On Scene: Among the Protesters in Tehran

On Scene: Among the Protesters in Tehran

Iran is preparing for a potentially violent confrontation between the government and supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi on Saturday. While messages on Twitter and other social networking sites indicate much concern about safety, many opposed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insist they will attend the rally called by Mousavi. Several drew inspiration from a protest march on Thursday, an account of which TIME received on Friday morning. The author has requested anonymity.

The crowd pushes in. We are all arms, legs, elbows. Even for a country with no notion of personal space the compression on the train is incredible. Readers who had the privilege of being in Washingon D.C. for Barack Obama’s inauguration will remember the scenes at the Capitol Hill metro stations. This tudeh, or mass, is the same, maybe more. For almost a week now, every day has been Inauguration Day in Tehran.

Someone jokes that “Today Hashemi carries us to victory!” referring to the fact that the the metro system, an enormously profitable cash cow, is run by the son of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who also happens to be one of the chief backers of Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Spirits are good. It’s after 4 in the afternoon, cell phones are completely down but everyone already knows where to go and what to do. Today we are green and we are black, black for those who have died.

The crowds pour out of Imam Khomeini Station and into the Square. Already the gathering is huge. Citizens have arrived early, not the customary one to two hours behind schedule, “Iranian time” as its known. The weather has returned to normal this week. It is hot, made worse by the darkness of our clothing. Every day by early evening, however, fat and full clouds dominated the sky, forcing the sun to set through gray and imminent rain.

Other than the magnitude of the demonstration the main thing that strikes me is how quiet it is. Nothing above a murmur. No one moves. The Falun Gong’s silent protest in Beijing in 2005 has nothing on us. Today’s theme, captured in hundreds of handmade signs, is sookoot e sabz, or “green silence.” We are here to mourn the fallen, those several who have died in the past few days at the hands of the reprehensible basij, the volunteer paramilitary gangs who back Ahmadinejad. The chants that played such a prominent role prior to the elections and which peep out here and there are contained by the “shuushes!” and “quiets!” of the crowd.

That Imam Khomeini Square is so still borders on a minor miracle. Formerly known as Toopkhone, literally “cannon house,” this square is one of Tehran’s most storied, once the site of regal state ceremonies and Dar al-Funun, Iran’s first modern college built in the 19th century. In recent years noble aspirations have been cast aside and Imam Khomeini Square has settled into its current role, a major south-central hub covered in ashen grey and lined on three sides by small shops and boarding houses for itinerant workers and their families. To the south of the square rises the smooth glass of the mokhaberat or telecommunications building, built in the doleful international style so common in the developing world.

The goverment is watching us with one eye. We can see a man on the 4th or 6th floor openly filming the going-ons with a tripod-mounted camcorder. The state takes pictures of us. We show them, in turn, photos of what they have done. Many hold up the pictures of the wounded and killed, gruesome images of blood-covered chests and heads, the young and the middle-aged who have fallen. There is an overhead picture of a plainsclothes basiji rushing at a protester with some kind of club, perhaps even a knife. His face is clearly visible. Some of these pictures have the word “killer” scribbled on them.

Things are moving fast. The old-timers, the ones who had seen 1979, tell us that it took months for their protests to get to the same point we are now. Then it began with the college students . First the students came out, then the families, mothers famously sending their sons forward to face the soldiers of the Shah. We are not yet a week out from the voting and the movement is already filled with different ages and occupations.

The crowd gathers around a woman and a man; they are speaking in anguished tones. The woman, older, has her face covered like so many others here: fear still remains despite the strength of numbers. I can see only red, red eyes. Chera Chera Why Why We ask who she is, what has happened. We find out that she is a mother of a young shaheed, or martyr. People reach for their phones to take a picture and the man who is comforting her beseeches them to put the cameras away, to have sympathy for her. Over the gathered shoulders I see her turn her face toward the ground.

A kid grabs my arm and tells me to take a picture of his friend. He is in bad shape. They lift up his shirt and we can see the bruise where the baton struck him. When he turns around I see that there is a dollop of white on his head, a fresh bandage. I grin and tell him that he’s the champion of the people. He knows better and laughs.

We finally start to move, slowly, feet shuffling northwards toward Ferdowsi Square several kilometers away. People debate what to do next, should we go to Friday Prayers and let them know that we respect and accept our Rahbar, our Supreme Leader, this nezam and Revolution Or do we stay away Is it better to not antagonize a crowd that will no doubt be hot. There are reports and rumors that the basij will be out in full force, that the Supreme Leader will speak and no doubt cast his final verdict on the elections. It is ultimately decided to not go, a decision that seems to flow through the crowd, as if made organically, collectively, unlike the top-down driven gatherings of the pro-Ahmadinejad forces. It has literally become a song that passes through the crowd in waves: Farda khabari nist! Farda khabari nist! “Tomorrow there is nothing going on! Tomorrow there is nothing going on!”

Mousavi shows up, he is on the other side of the square, miniscule then unseeable, unhearable. Bishin agha! Bishin! “Sit down! Sit down!” We squat on our hams like soccer players lining up for a photo. I hold onto the shoulders of the guy sitting next to me. Mousavi never rises far enough out of the crowd for us to see him but we can track his progress through the press by the security and cameramen standing on top of his car. They float above the heads of the thousands gathered and make their way north.

“Agha, Ferdowsi am ba mast!” a young man tells his friends and points towards the statue in Ferdowsi Square. A green shawl has been wrapped around the neck and wrists of Iran’s national poet, the author of the country’s thousand-year old epic, the Shahnameh. “Ferdowsi is with us!” We are in the middle of our own epic now.