Monday, July 13, 2009


There was a time, when death was romantic. The Neo-classicists dreamt of their deathbed, in which they would be draped Grecian-style with sheets, surrounded by their loved ones and peers, grieving in a contrived fashion as the soon to be departed uttered profound and histrionic, last words. In the famous painting “The Death of General Wolfe,” by Benjamin West, for example, the dying general, killed while fighting the French in Canada, reposes languidly in the arms of his adjutants, as they all bend over to bid him farewell. West depicts General Wolfe as a Christ-like figure. His work resembles the painting of La Pietà, where Christ is held in the embrace of the Virgin Mary. The central message: the death of a hero-martyr is particularly sweet and the moment of his demise, is one not without its aesthetic value.
The Youtube videos of Neda Agha-Soltani’s recent tragic death are anything but romantic, or aesthetically pleasing. They depict in crushing, soul-numbing and relentless scene-by-scene reality, the pathetic demise of an innocent. There is no Grecian drapery to cloak the stark horror as the viewer witnesses this goddesses’ blood spill onto the road and count the seconds as her life ebbs away. There is no carefully composed and arranged imagery or figures to add a grace-note of symbolism or poignancy – anything that would add meaning to her death. She died amidst the confusion of a crowd of protesters, with people scurrying to and fro. Neda, a young lady, brimming with the life, youth and ambition that was an ancillary of her age, was shot dead by a plain-clothes policeman for reasons that are not particularly apparent, as she attended a rally demanding free and fair elections in Iran.
Benjamin West produced his famous paining some eleven years after the death of his subject. In Neda’s case, her death, taped on the mobile phones of bystanders in all its gory detail, was uploaded within minutes upon the Internet. The video quickly became a rallying point for the reformist opposition. Nedā coincidentallty enough is also the the Persian word for "voice", "calling" or "divine message," and she has been referred to as the "voice of Iran.”
Jelaleddin Al Rumi, who is one of the greatest Persian poets, once said that the truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth. All of a sudden, the unassuming Neda, who decided upon the spur of a moment to attend a rally, has become a martyr. After being pronounced dead at Shariati hospital, Agha-Soltan was buried at the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran; she was denied a proper funeral by government authorities. The Iranian government has further issued a ban on collective prayers in mosques for Agha-Soltan in the aftermath of the incident. Soona Samsami, the executive director of the Women's Freedom Forum, who has been relaying information about the protests inside Iran to the international media, told the foreign press that Agha-Soltan's immediate family were threatened by authorities if they permitted a gathering to mourn her. As she stated, "They were threatened that if people wanted to gather there the family would be charged and punished.” It comes as no surprise that the Iranian politicians impugning the validity of the recent Iranian elections that handed incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a triumphant victory, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, called upon Iranian citizens to commemorate Neda, interestingly enough, for those who would have Iran to be a backward country, on Facebook.
As I watched Neda die, I remembered the thousands of other young people who have been slain while protesting of various causes. I will never forget my shaken and distraught Chine teacher the day after the Tiananmen Square massacre telling us how he had wished that he had died with the students. I recalled grainy black and white pictures of students’ dead bodies in the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising and the Prague Spring. I remembered stories my uncle told me about the students in the Athens Polytechnic the day the Junta’s tanks smashed its gates and rolled in and the protests of the Lithuanians in 1989 that were bloodily put down by ‘reformer’ Gorbechev. Further, I recalled what I knew of an event that was eerily reminiscent of the present situation, Black Friday. This is the name given to 8 September 1978, when the repressive Shah of Iran’s security forces shot protestors in Zhaleh Square in Tehran. The deaths of these young protestors and the reaction to them has been described as a pivotal event in the Iranian Revolution when any "hope for compromise" between the protest movement and the Shah's regime was extinguished. So what was the outcome of the courageous slef-sacrifice of these fighters for democracy? This: “Do not interrupt the activities. You all have to obey the Islamic Republic. And if you don’t, you all will vanish.” (Ayatollah Khomeni 19 September 1979). The revolution that had such high hopes of placing Iran, a country with a much older and just as developed civilization as our own upon the road to parliamentrary democracy, fell upon the stumbling block of the Shia version of the Islamic revival that opposed Westernization, saw Ayatollah Khomeini as following in the footsteps of the beloved Shi'a Imam Husayn ibn Ali, and the Shah in those of Husayn's foe, the hated tyrant Yazid. The successors of the Black Friday ‘student-martyrs,’ who rallied against repression and would place their handprints dipped in their own blood as a final, futile act of protest upon street signs and posters, would be addressed in the following manner by the leader of the revolution in whose cause they had died, just the following year: “Don’t listen to those who speak of democracy. They all are against Islam. They want to take the nation away from its mission. We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things.”
Neda’s death, therefore, signifies in frightening poignancy, just how futility has come full circle. The same gruesome and senseless deaths are occassioned by the same agents of repression, who owe their accession to power upon their promise to end the repression that they have adopted. Neda, now safely dead, is that frightening thing, an empty, lifeless corpse to be animated and used as a mouthpiece by all those who derive benefit from exploiting her pointless demise. Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah of Iran produced a photograph of Neda from his jacket pocket, as well as photographs of his family, at a press conference in Washington, on 22 June, and stating: "I have added [Neda] to the list of my daughters. She is now forever in my pocket."
Pahlavi criticized the Iranian government's crackdown on protesters and added, "No one will benefit from closing his or her eyes to knives and cables cutting into faces and mouths of our young and old, or from bullets piercing our beloved 'Neda' whose only sin was the quest for freedom — no one but tyrants and their thugs." And yet, ironically, this is exactly what the Black Friday protesters had said about his father’s regime.
On 24 June 24, Reuters reported that supporters of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi stated they would release thousands of balloons with the message "Neda you will always remain in our hearts" imprinted on them but this is to be expected, given the political situation and the desire to score points against the tyrannical thoecratic government. It should be noted however, that those same politicians who now rally the people against the mullahs have been associated with them and their government for years. However, perhaps the most cynical comments come from Iran’s arch-enemy, the US. On 23 June, Barak Obama, stated that "[we] have seen courageous women stand up to brutality and threats, and we have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets." Duh. Talk about stating the obvious. Obama later said that he had watched the video of her killing, describing it as "heartbreaking", while adding "I think that anybody who sees it knows there’s something fundamentally unjust about that.”
Therein however, lies the tragedy. We can all agree that Neda’s death is tragic. However what exactly has she died for? All those who pay tribute to her have a controlling interest in her country. Will her death bring about democracy? Most probably not. If anything, Neda’s death bears brutal testimony to a single horrible truth: that repressive regimes that think nothing of taking away human life will continue to exist, legitimizing their brutality by mythologizing the memory of the brutality previously inflicted upon them. And people will die, in droves or alone and in bewilderment, continuously at their hands for while in repressed countries a protests is a symbol of hope, in democratic countries, it is merely a forum by which aggrieved citizens can let off steam, to the general indifference of their peers and their governments. What Neda deserves is not to be made a martyr of, but rather, to be allowed to rest in peace. For as the Iranians say: “The best memory is that which forgets nothing, but injuries. Write kindness in marble and write injuries in the dust.” In this brave new world where the guiding ideology is power, let us not look upon the marble edifices of our lifes, and find them unengraved.


First published in NKEE on 13 July 2009