Tehran, June 12, 2009. Mohsen Abbaspour, an ordinary young man in his twenties-not particularly political, or ambitious, or worldly-casts the first vote of his life in Iran's tenth presidential election. Fed up with rising unemployment and inflation, he backs the reformist party and its candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Mohsen believes his vote will count. It will not. Almost the instant the polls close, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will declare himself president by an overwhelming majority. And as the Western world scrambles to make sense of the brazenly fraudulent election, Mohsen, along with his friends and family and neighbors, will experience a sense of utter desolation, and then something else: an increasingly sharper feeling-the beginning of anger. In a matter of weeks, millions of Iranians will flow into the streets, chanting in protest, "Death to the dictator!" Mohsen Abbaspour will be swept up in an uncontrollable and ultimately devastating chain of events. Like Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and Ryszard Kapuscinski's incisive reportage, Death to the Dictator! stuns listeners with its heartbreaking immediacy. Our pseudonymous author was a keen eyewitness in Tehran during the summer of 2009 and beyond. In this brave and true book, we see what we are not supposed to see and learn what we are not supposed to know.
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Afsaneh Moqadam is the pseudonym of the author of Death to the Dictator!
Johnny Heller has earned multiple Earphones Awards from AudioFile magazine, including one for Closing Time by Joe Queenan, and has earned two Audie Awards and many more nominations. Named one of the Top Fifty Narrators of the Twentieth Century by AudioFile, he has recorded over five hundred titles.
It’s June 8, 2009, a few days before the election, and Mohsen Abbaspour is walking down the hill toward Vali-ye Asr Street. The oriental planes bowing over the street were planted by Reza, the last Shah’s father. Reza was a doer. He did development and railways and a modern army. He did horsewhippings and larceny. Now there is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He does big lies and nuclear centrifuges. He thinks he was crowned with a divine halo.
For the past four years Mohsen has laughed at him. He and his friends made up jokes about him and sent them by text to one another. The nation’s children laughed because Ahmadinejad looked like the monkey on the Cheetos packets sold in Iran. But inside they were sad, because they were ashamed. They were ashamed that he represented their nation.
The Iranians are a cultured people, a people with a past. Did they not give the world Avicenna, squinches, the divine right of kings? Did Cyrus the Great not author the first declaration of human rights? Wasn’t Goethe enthralled by the verse of Hafez, Emerson by that of Sa’adi? Now Iran is represented by a midget with lethal, half-asleep eyes. He prances on the international stage—with Hugo Chávez and the president of Belarus. If he is not a mass murderer, not yet, this is because he is not alone at the top of Iran’s pyramid of power. Make no mistake: he wouldn’t hesitate.
Ahmadinejad must share with Ali Khamenei. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the Supreme Leader of Iran. He should not be mistaken for the Ayatollah Khomeini, even if their names sound alike. Khomeini was the father of the revolution. Love him or hate him (some did both), you couldn’t but admire his courage and absence of venality. Such was his presence and authority that the people called him the Imam. When Khomeini died in 1989, there was no obvious replacement. Khamenei got the nod, a startled apparatchik who admitted to his unfitness for the job of being God’s representative on earth.
On the contrary, the oilers and greasers whispered, the position suits you very well. You are truly a historic eminence, the merest of steps away from divinity. In time, Khamenei started to like the sound of all this. Now he inclines his head graciously when they say that obedience to Khamenei is as important as saying your prayers. Don’t forget to smile, your Grace the Ayatollah! The posters of the Supreme Leader used to show him in a bad mood. Now they show him grinning, above reminders that this year is the year of reforming patterns of consumption.
Khomeini never smiled. He was too big, too awesome, to smile.
In theory Khamenei and his president are great friends. Khamenei helped Ahmadinejad come to power in 2005. Did Ahmadinejad show his gratitude? Like hell he did. Ahmadinejad is dissimilar to Khamenei. He doesn’t lack confidence, doesn’t need puffing up. Ahmadinejad believes he enjoys the favor of the Hidden Imam, whose reemergence among us will begin a period of justice and truth, and the Hidden Imam, as everyone knows, is closer to God than the Supreme Leader is. During his first term, Ahmadinejad professed undying loyalty to Khamenei, but in fact did his own thing. Sometimes Khamenei approved; sometimes he didn’t. To Ahmadinejad, crowned by his halo, it didn’t much matter either way.
Iran’s electorate knows it will never get the chance to sack his Grace the Ayatollah. The constitution doesn’t give them that privilege. Even if they could, there’s a strong chance they would choose not to, for where’s the guarantee they wouldn’t get someone worse? There are rumors, which periodically gust and die, to the effect that Khamenei suffers from an advanced form of cancer, or that he and the opium pipe are inseparable. Then comes another, contradictory rumor: Khamenei’s as fit as a fiddle. So the people don’t occupy themselves with thoughts of dumping Khamenei. The Supreme Leader is supreme for life. Amen.
