It is a lovely day for a hunger strike. Barefoot, on blankets outside the White House fence, 50, hollow-eyed Iranian students sit under a shady tree, in what they say is their day without food. They are not really hungry, they say. They are fasting by holy design.
"I hope you starve," screams a pregnant woman from Brunswick, Ga.
The Moslem student's demonstration has become the newest rave on Washington's tourist circuit -- you take in the Monument, do the White House tour and then stop to yell at the Iranians who have been holding America hostage.
These hunger strikers, grouped behind a bed-sheet sign demanding release of the "innocent, tortured , prisoners Muslim brothers & sisters" still being held at the D.C. Jail yesterday following Sunday's protests, are the latest installment in the Iranain story.
For the Iranians, it is political drama -- a Moslem crusade against the Western world that began with the ouster of the shah.But for Americans, it is symbolic -- high gas prices, worldwide humiliation and 52 hostages somewhere over there.
"If they don't like it here, why don't they leave?" a boy asks his mother. "it's, well it's complicated, Jimmy," she says, taking his hand. "Just don't go near those dirty animals."
So, the Iranians keep playing the martyr -- a role they say will get them to the hereafter -- staging their fast during the holy days of Ramadan, s month when eating and drinking are prohibited during the daylight hours. And the American response contunues.
At 11 a.m., a crowd of 200 has gathered. A woman from Holland has stolen center stage from a television crew, her black sun dress billowing as she screams, pointing to the heavens with her index finger: "They have to leave this country. They shouldn't have independence here. We couldn't have freedom there. If they like the ayatollah so much, they should go there."
The crowd yells approval, and the students cringe. They ask the cameraman to step back from their circle, please. "I can stand anywhere I want," snaps the veteran photographer. "Want to make something of it?"
"Don't go too close, son," cautions a black man in a baseball cap. "they might start a fight or something."
"it's OK to have religion here," declares a sweating, re-faced, fat man in floral Bermuda shorts, "but why, I don't know"
"Too bad the sun's not beating down on them," says a clean-cut man in an "I love Texas" T-shirt to his equally clean-cut female companion in her "I love Texas, too" T-shirt.
"They should cut down that tree so the sun can cook'em."
The crowd ebbs and flows. A man poses his young son and his slightly older daughter in front of a circle of demonstrators who are reading the Koran and talking quietly among themselves. The girl tries to grab her brother's hand, but he stands stiff and erect, his standard forced smile/grimace at the ready.
"Wipe that silly smile off. Look here, orders daddy. Sister angles her right foot forward, bending her knee slightly in a baby-fat fashion-model stance. Dad clicks the pocket instamatic. "Wait 'till I show this one to your uncle Norman," he says.
The picture idea catches on.Two blushing honemooners ask a bald man to take their picture in front of an Iranian student holding a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A girl poses her panting toy poodle on the sidewalk.
Behind her, one of the demonstractors is leading a red-haired woman and her Minnox camera to the side. "And over here you can take a picture of our shirts that were bloodied when the police hit us with their sticks . . ." he says.
He says his name is Ruhollah -- as in the ayatollah and he is the spokesman for the group. There are 15 others who say their name is Ruhollah, too. He doesnT have much to say. He knows that their 24-hour-a-day demonstration permit lasts seven days in all, but he's not sure why he doesn't want to leave the country if he doesnT like it here. As for the hostages, he says, "They are not my problem. Thank you for you questions."
And the woman from Holland drones on. "we heard from our country," she proclaims, "that these students are being paid $300 a day by the Communists." The Iranians ignore her.
Soon John Walters arrives, a bed sheet in one hand, several broomsticks and pieces of cardboard in another. He unfurls the sheet against the fence, just west of the Iranians: "KHOMEINI SUCKS. Go back to Iran. Free Our People." Cheers and claps. A crowd gathers around him.
"I was on my way to work and I heard about this protest on the radio. I had to come down," says the 32-year-old engineer from Silver Spring. "I figured if they could protest, so could I.
