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A Guest at the Ministry of the Hidden Imam

June 17, 2010

[Editor’s Note: One year ago today, Iason Athanasiadis became the only foreign journalist to be detained during Iran’s post-election unrest. He writes here, in the first installment of this account, about the weeks he spent inside and outside Evin Prison before and after the crackdown.]

I don’t know if you’re alive or dead.
Can you on earth be sought?
Anna Akhmatova, 1915

TEHRAN—June 12, 2009

Iran was at history’s doorstep, and my entry visa was delayed.

The sharp antagonisms simmering beneath the surface of Iranian society for three decades had burst to the surface when the Islamic Republic decided to emulate the electrifying American campaign that Barrack Obama had just won and treat its citizens to live televised debates between the presidential candidates. For a secretive regime that always closes ranks to protect its own, Ahmadinejad’s accusation of corruption against two-time former president Hashemi Rafsanjani live on television—an accusation every Iranian knows is true—breached an invisible psychological barrier. Crowds had surged onto the streets, dancing night after night, a weeklong street party.

Unprecedented demonstrations surged merrily past every limit and restriction on public meetings laid down by the Islamic Republic. Suddenly, anything seemed possible—and I was waiting for my visa.

I had lived in Iran from 2004 to 2007, and I was eager to be back in Tehran to witness their “Obama moment.” The friends I made there were, for the most part, creative, open-minded, secular internationalists open to the West but, unlike many of their compatriots, not enchanted by it. Far from being elites, most were solidly middle class and did not speak a foreign language Because they did not hew to either extreme in the simplistic narrative promoted by the Western media about Iran—neither working class traditionalist fanatics or upper-class Westernized party animals—their voices struggled to emerge. As far as the world was concerned, they did not exist.

But they were a fascinating barometer of Iranian society. By the summer of 2009, this generation—which I had described as “the unruly children and grandchildren of the same revolutionaries who riotously brought the Islamic Revolution into being in 1978”—seemed poised to make its stand on the streets. The entire world was suddenly captivated by their resistance and verve. “Today, this generation makes Iran one of the youngest societies on earth,” I wrote in 2007. “Far more than the prospect of nuclear energy, they constitute the most extraordinary transformational force invisibly working away within the country’s fabric.”

But until my visa was approved, I had to content myself by flying London to deliver a paper at a conference marking the Islamic Republic’s thirtieth anniversary. Facing an audience of experts on Iran that included several gentlemen from the Iranian embassy, I lightheartedly began by describing myself as having exactly the kind of characteristics attributed by the Islamic Republic to Western spies—an Oxford education, fluent Persian and Arabic, three years of living in Iran without holding a fixed job, and a British passport. The audience tittered; the Iranians diplomats regarded me stonily.

The next day, I was informed that my visa had finally been approved. The Iranian ambassador in Athens kindly issued it for me in London and within twenty-four hours I was streaking across the Mediterranean. The night flight from London touched down in Doha’s stifling summer darkness, and I transferred onto an Iran Airways flight for the hop over the Persian Gulf to Tehran. By the time I cleared customs and engaged an airport cab to take me into the city, the sun had risen. Everywhere on the streets were remnants of the previous nights’ festivities—green ribbons, posters of the candidates, and trampled confetti. Pockets of diehard revelers remained at street corners, facing off with rival slogans.

I collected my press accreditation at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, then sought out a source whose tips had in the past been reliable. Mousavi’s last-minute surge had turned the tables on Ahmadinejad. But my friend’s prediction stretched credulity: not only would Ahmadinejad win, he said, but he would do it in the first round and by a landslide too.

I scoffed at the tip, thinking that my source—a deeply intellectual current affairs watcher and Marxist who despised the Islamic Republic—had finally gone over the brink of his despair into delusional nihilism.

But I then remembered a conversation I had following Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005 with a close childhood friend of his. At a time when 2009 appeared an impossibly distant date, he had warned me that there are more than 12 million bassijis (a nationwide religious militia that in peacetime enforces public morality, supports Ahmadinejad, and tries to re-Islamize public life) and the Sepah (Revolutionary Guard) had a goal to eventually have 20 million with the intention of controlling a presidential election through the bassij votes.

“The Sepah people privately say that in the next elections we’ll have 15 million bassij which is a threshold number that will allow them to elect the president decisively.”

I had no access to definitive statistics on the size of the bassij but in the streets of Tehran it was an open secret that Ahmadinejad was encouraging their rebirth. It seemed that they were about to flex their muscles. What we did not know at the time was that Mousavi’s supporters would indulge in some muscle-flexing of their own. And that confrontation would prompt the largest wave of arrests since the Revolution. Including my own.

 

The World Cup: Fandom from Afar

June 11, 2010

“My head says Brazil, my heart says Argentina, but my money’s on Germany.” The international game’s quadrennial competition is underway.

