Iranians Converge in New York to Protest Ahmadinejad Visit

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

NEW YORK, Sept. 23 -- Turaj Zaim woke up Wednesday in a Days Inn in Queens and took a cab to the United Nations, determined to meet Iran's leader. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was scheduled to address the General Assembly in the afternoon, and Zaim, a lanky, blue-eyed hip-hop artist, wanted to talk to him face to face.

"I want to ask him why they held my father for 90 days," said the 33-year-old, who had flown in the night before from San Francisco. His father, a democracy activist in Iran, was arrested in June as Iranians took to the streets to protest a disputed presidential election.

The streets of Midtown Manhattan were filled with other Iranians who had traveled to New York to protest Ahmadinejad's presence. Some had demonstrated there against the shah three decades ago. Some said they, too, hoped to get the president's attention. They staged a sound-and-light show Tuesday night in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, projecting images of Iranian unrest on the white T-shirts of volunteers and declaring, "Ahmadinejad is not my president." They sang songs Wednesday outside Iran's U.N. mission and marched with green banners -- the Iranian opposition's signature color -- as close as they could get to where he would be speaking.

Along the way, there were whispers. Did you hear he's been kicked out of two hotels? Do you know where he's staying?

When the Iranian president comes to the United Nations each year, he often meets with handpicked guests, including American academics and Iranian expatriates. But this year, many who were accustomed to receiving invitations didn't get them. Others who did declined in protest.

It was hard to find anyone in the crowd who knew anyone attending, but some said they had moles.

"We have people that are in the U.N. who are keeping us apprised. And there are also people who work in New York City hotels who will tip people off," said Sheida Jafari, a protest organizer. The organizers had been bombarded by messages in recent days from all over the world, including Iran. "They say, 'Why don't you barricade this door or that door or attack his motorcade?' " Jafari said, adding that the organizers did not promote such actions. "They have a lot of anger, but we want to focus on human rights rather than espionage."

Most protesters appeared more intent on raising awareness than raising hackles. Zaim spoke at a rally about his recent hunger strike, which ended Sunday when his father was released on bail. Zaim had left Iran at age 6, crossing the mountains with his mother into Turkey.

As the day progressed, the crowd grew larger. One group had cycled in from Toronto; several had flown in from Iran. "We hear they didn't give him a room," said Hassan Alizadeh, 38, who had come from Iran and planned to bike to Washington, Charlotte and Atlanta in protest. Over the summer, he had taken part in the demonstrations in Iran. "We asked, 'Where's our vote?' and they answered us with tear gas and batons."

Ali Reza Sadr, a 30-year-old dentist, had flown in from Tokyo on Tuesday. He said he had hoped to move back to Iran but now had no intention of returning.

"We're all displaced," he said. "If I had a chance to meet Ahmadinejad, I would say to him, 'You don't deserve to be Iran's president, because you are a cheat and a liar.' "

Some wanted to go further.

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