For three decades, the face of Iran’s revolution has been of a bearded cleric, staring angrily into the camera, seeking the faithful’s submission by yelling “Death to America,” a short-hand substituting the absence of policies. Last week, the Iranian revolution got a new face: of a young woman of 27, called Neda Agha Soltan, who collapses when a bullet hits her, and blood pours out of her nose and mouth, while desperate people try to revive her. I remember Pablo Bartholomew’s image of the glassy-eyed child in Bhopal, photographed just before burial, in 1984. Soltan’s eyes are open too, and there is still life in them. She is going, but she has witnessed.
Salman Rushdie, himself no stranger to the whims of the bearded cleric who wanted him killed, once memorably described the mullahs’ misogyny: They rail against miniskirts, rock music, and kissing in public. Soltan wasn’t wearing a miniskirt; she wore jeans, and in the eyes of the cleric, jeans have been a symbol of Westernization. She wasn’t shot because she wore jeans; she was shot because she was out there protesting because she and many others believe the election was stolen, but which the government insisted had been fair. When Kamran Daneshjou, the head of Iran’s election commission, was asked how it was that the town of Taft recorded an electoral turnout of 141%, he attributed that to good weather. Or, maybe, the revolutions martyrs and ghosts came out to vote. Or they loved the one-who-hasn’t-shaved so much they ended up voting twice for him, against the one-with-the-neatly-trimmed-beard.
Soltan won’t know Daneshjou’s tortured explanation—she was already shot by then—but like the tens of thousands who have brought Tehran to a standstill, she saw through the regime’s lies. That the real clash was not the sideshow of the unshaven President who denies the Holocaust and the professorial former prime minister who would have had to implement the fatwa against Rushdie had he stayed longer as prime minister, but between the people and the clerics. For that’s what the drama in Tehran is all about. In defending the status quo, the cleric believes that the ends justify any means, even killing a young philosophy student wearing jeans.
Soltan was born three years after Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. She had not grown up under the Shah, a ruler her schools taught students to hate. She did not live through Mossadeq challenging the Shah in 1952, nor the coup that toppled him, or what drove Khomeini into exile in 1963, or, indeed, what brought him back. She was Iran’s present, and could have been its future. She wanted a paradigm shift.
And that’s exactly what the clerics want to avoid. Many have felt tempted to cast the rivalry of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi as one between darkness and light, falsehood and truth, fundamentalism and pragmatism, orthodoxy and reform, evil and good. Such Manichean distinctions are pointless. If a week is a long time in politics, three decades make an eternity. Given his bombastic rhetoric, it is easy to see Ahmadinejad as the villain, or the ruler of the land of chup and Mousavi as the hero, or the leader of the gupwalas, to borrow from the sharp distinction Rushdie made in his first post-fatwa novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. But they are cut from the same cloth. Mousavi is hardly the harbinger of light. As Iran’s prime minister from 1981 to 1989, not only was he (and remains) a supporter of Khomeini’s brand of Islamic revolution, but he also presided over a country where teenage boys were sent to the battlefront against Iraq with plastic keys, and told that those keys would open the doors of heaven once they attained martyrdom, as Marjane Satrapi’s stark graphic novel and film, Persepolis, reminds us.
Soltan is a martyr, but not of the kind we are used to seeing from Iran: the suicide bombers with self obsessed, self-righteous arrogance and manic certainty. She looks serene. She leaves us, saying nothing, passing the baton to us.
Revolutions present such iconic images: people with pickaxes tearing down the Berlin Wall. Václav Havel at Wenceslas Square in Prague, waving at hundreds of thousands of people who will soon become Czechs and Slovaks. That anonymous student at Tiananmen Square, standing in front of the column of tanks, even as the leading tank tries to dodge past him, and he, audaciously, climbs atop, trying to convince the commander to turn back.
And now, Soltan. In those fragile moments when life hasn’t yet left her, she wants reassurance that her death has not been in vain.
At the height of Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre’s 10-month Reign of Terror in 1793, Danton tried to stop it. He became its victim, but not before he cried out, impassioned, that like Saturn, the revolution was devouring its children.
In Tehran, they’re devouring the revolution’s children.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org