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IRAN: Chronicling the choreography of Tehran's political theater of the streets

December 26, 2009 |  4:28 am

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By Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Stay on the wings and watch history unfold, or better yet, score a backstage pass and sit next to the director as he nervously watches his work unfold. That’s how journalists sometimes do their jobs. 

But in the chaos that erupted after Iran’s contested election, there were no more mere spectators. The fourth wall separating actors from audience was shattered. Iran's grand political theater, explored in today's Times, spilled off the stage, into the stands. The audience jumped from their seats and joined in the pandemonium. 

Journalists, too, like me (above left) and Times Tehran stringer Ramin Mostaghim (above right) were drawn into the action, some even arrested and accused of fomenting the unrest

The authorities had told journalists at various times not to do any reporting at the demonstrations, not to be seen at the demonstrations and not to go to the demonstrations. 

It was not in a spirit of defiance that the journalists felt compelled to circumvent such restrictions, but of professional duty. The new rules only made the roles harder, that much more challenging and multi-layered. 

Preparations began hours before the demonstrations. Costumes were a few days stubble, a black sport jacket and brown or black shirt, perhaps a pair of sunglasses.

“The actors should assemble at the City Theater,” Ramin would say over the phone, and we would find our over to the centrally located playhouse.

Throughout those days, Ramin would recount the plot of "The Memoir of the Supporting Actor," by Iranian writer-director Behnam Beyzai as a cautionary tale. It's a play about a group of guys who get caught up in the drama of a demonstration and wind up killed. 

On the way to one demonstration, a grizzled Iran-Iraq war veteran serving as a gypsy cab driver in a rusting Iranian-made Paykan recounted his theory of what was happening. 

“It’s all a movie, with a director running everything,” he said. 

He paused. A silence hung in the air. 

“But you know how out of 30 or 40 movies you see one that’s really, really good?” he continued. “This is one of those movies.” 

*

As the crowds gathered on June 20, the day Neda Agha-Soltan was killed and Tehran experienced its worst violence so far, swarms of black-helmeted special police on motorcycles hurtled down Azadi Street.

Regular police officers along the sidewalk warned people to go back, but declined to strike anyone with their clubs. “Don’t go!” they pleaded. “Please don’t go!” 

Each step forward was filled with dread. Black smoke rose as scattered bands of young men rushed into the intersection, leaping over debris, their fists held high. 

The women among them, cheered them, gathering stones to hand to the men. From the windowsills and sidewalks, rooftops and balconies, elderly men and women belted out choruses of angry chants.

 “Death to the dictator!” they cried out, some tossing the young bandages and water bottles.

“Attack!” the men declared, and rush forward, past the intersection. 

The young men stretched their arms back, faces taut, and let go with a flurry of grey stones that sail over the crowd toward the line of Basiji militiamen. 

The Basijis shielded themselves from the shower of rocks and moved forward step by step toward the crowd, firing teargas canisters. 

They charged forward, and there was suddenly no exit. 

Behind, stone-throwing rioters in green balaclavas held off approaching Basijis. To the left of the intersection security forces on motorcycles approached an angry mob.

To the right, a massive trash bonfire spewing black fumes and reeking of burnt plastic raged, lapping at the trees along the street, and beyond the toxic stew, were Ansar-e-Hezbollah militiamen in camouflage bibs beating passersby. 

Toward Azadi Street stood a phalanx of black-clad special police forces, big brawny guys in body armor. 

I mustered up my wits, tried recall the tricks of my college method-acting classes and slid into my role: a middle-aged bank worker heading home from work after a tiring day of office humdrum only to be caught up in unforeseen insanity. 

I prepared a few lines to tell the black-clad officers if they confronted me. I let my shoulders slouch, and worked my face into a frown. I could feel the eyes of the cops as I walked past them into the wide boulevard, only to see more chaos. A squad of Basijis raced toward me, and I found myself sprinting, but could see nowhere to run to get way. 

Another volley of tear gas canisters pinged. And for the fifth or sixth time that day I could feel my eyes burn. 

“Don’t put water on it!” someone had said earlier. “It will make it even worse.” 

I choked on my own spit, gagging, nauseous, my nose clogged up. I fell to my knees. 

Through the haze and pain I saw a car approaching me, making a bee-line. A gruff man stepped out of the drivers seat and rushed toward me. For just a moment, as he put his arms on me, I thought this would be the end, when theater would turn into tragedy. 

“We confess that there are much more better actors and actresses than us,” the actors declare in a chorus at the end of "The Memoir of the Supporting Actor," the play.

 “The actors who speak, speak, speak of right, wrong, reality, falsity, metaphor, allegory," they continued. "But if you look into it matter carefully, the only real things are dead bodies.” 

The man put a lit cigarette to my face. For some reason, the smoke eases the pain. He cuffed my cheeks with his rough hands as he wiped the tears off my face with a brittle tissue paper from the colorful box of napkins most Iranian cab drivers keep in their cars. 

“Thank you,” I said. 

“No need. Just hand them out to the others,” he said, giving me the box of tissues before walking back to his car, another bit player in a drama that has yet to finish.

Photo: Times Beirut bureau chief Borzou Daragahi and Tehran stringer Ramin Mostaghim pose for a photograph during the Feb. 10, 2009 march in Tehran marking the 30th anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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