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Nonfiction

I Am a Witness

By Anonymous
Translated from Persian by Poupeh Missaghi
An anonymous author reflects on their relationship to history and on what it means to both witness and participate in historic protests.
A group of women facing away from the camera with their hair let down, raising their hands in protest while holding their headscarves

Photo via social media

For the past two months, I’ve been leaving the house while it is still light outside. Around three or four in the afternoon.

Three weeks ago, I parked the car on a side street and started walking along the gray boulevard toward Kargar Street. Through intersections where small barracks of forces were gathered, ready to crack down on people. With their offshoots of motorcycles, batons, and paraphranalia, the men stood in unorganized rows. Similar to Khomeini’s and Khamenei’s photographs that have been hanging unevenly on the walls of schools and offices forever. A disorderly presentation of a disorderly power.   

***

For a while now, I’ve stopped pulling up my scarf to cover my hair when I pass by the guards. Like many other women. I know that nothing can stop one of them from raising his gun and targeting my body with rubber bullets. But what is happening here is for the greater public good that Asef Bayat talks about. The march that surpasses the messy presence of the police forces. Everything would have surrendered to the clumsy, made-up mask of power if not for this very event that stands out during the day, is much braver than during the night, allowing you to see it very clearly: this drill made up of anxious bodies, of fierce heads with their hair free in the wind. Witnessing our time. 

What Qurrat al-Ayn did all by herself one hundred and seventy years ago, thousands of women have united to repeat today. After she took off her veil, she was imprisoned for three years, only to be eventually killed and thrown into a well. She would not submit to the constant denial of her social presence in the name of religion. She was a stubborn witness who questioned everything in her poems and speeches. She asked why she couldn’t be a clergy person when she had taught many men—though separated from them by a curtain—for many years. Like in the forced confessions aired on state TV today, she was forced to say her veil had dropped by accident, but she never confessed. Today, we, on TV, in the news, and in the streets, are her extensions. Extensions of a minority who, one hundred years ago, had to cover her face and body, be separated from men on the sidewalks and in carriages, who still today must sit in segregated buses. What is going on right now is not simply an unveiling. It is the largest protest in the past 1,400 years against a 1,400-year-old image.

We are both participants and witnesses.

***

The boulevard I walked along that day was once upon a time a ditch outside the bounds of the city. One hundred and seventy years ago, Tehran would come to an end at the border of the next street or so. The area was full of people with trachoma, thiefs, muleteers, prostitutes, and performer gypsies. The night Qurrat al-Ayn was murdered, the gypsies were busy with their musical instruments, pots and pans, and opium pipes; they were busy laughing, making love, and having fights around their big and small fires. 

***

That day, while I was walking over the corpse of that huge ditch in the middle of the boulevard, I suddenly came upon a sad, familiar scene. Three high school girls, wearing navy blue uniforms and maghna’ehs they had pulled down all the way to their shoulders. The same mandatory, military-like uniforms that I too had been forced into for years. Joseph Brodsky once said that schools in the Communist Soviet Union were one and the same with the prisons and the factories. I want to add that schools are barracks too. But the students I saw there in the street strongly challenged the soldiers around them. The students’ march was a grimace in the face of the military oppression. They were women opposed to the unified clothing standing against men whose very identity came from their uniforms.

At first, there were only three girls. Then another one ran toward them from the other side of the boulevard and joined them. Then two more, when they arrived under the overpass. Their individual steps could not be heard, but their march sounded like the march of many. I started to follow them. The bright, subdued light of the evening shone on them, sometimes a firey sunbeam flowing over their chestnut hairs.

This hair is not the hair you see in Persian miniatures. Its twists and turns are not decorative. Throughout our history, we learned that our cities can be pulled apart, but we never imagined that the aesthetics of our hair would too, transformed from its sentimental representation in our miniatures and literature into what we see today.

***

Walking on the sidewalk, we all should have seen the security guards standing in front of their motorcycles at the upcoming intersection. The street suddenly grew a few decibels quieter; I’m sure I was not imagining it. And then the yelling started: “Wear your hijabs.” It was one of the bikers who had stepped closer to the girls. But the girls continued to chat, loud and relaxed, going about their day. The cars and pedestrians all slowed down, and once again, the yelling: “Wear your hijabs.” This time, the girls grew silent. But none of them stopped walking; none of them even touched their maghna’ehs. Another guard who was listening to his walkie-talkie, perhaps to an order, walked to the first and told him something. The first guard stepped back and remained silent. For a second, I thought that we too, like our city, could perhaps survive.

