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Tehran Diary Daily Life in Iran, One Year after the Uprising

Saturday marks the first anniversary of the disputed Iranian presidential election, which sparked street protests leading to dozens of deaths and countless arrests. How is the atmosphere in the country today? Five Iranians describe their lives over the space of one week in May.

Friday, May 21, 2010

+++ Today, the opposition website Rah-e Sabz ("Green Path") quotes the cleric Mehdi Karroubi: "The Iranian people were humiliated. The most terrible psychological pressures were exerted on all classes of society, which now have no hope of a better future."

In a statement, the environmental authority downplays an air pollution report. The concentration of particulate matter in the air is "not dramatic," it says. +++

Mohzen Sahabifar, the shopkeeper. Our Friday is not a day of rest for me. In fact, it isn't any better than all the other days. There is smog over Tehran again, and the people, as is so often the case, are in a bad mood. On the way to my shop, all it takes is one word and everyone starts to complain: about rising prices, mismanagement and the politicians' lies.

When I push up the grate in front of my shop, I see half-empty shelves. I don't have enough money to adequately invest in merchandise. Besides, very high inflation is driving wholesale prices to unaffordable levels. The price of one household cleaner rose by 16 percent just in the time between two orders.

Nowadays, I see almost more beggars than customers in my shop. They tell me how badly off they are. Then I point to my cash register, which hardly has any money in it, and I say that one day I just might join them, if our economy continues to go downhill.

The rent for my shop, which is little more than one room, is the equivalent of $250 (€208). I have no heat in the winter and no air-conditioning in the summer. But I have rats in front of the door and I have to take the subway to find a public toilet. And this in a country where there are people who become billionaires overnight. People stand in long lines in the supermarket across the street. They practically fight over the milk which on sale there. How are we supposed to survive now that the government is drastically cutting subsidies?

Nasrin Sotoudeh, the human-rights activist. Finally, a Friday when I don't have to go to the office. Such holidays have become rare since the protests against the election last year. But I also can't get certain images out of my head when I'm at home. I constantly see Bahare Hedayat and Milad Assadi in front of me. Two days ago, the two students greeted me cheerfully when we ran into each other at the revolutionary court. I had to pick something up, and the two were on the way to their trial. They were sentenced a short time later. Bahare got nine-and-a-half years and her fellow protestor Milad got seven.

My husband watches the children in the evening, and I go to a concert with a friend who has been living in the United States for many years. The singer performs modern songs about freedom and democracy. And about the price you pay for it. My friend is surprised that this sort of thing is permitted here. I talk enthusiastically about our freedom of speech. But, as I explain to her, the sad thing is that often there's no freedom after the speech.

Manijeh Hekmat, the film director. This Friday is my third day without being constantly tortured by my thoughts. I get up and look at the blue sky from my apartment on the eighth floor. I can smell the sea. I breathe in the fresh air. I'm in Cannes, at the film festival, and I'm looking forward to reconnecting with friends and colleagues from around the world. Cannes is the opposite of Tehran: calm, friendly, easygoing, colorful, cosmopolitan. But this year I can't even get away from my native Iran here. No matter where I go, people ask me about my colleague, the director Jafar Panahi. He was arrested about three months ago, yet another example to intimidate people. Panahi was supposed to be part of the jury here in Cannes. The other members of the jury demonstratively leave his chair empty.

My country is divided, and I even notice it here. Iranian film is represented at two different stands. We independent filmmakers stand at one of them, and our counterparts from the government-run institutions at the other. I also approach them, and we have a conversation. Everyone feels sympathy for Panahi. The actress Juliette Binoche cries. I fight to hold back my tears. But none of the Iranians dares to be part of the solidarity conferences. We don't want to give the government a reason to act against us.

We are so concerned that we are even afraid to openly greet colleagues like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Bahman Ghobadi, two filmmakers who now live in exile. We worked with them for decades in Tehran. Both are associated with the Green Movement around Hossein Mousavi.

I yearn for artistic freedom, for the freedom of Cannes. The French are showing films here that deal with the colonial past in Algeria. We in Tehran are far away from such self-criticism. In our country, the government's film commissioner stands there and says that my film "Women's Prison," filmed during the time of President Mohammad Khatami, paints things in a negative light. For people like that, the tiniest bit of criticism is rebellion. My last production, a comedy, was censored 40 times.

'I'm Ashamed to Look My Daughter in the Eye'

Saturday, May 22, 2010

+++ A headline in the reformist newspaper Aftab-e-Yazd reads: "Poverty Compels a Father to Kill His Wife, Son and Self." The paper criticizes the mismanagement of the economy by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With unemployment at 22 percent, and in some regions as high as 45 percent, the suicide rate in Iran is continually increasing.

The newspaper Ebtekar writes: "Iran is the worst nation worldwide for drug abuse." The newspaper cites a high-ranking official: "Because Iran has become a transit land for drugs and has a young population, we are more exposed to this danger than other countries." +++

Mohammad Mostafaei, the attorney. My week begins before the revolutionary court. I have to defend a woman who is accused of moharebeh or "war against God." That's a euphemism our prosecutors use to describe activities critical of the government. Anyone who is found guilty of moharebeh can expect to receive the death penalty. My client is shaking all over when she is brought before the court. The judge seems kind enough, and tries to calm her down. "No one should be afraid of a judge," he says. But Sainab has every reason to be afraid. Her husband and his cousin were sentenced to death by the same 15th chamber of the court.

