On 16 February 2010 – the week of the anniversary of the revolution of 1979, marked by a huge official demonstration in Tehran – an anonymous video of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan on 20 June 2009 was given the prestigious Polk award. John Darnton, curator of the Polk awards described this record of the shooting of an innocent young student passer-by as the “iconic image of the Iranian resistance”. He added: “This award celebrates the fact that, in today’s world, a brave bystander with a cellphone camera can use video-sharing and social-networking sites to deliver news.”
A few days earlier, the award for the World Press Photo of 2009 was given to an intimate photograph taken (by Pietro Masturzo) on one of the heated nights that following the election, when residents of Tehran would climb to their rooftops and voice their dissent in cries of Allah-o-Akbar. The Iranian authorities have tried to control all modes of communications, but such momentary glimpses into a closed society have the power to change perceptions on mass. Palestinian writer Remi Kanazi has put that the Islamic battle cry of Iranian Pro-democracy protesters would once have unsettled many in the west. That the chant of “Allah-o-Akbar” is now a worldwide inspiration is a revolution all by itself.
Ayperi Karabuda Ecer, the chair of the jury that chose the photo, said that the photo had touched her “both visually and emotionally”. Indeed, Iran’s prodemocracy movement has been the source of many such poignant images. Another such, unforgettable for many people inside Iran is one of a young man called Sohrab Arabi. It was taken on the day that he was to disappear.
The photo shows the 19-year-old Sohrab sitting beside his mother, wearing the sort of comfortably safe demeanour that boys from the ages of 4 to 40 adopt when around their mothers. She is holding a poster of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the reformist candidate who millions of Iranians believe was the true winner of the presidential elections. Her expression mixes a furrowed brow with a gleam of hope; the overall impression is of is determination. Parvin Fahimi was later to write: “I lost my son on Monday 15 June during a peaceful rally held to protest the election results. The crowds were estimated at a minimum of 3 million. We wanted nothing but peace, tranquility and a freedom of thought”.
Sohrab, like Neda, has become a symbol of something larger than himself: of Iran’s young people, of the resistance to oppression and deception, even of Iran itself. In his case it is his very name that reinforces this almost mystic sense of potency and goodness. It would be hard to find an Iranian over the age of 5 who doesn’t know the story of Rostam and Sohrab, from Ferdowsi’s renowned 10th-century work the Shahnameh (Epic of Kings). The ruler Rostam kills the valiant challenger Sohrab only to find out that the latter is his long-lost son; what makes the event more bitter is that Rostam himself narrowly escaped death thanks to Sohrab’s virtue. The “laws of honour” must prevail, says the Shahnameh, such that “he who brings down a valiant man for the first time should not destroy him, but preserve him for a second battle “.
Many Sohrabs have been slain in the history of patriarchal Iran. Yet to this day Iranians are reared to treasure the honourable rules of combat that the ancient Sohrab adhered to, and to despise those who flout them. Near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 a column of tanks ceded to a lone protester; in Iran in 2009 footage taken on a videophone shows a police-truck trample back and forth over a young protester. China today is one of Iran’s best “friends”, though Tehran has neither the ideological unity among the elite nor the growth economy for the masses that could offer equivalent protection.
Since Sohrab was lost to his mother on 15 June 2009 eight, many Iranians have been killed, attacked and imprisoned; many homes similar to the one in Pietro Masturzo’s photo have been invaded and its inhabitants detained for committing the sin of chanting Allah-o-Akbar in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet, astonishingly, many persist in using all available means to defend their Iran and show it to the world. Even during the 11 February 2010 events, the drenching official censorship was unable to prevent films of the protests being circulated on Youtube within minutes.
It is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t been to one of these gatherings –loved by authoritarian rulers from Harare to Kathmandu — the parallel goings on. You could go with busload of school friends and all you remember years later is a great day out when you made up parodies of the official chants and ate too many freebie sweets. Not this year.
What comes across most forcibly is the enormous security at this “celebration”, with endless rows of military personnel, anti-riot police, and their vehicles; this would certainly have proved menacing for the supporters of the government and the opposition alike. Another videophone film highlights the scale of the military presence, in menacing scenes that were never replicated even during eight years of war against an invading enemy. The rulers of revolutionary Iran have never feared their own people as such and all they can do is to clumsily swing between conciliation and vicious oppression. This is in part because they are aware of the mounting hatred and how far they have breached the “laws of honour” in the killing of every Sohrab and Neda.
The films, images, tweets and blogs that are cast out like messages-in-bottles across the cyber-waves are a central part of people’s struggle to narrate their own stories and present its case for justice. Much of the western media views the issue at stake in terms of a test of strength, and sees the “successful” security clampdown of 11 February 2010 as a decisive thwarting of the opposition. But this struggle is not about street-combat and the toppling of dictators. It is about the coming of age of a generation whose rightful non-violent fight for civil rights is both as ancient and as new as Sohrab.