'The silent crowd came to life and began shouting'

‘The silent crowd came to life and began shouting’

Diako Alavi, a high-school teacher from Mahsa Amini’s hometown of Saqqez, witnessed the first protests following Amini’s death in police custody after she was arrested for improperly wearing the veil. Alavi, who knew Amini’s family, took part in the demonstrations alongside his students before he was also arrested by the Iranian authorities.

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I was a high-school English teacher in Saqqez (in Iranian Kurdistan), where Mahsa Amini lived. We called her “Jina” (her Kurdish name). I know her family well. Saqqez is a small city of 50,000 people, and her father is retired from the local social services; everyone respects him. When I learned that his daughter was in a coma after having been hit in the head repeatedly by the morality police, I was immediately worried. The news began to travel around the town and emotion spread. Her parents asked us all to pray for her.

I learned that Jina had left us on Friday, September 16. We were waiting for her body to be returned for the funeral the next day. Several groups seemed to have been sent to the four corners of the city to make sure her body would be returned to her family. I went to the cemetery at 8:30am. There were so many people. Thousands and thousands of people were prostrating themselves in absolute silence. You couldn’t even hear them breathe. It was startling and frightening at the same time. Then a man began to shout: “She could have been my daughter! She could have been your sister! How much longer are we going to put up with this?” The silent crowd came to life and began shouting. Within a few minutes people started calling for the death of [Iran’s Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei. Security officers who were on site began filming the scene from the roof of the cemetery mosque.

That made part of the crowd furious, and they went for them. For a moment, I thought they were going to kill them, but they just took away their phones and went back towards Jina’s grave.

‘Don’t cry, Mother – we will avenge your child’s death’

People continued to shout in unison, both in Kurdish and Farsi. They were calling out to Jina’s mother: “Don’t cry, Mother – we will avenge your child’s death.” Jina’s father grabbed a microphone to try to calm down the crowd. I think they had been threatened the day before with reprisals against their only son if the funeral turned into a demonstration. That is when thousands of people answered him with one voice: “Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid!” It was also at that moment that women began to hurl their black scarves into the air. (Several of these women were forced to leave the country after having been identified.)  

‘I saw two young people hit by bullets, right in front of me’

The crowd decided to demonstrate in front of the local governor’s office to show their anger. There were so many of us that it took hours to get there. The authorities knew we were coming and had set up in the square. They began firing water cannon at us after just one warning. Then they opened fire with shotguns; I saw two young people get hit by bullets, right in front of me. They were shot in the eyes.

The next day my city looked like a war zone. Day after day, security forces, Revolutionary Guards and special forces poured onto the streets.

I went to the demonstrations every day. At the beginning I didn’t want to, because I’m a little overweight and I don’t run very fast. But my students’ parents started calling me, begging me to help them bring their children home. They said to me: “They listen to you, Professor – tell them that it’s dangerous outside, tell them to come home.” 

I went to look after them and I discovered young people with extraordinary courage, ready to fight. This generation is very different from mine. Having had to live in a society that only offers them a future built of darkness and lies, they have nothing left to lose. At the very least, the ‘Woman, life, freedom’ movement has given them a bit of hope. They’ve seized the opportunity as though they were keeping their heads above water. I got the feeling that they were no longer obeying anything or anyone. 

I remember a young girl whose bloody face I washed clean. She had been shot. I pleaded with her to go home. I told her that she had taken her share of injuries for the day, that she didn’t need to stay there, that she could come back another time. But she wasn’t hearing anything. She went straight back to the front line.  

This Islamic Republic will not last eight more years’

I was arrested a few months later, for my teachers’ union activities and for having taken part in the demonstrations. I spent two weeks in prison, from January 2 to January 15, 2023. My interrogator accused me of being a bad teacher and of indoctrinating my students. I had always discussed everything with them in class. English is an opportunity to learn the words “freedom”, “equality”, “apartheid”. I ran a sort of literary café there that was also a place of cultural exchange for the teachers.

When I got out of prison, I was on “provisional release”. That same day, I decided to leave without saying goodbye. I spent three months in Turkey before coming to France. I often have regrets. I miss my students – I’m very worried for them, and for their futures.

I’m ashamed that I left the people close to me without saying goodbye. I keep telling myself that I should have stayed. I was facing up to eight years in prison; I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Today, looking back, I tell myself that I would have been capable of it and, in any case, this Islamic Republic of Iran will not last eight more years. Because every day it frays a little more from the inside.  

It has lost its ideological roots, and all of its support, across every level of society: among teachers, workers, pensioners, doctors, women – and even the most religious among them. It has lost the fight over the veil, which had been one of its pillars. This regime is no more than an empty shell. I don’t know when I will go back to Iran, but I do know that I will go back one day.

This article has been translated from the original in French.


Mahsa Amini’s death, one year on © Studio graphique FMM