Wednesday, Feb 16. Two more days to go.
The election fever that the reporters were hoping for, and the Iranians were not providing, has finally arrived. Wednesday night is the beginning of the weekend. Maybe that has something to do with it. We went to a new hamburger restaurant that has modeled itself on the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King. In a country short of entertainment outside the home, a new fast-food place with neat Western packaging can be an event: a new place to go to see and be seen, especially by the youngsters. We got the burgers with a double helping of quotes, to go. We dashed to the car as it started to rain. In the traffic jam outside the restaurant, a young girl banged on the window of the car and shoved a wet pamphlet in. It was promoting President Khatami’s younger brother, Mohammad Reza. “Vote Khatami, Version 2000,” she shouted into the car mischievously and ran to share her rather poignant joke with the car behind. She obviously knew her Microsoft programs. Not to mention the way she wants the new Khatami. Windows 2000 is supposed to be faster, isn’t it?
I met a reformist newspaperman at a dinner party a while back. I wanted him to explain to me why we should trust the “Dovom Khordadis.” That is the date in the Iranian calendar when Khatami was elected and is now the name of the movement that supports him. I felt that all these so-called reformers were from the inner circle of the existing establishment. Weren’t they just sugarcoating the same bitter pill and remarketing it? He pointed out the shifting demography of the country as the main cause for change. Khatami wasn’t the cause, he was the effect, he claimed. The youth are the key. If you don’t understand the music they listen to and the books they read, if you don’t understand the way they talk and their modern needs, you’ll fall behind. And they move so fast, he continued, if you don’t keep up, you will go out of date. Even Khatami has a sell-by date in this momentum created by the youth, he asserted. Food for thought. Khatami, being taken off the political shelves. I was speechless.
I was brought up in a staunchly nationalist home. My father had spent time in the Shah’s prison as a young journalist supporting Mossadeq. The Shah was, as soon as I could understand what I heard around me as a child, not the father of the nation, as my school textbooks told me, but a dictator. When the revolution began, my father and his friends were taken by surprise by the path it actually took. It didn’t take him long before he fell afoul of the new system and left the country to live in the U.K. as a political refugee. His property was confiscated. His name went on the list of anti-revolutionaries. It probably didn’t help that he spent his time in London publishing a newspaper critical of the Islamic Republic. He came back to Iran soon after my return, spent two years toing and froing from one revolutionary court to another until he got his home back, only to fulfill a wish to die in it on Iranian soil. He didn’t see the election of President Khatami. He would have got a kick out of it. He believed that the Iranian revolution would come to fruition, but with time and from within the system. He would have voted.
It’s a strange sensation, the death of a parent; next to the grief sits a sense of growing up. The parent gone, you are your own person to please. When I refrained from voting in the presidential elections three years ago, I was still carrying my childish interpretation of my father’s politics from 30 years back. The justification of my position was ostensibly shaped by my claim to a mediocre degree in politics and philosophy. How could anyone with a modicum of intelligence take part in an election that would allow only a handful of pre-selected candidates? Why would anyone want to give legitimacy to a system that by nature shunned the power of the populace? I obstinately refused to vote, but 20 million people went out that day and voted for Khatami. They returned a candidate of choice, albeit a limited choice.
The 15-year-olds who got Khatami elected against all odds are now 18. Their initial euphoria of empowerment may have paled in the face of political realities. Some will be disillusioned, no doubt; others are more pragmatic. Either way they are better-educated than we were at their age, both academically and politically. When I was 15, voting was what people in faraway lands did. These youngsters have lived within a system that has shown them the framework of democracy. They read papers that provide them with a critique of what has happened during the past 20 years. They are practicing the art of participation, however limited it may appear to the Western eye. And they are from all walks of life.
My mistake in abstaining in the presidential elections was exactly that I was looking at that event as a person brought up in the West. I wanted the whole thing. The whole thing was not handed to any country on a plate; they had to work for it and learn its process. People of my generation are taking their cue from these “kids” running between cars in the cold winter night. I asked the next boy with pamphlets if he had a list of recommended candidates. He gave me three and told me how to use the codes next to the names.
Now I’ve got my election list. I’ve told my reporters I need time off on Friday to go and vote. I’m voting this time. So what if it’ll take a while for things to change. The point is that the process has begun. In the words of one political analyst to an American journalist who saw the pace of change as way too slow, “This is the land of Persian carpets, it takes years for the pattern to be woven, you may have sore fingers weaving it, but when it’s done … it’ll be a work of art … and it will last a hell of a long time.”