THE BLOG

Suffocating in the Islamic Republic of Iran

03/10/2015 03:54 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

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This story is an amalgamation of stories taken from several different conversations in Iran. Special thanks to Alex Thayer, India Morgan and S for their help. For security reason all names and places in this report have been invented. The only thing that is true is the story.

The Plains

On the evening before the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran I was with Giv somewhere between Rasht and Bandar-e-Abbas. We had driven out through the dilapidated suburbs of the city and on to the desolate plains. Although Giv was speeding, the mountain range on the horizon, which was tinted purple by the same setting sun that gave everything in the car a strange clarity, was static. We had entered a vacuum, a pocket of monotonous emptiness, soporific scrub and dull winter sky, the yellow smog of the city in our wake; we were free from the grasp of the Islamic Republic. Giv lit a cigarette and sunk back into his seat to fish his phone from his pocket. In lieu of a seatbelt I had my hand on the dashboard. I was keeping an eye on the road, feeling as though if I did it would make up for the fact that he wasn't, but the land around was featureless and the car was swirling with heat from the air vents. My eyelids started to droop. In an effort to stay awake I decided to strike up fresh conversation; I had to ask Giv's opinion on whether I should photograph the demonstrations marking the anniversary the following day -- I had received conflicting advice so far -- but before I had a chance, he turned the car down a slip-road and pulled up to a pit-stop diner. I'll ask later, I thought.

The building was inconspicuous, the grey façade blending perfectly with the beige of the steppe. Its drabness turned out to have no reflection on the clientele it attracted, however, and despite advertising itself as a restaurant -- offering kebabs and tea -- it was a social space first and foremost. The patrons and the interior of the establishment clashed vibrantly with the dreary world outside: white smoke issued from blood-red pouts, black head-scarves silhouetted against verdant geometry on the tribal throws, water trickled with syncopated drops into the faux-marble fountain, waiters in stained shirts hovered around. The bubbling of the qaylan pipes provided the soundtrack to progressive conversations that had found room to breathe in this shaded corner of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was liberal. It was relaxed.

Giv sat cross-legged opposite me in our booth. His bleak demeanor was exacerbated by the fact that he was clad entirely in black. I held his gaze as he took a lengthy draw on the qaylan, the coals flickered orange. Giv's face was sullen, half hidden under a scruffy fringe and thick eyebrows, which were offset by a pair of piercing eyes- emeralds set in black rings. He had a thin, crescent-shaped scar on his temple. "So what do you think about tomorrow?" I finally ventured, "will it be safe for me to take my camera to the demonstration? the receptionist at the hotel told me to stay inside until it's all over".

"Who cares? only a few people at the rally will actually want to be there. Idiots. The rest are forced to do it because of their jobs, most of them are teachers or work for businesses owned by the state. And, by the way, nobody believes in any of the Anti-American stuff you will hear tomorrow, you know that?!"

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Giv's retort had been abrupt, he was annoyed. Perhaps the question appeared to stem from a respect for the authorities in Iran, rather than a fear of being arrested. I was fully aware that the general psyche in Iran is far from Anti-U.S., or Anti-Israeli for that matter. Demonstrations of this ideological ilk are usually government fabrications, used purely in order to project an image of strength. The burning down of the British embassy in 2011 is a perfect example of this political posturing; the mob responsible for the ransacking was supported by government hardliners who wanted to send a message to the West. Most Iranians were simply confused by the events. Several friends told me of their disbelief when recalling it. Over time, overt political actions such as this have come to be met with indifference by the majority of the public. This indifference is born not out of apathy, however; it is a survival technique, for equally overt opposition movements are routinely quashed before they can can surface for air. Nowadays, socially and politically progressive organizations, like My Stealthy Freedom, are bound to social networks, which are currently blocked in Iran -- available only through the use of a virtual private network (VPN).

The last occasion progressive ideals were audaciously (and perilously) cast into the sterile political discourse was during the Green Movement -- a revolt against the staged reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. Giv had been involved, it changed his life in ways that nobody, not least Giv himself, could have anticipated.

Giv took a draw from the pipe and, with a smoky chuckle, he passed it to me, along with his mobile phone. "This is my friend, Arshan, he's the one with the glasses on". I took the phone, it looked like the photograph had been scanned into a computer, or that Giv had used the camera on his phone to take a picture of a 6x4 inch print. Arshan was crouching down in the middle of a group of friends -- student types -- with his arms draped over their shoulders. They were in front of Azadi Tower. His eyes told of a smile, but a scarf covered his mouth. Perhaps it was mid-February, too? At that point Arshan would have been in his first year of university studying Chemical Engineering. According to Giv he had always been too clever.

