Tehran in a still from Tina Gharavi’s I AM NASRINE, a BAFTA-nominated feature film shot during the Green Revolution

A revolution 30 years too early: Why the Green Revolution Has Failed

(Originally published: 28 May, 2010 as “Swimming in a Bubble” in Tehran Bureau for PBS)


Summer, my job at the University irks me. I have decided to escape and retreat to the East, to the bosom of my family and reliable sunshine for a few weeks. I’m also planning filming some scenes for my recent feature film, Ali in Wonderland (* which later becomes I Am Nasrine), which revolves around the story of two teenage refugees from Iran who escape to live in the UK.

My life was bound up with a revolution some 30 years ago. Coming as it did hot on the heels of my parents divorce, I left Iran, aged 6, to live in England with my father who was then studying as a PhD student. My second life started 30 years ago when I was sent to the West to live with my father then living in Loughborough. Thirty years later he still hasn’t returned, fearful that the changes in his land will have destroyed what he loved.

But I have returned. Eight years ago I went back to make Mother/Country, a documentary for Channel 4 about my first return to my mother’s home (she remarried and remained in Iran). What I discovered was a place full of contradictions; a place greatly misunderstood. My love affair with the country of my birth continues to this day. For the past 8 years I have been returning, slowly rekindling my relationship with this magical, contradictory land. It’s a serious affair. I’ve reconnected to this land: its smells, ironies, tastes, marvels and murderous traffic.

Fast forward to the recent unrest.

While I was hard at work filming the first part of my feature film the North East of England in June, I would catch glimpses of the country erupting. I’m concerned for my family during the post-election protests but I also knew I had to be part of this new movement: the Green Revolution. My heart is impatient, friends counselled me against it but I was compelled to return.

What draws me back? Under the veil of Islam you find the strength, beauty and passion of a centuries old civilization. After all, Iran claims to have written the first bill of human rights, discovered alcohol, invented poker and polo, and the worlds first monotheistic religion. If you have ever met Iranians (which I am sure you have since we are one of the worlds great Diasporas), then you’ll know of our immense self-pride. We like to talk ourselves up. It’s a sweet arrogance. We like to remind people we are not Arabs; somehow distancing ourselves form a culture we have long resisted and equally have been subsumed by. I’m on a mission.

Its now August 23rd. One month after the elections. Four hundred opposition supporters are reported dead. Many thousands more face torture in jails across the country, including Tehran’s notorious Evin prison where my own grandfather, an army officer under the Shah, was a political prisoner for five years in the early 1980s.

So why am I going back?

I decided to take the risk. Is the magnet of Iran that strong? Perhaps I am going because my life in England has become so mundane, uncomfortable and meaningless. As I wait in Dubai airport for the second leg of my flight to Tehran. I am starting to spot Iranian style chadors and I’m feeling slightly anxious, as they have recently started arresting supporters of the opposition: filmmakers, including Maziar Bahari, at the airport.

I arrive at the new Imam Khomeini airport to no interest. I wait in line at passport control, my face twitching with unease. I slide through undetected. They wave me on as I wait for something monumental to happen, shaking their heads and laughing, as I am an Iranian who doesn’t speak fluent Farsi; to them, a strange creature. I return to the warmth of family, a joyous reunion. Driving through the Tehran streets of 4am, can I tell that there is something new happening? Possibly not, but the talk is different. My mother is cautious but she says optimistically, “Many things have changed since you were last here”.

We pass the innumerable wall murals of martyrs from the Iraq War, Khomeini, “death to America” slogans and the new representatives of the Islamic Republic. Can this all disappear so suddenly? In the late hour I see only car lights and another steamy Iranian night.

The next morning starts with a swim in the pool of my mother’s apartment complex; her North Tehran apartment complex is privileged. She is lucky to live here, though she is not particularly rich, one of the few comfortable middle-class who live a tolerable and liberal, if somewhat cautious life. Mornings in the pool until 2pm are for women. The rules are clear: we put on t-shirts and leggings over our swimming costumes and even don a cloth cap on our heads to cover our hair. It’s instantly sodden and proves to levitate in the water as we dive in. In the Tehran August heat though, the water is fantastic and I almost forget where I am. Almost.

The women of the complex congregate poolside however talk of politics is minimal- every Iranian has been long taught that the walls have ears. Here in the water — already a decadence — surrounded by the open windows everyone gnashes about their children, the struggles of family life and the impending meal they will make or eat. There is no talk of revolution. I wonder if they are cautious because of the stranger in their midsts.

