Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Fire That Can't Be Put Out

If you were to have walked the streets of Tehran last night you would have been forgiven for thinking that there was a civil war going on: bonfires were burning in many streets, riot police were out in force and explosions could be heard throughout the city. However this was just a standard Charshanbe Suri in the Islamic Republic. As I mentioned previously, the biggest holiday in Iran is No Ruz, or Persian New Year, which takes place on the spring equinox (usually the 21st of March). The festival predates Islam by about a couple millennia and is intricately related to pagan and Zoroastrian purification rites. Due to its non-Islamic roots the current regime frowns upon its celebration, especially the more exuberant parts, most notably Charshanbe Suri.

A traditional haft sin table with ritual objects to symbolise health, wealth and happiness for the coming year.

On the Tuesday evening before New Year's Day, Iranians gather in the streets and light bonfires, jumping over them, symbolically burning away the ills of the previous year. Along with the bonfires an integral part of Charshanbe Suri are fireworks. Iranians aren't particularly fond of colourful, showy ones, and instead prefer ones that have more of an aural impact - the louder the better. In the week leading up to Charshanbe Suri the sound of firecrackers becomes a familiar soundtrack reaching a cacophonic crescendo on the night itself. Since these gatherings and outward displays are not sanctioned by the state and bring people together in a feeling of solidarity it makes the regime, which is paranoid at the best of times, twitchy. So to make sure nothing unwanted happens major gathering points are heavily manned by baton-wielding riot police and gangs of paramilitary Basij stooges on motorbikes roam the streets to break up anything they don't like the look of (and they really don't like much). Despite this ordinary Iranians are determined to enjoy themselves and celebrate as they have for centuries. I set off with some of my friends to find a fire to jump a little late (I was determined to do it at least once as I have never done it before), so we spent some time cruising around. All around we could see the smouldering embers of fires littering the roads and alleyways, but most of them had already been abandoned. Finally we found one in a residential area with a group of youths gathered around and music pumping from a nearby car. We had only been there a minute when one of my friends grabbed me by the arm and gently, but forcefully, told me to leave. Quickly but calmly. We were only half way to the car when a gang of Basijis on motorbikes, some in black, some in camo, many with their faces covered, came charging round the corner. We continued walking towards the car trying not to make eye contact, slightly glad that they were more interested with the people who were still around the fire. Although it was the merest brush with them, and they ignored us, I've got to admit that my heartbeat was racing and the adrenaline had gone into overdrive. All of my friends in Tehran have had far closer brushes with the Basij and all of them can give you a story of busted parties, beatings and nights in cells. Their violence and complete impunity make them both feared and hated. Despite that first scare we managed to find a few fires that hadn't been disrupted and got our jumping shoes on.

Video from this year's Charshanbe Suri showing paramilitary Basijis breaking up a bonfire.

Traditionally people would stay outside by the fires throughout the night, but the regime has them so cowed that by midnight most streets were empty, although in places there were large numbers of police in full riot gear: batons, shields, helmets and full body armour. However I did see a programme on an Iranian satellite TV station where someone had uploaded a video of a large group of people chanting anti-regime songs by a huge bonfire somewhere in Tehran. With the information clampdown here though it's hard to know exactly what is happening (the day after Charshanbe Suri access to all e-mail websites was also blocked, the sign of an illegitimate regime).

Riot police massed by Qeytariyeh Park which is just down the road from our house (most of them are towards the end of the video).

No comments: