The Stolen Election

An expatriate Iranian writer travels her troubled homeland in the weeks after a disputed presidential vote

Reza Shrine in Mashhad, Iran, 2005 (Photo by Wikipedia user Iahsan)
Reza Shrine in Mashhad, Iran, 2005 (Photo by Wikipedia user Iahsan)


On June 12, 2009, I was among a hundred or so people standing outside a girls’ school in Mashhad, Iran, hugging the shade of a yellow brick wall. My friend N. and I were waiting to vote in the presidential election. It was Friday, the Iranian weekend. Stores were shuttered, intersections free of surging traffic. The mood was mellow—when a stooped old woman cut to the head of the line, several of us smiled. In the school parking lot, a Revolutionary Guard lounged on a chair, cradling his Kalashnikov. He waved us past garish instructional murals—the cornea of an eye; a red heart complete with ventricle—into a dim hallway strung with colored bulbs. Through an open door a radio blared; all morning the state network had broadcast patriotic marches and exhortations to vote. A slender man with gray hair and glasses held out a hand. I gave him my National ID Card.

“Birth certificates only,” he said, returning it.

“My birth certificate is in America,” I said. “Can’t you take my passport instead?” He smiled and shook his head, already reaching for my friend’s ID. A woman in a black wimple seized N.’s finger and pressed it onto an ink pad then a ballot stub before tearing off the ballot.

N. was in her 70s and arthritic; if the line had been longer, she would have gone home. She carried her ballot over to a scarred table holding a Bic pen anchored to the wall with blue ribbon. A small poster listed the names and codes of the four candidates. The fine print said: “Please refrain from entering more than one name on the ballot.” N. gripped her chador between her teeth and carefully wrote Mir Hossein Mousavi on the ballot. His code, 77, looked like two birds taking flight. I watched the ballot disappear into a padlocked box. We walked out into the heat of the day, past a soldier with a pistol on his belt. The whole process had taken less than an hour.

There was a curious innocence to it. I think of us on that Election Day as well-behaved children, confident of the treat in store.

In the spring of 1979, I voted for an Islamic Republic in Iran. Then it was all about freedom and democracy. Freedom’s face wore a turban and a glower that became known throughout the world, the visual antithesis of the Swiss-educated Shah, whose portrait had presided over my schooling. I’d grown up singing “Long Live the Shah of Shahs.” In eighth grade I narrated a performance of Hamlet that had to be revised so that the king lived. Back then the Shah seemed immortal. By the time of the plebiscite that determined the new face of Iran, I saw that as a bad thing. I was 17. It was a big year for me—first kiss, first day of college, first vote. I remember the least about the vote: sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, studying a slip of paper with two options, Yes or No. I marked Yes. So did 98 percent of voters in that election.

Thirty years passed before my next encounter with a ballot. I couldn’t vote in American elections because, despite living here since 1977, I couldn’t bring myself to confirm my expatriate status by applying for citizenship. I didn’t vote in Iranian elections because I was living in the United States. In retrospect, I see that I engineered for myself a useful disability; it left me free to have opinions while relieving me of the obligation of acting upon them.

I decided to participate in the 2009 presidential elections in Iran in the same way I might have chosen to have wine with dinner. I went to the polls in the same spirit that I went to see the date palms in Tabas and the adobe buildings in Yazd. It wasn’t political conviction; it was tourism.

I had planned to vote for Mousavi. Four years ago, I admired how presidential candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood in line to vote instead of sweeping in with an entourage. I believed religious conservatism did not preclude competence. Also, I had not yet heard Ahmadinejad speak. To know Ahmadinejad, however, was to reject him. “We Iranians are ashamed of him,” a young woman with a green ribbon on her purse—the color signifying Mousavi’s status as a seyyed, a descendant of the Prophet—told me in Doha, Qatar. It was the Tuesday before the election. We were waiting for our flight to Mashhad. She had flown from Canada to vote for Mousavi, who had the backing of former president Mohammad Khatami. She had been watching the televised presidential debates when Ahmadinejad held up a photograph of Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and said: “Should I tell? Should I tell?” This appeared to be the defining moment of the Ahmadinejad campaign, the Iranian equivalent of Michael Dukakis in a hel­met, riding a tank. Later it be­came a slogan for the Greens, crowds chanting mockingly: “Begam? Begam?” The disclosure itself, an allegation that Rahnavard had not come honestly by her doctorate, was discredited.

