The Stolen Election: The American Scholar
On June 12, 2009, I was among a hundred or so people standing outside a girls’ school in Mashhad, Iran, hugging the shade of a yellow brick wall. My friend N. and I were waiting to vote in the presidential election. It was Friday, the Iranian weekend. Stores were shuttered, intersections free of surging traffic. The mood was mellow—when a stooped old woman cut to the head of the line, several of us smiled. In the school parking lot, a Revolutionary Guard lounged on a chair, cradling his Kalashnikov. He waved us past garish instructional murals—the cornea of an eye; a red heart complete with ventricle—into a dim hallway strung with colored bulbs. Through an open door a radio blared; all morning the state network had broadcast patriotic marches and exhortations to vote. A slender man with gray hair and glasses held out a hand. I gave him my National ID Card.
“Birth certificates only,” he said, returning it.
“My birth certificate is in America,” I said. “Can’t you take my passport instead?” He smiled and shook his head, already reaching for my friend’s ID. A woman in a black wimple seized N.’s finger and pressed it onto an ink pad then a ballot stub before tearing off the ballot.
N. was in her 70s and arthritic; if the line had been longer, she would have gone home. She carried her ballot over to a scarred table holding a Bic pen anchored to the wall with blue ribbon. A small poster listed the names and codes of the four candidates. The fine print said: “Please refrain from entering more than one name on the ballot.” N. gripped her chador between her teeth and carefully wrote Mir Hossein Mousavi on the ballot. His code, 77, looked like two birds taking flight. I watched the ballot disappear into a padlocked box. We walked out into the heat of the day, past a soldier with a pistol on his belt. The whole process had taken less than an hour.
There was a curious innocence to it. I think of us on that Election Day as well-behaved children, confident of the treat in store.
In the spring of 1979, I voted for an Islamic Republic in Iran. Then it was all about freedom and democracy. Freedom’s face wore a turban and a glower that became known throughout the world, the visual antithesis of the Swiss-educated Shah, whose portrait had presided over my schooling. I’d grown up singing “Long Live the Shah of Shahs.” In eighth grade I narrated a performance of Hamlet that had to be revised so that the king lived. Back then the Shah seemed immortal. By the time of the plebiscite that determined the new face of Iran, I saw that as a bad thing. I was 17. It was a big year for me—first kiss, first day of college, first vote. I remember the least about the vote: sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, studying a slip of paper with two options, Yes or No. I marked Yes. So did 98 percent of voters in that election.
Thirty years passed before my next encounter with a ballot. I couldn’t vote in American elections because, despite living here since 1977, I couldn’t bring myself to confirm my expatriate status by applying for citizenship. I didn’t vote in Iranian elections because I was living in the United States. In retrospect, I see that I engineered for myself a useful disability; it left me free to have opinions while relieving me of the obligation of acting upon them.
I decided to participate in the 2009 presidential elections in Iran in the same way I might have chosen to have wine with dinner. I went to the polls in the same spirit that I went to see the date palms in Tabas and the adobe buildings in Yazd. It wasn’t political conviction; it was tourism.