Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Neda; or, the Question Suzanne Malveaux Didn't Ask

This post requires the sort of warning that has preceded the airing of many amateur video clips from Tehran on CNN over the last few days, even those so edited and censored as to make the most disturbing portions of the clip virtually unintelligible, dulling their ability to disturb.  In this case, some will find some of my comments on the clip in question and the response to it disturbing.  Since such a response would mirror my own reservations about the selectivity of outrage and the lessons we all need to take from the coverage of the Iran election protests, it seems a risk worth taking.

Anyone who has paid any attention at all to the coverage from Tehran over the last ten days knows about or has seen in some version the footage of the death by sniper's bullet of Neda Agha-Soltan, a largely apolitical woman in her mid-twenties engaged to be married and embarking on a career as a cultural tour guide.  She apparently got out of her car near the corner of Salehi St. (hence an early mistaken version of her last name on Twitter) because the a/c had broken down in the heat.  She, her music teacher, and a couple of people they knew began to join the edges of a rally, about a block from the main body of protesters.  One video shows her leading her music teacher away from the direction they'd started to take.  Then a gap of unknown length ensues.

The second and best known of the videos begins after a sniper concealed on the roof of a house has shot her in the chest.  It shows the music teacher and one of their friends laying her down on the street, where we can already see a pool of her blood, presumably from her exit-wound, and continues as the men try to comfort her.  At some point she apparently says "I'm burning, I'm burning," and the men, beginning to sound like so many mourners we have heard in recent years in Serbo-Croatian, Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Hindi--one could go on and on--exhort her not to leave them.

Then comes the moment that one suspects has made this video the icon it has become, and with it Neda herself.  As the music teacher reaches to cup the left side of her face with his right hand, blood begins to stream out of both corners of her mouth and both nostrils, covering her left eye, her right eye open but glazed and uncomprehending.  At the conclusion of this tape and another that captures only these last few moments,  her head tips over to the right.  The hospital to which the men brought her declared her dead that evening.  Her life as the symbol of the election protests had only begun. 

It has taken a few days for the details of her circumstances to emerge in various sources on the Web, including Wikipedia.  A parallel effort of disinformation has emerged as well.  An Ahmadinejad supporter had claimed by early Saturday evening ET that Neda and her teacher and friends had staged the whole thing.  When her music teacher put his hand to her face, according to this tweet, he actually poured the blood that then appeared on her face.  I have a weakness for the crime investigation show NCIS, and did something their Goth forensic scientist has done hundreds of times in countless episodes.  I took the video back, again and again, to the moment in the tape when she begins to bleed.  I could have written off the Ahmadinejad supporter as a biased crackpot, but something in me wanted  certainty, wanted to know that I can trust what I see, that the web cannot play with my emotions helter-skelter without some recourse to verification.  In the video the music teacher has nothing in his hand with which to pour anything; the hand in fact reveals nothing but helpless tenderness.  The moment in the tape when the blood begins to issue from her mouth and nostrils says all that needs saying about the veracity of her death.

The Ahmadinejad line has shifted.  They now argue, in one version, that an Israeli entered the country illegally and shot her to create mischief, and in another that the basij sniper mistook her for the sister of a monafeghin, an outlawed Iranian Marxist mujahedin, executed by the government last year.  One fails to see quite how the latter account would justify Neda's murder, unless the sniper's "mistake" issued from some sort of misplaced heroic hatred of all associated with any opposition to the government.  One begins to wonder not only why Ahmadinejad thought he could get away with voter fraud on a massive scale, but why he even bothered with the farce of an election in the first place, other than the obvious failure to understand the depth of mistrust and, if not then, certainly now, hatred with which his people view him.  Will the protests lead him and Khamenei to abolish all pretense of democratic process? 