When our plane landed in Mashhad, my family swept me up and I did not see the young woman again. I stared out the car window, drinking in the sight of plane trees towering over broad avenues, the carefully tended roses in the medians, the mountains in the distance. This tranquil vista soon gave way to the schlock and bustle of the city. The sinking sun and my own nostalgia lent a passing grace to the dun and gray buildings. Neon signs glowed in Farsi and English. Naked electric bulbs illuminated the colorful spill of fruits and vegetables. In the large central square at Mellat Park, youths stood waving green flags, and Mousavi’s image was lavishly plastered on car windows. There was honking and cheering and a conspicuous absence of the Iranian flag, Ahmadinejad’s chosen symbol.

Later I learned that Iranian flags predominated around the Shrine of Imam Reza, whose death gave this second-largest Iranian city its name—Mashhad means “Place of Martyrdom.” Shi’ites from around the world worship here, inflating an estimated population of three million to five million in summer and cementing the city’s reputation for conservatism. Even before the revolution, travel to Mashhad meant packing a chador. The Tehranis I’d spoken to expected Mashhad to go for Ahmadinejad. They would have been surprised by the display in the square that night.

My family in Mashhad occupies several rungs in the middle of the economic ladder. It has a history in the city, but its roots are in the country, in provincial towns and dusty villages. The saffron in our kitchens isn’t store-bought. Over the years my relatives have moved back and forth across the religious and political spectrums. Women who went bareheaded have taken the veil and vice versa. Young communists have settled into contented capitalism. Allegiances have swung between the Qur’an and Smirnoff. We have had our opium addicts and our polygamists, our illiterates and our scholars, our political prisoners and our informers. We are in many ways a typical Iranian clan.

The revolution widened existing rifts between religion and secularism. This year, however, our clan was in the grip of a peculiar unanimity: all but two of my 50 closest relatives appeared to support Mousavi. None of them bothered to say why, nor did I ask. It seemed self-evident. Mousavi was a destination the country had been traveling toward for 30 years, through a landscape of executions, political assassinations, mass arrests, and war.

Mousavi was prime minister during the Iraq war. Then the rockets stopped falling, ration books were discarded, prisoners stumbled from planes to kiss the ground. Khomeini died. The radio started playing Michael Jackson songs again, instrumental versions only. Hotels removed their “Down with USA” signs. The Fountain of Blood outside Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery in Tehran stopped spouting colored water. In 1997, Khatami was elected president, introducing new words into the Iranian lexicon: dialogue of civilizations, reform, civil society. In Tehran I ran into Brits hiking Tochal and dined out at the former Hilton hotel wearing a loose scarf, blazer, and slacks. Elections, it seemed, could make a difference, even in Iran.


The backlash was severe: murdered intellectuals, shuttered newspapers, the president’s helplessness before Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Demonstrating students were killed; Khatami was discredited. Ahmadinejad claimed his place in history. Ahmadinejad’s mission was to return Iran to its fundamentalist roots—no more women in skimpy scarves, no more talk of making friends with America. But instead of restoring Khomeini’s revolution, he has seen it become increasingly irrelevant. If Khatami’s era, with the startling notion that Iran could once more be part of the larger world, was a watershed, then the post-Khatami era has been a flood, sweeping away, in all but name, the tenets of the Islamic revolution. Once-bitter antipathies between families who hid women’s shoes and families with home stills have lost their sting. Ideology has given way to mundane concerns. A young man told me Ahmadinejad has been a good president, because tours to Dubai now cost only $250. An old man told me Ahmadinejad has been a bad president, because the price of meat has quadrupled.

Iran in 2009 is a place where villages have solar panels, chadori ladies wear cell phones around their necks, and a government-supported plant manufactures mint-flavored condoms. It is home to boys with spiked hair and girls who marry late and have little interest in motherhood. The median age in the country is 27. The urban young spend their money on nose jobs and pizza and, all too often, drugs; the shared dream of their generation is to learn English and go abroad. For every government Internet filter there is an anti-filter making the rounds, rap dominates the underground music scene, and kids read the poet Hafez on their cell-phone screens. The larger world is already here; it remains only for Iran’s leadership to acknowledge its presence.

