The 13th century Persian poet Rumi probably lived in a better time when he wrote:
“منطق پشت کلماتت را بالا ببر نه صدایت. باران است که گل ها را پرورش می دهد نه صاعقه”
“Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
Back then, words alone could melt the hardest of hearts. I wonder if he would hold himself to the same proverb today.
Over the past week, Iranians around the world understood that when words fail to succeed, one could only shout from the top of the lungs and then… nothing – because in today’s world, voices can be held hostage by a rope, and the louder you scream, the tighter it becomes.
It has been a week since the government of Iran cut all internet access throughout the country, in reaction to a new wave of protests that took over the nation like a thunderstorm. As I write this, there had been murmurs about a few small cities having minimum access to the internet, but even so, the near-complete darkness around the nation is unavoidable.
Since the beginning of the blackout, and while the people of Iran took to the streets to demand government transparency in the wake of economic crisis, what hit hard the most for a lot of Iranians living abroad has been the world’s eerie silence.
Since last Sunday, day after night, people took their plea to social media, hoping to apprise the world of the misery that has befallen their nation.
While people chanted “we don’t want the Islamic Republic” throughout the streets of the country, Iranian activists and ordinary citizens living outside bombarded social media with whatever little information they could obtain from within. Hashtags were created, hopeless petitions and love letters were written just to arouse the world from its slumber.
The other day, a colleague of mine asked me what the protests are about. I didn’t know what to say, because – really, how do you illustrate 40 years of oppression and brutality in just a few sentences? “It started with the gas price increase,” I said, “but then, it became about a lot of things. It became about people’s livelihoods. It’s about what little is left of our collective consciousness.”
Iranians used social media, especially Twitter, to organize rallies back in 2009 post-presidential election protests. And if I know this, so does the government. Cutting people’s access online means taking away their ability to get organized, to share information, and above all, it prevents them from telling their stories.
“Hello from the biggest prison in the world: Iran.” One tweet said.
“If they don’t connect us back on the internet and we are unable to zigzag our way around the blackout, you have to promise not to forget us. I fear that we’ll be buried alive here,” another one read.
On and off, some were able to connect to the internet, mostly through a black market proxy, and the horrors they were (and still are) facing rolled in. The eyes of the Iranian community stayed glued to the screens, and fingers typed away tirelessly. For those of us outside the country’s border, free from the government’s draconian electronic censorship, being the voices of fellow Iranians became our key responsibility… especially when it became clear, as the clock ticked, that we were all they have. It felt like screaming into a void – we could only hear the echo of our own desperate cries.
“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard,” the renowned Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy says. We live in an ugly time when a nation faces both adversities, deliberately silenced by its own government and preferably unheard by the rest of the world.
In his article titled “The uprising in Iran: These people have nothing to lose. They’re fearless now,” which was published in Mclean’s Magazine on November 18th, Terry Glavin quotes Masih Alinejad, a well-known Iranian activist. The title speaks volumes about the rhetoric around the country and what the people are going through. Many were ecstatic about the article, myself included, since it had been one of the first published in a Western publication. Success, I thought –now people would know. Then it dawned on me – the caption alone dehumanizes the concept of these protests. It somehow takes away the “life” within this equation. Because, of course, “these” people on the streets have something to lose – a career that could be easily taken away from them, a reputation that can be smeared easily, or maybe a loved one who’s safety is being threatened by their actions. In fact, they have a lot to lose and, yet, they have taken all of this in one hand and their lives in the other, and marched down the streets.
“People came to the streets because they’re hungry, not because of the gas price. If they set the banks on fire it’s out of desperation, not because they’d been paid by the USA,” an insider tweeted in the wee hours of Thursday morning, Iran’s local time.
The demography of protesters has changed from what we witnessed in 2009. If on June 13th, 2009, university students, and social and political activists, were at the forefront of protests striding the streets of major cities in unity and silence to demand transparency on the elections, on November 16th, 2019, it was the working class and the vulnerable middle class who took the streets like a tornado. And when they came, everyone else followed. The gap between the rich and the poor in the country is no longer a gap, but an abyss – this outcry seemed inevitable. The “Green Movement” of 2009 wanted political change. A decade later, it is people’s empty pockets that forced them to raise their voices, and there’s no harsher reality than that.
If the world chooses to ignore what the government is doing to the people right now, cutting them from the free world overnight and slaughtering them behind closed doors because they want a better life, we might see an even harsher regime in the near future. If the silence continues and if we don’t hold the Islamic Republic accountable for its actions today, tomorrow will simply be too late.