Today is 16 Azar. National Students Day as it is known in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Three engineering students at the University of Tehran were killed by the Shah’s forces when protesting vice-president Nixon’s visit to Iran after the 1953 coup.
Ever since, it has become a symbol of the student movement.
Today is 16 Azar. My friends and I have made plans from a week before since the government declared four days of holiday right prior to 16 Azar. We figured phones and the internet would become dysfunctional prior to the event, and have made sure to make all our plans ahead of time. My friends are experts by now. I am speaking of those who have decided to stay within the street protests – a mighty big decision if you live in Tehran – and most have decided to stay away for good. Of those who’ve decided to stay, a good number have spent at least a few days in jail. They know that they must have an alibi for participating in case they get caught, they know they must reserve the most foul language to describe their own side if they are arrested (to prove they were not there to demonstrate). To my amusement, a few even tell me they wear two layers of clothing, because security forces fire paintballs at the protesters who flee. Security does this so that they can identify the protesters when they come out of hiding. My friends know that if they escape prison, they will most likely come out bruised and battered anyways.
Of those who passionately attend, only very few I would call dedicated revolutionaries. The rest go for the excitement, for the chance to scream, for the sake of showing up, for the fear of what would happen if no one did.
Today is 16 Azar. A day of defiance, resistance and hope. The students will be out there full force, giving it their best.
… Or so I guess. It is 8 p.m. and I still have no friggin’ clue what has happened. Did anyone show up at all? Did students end up going? Did they cancel classes? Did they participate in demonstrations? Was there any noise or chaos or protest today at all?
Those very friends with which I made plans ditched me last minute and without warning … I am not “expert” enough, they said. I don’t know what it’s like. No one but “the professionals” (herfeyiha as they are called) go anymore … these are all the things they said when they left me stranded and waiting.
Yes, it’s 8 p.m. and I still have no idea what Tehran – my Tehran – was like today.
And I am not writing this from the streets of Berlin, London or L.A. I am not writing from a faraway land of foreign people and exotic food.
I am writing this perched on a chair in an apartment in west Tehran where I have been literally “locked” in since this morning. I am the traveler, the sosool (snotty) foreigner, the soft, vulnerable khareji who has no idea what it can be like out there and thus does not have a permit – the one issued by elders and friends – to attend gatherings and demonstrations.
I am trying to get the internet connection that has been dysfunctional for hours now to work. Trying to get access to at least one english website since the Persian ones are all blocked and the anti-filtering software totally incapable of anything with the slow speeds. Outside the country, people follow the news daily, hourly, minute by minute. There is a sense that time stops and the world awaits the protests.
But in Tehran, life goes on. People get up in the morning and go to work. Kids go to school. Taxis drive around as frantically as any other day.
You can live in Tehran and not hear a word of protest or demonstrations. You can live in Tehran and live life as if nothing has happened or changed. Like my neighbor down the hall who has been busy with redecorating her apartment all week and asked me if I knew why VOA was saying “something about some students shouting” or, asked my mother once who Behzad Nabavi is.
And yet, you will live in Tehran influenced by all those things … and more. On the outside, we have faster links to information. On the inside, we have faster links to life: we may not have all the stats, the numbers or the slogans shouted, but we live all those things. The police cars that harass our children on their way home from school or the dirty looks we throw the guy in front of us in the line when we find out he belongs to the opposite camp are all manifestations of this fight. Yes, both sides have supporters, if you don’t remember. Not everyone is rooting for revolution. You’d be surprised how split and divided some families, siblings and lovers are. There is no revolution on the horizon. At least not in the one we see in the skies of Tehran.
On the other side of town, a young student struggles to save his friends amidst the fire and smoke and burning wooden chairs. All around him he can hear screams and shouts and yells and huge militias, as far as the eyes can see. I sit perched on my – unburnt – chair and stare blankly at the sky, drinking tea, eating a danish from my favorite Tehran confectionery bought me as a token of apology for not letting me out the door … and counting the minutes until he comes home.
Yes, we live in the same city, in the same house. But we have experienced two different worlds today. And he will be my window into a world of which I know nothing, despite the articles and stats. Of which I know nothing at all.