Young girls 6 and 8 years old splash in the pool. They show me a cat they have been tending to whose two back legs are immobile. The kitten drags itself on its front paws; the sight makes me terribly sad. The children are plainly affected but have sprung into action. Baskets for the cat have been arranged. A daily food collection and even talk of the vets. There is a meaningful goal for these young Iranians to pour themselves into. I wonder what they know of the revolution. Later, a five year old tells me that “Ahmadinajad killed Neda”; clearly the young are absorbing it all.

In the pool there is a mismatch of woman. One young teenager, perhaps 16, looks more radical in boy’s trunks. Her manly manner makes me curious about her. She’s shy to engage but from the corner of the eye she observes me.

Another resembles the manic Eddie from Gray Gardens. She wears thick black stockings, a ballet leotard, black gloves and claims to be allergic to the sun. I fear that she only admires the pale skin of Westerners. I watch her tiptoe around the pool, a curious, mad creature captive to a reality that perhaps in the West might result in a diagnosis of OCD. The conditions that these modern Iranian women live under — the false reality — is comfortable and easy. With little outside influence and little to disturb the illusion, there is nothing to be feared or desired. Everything is distorted, as if their perceptions of themselves and the situation are frozen in another time. Indeed every year I go back I feel as I step further into the past. I am worried Iran is in danger of slipping further into a dark age.

The women swim politely without affecting their bleached and coloured hair. It is only me and my mom who dive in head first, annoying everyone.

Finally one of the mothers of the young girls whose name translates as ‘shadow’ arrives. She’s highly educated but, more importantly, feisty. Until this point I had been swimming with Iran’s middle-class: the elite, middle-aged who simply get on with the current regime. For them the only inconvenience is the hijab. Most would rather show off their hair, perhaps even wear clothes that show off their pretty slender calves. Annoying, maybe, but hardly something to put your life on the line for. These women like my mother have come to accept the corruption of the system because it caters to them and so they become a part of it. Keeping one eye closed to what happens elsewhere.

Still from I AM NASRINE, BAFTA-nominated feature film by Tina Gharavi

However Shadow is angry. Her voice ripples the water and the women turn as though a bad smell has permeated the water. She talks proudly of the Green Revolution, the strength of the people, the multiplicity of ages and backgrounds; these are those who are hungry for change and who don’t fear putting their lives on the line. No one is sure who is attending the rallies and it has been surprising to see the black flag of the Islamic Revolution, the chador, ever present. Mullahs have even been seen to attend. It is not solely the young and the western who attend but what of my mother’s class and generation?

Shadow importantly informs me of the next protest march to be held on the Friday. My mom is positively fuming that she has allowed the cat out of the bag. It doesn’t get lost in translation that my mother simply wants me to stay away. I tell her that I am ready to put my life on the line for a better Iran.

The Middle Class of the pool is a lost generation. 30 years of living with the current situation. They know nothing else and have a form of sorrowful Stockholm Syndrome that has allowed them to reach a modus vivendi with their oppressors. They mildly criticise the Regime, the way they would criticise a son who doest marry or study hard enough. They can’t see another Iran because their entire adult lives are consumed by it. Cheated they’d rather not admit that their spring has been stolen.

However, their own children, now younger, have had enough. They have seen what their parent have accepted — broken, wilfully brainwashed and fearful — they long to break the cycle. It’s Shadows generations’ revolution. Some successfully dragging their mothers and elders to protests.

The older generation seems both impressed by and fearful of this young attitude. They already lived through the last revolution and think that further destabilisation is not worth the risk.

I ask my mother if she attended the protests. She shrugs, “What can I do, I am old… what can I change? If they arrest me…” She trails off.

Tina Gharavi at Tehran Train Station

Indeed the Green Revolution is miraculous — no one could have imagined in March that things would turn so suddenly. I am here to research the shooting of a film — something I was hoping to be able to complete in a few days (later on I planned to return and shoot the scenes). I meet with many people from the film industry. The perspective here is that the coil is unravelling. Most believe there is now no going back. ‘Blood has been spilt,’ says one. And this is true. Iranians have an investment in how one appears. If one loses face, they lose the game. The majority of them are shell-shocked. The media, which have long been censored and policed, are uncertain of what change is possible. For now at least most work has ground to a halt. The dept of film permissions is awaiting a new minister so much is in limbo.

