A quiet vigil, far from home
Dressed in black, they held candles, sang Farsi songs from the 1979 revolution and stood around a makeshift memorial on the grass of Palmer Square.
More than 70 members of the Iranian community in Princeton gathered for a 90-minute candlelight vigil last Friday evening to honor the memory of the dozens who have lost their lives so far in Iran during violent protests following the disputed June 12 presidential election. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away from Princeton, those violent protests pressed on, as clashes between Iranian authorities and demonstrators continued to escalate.
Iran’s official news agency had announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected to a second term as president by a wide margin, but many supporters of the main opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, took to the streets soon after the announcement to rally against what they perceived to be a fixed election. The protests have persisted, and the violence at them has intensified as the Iranian government, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has stepped up its crackdown on the demonstrations.
As the protests throughout Iran approached the end of their second week, Iranian citizens in Princeton were following the developments from afar.
“We ... had moments of silence because people in Iran can’t say slogans or even cry [during a protest],” said Amir Hajian, an Iranian postdoctoral researcher in the physics department. “They have to be silent. They can’t even cry.”
Nearly everyone interviewed said they believed labeling the recent events a “revolution” was too extreme, but many of them added that the protests in Iran showed clear signs of a transformation within the society, as citizens directly challenged the ruling government authority.
But Nima Alidoust GS said he didn’t expect the protests to continue as they have.
“There were very few of us that predicted there would be prolonged clashes,” Alidoust said. “Whenever there is suspicion or dissatisfaction, there have been protests, but they have been shut down quickly by the supreme leader, and people back off.”
Protests have been taking place in Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, Shiraz, Rasht and other cities, Alidoust added, mainly occurring near universities in those cities. Authorities have dispelled some of these protests by forcing students to leave the dormitories and return to their homes.
Susan Moinfar, a lecturer in Persian at the University who also attended the vigil, said she has been “shocked” by the events in her home country.
“I woke up in the morning, and I felt that I was truly in a different world,” she said. “I was hearing news about Iran, but I could not comprehend ... Iran tomorrow, regardless of who comes to power, will be a very different Iran from seven days ago.”
Moinfar added that, even if the existing government remains in power, its legitimacy will continue to be questioned within the country and abroad.
“Nothing’s going to stay the same,” she said.
An Iranian election in America
In the United States, “every Iranian was watching the debates” and paying attention to the elections in Iran this year, Hajian said, adding that the unfolding events in his home country led to long e-mail chains among dozens of Princeton Iranians arguing for and against the different presidential candidates.
Many Iranians in the Princeton community said they voted for Mousavi, and a few cast ballots for the other two opposition candidates, Mahdi Karroubi and Mohsen Rezaei.
Alidoust said that many Iranians were disillusioned with Ahmadinejad, known for stifling freedom of the press and employing unsuccessful economic and foreign policies, and they recognized it was a critical moment.
“If we want to strengthen even the small democratic principles in the Iranian constitution, such as our right to protest and elect our president, not voting was not an option,” Alidoust said.
Iranian citizens living in the United States were able to vote in the election at any of the 41 polling locations nationwide. But even before U.S. polling stations had closed on June 12, news organizations began announcing the first wave of results from Iran, and by noon Ahmadinejad had been named the landslide victor.
“It didn’t take us long to realize there was something wrong,” Alidoust said. “That fact that he won was not a surprise. But the way they announced it ... was suspicious.”
Like their family members and friends back home, Iranians in Princeton said they were also concerned about their votes, and many of those interviewed said they were not surprised by the widespread charges that the election had been rigged. Alireza Salehi Golsefidy, an instructor in the mathematics department, said he “did not expect such a large fabrication in the results,” adding that he could not believe the 11 million vote gap between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi was accurate.
“I believe that it was the ultimate disrespect in how the result was delivered,” Moinfar said. “Iranians were prepared to have Ahmadinejad again, but [the government] didn’t even count their vote. That’s why they’re so angry.”
Still, many of those interviewed praised President Obama’s restrained response so far to the developments in Iran.
Golsefidy said he believed “meddling would make matters worse.” Others agreed, explaining that international interference might have prompted the Iranian government to detain protesters on charges of conspiring with foreign forces, as it has done in past demonstrations. They added they were pleased Obama had condemned the violence by government forces against the protesters and avoided taking a political stand.
Though they live thousands of miles away from their homeland, many Iranians living in the United States have been taking part in what has been called Iran’s cyber-revolution, devoting hours to gathering and spreading news in the United States and abroad, organizing protests and vigils across the country, and assisting friends and family in Iran through the internet.
Though many Iranians in Princeton have been speaking to their friends and families every few hours to inquire about their safety, Alidoust said that, when he speaks to his mother, he never broaches the topic of politics.
“There is a big fear that the phones are tapped,” Alidoust said. “People are very fearful and scared that the government will start a massive oppression.”
The mood among his friends in Iran, he added, vacillated between pessimism and cautious hopefulness.
Some have also searched for proxies to help Iranians bypass filters so they can access blocked news and social networking websites in Iran.
Golsefidy said that, in addition to participating in demonstrations in the United States to show solidarity with those who have lost their lives, Iranians have been e-mailing friends with news digests.
“Some of us prepare daily newsletters of events to be sent via e-mails to friends in Iran to overcome the lack of independent media,” he said.
In return, Alidoust said, friends have been sending Facebook and Twitter updates to inform Iranians abroad of what is happening in the country.
The question of whether Iranians in Princeton would participate in the demonstrations abroad is, for some of them, a difficult one. While some immediately responded that they would march in the peaceful demonstrations, others hesitated.
“On the one hand people are dying, so it may motivate me to participate, and on the other, the violence against protestors has increased,” Alidoust said. “It’s difficult to judge if I would have the courage for it or not.”
Moinfar said she has one message for the government: “The whole world is watching.”
Recent events are particularly upsetting for her not only because all of her family and most of her friends are in Iran, but also because of her role as a lecturer at the University.
“When I see students being attacked, I see the faces of my students,” she said. “In my heart, the University is holier than a church or mosque.”
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