In 1978, I was a seven-year-old girl living in Tehran. My memories from that time are child-like and simple, yet I often find that what I experienced then has shed more light on my understanding of today’s Iran than any current political analysis could do. As I watch the protests against the Ahmadinejad regime unfold from my new home in Brooklyn halfway across the world, I am struck by how similar the spirit of the current protests are to the uprisings that occurred almost exactly thirty years ago. People often ask me if I think the supporters of Mousavi will undo what the Iranian Revolution accomplished in the late seventies – as if these two movements were fundamentally different. I tell them, optimistically, that what we are witnessing today is simply the continuation – and hopefully fulfillment – of what my parents started when I was a child.
In 1978, people gathered in every major Iranian city to express conviction in their ideals of freedom, social justice, equality and democracy – ideals that for them were equally “Western” and “Iranian”. Thousands of people gathered daily in street protests and demonstrations, and my father took me to many of these. As a child, I remember two slogans vividly: “Marg bar diktator” – “Down with the dictator” – and “Allaho akbar” – “God is great.” Back then, the “dictator” of the first chant was clearly the Shah himself, whose autocratic attempts to crush dissent stood against both liberal notions of freedom and Islamic hatred of tyranny (the Shah’s prohibition of the veil, for example, angered both these groups.) As for the chant “God is great” – so often associated with religious fundamentalism in the Western media – it meant, simply, that no matter how great rulers think they are, God is greater, and the struggle for freedom is always spiritual as much as it is political. I remember clearly how my father, a fervent secularist, embraced that chant then, just as now, as a statement of his belief in the inevitability of the people’s power. In those days, he’d lift me and call me his “revolutionary child.” I remember staring around at the crowd and seeing children like me everywhere, perched on shoulders or carried in their parents’ arms.
In 1978, I remember one particular protest my father took me to that turned violent. It began in the most idealistic way. There were women at the march offering flowers to the Shah’s policemen. “Don’t use bullets, use flowers,” one of them said. My father lifted me up on his shoulders and told me to flash a peace sign to the men in uniform from above. He knew, just as the protesters of 2009 know, that revolutions only succeed when police and civilians realize they share a common identity and destiny. Today, in video clips distributed on Youtube, one can see this same sentiment, as protesters offer tea and water to the police who have been ordered to shut them down. But that day, just as this past Saturday, things got ugly. People with masks, bulletproof vests, and guns facing a sea of shouts and slogans have a point at which they snap. I remember seeing more tear-gas than usual, and sensing with my child-like mind that we were approaching a tipping point. Then it happened. I heard the sound of what seemed like cracking wood all around me, and saw the fire in people’s eyes as they started to run the other way down the street. My father looked down at me and yelled, “Run, Atash! Don’t stop, don’t look back!” I heard rounds of machine gun fire go off and saw people drop like cut trees. I was scared, and yet, this fear wasn’t like any other I’d ever felt before. It was more of an exhilaration, a feeling of being carried along by something that was unstoppable.
The Iranian Revolution ended on February 11, 1979. At least, this was the date that Khomeini’s followers used, and which we celebrated in school as “The Islamic Revolution’s Victory Day.” In fact, for many Iranians, February 11th was not an ending at all, but simply the point at which the non-religious alternative to the Shah’s regime collapsed. It was, in short, the moment when Khomeini triumphed over his opposition, not the moment when the goals of the revolution were attained. For us, the bloodstains in the streets that were the symbol of a people’s hope in democracy had nothing to do with Khomeini’s “Islamic Republic.” Of course, many Iranians, including those around me, were religious. And yet, few of them understood what Khomeini’s political model meant for them. All around me, I heard adults say, “Our revolution has been hijacked.”
Thirty years later, supporters of Mousavi are demonstrating a courage and resilience in confronting electoral fraud that is quickly winning the whole world’s admiration. Yet it shouldn’t be surprising that these young people are so impassioned in their cause. Their idealism, after all, is simply a continuation of an older struggle that was never fully put out, and has returned today to claim its rightful due. Similarly, the Islamic Republic has played into this repetition of history by using many of the same methods the Shah used in confronting demonstrators. Today, for example, the hardline Basij militia not only is attacking protestors in the streets, it is also killing people who attend mourning ceremonies for dead demonstrators. This was an unsuccessful tactic that backfired against the Shah in the seventies, and presumably, will help to turn public opinion against the current government. The ideal of a martyr, or shaheed, so important to the self-image of the Islamic Republic, is now defecting from the side of the government over to that of the courageous demonstrators.
We children of the Revolution have grown up waiting for our childhood ideals to catch up with us. What the outcome of these next few weeks and months of protest will be, no one is sure. What is clear, however, is the persistent yearning of the Iranian people to be free from tyranny. The old slogans of the seventies have had to be updated only slightly, for Reza Shah Pahlavi and Dr. Ahmadinejad are no different as far as the Iranian people are concerned. As the chant goes: “Marg bar diktator/ Che shah bashe che doktor” – “Down with the dictator, whether he’s a king or a doctor.”
ATASH YAGHMAIAN, born and raised in Tehran, came to New York at the age of 19 and is now a social worker living in New York City. She is at work on a memoir about growing up in post-revolutionary Iran titled “My Name Means Fire.”