Their entire "crime" entailed their having been in contact with a member of a monarchist group. Sainab allegedly knew about her husband's activities. That too can be sufficient to receive a death sentence.

Women with a political background who come before the revolutionary court aren't the only ones who must fear for their lives. All it takes, sometimes, is for a man to accuse them of adultery. Then they can be prosecuted, and the trial can end with a stoning sentence. I was able to save defendants from this death on 10 occasions.

Mohzen Sahabifar, the shopkeeper. Today is the first day of the month of Khordad. According to our calendar, this is when the third month of the year begins. I have to pay my rent. I have been putting money aside for 10 days, but I'm still short by $64. I will probably have to ask a close relative for money. He works as a high-school teacher, and he is more than 40 years old and still unmarried, because he can't afford a family. He will help me. But my landlord will terminate my lease if I owe him anything. I've only had the shop for half a year.

I used to earn a decent living as a courier and with a small transport business. But my vehicle was stolen, which put an end to that job. Things also get stolen in my shop. There were two women here today asking for toothpaste. It wasn't until after they had gone that I realized that they had stolen toothbrushes, hidden underneath their chadors.

We only manage to survive thanks to our savings and my wife's job. Laila works at a bank, where she earns $300 a month. We pay $450 for our three-room apartment in a modest neighborhood. And then we pay $50 for water, electricity and the phone. Our daughter Roja's education costs another $100, even though she attends a government school. And then we need $300 for food, beverages and clothing. My wife performs the impressive task of keeping house with very little money. And I'm ashamed to look my daughter in the eye, because she hasn't gotten anything new in such a long time.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

+++ For the 13th anniversary of the election of the so-called reform president, Mohammad Khatami, most newspapers address the political divide within the country. A headline in the hard-line conservative paper Resalat reads: "The Leaders of the Reform Movement Must Be Banned Forever from the Institutions of Power." The newspaper calls the movement radical and says that it has gone astray.

The moderate newspaper Mardomsalari defends Khatami's election. With his election, "the nation initiated the transformation of the historic will of the Iranian people" towards democracy and freedom; this important date will never be forgotten, the paper writes. +++

Ana Ghazwahanian, the artist. I often work with dead trees by the roadside. They are the material for my sculptures. The sight of a woman in work clothing, wielding a saw and a drill, always attracts attention. But I haven't had any problems yet with the morality police, who make sure that we abide by the "Islamic Order."

I leave my house very early in the morning to sketch three trees at Tajrish Square. As always, I am dressed very modestly when I go to work. Nevertheless, a female officer from the morality police tells me that my coat is open too far at the bottom, even though it's buttoned all the way down to the last button. She offers me a needle so that I can close up the last bit down to the seam. I don't want any trouble, so I comply.

'No One Speaks Openly on the Phone Here Anymore'

Monday, May 24, 2010

+++ "Detention, Hungerstrike: Terrible Situation for Prisoners" reads a headline from Rah-e Sabz. For the anniversary of the presidential election, the reform website reports on the poor conditions for the currently imprisoned journalists, politicians and students.

The moderate newspaper Arman quotes former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani criticizing the economic power of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. +++

Mohammad Mostafaei, the attorney. Today I'm spending most of my time accepting new clients. One case involves an ordinary inheritance dispute, and in another case, a young man is accused of having cheated others. And then activists from the Green Movement contact me, as they have been doing for some time. Even though it's been months since the nationwide unrest, participants are still being arrested. And there are still small demonstrations and clashes with the security forces. Most of the people who ask me for support are young. Kiarash, who is sitting in front of me today, is going to be put on trial. They accuse him of propaganda against the Islamic Order and of jeopardizing the country's security. He could be sentenced to up to six years in prison for that.

Ana Ghazwahanian, the artist. Before starting work in the restaurant, I drive to the city administration. I made a lot of calls to get this appointment. I want to know how many trees are dead and how many I can work with. But then the relevant official isn't there. I speak to his deputy, who engages me in a long discussion about art and philosophy. Finally, he allocates three trees to me. I don't know what I'm going to do with them yet.

The last time, I had to fight to be allowed to carve an owl out of a tree trunk. An owl is bad luck, the officials said. Only after I had assured them that I was going to depict a "lucky owl" did I receive permission.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

+++ The conservative Alef newspaper quotes the communications minister: "A faster Internet connection speed is possible but it currently has not been installed." The present capacity for private users is sufficient; for universities, banks and trade centers, there are not constraints.

The conservative, state-run newspaper Jam-e-Jam quotes religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: "The enemies of the Iranian people will lose."

