Bearing Witness, #IranElection (part 1): Negar Mottahedeh on the Background to “Rosewater”

[ 0 ] April 10, 2015


Protests in Tehran, June 16, 2009. photo by Milad Avazbeigi

Protests in Tehran, June 16, 2009. photo by Milad Avazbeigi

Duke University literature professor Negar Mottahedeh set the scene for “Rosewater”  — a feature film about the real-life imprisonment of Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari following his coverage of the 2009 Iran elections — at a public screening of the film last month. 

Released in November 2014, “Rosewater” is based on Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival. The screenwriting & directorial debut of The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, it stars Mexican actor Gael García Bernal.

Bahari was a consultant on the film, which follows his trip to Tehran to cover the 2009 Iranian elections for Newsweek and interview Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who was the prime challenger to controversial incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

THE PLOT: “As Moussavi’s supporters rose up to protest Ahmadinejad’s victory declaration hours before the polls closed on election day, Bahari endured great personal risk by submitting camera footage of the unfolding street riots to the BBC. Bahari was soon arrested by Revolutionary Guard police, led by a man identifying himself only as “Rosewater,” who proceeded to torture and interrogate the journalist over the next 118 days (in Evin prison). In October 2009, with Bahari’s wife leading an international campaign from London to have her husband freed, and Western media outlets including “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” continuing to keep the story alive, Iranian authorities released Bahari on $300,000 bail and the promise he would act as a spy for the government.”

Mottahedeh is associate professor of literature and women’s studies. In her class on social media and social movements, she teaches how the mass uprising following the 2009 Iranian election, and subsequent government crackdown, became “the first popular and unremitting revolt to be reported minute by minute by citizen journalists on social media” and “made the Iranian uprising for justice and civil liberties palpable around the globe.” Her new book “#iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online life” (Stanford University Press), about this social media mobilization, will be published in June.

Below is Mottahedeh’s introduction to “Rosewater” — adapted for publication :

A sense of euphoria and unprecedented freedom dominated national politics during the presidential campaigns in Iran in the spring of 2009. In the course of the thirty-year history of the theocratic state, no one could remember another time when Iranian state television had broadcast such lively debates among the presidential candidates.

Leaving a rally for the sitting president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Time magazine correspondent Joe Klein described a crowd of tens of thousands filtering downtown. The Ahmadinejad rally was ending around the time that the reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s rally too was finishing up. Mousavi’s supporters made their way downtown, flooding the streets and squares.

The scene, as Klein recalled it with obvious awe, was one of camaraderie, of playfulness. Describing the intermingling of the two camps, Klein observed, “They were just kind of joking with each other. It seemed as if someone had opened a magic door and an entire country had spilled out.” There was this sense of electricity and excitement. In these days of anticipation leading to the presidential election, people danced in the streets, women and men played around with their outfits, piling up green hats on top of their veils, making bandanas, armbands and finger-bands out of green fabrics , tying things here and there. Public space felt celebratory and alive and the air was spiked with a flavor of exhilaration. Things were about to change.

This wasn’t just a feeling. Things looked lively too. Color was everywhere. Election activities were color-coded. Campaign paraphernalia, campaign headquarters, and campaigners themselves were clearly differentiated using predesigned graphic coding based on the colors of the candidate’s campaign. The incumbent president’s supporters used the red-white-and-green Iranian flag as their symbol. From the headquarters of Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, campaigners handed out flyers and posters that were washed solely in the color green. Voters spoke of Tehran in campaign colors, even as ranking members of the Revolutionary Guard cautioned against rogue groups creating “a colorful” “velvet revolution.”

It was during one of the presidential debates that the reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi had put on a green shawl. The tint of the shawl, an iridescent green and the color assigned to the family of the Prophet, highlighted Mousavi’s status as a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and emphasized his position as the candidate who promised to bring the nation back to the basics, that is, to the original principles of the state as established by the venerated leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after the 1978 Revolution and, too, back to the traditions of radical kinship founded on Shi’ism’s ties to the family of the Prophet through the Twelve Imams.

On June 12, 2009, Iranians went to the polls to elect a new president. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected as the sixth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran with 63% of the votes cast. But millions believe that their vote was never counted. Final numbers had been announced before the polls were even closed. Thus on the day following the election, an all-embracing movement donning green armbands, finger-bands, and headbands took to the streets to call Ahmadinejad’s victory a fraud. The color green became the symbol of the opposition.

Images of masses of people filling the vast boulevards, squares, and bridges of the Iranian cityscape were posted to Twitter and Facebook within minutes. Digital images framed groups of men and women donned in green and black, in headgear or scarves, with one simple question printed by hand on a single sheet of paper: “Where is my Vote?”

