Anousheh’s hazel eyes burned from the smoke. She caught her breath. Up the boulevard, amid the hazy din, the riot police were beating people with batons and threatening others. Screams erupted, as young men and women ran for cover.
The 29-year-old Iranian interior designer and her brother, Babak, had just been up there, at the northern end of Tehran’s Africa Boulevard, where the crowds were chanting, “Death to the dictator!” -- a burgeoning mass of hundreds of people protesting alleged vote count fraud in the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
As bearded, truncheon-wielding Ansar-e Hezbollah militiamen began storming the gathering crowds, Anousheh and Babak sprinted down the street, losing sight of each other in the chaos. She searched for him on side streets with no luck. She thought about going back home, but knew there was no way her protective big brother would leave the scene without first finding her.
She imagined him lying in agony on the roadway, or locked up in a wagon and taken to prison, perhaps Evin and its solitary confinement wing, where she said her mother had spent 40 grueling days in 2003.
Before going back into the crowd and risking arrest or a beating, she decided to jettison her backpack, which contained a digital camera packed with potentially provocative images of stone-throwing demonstrators, a wallet full of identification cards, and her and her brother’s cellphones, with numbers of all their contacts.
“Can you please take this?” she said to a group of strangers sitting in a car, observing the unrest ahead. “I need to find my brother.”
The baffled passengers took the bag, opened it quickly to be make sure the contents were not dangerous, and watched as she sprinted back into the melee, a solitary figure in a beige coat and light green head scarf.
Trained as a graphic artist, Anousheh makes an unlikely political activist. She lives with her parents. She stayed home on election day, unlike her brother and parents, who voted for moderate candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has accused Ahmadinejad of vote fraud. But she believes Mousavi should have won.
“I don’t accept any of them,” Anousheh, who asked that her last name not be published, says in steady voice. “None of them can do anything.”
She’s driven, she says, not by politics but by a heartfelt sense of the injustice of it all, and a strong commitment to her country, her city and her neighborhood, called Jordan, among the Iranian capital’s most urbane districts.
Jordan was a target of the Islamic revolutionaries who took control of Iran in the late 1970s, a symbol of all that was decadent about the toppled regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Authorities re-designated Jordan Boulevard, named after American educator Samuel Jordan, who established a high school here, Africa Boulevard in a showy sign of solidarity with the Third World, and a slap to the district’s cosmopolitan pretensions.
Analysts sometimes describe a great rift in Iran between rich and poor, between the pious downtrodden masses and the wealthy Westernized elite. But many say Iran’s divide is more about culture than class, more about cool than cash.
Plenty of the bazaar merchants who bankrolled the ayatollahs and became fundamentalist pillars of the Islamic Republic were rich, and many of the young working stiffs in menial jobs in wholesale districts listen to made-in-L.A. Persian pop music and sip homemade vodka with their friends on weekends.
And among the so-called north Tehran elite are many of modest means: government employees or teachers who treasure the arts, travel abroad and, above all, believe in a good education for their children.
The revolutionaries were resentful of the north Tehranis not so much for their money but for their schooling and worldliness, for what they viewed as a pretension that they could meld East and West instead of just being content with Iran’s traditions.
The late intellectual Ali Shariati, who once inspired Iranian revolutionaries, came up with a term for it: gharb-zadeghi, meaning struck or poisoned by the West.
Growing up, Anousheh encountered pro-government militiamen on motorcycle patrols of her neighborhood. They regularly made their way up to Jordan to set up checkpoints. They searched passing cars for alcohol and young unmarried couples to detain.
On occasion, the young people of the district would fight back, pummeling the militiamen with their fists and chasing them out. For the kids of Jordan, the clashes between the pro-government militiamen and the youths unfolding over the last few days are just the latest episode of a 30-year brawl.
Anousheh wound up studying art and graphics in college, and Babak, six years her senior, became an engineer, like their father.
Their mother, a homemaker turned community activist, became involved in Iran’s budding civil society movement under the government of former President Mohammad Khatami, the reformist who tried but failed to open up Iran’s religiously conservative political system. She was arrested in 2003 while supporting a student uprising.
Anousheh lived in London briefly and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for two years, studying English and working an administrative job.
After returning to Tehran, she decided one day to dress in an elegant, foot-to-toe Arabian abaya, in the style worn by women in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. For fun, she decided to wear a colorful Thai print blouse over it.
As a result, she says, she was stopped on the streets.
“You look like a billboard,” a woman from the Guidance Patrol, the morality police, told her.
“Excuse me?” Anousheh recalled responding. “Everyone is looking at you,” the woman said.
Anousheh became furious. “My legs are covered, my arms are covered, my clothes aren’t tight,” she said. “What could you possibly complain about?”
Such experiences made her want to move abroad. But she was continually drawn back by close-knit friendships and her country’s breezy familiarity, a society in which someone could drop off a backpack with a digital camera, cellphone and cash inside with random strangers on the street and be reasonably sure she’d get it all back in a day or so.
Unbeknown to her, she had dropped her bag off Saturday night with a group of journalists discreetly making mental notes while watching the storm outside.
We used her cellphone to call her Sunday morning and told her we had her bag. “Come on over,” we said.
“I trust people,” she explained during a late-morning chat, as she nursed deep purple welts on her legs and thigh. “If you never steal something from someone, no one will ever steal from you.”
She then explained what happened after she left us Saturday night. Anousheh said that when she raced to find her brother, the anti-riot police screamed at her to go home. “Get out of here, or we’ll hit you, crush you,” one militiaman told her.
“Go ahead, crush me, but I still have to find my brother,” she told them.
It was a chaotic gantlet, she says. There were chubby, helmeted militiamen swinging clubs. There were black-uniformed special police units on motorcycles. There were anti-riot police. And along the sidelines, there were bearded, plainclothes security officials, barking orders into walkie-talkies.
As she navigated the layers of armed authorities, she endured insults and baton swings, about five judging from the number of bruises on her lower body. The security forces then began spreading out into the side streets.
“Anousheh,” a neighbor told her, “your brother is looking for you.”
After 90 minutes, she found him hovering inside the doorway of a building along a side street, just as worried about her as he was about him, and just as bloodied.
But instead of going home, she says, they jumped back into the fray, chanting slogans and playing cat and mouse with the police until just before 6 a.m.
“My brother said Nelson Mandela was in prison for 20 years until he reached his goal,” she says. “I learned from my mother that you fight for your rights.
“Your rights are something you take, not something you’re given.”