The death of Neda has become something of an obsession for many of us.  Saturday night one got far more hits on Twitter, refreshed at a remarkable speed, using a hashtag that included her name, appended to the phrase "iran election" or not, than if one neglected to use her name.  Josh Levs reported this phenomenon on CNN, and I confirmed it on my own computer.  In thirty seconds anything from 423 to 2,436 tweets--for one brief moment at the peak--would appear.  The protesters had a martyr, Mousavi knew it, and soon the cycle of mourning would begin that Mousavi and his colleagues used to such effect in the Islamic Revolution, though how aggressivly they will use it one cannot yet tell.  Neda had become the international symbol that linked all those anywhere following events in Tehran.  Her face has become an avatar on Twitter and Facebook.  By last evening a touching film appeared, with soft, sad Persian music and the most flattering of the few photos of Neda alive that have surfaced, scarved and unscarved.

Suzanne Malveaux of CNN asked President Obama at his news conference yesterday if he had seen the images of Neda's death, and if so, how had he responded.  He replied that he had, and that he found them "heartbreaking."  And here I have to pose the question for which you have received fair warning.  Why Neda?  We have seen so many corpses these last few days, so much blood, most of it on men.  I have begun to find it all numbing, to the point that I don't know how I would have answered Malveaux's question, which struck me as rather sensationalist and cloying.  Clearly Neda's image has stuck because it comes with a narrative, albeit a partial one that has needed some filling in to complete.  At the center of the narrative, unmistakably, blood flows.  Somehow flowing blood, not the stains on a dead man's shirt, but the evidence of lungs still just barely alive pumping out blood with each last labored breath, grips us by the emotional privates and says "Watch.  Watch again.  And again."  Beautiful young women shouldn't die this way.  

I just wonder.  Does Neda's story say anything at all about the reach of feminism in Iran, or even here?  After all, in the video we see a young woman in a short chador and blue jeans, a professional woman in her leisure time.  In some Islamic countries she couldn't have aspired to work as a cultural guide, nor gotten away with the blue jeans.  On the other hand, though she is hardly beautiful in her struggle, we see her beauty from photographs of her that have appeared.  Sadder because beautiful?  Have we made that little progress?  

Mousavi's wife wears a chador or a kind of double-scarf combination in all her appearances on video, by herself, with friends and associates, and with her husband.  She certainly has every right to the chador, as do all Iranian women, indeed all Muslim women anywhere.  I used to admire my Muslim students who would  come to class with beautiful silk or wool scarves, making many of their classmates look as though they'd just gotten out of bed--as they had--or come from the gym.  I just wonder if we accept the notions behind the protection of women by the veil, the dangers of their beauty and the fragility of their sex, in lavishing on the one unmistakably beautiful Iranian victim whose death we have watched on our computers and blackberries and i-phones and televisions the attention of the last few days, and the status of martyr.  

I, for one, do not feel entirely comfortable either with the numbing of affective overload from trying to absorb all that has come through the electronic media, or with the focus, my own included, on this one young woman whose car a/c broke down at a particularly inauspicious moment in a brutally dangerous place.  I mourn her, but do not want that mourning to distract us from all those others we need to mourn, whose friends did not happen to have an i-phone or whatever to film the last moments of their lives, and whose sex and physical appearance might not have inspired as much pity in us as did Neda's.


  1. I was completely gripped by your retelling of this moment of martyrdom. It was more powerful than watching it on an embedded clip or surf session via YouTube. I realize now how words can tell a 1000 pictures or something like that.

    I do think you place more stock in predetermination and qualifications than I do. Sometimes, people capture the attention of the world for less than beauty, blood or even being in the right place at the right time. I agree that other lives must be mourned and it appears that this attention on Neda will draw more attention on the chaos and pain of Iran. That is what martyr's do.

    I have followed Iran mostly by newspaper. Thank you for helping me delve deeper into Twitter et al.

  2. Focus on a beautiful woman caught in the grips of tyranny - be it Neda's death or Roxana Saberi's judicial ordeal - has been an effective rallying cry for the US for centuries, dating back to American Indian abduction tales of early settlers. For recent history, Susan Faludi's book The Terror Dream goes into incredible detail on how the appeal of beautiful martyrs has increased since 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror, not because of a belief in feminism or women's rights but rather to exploit the virility gained from being a (male) rescuer. It's a fascinating book with arguments that address the questions raised in your blog.