Letter from Tehran/Vienna – Epilogue, 4 July 2009

Dear all,

We’re out. On 3 July, at 4.05 in the morning, we caught the plane to Vienna and landed shattered at 6.00 am. Shattered, because we had to get up at 1.00 am to catch the plane three hours later, as is the usual practice in Tehran – nearly all flights start at night, and you have to be there 2 hours in advance, plus one hour to get through the city to the airport. The drive to Imam Khomeini Airport leads you past the overwhelming Imam Khomeini memorial, which sports four oversized Islamic towers at all corners and an enormous building in the middle that houses practically nothing else but his shrine. It is space enough to host millions, and that usually happens once a year, on the day of Khomeini’s death, or demise as it is being referred to regularly in Iran.

Our exit was surprisingly swift and pain-free, unlike at other times. We had no overweight, there was no problem with our passports or visas, and we even didn’t have to wait much at either of the two security check-ups. Shoes stayed on, and my full-metal old-style film camera did not raise any eye-brows. We felt as if we were supposed to leave, but this is rubbish of course. No statement whatsoever was made in reference to the United Nations during the last weeks, at least not in a critical or negative sense. Rather, the Foreign Minister, during his lecture to the international organisations and embassies some weeks ago, referred to the positive record Iran believes to have with the UN, overall. After all, there are 19 different UN agencies in Iran.

It is somewhat strange to be back in the West, after several months in a stretch in Iran. We spent two days with the packers, who put our household into exactly 176 boxes – 27 cube metres – and told us that it would arrive in 2-3 months in Copenhagen. The dispatch is done by sea, excitingly past the pirates that plague the sea between the Arabian peninsula and Africa. We have bought insurance. It felt quite a relief to have all the stuff out of the house and live like campers in our 400 square metre house – campers with style, since the pool was still full and heated. The daily routing of “Allahu Akbars” has not changed and we felt that it has even gained some intensity since it is the only thing they are allowed to do.

My staff, who was overwhelming in their hospitality and friendship over the last days, shared the last titbits of information with me, before I was to be cut off of all news from Iran, like all the rest of you. For one, the feeling of having had their votes stolen persists with all of them, and they are not satisfied with what has so far been offered to them. I am quite sure that it will not take four more years before these feelings break out into the open again. In fact, the youthful protesters among the Iranians I know told me that they now planned a low intensity campaign to not make the last weeks forgotten and lost. They want to spray paint a huge number of walls green in the city; they also sent out a request to everyone they knew to write “Where is our vote?”  on all bank notes everyone gets into their fingers. This is a huge feat because the high inflation in the country (official economic data: roundabout 25%; Ahmadinejad during a pre-electoral TV debate: 15%) everyone regularly handles dozens of notes in cash every day.

In Vienna, a protest march is planned for tomorrow. It seems a bit delayed of the real events in Iran, but clearly the Iranians abroad want to be part of the movement no matter what. I am, however, not sure if the motivation for all those marches is very savoury and in the spirit of the original groups in Iran, given that so many Iranians have been unable (or unwilling, given the political situation there) to go back to the country for many years. I gather that there is a huge disconnect between the Iranian community in Los Angeles and Iran, for instance – the former having left the country shortly after the Shah fled.

I have been walking around town while Georgina has been trying to get back on her feet after she again had a bit of a dizziness attack. It now appears – she saw an Austrian doctor yesterday – that it is much more likely a stress- and burnout syndrome than anything directly related to the balance organ or iron deficiency. Hence, she is trying to take it easy. Anyway, when I was walking around I ran into an Iran-contrast programme; several hundred demonstrators walked up the Viennese city centre, loud pop from the 80’s providing the background music. You guessed it – the Gay Pride parade. I somewhat expected something else after kids held Mousawi-green balloons in their hands, but now – the predominant colour was rainbow, meaning all colours as on the flags for the peace movement.

So, life goes on. On one day walking around the city on a hot summer’s day, you encounter more skin than in Iran in a whole year, and it feels strangely relaxing to be back in a “normal” place. Yet, I would not want to miss the experience – having been to Iran, I mean. I will try to keep contact with Iran, and if there is something interesting to share, I will send you some more news. But for now – we are preparing for two weeks of holidays; I have booked a little Middle Eastern experience for us, of the other kind. On Monday, we’re off to Israel. Shalom!

Best to you all,

The Nitzsche Creatures

Last one from Tehran, 28 June 2009

Dear all,

Time is flying and we are totally preoccupied with packing and endless farewells. Many internationals have already left town, and as one can expect, some departures have been somewhat premature. And I don’t even mean the forced departures – i.e., the British Embassy staff. The British school shut down a week earlier than foreseen, after one week of closing at 12.30 – two hours early – they probably thought it wasn’t worth it anymore. Having spoken to some teachers and other school staff, it appears that the general doom and gloom tangible everywhere else has also touched upon them; the school has traditionally been one of the first targets during past UK-Iranian diplomatic spats, and it is by far not clear whether teachers will receive visas to return after summer. Or whether the school will open at all. But no-one dares pronounce this yet so explicitly.