***

The well into which Qurrat al-Ayn was thrown was only a few intersections south of where we were. When she did not stop exposing the injustices of her time, when she refused to submit to the King’s marriage proposal, his sexual proposals, she was convicted of murder. A crime to justify sentencing her to death. Like the very execution sentences given to some of the revolutionaries of the past few months.

As a religiously confused people, we have come to learn that our history books are full of narratives and images of bloody, religious mass murders; of Shiite punishments; of all sorts of tortures and murders for those in opposition. One of the historical methods for torture was to force the prisoner into a wool cloak, put a funnel hat over their hair, and wrap the person in animal skin, such as cow skin. It was only after all these humiliations imposed on them through their clothing that they would be hanged.

For me, wearing the school uniforms and the maghna’ehs always felt like undergoing these torture methods.

***

As someone who was born after the 1979 Revolution, who grew up under the longest war of the twentieth century, I have many times witnessed the ideological executions of the era I’ve lived in.

At this time in history, history, being a witness oftentimes equals being a criminal. Testifying to an act committed by a Muslim might not align with the government’s religious benefits. Therefore, the punishment for the witness, for the one who testifies, can be execution.

***

A bit farther up the boulevard, I separated from the girls’ group. I thought about walking down Vali-e Asr Street all the way to Shahr Theater, the same area where sometime in the past the city came to an end. Some days, like that day, you don’t need to have someone accompany you outside. You can simply walk in the streets, and people will gather around you, and before you know it, you have formed a small group. With others who have come to the street solely to be present in the street as well.

This is one of the scenes I am looking for every day when I leave home while it is still daytime.

***

On that day, I was not yet fully aware of the complex relationship that exists between my history, the era I’m a part of, and my everyday outings.

***

We were some twenty men and women, walking side by side, not even talking. Our pace was neither fast nor slow. It felt free, but also ready to turn into a run to escape. Not that day, but today in retrospect, I understand that this moment was the beginning of everything. The moment the gang of police motorcycles passed us by in the boulevard, shouting hysterically and threatheningly. In that moment, many of us assumed they were headed to Enghelab Square.

Those shouts always mean that something is on the verge of happening. Like one is standing at the edge of a cursed precipice, sliding over and down into an endless pit. Like an earthquake that can only be foretold by the living creature we are walking upon, the creature who is hiding our women in its wells, in its intestines, in its veins.

Like that moment when the smell of lead and the amount of smoke increased in Tehran, when we suddenly heard the screams. A vague and distant buzz that was nonetheless ear-piercing. Nothing was going on in the several streets south of us. Someone shouted that the screams were coming from Felestin Street. We all ran into the first side street. We hadn’t gone that far when we heard the gunshots. Two. One after the other. And we kept going downhill into the doomed pithole. A civilian biker heading in the opposite direction shouted, “The bastards are hitting people.” I remember we kept running. And the screams grew louder and louder, landing heavily on the pavement. We saw from the distance a few security guards on their motorcycles, howling, swinging their batons above their heads, bringing them down on whoever was around. I kept running. The end of the side street kept coming in and out of focus amidst the people’s bodies. Like pictures taken by the fast, continuous clicks of a camera shutter, or scenes taken in between the fast blinks of a person on their deathbed. Suddenly, more women’s screams filled the air, like the sound of an old scaffolding crumbling down to the ground.

And this was one of those threshold moments. A moment in which the rage outside on the streets joined the anxiety inside, only to guide you toward death. The very moment you see in war photographs, showing a person, all alone and with no weapons, standing tall in front of armed guards. No one really knows what the driving spark was. No one knows what happened before the subject of the photograph decided to run toward their death.

This is one aspect of a movement that gets lost on TV screens and history books and newspaper pages. The death-driven force of a witness. Perhaps it is bound to courage, but it is not courage per se. It is a strange combination of Ferdowsi’s heroism and Khayam’s vanity that propels you to run in the streets. We were running, and amidst the images escaping us, only a moment before reaching the main street, I noticed the damned police van leaving. There was no need to rush anymore. We knew they had already arrested and taken those they needed.

Soon after the van’s departure, the motorcycles’ buzzing got closer, and the remaining guards and plainclothes forces began to hit the protestors with batons, as a finale, to disperse the rest of the crowd. I followed others back into the side street. I mean I started running again. I was looking for refuge in the void between the bodies. I even took some big steps, and then . . . then I moved over something that looked like a hole. A small, dark ditch. I pulled myself toward the door of a house and then looked back. A bit farther, I could see it under others’ feet. A shapeless mark. The size of a baby. The trace of dark red blood, looking even darker in the sunset. The remains of the daylight over the little pebbles on the street asphalt shone with little chocolate-colored sparkles of the cosmos. Like the images from space telescopes that surprise us these days.