One part of Khomeini’s legacy has endured: Velayat-e-Faqih, dominion of the religious scholar. Like Khomeini, Khamenei controls the courts, the media, and the men with guns. Iran is as free as he wants it to be. Yet even he cannot hold back the tide of history. Both Ahmadinejad, in symbiosis with Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, and Mousavi, with his mandate for change, threaten the status quo. A 30-year monopoly on power guarantees that the enemy will be one of your own. That’s why the face of freedom in 2009 is a man with impeccable revolutionary credentials, a high-powered chadori wife, and family ties to the supreme leader. Mousavi represents Iran’s past and its future, its limitations and its potential.

My family did not talk of this. They have lived it. Mostly they talked of Ahmadinejad: his crackdowns on women’s dress, his attempts to mask the degree of inflation at home, the embarrassments he had wrought abroad. A young woman who voted for him four years ago kept apologizing. “Now he is known,” I told her. “Now he won’t draw from the middle or the left. Only his die-hard supporters are with him now.” Mousavi, I predicted with the confidence of one who has little stake in the matter, would win.

Insha’Allah,” she said. If God wills.

Iran has a population of 70 million. About 46 million were eligible to vote June 12th. Late that night, a beaming Mousavi held a press conference saying the majority had voted for him. The next day, Saturday, the Interior Ministry reported that 62.63 percent of eligible voters had voted for Ahmadinejad.

It took me a while to hear. I spent my morning spreading wash on a folding rack in my living room, while admiring the sun shining on the acacia outside my window. I ate a late breakfast and called a friend.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Not good,” he said. “They announced Ahmadinejad is president.”

That afternoon I visited neighbors. Their large-screen TV was tuned to BBC Persian. The video was on a loop, the caption “Tehran.” Plainclothesmen were beating and kicking a man. He escaped into the bushes. He sat down, cowering, only to be dragged away. We stood silently in the overcrowded parlor, watching this inexorable sequence repeat itself. My brain settled into a dual track: on the one hand, laundry; on the other, the fate of a nation. When I went to my aunt’s for lunch, the city seemed calm. Later, I learned that demonstrators had gathered outside Mousavi’s campaign headquarters. In Tehran people set cars and tires on fire. At least one protester was killed in Vanak Square.

The older people I spoke to were resigned, the young ones despairing. “We wrote Mousavi, they read Ahmadi,” a 30-something teacher said. She was wearing a green scarf and vowed to order a green manteau, the long jackets that are acceptable alternatives to the veil. A government worker with tears in his eyes said he was going to quit his job. “Will Obama congratulate Ahmadinejad?” he asked angrily.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Tehran was unusually green, thanks to a wet spring. A light wind tossed the shining leaves of the willows along the highway called Yadegar-e-Emam, the Imam’s Legacy. I had risen before dawn to fly to the capital to request a visa for my American husband—an effort I later abandoned.

The radio in my yellow cab was at full volume. Ahmadinejad was holding a press conference. His voice filled the car: measured, at times paternal, with that armored indifference peculiar to bureaucrats. “You must have permits to gather and express your opinions,” he said. “None have been issued.” A reporter from The Economist asked about the regime’s credibility following the vote count. “Don’t concern yourself about us,” Ahmadinejad said. “Freedom in Iran is close to absolute.”

Traffic was moving especially slowly. As we approached an overpass, horns started honking, one answering the other. “It’s been happening all day,” my driver said. “It’s the only way people can express their frustration.”

Ahmadinejad was saying: “Iran is the most stable country in the world. In Iran there is the rule of law, all are equal before the law. Even at a soccer game it is possible for those watching to get angry and the authorities will be forced to clash with them. It’s a natural thing.” Later, he expounded on this theme: “When you run a red light, the police write you a ticket. We’re not happy that anyone runs a red light and gets ticketed. But they do.”

At the Foreign Ministry, there was no hint of large events unfolding. A steady stream of applicants wrangled with officials who were alternately lethargic and helpful. One paid for my copying, brusquely rejecting the large bill I offered in lieu of change. “Just wanted to help you out,” he said.

Afterward I rode uptown to a favorite bookstore. As usual it was full of up­­scale shoppers examining cookbooks and philosophical tracts, paint sets and pottery. The English section sold both Shakespeare and James Patterson. The children’s department had grown since my last visit: crammed with colorful puzzles, primers, Playmobil, and Lego. I squeezed past a mother and daughter with an armful of Dickens. “Oliver Twist, Great Expectations . . . ,” the mother said, flipping through volumes. “I think you’ve got all these.” In a spacious back room, a tourist studied a calligraphic scroll. “C’est magnifique,” she said under her breath.

