Anger Against America (Part 2)
|Women protesters also participate.|
As we are waiting to enter further into the grounds, I decide to dash down the street to find a toilet. Leave it to me to have to go at the most inopportune times. By the time I return, the photography students have already entered. At the gate there is an animated discussion about me and calls on walkie-talkies, and I fear the gig is up. But no, they are calling for a woman to come and escort me in.
After having passed my daypack and camera through an X-ray machine and being thoroughly patted down, my escort leads me to the women-only section, and quickly I locate my female photography friends. For the next two hours I dash around with them, taking shots of women praying for the end of the American-led aggression. Being with the Iranian students lends me a bit of respectability and allows me intimate access to the worshipping women. Many, upon seeing this foreign woman wielding a camera, wave to me and pose for photos. A small framed photo of Khomeini adorns the prayer mat of a young girl who sits crossed legged, reading a book. Not able to resist the image, I head closer for a photo. It is then I see the title of her book, "Iran vs. America."
The photo opportunities are endless, and seeing a group of young girls brandishing signs calling Bush a murderer and to stop the war, I race over for some shots. An Iranian woman informs me that they are from Afghanistan. Just then one of the girls calls out in perfect English, asking what country I am from. Proudly, and some may think stupidly, I tell them that I am from the States. Much to my amazement they then gather around me, peppering me with questions, lashing out against the U.S. for attacking their country, taking turns shaking my hand and asking to have their photos taken, with their anti-American banners in hand, of course.
During my three weeks so far in Iran I have never hidden the fact that I am American, but, deciding to play it safe, my plan is to pose as an Australian while at the protest. Everyone loves the Aussies, I figure. But when the women come up and inquire where I am from, without a moment's hesitation I reply "Am-er-ee-ka," to which they are understandably surprised. However, they all warmly welcome me and wish me a pleasant stay in their country.
All express sympathy for the tragic loss of lives on September 11, with many telling me that they took part in the candlelight vigil held just after the attacks in memory of the victims. But they can't condone the killing of innocent Afghanis, even if it is part of an assault on the Taliban government, an arch-foe of the Iranian government. An Iranian journalist sums up the day's sentiment by proclaiming over and over, "Blood cannot be washed by blood."
Prayers begin at noon, and I peep over the partition separating the sexes. There is a mass of men, many more than their female counterparts and more angry as well. The holy leader leading the day's prayers delivers a stirring speech of which the only words I understand are "America," "terrorists" and "Afghanistan," but I can imagine the meaning. And then it begins, the chanting of "Down with America," in Farsi, of course, but I get the drift.
I know to expect it, but what I don't expect are the feelings of fear, pride and anger that wash over me as I stand there facing a sea of angry Iranian women damning my country. Prayers then wrap up around 1 pm, and it is time for the protesters to hit the streets of Tehran.
|Sign-waving and chanting, and soon the demonstrators will march the streets.|
With my female Iranian photography friends I rush back to the entrance for journalists, in order to turn in my press pass and to retrieve my passport. Thousands of women of all ages, and all shouting "Down with America," stream by me. An elderly woman stops and asks where I am from. Maryam, one of the Iranian girls, tells her that I am American. Quick as lightening, the old woman grabs me by the shoulders and pulls me down to her. She then kisses me on both cheeks and tells Maryam that I am invited to her house. After what I hope was a gracious refusal, she turns away with a smile and a rapid wave of her hand. As she walks away, her fist pumping through the air, she shouts "Down with America."
Standing there I start to cry. I think of the 4,800 people still buried under the World Trade Center. I think of their loved ones, some of who received frantic phone calls minutes before their family members died. I think of the firefighters. I think of the police. I think of New York, a city that I called home for over five years. I think of Ground Zero. And I am pissed. Maryam notices the tears glistening in my eyes and the quivering of my chin, and she reaches out for my hand. I am glad she is there.
Outside the gates the crowd immediately breaks up, with many of them heading for the streets. There are surprisingly few foreign journalists, at least from what I can detect, but a crowd surrounds a woman who sounds American to me and who is interviewing a young Iranian girl. I stand there, listening to the pure crap the girl is spouting, and to my surprise am ready to jump right in and ask her what the hell she thinks America should have done in response. (Like many Iranians she believes that the CIA masterminded the attacks.) I want to tell her that America is almost always evil in the eyes of Iranians and that no matter what Bush would have done in response, it would have been criticized. I want to ask her what the Iranian government would have done if Tehran had been attacked.
An Iranian TV crew spies me and rushes over for an interview, but my Iranian friends want to proceed to the protest. Part of me wants to stick with them, but I feel the need to defend my country and so I reluctantly agree to an interview. Unfortunately, the TV crew can't speak a lick of English, and while they are hunting around for a translator, I hear the noise.