A stellar nursery where millions of stars have been born.

The shape of a blood pothole under the corpse of a woman at the bottom of a well.

***

I had unconsciously jumped over the mark, or maybe the jump had simply been the continuation of the bouncing steps of a person on the run. I found a small maroon spot on the side of my sneakers. Then I heard the whispers, saying that several high school girls were hit by batons and taken away, that one of them had been dragged on the ground, that one of them had been shot at.

Our extensive history of violence and brutality, even if it were more extensive than what it already is, could in no way help prepare you to face the fresh blood on the ground. Or to help you to begin to understand it.

In the face of the red cosmos on the ground that didn’t date back to millions of years ago, but to only a few moments ago, all historical punishments lost their echo. The punishments and chain murders I had seen pictures of in the past few decades, the stoning of women, the executions without trials or with sham trials, the tortures, the cutting of veins . . . all of them. All of them.

I am a witness, and I, hereby, testify to the killings. I testify to being a witness and to the killings.

I will never know what order the guard with a walkie-talkie gave to the one who grew silent. I will never know whether the blood I ran over belonged to one of the stars from the glorious constellation of girls I had met. I can only testify to that red softness. I can only testify that I have witnessed the mortal shell of a nation cracking.

The dying and coming to life of stars in a bloody cosmic nursery.

***

I am a whole witness. I am present at the crime scene. All my life, I have been present at the crime scene. I, a woman whose testimony is worth half of a man’s.

If I leave home during daytime, it is because I want to see things live and clear. Real things like blood. Is blood more real than death itself? I’ve been wondering over the past three weeks. During daytime, I can be more of a witness—not half, but more than one. A witness to the era I’m living in.

At this point in history, the word testifying can be more active than living is. Living can be passive. Testifying, being killed, is not passive.   

Maybe these can be the words one can send into the future after walking through blood. For those who, in their confusion about our extensive history, will look for us. If they look for us.


© by Anonymous. Translation © January 2023 by Poupeh Missaghi. All rights reserved.

English
A group of women facing away from the camera with their hair let down, raising their hands in protest while holding their headscarves

Photo via social media

For the past two months, I’ve been leaving the house while it is still light outside. Around three or four in the afternoon.

Three weeks ago, I parked the car on a side street and started walking along the gray boulevard toward Kargar Street. Through intersections where small barracks of forces were gathered, ready to crack down on people. With their offshoots of motorcycles, batons, and paraphranalia, the men stood in unorganized rows. Similar to Khomeini’s and Khamenei’s photographs that have been hanging unevenly on the walls of schools and offices forever. A disorderly presentation of a disorderly power.   

***

For a while now, I’ve stopped pulling up my scarf to cover my hair when I pass by the guards. Like many other women. I know that nothing can stop one of them from raising his gun and targeting my body with rubber bullets. But what is happening here is for the greater public good that Asef Bayat talks about. The march that surpasses the messy presence of the police forces. Everything would have surrendered to the clumsy, made-up mask of power if not for this very event that stands out during the day, is much braver than during the night, allowing you to see it very clearly: this drill made up of anxious bodies, of fierce heads with their hair free in the wind. Witnessing our time. 

What Qurrat al-Ayn did all by herself one hundred and seventy years ago, thousands of women have united to repeat today. After she took off her veil, she was imprisoned for three years, only to be eventually killed and thrown into a well. She would not submit to the constant denial of her social presence in the name of religion. She was a stubborn witness who questioned everything in her poems and speeches. She asked why she couldn’t be a clergy person when she had taught many men—though separated from them by a curtain—for many years. Like in the forced confessions aired on state TV today, she was forced to say her veil had dropped by accident, but she never confessed. Today, we, on TV, in the news, and in the streets, are her extensions. Extensions of a minority who, one hundred years ago, had to cover her face and body, be separated from men on the sidewalks and in carriages, who still today must sit in segregated buses. What is going on right now is not simply an unveiling. It is the largest protest in the past 1,400 years against a 1,400-year-old image.

We are both participants and witnesses.

