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Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Read The Backpacker

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Published on February 11, 2010 with 2 Comments

Tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini

Tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini

An elderly woman wearing a long black chador closed her eyes and murmured. She placed her right hand on the cold metal fence that circled a sarcophagus covered with a green cloth. A portrait stood over the tomb. Abruptly, she opened her eyes and turned her head towards me. Her eyes were red and watery. She seemed deeply moved, but she hurried to hide her face under the black chador.

Before leaving, the old woman put her face against one of the square holes in the metal fence in an attempt to have a closer look at the tomb inside. A younger woman – also in a black chador – placed her hand on the shoulder of the old woman, and they walked away from the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution that in 1979 overthrew the oppressive regime of the western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; a monarch who enjoyed lavish luxuries, ignoring the struggles of the poor and disdaining Islamic values, which helped to increase the popularity and support for the Ayatollah in exile.
I saw the two black chadors vanishing in the distance, but stayed inside the shrine with a gilded dome, standing near the mausoleum of the Ayatollah. More pilgrims showed up to pay their respects to the father of the Islamic nation. They all seemed deeply moved by the presence of the tomb of the spiritual leader.

The charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came back to Iran on February 1, 1979 after living in exile since 1964. But it was today – on a February 11th – 31 years ago that the Islamic Revolution fully defeated the royal government, becoming a national holiday in Iran.

As every year state-sponsored demonstrations take the streets of the cities to commemorate the “Islamic Revolution’s Victory Day”.

But this year the Iranian opposition –known as the Green Movement- is also on the streets. They called for peaceful protests to demand reforms and democracy in Iran.

Amidst a much divided Iran, there are some Iranians who avoid these public gatherings. 25-year-old Salma preferred to enjoy this year’s holiday at home.

“I will not work on this day. I have bought 5 DVDs and will watch movies. Of course it is not legal because the movies must be censored (by the government),” said Salma.

IMG_3155 Just as watching foreign movies, there are other things that are not legal in Iran (alcohol, parties, drugs, satellite TV, unmarried sex or some website such youtube, twitter, facebook and supposedly now even gmail!!), yet Iranians have found ways to have access to or enjoy of most things that are banned by the Islamic government.

There is no doubt that today Iran hardly resembles the Iran of the early years of the Islamic Revolution.

As I traversed the modern and industrialized Iran this past January during an 11-day-journey, I met and talked with Iranians of different social classes, education levels and ages. These Iranians of various backgrounds and generations all seemed to respect Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini… but that doesn’t mean that they want to be ruled by a theocracy, the political system in which Iran is governed nowadays.

In Iran, there is an elected president, but the last word -in all aspects of society- is in the hands of a group of clerics and the current Grand Ayatollah who today is Ali Khamenei and who doesn’t have the charisma or popularity of his predecessor Iman Khomeini. Indeed, some Iranians didn’t seem very fond of the present religious leader especially after backing up the results of the disputed presidential elections last year. I was surprised to hear disapproving comments about the “Grand Ayatollah” as I thought the Supreme Leader was excluded from any criticism… well it may be not proper to criticize him publicly, but OK in the informal talks with and between Iranians. IMG_2317

“Religions are good, but clerics are not good. If Christ, Mohamed or Zarathustra were alive today, I bet you they would be saying ‘this is not what I taught’”, says Kazem, a former military pilot turned into a tourist guide in Shiraz.

From the humble taxi driver from conservative southern Tehran to the anti-Ahmadinejad and well-educated accountant from Isfahan and the young students of Shiraz, the consensus seemed to be that there is a new Iran… the Islamic Revolution seemed to be part of the past. Iran is a nation that started changing with the election of President Mohammad Khatami, who in 1997 brought reforms for a freer Iran. After that, many Iranians say “there is no turning back.”

“Religion and politics no good,” says Hossein, a bubbly and curious taxi driver when asked about politics in Iran. Although a devoted Muslim, this Iranian – fascinated by anything foreign or western – wants more liberties and less confrontation of his country with the outside world.

Iranians – like Hossein – believe that politics and religion should not mix, but that doesn’t imply that they disregard their Islamic values. They are OK with their religion, but they want to live in a country where their votes count, where they can find a job (unemployment is very high among the young people) and where they can speak out without facing reprisals.

“There are no human rights here! There is no democracy in Iran. This is a phony democracy. Many students have been killed,” assures Hossein, a 61-years-old accountant from Isfahan who is sick of seeing the repression of the students on the opposition demonstrations. “Do they kill students in your country Daniela?” he asked with frustration.

A cry for democracy and reform in Iran that has intensified after a disputed presidential election – considered by the opposition to have been rigged – in June 2009 that kept the defiant and openly anti-western Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.

