SEAN PENN IN IRAN
Sean Penn, Special to The Chronicle
Thursday, August 25, 2005
During his visit to Iran in June, Sean Penn had the chance to witness a rare demonstration in support of women's rights.
The demonstration was to begin at 5 p.m. I wanted to refresh a bit, so I took a shower at the hotel and began to dress when, at about 4:30 p.m., my companions Reese Erlich, Norman Solomon and Babak knocked on my door. They'd gotten an update. What had been anticipated as likely violence the evening before was now considered certain. This is a guilty admission, but when you have come to a place that is unfamiliar, with the intention of gaining a familiarity, absolutely nothing is more seductive than to see its darkest sides. I am an optimist. I can always look up. But to see down is to be down. We headed down to the demonstration.
As we approached Tehran University, traffic slowed to a stop. It was hot in the car. And sweaty. I could see people on overlooking apartment balconies, pointing in the direction of the demonstration and then retreating inside. The closer we got, the louder the volume of the couple of thousand people before us. The singing of the demonstrators, the honking of horns, the heckling of the crowd were rising. I was taping through the windshield as we approached. A traffic light came into my viewfinder and turned to red. At this point, rather than stay car-bound, I suggested we walk into the demonstration on foot.
People were being pushed, tempers were rising, but for the moment, we could see that the demonstrators had not yet been dispersed. There were uniformed police, yelling in threatening tones, and I was taping as I walked. I zoomed through the crowd catching several close images of some of the 100 female demonstrators. Women were prepared to take a baton across the head or more as the cost of speaking out. As we walked through the crowd, I led the way, being jostled about, moving closer and closer to the center of the demonstration. A demonstration like this is quite rare in today's Iran and was probably planned to correspond with the election-week presence of international press.
Of course, I knew that either the camera or my Western face could promote any number of responses in this kind of situation, and on my video screen, there he was: one of many who were considered to be plainclothes intelligence officers infiltrating the crowd. (This would later be confirmed by several sources.) I didn't understand what he was yelling at me, but I knew he was displeased with my presence and my camera. I said to him, "American journalist!" He yelled, "No camera! No camera!" I continued to shoot and got as into his face with the camera as I could. That's when it happened. Like Michelangelo's "The Creation," he touched me. I thought, "Are you crazy? You don't even send me flowers. Take me out to the movies? And you're grabbing my hand? You mother -- theo-fascist pig!" Though I didn't speak these words aloud, I certainly meant them. (The irony of being accosted for having a camera was not lost on me.)
This was the muscle of the oppressor I was looking at, perhaps of the Baseej, one of the violent volunteer militias in Tehran. Or, as it turned out to be, an officer of the intelligence ministry. We struggled briefly over the camera. I didn't know what the limits were exactly. I struggled with my left hand to retrieve my journalist's credential from my pocket. This guy didn't know who he was f -- with. And it is my belief that to this day, he still doesn't care.
The longer I held on to the camera, the more likely I'd get hit in the back of the head by one of his cronies. So I let the camera go as he held onto my wrist and pulled me through the crowd. In all the chaos, I was separated from Norman and Reese. We had planned that if anything like this happened, whoever could stay and get the story would. We prearranged a meeting place should we be separated, but those would turn out to be the best-laid plans of mice, and the snakes had something else in mind.
I couldn't see Maryam, our translator, at this point, but I knew she was close behind me. As I forcefully presented my journalist's credential, the bastard snatched that from my grasp as well. Now I had a hand pushing my hip forward behind me. It's hard to imagine that guys like this have friends, but evidently he did. And then Maryam appeared at my left shoulder, urgently explaining to the officer that I was an accredited American journalist. He released his grasp on my wrist, and while he didn't give me a goodnight kiss, he did return my camera and credential, forcing me to put the camera into my pocket, which it barely fit into, and giving us a shove into traffic to cross the street and away from the demonstration.