But the president . . . that’s a different matter. The constitution allows the people to vote for a president and a parliament. Granted, this only happens after the candidates have been vetted by the Council of Guardians for their adherence to Islamic tenets and their aptitude for office. This means that the vast majority of candidates get weeded out, but a certain number get through, and a certain number of this certain number are reformists.
Back at the beginning, the reformists were disciples of Khomeini. They were hostage-takers and, in the manner of ideologues everywhere, advocates of death for anyone who didn’t agree with them. Now they have changed. They are democrats and supporters of women’s rights; they love music and books. They won’t say they are sorry for the past; Iranians don’t really go in for apologies. But they are definitely preferable to the hard-liners, the conservatives—the “Principalists,” in their own jargon—who swarm around Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. Come election time, the only question for Mohsen is whether to vote for the reformists, or not at all.
Mohsen has been debating this question with his friend Amin. Khamenei and some of the other mullahs emphasize the importance of a really high turnout. The enemy, Khamenei says, is working night and day to ensure this won’t happen. Everyone agrees that a high turnout would be read as a popular legitimization of the Islamic Republic. Mohsen and Amin could live with this, so long as someone better than Ahmadinejad gets in. They don’t like the Islamic Republic, this jackbooted kleptocracy with its chorus line of seers and charlatans. They despise its bullying, its dirty fingers touching their beliefs and private lives. But they are prepared to accept it on the condition that it reform itself, adhere to those bits of the constitution that promise freedom, and repair the country’s terribly damaged image abroad.
The reason is simple. Mohsen and Amin don’t want another revolution. Their parents made the last one and look where that got them. Mohsen and Amin don’t want bloodshed and upheaval. They want reform. Perhaps they are yellow, these children of the revolution. Or perhaps they are smart.
There was a time before Ahmadinejad, during Iran’s first and only reformist government, when the bearer of an Iranian passport was not automatically regarded with suspicion and fear. The president was Muhammad Khatami, and he was a good-looking, well-dressed mullah. No matter that Khatami was ineffective at home, or that the conservatives wouldn’t let him carry out his reforms; he repaired Iran’s image abroad, with his white teeth and his call for a dialogue among civilizations. During his tenure, it happened, every now and then, that an Iranian traveling to Europe was not treated as the carrier of a dangerous bacillus.
“Ah.” The customs official smiled. “Khatami! Nice man! Nice hat!”
Since Ahmadinejad came to power and got the Israelis’ backs up, things have changed again, the other way. Iran’s fellow pariahs, the Iraqis, the Libyans, and the Syrians, have been let back into the gang—they are now acceptable members of the community of nations. The North Koreans don’t often let their citizens out; the passport issue doesn’t arise. That leaves Iran.
The Iranian passport is the least cool passport in circulation today. When it falls with a slap on the immigration hall counter, it elicits the same reaction as a warm, dead bird. Nostrils wrinkle.
Get rid of it!
Earlier this year Mohsen decided to go for a short trip. It would be his first trip abroad. He would go to Italy, where his cousin lives. This cousin has a job. He shares a small apartment with several other Iranians.
Italy, the home of Dante, Levi, Fo. The home of hot Italian girls. Mohsen had an invitation. He would go to the embassy and get a visa.
One morning Mohsen joined a forlorn ribbon of people. They were respectable people, giants in their fields, some of them, but they held themselves shoddy and bent. They knew, all of them, what would happen inside. They would be insulted and humiliated by the visa officer who interviewed them. This officer would not be Italian. She would be an Iranian, a member of the embassy’s local staff, a quisling whose long years at the embassy had taught her to regard her own people with warm, dead bird disdain. If, by any chance, she did not humiliate them, they would feel pathetically grateful.
In his hands Mohsen had his forms (in triplicate), his photographs, his fee, and a deed to his parents’ apartment made out in his name, forged that very morning—evidence that he would not do a runner in Italy and become an illegal. Sweating, feeling sick, he stood before the bulletproof glass that walled him from the quisling, and the noise of his anger rose in his ears as he tried to explain away some alleged error in the forms that he had filled out in triplicate, an error that rendered them utterly worthless, worse than worthless, and then as he pleaded and stammered the quisling started examining the nail she had broken that very morning, tilting it in the halogen light.
Mohsen and Amin were born in the war. Saddam was firing Scuds at Tehran and anyone who could get away, anyone with relations outside Tehran, fled the game of chance. Mohsen’s father was a junior government official. He told Mohsen’s mother to take the boy and get away to her sister’s place near Tabriz, but she refused to leave her husband. Amin’s father had walked on a mine at the front and was laid up. He needed medical attention and couldn’t go far from the hospital. Amin and Mohsen were both born in Tehran after the city had emptied. It was the height of the air war and some of their earliest memories are of sheltering underground with their respective families, in an old cistern. Another of the neighbors had a good voice and she sang to keep spirits up—love songs by Marsi...
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