Counter-provocateurs in Iran
Ali Golsar is a kid in Tehran who’s been sending us updates on how it’s going in the city this last week. Weird, in case you’re wondering. Here’s a little incident he told us happened to him a couple days ago that blew us slightly away. He took these pictures too. And no, that’s not his real name.
Wednesday I was in a video store on Vali Asr Ave when the owner abruptly asked me to get out. I left thinking that perhaps I’d accidentally said something offensive or asked too many open questions about their collection of blacklisted films (I was trying to buy a copy of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Scream of the Ants for my girlfriend) when I realised all the boutiques were closing early because a large demonstration from an intersecting street was about turn the corner.
Two blocks ahead of me several Basiji were approaching with riot shields and batons, sandwiching me between them and the oncoming protestors four blocks away. As I turned around to walk into the demonstrators two of the Basiji called out for me to stop. I dropped my head down and walked a little faster. In hindsight, I should have seen if one of the nearby noon-vahi owners would let me duck into their shop before they locked the door, but when you’re all alone no one helps you in the city. In an instant, I remembered all the messed-up things I’ve seen and heard about in the past week, a woman’s hand being beaten in traffic for holding a peace sign out of her window and her husband being brutally clubbed after stepping out of his car to defend his wife, all the while everyone in traffic sits quietly and obeys the orders to continue the constant flow of traffic.
I turned to look back, and one of the two had started running towards me. I slowed down thinking at least the protesters were getting closer. Again, they told me to stop, and I stopped.
“Where are you going?”
“To my home, it’s in this direction,” raising to my neck to indicate it was towards the demonstrators
“No it’s not.” One of the Basiji raised his baton around my back and tapped me on my shoulder blade, “It’s this way.”
A similar scenario had happened a few days earlier at Vanak Square when I had lost my father in the mix of a demonstration where Basiji militia were attacking anything green and smashing out the windows of any cars that honked. As it has been during every protest so far, cell phone service was shut down while I stood on a corner hoping that my father would eventually walk to where I was. Three Basiji (always looking identical: bearded, round bellies from all the traditional rice-based food, the same casual communist-coloured tailoring) approached me from behind, tapped me on the shoulder with a baton to get my attention, and asked me what I was doing. I told them I lost my father and was looking for him. They told me to move and clubbed me against the knee, then asked if I had any other matters to sort out. I wasn’t looking forward to a repeat play of this situation.
“Hey! He told you it’s this way!’” said the other gorilla, while the one with the baton shoved it between my legs, just below my crotch. “MOVE!" he shouted in a cloud of pickled garlic and onions.
I tried not to smile, thinking it’s hard to move considering where he placed his black stick, simultaneously wondering why it was wet.
Finally he pulled back his baton and I could see that he was recoiling his arm to aim at my knee again, when a bearded man accompanied by a younger bearded man dressed in plain clothes, joined us. The older of the two grabbed the baton mid-air and said, “Agha (mister), what are you doing? Where in the Koran does it say that clubbing our youth is appropriate?” Placing his other hand on my shoulder to nudge me out of the way of the baton, he continued to advise the two Basiji on the Koran’s peaceful values.
It turns out that the two bearded strangers were father and son: the father had lived in Bordeaux since the ’79 Revolution, and just moved back to Tehran two years ago. His son, 25, was just visiting for the summer. The two were staunch opponents of the election results and the rise in militarization, and were fed up with the current omnipresence of Basiji militia. Want to know their shtick? Dressing up in dark, conservative colours to pose like the itehlati (secret service), Basiji, or undercover police, and standing outside the crowd of protestors waiting to intervene in police or Basiji brutality on civilians.
I rolled down my selves, and waited near the hives of Basiji that chased down fleeing protestors, who would run into side alleys under the protection of the hurled rocks and broken granite, in hopes of resembling one of them. Occasionally one or two protestors would be violently stopped, beaten at their knees or limbs by clubs, and dragged back to a meeting spot where riot police would beat them again and then arrest them. The father and son would go into the Basiji crowd at these meeting spots, spout a few Islamic salutations (“Salamalakoum haji!”) and while the father introduced himself as a physician, his son would tend to the beaten like a male nurse checking vital signs. He would then whisper in their ears to pretend like they’ve lost consciousness. His father would pull aside the fainted demonstrator, wait for another raid, and while the Basiji were occupied with chasing down other protestors, they would tell them to flee.
They told me this had worked on a bunch of occasions so far, failing only once with an Afghan worker. He got apprehended after throwing a rock at riot police and running back into his construction site. The illegal refugee, who the son said looked like he probably paid for his ticket by swallowing a bundle of heroin tied to his tooth, had a plastered smile on his face that suggested he was too high to know that he shouldn’t have been throwing rocks at police. The duo set up the situation for him to flee, but with the tie-wrap holding his wrists together, or possibly just because of all the smack, he lost balance after 20 yards and was arrested again and beaten, even worse, getting passed around the police motor squad to be hit with clubs and 2×4s.
A blockade in the road directed us to cross the street. Just as we crossed the meridian on Vali Asr, I heard the son shout “Oooh!” as he fell suddenly to his knees holding his neck. He laid immobile several seconds, having been hit by a fist-size rock from a group of opposition supporters perched on a nearby vacant hill, launching rubble at police and militia.
Laughing, and moving his hand to massage his neck, he raised to his feet. All the sympathetic rock-battered police and militia shouted “Allah Akbar” in thanks for not having received a serious injury. We asked him if he was OK or if he needed to sit down and rest some more. He chuckled and quietly replied, “I think I should just accept it as collateral damage, but I wonder if my girlfriend would want to see me again if I was paralysed.”