Four years ago, in mid-June, I headed on a trip to Iran after not having the visited the country for a decade. It was meant to be a personal trip, but in many ways I got more than I bargained for. As I wrote in a journal on route to Tehran:
“When I planned this trip months ago it was to be a personal experience, a rekindling with old memories… After all, the last time I crossed the Atlantic, I never envisioned that I would not see Iran again for so many years. I hoped that the country that I left would be a better country when I returned to it. But no one seems to have had anticipated the events that have transpired in the past few weeks in Iran.” – 2009/06/29
My trip coincided with the aftermath of the most divisive election in post-revolutionary Iran, on the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Islamic Republic.
I arrived in Iran in the aftermath of the election, but like many others had followed the events closely in the preceding months and weeks through the news and social networks. Weeks before the election I asked a reformist friend living in Iran how he thought the election would turn out. His sentiments I passed off as naïve pessimism. “[The reformist] will win, but [the conservative] will become the president.” But how? “Aji maji lataraji” Hocus pocus.
On the other side of the world we were watching the country hold its first live presidential debates on state-controlled media, reflecting a move towards greater transparency and engagement. We were seeing candidates, who were by all measures old guard conservatives, morphing into maverick reformists. We were seeing student movements, dormant following their bloody suppression ten years earlier, bloom once again. Reformist friends posted pictures of their green or yellow wrist-bands on Facebook, videos of a 20-km chain of green-clad men and women were shared, shared, shared. Conservative friends were conspicuously silent. Was this Iran’s Carnation Revolution?
The day before the election, even my pessimistic friend seemed to have embraced a cautious optimism along with 40 million others who cast their vote in the election. As the election levers were pulled, the polls on this side of the world still fluctuated, and the outcomes were anything but predictable. Nevertheless, it seemed evident to me that Iran had entered an era where different perspectives and new movements would not be silenced. The idea that the friends I’d left years ago now had themselves the opportunity to live in a true democracy where every person would have a voice compelled me:
“While cynicism remains strong and every candidate can be criticized and rightfully so, I can’t help but admire those who go to the polls to make a sincere effort towards a better tomorrow. They go with optimism and the hope that promises that have been made will be delivered. Whatever the outcome of this election, with a vote-turnout that is expected to reach into 80% (pretty incredible!), I am most glad that Iranians are so passionate about the opportunity to vote and take their fate into their own hands. I hope the same kind of fervor and call to responsibility is carried on in the post-election era because as it goes… any day without apathy is a good day.” – 2009/06/12
Some of last memories I had of Iran from nearly a decade before were seeing the former president Mohammad Khatami’s election posters plastered on every wall almost over night. Iran was on the verge of change. What an exciting time it was to be there again after all these years.
On the 14th of June, 2009, there was a rapid change in the mood. If the color green had spattered Facebook newsfeed before, now it flooded the newsfeed. Searing images, videos, reports began to trickle out of the country. Protests, speeches, and more protests. Then came the terrifying reports: the detentions, the prisons, and the blood. Like many others I was glued to the news as I packed my bags, trying desperately to understand what was unfolding.
On route to Tehran… After all these years filled with excitement and anxiety. Hoping to see with eyes unclouded, with love and family.
— Marzieh Ghiasi (@marziehg) June 28, 2009
Today I look at the list of my friends living in Iran on Facebook and their faces, smiling or stern, stare back at me through the screen. Unlike four years ago, there are no colors and no slogans decorating the wall in favour of one candidate or another. No green, no yellow, no red, no blue, no purple. Living in one of the world’s healthiest democracies, I cherish my right to vote. So I wonder if Iranian youth, many looking for reform, have succumbed to voter apathy as many news reports claim?
Scrolling down the sea of faces, I see a solitary slogan against a green background audaciously proclaiming: “I will vote”.
A heated debate is taking place beside the picture.
A brother admonishes his sister’s slogan, viewing participating in the election as giving legitimacy to a flawed democracy “To vote is trample the blood of those who died in the Green Wave.” Below, a young woman expresses her doubt and uncertainty “I don’t know what to do!!!” Further down, the original poster defends her slogan with pleas for optimism “I think voting is the only path which won’t be followed by any regrets. We’ll do our best though there may be little hope.”
In seeing these snapshots, it has become apparent to me that my friends living in Iran are not indifferent. Though their dreams of dialogue, engagement and reform have been deferred, their spirit is unwavering. They vote or abstain from voting not out of apathy, but because they are angry, frustrated, or against all odds—holding on to a morsel of hope for a better tomorrow.