A Note from Tehran

Reflections on the ongoing political protests in Iran

July 13, 2009


The note below was recently emailed by a Harvard Kennedy School graduate living in Iran to former classmates.

Here in Iran, we are experiencing a period with a lot of mixed feelings: hope, devastation, fear, expectation, waiting for the unknown, hoping for the good, and hope and hope and hope. I don't know how to talk and what information to share so the spirit of my note will not create a sense of despair and pity. I just hope I don’t spread any of those feelings.

What we are experiencing in Iran, is after all beautiful. Going out, shouting, writing, communicating news, contributing, protesting knowing that it might be dangerous, and still don't feel as victims. We know we are paying a price to get what we want.

After all, it feels so good to see a lot more are out there. It feels so good to see this time it is not only the elite, it is not only feminist groups, it is not only university students, or workers, or bus drivers, or parliamentarians, or secular groups. This time it is a lot more. It is all of those groups together -- women and men, young and old, those who have not spoken for 30 years and those who had voted before too.

I have seen girls from northern Tehran who never cared for politics and the one who says: “I was born after the revolution, under the Islamic laws of this country, studied all those imposed books and materials, lived with imposed laws, obeyed the imposed regulations… I was living my life, and suddenly I felt I could have a role to have a better country.”

And I also heard members of the Basiji force saying that “I am not involved in this violence. This is not the way I think. I am embarrassed.”

I also heard a policeman who had said to protesters: “we are with you; my son is here among you; he is one of you.”

It is not the elite’s movement anymore. No one can say anymore what we have is what we deserve. I heard it a lot for the past four years, if not before that.

Tehran is not the same anymore. There are days when you feel the whole city is in a big funeral. But then the night falls and all those "Allah o Akbar" shouts from the roofs tell you once again that the city is not dead. The voices are all over the roofs. And it does not mean anything religious anymore for a lot of us. It is a voice of protest. It does not resonate with the early days of revolution anymore. I still remember those days; they were different. "Allah o Akbar" meant a different thing those days, a different rhetoric.

I wish I had more means to talk to you as I think about the Kennedy School a lot these days. It was something to talk about the “holding environment,” “soft power,” “social capital,” “bowling alone,” “human rights,” and “ethics in government,” and it’s something else to live with those words in this crisis.

It is something to say we must exercise leadership ourselves, and something else to see how easy it is to lose hope when leaders calling for change are silenced or disappear. And we wait for a statement, only a statement to know that they are still alive; there is just no means left for communication. But I am still optimistic. Even though our system is not perfect and those who challenge it do not often succeed, they are still good, more than enough, to lead at this point. Especially because people are so ready to contribute and embrace their roles to bring about change.

It is something to discuss “bowling alone” in the classroom, and something else to live the “social capital” so bold and so powerful, especially when you feared for years for the loss of it in the society.

Is something to talk about Iran’s soft power, only in the context of nuclear issue, and quite something else to live the soft power in the silent protest with millions of others, a soft power that you can be proud of at this time.

It is something to talk about “human rights,” to argue that “there is no government that cares for human rights in your country, unless there is something more behind the curtain, so I prefer not to have any support from them,” and something else to live the day that your people dared to go out and say “we want our votes back” regardless of the price.

Who knows where this is going. The movement may slow down; it may die for some time; it may get more violent; we may have more bloodshed. But something is broken and it cannot be repaired -- not this time, and I think not anymore. I am still too emotional to be able to distance myself from what is going on. But I am happy I saw these days. And I wanted to share these days, in my own way, with my precious capital, my Kennedy School friends and community.

The author is an Iranian citizen and a Harvard Kennedy School graduate

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Photograph of protests in Iran

Protesters at Azadi Square in Tehran, June 2009

"Tehran is not the same anymore. There are days when you feel the whole city is in a big funeral. But then the night falls and all those 'Allah o Akbar' shouts from the roofs tell you once again that the city is not dead. The voices are all over the roofs. And it does not mean anything religious anymore for a lot of us. It is a voice of protest."

Photograph of protesters in the streets of Iran

Protesters took to the streets of Iran within days of the disputed presidential election, June 2009

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons