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When storytelling becomes a revolution

Western observers are trying to reduce the story of Iran's uprising to cliches. They fixate on sanctions or try to pretend a regime that butchers feminists is some kind of a reasonable alternative to US imperialism. As Iranians, our only weapon against these deadly fallacies is stories of those we lost - and those still fighting. 


October 28 2022, 17.49pm

A few days ago, when a journalist asked me about how our days look like documenting the details of the protesters killed in Iran, I only told him about a 15 seconds long video; a video that at least two other people I know had to watch over and over. 

The video shows the last 15 seconds of the life of Javad Pousheh, an 11-year-old Baluchi boy killed in Zahedan on September 30, 2022, the bloodiest day yet of the crackdown on  the ongoing nationwide protests in Iran. At least 89 others were killed in Zahedan alone. 

We see Javad  lying in the arms of a crying Baluchi man. The wound on his right cheek looks like the kiss mark of the ugliest, foulest thing on the most beautiful face. And the sobbing man who is holding him puts his feather-light, extremely thin arm back on his chest and pulls his long, already reddening shirt over his bare waist, as if he is dressing him for school. As if this is the only thing left to do.   

None of this is usually in a report except for the facts. The wound on his right cheek is where the bullet came out: he was killed by a single shot to the back of the head. This means, in turn, he was killed facing away -  getting away-  from the security forces: he was shot from the back. It was a single, precise shot, which also tells us he was likely killed by a sniper positioned on a rooftop or on a military helicopter hanging above the crowd. An 11-year-old boy was killed with a single shot to the back of the head. These are the facts left in the report. 

My colleague and I talked about this only once. We tried to keep our voices from trembling, by talking as slowly as possible one word per second. But this is not about us. This is about Javad Pousheh and 21 more children we so far identified among at least 200 protesters killed across the country in cold blood . This is about keeping Javad from just being number 104 in our list or a paragraph in our report. This is about his story. After all, this whole revolution was flared up over another heart-shattering story of an innocent life taken so brutally, so unfairly. And all we have to fight against this unfathomable monstrosity is telling those stories. It is all about them. We smuggle them out of the country and set them free. They travel through the eyes and ears of people, and bring back to Iran a voice of solidarity so powerful that it sometimes even breaks through the regime’s blockade of all means of communication. 

That voice of solidarity comes from everywhere these days, but it still surprises people inside Iran, making them talk passionately about their own favourite writers, singers or artists supporting the revolution. 

But I still see so many names missing. Those I expected to hear first were last or even yet to join others who spoke up. A shocking portion of the Western Left, those Leila al-Shamy brilliantly called ‘campists’ in her landmark essay,  are still trying to figure out how to react. Some of them are still digging their heels and shielding their eyes against seeing what’s happening in Iran as something other than “an evil plot of imperialism”. 

They are doing their best not to see it for what it is, because if they do, then they would have had to admit that they put their money on the wrong horse, for decades. They would have had to admit that all these years they exotified and cheered for a butcher regime they so naïvely saw as nothing but  fighter in an anti-imperialist war they themselves have lost and all but given up in any practical sense a long time ago. They would have had to also admit that they are no longer “leading” the progressive movements or even gracefully supporting them from a veteran’s seat of a successful left.

They would have had to admit that they sided with a theocracy against feminists, environmentalists, unionists, all  the natural allies of the left , up to -  literally -  the working class. They would have had to admit that while they were losing the battle trench by trench, retreating to the darker corners of academy and more abstract discussions on the revolutionary theory, the true progressive forces ofMENA have been fighting the most reactionary of forces in the streets, face to face,  and they have pushed them back. While they are developing their neo-orientalism that exotifies oppressive regimes, the MENA’s progressive forces have remained committed to the essential principle of internationalism. Each movement in each part of the region is now hosting the voice of other movements and together they are now changing the false narrative about the real political spectrum of the region

It's not the money

I talked to a friend from Iran who lashed at me about the New York Times’ shocking article blaming the uprising on economic hardship and then, of course, sanctions. “How dare they steal and twist our story? How dare you let them do this?” he yells at me over the phone as if I am the Iranian’s representative to an imaginary International League of Mainstream Media. “When did you hear any of us even one person chanting a slogan about…I don’t know…poverty or economy? This is for the girl. You tell them. You tell them this is because we believe a regime that kills Mahsa Amini over hijab, will eventually kill us all one by one over nothing”, he kept yelling. And he is right. The regime shot Hadis Najafi six times in the chest; beat Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh, two 16-year-old protesters, to death; beat Asra Panahi, another 16-year-old girl, to death in her school in Ardabil for refusing to participate in a pro-regime event. They all have now become the symbols of the revolution and literally what “fuelled” it. After all, what is more progressive than an entire nation on fire over women’s rights, led by women trying to overthrow a gender apartheid? Yet the New York Times’s Farnaz Fasihi is still trying to frame these all as a result of sanctions.

Economy always plays a role, but it's a huge mistake - and in this case, an insult and a miscalculation - to reduce it all to money. It's insulting, because it suggests the protesters don't really care about the girls brutalized and murdered by the regime. And it's a miscalculation because it makes it about the West and its sanctions, not about the Iranian people and their freedoms and rights. It takes the agency of the Iranian women and hands it all to governments, whether to the West or to the regime.

 This framing has been a familiar refrain in the coverage of Iran for years. But today, the people of Iran are talking directly to people around the world, who are shocked by stories they hear and how different they are from what the mainstream media told them all these years. These stories are all we have to fight with. 

My neighbour, a middle-aged Englishman, talks to me passionately about a video of Iranian girls cutting their hair and burning their scarves. He knows all about Zhina (Mahsa) Amini and he now knows some of the names of those killed in the protests. He now knows our stories and keeps telling them to others. This is what empowers this revolution. Because not everywhere in this world is like Iran where people’s opinion is counted for nothing. And in those countries, we have allies now who can and will make their leaders change path and to see this regime for what it really is: illegitimate.