Outside the bookstore, two youths lounged in the shade. One fell into step beside me, peddling a package of nylons. “I just want money for lunch, just like you. Don’t you want me to have lunch?” When I paid up, the other youth took over, bombarding me with the same monologue. I stared straight ahead, walking faster, searching for the car. He hounded me until the last possible moment, the malice in his expression at odds with his pleading words.

On the way back to the airport, I stared out the window, taking in the city with a sense of perplexity. The marble high-rises and glossy boutiques of the north end gave way gradually to cell-phone stores, kebabis, medical buildings, shoe stores, butchers, and on every corner a super, the little storefronts stacked to the ceiling with everything from potato chips to diapers. I studied young women in boot-cut jeans and high-tops and young men with too much gel in their hair. Oleander bloomed along the highway, the overpass lined with truncated Iranian flags with a cramped red “allah” crowded into a white center. The city seemed vast and unfathomable to me: a teeming, dissonant nexus. I knew it only in fragments. Somewhere there was an antiques store owned by a reticent Jew who had sold me a golden menorah. Somewhere there was a street named after a flower where an apartment complex had replaced my childhood home. In the north there was a great prison, in the south a great bazaar. Scattered throughout were the empty palaces of kings.

I was born in Tehran. I went to school on Kakh Avenue, lugging my noontime rice and stew in a stacked tin pail. I watched The Wind in the Willows on stage at the Iran American Society and learned the difference between le and la in the bohemian apartment of a Frenchwoman. My sister and I paid monthly visits to a bookstore that sold Georgette Heyer and magazines featuring naked women performing fellatio on naked men. The sky was a snow-laden gray in winter and a hot deep blue in the summer, and in the spring the cherry blossoms shed their petals in our garden.

The city has changed since then in uncounted ways—five million residents becoming 14 million, dull haze obscuring the snow-capped mountains—a wannabe London-Paris-Rome turning into a surly behemoth where past and present, West and East, clashed and fused. Now as then, Tehran’s distracted, shopworn face masked a self-renewing turbulence. In the days to come, that turbulence would erupt. Instead of commuters, the Metro would carry demonstrators through the bowels of the great city to spill roiling into the streets. Tehran landmarks would fill television screens around the world: Vali Asr, Haft-e-Tir, Baharestan.

The flat-screen television at the airport showed Ahmadinejad behind banked flowers, waving clasped hands in victory as jubilant thousands cheered. Later I read that there were riot police stationed around the square, beating back those who would have jeered.

Tuesday night I was in bed reading when I heard the cries. “Allah-u-Akbar.” God is Great. This challenge had been shouted from rooftops 30 years ago, when crowns, not turbans, were at stake. I went to the window and pulled back the curtain. White streetlights illuminated a still life: empty asphalt, darkened windows, shadowy swings in the park across the way. The cry rose again; a man’s excited, fearful voice with the echo of a crowd behind it. That afternoon I had watched on television as Khamenei addressed members of Parliament. “Everyone must stand against these troublemakers,” he said. Yesterday, hundreds of thousands had marched silently through Tehran, thousands more marched today. The Basij, the volunteer militia, were breaking into homes to arrest rooftop callers.

I stood staring into the night and contemplated going out there, knowing I never would. My children slept in the room next to mine. Their presence protected me from having to face the cost of a vote in Iran.

A few days later, I visited a mountainside shrine south of Mashhad. The imam there was a poor relative of the one whose death gave birth to the city. His resting place was a shelf of rock above the arid plain, sheltered by corrugated metal instead of gold. A woolly orange mat protected his threshold, accessible by means of 424 steps.

The steps were steep, hacked out of the mountain. The sun was sinking in the pellucid sky as we climbed. Everyone else was descending: women in chadors, children in plastic slippers, a trio of howling youths. We crested the mountain to discover a roseate landscape, all golden light and soft shadow; the creased earth stretching naked as far as the eye could see.

My friend Y. bent double to catch her breath. “Let’s make a nazr right here, that Khamenei relieve us of his presence,” she said. A nazr is a pledge of good deeds in exchange for a desired outcome. It was Friday, one week after the election.

She removed her shoes before crossing the imam’s threshold to offer money and prayers. I sat on a rock admiring the view. My cell phone rang—my mother calling from Canada. I assured her I was safe.