"I've never protested before. I'm a veteran and I'm tired of being apathetic. What they did, taking the hostages, was an act ot terrorism. I'm a flag-waving American and I'm tired of getting s-- on by people like this," he says.
"Do Not Starve -- leave," he letters on a piece of cardboard.
"Right on," calls a woman in a flowered muumuu.
"Yeah," yells a man nearby. 'We won't give you any food stanps either."
"Oh, George . . ." says his wife, grabbing his shirtsleeve and leading him away.
Walters scrawls another sign: "kill a Kidnapper."
I've had this on my car for 249 days," he says.
Walters hangs the sign on the fence, turns toward the students. "Hey Irainans," he yells, and flips them a double bird.
The day wears on and the Iranians continue their protest, sitting quietly and hollow/eyed, the men scratching the heavy black stubble on their faces. Most of the men and a few women wear white gauze shirts with the Imam Khomeinis bearded face stenciled in red on the front. Some wear bandages on their heads. There is a sense of embattlement within their ranks, as if they have set their camp behind enemylines on a mission of deathly gravity.
Sometimes they leave, two, three, several at a time. They are gone for as long as 30 minutes. Where, they won't say. But if they die for hunger -- and they say they are ready -- it will be for a reason.
"If I die, it is for a worthy cause," says Ruhollah (another one), shaking his head up and down as if to convince himself. "It is righteous to die. I'm getting tired of all these tourists though. They have been brainwashed by your government."
Another television crew arrives. Walters takes out his comb, a "habit left over from the '50s," and barks for airtime. "I'm a one-man protest over here, suckers."
Over on the Iranian side, a short man with close-cropped hair stands and sings a slow, mournful call to prayer, his right hand to his ear. A kid on a 10-speed bike rides by and drops three pennies on the ground before him.
The group kneels, facing Mecca, sugar water is passed around and prayers begin. A farm girl from Missoula, Mont., with rosy cheeks begins shrieking, her braces flashing in the sun. "Khomeini is a pig, Khomeini is a pig! Death to Khomein! God does not love murders . . ."
She launches into a resounding rendition of "America the Beautiful" and the crowd of about 150 joins in, singing louder and louder to drown out the prayers. The Iraians, in turn, chant louder.
A D.C. policeman rides by on his scooter and stops to talk to the force of about 15 U.S. Park Police in attendance. "If I wasn't working," he says, "I'd chanage my clothes and (urinate) in their can of water."
Enter stage left Mark Lane, attorney at law. His notoriety as counsel for James Earl Ray and Jim Jones since faded, Lane has found a new cause, Iranian civil rights. He strides toward his clients, dressed in blue polyester, followed by two associates.One of them carries his briefcase.
Lane asks his clients if there have been any problems. Yes, they say, Walters threw an egg at them. lane is in a huff and wants Walters arrested.
Lane approaches a park police officer, asking for an arrest. The officer says he didn't see the incident and refers the lawyer to the Citizens Complaint Board.
Lane becomes incensed, taking out a pen and a piece of paper. "What is your name," he demands. "The whole world is watching this and all you can get is rude treatment from the police.What's your supervisor's name?
"I think you're pretty rude, too," says the officer, taking out his own pen and paper. "Now, what's your name?"
A woman from the crowd approaches Lane. "You people should go home if you don't like it here."
"Madam, I was born in this country. I am an anglo-saxon," says the bearded Lane.
"Well you sure are tan," she counters.
"Did you get that down?" Lane asks an associate.
Rush hour commences, the flood of car-borne commuters blowing their horns and shouting obsecities at the Iranians.
Walters looks contented, rubbing the bulging belly of his blue American Graffiti T-shirt, his mirrored sunglasses reflecting the cars going past. He says he feels good, it was all worthwhile.
"I'm getting ready to leave now," he says. "But I think I'll come back later tonight and spit on them."