The controversial voting results were followed by protests that have persisted to date, in which dozens of people have been killed and thousands have been put behind bars. Despite the crackdown by the authorities, the opposition refuses to give up their right of having their voices heard ¬- either marching on the streets of Iran or through the social media – at home and abroad.

Although the country is divided into pro-government and the opposition, both groups agree that their country has been unfairly portrayed in the western media…

“There is a bad propaganda about Iran. But we are civilized. The media portrayed us very bad,” said Kazem from Shiraz. He opposed the Islamic government.

“You should do a journalistic piece to show the true Iran. Western media tell lies,” a pro-government tourist guide said to me, noticing my video camera, but unaware of my journalistic background.

I actually denied -before and during my trip- that I was a former journalist. Probably my visa would have been denied in the first place. Most important, I wanted to talk freely to people and see Iran without the censorship of a government minder. I was also aware that dozens of journalists are in jail in Iran.

Iranians think there are unfairly portray but the access to what’s really going on is limited. Foreign journalists have been kicked out of the country, and the internet is tightly controlled by the government.
But despite the violent images that we watch in the media and the intimidating comments of the current administration lead by the extreme and defiant President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran is not the scary, dangerous, backwards place many of us have in mind. Crime is almost non-existent, locals are very welcoming and the country quite modern.

Although they are religious and conservative people – and there are in most countries – the majority of Iranians are not fanatics or haters of the western world or foreigners. Those prejudices are far from the reality I – and other foreigners I met on the road – experienced in Iran.

Former US Embassy in Tehran Most Iranians are warm and curious about foreigners. Despite the mean anti-American murals in Tehran, it is common to be approached –both in the country’s capital and across the country- by Iranians who are eager to talk to tourists, to find out more about the world and to show visitors the best of Iranian hospitality.

Despite the decades of isolation and economic sanctions, Iran has a solid infrastructure and has surprisingly managed to keep up with the modern world.

Although a growing concern for the international community – and raising more eyebrows in the last days after it being reported that Iran has started enriching uranium to 20% for medical research – Iranians – even those who are opposed the current administration – seemed to be proud of the nuclear program and are convinced that it has nothing to do with developing nuclear weapons.

“We have plenty of oil, but it won’t last forever. We cannot overuse our resources. We need to think of the future. Nuclear power is good for Iran,” assured Kazem from Shiraz. “But even if we had nuclear weapons, why would it be a problem? The United States and Israel have those weapons. Even India and Pakistan have them! Why couldn’t we, the great Persian civilization, have weapons to protect ourselves?” he felt Iran to be treated unfairly and as a second class nation.

IMG_20922 Even with the political unrest at home and the threats by the international community of more sanctions on Iran –or a military action if necessary- due to its nuclear program, on the streets the young Iranians are more interested in wearing the latest western fashions, surfing the internet – even if it is highly filtered! – listening to the new releases of the Persian pop stars based in Los Angeles, getting a job and flirting discretely in the park.

With two-thirds of the population under the age of 30, it seems inevitable that change will come to Iran sooner or later. Although the guns are under the control of a minority lead by a religious elite, some Iranians are confident that they will expel their current suppressors, just as they got rid of the invaders that tried to conquer their land throughout the centuries.

“We know that Iran is sick. We are very sick, but we don’t need anyone to come and cure us. We don’t need them (foreigner governments) to do that. We can be our own doctors. We are survivors. We will fix the problem ourselves,” assured Kazem from Shiraz.

I hope Kazem is right… I hear the news about Iran with frustration and sadness: the execution of two men who participated in opposition demonstrations, the government threats against those who want to protest peacefully on the “Islamic Revolution’s Victory Day”, and more internet restrictions cutting its people from the outside world, and preventing the outside world from knowing what’s happening in Iran.

Today I think of the Iranians I met in those eleven days and the friends I left behind. I feel frustration and sadness, yet I am hopeful that changes are coming their way and in a near future Iranians will enjoy the freedom and democracy they so crave and deserve.

In 1963, the Shah launched a “White Revolution”. In 1979, Iman Khomeini ousted the Shah with the “Islamic Revolution”. Maybe the time has come for a new revolution? A “Green Revolution” perhaps? Time will tell…

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There are currently 2 Comments on IRAN: THE 31ST ANNIVERSARY OF THE ISLAMIC REVOLUTION… A NEW REVOLUTION ON ITS WAY?. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. “Religions are good, but clerics are not good. If Christ, Mohamed or Zarathustra were alive today, I bet you they would be saying ‘this is not what I taught’”.


  2. He is absolutely right…

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