As we descended, smoke was rising from cook fires. Children played amid makeshift dwellings. Y.’s brother leaned over a wooden balcony. “Come have tea,” he called. We climbed up to a shack illuminated by a hissing kerosene lamp. A weather-beaten man with missing teeth smiled and bowed and offered a tray of steaming glasses. We passed around the sugar bowl, night falling upon us like a warm dry blanket.

Our car waited at the foot of a narrow path. We raced toward it, laughing and calling through the dusk. For an instant as I ran I was enveloped in the fragrance of steamed rice. It was there and gone again, a fleeting promise of abundance denied.

The car was driven by a local man in his 30s, eager to discuss the elections. “Do you really think there was a mistake in the results?” he asked in a country drawl. My friend X. recited statistical improbabilities. The driver listened and nodded. “People are not so enlightened hereabouts,” he said at last. “They only see the moment. Democracy as such does not exist.” Most of his neighbors, he said, had voted for Ahmadinejad because of his rural subsidies.


His radio, tuned to Voice of America, provided a strange soundtrack for those empty plains, all earth and air, the other elements held in abeyance. This was Saturday, June 20. In Tehran demonstrators were pouring into the streets again, police responding with bullets. Later reports would place the death toll at 20, including a girl named Neda Agha-Soltan, whose bloodied visage, captured on video, became an icon of resistance. The settlements we passed seemed untouched by turmoil. Stands of plane trees and poplars stood wind-tossed above a hodgepodge of façades, liberally defaced with scrawled advertisements: “Zomorrod carpet washing,” “Fish, the food for health,” “Yaran soup noodles,” “Capital Mobile.” They advertised well digging and sand washing and kitchen renovations. In the towns, posters of Ahmadinejad remained intact while Mousavi’s were gone; it was as if the president had run for reelection unopposed. In retaliation, X. paid a potter’s assistant $5 to remove Ahmadinejad posters. Two were ripped down at once; the largest, smiling from on high, would come down later, the man promised—after dark. As the VOA announcer talked of 15-year-olds bludgeoning demonstrators, I watched fields of wheat go by; grapevines spilling over mud walls; a square named for ugly metal flowers that reached for the sky. People were calling in from around the world, urgent voices surfing a sea of static. Mr. Khamenei, you cannot stop the people, this roaring wave . . . We Azari people do not fear Mr. Khamenei . . . These are not inciters, these are not dust and chaff, these are the Iranian people. Dust and chaff: Ahmadinejad’s oft-repeated phrase for demonstrators.

I watched a woman water her flowers with a hose, her arm describing patient arcs through the air, the water sparkling as it spilled forth.

Four days later I met D., 24, who had campaigned for Mousavi. “My mistake,” he said, slouching beneath the weight of his backpack, his green sneakers worn. He had been out of jail a week. The Tuesday after the elections, he was among 2,000 demonstrators outside Mellat Park. Security forces attacked with batons—D. caught a few blows across the back. Families out for a stroll scattered, screaming. He saw a man on a motorcycle surge onto the sidewalk, catching a little girl in the face. Arrested protesters shouted phone numbers, begging strangers to notify their families. Sometimes, D. said, sympathetic soldiers performed this service.

Five hours at a police station was followed by a blindfolded bus trip to another detention center. D. was kept squatting in a courtyard for hours. Around 2:00 A.M. he was fed a piece of bread and a tomato. Outside, a spokesman reassured the throng of angry relatives: “Your kids are calm, they’re fine. We’re offering them hospitality as we speak.” By then the first shock had worn off, the assembled boys—girls were held separately—were whispering and laughing and calling blessings upon the Prophet.

Eventually, D. and four others were shepherded into a basement to sign written pledges of good conduct, six or seven pages long. He didn’t read his. He was fingerprinted, photographed, his image checked against film of prior demonstrations. He was led through an underground passage. It opened onto the street. Only 24 hours had passed. He couldn’t believe it at first. He just stood there.

As he spoke with me, his sullen mien turned animated. He smiled as he described pre-election insults exchanged between rival sides: Mousavis were called green plums and Mama’s boys; Ahmadis were potatoes, for their candidate’s ploy of handing out bags of supposedly surplus produce. At the end of this recitation, D. said suddenly: “No. It wasn’t a mistake.”

He rummaged in his backpack for a long green scarf, which he pulled out to show me. “I still wear it when I go out,” he said.