I have taken some time to continue my little series of letters, and it is not for lack of wanting. But we’re running a bit out of time, and there was also somewhat less to report from my immediate environment. I realise that some of you were worried if we are alright, and others might have been anxious to read the next installment (in my wildest dreams, I know). I also had crazy plans to answer in person all those of you who responded to me – an impossible feat (imagine smiley here). However, I will actually conclude my series with this letter (unless some dramatic news break), but not before I share with you some few tit-bits of information that I have come across in the last days (and without any further brackets).

As most of you will have gathered, things have started to close down in Iran. It is hard to find the correct expression for this, but fact is that Iran has been pushed aside and the headlines are now dominated by Mr Jackson and his early passing. Our Austrian friends tell us that even the weather has suddenly become more important there, but then it is pouring there, to the extent that they had to salvage pieces of art from the Albertina cellars, one of Vienna’s most prestigious galleries.

But overall, it is by far not quiet here. It is true, the demonstrations and protests have ended. The streets have been force-calmed, if you can call it this way, and only the toughest of youth have ventured out to the streets to get beaten up – only a few hundreds last week. What is left? Repression and depression. The former for those arrested, the latter for the others. Well, that is: those others that I meet on a regular basis. Everywhere I go it seems that the happiness has drained out of people, and even the most superficial of “Taroof” greetings (the usual over-friendly and not very sincere politeness/friendliness that is standard between strangers in Iran) is not convincing enough anymore to cover the deep-seated unhappiness they feel. I find it hard to keep up my spirits in the office, and have heard the same from practically all other internationals working in Iran.

All the same, the protesting spirit seems to not want to go away. The people have not much more left now than to continue the 10pm communal “Allahu Akbar” shouting, and lo and behold: it continues, unabated. And this despite stories that I hear that youth volunteers circle the city on motorbikes and spray-paint the houses where the shouts are being heard, or even shoot into the air. This is still happening, every night.

Perhaps this is a good moment to introduce how I think this fits well into the Iranian psyche. It is the flip side of the Iranian habit of mourning, in my opinion. Mourning is a standard element of many Iranians’ or Shiites’ attitude towards the world, and it permeates the day-to-day life here. Be it the dozens of mourning holidays in the year when Iranians take to the streets to flagellate themselves – although in the last years, the authorities have banned too outrageous and blood-thirsty self-beatings as “excessive” – or the very ornate memorial stands that people put up next to their house when family members have passed away, covered with tons of flowers, chains of colourful light bulbs and bands with Islamic slogans. Or be it the public crying ceremonies when Ayatollahs at Friday prayers invoke the days of Ali and Hussein, from way back when they suffered bloody defeat by the Sunnis – as recently happened during the past-election speech given by the Supreme Leader. I watched it with German friends of mine, and we were all stunned to see that at one point, grown men started to shed tears, as if a button had been pressed. All in all, the people on the rooftops do not sound anymore like protesters – they mourn the lost opportunity, the passing moment.

To speak of the former, the kind of repression we hear of is probably the same that you hear of, so I won’t go into it more. I thought it interesting, however, to flag a couple of events in the media and arts, which is traditionally the area I am covering here. For one, the reporting by the official outlets has become much more extreme than previously – reminding me of some time ago in Europe when propaganda was also suddenly a state affair.

One of the most hardline newspapers, for instance, headlined with “People asking for [main presidential opposition candidate’s] blood to compensate for suffering of their loved ones.” Another paper ran a story insinuating that the expelled BBC correspondent was personally involved in orchestrating the much publicised death of the young woman during the demonstrations that recently has become the icon of the protests. They just waited for him to leave the country. Finally, I heard today that actors are being asked one after the other to go before camera to give enthused statements of allegiance to the current government and state of affairs. I can already hear the screams and shouts from my friends at the slander and libel department at the Freedom of the Media office of my previous employer.

As I am determined to not run over two Word pages this time, I will end this letter with answering some fan post questions and latest news of the Creatures. Last things first, this time: Georgina is her normal self again, although we have no idea what threw her down the last time. Listening to all our friends, half the globe is suffering from occasional dizziness attacks, and I am glad that there is so much expertise to draw from, so we finally found the thing that got her better – thanks to you!

The children have had an extraordinarily busy day yesterday – instead of a parents’ farewell, we invited all the kids that have not left town, and they had a great time. At one point, we were 16 kids and 2 parents in the pool. The girls painted their nails and their hair, the boys worked themselves up at the Wii station and a deadly toy device called the “Swing ball”. Yesterday, we also realised that there could be worse than staying here in the summer; i.e. to go back to South Africa. I am sorry to single out a country like this, but it is true that all children from SA at the school said that they felt safe when they are – not with their parents, nor at home – no, when they are not in South Africa. For our friends from down there, the personal freedom they have been able to experience in Iran – even as women – has been a breath of fresh air. That puts a lot into perspective; repression is still different from arbitrary, random and often lethal violence.