Resalat supports the leader's message: "The US has two choices: either they cooperate in the nuclear dispute, or they face international isolation." +++

Nasrin Sotoudeh, the human rights activist. I'm cursing because my Internet isn't working properly again. I can't open e-mails anymore. Do I have a software problem? Or is this our intelligence service at work, once again? Anyone who does the kind of work I do has to expect anything in our country. At any rate, it is strange that I've had these problems for some time -- and I'm not the only one who complains about it.

It brings me some comfort that bigwigs are also having problems these days. I'm astonished to see the daughter of our former President Rafsanjani in the hallways of the revolutionary court. A year ago, who would have thought that Faezeh Rafsanjani would have to show up in person at the court for political crimes? Why is she here? Is Faezeh now feeling the effects of her still-powerful father not having bowed to the leadership after the election?

In front of the revolutionary court, I run into a young colleague standing there with his client. I become aware of how much our clientele has changed. My colleague's client is a well-groomed, well-dressed young man. He is carrying a nice bag, which he has brought from home for his stay in prison. He seems very unselfconscious, almost naïve, and looks so neat and tidy as he embarks on his difficult path.

These days, the halls of the court are full of educated people from good families. I feel the injustice being done to many people, of whose innocence I am deeply convinced.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

+++ Ebtekar leads with the statement of the Tehran police chief: "Every unauthorized demonstration on the anniversary of the presidential election will be met with severity." +++

Nasrin Sotoudeh, the human rights activist. The sister and brother of my colleague, our Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, called me today. Ebadi is one of the most prominent critics of the government. She has been abroad since the election in June (2009). If she were to return, she could expect to be harassed and possibly even arrested. Her siblings ask for an appointment, and they say it's urgent.

No one speaks openly on the phone here anymore. The intelligence service is constantly looking for information about critics and reformers, and I'm sure they've tapped my phone line. They once shut off my mobile phone for 40 days after I had spoken with a foreign journalist. In Iran, Thursday is sort of like Saturday in the West, and I wanted to devote myself to my children tomorrow, for a change. Nevertheless, I make an appointment with Ebadi's sister and brother.

'Why Has It Come This Far?'

Thursday, May 27, 2010

+++ The chief of statistics announces that 10 million of Iran's 72 million people live under the "absolute poverty line" -- which equates to living on €500 ($600) per month for a family of six -- and 30 million Iranians live under the relative poverty line (€800 per month).

The website Rah-e Sabz quotes the secretary-general of the recently banned reform party Islamic Iran Participation Front: "The Green Revolution lives." They are the final words of Mohsen Mirdamadi, 55 -- an organizer of the 1979 takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran -- before he has to return to the infamous Evin Prison from his prison leave. Because of national security concerns, the government sentenced Mirdamadi to six years in jail and banned him from politics for a decade after the 2009 protests. +++

Ana Ghazwahanian, the artist. I've made rigid cardboard models of my future works of art. I take the designs to our restaurant to see how fellow employees and guests react. One model depicts a knot, which has a special meaning in our society. Our cook Rashid asks me whether this knot will ever come loose. Another model depicts a man with a giant helmet. He has no ears and eyes. He is wearing heavy armor. An older man says: Do we see anything but their armor nowadays? The old man doesn't realize how happy he makes me. Am I actually being understood?

Later on, I drop off my models at the city administration. My contact there likes the knot. Has he understood the significance of my piece? I wonder whether they'll approve my designs.

Mohzen Sahabifar, the shopkeeper. The telephone rings late in the afternoon. It's my daughter Roja. For her, the weekend has already begun. She wants to know whether I'm finally going to go to the park with her today. "Sure, of course I will," I promise. But as soon as I've hung up the phone, I know that, once again, it isn't going to happen. And it won't happen tomorrow, either, because I have to stay in the shop and sell things. I can't reach Roja to tell her this. The telephone company has blocked my number for outgoing calls.

Mohammad Mostafaei, the attorney. I write to the Tehran public prosecutor. I demand an explanation for why an order was issued barring me from leaving the country. I only found out about it at the airport when I wanted to fly to Asia in the winter. I just had to get away from the stress for a while. I had already gone through passport control when three men stopped me. That was the end of the trip. I don't expect to receive a response to my inquiry. Being barred from leaving the country isn't the first punishment for my efforts as an attorney. I was detained for several days last year and was interrogated about my human rights activities.

Manijeh Hekmat, the director. Panahi was released from prison on Tuesday. Cannes is over. I still have a few days left before my flight back to Tehran, but I can't really enjoy them. Now I'm all the more worried about how things will continue in my country, with the opposition movement. It hurts me to see people here shaking their heads about what's happening in Iran. I love my country.

The Green Movement has called for protests on the anniversary of the day of the election. Back then, people were so full of joy and hope. I would never have thought that this euphoria would turn to bitterness. Maybe I should make a film about the events of last year. Without censorship, one of these days.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, the human rights activist. Ebadi's sister and brother have come. They were repeatedly summoned by the courts and had to answer the officials' questions about their contacts with Shirin. The tone of the hearing was harsh, and they mention harassment. Shirin's sister Nushin is particularly tense. She was already imprisoned once for 20 days without any legal justification, the goal being to silence Shirin abroad. But both are strong women, and they will not give in. I assure Nushin and her brother that I am on their side.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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