Tehran and the Religious Militia
We rode into Tehran. The atmosphere on the way in seemed charged, but not necessarily negative.
There were families in cars, waving at us, and kids on scooters wooping. The traffic was completely insane. One of our exits had been blocked off with barricades. We got very lost, and ended up in the centre of town. The atmosphere got stronger, it felt like the air was buzzing.
Then we saw why- the main square was entirely filled with army and policemen of various different types, in varying uniforms, but all with alarmingly large weapons.
There were huge black armoured trucks filled with militia-men dressed from head to toe in black, with enormous black beards, black turbans, holding gigantic black machine guns. They would have done a Finnish death metal band proud.
I didn’t look them in the eyes, but Adam said later they were glowering at us.
We saw ‘Voluntary Militia’- civvies dressed up for the occasion in fluro-vests with POLICE written across the back, also with guns. Those guys were the scary ones- hard-line Muslim fundamentalist civilians protecting the people from, well, the people…
One old army war-veteran clocked us out the corner of his eye and instinctively raised his hefty gun, as though it was a reaction from another time and place. He dropped it, a little too slowly for my liking.
The strange thing was that there absolutely no perceivable reason for them all to be there. In amongst all this turmoil, there was no-one. No protesters, not one.
Throughout the entire duration of my 12 day stay in Tehran, I didn’t see one single protester. Despite the British media repeatedly showing protests in the streets. Despite my family being so worried they called the British Embassy to check my whereabouts. It was odd, like arriving at the back end of an enormous storm.
I discovered the next day that the day before we arrived, anywhere between 20 and 100 people (depending on whose report you believe) had been shot at by the police and army. I discovered that Ahmejinebad was holding the British directly responsible for inciting riot and causing unrest. He deported British Embassy workers and their families while we were in Tehran, and cut all phone lines to Britain. The internet was censored to the point of being un-useable; apparenty one of the protests had been arranged on Facebook. The ayatollah was calling for the execution of those involved in the protests.
The election was apparently recounted and shown to be legitimate. It is possible it was. Whilst many young Tehranians are unhappy with the leadership, much of Iran is more conservative than the capital, and it is definitely possible it was a proper election. The lead was apparently 69%.
Either way, on that first night the military presence was very daunting. We tried to quickly ensconce ourselves in an anonymous hotel until things got ‘back’ to normal. Sadly for us, this proved a lot harder than we had imagined, and we got lost.
By this point we were very good at getting lost. Funnily enough, unlike most things, being good at it in this case did not make it more enjoyable.
We asked a friendly young scooter-rider for directions. He led us all the way across town, asking on every corner, until we had practically given up all hope of ever stopping, let along arriving somewhere.
On a busy crossroads we saw a pedestrian get mown down and possibly killed. He didn’t get back up. A small crowd gathered. Something gave me the impression this was a fairly regular occurrence. We rode on too fast to watch the horrible drama unfold.
Our scooter- driver led us full-throttle down the pavement, the wrong way on a one-way main road. He had found our hotel.
We were very, very grateful to him, and had already reached the conclusion without prior discussion that he wasn’t just in it for the niceness factor.
Adam got out his wallet, and gave him a fair old whack for his trouble.
Slightly offputtingly, our wayfinder made universal signs for ‘keep it coming’.
He did very well.
We went into the hotel and attempted to bargain ourselves a deal. The transaction was made harder by the scooter-rider, who seemed to have attached himself to Adam’s left elbow.
The hotel man was not a bargaining man, it became clear.
We lugged ourselves up the dark staircase, overhearing the scooter-rider getting a large and entirely un-earned commission.
That night I was very, very ill. The ride had been long, and despite consuming 6 litres of water each, we were both chronically dehydrated. It had all sweated out of us.