Quds Day Revisited: An Iran Report

TEHRAN -- Slightly over a month ago, anti-government protesters (the ones not yet in prison, or murdered) went back to the streets of Tehran, in a counter-protest against a government-orchestrated parade. The protesters wore easily identifiable green, so they knew that if Basij militiamen wanted to bust their heads, their colors would mark clearly which heads to bust. And bust they did. Media and cell-phone cameras captured images of young revolutionaries thwacked in the street and bleeding, and stories of the violence ran all over the Web and in print. My colleagues Jeffrey Goldberg and Andrew Sullivan were especially thrilled, and read the day's events as signs of a movement bloodied but unbowed.

The view from Tehran was somewhat different. A few days before the Quds Day protests, this blog went temporarily dark, and its author went into a minor occultation. Soon after arriving as a tourist, I hit the streets of Tehran with the protesters. Overall, I found them definitely bloodied, intermittently unbowed, and all too often insignificant. During the next week I will post impressions of the protests and of the Iran I saw.

Quds Day banner

Poster for international Quds Day.

There were actually two protests: a spectacle organized annually, on the last Friday of Ramadan, by the Iranian government to stir anti-Israeli fervor ("Quds" is Jerusalem in Arabic), and a counterprotest meant to hijack the event for the faction that favored Mir Hussein Mousavi in the elections last summer. Where these two protests met, in a few spots predetermined by the latter group, promised to be the most violent areas in Tehran.

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That morning, everyone knew where those areas would be. One of the consequences of using Twitter and other social media to plan your revolt is that your playbook is relatively open, and everyone, friend or enemy, knows the schedule. So even though my hotel's staff, a diverse bunch that encompassed campaigners for both candidates, did not plan to attend the protests, they could all direct me precisely to where I should go if I wanted trouble. Head north, they said, toward the university, and look for crowds around Haft-e Tir and Vali Asr. These areas are on the northern cusp of central Tehran, where more moderate neighborhoods in the center give way to Mousavi territory in the north. (If you go south, into the poorer sections of southern Tehran, you cross into Ahmadinejad country.)

One of the Mousavi-favoring employees offered the only words of concern. "If they catch you and find you are a foreigner," he said, "they will say you are leading the riot, and they will arrest you." What should I do to avoid getting arrested? "Wear simple dark clothes," he said, "Don't take pictures. Don't talk to people. And don't let them catch you."

This all sounded like pretty good advice. I left the hotel and walked north.

NEXT: Into the sea of chadors.