New Internationalist

Voices From The Crowd

Issue 091

Times change. So do opinions. Pauline Jackson interviewed a cross-section of Iranians at key points in the revolution. Here she reports on their shifting loyalties.

These are Khomeini followers. They hated the Shah. They rejoiced at the news of his death. If you ask them, they will say they have always hated the Shah. Knowing what they know now about the Shah, about the practices of SAVAK, and about the theft of the country’s wealth, it is inconceivable that they could have loved him. They believe this firmly. So do many foreigners whose knowledge of Iran is limited to news about the revolution. Others who knew Iran during the sixties and early seventies claim that the Shah was liked by ordinary people. Looked at their way, the revolution becomes not the explosion of decades of fear and hatred, but a much deeper revolution, in which people who liked and supported the Shah turned against him.

QORBAN ALI thinks he’s 45 but isn’t sure. A peasant from Yazd, he works as a gardener in a beautiful honeysuckle and wisteria-filled garden at the foothills of the Elburz Mountains. The house was rented to an American executive by a well-to-do Iranian family.

June 1978

Do you like the Shah?” I asked Qorban. “Of course I like the Shah”, he said, puzzled that anyone should even question this. “Why?” I asked. An even more puzzled look. “What I mean is, do you think he is a good king? What has he done for you?”

“Well, life is so much better than it was. My children go to school, I’ve got a motor bike and my wife is going to sewing classes.”

December 1978

The holy month of Moharram. Qorbon Ali has just returned from a Moharram procession in memory of Hossein, a Moslem Saint martyred 13 centuries before. It’s an event he takes part in every year, though he is not otherwise a very religious man. “What’s happened to Hossein?” he asked me in some bewilderment. “What’s happened to Hossein?” I echoed feebly.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we marched for miles and miles and nobody said anything about Hossein. They were all talking about this Khomeini and we had to shout “Khomeini rahber-ema (Khomeini is our leader)”. And another thing. They said some awful things about the Shah. Nobody said anything good about him”.

All this put just that simply.

June 1979

I spot Qorbon Ali in a mob outside the American embassy. He is shouting abuse at the Shah, his eyes bulging, the veins on his neck standing out. Suddenly he sees me and detaches himself from the crowd. “Ah, Khanum (Mrs),” he cries. “Can you find me a job? The Americans left and the owner of the house has been arrested. I’ve been out of work for four months now. Please help me.”

I look down at his hand, at the grotesque cardboard cutout of the Shah hanging from a gibbet, and venture to remind him how at one time he had been full of praise for his beloved Shah.

“Oh well, I didn’t know then that he had murdered a hundred thousand of our young men”, he said.

June 1980

Qorbon’s wife is ill and he comes to ask me for some money. He is still out of work and life is hard But he is full of hope. “Khomeini will fix everything, you’ll see. But it takes time. There are enemies everywhere. There are people who don’t want Islam to succeed and they make plots. The Americans and the British are behind it all. They want the revolution to fail so they can grab our oil. But we will fight, with our bare hands if necessary.”

July 1980

I have heard that the Shah is dead. It is the will of God.”

There were between six and seven Qorban Alis in any group of ten interviewed in Iran during this period, saying, at any given point, what the propaganda machine taught them to say. This fact might help in clearing up one of the mysteries of the Iranian revolution. In the Shah’s days radios, newspapers, officials all proclaimed the glory of the Shah. So did the Shah himself. The Shah was glamorous. It seemed that there was money everywhere - even for gardeners. The fact that registered was that Qorban Ali was better off, and that his friend Ali was better off, not that the rich families were growing richer much faster. How could anyone like Qorban Ali tell, after all? How could he really know what was going on? He couldn’t see economic trends. He couldn’t see much beyond his motor bike.

Nor could Qorban Ali really see political oppression. Savak, the secret police, didn’t come anywhere near him. He was no threat to the system so Savak was no threat to him. While students and poets were talking and writing about the cruelty and corruption of the regime and Mehdi Rezai and other young members of the marxist Siah Kal group were carrying out raids on gendarmerie stations or suffering in Savak jails, Qorban Ali was planting his irises in a world apart. It was a world much smaller than Rezai’s world, far narrower in perceptions, but much larger in numbers.

