A Revolutionary Tradition: Shoars in Iranian Street Politics

As images of the bloody crackdown by government militias and plainclothes policemen on the peaceful demonstrations were broadcast after the controversial results of the tenth presidential elections in Iran in late June 2009, the world was reminded of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Even if Iran's political institutions have so far remained intact in the face of the recent agitation, its political culture has forever changed, perhaps even reverted to the revolutionary state of 1979, a shift reflected in the slogans chanted by people in the streets. These protests and mottos (shoar in Persian), chanted and simultaneously tweeted and YouTubed to the world, best illustrate the gradual but persistent change that has taken place in Iranian political culture. In the absence of political parties and in light of the history of mass protests in Iran (such as led to the revolution of 1979), understanding this unique political expression is an important way of gauging opposition to the rhetoric of the state. For one month preceding the election day on June 12, 2009, young Iranians—men and women—who compose the majority of the country's population, poured into the streets all over Iran to campaign for the presidential candidate of their choice. "Choice," however, is a relative concept in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The four presidential candidates had to be vetted by an unelected body of clerics and jurists called the Guardian Council. The young men in the streets, accompanied by an unprecedented number of young women yearning for freedom, improvement of economic conditions and better relations with other countries of the world, were determined to participate in the election, to exercise their right to vote and change the status quo. The streets of Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and other cities were filled with enthusiastic campaigners for the four presidential candidates; Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karoubi, Mohsen Rezaie and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader's favored candidate, running for his second term, had the advantage of advertisement time on the state-run TV and radio stations. Mohsen Rezaie, a former Sepahi (the Iranian army of Guardians of the Islamic Republic) received modest state support. However, it was the reformist candidates, Mehdi Karrubi, former speaker of the parliament, and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Iran's prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war, who sparked the most interest among the public, and especially the youth. Karrubi and Mousavi promised gender equality, better economic policies, and an end to corruption if they were elected.

During the presidential campaigns, a sense of euphoria dominated national politics. State-sponsored television, for the first time in the life of the Islamic Republic, broadcast a series of lively debates among the candidates. Harsh words were exchanged when Ahmadinejad attacked Mousavi's record as prime minister. Mousavi's enthusiastic campaigners compensated for the TV time denied their candidate through the shoars that they shouted in the streets of major cities.

The shoars kindled emotions: a yearning for unfulfilled promises of equality and freedom made during the early days of the 1979 revolution. Anyone familiar with the Middle East will be able to tell you about the spoken word—either shoar or sher (poetry)—the strong emotions it is used to convey, and the vital role it plays in the culture of this region. This is particularly true of modern Iran, where the lack of democratic institutions has led intellectuals to express themselves in the symbolic language of poetry and shoar.

When Mousavi was seen on national television putting on a green shawl meant to highlight that he is a seyyed, a descendent of the prophet, Karrubi supporters chanted "Azadi Andishe, Ba shawl Sabz nemisheh" [Freedom of expression, not possible with a green shawl]. The supporters of Karrubi wanted to show the emptiness of Mousavi's gesture (the motto rhymes in Persian). Within one month, on the day of the elections, just as soon as the results were announced, an all-embracing and spontaneous movement—with the color green as its symbol—was born, opposing what many saw as a full-fledged military coup of the electoral process by Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader, and the Revolutionary Guards.

Immediately after the results of the election were announced, showing Ahmadinejad's so-called landslide victory, protesters poured into the streets. For three consecutive days, masses of Iranians marched peacefully in silence asking one question, written on their placards: "Where is my Vote?"

As the violent suppression of the peaceful demonstrations continued—mounted by security forces and civilians in favor of Ahmedinejad—the shoar-ha evolved at a similarly rapid pace. The diversity of the mottos showed they were made up and chanted on the spot, spontaneously.

A Twitter message from Bandar Abbas, a port city in the south of Iran, read "Raye ma ra dozdidand, bahash darand poz mida" [They have stolen our votes and they are flaunting them!]. A young man was seen in a photo taken in Shiraz, holding up a sign that said "Raaye sabz man esme siyah to nabood" [My green vote was not your black name], referring to Ahmadinejad's proclaimed landslide victory.

