I Am The Anonymous Iranian The NYT Published In 2009. The Trump Op-Ed Writer Is No Hero.
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The violence began in earnest two days after The New York Times published my op-ed. It was June 2009 and hundreds of thousands of Iranians had taken to the streets to protest a fraudulent national election. Under the uncommon byline of “Shane M.,” I had condemned the re-election of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as bogus, as well as the U.S. media for its apparent determination to dismiss the ensuing protests as an isolated event, the two parts of my identity brought in for reproach in equal measure.
Two mornings later, and one week after the voting had ended, the authorities began to follow through on threats to put a stop to the demonstrations. We watched it live and at home, Iranian television doing little to conceal the violence happening in the streets and alleyways around the country. There would be no quarter.
My situation as an American in Iran was already precarious. State media had placed the source of the trouble outside of the country. The news for days ran footage of “voluntary” confessions by local citizens led astray by foreign elements, villainous Iranians operating out of the United Kingdom (“Death to America” gets the headlines, but the role of lead villain is reserved in Iran for the British). I was a kharaji, or foreigner, who had arrived on a flight from London shortly before the vote, and so I fit the profile of the state’s narrative too well.
I was also an Iranian, one who could speak the language, albeit off kilter and by way of Texas and California, fluent in the most visible and obvious components of the culture. I knew my lines and could play the part. Nonetheless, I remained an Amrikai, or at minimum an az oon var-e ab (an Iranian from “the other side of the water”). My accent, dress, and even manner of walking being dead giveaways that I was not a “local,” a khodi.
I faced the worsening news by turning away. I curled onto my aunt’s couch, paralyzed by desperate fear, my back to the television. I didn’t need to look to know what I had gotten myself into. My aunt told me not to worry, that everything would be ok, hamechi dorost mishe. I pressed my face against the cushions. When they came, if they came, maybe I could hide like this, maybe they would take pity on someone so clearly in over his head.
The New York Times had run out of correspondents. Like other American and European media outlets, their reporters had been invited into Iran to cover the presidential election as the latest triumph of a democratic Islamic Republic, credentialed witnesses to the ritual of voting as an act of defiance against Iran’s enemies, a holy resistance by ballot box against the Americans. When the good news ran out and the voters lost faith with the results, the reporters were run out too, their visas expeditiously revoked by the authorities, who quickly ushered them out of the country before turning their attention back to the chaos brewing at home.
All that was left were us, the young graduate students and stray researchers still on the ground, held there by the ballast of our nationality and passports. We were residents in Tehran by accident and circumstance during the greatest political crisis since the revolution, and so the news agencies dipped down into our ranks, reaching out to us through email and mutual contacts. And so we wrote.
I tell my students to resist the passive voice, to place agency on their words, to link subject to object in a direct line of action. Not this, not the op-ed. The piece was written, in a haze and on deadline, the final draft finished in the narrow space between Tuesday and Wednesday, in the dark and against the wishes of my worried family members who wondered how they would answer to my parents were anything to happen to me. The story of what was happening, of what I had seen, sent by dodgy router from a kitchen table in a working and middle-class neighborhood to New York, a desperate signal from one of the countless residential towers scattered like dragon’s teeth along the arching foothills of western Tehran.
It was written to push back on what was then the emerging narrative in Washington, what in fact was the reassertion of an old narrative, that these protests were false, a “North Tehran” production performed by a cast drawn exclusively from the more westernized sectors of the capital. To an American political class with a fixed narrative about Iran, the protesters in the streets didn’t fit with the story and had to be explained away.
More than a few analysts now credulously accepted the official line out of Tehran that maybe, just maybe, Ahmadinejad had won the election. This was the real Iran, these were the real Iranians, a society that supported a rude and racist demagogue despite an economy in the tank and an international reputation darkened by their president’s bizarre denials of the Holocaust and of homosexuals. That Iranians might have a say in the matter of who best constituted the values of Islam and the revolution, or that Iran in 2009 was a different place from Iran 1979, was rarely considered or taken seriously.
Iranians, I argued instead, were courageous practitioners of self-governance, capable of discerning, of making a choice between bad and much worse. They had not re-elected Ahmadinejad but had instead cast their lot with the steady promise of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a comparatively bland if capable former prime minister, no less devoted to political Islam and the vision of its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. Above all, the voters had made the choice to work through a lousy system as it existed rather than to see it collapse, to hold it to account, to force it to live up to its professed righteousness. It’s not by accident that the slogan of the Green Movement was simply, Where is my vote?
To tell this story, I needed to be anonymous, but I also needed to be Iranian, a dyed-in-the-wool let’s-make-Iran-great-again real Iranian. The script would be more powerful coming from a local version of me, the particular details left to the imaginations of my audience, and not Shervin Malekzadeh, American citizen from Fontana, California.