People are freer to talk. There is normally a paranoia that prevents people for talking but this time it is different and even in the shared taxis of the city tongues run non-stop. “On the streets people now know that the majority of people don’t support the Regime this country was stolen for 30 years,” one taxi driver tells me in perfect English as he weaves through the madness of the lawless smog-chocked traffic. He is educated, in his late 40’s/early 50’s and a broken man himself.

How can the regime stop this desire for change, I wonder.

Facebook and Twitter have been banned since the beginning of these protests along with all the social networking sites. Even SMS messages used to spread the news of the newest protests are banned or interrupted. Emails however can’t be suppressed so easily — otherwise the economy, particularly banks, would suffers. So for now, emails are sent and forwarded with the newest forms of protests: i.e. everyone to wear black on certain days.

Various companies such as Nokia are boycotted because of their support for the Iranian government (this time for supplying the equipment necessary for the state to monitor mobile communications). Indeed, to be a “Nokia” is a code word for being a spy or a snitch. The Iranian Diaspora is large. In Los Angeles, also know as ‘Tehrangeles’ because of its sizeable Iranian population, Nokia loses a major contract to provide services for the City. The Iranian voice is strong in protest in the West but is it strong enough at home?

It’s 10pm at night and outside around my mother’s apartment people shout from their windows “Allah Akbar” or ‘God is great’, the nightly ritual chant taken up by the anti-government protesters. It starts with one voice and grows. Various windows call to each other in a beautiful call and response. You can hear the rumble of discontent across the City, like a swarm of locusts across the night sky. My mother instructs me not to call out as the police may come. I remind her we are in the gated apartment. But she remains frightened. I press my forehead against the mosquito screen and long to let in the locusts. For my mother, it has been so long that she has been obedient. I comply, as this is her house and her country too. I haven’t lived here for 30 years, barely a legitimate Iranian. I wonder why I think it is my cause. Yet the shouts of many and desperate Iranians across the Tehran night electrifies me. Every cell in my body urges me to call out but I will always remember their brave treason, a cry in the dark for freedom, a courageous plea to God, and then the depressing treason of my silence. Instead, I spend plenty of time with the family — mostly eating — since this is all the Revolution will readily allow you do.

Tehran in August is an uncomfortable place, especially for the chador-clad women who sweep through the streets. I can’t imagine what politics they keep under their black tents (chador translates as tent). At least now in Tehran no one assumes the chador supports the government. Family and mom’s friends come and go. Everyone is hopeful but I sense that the 30 years Iran has been in isolation so much it has warped it. Several times I catch my mother saying things that couldn’t be bearable if she lived outside Iran; such as whether a woman is asking for sexual advances if she wears anything other than the most modest of coverings.

My mother has the internet, one of the few, but the dial-up speed renders it impossible. As long as the information that comes into the country is controlled the Iranian government, it also controls the world. It is the young who find higher speed internet cafes or watch satellite who see a different perspective. But the percentage of these is low. Mostly Iranians live in a bubble — the mindless middle-classes don’t have the energy to keep searching for the outside reality. They choose easy lives.

One of mom’s cousins reads ‘Love Amongst the Haystacks’ by DH Lawrence. She tells me that it is an edited version sanctioned by the government, without the “kisses and cuddles”. I almost choke on the cherry in my mouth, to imagine DH Lawrence with all the sexuality remove. What’s left? And beyond that, what would be the point!? Later, she tells me she has trouble sleeping — she is nervous — somehow she seems anxious too… like the women we met in the pool. I suggest to her that the unedited version would help her sleep. Her class somehow imprisons her.

They are the lost generation: captive to 30 years of Islam. The younger generation are young enough to question and also able to talk to their grandmothers/fathers about life before the Revolution. The first revolution, that is. The older generation remember the lives they had before the transformation that robbed them. Yet those who only reached adulthood in the 1970’s know only this reality. The youth don’t want to suffer their parent’s fate.

My Mother North of Tehran near Darbansar

It’s Thursday evening and we drive to Darbansar, one hour north of Tehran in a mountain climate makes it agreeable. They eyes of the laws are also far away too. So much that my grandmother often gardens without a scarf. She says ‘what to they want with a woman of 84?” My grandmother, quite unlike my mother, is strong, manlike and brusque. I adore her and her spirit of strength. Her father left the Nomadic tribe of Iran, the Baktiari. Their tradition beheld that a strong women can be a leader and takes her place with the men becoming a “Shirzan” or lion woman. One of the largest misunderstandings of Iranian culture is that they Iranians hold attitudes similar to Arabs about the power balance of women in their society. Even in the lawless nomad existence gender could be surpassed. Here and today, men and women are kept apart.