Iran’s post-election unrest would generate between 2,000 and 4,000 prisoners and either 36 or 70 dead, depending on whether the government or the opposition was doing the counting. Reports of rape and torture would lead in July to the release of 140 detainees from Evin prison and the closing of Kahrizak prison, both in Tehran. Kahrizak was to become Iran’s Abu Ghraib, its best-known victim Mohsen Rouholamini, scion of a prominent conservative family. Rouholamini was 25 when he died of injuries including a crushed mouth.

The day I met D. I used an anti-filter obtained from a friend to get on YouTube. In the solitude of my living room, after the kids were in bed, I was able at last to watch the video everyone had been talking about. Still photos of the dead girl’s face had seemed too stylized for authenticity—so much blood, the beautiful eyes with their fixed stare. The video was all too real. The sprawl of Neda Agha-Soltan’s legs in jeans and sneakers, the rolled-back eyes that were not beautiful at all, testified to the ungainliness of flesh once the spirit has fled. Panicked cries filled my apartment; the living communing in vain with the dead: “Neda don’t be scared! Neda don’t be scared! Neda stay! Neda Stay!” She was 27.

Several days later I visited Tabas, a desert town leveled by an earthquake coinciding with the upheavals of the revolution. Driving there we passed salt plains with triangular red signs marking camel crossings. There were no camels—the only camel I’ve ever seen was in the Toronto Zoo—but there was a plain blue and white sign that read: “Tabas Desert, site of the landing and ignominious defeat of the invading forces of America.” The paint was fading, obliterating the last letter of “invading” and the first two letters of “America.” No traces remained of the helicopter that crashed trying to rescue American hostages in 1980. No hint remained in Tabas of the rubble that buried three-quarters of its inhabitants, including my uncle and cousin, in 1978. We strolled past brightly lit shops selling chador fabric, towels, plastic slippers, and hammered copper. The dry heat was pleasant, the streets crowded with idly strolling women in black veils and men in somber garb. Outside a housewares store I noticed an intact poster of Mousavi. He was smiling, Khatami at his side.

When I stepped up for a closer look, a young man materialized at the threshold to the store. “Don’t take it down,” he warned.

“I wasn’t going to.”

We exchanged smiles. He leaned against the doorjamb. It was obvious to me that he had been guarding this poster since the election.

“We were supporters of his,” he said. He sighed. “Pity.”

My last week in Mashhad, we drove to a remote village for a picnic. My friend V. and I left the men building a fire and waded through a garbage-strewn stream bordered by cherry orchards. It was a holiday. Behind stacked slate walls, local families were setting up their samovars. They stared at our soaked garments and loose headscarves, but invited us politely to share their fare. We declined with equal politeness.

Beyond the village the stream ran free of garbage. I saw a donkey grazing on the bank. A rocky escarpment loomed over a sunny orchard where a woman tended a cook fire. We scrambled up the slope and asked to buy fruit. A wiry young man in an open-necked shirt finished lighting his cigarette from the fire and bounded over a tree trunk to negotiate. His diffident smile revealed a hint of gold tooth. He helped us fill a leather pail with fruit, cigarette hanging from his lip. “Is this your orchard?” I asked. He shook his head. “The owner lives in Mashhad.”

I steered the talk to the elections. Most everyone in his village of 600 had voted for Ahmadinejad, he said. “Were you for Mousavi?” We faced each other over a cluster of sour cherries, the fruit jewel bright against the verdant greens of the orchard. “Yes,” I said.

He nodded. “You’re wealthy. The wealthy are all for Mousavi. But Ahmadinejad is better for we mostazafan.” This was a revolutionary term akin to Argentina’s descamisados or France’s les miserables. It means “downtrodden.”

He looked nervous when I took out my notebook. I promised I wouldn’t use his name. His gaze measured my honesty. “We have a good country,” he said at last. “I’m satisfied with my country.”

One of the first things I did after I got back to the United States was look for my birth certificate. I found it exactly where it was supposed to be, hidden beneath a sheaf of photocopies and old passport photos. I stared at the red cover, disappointed in myself.

A few days later, I was studying a Tehran map when I noticed that the highway called Legacy of the Imam ends at Evin Prison. Did they plan it that way, the men who remade the map of Iran after waving the banner of freedom, or did it just happen?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Gelareh Asayesh is the author of Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.


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