Millions of Iranians marched in the main streets of Tehran, chanting "63% koo? Doroghgoo?" [Where are the 63%? Liar!] State Television (Seda va Simaye Jomhouri Eslami) had announced that 63% of votes cast had gone to Ahmadinejad; clearly a lie, to people on the street.

In an unprecedented attempt to stem the growing dissent, the political establishment decided to block all SMS's, Internet connections and mobile phones in the week after the election results were announced. The next day, demonstrators in at least twenty different locations in Tehran gathered, waving placards that read "Doroghgoo khaen ast va khaen tarsoost va tarsoo sms ghate mikonad" [The Liar is a Traitor and the Traitor is fearful and the fearful cuts off SMS]. A photo taken at a rally in Isfahan shows a middle-aged man holding up a sign: "Dictatori tamaeh, na shah na amameh" [Dictatorship is finished! Neither Crown nor Turban!]

What started as a silent march to get back stolen votes gradually became a movement for civil and political rights. Much like in the bloody 1979 Revolution, the sound of bullets and the smell of tear gas in the streets replaced the euphoric atmosphere of the pre-election days. When the military of the Shah opened fire on people demonstrating in the streets against his regime, the demonstrators at the time shouted "Toop, Tank, Mosalsal digar asar nadard" [Canon, Tanks, Machine Guns will not be effective anymore]. In June 2009, marching through bullets and tear gas, demonstrators shouted "Toop, Tank, Basiji, digar asar nadard" [Canon, Tanks, Basiji will not be effective anymore]. Basiji refers to the militia, or rather the corps of teenage boys who volunteered in the 1980s to fight Saddam's army during the Iran-Iraq war—now recruited and ordered to suppress what the authorities call "internal enemies of the state."

During and after 1979, the Islamists prided themselves on their ability to galvanize ordinary citizens who opposed the reign of the Shah into resisting and ultimately winning against his equipped military. Ayatollah Khomeini remarked, on several occasions, that the power of the people will win against any military, even if it is the most advanced in the region as the Iranian military was, particularly during the last years of Shah's reign.

Perhaps it is the shoar about canons, tanks and Basiji that resonates most with the people who still remember the revolutionary days of 1979. And perhaps it was to this shoar that Ahmadinejad found himself compelled to give a response. In a televised appearance, he referred to the demonstrators as khas-o-khashak, or "riff-raff," describing them as "soccer fans who are upset because their team has lost." The next day, demonstrators marching in green wristbands and headbands carried a huge banner that read "Doctor kapshen pareh, khashak ke pa nadareh!" [Doctor with the torn overcoat, riff-raff don't have feet!] (The "Doctor" is Ahmadinejad, who has a Ph.D. and is famous for his simple, worn overcoat). If we were to translate this shoar, keeping its rhyme and meaning intact while changing some words, it would read, "Ahmadinejad, you stupid fart, a gramophone has no leg or heart." Other huge banners read "Ahmadi Goosaleh, bazam migi footballeh?" [Ahmadi, the calf, do you still think this is a soccer game?]. (In Persian, "goosaleh," meaning "calf" or "donkey," is a derogatory term.)

The last time angry protesters shouted "goosaleh" was in 1978–79. At the time, those opposing the Shah would shout "Allah-o-Akbar" [God is Great] every night (starting at 9:00 p.m. to be exact) from their rooftops, and many would listen to the sermons of Ayatollah Khomeini—then living in exile—on cassettes that they copied and circulated. The security services of the Shah (SAVAK) had tried to track down and collect these, but in vain.

In 1978, the shoar was directed at Major General Gholam Reza Azhari, the prime minister from November 6, 1978, to December 31, 1978, who said in the parliament that the Allah-o-Akbar heard in the streets of Tehran and other major cities was really from cassettes—much like Khomeini's sermons, played aloud at night by traitors. In 1979, the anti-Shah demonstrators chanted "Azhari Goosaleh, bazam migi navareh? Navar ke pa nadareh!" [Azhari, the calf, you still think that it is a tape? The tape does not have feet!]