***

The boulevard I walked along that day was once upon a time a ditch outside the bounds of the city. One hundred and seventy years ago, Tehran would come to an end at the border of the next street or so. The area was full of people with trachoma, thiefs, muleteers, prostitutes, and performer gypsies. The night Qurrat al-Ayn was murdered, the gypsies were busy with their musical instruments, pots and pans, and opium pipes; they were busy laughing, making love, and having fights around their big and small fires. 

***

That day, while I was walking over the corpse of that huge ditch in the middle of the boulevard, I suddenly came upon a sad, familiar scene. Three high school girls, wearing navy blue uniforms and maghna’ehs they had pulled down all the way to their shoulders. The same mandatory, military-like uniforms that I too had been forced into for years. Joseph Brodsky once said that schools in the Communist Soviet Union were one and the same with the prisons and the factories. I want to add that schools are barracks too. But the students I saw there in the street strongly challenged the soldiers around them. The students’ march was a grimace in the face of the military oppression. They were women opposed to the unified clothing standing against men whose very identity came from their uniforms.

At first, there were only three girls. Then another one ran toward them from the other side of the boulevard and joined them. Then two more, when they arrived under the overpass. Their individual steps could not be heard, but their march sounded like the march of many. I started to follow them. The bright, subdued light of the evening shone on them, sometimes a firey sunbeam flowing over their chestnut hairs.

This hair is not the hair you see in Persian miniatures. Its twists and turns are not decorative. Throughout our history, we learned that our cities can be pulled apart, but we never imagined that the aesthetics of our hair would too, transformed from its sentimental representation in our miniatures and literature into what we see today.

***

Walking on the sidewalk, we all should have seen the security guards standing in front of their motorcycles at the upcoming intersection. The street suddenly grew a few decibels quieter; I’m sure I was not imagining it. And then the yelling started: “Wear your hijabs.” It was one of the bikers who had stepped closer to the girls. But the girls continued to chat, loud and relaxed, going about their day. The cars and pedestrians all slowed down, and once again, the yelling: “Wear your hijabs.” This time, the girls grew silent. But none of them stopped walking; none of them even touched their maghna’ehs. Another guard who was listening to his walkie-talkie, perhaps to an order, walked to the first and told him something. The first guard stepped back and remained silent. For a second, I thought that we too, like our city, could perhaps survive.

***

The well into which Qurrat al-Ayn was thrown was only a few intersections south of where we were. When she did not stop exposing the injustices of her time, when she refused to submit to the King’s marriage proposal, his sexual proposals, she was convicted of murder. A crime to justify sentencing her to death. Like the very execution sentences given to some of the revolutionaries of the past few months.

As a religiously confused people, we have come to learn that our history books are full of narratives and images of bloody, religious mass murders; of Shiite punishments; of all sorts of tortures and murders for those in opposition. One of the historical methods for torture was to force the prisoner into a wool cloak, put a funnel hat over their hair, and wrap the person in animal skin, such as cow skin. It was only after all these humiliations imposed on them through their clothing that they would be hanged.

For me, wearing the school uniforms and the maghna’ehs always felt like undergoing these torture methods.

***

As someone who was born after the 1979 Revolution, who grew up under the longest war of the twentieth century, I have many times witnessed the ideological executions of the era I’ve lived in.

At this time in history, history, being a witness oftentimes equals being a criminal. Testifying to an act committed by a Muslim might not align with the government’s religious benefits. Therefore, the punishment for the witness, for the one who testifies, can be execution.

***

A bit farther up the boulevard, I separated from the girls’ group. I thought about walking down Vali-e Asr Street all the way to Shahr Theater, the same area where sometime in the past the city came to an end. Some days, like that day, you don’t need to have someone accompany you outside. You can simply walk in the streets, and people will gather around you, and before you know it, you have formed a small group. With others who have come to the street solely to be present in the street as well.

This is one of the scenes I am looking for every day when I leave home while it is still daytime.

***

On that day, I was not yet fully aware of the complex relationship that exists between my history, the era I’m a part of, and my everyday outings.

***

We were some twenty men and women, walking side by side, not even talking. Our pace was neither fast nor slow. It felt free, but also ready to turn into a run to escape. Not that day, but today in retrospect, I understand that this moment was the beginning of everything. The moment the gang of police motorcycles passed us by in the boulevard, shouting hysterically and threatheningly. In that moment, many of us assumed they were headed to Enghelab Square.

Those shouts always mean that something is on the verge of happening. Like one is standing at the edge of a cursed precipice, sliding over and down into an endless pit. Like an earthquake that can only be foretold by the living creature we are walking upon, the creature who is hiding our women in its wells, in its intestines, in its veins.

