Life on the streets in Iran, an eyewitness perspective

On the ground reports from Iran are hard to obtain these days. Western journalists are largely writing stories about the political chaos in the country.

So I’m publishing this exclusive report from a friend currently in Tehran. He’s an Australian traveling around the country. Names and identifiable places have been removed to protect all concerned:

Been a bit out of touch with the world the last couple of weeks while here in Iran. I don’t have satellite TV where I’m staying (although most of *** relatives do have it) and internet access isn’t always easily accessible especially given the proxies are so unreliable. Did you know the government has satellite jamming equipment from Panasonic? That’s what I heard from *** cousin anyway. I don’t know how he knows. I’ll have to look into that one.

Anyway, it’s been an amazing experience so far. I was in Tehran for one week, took a short trip to Mashad and Esfahan, and now I’m back in Tehran staying at *** grandmothers house. Iranian hospitality is awesome. *** family have been so kind and generous towards me. I literally haven’t spent a cent while here! They don’t let me pay for anything. In fact, I think I’ve made money with all the gifts of gold I’ve received! There is a feast everyday. I usually have two dinners. Unbelievable.

This house is never quite. There is always someone stopping by – auntys, uncles, cousins, friends – with whom I’ve been having incredibly interesting and varied conversations with about life here. *** seems to have the whole political spectrum of opinion covered within her family! Ahmadinejad supporters, Mousavi supporters, critics of the whole Islamic regime, religious, secular, low-middle class, highly educated upper class, old and conservative, young and party going… everything! One of her cousins is even in the basijis! (well kind of anyway).

Actually, that’s an interesting story. This cousin of *** is in her early 20s and is no supporter of the regime, but she’s part of this sports club which is owned by the basijis and in order to participate and compete you’re forced to sign up with them. If at anytime you don’t comply with their orders you lose your membership. During the pro-government demonstrations a couple of weeks ago, she got a call ordering her to attend the protest. She managed to wiggle her way out of it, but most of her friends went and they told her they were all given batons and pepper spray to “protect” them from reformists who might attack them. Of course, they never collected the weapons from them after the demonstration. So all her girlfriends went home with batons and pepper spray for souvenirs!

The whole demonstration was a farce of course. Schools were closed down and universities had their fire alarms ring just as the procession was passing by so they were forced to spill out onto the street. Those who had government jobs were given the day off if they attended. There was free food and drink and many other incentives to attend. These are just a few of the ways the government conjured up the impression of a great and popular pro-government protest. Some people here did buy it hook line and sinker like one of *** uncle’s I was talking to. But many others saw it for what it was.

There are little untold expressions of dissent that happen all the time and go unreported. Just last week *** cousin was at one of the azad (private) universities where the students got wind of a planned pro-government demonstration that was to take place on the university grounds by the basij. They quickly organised a counter demonstration, cunningly got the police to block off the street by telling them they wanted to have a pro-government demonstration of their own, and chanted very religious slogans. When the 50-60 basij members arrived, they couldn’t do anything. In other words they stole their thunder.

One of *** Uncles and his wife are very well respected university professors at Amir Kabir University (you might have seen the you tube video of the students ripping the gate down there?). *** uncle said that many of his students were arrested and the rest refused to sit their exams as a sign of protest. His wife said a little while ago that she along with many other professors were asked to sign a letter of support for the government. She was called for 12 days straight from some department very high up in the government pestering her to sign. She managed to wiggle her way out of it with a bit of luck, but every time you refuse requests such as these you get a cross next to your name. Next time you apply for a new government job or promotion, you’ve got no chance. Even one of *** cousins who just finished her teaching degree can’t get a job because she failed to convince her employers in the interview that she was “religious” enough. Religiosity of course has nothing to do with it. *** aunty I was just speaking of is VERY religious. She wears a complete black chador by choice. It’s political attitudes they screen for.

Luckily I haven’t had any intense encounters with the authorities yet. I kind of blend in here. We saw three basij last night at a pizza restaurant where young people hang out – they were just watching us. Apparently, the night before, *** friend was pulled over by the basij and his car completely stripped and searched. He wasn’t doing anything wrong – it was just pure intimidation. The other week we were at the park for a picnic and a police car rocked up because they saw one of *** cousins dancing. It’s moharam now and the whole county is supposed to be in mourning (which really sucks for me coz there’s no X-party’s happening and I’m dying to check one out!). Somehow they overheard we were from overseas and they asked what religion we were. Luckily *** dad spoke to them and reassured them we were all faithful and law abiding muslims. It’s such a stifling environment. Kind of like Cuba in that you can always feel the government watching you.

***

Just an update…. I spoke to *** cousin last night about the satellite jamming. He said he had a friend who used to work as some kind of engineer; designing geo-stationary satellites for the government’s communications department (his exact occupation got lost in translation). Anyway, he had told him that the government had bought jamming equipment from Panasonic (Japan) about 4-5 years ago. Had you heard of this before? Apparently it’s not public knowledge.

Coincidentally, *** cousin actually owns a small internet company here selling high speed internet to businesses. He is also studying and he has a project coming up about how the internet is filtered in Iran! Anyway, one other interesting point – he hasn’t sent an sms in 6 months as a sign of protest to the government who keeps disconnecting the service whenever it suits them. He said many of his friends are doing the same.