Iran's Day of Destiny

It was Iran's day of destiny and day of courage. A million of its
people marched from Engelob Square to Azadi Square - from the Square of
Revolution to the Square of Freedom - beneath the eyes of Tehran's
brutal riot police. The crowds were singing and shouting and laughing
and abusing their "President" as "dust".

Mirhossein Mousavi was among them, riding atop a car amid the exhaust smoke
and heat, unsmiling, stunned, unaware that so epic a demonstration could
blossom amid the hopelessness of Iran's post-election bloodshed. He may have
officially lost last Friday's election, but yesterday was his electoral
victory parade through the streets of his capital. It ended, inevitably, in
gunfire and blood.

Not since the 1979 Iranian Revolution have massed protesters gathered in such
numbers, or with such overwhelming popularity, through the boulevards of
this torrid, despairing city. They jostled and pushed and crowded through
narrow lanes to reach the main highway and then found riot police in steel
helmets and batons lined on each side. The people ignored them all. And the
cops, horribly outnumbered by these tens of thousands, smiled sheepishly and
- to our astonishment - nodded their heads towards the men and women
demanding freedom. Who would have believed the government had banned this

The protesters' bravery was all the more staggering because many had already
learned of the savage killing of five Iranians on the campus of Tehran
University, done to death - according to students - by pistol-firing Basiji
militiamen. When I reached the gates of the college yesterday morning, many
students were weeping behind the iron fence of the campus, shouting "massacre"
and throwing a black cloth across the mesh. That was when the riot police
returned and charged into the university grounds once more.

At times, Mousavi's victory march threatened to crush us amid walls of
chanting men and women. They fell into the storm drains and stumbled over
broken trees and tried to keep pace with his vehicle, vast streamers of
green linen strung out in front of their political leader's car. They sang
in unison, over and over, the same words: "Tanks, guns, Basiji, you
have no effect now." As the government's helicopters roared overhead,
these thousands looked upwards and bayed above the clatter of rotor blades: "Where
is my vote?" Cliches come easily during such titanic days, but this was
truly a historic moment.

Would it change the arrogance of power which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demonstrated
so rashly just a day earlier, when he loftily invited the opposition - there
were reported to be huge crowds protesting on the streets of other Iranian
cities yesterday - to be his "friends", while talking
ominously of the "red light" through which Mousavi had driven.
Ahmadinejad claimed a 66 per cent victory at the polls, giving Mousavi
scarcely 33 per cent. No wonder the crowds yesterday were also singing - and
I mean actually singing in chorus - "They have stolen our vote
and now they are using it against us."

A heavy and benevolent dust fell over us all as we trekked the great highway
towards the fearful pyramid of concrete which the Shah once built to honour
his father and which the 1979 revolutionaries re-named Freedom Square.
Behind us, among the stragglers, stones began to burst on to the road as
Basijis besieged the Sharif University (they seem to have something against
colleges of further education these days) and one man collapsed on the road,
his face covered in blood. But on the great mass of people moved, waving
their green flags and shouting in joy at the thousands of Iranians who stood
along the rooftops.

On the right, they all saw an old people's home and out on to the balcony came
the aged and the crippled who must have remembered the reign of the loathed
Shah, perhaps even his creepy father, Reza Khan. A woman who must have been
90 waved a green handkerchief and an even older man emerged on the narrow
balcony and waved his crutch in the air. The thousands below them shrieked
back their joy at this ancient man.

Walking beside this vast flood of humanity, a strange fearlessness possessed
us all. Who would dare attack them now? What government could deny a people
of this size and determination? Dangerous questions.

By dusk, the Basiji were being chased by hundreds of protesters in the west of
the city but shooting was crackling around the suburbs after dark. Those who
were fatally too late in leaving Azadi, were fired on by the Basiji. One
dead, thousands in panic, we heard behind us.

After every day of sunlight, there usually comes a perilous darkness and
perhaps it was prefigured by the strange grey cloud that approached us all
as we drew closer to Azadi Square yesterday afternoon. Many of the thousands
of people around me noticed it and, burned by the afternoon sun, seemed to
walk faster to embrace its shade. Then it rained, it poured, it soaked us.
There is a faint rainy season in mid-summer Tehran but it had arrived early,
sunlight arcing through the clouds like the horizon in a Biblical painting.

Moin, a student of chemical engineering at Tehran University - the same campus
where blood had been shed just a few hours before - was walking beside me
and singing in Persian as the rain pelted down. I asked him to translate.

"It's a poem by Sohrab Sepehri, one of our modern poets," he said.
Could this be real, I asked myself? Do they really sing poems in Tehran when
they are trying to change history? Here is what he was singing:

"We should go under the rain.
We should wash our eyes,
And we should see the world in a different way."

He grinned at me and at his two student friends. "The next line is about
making love to a woman in the rain, but that doesn't seem very suitable here."
We all agreed. Our feet hurt. We were still tripping over manhole covers and
kerbstones hidden beneath men's feet and women's chadors. For this was not
just the trendy, young, sunglassed ladies of north Tehran. The poor were
here, too, the street workers and middle-aged ladies in full chador. A very
few held babies on their shoulders or children by the arm, talking to them
from time to time, trying to explain the significance of this day to a mind
that would not remember it in the years to come that they were here on this
day of days.

The vast Azadi monument appeared through the grey light like a spaceship - we
had been walking for four miles - and Moin and his friends spent an hour
squeezing through a body of humanity so dense that my chest was about to be
crushed. Around the monument, the Shah had long ago built a grassed rampart.
We struggled to its height and there, suddenly, was the breathtaking nature
of it all. Readers who have seen the film Atonement will remember the scene
where the British hero-soldier climbs a sand-dune and suddenly beholds those
thousands on the beaches of Dunkirk. This was no less awesome.

Amid the great basin of grass and concrete that surrounds the monument were a
thousand souls, moving and swaying and singing in the new post-rain
sunlight. There must have been at least a million, and - here one struggles
for a metaphor - it was like a vast animal, a great heaving beast that
breathed and roared and moved sluggishly beneath that monstrous arrow of
concrete. Moin and his friends lay on the grass, smoking cigarettes. They
asked each other if the Supreme Leader would understand what this meant for
Iran. "He's got to hold the elections again," one of Moin's
friends told him. They looked at me. Don't ask a foreigner, I said. Because
I'm not so sure that the fathers of the 1979 revolution will look so kindly
upon this self-evident demand for freedom.

True, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader - how antiquated that title
sounded yesterday - had agreed to enquire into the election results, perhaps
to look over a polling statistic or two. But Ahmadinejad, despite his
obtuseness and his unending smile, is a tough guy in a tough clerical
environment. His glorious predecessor, Hojatolislam Mohamed Khatami, was
somewhere down there amid the crowds, along with Mousavi and Mousavi's wife
Zahra Rahnavard, but they could not protect these people.

Government is not about good guys and bad guys. It is about power, state and
political power - they are not the same - and unless those wanly smiling
riot police move across to the opposition, the weapons of the Islamic
Republic remain in the hands of Ahmadinejad's administration and his
spiritual protectors. As, no doubt, we shall soon see.

© 2023 The Independent