PART VII: We are not dirt and dust, we are the nation of Iran

Hassan was one of my youngest employees, no older than 24, and it was because of him that I was there, standing beside Neda when she was shot.

When I went to the office that morning, I said that no one was allowed to go out that day. I even arranged a ‘business’ meeting with Emad at 5 p.m. to keep everyone busy.

All through the meeting we continued to follow the news. The Internet was horribly slow but we were among the few who had access to a broadband connection. There’d been a crackdown. I called one of my friends who I knew would be out there.

‘I’m at Enghelab Square,’ he gasped. ‘People were supposed to gather here to begin the rally but now the police are beating everyone . . . they’re ruthless . . . don’t come out . . .’

That was it. Emad and Hassan stood up.

‘We’re leaving. We can’t sit here talking business while people are being slaughtered in the streets.’

‘No one is allowed to go out today!’ I shouted.

‘Fire me if you want,’ said Hassan. ‘I’m going.’

I turned to Emad, desperate, ‘You have a pregnant wife to take care of.’

‘I’m going out, Arash,’ he responded, smiling. ‘Sorry!’

I went out, too, trying to protect Hassan and Emad. Hassan had no idea about the meaning of violence. He hadn’t been there 20 years ago during the thousands of overnight executions. He didn’t know what the devoted soldiers of the Hidden Imam were capable of. His long hair reminded me of myself 15 years ago, when I insisted on its length in order to prove that, despite all the controls, I had managed to keep my individuality intact. I had no power over the determination of a young man who wanted to protest, to claim his vote, his dreams, his essential rights—to do what our generation had failed to do. The least I could do was to try and be with him, protect him. I told them I would go with them on the condition that they wouldn’t stray more than three feet from my side.

We didn’t get far. The protests were on around the corner, at the end of the alley that joined our office to Kargar Street where more than 50 anti-riot policemen were trying to force back about 200 protestors with teargas.

But it wasn’t working: neither the teargas nor the fear. The protestors lit a fire, trying to control the devastating effects of the teargas. Two young men stood over it, trying to soothe their reddened eyes with smoke.

Baptism by fire, I thought, that’s what it’s come to.

‘Don’t leave my side, you fool!’ I shouted to Hassan.

That’s when I saw Neda for the first time.

She was standing beside an old man with a ponytail, wearing the typical long black coat. She had tied her headscarf at the back of her head, either to battle the summer heat or to enjoy the brief opportunity that the protests had provided to free herself from the obligation of not exposing her neck. She was also wearing a visor to protect her eyes from the summer sun. The old man tried to keep her away from the crowd, although he was as successful as I in my struggle to keep Hassan by my side. They belonged to the same generation. I was trying not to be overwhelmed by fear at the same time as I was overcome with an unbearable premonition of something terrible waiting to happen.

‘Let’s go!’ I shouted. ‘It’s enough!’

The girl stepped forward in the crowd and shouted, ‘Down with the dictator! Ahmadinejad betrays us, the Leader supports him!’

The old man pulled her back.

An anti-riot policeman hurled a can of teargas. Clearly he wasn’t sufficiently trained because the can, instead of landing amid the protestors, flew over them and through an open window of the building at the corner. An old woman appeared at the window. ‘You idiots!’ she shouted through the smoke billowing around her, ‘Can’t you even aim right? I’m suffocating!’

Everyone burst out laughing and a few young boys and girls rushed towards the house to bring her out and baptize her with the smoke rising from the small fire in the middle of the street.

‘Welcome to the club, grandma!’ a young girl said, laughing.

Suddenly, everything changed.

‘They’re coming!’ someone shouted. ‘Run!’

I pulled back Hassan and Emad. The anti-riot police and their red motorcycles, now in a line, began moving towards the crowd. People began to run in different directions. About 10 or 15 of them sped into the alley that led to our office. I pushed all my friends and shouted, ‘Run, NOW!’ We began to run, Neda and the old man with us. The anti-riot police didn’t enter the alley; they preferred to keep control over the main street. This calmed us somewhat; we slowed down and stopped at the intersection. Neda turned to see if the old man was still with us. I looked around to see if Hassan and the others were all right.

‘Go into the office NOW!’ I shouted at Hassan, ‘Or I will sack you on the spot!’

Then, suddenly, we heard a blast.

‘What was that?’ I asked Hassan. ‘Was that a bullet?’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Emad, trying to record everything on his camera phone. ‘I’ve heard they are using plastic bullets to frighten people.’

‘Go into the office, Hassan.’ I repeated.

‘But, Arash . . .’

‘No buts! Now!’

‘She’s vomiting blood . . .’

I turned back and saw Neda bending over in astonishment, looking at the fountain of blood gushing out of her chest.

‘She’s not vomiting, she’s been shot!’ I shouted, rushing towards her.

‘What does she need?’ Hasan asks, his eyes filled with horror. ‘What can I do to help?’

‘Nothing,’ I say quite calmly. ‘She’s dead.’

No matter how hard I try to stop it, I am now overwhelmed by fear. She was standing three feet away from me when she was shot. ‘It could have been me. It could have been Hassan.’ And then I try to push the thought aside, embarrassed. I try to replace it with ‘It should have been me’. That’s when I hear someone shouting, ‘I didn’t want to kill her!’

The people have apparently caught a man. Emad tries to run his camera-phone again but the battery is dead. As if the scene it has just recorded has consumed all its energy.

He’s a robust sort of man, the typical ‘four-square’ moustache. The crowd has ripped off his shirt and is now beating him. ‘I didn’t want to kill her,’ he begs. I caught a glimpse of too many scars on his back.

A few men try to pull him out from under the feet of the angry mob. ‘Wait,’ they shout. ‘We are not like them, don’t hurt him.’ Another one, holds up his man’s wallet and ID cards, and shouts, ‘See? He’s from the Basij! This son of a bitch murdered that innocent girl!’

Reality sinks in soon enough. The crowd doesn’t know what to do. There’s no use handing him to the police since they themselves would be arrested for illegal demonstration. They can’t hurt the man because they are ‘not like them’. There’s nothing left to do but to let him go and keep his ID card.

There’s nothing left for us to do either. We walk back towards our office. I help Emad who is close to collapse.

He has never seen so much blood.