Nights turned into a nightmare for Iranian security forces after June 12, 2009, as the shouts of Allah-o-Akbar were heard from rooftops. (See this video on YouTube.) Thirty years after the Revolution, Iranians responded again to state terror—this time from the Islamic Republic—by saying once more, "God is great."

When Ayatollah Khomeini asked Iranians in 1978–79 to march peacefully in the streets and give flowers to military personal, he was employing the most effective tactics from the nonviolent struggles of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. When the military responded by opening fire on them in 1979, the demonstrators chanted "Artesh jenayat mikonad, Shah hemayat mikonad" [The military commits a crime, the Shah supports it]. In 2009, those who witnessed shots being fired from the rooftops of Basij stations in Tehran, killing unarmed and defenseless demonstrators, shouted "Basij Jenayat mikonad, Rahbar hemayat mikonad" [Basij commits a crime, the Supreme Leader supports it].

The most famous shoar of the Revolution of 1979 was "Na Sharghi, Na Gharbi, Jomhoori Eslami" [Down with the East (the Communist bloc), Down with the West (the USA), long live the Islamic Republic]. In March 1979, Iranian national TV reported that the overwhelming majority of Iranians (98%) cast their vote in a referendum for the establishment of an Islamic Republic. The televised report showed Iranians at the polls with placards saying "Esteghlal, Azadi, Jomhouri Eslami" [Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic]. Thirty years later, Iranians shouted "Esteghlal, Azadi, Jomhouri Irani" protesting the widespread fraud in the tenth presidential election.

To mark the fortieth day after the bloody death of Neda Agha Soltan, Sohrab Arabi, and other young Iranians killed by gunshots fired on the streets of Tehran, a newly formed committee of Mourning Mothers of Iran gathered at Neda's graveside, chanting "Nirooyeh Entezami, Sohrab baradaret koo? Neda Khaharet koo? Nedaye ma namordeh, in jomhouri ast ke mordeh" [Security forces, Where is Sohrab, your brother? Where is Neda, your sister? Our Neda (neda also means "voice") has not died, it is the Republic that has died].

There is one other shoar among the long, still-evolving list that perhaps sums up the current crisis best. This one is aimed directly at president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who once prided himself on his rhetoric and its ability to unify Iranians in their nationalistic goal of achieving nuclear energy. His stated goal no longer seems to be unification; rather he has proved to be the most divisive leader in what remains of an Islamic Republic in Iran, as he declares war on his opponents—fellow Iranians—some of whom were directly involved in the 1979 Revolution. In a recent demonstration in Tehran, a solo voice soon grew in volume as the crowd joined in, chanting "Ahmadi Hasteyie, boro bekhab khasteheyie!" [Nuclear Ahmadi, go to sleep, you are tired!]

For the Qods Day sermon of Friday, September 18, 2009, the green movement announced a new motto: "tofanghet ra zamin bogzar ke man bizaram az didar in khoonbar, che dar Gaza—che dar Lobnan, che dar Qods che dar Iran" [Put down your gun, for I am sickened of seeing this blood-soaked thing, in Gaza or in Lebanon, in Jerusalem or in Iran].

The shoars chanted in the streets of Iran tell a story of political dissent and popular agitation against the status quo. These slogans, chanted by the masses during major political upheavals in Iran are a stirring indication of a popular social movement on the rise, agitating against the political apparatus in Iran. In a country where poetry and symbolic language are critical elements of the culture and political figures pride themselves on their activation of the poor masses through "shoar enghelabi" (revolutionary slogans) in their fight against Shah in 1978–79, the power of these slogans cannot be denied. Chanting shoars is a political act, and in the Iranian context, a powerful one with resonances of the past. But can this round of shoars bring about another revolution in Iran?

Copyright 2009 by Elham Gheytanchi. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.