Like that moment when the smell of lead and the amount of smoke increased in Tehran, when we suddenly heard the screams. A vague and distant buzz that was nonetheless ear-piercing. Nothing was going on in the several streets south of us. Someone shouted that the screams were coming from Felestin Street. We all ran into the first side street. We hadn’t gone that far when we heard the gunshots. Two. One after the other. And we kept going downhill into the doomed pithole. A civilian biker heading in the opposite direction shouted, “The bastards are hitting people.” I remember we kept running. And the screams grew louder and louder, landing heavily on the pavement. We saw from the distance a few security guards on their motorcycles, howling, swinging their batons above their heads, bringing them down on whoever was around. I kept running. The end of the side street kept coming in and out of focus amidst the people’s bodies. Like pictures taken by the fast, continuous clicks of a camera shutter, or scenes taken in between the fast blinks of a person on their deathbed. Suddenly, more women’s screams filled the air, like the sound of an old scaffolding crumbling down to the ground.

And this was one of those threshold moments. A moment in which the rage outside on the streets joined the anxiety inside, only to guide you toward death. The very moment you see in war photographs, showing a person, all alone and with no weapons, standing tall in front of armed guards. No one really knows what the driving spark was. No one knows what happened before the subject of the photograph decided to run toward their death.

This is one aspect of a movement that gets lost on TV screens and history books and newspaper pages. The death-driven force of a witness. Perhaps it is bound to courage, but it is not courage per se. It is a strange combination of Ferdowsi’s heroism and Khayam’s vanity that propels you to run in the streets. We were running, and amidst the images escaping us, only a moment before reaching the main street, I noticed the damned police van leaving. There was no need to rush anymore. We knew they had already arrested and taken those they needed.

Soon after the van’s departure, the motorcycles’ buzzing got closer, and the remaining guards and plainclothes forces began to hit the protestors with batons, as a finale, to disperse the rest of the crowd. I followed others back into the side street. I mean I started running again. I was looking for refuge in the void between the bodies. I even took some big steps, and then . . . then I moved over something that looked like a hole. A small, dark ditch. I pulled myself toward the door of a house and then looked back. A bit farther, I could see it under others’ feet. A shapeless mark. The size of a baby. The trace of dark red blood, looking even darker in the sunset. The remains of the daylight over the little pebbles on the street asphalt shone with little chocolate-colored sparkles of the cosmos. Like the images from space telescopes that surprise us these days.

A stellar nursery where millions of stars have been born.

The shape of a blood pothole under the corpse of a woman at the bottom of a well.

***

I had unconsciously jumped over the mark, or maybe the jump had simply been the continuation of the bouncing steps of a person on the run. I found a small maroon spot on the side of my sneakers. Then I heard the whispers, saying that several high school girls were hit by batons and taken away, that one of them had been dragged on the ground, that one of them had been shot at.

Our extensive history of violence and brutality, even if it were more extensive than what it already is, could in no way help prepare you to face the fresh blood on the ground. Or to help you to begin to understand it.

In the face of the red cosmos on the ground that didn’t date back to millions of years ago, but to only a few moments ago, all historical punishments lost their echo. The punishments and chain murders I had seen pictures of in the past few decades, the stoning of women, the executions without trials or with sham trials, the tortures, the cutting of veins . . . all of them. All of them.

I am a witness, and I, hereby, testify to the killings. I testify to being a witness and to the killings.

I will never know what order the guard with a walkie-talkie gave to the one who grew silent. I will never know whether the blood I ran over belonged to one of the stars from the glorious constellation of girls I had met. I can only testify to that red softness. I can only testify that I have witnessed the mortal shell of a nation cracking.

The dying and coming to life of stars in a bloody cosmic nursery.

***

I am a whole witness. I am present at the crime scene. All my life, I have been present at the crime scene. I, a woman whose testimony is worth half of a man’s.

If I leave home during daytime, it is because I want to see things live and clear. Real things like blood. Is blood more real than death itself? I’ve been wondering over the past three weeks. During daytime, I can be more of a witness—not half, but more than one. A witness to the era I’m living in.

At this point in history, the word testifying can be more active than living is. Living can be passive. Testifying, being killed, is not passive.   

Maybe these can be the words one can send into the future after walking through blood. For those who, in their confusion about our extensive history, will look for us. If they look for us.


© by Anonymous. Translation © January 2023 by Poupeh Missaghi. All rights reserved.

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