BIJAN TABRIZI is an entrepreneur. Born into a middle class family, he went to the US and studied engineering. After making a small fortune on one major development project procured through personal influence, he climbed the social ladder and was invited to parties at the Pahlavi palaces. He is a flashy dresser even on casual occasions - Dior silk shirt open to the navel displaying a gold chain nestling in a bed of carefully combed grey hairs. He has an American wife, flies his own plane, and belongs to the Rotary Club.

November 1978

Of course the Shah has to take a tough measures with rioters and hooligans. Look at the British in Ireland. Law and order has to be maintained. It’s the Communists who are behind all this trouble. We don’t want communism.”

June 1979

If the army had stuck it out there wouldn’t have been a revolution. The Shah should never have left. The West betrayed him. Monarchy is a tradition going back thousands of years. You say that millions support Khomeini, but you can’t count these people you see in the streets. They are ignorant and stupid. Many of them are paid to march. The mob shouldn’t be allowed to decide the future of the country.’

June 1980

Bijan is in Switzerland, having fled from Tehran. The regime stripped the family of their assets, but Bijan still has plenty of money and a house in Geneva. He is helping to finance plans for a military coup. “I blame the US for the hostages. The Russians wouldn’t think twice about using guns. America is going soft. Carter should have sent in his bombers right at the beginning.”

July 1980

The Shah’s death makes no difference. I still support a return of the Crown Prince. It disgusts me to see everyone turning their back on the Shah. Western leaders were only too happy to have his friendship. Now they won’t even show up for his funeral. The hypocrisy is sickening”.

SHIRIN EBRAHIMI is a women doctor in her forties. She works 12-14 hours a day, five of them in a government hospital, the rest in her private clinic. She lives in a spacious house, likes fashionable clothes and visits Europe every year. She has a sister lecturing at Tehran University, one brother in the US and another who spent four years in the Shah’s prisons.

November 1979

I hate the Shah. He is evil. And as for his sister, that whore Ashraf … My brother was in prison for four years and came out a broken man. All he had done was take part in a play by a Russian writer. The Shah is dirty and corrupt. He is ruining this county. Anyone would be better than him, anyone.’

June 1979

We have changed one dictatorship for another. The people who fought and died for this revolution have been cheated. Nobody wants to live like we are living now, no security on the streets, no television, no entertainment. After a hard day’s work you need a little fun.’

June 1980

It is like a Nightmare… People being stoned for adultery … this is no way to do things. Closing the universities is disgusting. Depriving young people of education is one of the worst forms of repression. And SAVAK is back. They call it something different but it’s the same thing, the same people, the same methods. There is even less freedom than before. There’ll be a second revolution, a real one this time.’

ABBAS SHAFA is a merchant with a wholesale carpet business deep in the heart of Tehran’s bazaar. His parents live in the religious city of Mashad and he still goes to see them when making, pilgrimages to the shrine of the Imam Reza. Abbas has a big, old fashioned house in downtown Tehran. His wife stays at home most of the time, and when she does go out wears a black silk veil. Abbas wears old fashioned suits, hand made from the best imported worsted, folds the back of his Italian shoes under his heels, and constantly, fingers his worry beads. He prays regularly, has been to Mecca and conscientiously pays his ‘zakat’ (religious taxes). He enjoys a social opium pipe or a game of cards in friends’ homes.

June 1978

The Shah has done a lot of good for this country. But he is becoming power crazy and ruining the people with his lust and his vanity. People are losing their respect for religion. Drink and night clubs and cinemas are open during Ramadhan (the holy month of fasting). We must go back to our religion and stop aping the immoral western ways.”

June 1979

Khomeini is the most important man in modem history. He has shaken his fist at the superpowers and they can do nothing. But Western journalists lie, they portray Khomeini as a devil. I will give a good carpet to any reporter who tells the truth about Iran.”

June 1980

All those who are against the revolution should be purged. The rottenness of the old system still lingers on and foreigners and corrupt elements take advantage of this. Even some of those close to the Imam are rotten. He is a spiritual leader and cannot be expected to do everything.”

July 1980

They say the Shah has died in Egypt. But how do we know he is really dead. I want to see a film of his body before I believe it. If he is dead he has been murdered by the CIA. America is still trying to meddle in our affairs. Carter is stupid He doesn’t know the strength of the Iranian people. We don’t care about his tricks. We will bring America to its knees.”

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