(Persian Umpire) | March 21, 2010

The Iranian regime’s hostility toward Chaharshanbe Souri is nothing new. For years after the revolution, as we were growing up in Tehran, we held the celebrations in fear. As we set our tumbleweeds on fire in our street and threw some firecrackers around, we expected the Basij or the Komiteh – security forces who patrolled the city in Nissan SUVs – to show up, and they almost never disappointed us. When they arrived, they would shout at our parents and break up the party. Once everyone was inside their homes, the smaller kids would go to the roofs and throw firecrackers and homemade grenades at them. By then, news of Basij presence had reached the neighborhood bad boys, and they would promptly show up to give the Basijis a good beating. The older kids in our street then joined them too, until the Police arrived to break them up. Sometimes the fistfights in our street got quite bloody.

In those years, Chaharshanbe Souri was a means for expressing our defiance as much as it was one of the few occasions for having fun in Iran. And Chaharshanbe Souri was always fun, with or without the Basij. We always thought the regime’s antagonism toward Chaharshanbe Souri was either because of its desire to wipe out all remnants of Persian history and culture, or simply because officials were just plain anti-fun.

Over the past ten or fifteen years, there had been some kind of détente between people and security forces. The regime had resigned to let the people jump over their fires and stopped bothering us. This year it was different. The regime was back at the game again, naturally.

In light of the recent fatwa by the Supreme Leader, declaring the celebrations un-Islamic and silly, I was curious to see how widespread they would be in the vicinity of my current neighborhood, so I got in the car and drove around with a couple of friends. We ended up covering quite a large area since there was no traffic on the freeways and main streets, and we went from neighborhood to neighborhood with ease.

In every neighborhood we checked, on the streets and in the alleys, there was a fire burning and people were gathered around it, celebrating. There was even singing and dancing in some neighborhoods, and we saw plenty of women without their Islamic covering, jumping over the fires.
In most places, neighborhood garbage bins had been removed so people wouldn’t set them on fire. That didn’t stop them from taking their trash out, leaving them in mounds where the bins would have been, and naturally, some of the more mischievous members of the neighborhoods were setting them on fire.

Security forces had a heavy presence around town though, and we passed through several roadblocks as well. They were stopping the younger drivers and checking their papers or looking in their trunks. But overall, they were playing a rather decorative role, limited to the main streets and squares. They seemed not to dare enter the neighborhoods. In some spots, IRGC or Basij members were standing on the sidewalks on the main roads, while just a few yards away in the streets, people were doing what they came to do: having fun.

We stopped at a friend’s neighborhood and joined them. We jumped over the fires and yelled when the kids threw firecrackers behind us. We also watched some fireworks there which paled those that the government had prepared for the Fajr celebrations last month. On top of the tall buildings around us, people were displaying huge, colorful, patterned and professional level fireworks. They must have spent large amounts of money to get the shows going.

At about nine in the evening, we took off to visit another friend whose neighborhood had been quite crowded and festive in the past years. When we got there, it was evident that the place was living up to its reputation. But as we parked the car, a group of twenty or thirty IRGC bikers suddenly arrived in full gear. People started screaming and running and the guards got off their bikes and rushed inside the street wielding their batons. It was a mistake. People disappeared in their homes as the guards ran after them, and once they got to the middle of the street, there was no one left. Suddenly, we heard loud bangs and the street was covered with smoke. The guards started running back while people were chanting “Mashallah, Mashallah”.

A childhood scenario was being played out before my eyes once again. When the guards had gotten deep inside the street, people started throwing homemade grenades at them from the roofs. While these grenades are made to just make very loud noise, they can be quite dangerous if one is hit directly by them.

The guards ran back and stood next to their bikes, and we went inside my friend’s house and walked up to the roof to get a better view. After a few minutes of calm, people started chanting “death to the dictator” from the rooftops, and we saw some people on top of the neighboring buildings lighting up firecrackers and throwing them at the guards. This went on for a while until someone threw another grenade which landed close to the guards and forced them to take off.

So we get to the verdict: no one gave a certain rodent’s bottom for the fatwa. In fact it solidified people’s resolve to come out and celebrate. With the exception of occasional scuffles between people and security forces and some arrests, most people had a good time.

Note: It is the Iranian New year and I will be taking a much needed vacation for a few days. I know I have many unread e-mails since I have been absent for a while, so please give me a few more days and I will start answering them. If you celebrate Norouz, I wish you a happy New Year. If you don’t, then I wish you a happy Spring. And if you live in the southern hemisphere…then I don’t have anything to say to you at this particular time, unless you’d like to move.