Return to Tehran

Return to Tehran

At my grandparents’ house in Tehran, the day began as usual. Breakfast was a smorgasbord of sangak (a thin bread made in a stone oven, bought fresh and warm every day from a local baker), honey, feta cheese, yogurt, and tea. It was sunny outside. Swarms of motorbikes and bright green-and-yellow street taxis and buses clogged the streets with little regard for the one-way system. I had just come from California, where I live with my parents, who left Iran a few years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

It was the beginning of June 2009. Iran’s presidential election campaign was in full swing. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a graying throwback to the early days of the revolution, a sixty-seven-year-old former prime minister best remembered for administering the economy during the 1980s, and whose campaign featured green flags, was up against incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As I wandered in the streets of central Tehran, everything felt normal. Men conversed, shook hands, kissed each other affectionately on the cheeks, and smoked water pipes in front of their residences, while women engaged in polite conversation as they huddled around the open-air fruit market. As Election Day approached, a carnival atmosphere descended on the normally staid capital city.

The people I spoke to—especially those from Iran’s baby-boom generation born of the 1980s—looked forward to Mousavi’s scoring a victory and ending Ahmadinejad’s suffocating four-year presidency. Parades of pro-Mousavi campaigners transformed boulevards into live concerts and outdoor parties. People of all ages danced to pop music into the wee hours of the night, filling the sleepy streets of Tehran with ecstasy. Caught up by all the excitement, I joined the “green” demonstrators on many occasions. Then, on June 12, everything changed.

TEHRAN HELD its breath on Election Day. The temperature was warmer than any day before, yet people stood in long lines under blazing sun outside of mosques, high schools, and colleges to vote. I never remembered the streets being so quiet and shopping centers so deserted. After spending most of the day talking to voters, I decided to pick up groceries before I went to my aunt’s house. Outside an open-air fruit market, I looked around and spotted a group of at least twenty people who swarmed behind me when the merchant’s radio began broadcasting the final election announcements.

It was hard to distinguish fact from fiction in all the confusion, as tall tales and rampant rumors abounded. We looked for answers and received none.

Ahmadinejad’s ostensible two-to-one victory spurred allegations of vote-rigging and sent tens of thousands of protesters into the streets. For the first time in thirty years, residents throughout Tehran climbed to their rooftops to chant “God is Great” (Allahu Akbar) and other similar slogans. I sat next to my grandmother and watched the windows quake as the chanting grew louder.

I stood on the roof almost every night after that. Sometimes I could see smoke in the distance. Desperate demonstrators, still on the street, banged on strangers’ doors to seek refuge when the security forces entered our neighborhood, firing live rounds into the air toward the buildings from which they believed the shouting came.

As the main streets and avenues quickly turned into an urban battleground, riot police with thigh-length black leg guards and helmeted Revolutionary Guards in green uniforms stood at every corner of Freedom Square, and rifle-toting snipers were positioned on the rooftops. Their message to protesters was clear: gather at your peril. In response to the threat, groups of young protesters referring to themselves as the “green children” began communicating with their counterparts and organizing protest locations on walkie talkies. Crowds milled on the streets, blocking traffic, and chanting “With God’s help, victory is near. Death to this deceitful government.” I saw young men stuffing their backpacks with stones collected along the sidewalks while other demonstrators were building barricades.

ON ONE of these days, I joined a march close to Tehran University after I encountered a group of ten student protesters who let me follow them to the gathering. Near the gates of the university, security forces clad in black armor pushed people to the south side of the street, beating anyone near the iron gates. By the time I arrived in Revolution Square, tensions had mounted. We remained largely silent, but then clashed with Iranian security forces who tried to disperse our march and divert us from the square. Caught in a crowd of rally-goers, I saw security forces violently swinging their steel batons at young students bold enough to charge in their direction.

Police and security forces on red motorbikes fanned out and rushed toward us. I watched an anti-riot militiaman grab a young girl by her hair, dislodging her veil and exposing her hair, thus putting her in violation of the law requiring women to wear veils by his own un-Islamic act of touching an unrelated woman in public. She took off running without her Islamic garb, and I could see blood on strands of her hair.

Our peaceful demonstration quickly turned into a riot. Young demonstrators threw stones. In response, security forces threw tear gas canisters. Demonstrators responded by setting garbage bins on fire to keep the security forces from coming nearer. I avoided getting too close, but couldn’t avoid choking and breathing in some of the gas, acrid smoke, and soot. With other rally-goers, we escaped into a side street, covering our mouths with our sleeves.

In the turmoil, protesters near Freedom Square attempted to stop police officers and militia members from beating unarmed men and women. A young woman, her coat covered with blood stains, was carried away from the chaos on the shoulders of two strangers who pushed passed the masses to come to her aid. That day, the crowds did not disperse until sundown.

The Iranian government intensified crackdowns on public transportation to limit movement and prevent large gatherings. At least three subway lines were closed at a time. Meanwhile, police occupied local civil buildings and alleys and turned them into a temporary detention facility for demonstrators who were detained by the police. At times, the massive presence of security forces lined along the streets felt and resembled military occupation.

I was due to return to the United States and hoped my last hours in Tehran would not be marred by violent rallies, large-scale protests, or brutal clashes between protesters and security forces, thereby deepening my guilt at leaving my family and friends behind. However, the day I left, security forces turned out in high numbers and suppressed any major opposition or demonstrations.

I had been reporting for the Jerusalem Post in secret for the past few weeks, and I believed prolonging my stay would put me at risk. My reporting for the Post meant I had a direct connection with Israel at a time when the government barred foreign media from reporting on the streets.

Despite my guilt, I was eager to return to my safe life in Los Angeles. Yet, I knew I wanted to return and continue reporting again soon.

MY OPPORTUNITY came in late December of 2009. I went back to Tehran in response to the messages spread throughout the Internet about the protests scheduled to take place during the holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Shia Islam’s holiest saint, Hussein ibn Ali. At this time, hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters came out once again after a period of relative calm, laying claim to Hussein’s mantle of martyrdom. Tehran was exactly how I left it with the smoke, the fire, the barricades, the demonstrators out on the streets, and the roads clogged with cars. The only difference was the strong religious undertone. Iranians brandishing green ribbons and bandannas and dressed in black beat themselves with fists and chains, a ritual practiced and observance during the religious holiday, as they converged onto the streets.

As I stood watching, something inside of me snapped. I began shouting, “Death to the Dictator and Allahu Akbar,” and without hesitation joined the company of enraged demonstrators on their march toward Revolution Square.

That day, the riot-clad security forces singled out individuals and showed little mercy with their batons and whips. I was one of these individuals. All I remember is the sharp pain in my right arm after the first blow of a baton and tumbling into the dirt by the sidewalk, I didn’t feel the other blows. Even today, the face of the officer who hit me is still a blur. Everything happened so quickly. Two young men pulled him away from me. Another protester carried me to safety. He sat me down in a corner alley while his friend asked for an address he could take me to. I remember shaking uncontrollably and finally feeling the pain in both of my arms. When the protester’s friend took me home, I barely spoke to him. He tried to comfort me with his words or at least that’s what I assumed he was attempting to do. I cried myself to sleep that night.

Two years later, that beating remains a turning point in my life. I am more committed than ever to reporting on Iran, and now I know the most important stories are not just on the streets. They are also hidden in the vibrant subculture and social landscape that thrives behind closed doors.

Sabina Amidi was born in Santa Rosa, California, in 1988 and raised in Los Angeles. She has visited Iran annually throughout her entire life and continues to report on events there.