"Down with America" they are shouting, only a few hundred people or so as they march down the street, waving signs, flags and an effigy of Bush. Immediately I forget about the interview and I fly across the street.
A few people are straggling in front of the crowd, and some stand on the sidewalk watching the colorful procession. Without thinking, I literally sprint in front of the protest, down the middle of Enqelab Avenue, with my camera bouncing against my chest.
The bottom buttons of my rouposh, the long coat that I have to wear while in Iran, have long since fallen off, and so the rouposh flaps open to my waist as I wildly race down the street. With one hand I hold on to the camera and with the other I grasp my scarf to my head. I have to get in front of the demonstration so that I can get some good shots, and so I run, turn and snap, and then run further on. The mob then begins to jog and to jump up and down. There I am, running down the middle of the street as fast as my flabby frame can go and the crowd is behind me. It feels as if they are coming after me, a spawn of the Great Satan.
As we near Palestine Square, the epicenter of the protest, the crowds suddenly get much larger and rowdier. Thousands of men, women, children of all ages are there, united in their hatred for America. Running on the outskirts of the crowd I make my way towards the center, where an effigy of Bush is being torn apart, stepped on and then burned. I didn't vote for the guy, but I feel sorry for him.
Up ahead, on the other side of the street, I spy a large flatbed truck with jostling journalists on the back, but in order to reach it I have to cross directly through the agitated mob. There I am, with banners, burning flags and angry Iranians surrounding me, and for an instant I close my eyes because I want to remember this moment forever, my first demonstration. The fact that it is against my country and in Tehran, well, that just makes it more memorable.
Finally I weave my way to the truck where I hoist myself up, getting myself filthy in the process. But I don't have time to think of that as I push my way to the end of the truck. Seeing the camera crews and photographers, the crowd congregates around. This is when it gets rowdy. And it is getting a bit rough, with the pulsating crowd pushing, shoving and shouting into the camera, and so, satisfied with the 100 or so photos that I have taken that day, I decide to call it quits. Anyways, I only have a few shots left.
The weather is warm that Friday afternoon in Iran's capital, and sweat pours from my brow, mascara runs down my flushed cheeks and my mouth is parched. Looking to make a quick buck a young man is hawking popsicles on the sidewalk. Nearby is a girl watching the protest from her father's shoulders, and I buy her a popsicle as well. As the young girl eagerly reaches out her chubby hand, her parents refuse. They probably detect that I am a daughter of the enemy.
I walk away from the crowd, taking my last remaining shots, and out of the blue, a car backs into me. At first I wonder if it is an act of aggression against me, probably the lone American in the crowd. But the young man, along with his female companion, looks horrified. It is not hard enough to inflict serious injury, but as I limp away, my left buttock throbs with pain. Add to that my right knee that is severely sore from my sprinting, and I am a sorry sight as I straggle back to my hotel.
At the approach of Ferdosi Street a string of security forces blocks the street, but I slowly make my way down the silent sidewalk. Across from the British Embassy is a camera crew and, always inquisitive, I ask what's up. As it turns out the manifestation was going to stop in front of the British Embassy, but the police are blocking the route. The crew is from the BBC, and they start closing down shop as there will obviously be no action at the embassy. Hearing that I am American though, the journalist asks to interview me.
With my voice shaking I speak of my anger and how I feel proud to be an American. How the gulf is so great between our countries, and I don't see how we can bridge it. I am rambling, and I don't even know what the hell I am saying. I continue on how I don't understand why Iranians always ask me why Americans don't like Iran and why we don't come to Iran, but why the hell should they, is my response, when you see "Down with U.S.A." from one end of the country to the other. Of course, he then asks why I am in Iran, and I say that by some miracle I was issued a visa.
The journalist's ringing cell phone interrupts our interview, but before he takes the call I ask if he is going to use our conversation, to which he responds most likely, yes, for BBC radio. I could die right there on the sidewalk. I knew I should have never cancelled my registration in the Learning Annex's "Change Your Voice, Change Your Life Forever" seminar.
Later that evening, as I take a much-needed rest in one of the city's many traditional teahouses, I reflect on the day's events and the kaleidoscope of emotions that they brought out in me. I realize that most of the 11 million people in Tehran did not support the demonstration, which is reported to have attracted 5,000 protesters. I think of the hospitality that has been extended to me freely and lovingly, and I wish that I had the chance or the forethought to mention that during my interview. The Iran that is portrayed in the American media is not the country that I have experienced during these three weeks, but sadly it is the antics and anger of a few thousand Iranians that will be broadcast to billions around the globe.