Eyewitnesses uploaded videos to YouTube showing a moving sea of millions. They were posted with singular descriptors —“ Today” or a mere date — as if the fog of what had just taken place had in some gesture of synesthesia also robbed people of their voice.

Hundreds of digital images taken with handheld devices circulated from within the crowds. Protestors were alternately holding hands and flashing victory signs. Close-ups of men and women, people of different generations and backgrounds, next to each other, marching behind one another. The urgency with which the images were uploaded, shared, studied, commented on, and re-tweeted established a sense of simultaneity and solidarity. The opposition movement was lovingly embraced online as the “Sea of Green,” the “Green Movement,” or the “Green Wave.” Twitter was awash and enfolded in it. #iranelection became its slogan. It was the first long trending global hashtag in the history of Twitter.

By June 16, foreign journalists started reporting that they were being banned from the protests. And within a week of the election, foreign journalists would be summarily rounded up and sent home. Others, including the Iranian-Canadian Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari, were imprisoned, some indefinitely.

The deafening hush of the early street demonstrations was broken as the violence of the regime became palpable. A twenty-six-year-old woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was brutally shot and murdered by the state paramilitary basij in Tehran on June 20, 2009, a week after the election. She was not the first martyr of the 2009 uprising. But Neda’s death stood out. It had all the imprints of sacrifice to a secular mind. Her death in the midst of a small group of protestors and friends was captured on a handheld device and immediately uploaded. The digital video documenting Neda’s death circulated first on Facebook, then on Twitter. The video of a young Iranian girl’s agonizing death went viral in a matter of hours. Her name, “Neda” (“voice” or “calling” in Persian), became the rallying cry for the Iranian opposition. Images of the spectacular crowds in green and the viral video of the murdered Neda Agha-Soltan galvanized people of all backgrounds and ages.

New York Times journalist Roger Cohen, mourning his loss of access as a foreign journalist, acknowledged in these moments the ascendency of the activist as citizen journalist. In the midst of the crisis he wrote, “Iranians have borne witness—with cellphone video images, with photographs, through Twitter and other forms of social networking — and have thereby amassed an ineffaceable global indictment of the usurpers of June 12. Never again will Ahmadinejad speak of justice without being undone by the Neda Effect.”

With more than ten thousand #iranelection tweets an hour throughout the month of June, the involvement of netizens in the crisis in Iran was so widespread that the hashtag #iranelection remained the highest-ranking global hashtag on Twitter for two weeks following the presidential election, dropping only momentarily after the unexpected death of Michael Jackson. It was inevitable, though, given a whole generation’s absolute devotion to MJ in defiance of the Iranian morality police, that the mashups that were created of this moment of confluence would be not only appropriate but humorous and plentiful. Of the most reposted #MJ #iranelection videos that were made on the occasion of Michael Jackson’s sudden death, his “Beat It,” to the image of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and a collage video of the protests on the ground to “They Don’t Really Care about Us” were the most popular.

… Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, “Rosewater” is based on the Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memories of solitary confinement in an Iran’s Evin prison. He was put in prison for reporting on the post-election uprising in Iran. The film is that, but it is also a fascinating story about a family of activists that under very different regimes where imprisoned, tortured and killed. Bahari’s father, a communist, was imprisoned by a secular West-identified Shah. His sister was imprisoned and executed by the Islamic theocracy. That these realities weave through the story, at all, halts any attempt on our part to make a villain out of one and not the other of these forms of government: whether secular and or purportedly religious.

That Maziar Bahari was finally released from prison, and that he speaks forcefully today on behalf of the Baha’is in Iran who have been denied the right to higher education ( since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, is testament to the fact that we did care and that do care. We did and we do consistently stand in solidarity with others against injustice.

Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” is also about the media and how a 21st century repressive regime is incapable of maintaining control over the flow of information in the new ecology created by the solidarity of netizens online. For while we would say in the 1960s that the world was watching, it wasn’t until the 2009 post-election crisis in Iran that a populist uprising was catapulted onto the global stage by social media in such a way that we could truly say in the prescient words of W. B. Yeats, that “the world bore witness.”


The “Rosewater” public screening and Q & A was sponsored by the Program in the Arts of the Moving Image (AMI), the Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC), the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, the Duke Human Rights Center at Franklin Humanities Institute (DHRC@FHI), and ISLAMiCommentary. A complete recording of the introduction and Q & A will be posted next week. 

Here is Jon Stewart and the trailer: 

Below is a recording of Prof. Mottahedeh’s introduction to “Rosewater” — speaking about the 2009 Iran election. Immediately following is audio of the public Q & A portion that followed the screening, Bennett and Mottahedeh discussed the potent themes of the film, including the power and limits of bearing witness — as traditional or citizen journalists — and the government’s use of social media as a tool of control and repression. READ HERE (Part 2) FOR THAT STORY


ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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