Friday, December 21, 2007
For the last few months I've been wondering what the green halogen lights leading up the mountainside were for. Alien landing site? Late night mining operations? There was nothing obvious from down below but one day I noticed a new street sign pointing up the hill. The white on brown colour scheme denoting something of cultural interest.
A thin layer of crisp snow lay on the ground the morning I decided to make my way up. I followed the icy dirt path in unsuitable shoes. Paw tracks showed me that the local strays had been up and down before dawn. A long, white goods container had been deposited on a level area half way up. Green-painted frame borders with "Kahf al-Shohada" (Cave of the Martyrs), brushed on in vivid blood-red spoke of the grief-fuelled nationalism so fundamental to current power structures. Open air martyr-worship in a country where the politico-religious establishment has a strict monopoly on public expression.
Further up was a slightly wider but equally anticlimatic plateau. More red, white and green. Iranian flags, makeshift spotlighting planted in the ground at incongruous angles. I heard the creak of a hinge and shuffling behind me and a lanky, young Basij boy, crewcut, unshaven, with regulation Palestinian check scarf, emerged from apparently nowhere. An inner voice told me my presence was not wanted. I swung my camera behind my arm offered a guilt-ridden "good morning." Political repression clearly having left its mark on my conscience.
The great irony being that though this makeshift monument was intended as a form of public relations, the Basij themselves would be exceedingly sensitive to anyone here taking pictures of it for wider consumption. But the earnest young lad just returned my greeting and went on his way and he was safely out of sight before I ventured a look in the direction from where he had appeared. A workmanlike iron gate, banners with religious slogans hanging limp either side and above it. An entrance to a cell adapted from a natural cave in the mountainside.
Inside, fading bouquets, petals strewn over three stone slabs laid on the ground. Graves of fallen heroes? An ascetic hermit's cell set aside for solitary mourning and devoted tears.
A few metres away, a low semicircle of sandbags, arranged like a machine-gun bunker, marked off the dead-end path. It guarded a crudely hung nylon banner. On it, a photograph showing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, standing in reflective mood at the entrance to that very cave.
My cousin later told me of how his father rose early one morning for a mountain walk and witnessed the Supreme Leader emerging from "Kahf al-Shohada" under the cover of the half-light. No fanfare, minimal entourage, perhaps a very personal pilgrimage - but not without leaving photographic evidence to establish the site's status in Basij mythology.
You get some pretty stunning views out over the city from "Baam-e Tehran" (Roof of Tehran) especially at dawn and sunset. From here you also get a good perspective on how breathable the city air is on any given day - mountains visible in the south is a sign that the smog is relatively thin.
Same view, this time with thick, early morning cloud (not smog) smothering the city like a quilt.
Iranian Music CDs
Books on Iran
Guide to Tehran
Plans to build IKA existed before 1979 but were put on hold after the Islamic revolution. The airport was eventually opened in 2004 and now almost all international flights have been transferred here from the old Mehrabad Airport in central Tehran.
IKA is situated about 30km south of the city on the road to Qom. With no public transport system yet in place, the only way to get there is by private taxi (120,000 Rials, 1hr, Tel.: 021 88738855)
Monday, December 17, 2007
This poster is publicising Basij Week which I think has just ended. You may have heard something about the Basij in the news where you are. Human Rights Watch calls them a "parallel organisation" which pretty well sums up their relationship with the government - they're not under direct control but they provide a loyal pillar of support for it in times of need.
In the past this has involved getting heavy with student protests and enforcing codes of conduct and dress in public places. I remember last year seeing a run-in between a group of Basijis and some young men out for a walk in the mountains. The boys were wearing tight clothes and "fashionable" beards that the Basijis found objectionable and they tried to "arrest" them. I didn't stay to find out what happened.
(NB. The Basij are not responsible for the current minor crackdown on "un-Islamic" dress which is going on around Tehran. Those guys are from Ershad (The Council for Islamic Guidance) which is a full government body. Ershad patrols get real police cars and have much more convincing uniforms.)
One way in which the Basiji make themselves conspicuous is on big group outings. I occasionally see them on the way to or from the mountains near wear I live. Here's a clandestine shot of some women Basiji's taken from inside a bus.
They were part of a coachload of female members all-wearing white and blue checked scarves which signify their support for the Palestinians. At the head of the procession there will often be a standard-bearer carrying a green flag addressing Imam Hossein - the most important of the Shia martyrs. Male groups often chant military-style marching slogans. This all harks back to the time when Basij members provided much of the raw manpower required to kick the Iraqis out of cities like Khorramshahr - a name which still evokes bitter yet proud memories of a time when Iran really was united against a common enemy.
The Basij are still a major part of Iranian society, but I can't help but think they're becoming more and more anachronistic as the Iraq war recedes further into the past. Though scars are still fresh for veterans and especially the families of the shohada (martyrs), it's getting harder now to convince Iranians that they are still at war.
Iranian government PR is something of a one-trick pony. Replay footage of the Iran-Iraq war and try to make it feel current by blurring it into recent images of dying Gazans. All the patriotically-inspiring if broadcast at half time during international football matches. But the war footage is looking more and more dated now and superimposing Ayatollah Khamenei over pictures of volunteers who never came back just doesn't ring true. The Palestinian conflict is just too far away to evoke the same power of conviction.
With 50% of Iranians just too young to really remember the war, what the Iranian government needs now is a cause. A truly Iranian sacrifice to once again give the Basij a feeling that their world view - a country under threat and therefore in need of repressive conservatism - is correct. And just the possibility (let's not even consider the actuality) of an attack by the U.S. on Iranian soil is just the ticket.
Monday, December 10, 2007
On a quiet weekday evening there isn't really much going on in the streets of Tehran. Not even on the main strip - Vali-e Asr Street.
But this guy was gamely fanning the flames of his makeshift barbecue and wooing passers-by with the prospect of chargrilled sweetcorn. I'd never had it over coals before, and I still prefer it boiled but it's a fun treat nonetheless especially on a cold autumn evening when you can gather around the hot coals and make small talk with other stray folk.