As the car winds up the treacherous roads, we bend and curve away from Tehran, cars beep at each other, arms branch jut out windows signalling the V peace sign to each other and acknowledge: We want change! Cars motor past land bound pedestrians who don’t respond and are less likely to risk someone seeing them. The big grins on their faces betray their elation as we pass. Inside the heart of Iranians is a secret hope for change.

But that change is elusive. Driving north, U2’s music blaring, as Tehranis escape the city and dream of a different society. The brave make their social protests but the mild middle classes mind their manners. They remain unwilling to upset the applecart. Life for them is OK. My mother’s life is that of a 14-year olds. She wakes, meets friends, has breakfast followed by a swim… then lunches, perhaps a nap, and then several chores till evening when her husband returns. In fact, few of my mother’s friends and neighbours have attended the protests; too much risk. Instead it appears to be the young, the old and the poor. These are the ones who either have nothing to risk, nothing to lose or everything to gain. I am terribly sad for Iran.

If you ask whether the situation will change all of the people say yes but if you ask again you understand they know this is unlikely. “Iran has the government it deserves,” says a friend who once lived in the West and who came back eventually. “We are a patient people, a stupid people. It will take a lot for this to change and those in power understand it. As long as the majority of people have what they want, this will continue.” As long as the noose is loose enough, then Iranians will accept the oppression and corruption. After all, what materially has changed in the last 30 years? Life, in fact, has got much better.

The second night in Darbansar we attend the birthday part of a 7 year old whose father died this year in a traffic accident. All the women of the village attend. Some older that my grandmother and some only recently born. Only the birthday boy is allowed to attend in the company of women. Fresh fruit, small cucumbers and cheese puffs are served with tea or sweet drinks. What can only be described as “acid house Iranian style” blasts from the speakers and for the first time I see that the women of the village have hair — coiffed as elegantly as a Parisian.

Clothes tight, the women alternate dancing in couples or small groups for each other. It is a seductive dance. The women are happy — they gossip, exchange news and share jokes. I am surprised that the more modern girls I have seen in the village and those that wear the chador are indistinguishable. Both are perfectly turned out and outrageous — old, young, religious and modern. In this world, I see friendship and a rewarding life. As I watch the women peal the small cucumbers with a small knife, I can only wonder if the segregation of men and women is not something that they too prefer. Admittedly, the company of women in Iran is my preference too. In this mountain retreat, I realise that change is too far away — people are accustomed to the status quo. It has become part of their customs and identity.

I see the young boy sulk off to play with the chickens in his backyard, leaving the women to get on with celebrating his birthday. There is nothing more tragic than a fatherless 7 year-old on his birthday. More so that the death seemed entirely avoidable.

The boy and his pet chicken

The green revolution has cost 400 lives but each year approximately 28,000 Iranians die in traffic accidents. There are almost 21 times the accidents than in the developed world. Controlling Iranians and controlling Iranian drivers is an entirely different matter. Iranians are almost as angry about Ahmadinejad’s lack of delivery on traffic reform. After all, Ahmadinajad’s PhD studies were in traffic management but a much-lauded safer roads policy has failed to have any discernible impact. Tehran remains clouded in pollution, crowded with out of date cars, dangerous for driving.

16th September and revolutionary fervour seems less intense as I leave Tehran, the footage for my next film smuggled in my hand luggage.

Unwilling to upset the apple cart and perhaps just a little weary of the upset that change will bring, Iran has the government it deserves. As the plane takes off, I slip off my headscarf and look back at Tehran for one last time. I don’t know if I will ever be able to return under this administration — particularly with the film I am about to make. The show trials of 200 anti-government protesters, including filmmaker Maziar Bahari, has started and an uncertain future awaits Iran. I leave with the knowledge that the kindness and bravery of its people is as much intact as in the control of the government that subjects it. I dream of a free Iran and a time when I can return without fear, where I can film and say what I want and take the company of men should I choose.

Originally published: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/05/swimming-in-a-bubble.html

Tina Gharavi, Filmmaker & Associate Professor, Newcastle University
Twitter: Gharavi
For more info about my work see: www.wearebridgeandtunnel.com

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