Traffic diminishes on Ferdowsi Street every Friday morning, and especially during Ramadan. But only on a strange and special Friday does it decline to almost nothing, as it did today. Normally it is one of those traffic-menaced central Tehran boulevards where drivers cut each other off for sport, and where pedestrians who missed the Iran-Iraq War can satisfy their urges for martyrdom. Today its car traffic was mostly blocked off, and all the pedestrians had already gone up to Enqelab Street, the main drag of the Quds Day parade.
I walked north, nearly alone, when the first positive evidence of the demonstrations ahead reached me in the form of a young family coming from the other direction, with their one child wearing a yellow paper hat on his head and a little stripe of vomit on his shirt. I assume he had puked his way into an early exit from the festivities, and kept a propaganda hat as a souvenir of his day of pro-government frenzy.
The hat had been folded out and assembled from a piece of flat, mass-produced cardboard. Notches made an adjustable band in the back, and pre-cut slits on the crown let it expand to accommodate heads as small as his, or as large as my own. (When I order caps, I specify Pep Boys-size.) All over the hats are images of Al Aqsa Mosque, the Muslim spiritual jewel of Jerusalem, and slogans in Persian, Arabic, and broken English: "Plstine is our victory" was one typical one, with an upside-down exclamation mark at the end, like in Spanish. The boy's also said "Death to America" in Persian, Arabic, and English.
At Enqelab, I reached the crowd and found it already whipped into a fine meringue of anti-Israeli sentiment. I walked straight in, heading west, and found its numbers quickly thicken into a well-behaved but barely navigable mass that reached all the way to Tehran University, just over a mile away. The advice to wear simple dark clothes proved unnecessary, though it would have helped if I were a woman, as most at the protest were women wearing the regulation black chador. The men, on the other hand, dressed by turns conservatively and -- on rare occasions -- with style, including brown leisure suits that might have fit in during the Shah's time. The one ubiquitous attire for both genders was the hats, mostly yellow but occasionally in Palestinian green, red, and white. To blend in, I asked a guy guarding some mopeds where he found his hat, and he eagerly handed me his own.
With the brim pulled over my eyes, I swam comfortably through a dark lake of protesters, with yellow, green, red, and white hats floating on the surface like waterlilies. The effect of moving against the current of the parade was to ensure that I saw more posters, marching groups, and soldiers than I could possibly process or comfortably photograph. On the fringe, by the side of the street, large canvas signs hung from streetlights, with a familiar and disturbing series of exhibits. The faces of Khomeini and Khamenei appeared in roughly half of them, and were almost always matched with images of Al Aqsa, supervised by the ayatollahs' disembodied heads floating in the sky. Others posters showed dismembered and bloodied Palestinian children.
"Quds Day is Islam Day."
In the center of the street, the Quds Day protesters flowed toward me on foot, in groups representing different government-loyal constituencies: soldiers from all branches, women's groups (louder than most, and monolithically black in their chadors), and tae kwon do clubs, whose black and white gis matched the general monochrome theme of the day. In age the marchers varied widely, and were well represented in the youth-bulge demographic. Palestinians, naturally, made no appearances I could see, though scattered Hizbullah delegates did:
And what of the anti-government protesters? The glee of foreign observers over having seen Quds Day "co-opted" must be unfamiliar consolation to those who saw the day themselves, and saw its government-sanctioned rally totally undisturbed by the efforts of the opposition. On this, the main drag of the Quds Day protest, counterprotesters were even scarcer than Palestinians. Part of the scarcity of counterprotesters is due to a competent and well-equipped riot force: at every entrance to Enqelab, police stood watch, and at each major intersection a crew of soldiers large enough to baton into submission even a large crowd manned trucks and motorcycles. If counterprotesters showed up they would almost certainly have got a club across the skull.
For this observer, anyway, the Quds Day rally established exactly what the Islamic Republic wanted it to show, which is that despite the reports of unrest and discontent, there are still vast numbers of Iranians who love their government and hate Israel, and who are as sheltered from their anti-clerical countrymen as their government wants them to be. The opposition, of course, rallied elsewhere, farther north (more on that later). And optimists will point out, with some justification, that totalitarian governments have never had much trouble staging parades, even in their last days. But if the protesters' goal was to force their displeasure into the view of all Iranians, they failed. If I hadn't received the Tweets, I wouldn't have known there was any counter-protest at all.
Click here for Part 1 of this account of the Quds Day protests in Tehran.
NEXT: Hooknosed Jews and their precious, precious Zyklon B.