Festival of Fire Re-energizes Iran's Green Movement

05/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the classical text of Iranian mythology, Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), one of the most romantic and symbolically expressive tales is that of Siavash, the son of a mythical king, Keykavos. The king's wife Rudabeh falls for Siavash and tries to seduce him. The son resists the temptation so as not to betray his father's trust, but the rejected queen takes revenge by accusing him of trying to rape her. To prove his innocence, he agrees to pass a test set by his father, to jump into a giant fire on the premise that if he has told the truth, the fire would turn cold. Siavash passes the test and emerges from the fire unscathed. Iranians today celebrate this mythical victory of truth over deception by jumping over fires in the festival of fire and light, Chaharshanbeh-soori, on the last Wednesday before Norouz (the Iranian New Year, celebrated on March 21).

Could the mythical Siavash ever have imagined that this year's celebration could be so genuinely a victory of truth over falsehood? Or that the people's demand for truth, which initiated the uprising in response to an adulterated election, could lead to a more radical demand for freedom from a dictatorial regime? Could Siavash ever have imagined that his tale of the victory of 'truth' over 'power' in 2010 not only rejuvenated a bruised political movement, but also made it possible for its truth to be seen around the world as Iranians in cities and towns across the country came out to oppose the military-financial mafia?

The 2010 Chaharshanbeh-soori protests also introduced another method of struggle: the assertion of happiness, joy and dance as weapons against a regime that celebrates death and mourns life. This is a regime which encourages its supporters to pray for a glorious death rather than a creative and joyful life; most of its religious festivals end up in graveyards, and has forcefully buried its war dead in universities. But on Chahasshanbeh-soori, protestors faced police not by throwing stones but with dance, music and laughter in the streets. The method is a new kind of prefigurative politics; a window onto a possible future society that celebrates freedom, life and peace.

On the whole, the Chaharshanbeh Soori protest-celebration, using Khomeini's favourite term, was a slap on the face of the supreme leader. Not only because most of the slogans were directed at him, but also because he and other state ayatollahs had issued fatwas against such "un-Islamic" celebrations. The festival was by definition a challenge to the regime's authority. It also showed that the Green movement is alive and kicking, and indeed now cuts across class and ethnic divides. And it demonstrated that in public culture, Iraniat (Iranianism) and Islamism are infused with one another, despite various attempts by political powers to draw an artificial wedge between these two main sources of identity. Many of the participants were equally involved in the earlier Ashura demonstrations and in Chaharshanbeh Soori, which has pre-Islamic roots.

Most importantly, on this occasion people themselves took the initiative to determine the spaces for expression of discontent. Unlike the demonstrations on the anniversary of the revolution, in which people joined a demonstration that had been planned and controlled by the regime (on the unsavvy recommendation of many Green movement "think tanks"), the regime had little idea where protests would be held, and its forces were inadequate to counter such widespread demonstrations. If the revolutionary uprising next reclaims 'time,' and so does not wait for the Iranian calendar to decide when it should organize future protests, it could do even more to exhaust the regime's resources and perhaps hasten its collapse.

The symbolic myth of Siavash has one final lesson for the Green movement. In order to prove his innocence, Siavash confronted his ultimate test and entered into the fire to make it cold. Presently, the fire preventing the Green movement from achieving its goal of freedom is the regime's oppressive force. To face down the Guards will require a courage that emanates from being on the right. But this will turn the fire cold, and truth and freedom will triumph over falsehood and despotism. This lesson from Siavash -- symbolic in myth but lived in resistance -- could prove to be an effective method for winning this battle.