During a brief visit to Shiraz, Nina Khoshnoudi witnesses the beginnings of a seismic change in Iran. Preparing for my trip home to Iran a few weeks ago, I asked my husband, a political consultant who took part in the democratic movement against Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia: "How I can convince my family to vote in the upcoming elections?" I was genuinely desperate for arguments. In the past, many of my friends and relatives have suffered from the affliction, common in Iran, of alienation from politics. They have simply refused to take part in a system they experience as meaningless. I've never fully grasped this feeling - I grew up abroad and know Iran only through family, friends and extended stays in the country. When I set out for Shiraz to show off my pregnant belly, I was intent on voting myself and hoped to drag maybe a few victims along with me. I was not expecting anything like what awaited me.
I arrived on the night of the second debate - broadcast live on a national television network notorious for obsequious programming - between the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ex-prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi. This kind of debate was a first in Iran, and to my delight, all eyes were glued to the TV. We were over for dinner at a relative's house that night, and the whole family was there, maybe 20 of us, lounging anxiously in embellished, oversized furniture, nibbling on fruits and nuts.
As the debate went on, the room grew more and more animated, and the volume of the TV slowly went up - thanks to my elderly uncles sitting a few feet from the screen - along with the volume of the crowd. "Oohs" and "ahs" rang out in response to some of the more dramatic moments. At the end of the programme, when Mousavi was concluding the debate, Ahmadinejad tried to interrupt him, but Mousavi shut him down. Everyone applauded loudly.
The cheering had just begun. After the debate, Mousavi supporters poured into the streets, jamming them with cars, exhaust and horns blaring deep into the night. In the next few days we heard about the green "human chain" along the 25 kilometres of Vali Asr Street in Tehran. The movement, which cropped up almost overnight, was being referred to as a "Green Wave". (Ahmedinejad's supporters, meanwhile, were known for waving the Iranian flag and riding around in groups on motorcycles - a morbid foreshadowing of the crackdown to come. Oddly, one of Ahmedinejad's slogans was almost exactly the same as Obama's "Yes we can".)
Some of my relatives were already prepared to vote, while a few lingering sceptics observed, asked questions and waited. Quotes from that night's debate, and the others to come, were repeated in tickled awe over the next week, discussed and remoulded into jokes. Ahmadinejad's disrespectful treatment of Mousavi's wife (he had called her academic credentials fraudulent) was instantly regarded as a despicable tactic; meanwhile, some said that, although Mousavi is mostly calm and logical, he uses the word "chiz" too much - the equivalent of "like" in English.
Every night from 10pm, when subsequent debates began, all engagements were set aside. The youth started their advance into the streets from much earlier in the day, and remained later into each consecutive night. By the end of the week the honking and cheers went well into the early morning hours, and the approaching election became a great excuse to gather with friends and celebrate. In the end, I didn't have to explain to my friends and family why they should vote; they were converting themselves.
On Election Day, young and old, mothers, fathers, grandparents and grandchildren all went to the polls. Even the staunchest sceptics in my family made their way out, some of them arriving at the earliest possible hour after a sleepless night. After voting, after witnessing the massive support for Mousavi and hearing the reports from Tehran and other cities, we were ready for victory celebrations. When the results came in the next day, none of it made any sense - except to those who had maintained their protective crust of bitter Iranian sarcasm. "The angels came out and voted," one friend sighed knowingly, referring to the votes he believed Ahmadinejad stole.
A man who works for the city's waste services, and who helps an elderly aunt of mine with her shopping and home maintenance, came by the day after the election as she was watching television. All the satellite channels were blocked, and the national network was repeating the same news over and over, about the victorious nation of Iran and its perfect demonstration of democracy. The reports featured rolling footage of people voting and, in flowery language, praised the free and open process. The news mentioned nothing about the results, except for a small box on the corner of the screen indicating the outcome and the occasional scrolling subtitle.
When my aunt asked the man whom he had voted for, he replied, "Ahmadinejad". As she lectured him, she became so emotional that tears welled up in her eyes. "You are educated, you have five children to feed, you should know better. What did he do for you? He gave you some money? How much, and how far could that money go, with the prices going up each day?" "Yes. But those Mousavi supporters," he shyly retorted, "I saw some things they did that were just not right." In his mind, they had celebrated and mingled a bit too overtly in the streets - more than he was used to seeing in Shiraz.
"And what does that have to do with Mousavi? You think Ahmadinejad's supporters were angels?" she nipped back. "I don't like you anymore, not at all," she concluded, half seriously. Another woman we know who works as a maid had also said she would vote for the incumbent. "Ahmadinejad is for downtowners and Mousavi for up-towners," she told us, breaking the vote down along familiar class lines. And yet, on the day of the election, we met a very poor woman from the outskirts of Shiraz who had come into town with her children to vote. She asked us directions to the polling station, and we offered her a ride. It was an important day, she said; she was voting for Mousavi.
Two days after the election, my visit to Shiraz came to its scheduled end, and I left for Dubai, where I live now. Only when I arrived back in the Emirates did I truly realise the magnitude of what was happening in Iran. In Shiraz, we had only gathered bits and pieces of information. Our satellite television connection was still scrambled; my cousins in Tehran had said that mobile phone networks there had been shut down before the vote; a lady at the bank told us that students at the university were attacked in the night; neighbours reported that there were sporadic protests in the capital. But we had no idea of the extent of it.
Not long after I left, the unrest spread to Shiraz. Two days after I arrived back in Dubai, I heard from my grandmother that two people were killed in the same street where I would go every day to update my blog at an internet cafe. Like many Iranians around the world, I am glued to my computer now. Heart-wrenching images, videos and updates are pouring out from inside the country, and I do what I can to spread them, since reporting from inside Iran is so limited. I wish I was still there with my friends and family. Iranians abroad have never been as homesick as we are today. But we have settled for another place, here, behind the screen, wired in to an unprecedented digital fusion of protest and support, and connected to what feels like a defining moment in history.
Whether or not the true results of the vote can be independently proven, a vast number of people in Iran today are convinced that this election was a lie, that the country's democracy is a lie. In a way, this is not all that different from what my family believed during all those years of political alienation. But now Iranians are not just wallowing in this conviction; now they are betting their lives on it.
Nina Khoshnoudi is a freelance writer, photographer and researcher living in Dubai.