Passover in the West Bank

May 16, 2010

[caption id="attachment_938" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="Samaritans perform their traditional slaughter of the Passover sacrifice ceremony at Mount Gerizim, north of the West Bank town of Nablus."] Samaritans perform their traditional slaughter of the Passover sacrifice ceremony at Mount Gerizim, north of the West Bank town of Nablus.[/caption]

Photographs by Ammar Awad / Corbis

The Samaritans have thirteen names for Mount Gerizim, which rises four hundred meters above Nablus, on the West Bank, including the House of God, Mountain of the East, the Chosen Place, Gate of Heaven, the Everlasting Hill, Bethel, One of the Mountains, and The Lord Will Provide. And it is on the ridge below this sacred mountain, in the village of Kiryat Luzah, that they celebrate Passover, a ceremony that each year draws thousands of spectators, Israeli and Palestinian—always without incident, according to the elderly priest who invited me to witness it. He was of the opinion that the Samaritans, the world’s smallest religious-ethnic group, could build a bridge of peace between Israelis and Palestinians—the first constructive idea that I had heard on the subject in my travels through the region—and so one day in late April I arranged to drive from Jerusalem to Kiryat Luzah with a young Palestinian named Maath, who took an interest in the Samaritans. Summer was coming on—hay was baled in the fields—and as we cruised along a winding road built to connect the settlements Maath told me some of his story.

He had returned to his homeland after completing a degree in information technology in Dubai, and what he discovered was that Palestinians fell into one of three camps concerning the occupation: those who were so frustrated that they resorted to violence; those who would give up anything for a peace agreement; and those, like him, who kept pushing for their rights. An Israeli police van sped past, its lights flashing. Maath admitted that this third group was lost.

“If they resist, they’ll be confused with the fanatics,” he said. “And if they go into politics they’ll be confused with the Palestinian Authority, who will give everything away. So they do nothing and wait for magic, like the Americans stepping in to throw the Serbs out of Kosovo.”

The soldiers manning the watchtower and checkpoint at the base of Mount Gerizim eyed the cars approaching the roundabout, stopping some, waving us through, and as we started up the mountain, toward the settlement of Har Brakha, Maath said that he and his friends liked to debate what was permissible in resisting the occupation—whether, for example, it was just to kill soldiers (yes, they agreed), civilians (no), and settlers (yes, if they were armed). The wounded presented a dilemma. Those who vowed to finish them off might not be able to pull the trigger, if it came to that, Maath believed. It was easy to speculate about right and wrong until you were in the heat of battle, when all bets were off. Nevertheless he could understand the frustration that led some of his friends to contemplate killing the wounded.

[caption id="attachment_938" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="A Samaritan boy pets a sheep before it is to be slaughtered."] A Samaritan boy pets a sheep before it is to be slaughtered.[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_938" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="Onlookers crowd the stands surrounding the traditional Passover site."] Onlookers crowd the stands surrounding the traditional Passover site.[/caption]

Har Brakha occupies the ridge leading to Kiryat Luzah, and from the frame of a doorway in a long one-story building under construction a boy watched us pass. Buses were parked at the edge of town, tourists and settlers milled among the soldiers on the main street, and the air was thick with the smell of lambs grazing in a nearby sheepfold. The Samaritans, all 742 of them, had brought lambs to celebrate the account, in Exodus, of the freeing of the ancient Israelites from the slavery of the Egyptians. Passover is a story of survival, which carries particular meaning for a community that in Samaritan lore once numbered in the millions. Persecuted by Jews, Romans, Christians, and Muslims, massacred and assimilated and exiled, by 1901 the Samaritans were down to 152 people, genetic disease was on the rise, and it is a miracle that they survived at all; their five-fold increase in population is a testament to the decision taken to allow men to marry outside the community, providing that the women—Jews, Turks, Russians, and Ukrainians, who answered newspaper ads to move here—convert to the faith. On my first trip to Kiryat Luzah, in March, I was amused to see a bulky blonde-haired woman walking down the street.

“A mail-order bride,” a Palestinian friend explained.

The Samaritans live in two places—on the outskirts of Holon, south of Tel Aviv, and in Kiryat Luzah, the Nablus branch of the community having moved here during the first intifada, in 1987—navigating carefully between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli government offers them the same right of return as other Jews, since they descend from the original tribes of Israel, and Palestinians claim them as part of their culture, since they hail from Samaria. One day a year they are the objects of fascination for their warring neighbors, and as we walked by the Center of Forgiveness the talk of a third intifada seemed a distant possibility. It was said that the next battle would begin in East Jerusalem, where plans to build new settlements on Palestinian land continued in spite of Obama administration entreaties to the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze construction. Seven soldiers were marching a man in plastic handcuffs down the center of the street, under the reproachful eye of a settler with an M-16 slung over his shoulder. Three teenagers had been detained by a Humvee parked at the entrance to the Passover site—because they lacked permits, said a man who worked for a cell phone company. Maath pointed to the Israeli flag hoisted above the stands built for the tourists.

“I don’t care how the Israelis define it,” he muttered. “This is the West Bank.”

 

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