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The Street

I handed back the phone. "I went to stay with Arshan for the protests because he was staying in Tehran at the time, in the north" Giv told me, "it was crazy. I've never seen so many people". As a pair they headed to every demonstration. It became their shared priority. They squeezed into the crowds, shoulder to shoulder with hundred of thousands minds in accord. Arshan and Giv floated in a sea of roses, megaphones, green bandanas, ink-stained peace signs, shouts for democracy and emancipation. In the northern neighborhoods, after dark, the call for revolution was echoed across the city's tower blocks. The streets of the Islamic Republic were clogged with progressive people who were emboldened by the sheer volume of their comrades. It seemed unstoppable and for the briefest of moments Tehran witnessed a power shift. Collectivity breeds courage -- "how could this many people be wrong?" Giv had asked me. The youth were united and passionate and their demand was strong: where is my vote? Their voice shook the crows from the trees and as the Movement gathered momentum, the Basij militias swooped in from the sidelines to disrupt the demonstrations.

The government was anxious. They clamped down on the media outlets, distorted the facts and strangled the flow of information by bringing down the country's social networks. However, before all channels in and out of Iran could be blocked, important mobile phone footage had been leaked. The death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old philosophy student from Tehran had been caught on film. A member of the Basij shot Neda in the chest and the image of her desperately wide eyes slowly filling with blood became a symbol of martyrdom. But this turn of events didn't impede the government's tactics. More people were arrested, more people were shot and more people were killed. The non-violent masses of the Movement came face to face with the systemic violence of a regime struggling to hold power in the glare of the international spotlight. The government lashed out and took down its civilians. Giv and Arshan were propelled by these injustices. The government's purge only gave further validation to the Movement.

Giv rubbed his forehead and ruffled his fringe. "It got really dangerous; some of my friends received phone calls- on their mobiles- from the authorities warning them that they knew who we are, that they knew our families, and that if we are seen out on the street again we will be arrested. They could find out everything about you".

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It was mid-July, 2009. The concrete was hot and the city was airless. The toxic smog, something that always lingers on Tehran's horizons, was at its smothering peak. The friends started to make their way through the thinning crowds as they headed back to Arshan's apartment in the north east of the city. They'd likely be back in Azadi Square later that evening. Walking down the quieter end of Azadi Street, however, the atmosphere was no longer courageous and free, but tense. A scuffle had broken out on the periphery of the demonstration between protestors and Basij militiamen. Smoldering remains of mopeds and bins caked the pavement in ash. From further down the street a tear gas canister swirled into the crowd near Arshan and Giv. It span on the concrete, releasing its chemicals with a sharp hiss. The crack of live gunfire from a rooftop swiftly followed. The crowd dispersed. Amid the chaos of the white smoke, the screams, the whirring vessels of gas and the stick-wielding men, Arshan lay face down on the road clutching his throat. His blood trickled steadily out through his fingers and he turned pale against the hot, grubby tarmac.

The Basij streamed down the middle of the road on motorcycles, wielding batons. The crowd fled in either direction to the pavements as people were hit and wrestled down. Giv was cut off from Arshan, who now had a crowd of people around him, and was being lifted up and away at some pace, his head lolling and rolling as he was carried. Giv ran down the opposite side of the road, trying to keep up with his friend but he was caught in the ebbing swell of people. He had no option but to hop over the littered ditch between the pavement and the road, and break through the barricade of militiamen. Giv was struck round the head with a baton and pushed back down onto the ground. He was arrested on the scene. Arshan died from his wounds. Giv still doesn't know when or where, only how.

I looked up at Giv as he told me this; he offered a smile, letting me know that he knew that there was nothing I could really say. He was the same age as me but he suddenly looked centuries older. He had talked about the subject at a distance, an oft-recited tragedy. It seemed as though it had happened to someone else entirely.

I suppose that is the only way one can recount such stories. It is part of the same survival technique of superficial indifference that millions of Iranians use in order to survive in a demoralizing dictatorship. A collective rage that is swallowed deep, a systematic sense of loss passed through the generations. The vacuum of Iranian public life leads to the internalization of personal beliefs. There are whispers of dissent in private; in apartments, in cafes and in truck stops. This only appeases the progressive sentiments of the population to a certain extent, when the pressure becomes too great to bear the people in the shadows of the Islamic Republic explode into the light in the name of total emancipation.

Behind the veil of the international image of Iran is a vibrant, intelligent, multi-cultural and liberal population who desire nothing more than to take their rightful place on the global stage. During the Green Movement the streets burst with color. They will burst with color once again.

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All photographs: Jake Threadgould