It was a dance of thousands of people, many of them men, and most supported the demonstrators. Others just observed with curiosity, pouring through the street onto the crowded sidewalk opposite the university. For a moment, looking back at the demonstration, I caught a glimpse of Norman. He was within feet of the demonstrators, seemingly invisible while he recorded and took notes. I was envious because I was suddenly recognized by a lot of people. "What are you doing here?" "Be careful. They'll beat you or arrest you." My video camera was closed in my pocket, but it was not turned off. It was still running. And I recorded all that followed on audio. Several people warned me that interspersed in the crowd were a large number of anti-reformist vigilantes and intelligence officers. "They'll approach as friends; they'll stand by and listen to your conversations." Some people were less concerned with being overheard. A woman came to me weeping. "You have to tell our story. You have to tell our story! They've just beaten two of the women."
The demonstration had turned somewhat violent, but it was more a series of whirlpools within the sea of people than a tidal wave throughout. I was told that one of the women who was beaten had her hijab ripped from her head. These hijabs are tied tight and don't come off easily. She defied her assailant's order to put her hijab back on. She said, "You took it off." And with enormous courage, she went on with her protest. (Take that, wardrobe malfunction.) As the story was told to me, her assailant impotently went back to his duties of crowd control. A telling example of the power in courage.
As Maryam went back to the crowd to try to find Reese and Norman, the police began to arrest journalists. By day's end, approximately 30 journalists were jailed. I ran into one well-known, and I will confess, left-leaning Western journalist who suggested I make an effort to get arrested, that it would "make a great story." So that's the way they play it, huh?
Maryam returned dazed and alone, unable to find Reese and Norman. She then tried Reese on a cell phone that he'd acquired, but the intelligence ministry had initiated the use of jamming devices, shutting down all cellular phone signals in the area of the demonstration. With no intention, beyond a desire to make another attempt to get some pictures, I said, "We'll find them later. I want to try to get back into the demonstration."
We pushed our way across the street. Two older women in chadors passed. They whispered to me, "We don't want the mullahs, we just have to pretend we do." They disappeared into the crowd. With car fenders pressing against our legs, Maryam and I serpentined through the crowd and automobiles until we were shoulder to shoulder among the throngs, within about 40 feet of the center of the demonstration. And then everything got loud. Really loud. A line of uniform policemen began batoning the mass of which we were a part. There was screaming and panic. And our bodies were four-walling each other -- you could barely move. It certainly seemed as if some could have been trampled, though as far as I know, that did not occur. But the following describes the irony of oppression: There was a woman among the panicking crowd. She reached her hand toward mine and I took it. Between us, we'd support each other out of this chaos.
All of this couldn't have lasted more than 40 seconds, but at the end of it, the force of the police had only forced an illegal touch between a man and a woman. We parted instantly as the police stepped back from the line they had been assaulting.
The crowd dispersed somewhat. I crossed back to the opposite sidewalk, rendezvousing finally with Reese and Norman, who by now had been forced away from the demonstration as well. I was getting too much attention on the street as a movie face, and I felt inappropriately engaged by it. So, while Reese and Norman continued interviews on the sidewalk, I jumped in a car with Babak and his wife. They dropped me off at the hotel, where I waited for Norman and Reese's return.
That evening, we dined at a pan-Asian restaurant called Monsoon in the trendy section of town. Evidently, some journalists had witnessed the confiscation of my camera and press credential, and there had been reports that I had been beaten. I worried that my family would hear this distorted news, so I borrowed a local cell phone and called home. Next, we got a call from someone within the police department apologizing for what had occurred. But, while they were apologizing to me on the telephone, an Iranian journalist arrested at the scene reportedly was beaten in their jail that same evening for protesting the verbal abuse of him and the other detained journalists.
Within hours of these reports and the embarrassment of my treatment (I was unharmed), all 30 journalists were released. We had just asked for the dinner bill when Maryam got an urgent call on her cell phone. She stepped outside for a clearer connection and then rushed back into the restaurant with the news. "There's just been a bombing in Tehran." Guess I gotta call home again.
-- Tomorrow: The journey home.