Iranian election: Shock from afar
– Leili Sreberny-Mohammadi is a British-Iranian based in London, and sometimes Tehran. The opinions expressed are her own. –
The past ten days have been among the strangest in my life. I returned from Iran three weeks ago, just when the election campaigns were heating up, cars covered with candidate posters trawling across Tehran’s highways.
The cars full of boys would no longer stop to ask for your number, instead asking if one would be voting and, if so, for whom? A week later I went excitedly and proudly to the Iranian Embassy in London to cast my vote, the first time I had voted in an Iranian election and the first time I had cared so much about an Iranian election.
Accompanied by a friend also just back from Iran, who spoke of Tehran streets filled with “green” people greeting each other with “eshgh ” (ilove) and showing the V for victory or peace sign as they passed each other.
With a shared youthful exuberance we cast our vote, photographing our inky fingers and beaming smiles, an important day in our own politics and hopefully in the politics of Iran. We were proud that we had contributed to the mobilisation of three times as many diasporic votes than previous years, that we had exercised our democratic right, even in a context of the vetting of candidates and limitations on political debate.
But by that evening, it seemed that we had got it completely wrong. Along with 40 million others we had naively believed our vote might be counted. I have spent every single day since then glued to the internet. The first thing I do in the morning is turn on my computer and I have it in front of me for the entire day, piecing together information about what did or did not happen during the vote count and what has happened since.
We hurriedly sign up for Twitter accounts, only to get frustrated with the amount of rubbish flying at us. Facebook posts are non-stop and high speed and we watch as our status updates with little bits of news travel around our international circle of friends and beyond. We flick between television news channels, exasperated when they move on to another story. We shout when a commentator whose political affiliations was not well checked by the researcher, comes on with his own agenda, not in anyway engaged with the Iran of today.
Perhaps we are suffering from information overload. It seems that anyone who has ever eaten a chelo kebab in an Iranian restaurant has something to say about what is happening. Confused and unconfirmed reports of what is happening on ‘the ground’ filter through. Suddenly there is so much news, too much news. In one day I read an article about the possible directions this whole crisis could take, another on lessons from Iran’s history and then finally one that warns me not to listen to anything you read since no-one has any idea of what is going to happen! Too much news, but really no news.
Internet speeds grind to a halt, international and Iranian journalists are arrested or leave the country, satellite channels are jammed and phone lines are hardly functioning. The tables have been completely turned. Suddenly it seems that we have more information outside than inside, and as well as getting reports from Iran out of Iran, we need to get reports about Iran back into Iran. Online this information spread faster than swine flu.
We demonstrate to show our solidarity with Iranian protesters but the demonstrations, without the threat of tear gas and beatings, take on a jovial familial air with tea and cakes being passed around. Again here we become frustrated, at more groups high-jacking today’s events with yesterday’s bugbears. In some ways it is a very hard moment not to be in Iran, to see streets that are familiar to you on fire, to get snippets of information from friends when they manage to get online.
I have many phone calls and discussions with other Iranians around the world, sharing news of our friends and families, questioning what has happened, discussing what the future may hold. And, importantly, talking each other out of boarding the next plane to Tehran.
And then the flow of images of silent protests and the savagery that followed has thinned. Instead, paranoia has set in. Reports coming from friends describe police checkpoints across Tehran, stopping and searching people, bags, cars, confiscating computers, cameras, anything that threatens the complete information blackout the regime is trying to achieve.
In between working out how to demonstrate, where to demonstrate, if they should demonstrate, it seems some are also discussing how they can leave, just as many of us outside sit debating how to return. A diplomatic spat sees British diplomats in Iran expelled and vice-versa. Does that mean that in the midst of all of this chaos the British government will make it even harder for Iranians to get visas? I sincerely hope not.
Related commentary: Iranian elections: voting from afar