So I performed “real.” My voice, amplified in the pages of Times op-ed section, would be the voice of countless Iranians. Left unspoken was the understanding that in order for the piece to work, we would have to leave out more than just my name. The Times described me as a “student in Iran,” an artful bio at once both precise and incomplete, one that skirted the line between revelation and concealment. There was a world of possibility in those words, “in Iran.” I was also an American, in Iran, an American immigrant who like most immigrants fell in between the two halves, at once and not at all Iranian and American.
The essay itself offered confessions of these other identities throughout, visible for those who knew where to look. The use of collective pronouns in the opening paragraphs, “our” and “we” set against the American “you,” gave way to idiosyncratically American phrasing and markers. The descriptions of life north of Vanak and the urban geography of the capital’s south centered me as Iranian. The references to the Dukes of Hazard and to day-old bagels, not so much.
The piece was a ”Rashomon” of signposts and signifiers, but only if the reader drew back from the story. The essay was based on the premise of complexity, the notion that Iranians have inner lives and local agency. I wanted to press back against the tendency to flatten out the experiences and beliefs of an incredibly diverse and contentious country of more than 70 million souls.
Anonymity made it possible for me to express this fullness, to expand the picture of Iran that we normally have in the U.S., but it also had the effect of elision, of compression and erasure. Anonymity was necessary to protect myself, but anonymity also meant giving up myself, my “true self,” to the story.
The print version of “A Different Iranian Revolution” today hangs over my office desk at Williams College, a 1,600-word anonymous manifesto by me and not by me, framed on the page by Krugman and Brooks, and the backdrop to countless conversations with students and colleagues. I wrote the piece in order to help bring change to Iran and the U.S., but it was the piece that would, in part, bring me to where I am now, this Arcadian idyll in the Berkshires. Hardly the place that I thought that I would end up when I was lying coiled and fetal on that couch all those years ago.
I must admit that in the time since my op-ed was published, I’ve entertained an uncomfortable ambivalence, even regret, about how it was delivered. Why hadn’t I let them put my name on it, my Iranian first name at least, even if it had put my personal safety at significant risk? (The nickname Shane comes from my mother, an endearment that doubles as a small act of assimilation to her new American home.) Isn’t transparency the measure of commitment? This guy was there. He saw what had happened. He had an op-ed in The New York Times. Putting my real name on the piece would have provided me with the authority that I needed to really affect the conversation around Iran, I sometimes tell myself, unconvinced. Immediately guilt seeps in, and I am at the edges of self-loathing. It all feels indecent.
Which brings me to the anonymous piece the Times published this week,“I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” credited to a “senior administration official.”
Who is the anonymous op-ed for? There has been in recent days some debate whether the Times erred in judgment by granting anonymity to the senior White House official, much of the discussion being less political than professional, centered on the ethics and responsibility of journalists. “What does a self-described ‘senior official in the Trump administration’ have to lose by speaking publicly?” NPR’s Scott Simon asked Saturday morning. “Their job?”
For most of the previous authors granted anonymity by the Times, the answer was, our lives. There have been only a handful of anonymous editorials run by the Times in the nearly 50 years that the section has existed, the paper of record being famously assiduous in insisting that its authors be on record. In the five and a half years that my indefatigable editor, Mark Lotto, worked at the paper, there was only one, ours. (If not for Mark’s efforts, and the timely interventions of my Georgetown adviser, Dan Brumberg, as well as my parents, that figure would have been none. The bosses at the paper only relented to the use of a pseudonym when we told them that I had been interviewed earlier that day by Robert Siegel at NPR.)
I am a member of an unusual and exclusive group, at this point its only named member. From this perspective, I am personally less concerned with the anonymity of the piece than what that anonymity is being put to. The author says that he or she is a part of “the resistance,” acting alongside scores of unnamed others “to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”
The notion that the essay published on Wednesday counts as an act of bravery, that this self-designated member of the resistance can barely conceal his or her desire to be acknowledged as a servant of the commonweal, while plainly ignoring the real abuses of the administration, is too much to bear. The author fails to mention the nearly 500 migrant children still separated from their parents, the constant race-baiting by the president, or his ceaseless demonization of a free press, but happily celebrates “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.” Our country for 30 pieces of silver.
What would our brave author say to the many Iranians who were victims of state suppression but who are now barred from entering the United States by the administration under the specious notion that Iranians pose a unique risk to the safety of the United States? How do we compare the sacrifices of the thousands of protestors on the streets of Tehran and other major cities in Iran that sweltering summer in 2009, or the many hundreds subsequently arrested, jailed or worse, with an individual writing from literally the pinnacle of political power, a senior official in the U.S. government? Theirs is a shame that no amount of anonymity can conceal, from which there is no hiding.
Shervin Malekzadeh was the author of the June 18, 2009, New York Times op-ed “A Different Iranian Revolution.” He is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Williams College.
- Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on September 9, 2018.