UN agencies even responded to their radio check by stating: “my location is Engelab square” [one of the hot spots yesterday, Engelab meaning, ironically, ‘Revolution’]. My wife had a hard time not to get annoyed with me, checking Twitter updates by the second in-between stirring the pasta.

You will ask yourself: why am I reading this, an account from a non-Iranian who has not even been to the protests himself. I am wondering myself. Fact is, there is little information coming out of Iran at the moment that is very personalised and verifiable. At least you all know me, even if you have met me for a short moment only. Secondly, although I am not allowed to attend the protests (and not keen, and feeling that it would be foolish to do so, in terms of Iranian interests [i.e., who prevents the official side to state “German interference provokes terrorist unrest in Tehran”], I feel that my day-to-day contact with my very good Iranian colleagues and friends gives me a feeling of “I know what I am talking about” (well, sort of). One of my closest colleagues has been locked in a car close to Azadi (“Freedom” – ha!) Square yesterday evening – the place where you can assemble most of Tehran’s citizens with enough elbow space to spare room for a car to pass through, and where many – an unknown number of – protesters were beaten up last night. Another person – someone I had intended to hire sooner or later – was beaten up so seriously by the security forces last week – and he is very tall, probably a head and a half more than myself – that he is confined to bed now! Although he gave me the mildest of impressions when I interviewed him for the job – a moderate person indeed – he got tracked down by Basij and seriously hit with batons. At least, he did not have to go to hospital – from where some of the injured were apparently pulled out to vanish for an indefinite time. One friend person told me that a family she knew was still missing their son – after 72 hours. No idea where he was. No news, no letter, no phone call. That is the reality here now. Apparently, the arrested wrote little messages on minute pieces of paper and reached them outside to the police or bystanders, to at least let their families know what has happened. Last night, the news spread that the embassies had opened their doors to the injured – more secure than the hospitals. Not sure if this was indeed happening.

Since Thursday, the Tehrani weather has imitated the turmoil in the city. Very unusually for mid-June, we had electric storms every evening at around 5pm, with thunder and heavy gales pushing down the mountains and sometimes strong rain showers beating down on the roofs. The way how the skies suddenly darkened every day at practically the same hour and lightning flashed across the horizons, was a spooky companion to what was happening in the streets. One was nearly hoping that people chose to stay home in that kind of weather. Once the storms had passed, the shouts started: last night, the “Allahu Akbar’s” were louder and longer than I can recall before. At the same time, it appears that only several thousand demonstrators braved the security forces yesterday evening, and they knew why; colleagues and friends who were out there tell me that the streets were full with thousands of armed forces. It was not the regular army – they are apparently not deemed trustworthy – no, it was again the usual suspects, plus an irregular group described as an entirely new kind of people, with black hoods over their faces, in black clothes and ready for maximum suppression. A far cry from riot police and even Basij, it seems.

I think it might be time to talk about a truth that many of you outside of Iran have not much cared about until now. A Western friend of mine told me that he was surprised to realize that there was that much opposition in the country against the current regime. Truth is that everyone, EVERYONE I ever met who has come to Iran has been surprised by this country. It is not as fundamentalist, it is not as backward, it is not as married to religion as many of you might have believed. In fact, and I am repeating here a truism that everybody who has been to Iran or who has seriously researched it, is very much aware of: Iran is probably one of the most heterogeneous places in the Middle East (although I believe that Iran also belongs culturally equally to some part to Central Asia and the Caucasus). There is a serious middle class who does not want to be taken for a fool (anymore), there is a conservative, religious element that is very, VERY different to the one prevalent in the countries around, there is a modernist group that is comparable and yet different to the West, and there is an impoverished class that is very large but still not necessarily religiously conservative – in short: it is all very different from what you have believed so far.

To give you an example (and experts, please forgive me for being not extremely precise): 60 per cent or more of the population are youth, with all their radical ideas, with all their wishes for something better, with all their rejection of the old truths, with all their relationship to Tehranangeles (Los Angeles, for the rich/wealthy), with all their boredom of the establishment – poor or not, urban or not, Westernised or not, religious or not; the people are yearning, YEARNING, for a change – even if it is within the currently established system; they do NOT want to be put into the same basket as ANY of the surrounding neighbours, neither Arab nor Afghanistan. And then there is the old-established religious class in Qom – not the homogenous conservative group you might expect, no – full of very diverging ideas indeed, and not at all in all cases very happy with the current state of affairs, i.e. the clergy running the country.

OK, I will stop my political rant here. It seems today was relatively quiet, although we had yet another anti-government protest in front of the UN (to ask the UN to do what it can not – intervene on behalf of democracy) this evening. The last one was on Thursday, but attended by only 200 or so people. Colleagues told me that demonstrators had to ask where our offices actually were in the city. All the heads of international organisations were asked to a meeting with the Foreign Minister this morning, probably to get a thorough run-down of the official position. The meeting was on State TV barely two hours after it had finished.

Predictions are that the protests will go on – but that’s far from clear. Everybody is waiting to see what the opposition candidates will do next; I heard some suggestions of a nation-wide strike.

Al the best to you,

from the Creatures

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2 thoughts on “Letter from Tehran, 21 June 2009

  1. >A great blog post. Thanks for sharing.I think at this moment, everyone wants to hear anything coming out of Iran. It helps us really understand what's happening there.As you say, the country is so overwhelming and completely not what you expect. Having found Iranians to be so friendly, so welcoming and such interesting people, it breaks my heart to see what's happening.

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  2. >Writing from Canada -Your voice is an important one at this moment. You are able to report what is going on, even if in a limited fashion, where so many others have lost their voice, their lives and are being imprisoned on so many different levels. Keep the lines of communication open, we will take anything you have to offer.

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