And finally, to answer some questions from some of our more 2.0 oriented friends. Yes, we are still cut off everything: no Twitter, no Facebook, no BBC, no ARTE, no YouTube, no SMS. I know, it sounds terrible in the 21st century – it must be a bit like how one felt in the GDR in 1982. Today, I discussed buying a painting with a journalist friend; we talked for about 10 minutes without interruptions. Then we switched to the news of the 8 local British Embassy staff that were arrested today – quickly, our connection was arrested as well, i.e. literally cut off. I didn’t try again. The standing joke in Tehran is about the Finnish diplomat wife who called home from Iran and spoke to her family; after five minutes, a voice cut in and rudely shouted “Can you please speak in ENGLISH!?!”

Well, there I am, at the end of page 2. And it’s time to sort out my shirts, as tomorrow the movers move in and take it all away. Next news to come from Copenhagen, with the latest on the annual Hell’s Angels congregation. That seems to be the most exciting stuff they got. When I was a youth, I heard they attacked another rock’n’bike group with a rocket launcher – not so bad for Denmark, after all.

Al the best to you,

from the Creatures

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

Tehran Bureau: Out on the Town

What happens after the foreign journalists go to sleep? Supporters come out en masse, but not just for Mir Hossein Mousavi.

By JASON REZAIAN in Tehran | 7 June 2009

[TEHRAN BUREAU] While the last several nights may represent the biggest public display of expression in the history of the Islamic Republic, deciphering what that actually means is proving quite difficult.

There’s a carnival like-feeling to the proceedings. After so long without an outlet, Tehran’s youth are coming out en masse. Small business owners are taking advantage of the situation, selling refreshments to moisten throats, hoarse from so much shouting.

It can’t be defined as simply dissatisfaction with the Islamic system, since there are vast numbers of Ahmadinejad supporters who believe Iran, as it is, is just fine. Last night I rode with some of them in a back of a truck plastered with the incumbent’s photos. These were members of the Basij, young men in their twenties, who are the new generation of the revolution. Their group has years of organizing experience on their side, and when needed, they have weapons. Both these elements the more reformed-minded campaigns lack.

If one were to just look at the makeup of those in the streets, Mousavi’s supporters seem to represent a broader cross section of urban Iran, but that can be deceptive. They come from all walks of life and the thing that sticks out most is the number of young females supporting him. It’s striking to see so many hopeful women, fearlessly taking to the streets brandishing Mousavi signs, wearing green scarves (the chosen color of the Mousavi campaign,) and shouting in the faces of Ahmadinejad supporters.

Furthermore, high school aged girls seem to overwhelmingly support Mousavi, many as young as 10 are handing out fliers in support of the former prime minister. In the past this may have been very significant as the voting age, until recently, was 15. It’s now 18, which seems to be a problem for Mousavi.

That’s not to say that the sisters and mothers of the Basiji are silent. We just won’t hear their voice until the votes are counted.

As we stood in the bed of a pick-up in halted traffic near Vanak Square, one of the hot spots during these rallies, passengers in cars who supported other candidates shouted slogans at each other. Most of them were clever quips like “Mr. Doctor [Ahmadinejad] go see a doctor [shrink],” followed by the unimaginative response of the Ahmadinejad-ists, which was “Only Doctor!”

Two other popular chants of the night were “If there’s no cheating Mousavi will come in first,” and “Ahmadi, bye, bye! Basiji bye, bye!” Historically one might reasonably expect the Basij to react with harsh vitriol, but they just smiled, mirroring the current demeanor of their man. Transcripts of Ahmadinejad’s speeches may read like neo-nazi propaganda, but his performance right now is coming off as that of the pleasant peasant, which works well for him. “Look at his face,” one of the Basij noted, “He’s one of us.” They don’t seem to notice that the statistics he’s quoting in the debates about inflation and unemployment don’t reflect reality.

For the most part so far it’s all been good-natured, and during these nights I’ve only seen a few small skirmishes. It’s a feeling akin to the verbal tussling that goes on between fans of rival sports teams, which sometimes turns ugly.

One of the basij we were riding with had a fresh cut on his nose and an elastic bandage on his arm. I asked him what had happened. “Last night we were out here and toward the end of the night we got into it with some Mousavi guys. It will happen again tonight. A few punches, something to eat, and then we’ll head to morning prayer.”

As the election draws closer, however, I fear violence will become more apparent. The first night of demonstrations the police were hard to find, now coming up on night No. 5, riot police, security service people, and young men serving their required military service are everywhere.

It seems as though those at the top aren’t sure what to make of it all, and if they do they’re not doing much about it. With such a short campaign period, not much in the way of reliable polling information, and being as it is a society that relies heavily on rumor as a source of information, making predictions seems futile.

An elderly gentleman sat alone a few meters away from the action, watching from a stone bench in front of his apartment building. I wanted to know what he thought of all this, as this is something he agreed he’d never before seen in the Islamic Republic. It was 3 a.m. He smiled at me hopelessly and replied, “What do I think? I think there’s no way I’m going to sleep before 5.”

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau