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Revolution Redux

Watching the Uprising in Kiev Takes Me Back to Tehran

By Roya Hakakian
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page A23

Everyone is serenading Kiev these days. "Magical" and "most valorous" were the words on the morning news. But in my mind, Kiev has never looked more like Tehran -- my capital in 1978. Theirs is an orange revolution. But though I still can't discern the shade of our revolution, the similarities are striking.

Rock stars converged on Independence Square in Kiev. In my time it was poetry, poetry, poetry. Revolutions are ignited by politics, but the fuel that sustains their fire is hardly just that. All of Iran's literati and artistic elite got together that year to stage "Ten Nights of Poetry" at Tehran's Goethe Institute. It rained every night. But, what rain? Thousands gathered to hear the flaming speeches of their beloved authors! Our revolution, too, reached its climax in December. Yet we roamed the streets, unfazed. (Never had the Celsius been so gravely insulted!) On milder days we boasted that it was a sign that God was on our side.

Ukrainian demonstrators in Kiev's Main Square last month. (AP)

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We had no tent cities, but the streets were home. And by January 1979, the revolution had transcended the headlines. It had become something visceral: a paradoxical feeling of drowning in a sea of hundreds, yet never breathing better. Caught in those tides, we became the heroes that the quotidian nature of our days had never permitted us to be. With schools, offices and factories shut down, life and time had come to a halt. Six a.m. was the same as six p.m. Nowhere to be but here. Nothing to do but this. We stood idly like the unemployed, though we'd never been so gainfully occupied. (Imagine my quandary when I was asked, in a college interview after my arrival in the United States, if I'd ever been a cheerleader in high school!) The rest of the world had not vanished, but it had gone from being a place we previously dreamed of discovering to a place that we now demanded discover our dream.

Nearly everything was more than met the eye. A tree was an observation post; the stoops, the place for the ad hoc organizing committee to convene. Even the garbage strewn on the sidewalks -- fliers, bandannas, a bloody sock, a tire on fire -- were the venerable reminders of something grand in the making. And the unknown person who raised his middle and index fingers in the shape of a V was unknown no more.

All the lessons our parents and our civic and religious leaders had been teaching us all our lives sank in overnight. Strangers on the streets seemed familiar, like long-lost family members. The sick or the wounded never made it to the stretchers. They levitated in the air, their bodies passing over the crowds' hands. Drivers yielded to pedestrians. Children, watching the screaming adults, stopped their petulance. Mothers distributed sweets among passersby. Patrons in phone booths cut their conversations short to let others make calls. Even love felt greater on the streets that year. There was more to a kiss, to an embrace amid the throngs. The soldiers lurked about us with apprehension. In Kiev, they send the most beautiful female protesters to negotiate with them. We put carnations in the barrels of their rifles. Despite the chaos, the value of aesthetics is never lost on revolutionaries.

As vivid as these words are on my monitor, so are the details of those memories in my mind. Everything but the color of our revolution. Perhaps it's because history is black. It absorbs all shades into its oblivion, till the victors paint it as they wish. We were the secular, urban youth who wanted, as do our successors even today, a democratic future. We lost. Our grief turned us against ourselves, even against our own memories.

Now we're remembered as the Don Quixotes who chased a sham. Once, we'd been commended for our vision. Soon we were taunted for not having recognized the "realities." (Warning: The popular wisdom that "The journey is more important than the destination" does not apply to revolutions.) And so our brilliant shade of 25 years ago now conjures only darkness. Today, from a corner of the world where I never thought I'd live, suburbs of Connecticut, USA, I, an Iranian exile, with an ear fixed to the radio, root for Ukraine, and hope that the glory of their revolution will not fade in time but remain as it is today: orange and vibrant.

The writer is co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and the author of "Journey From the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company