THOMAS MERTON SQUARE, LOUISVILLE, KY, ‘MERICA — The shade offered by Marjan Javid’s umbrella does little to mitigate the intense early afternoon sun; beads of sweat have collected on the bridge of her nose, and her slow movements and speech indicate the preliminary signs of dehydration. Maybe that’s because the umbrella itself — a flimsy thing, patterned in green-white-and-red featuring a lion wielding a sword — is as much for show than it is for practical purposes. In her other hand she holds a lime-colored sign that reads “We Support Democracy In Iran.”
“I’ve been out here for a while,” she said, shifting her weight onto her other foot, “but I felt it’s important to be here and support my heritage as an Iranian-American.”
Javid’s father fled his hometown of Shiraz shortly after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which deposed the U.S.-backed Shah and instituted the confusing, increasingly brusque and authoritarian theocratic government responsible for destroying the country’s 2,500-year tradition of human rights as well as Jimmy Carter’s career. Fearing that something ugly was about to rear its head over the country, her father emigrated from Iran to the United States, his family in tow. He met Javid’s mother in California, where the 19-year-old protestor and student was born.
“Shortly after the revolution, plenty of people were leaving,” she said, citing the citizenry’s collective paranoia regarding the Ayatollah Khomeini’s freshly minted fundamentalist regime as reason enough for her father’s exodus. “He takes trips back and forth … but he hasn’t regretted moving here since he left.”
Javid, who longs to visit a democratic Iran, was but one of 60 similarly color-coordinated, flag-rearing and largely Iranian-Americans whom gathered before the steel-and-glass roof of downtown Louisville’s Fourth Street Live to peaceably protest the injustices perpetrated by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Revolutionary Gaurd in the wake of a hugely flawed national election — injustices whose significance and true nature remain a mystery to the average American, whose primary exposure to the unfolding situation consists of cable news anchors playing with Twitter.
“I have family in Tehran, and I’m about to leave soon to visit them,” a masked man, wearing a surgical mask emblazoned with a black X, said. “And I’m afraid. I’m really afraid.”
The masked protester — whose sign reads simply, “Human Rights” — asked that I refer to him as Ali; he refused to give me his real name.
“[The current Iranian government] is searching the Internet for us,” Ali began, “identifying people from protest videos on YouTube and putting them and their families in jail, or worse.” He went quiet, for a moment, then added: “I just keep thinking of my sister. She’s a doctor in Tehran. I hope she hasn’t been injured yet.” — as if being injured is inevitable, a matter-of-fact that is at once sobering yet foreign to someone whose idea of domestic revolution is too romantically abstract to comprehend what is essentially wholesale slaughter of an electorate by its government.
“And please, don’t take my picture.”
Despite this disconnect, there is more that binds us – the fat, lazy, blog-reading American — to them than can be gleaned from the national media’s atavistic (and now obsolete) portrayal of Iran’s population as a nation of over-zealous, AK-toting extremists marching in lockstep with the diminutive Ahmadinejad.
“Iran is very much like the United States,” said Mosen Khani, a local physician who came to the United States 32 years ago, laughing. “But I am serious.”
Khani immigrated to the U.S. 32 years ago to pursue medicine. A tall, broad-shouldered man in his late forties, Khani held in his hands a “true Iranian flag,” featuring the lion and the sun, breaking from his eloquent political diatribe to wave it wildly, screaming “Woo!” at honk-friendly traffic.
“We firmly believe in the separation of church and state. In fact,” Khani said, putting on a pair of black wraparound sunglasses, “the writings of [Greek author] Xenophon, whose works about Cyrus The Great, heavily influenced one of your founding fathers: Thomas Jefferson.” (He’s right: A cursory Google search showed that Jefferson, indeed, made the Iranian philosopher’s teachings essential reading for early American statesmen. Or did he just blow your mind, too?)
“I don’t mean to insult the Arab religious leaders,” he said, “but they’ve been shoving this religious stuff down our throats for too long.”
Over the course of half-an-hour I walked through the crowd, talking to a few more people – like 21-year-old pre-med student and first-generation Iranian-American Fariba Karimi, who appeared to be the oldest of five sisters, all of whom came out to show support because, in Fariba’s words, “We’re going through what they’re going through,” in Iran. “We are feeling what they are feeling.”
Eventually I was introduced to the organizer of the event, David Kazi. A gray-haired middle-aged man clad in gray-pinstripe suit and black ball cap, Kazi emphatically took me aside and close-talked for a solid fifteen minutes on everything from the farcical nature of the current Republic (”There is no democracy. Their chief aim is to destroy Iran and turn it into an Islamic nation.”), to their apocalyptic rhetoric (”They say want to bring about the [Rapture-esque] return of Madhi, and everything they do is used as a means to justify that end.”) to how the current Iranian flag is nothing more than a sick joke (”The flags you see here, green and white with the lion and the bear — that is our flag. It was the flag of our people for centuries before our government was stolen from us, and it will be our flag again.”)
Kazi had just launched into why the clerics’ time-honored “Death to America” sentiment should be taken literally (”It is not a joke to them. If they ever get nuclear weapons they will not hesitate to use them. It will be the end of us for sure.”) when a woman — Kazi’s wife — interrupted us and began yelling at me.
“Please… who are you?!” she said, nervously clutching a familiar umbrella, her face dominated by a large pair of sunglasses and a green shawl wrapped about her head. “Go away! Do not use our names… for all I know you could be one of them… David, do not let him use our names… Oh…!”
She then spoke of being assaulted by people whom she suspected to be hard-line Ahmadinejad thugs, disguised as protesters and whom had “called me ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ and grabbed me by the wrists,” and had threatened to kill their daughter. The portions of her face that were exposed were shiny with a combination of sweat and (maybe) tears, her features contorted in a familiar expression of panic.
“I’m past being afraid,” said Kazi with a stern wave of his hand. “Let them do what they will. Use my name.”
“No,” she said. “David, please don’t –” yet before she could finish he silenced her with words I couldn’t understand, prompting his wife to grab their daughter — a curly-headed girl of about 6 or 7 –- and walk away.
Kazi shook my hand, smiled and followed after them. I just sort of stood there, wondering what in the hell I had just witnessed, when behind me the crowd of 60 had completely disappeared, leaving only an empty swath of Muhammad Ali Boulevard sweltering in the heat of that day. Everyone had gone; even the LMPD patrol car that had been camping out to keep the peace.
All that remained, oddly, was the spectacle of Fourth Street Live: white-collar workers walking to-and-fro their designated lunch destinations/places of employment; bums ambling toward oblivion; a rock band setting up their equipment on a stage in the middle of the street laughing wildly and smoking cigarettes. Everything was relatively quiet and peaceful, the gentle roar of traffic punctuating the din of conversations overheard at any of the innumerable air-conditioned patios, where dudes in polos and designer t-shirts chatted about whatever it is that dudes chat about while drinking domestic beer. Yet this symbol of much that is wrong and empty and dangerous within our culture had — for just a few short hours — played host to some of our nobler, rarer impulses.