Free Food and Tear Gas

A report from the latest protests in Tehran.

This dispatch was written by a freelance journalist working undercover in Iran.

TEHRAN, Iran—I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t think Ashura would be the huge day of protests that it turned out to be.

Early on Saturday afternoon—which was Tasua, the first of the two days of mourning for Imam Hussein’s death—I decided to leave my apartment as the sounds of processions came closer. First I heard the chants of “Hussein, Hussein,” accompanied by a loud drumbeat, then I spotted a young man bearing a cross, a conspicuous reminder of Shiism’s adoption of some Catholic rituals.

I joined the procession for a few blocks, and then I headed toward Fatemi Square, where the sparks of post-election protests were lit in June.

The riot police, whom I now always half-expect to see there, were nowhere in sight. Instead, there were two long lines—one of women, the other of men—waiting for free food.

Imam Hussein’s food seems to be the forgotten element of the Muharram traditions. Most news reports describe the beating of chests, self-flagellation with iron chains, and the ancient imagery of martyrdom that the opposition is attempting to co-opt in its fight against the excesses of the current Iranian regime, but neglecting to discuss the community element of the proceedings—most important of which is are the distribution of free food and the crowds it draws—is to ignore a major component of the Islamic mourning season. This year especially, with soaring prices and deepening economic woes, Tehran residents seem more than willing to queue for long periods for the giveaways, which are usually provided by wealthy merchants.

There’s no discounting the popular movement that is taking place; nevertheless, the vast majority of the literally millions of people in the streets of Tehran this week were there for the annual festival that more closely resembles a religious carnival than an anti-establishment protest. That’s why it seemed odd to me that the supreme leader would send the regime’s forces out to repress crowds that are, by definition, either pro-regime or at least neutral.

I mulled this over as I waited in line. With about 20 men ahead of me, it was announced that the food was finished. I’d have to find another place to refuel.

There were rumors of a protest in Enghelab (Revolution) Square, but it was almost empty when I passed through. I took the metro south to Baharestan Station, where the parliament building stands, and from there I hopped a motorcycle taxi and made my way to Shohada, one of the more religious neighborhoods in lower Tehran, where some of my friends live.

For the rest of the evening, I visited various Hosseiniehs, religious centers where the story of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom is recounted and where mourners cry, beat their chests in rhythm, and are rewarded with more free food.

I went to bed full and almost certain that Sunday morning would bring a much smaller crowd of protesters. For one thing, the devout—and not necessarily political—majority usually dominates the day. Also, there had been a mass exodus from Tehran, because the back-to-back mourning holidays fell at the beginning of the week, creating a rare five-day weekend for most Iranians.

At 10 a.m. I met a friend in Tehran’s Haft Tir Square. We had decided that we would look for protests. He was much more confident than I that we would find some. We made our way toward Imam Hussein Square, where people were to begin their march to Azadi (Freedom) Square. The symbolism may seem hokey to some, but it’s an irresistible example of how the regime’s propagandistic naming of public places is now coming back to haunt it.

At the Hafez Bridge, we joined the masses and quickly came face to face with riot police and Basij militia, who wasted no time in shooting tear gas into the crowd. People dispersed, but there seemed to be more protesters coming in waves around every corner. More police, too.

The makeup of the crowd was much more varied than I remember from the June protests; many women in chadors, men with small children, the elderly.

For the first time, it also became clear to me that the dynamic had shifted: Basij were trying to intimidate, but they seemed scared. The protesters held their ground and often fought back, despite having no weapons other than rocks and pieces of asphalt.

We walked across the Valiasr Intersection and headed up Palestine Street, where we met another large crowd that was forming in an alley. As they began to march forward, a group of 50 or more helmeted police attacked. The protesters retreated momentarily and then rushed toward the police, with those on the front lines hurling stones. Seconds later, a round of cheers went up as several bloodied young men returned waving batons and helmets they had seized from the police. Members of the crowd took the opportunity to shoot pictures and video with their cell phones.

We arrived at a major intersection flanked north and south by groups of several thousand people. As we walked toward them, the sound of drums rang out. At first it appeared we’d come across a religious procession, but as we got closer, we saw the drum, a large metal garbage can on wheels, being banged with a rock by a young woman in a green scarf. Just as the regime always claims, Ashura had truly become a day for everyone.

As I headed north toward my home, I realized that mobile-phone and text-messaging services had been cut. I was on my own.

I wandered, looking for alleys that didn’t have any signs of protesters or security forces, until I finally found myself at Fatemi Square again. I stopped in the same food line as the day before. This time it was much shorter, but once again they ran out of food before I could get any. Behind me, I heard drumbeats, and I saw a camel—a very rare sight in central Tehran—coming around the corner into the street. Two crosses came after it, but there was no procession behind them.

I sat and watched the sad spectacle, until two local journalist friends, a husband and wife, pulled up in a taxi and told me to get in. She needed to file a story, and we drove right back into the action, this time in the relative safety of a moving vehicle.

Heading south, it looked as if we had come on a war zone: Shattered glass was everywhere, dozens of overturned and smoldering garbage cans, several burned-out cars, and the skeletons of a couple of dozen police motorcycles.

“Just like the first day,” she said, staring at the destruction.

We went to their home and tried to piece the day together, gathering reports from people we knew around town. CNN, the BBC, Voice of America, and the other foreign news channels had all been scrambled.

We had to settle for the reports from the state-run TV channel. The ticker at the bottom of the screen reported that “rioters beat people gathered to mourn Ashura in Tehran.”

The chief of police made a statement that not even he seemed to believe: No one had been killed in protests; any deaths had been accidental, and any deaths by gunfire would have to be investigated as suspicious since police hadn’t been carrying firearms.

One of the people watching observed, “They may not be good at reporting the news, but they’re definitely good storytellers.”

Everyone here is looking at the Iranian and Islamic calendars and wondering what comes next. Will protesters come out for Arbayen in mid-February, the last major holiday of the mourning months, which commemorates the 40th day of Hussein’s martyrdom, or will there be protests for Ali Mousavi, opposition leader Mir Hossain Mousavi’s nephew, who was shot dead in the street on Sunday? Almost everyone is sure that the 22nd of Bahman (Feb. 11) will draw massive crowds to the streets, but will there even be an Islamic republic to commemorate by then?

What I saw this weekend proved to me that at least for the moment, the wind is at the opposition’s back. But that could change at any time, as it has on several occasions since the election.