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Hidden meanings

Observations on Iran

In one man’s apartment block in east Tehran, people gather on the roof every night to chant “Allahu Akhbar!” – the rallying cry of the 1979 revolution that has been taken up by supporters of the defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. One night, the man says, during a pause in the chanting, a lone voice cried out from the roof opposite: “Ya Hussain!” – the lament of Shia pilgrims on the Day of Ashura, which has become the answering slogan of supporters of the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His building responded with redoubled force: “Allahu Akhbar!” The man’s six-year-old daughter was on the rooftop with him. “Daddy,” she asked, “what’s wrong? You like Imam Hussain, I saw you crying for him at Ashura. Why were people shutting that man up?”

It is not just six-year-olds who are confused by the semiotics of public life in Iran. Shia culture makes great use of symbols and hidden codes, perhaps partly because, historically, it is a religion of the persecuted. In addition, there is the Iranian national tradition of expressing oneself with the utmost delicacy and discretion, known as tarouf. You might as well run naked through Imam Khomeini’s shrine as call a spade a spade. Then there is the traumatic experience of the shah’s secret police, the 1979 revolution, the subsequent clampdown on leftists, and the Iraq War, all of which left people in the habit of signalling their identity or allegiance indirectly. The result is a hermeneutic nightmare that often leaves foreigners feeling they don’t need a translator so much as a PhD in Iranian history in order to work out what’s going on.

Iranians are, of course, fluent in reading these signs. “Basij,” nodded my friend at an ordinary-looking man walking the street in a loose-fitting shirt, identifying him as a member of the paramilitary force loyal to Iran’s Supreme Leader. “That means they are ready to kill,” said another, when the faithful at Friday prayers in Tehran University chanted an innocuous-sounding motto of obedience to the Supreme Leader.

When the authorities revoked the press credentials of foreign reporters on 16 June, several were forced to leave. People were interested to know how I had managed to stay on longer. “Well, they did ring me a few times saying it would be a good idea for me to go,” I explained. The Iranians laughed at my obtuseness for failing to read that as a direct order.

I thought I at least had a handle on how to spot a Mousavi supporter: a woman in a designer hijab. But on election day I had interviewed an attractive young woman coming out of a polling booth in a black-and-gold Louis Vuitton headscarf. She talked about how historic that day’s vote was, and about her desire for change, and I mentally switched off, having heard the same ideas several times earlier from Mousavi supporters in north Tehran. “And that,” she finished, “is why I am voting for Ahmadinejad.”

Even apparently obvious imagery used at protests turns out to have hidden meanings. “I carry a picture of Mousavi, but it is for show,” said one demonstrator.

“I wear something else in my heart. It is a symbol.”

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape