Iran General NewsInnocent googling? No such thing in Tehran

Innocent googling? No such thing in Tehran


ImageNew York Times: Back before the election and the ensuing pandemonium, some journalists stopped for lunch at a cafe in north-central Tehran, a place with pictures of Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett where the stern visage of the late Ayatollah Khomeini is more customary, and where the background music was American jazz.

The New York Times

Reporter's Notebook

Published: June 16, 2009

ImageTEHRAN — Back before the election and the ensuing pandemonium, some journalists stopped for lunch at a cafe in north-central Tehran, a place with pictures of Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett where the stern visage of the late Ayatollah Khomeini is more customary, and where the background music was American jazz.

What’s that record? a newcomer to town asked the proprietor. He held up a CD case of the great bluesman John Lee Hooker. Really? The singer known as the Boogie Man played jazz? “Hooooker!” he insisted.

Well, you never know. Worth a check. But back at the hotel, a Google search produced a yellow triangle with an exclamation point and a warning: Access to this site is denied.

What? Oh. Of course. “Hooker.”

Welcome to the Islamic Republic, where we protect you from yourself. You have much to learn.

Pick a Theory

Iranians are generally united in viewing the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to another four-year term as a miracle.

Some believe it in the literal sense that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seemed to intend when he said “the miraculous hand of God” was at work. Others believe it in the sense that they see no earthly explanation why an incumbent who presided over worsening inflation, unemployment and isolation would draw more than seven million more votes than in his first victory.

Cosmopolitan Iranians are full of theories to explain why so many of their compatriots put up with — indeed, welcome — the paternalism of their quasi theocracy.

From an electrical engineer: “Iranians are monarchists.” The 1979 Islamic Revolution did not expel the shah, this man contends. It replaced him with a supreme leader — an ayatollah whose word is quite literally law and is rarely questioned in public. Even the protesters in the streets chanting “Death to the dictator” chant nothing about the man who has been cleric in chief for the past 20 years, Ayatollah Khamenei.

From a writer: “We are like sexually abused children.” Violated by the ones they look to for protection, she said, they think that it is their own fault, that they are abused because they deserve it. They don’t talk about it, because they are ashamed.

An outsider might be tempted by a more mundane theory, that Iranians exhaust their need for freedom on the road.

Iranians drive fast and close. They run lights, play chicken, zoom motorbikes down sidewalks, make extraordinary use of reverse gear.

Two friends who had lived in the United States were chatting recently. “I miss the freedom,” said one. “Yes,” replied his friend, “but in the U.S., can you back up on the freeway?”

Is it relevant, then, that Mr. Ahmadinejad — “Dr. Ahmadinejad,” as he is addressed by his followers — has a Ph.D. in traffic engineering?

Blaming the Messengers

Conspiracy theories seem to flourish in secretive authoritarian governments, perhaps because such systems are essentially conspiracies themselves. In Iran, this is true of the general public; witness the number of people who took their own pens to the voting booths on Friday for fear the government-supplied pens would contain disappearing ink.

And it is true in spades of their rulers. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s list of those out to get Iran includes most of the post-World War II order, but at the moment it is focused on the Western news media, without whose meddling, he suggests, the Iranian people would be happily united and compliant.

Not to worry. On Sunday, Iran’s acting police chief, Ahmadreza Radan, gave the state press service an update on the arrests of protesters, and assured the public that “in the interrogation of related rebels, we intend to find the link between the plotters and foreign media.”

Already, text-messaging, Web sites, mobile phones, social networking services and other possible avenues of outside agitation have been rendered sporadic by government interference.

Today the aptly named Ministry of Guidance announced that the work credentials of nonresident journalists had been revoked, and that authorities “would not be responsible” for anything that befell reporters who continued to cover the daily resistance. Visas are rapidly expiring and are not being renewed.

Out of Camera Range

For a sense of what may await Iran’s discontented when there is no one around to report on it, consider Monday night in Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city and a five-hour drive from the nearest foreign TV camera.

As in Tehran, large parts of the city — the squares and boulevards — were scenes of smoke and flames, tear gas, stones crashing into windows, bloodied heads.

The uprising seemed more organic than organized — groups of a few dozen merging into groups of a few hundred, converging on lines of helmeted riot police officers, chanting “Death to the dictator!”

But in Isfahan the police response seemed far tougher.

At one point, a white S.U.V. with a red ambulance-style light raced up behind a knot of protesters and smashed into them, running one over before racing a few blocks to the protection of the riot police.

Bands of Basiji, the authorized plainclothes vigilantes riding motorbikes and wielding long truncheons, were let loose by the hundreds to sow fear far afield from the actual unrest. Many wore the green headbands of the opposition — possibly to camouflage, or to confuse.

At one point some bystanders (including one journalist with a gift for being in the wrong place) were cornered on the ancient Si-o-Seh Bridge and faced a choice between getting their heads broken or tumbling 20 feet to the dry Zayandeh River bed. At the last minute, the thugs were distracted by other prey to beat on.

At 10 p.m., as in Tehran, a more lyrical form of protest broke out: protesters chanting in waves from the rooftops of their homes, “God is great! Death to the dictator!” In some parts of Isfahan, residents said, plainclothes thugs went door to door, smashing windows and sometimes shooting canisters of tear gas into homes.

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