“140 characters are a novel when you’re being shot at.”

As I write this, Marlo D. Cruz just tweeted that the Iranian Army has moved into Tehran. It’s about 11.27pm over there. By the time I’ve finished writing this post, we might know whether his source in Iran was bona fide or not but it’s unlikely. News is haemhorraging out of Iran but it’s difficult to find trustworthy reports.

Alireza Sedaghat confirmed that there’s no Google or Yahoo accesible in Iran. The women’s rights lawyer Shiva Nazar-Ahari has been arrested and there’s news floating of atrocities and shortage of blood and another peaceful pro-Mousavi meeting is being planned for Wednesday June 17. From bloody pictures to secondhand reports, it’s all here on the internet. There are also tweets reporting that protesters are being taken to Evin, a high security prison. BBC painted its website green in support of the protesters in Iran and America’s State Department requested Twitter to reschedule its downtime because of how important Twitter had suddenly become to protesters in Iran. Thousands of people have added a green tint to their profile pictures and gone to the Settings button and changed their details to show they are in Tehran ever since BoingBoing.net came out with its Cyberwar Guide for Beginners.

There are gushing reports in every possible media about the role that Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have played to ensure that what is happening in Tehran and other parts of Iran are remembered, even as the evidence of these incidents are destroyed in fires and by bullets. Meanwhile, on Twitter, there’s a different battle being waged between a boy who has picked for himself the handle “Change_for_Iran” and two other Twitterers in particular, Justin Hart and someone else who calls themselves Jazzapplejuice. “Change_for_Iran” has earned quite a following for himself in the past few days and today his tweets were quoted on Sky News. His tweets tell us he’s been through tear gas and narrowly escaped the Basij. His friends haven’t been as lucky. One’s laptop has been smashed and another is dead. For those familiar with Bollywood, his Twitter reads like the end of “Rang de Basanti“. Except for the fact that he hasn’t gone about killing people in a weird and crazed re-enactment of an attempted assassination from the past. Also, the random Iranian men in the photographs and YouTube videos are way hotter than our actors and the Basij in their regular clothes are much more menacing than the bored extras pretending to be commandos in “Rang de Basanti”.

In the time that it has taken me to write these two paragraphs and pee once, Tabriz University has asked students to vacate the premises tomorrow for their own safety. State television has warned people to not go outside in Tehran. According to the state channels, it’s not possible for the election results to be wrong because the difference is of about 10 million. One student has died as a result of the violence in the University of Isfahan. Foreign journalists are not allowed to leave their offices. Cellphone networks are down and apparently, police are confiscating and smashing cameras. There was at least one explosion in Tehran, within hearing distance of the posh Shahrak-e-Gharb, and there are reportedly thousands of people out on their balconies chanting slogans. YouTube is apparently taking down videos showing dead protesters because it’s some sort of violation of its terms and that’s got lots of people’s knickers in a twist. Lisa Johnson has given “Change_for_Iran” a virtual hug. Justin Hart and Jazzapplejuice would probably snort and say they’re willing to bet that the hug is going to be one of the reasons “Change_for_Iran” remembers June 16, 2009. Because they don’t think “Change_for_Iran” is for real.

Jazzapplejuice has accused him of being an Israeli plant and taunted him about his rather reliable internet connection (among other things). Justin Hart is “losing trust” because the boy doesn’t upload a picture in response to Jazzapplejuice’s jibes. Of course, there are those who would lose trust in Hart the moment they saw he is a fan of Sarah Palin and Maggie Thatcher on Facebook. But never mind that. The point is, they don’t believe “Change_for_Iran”, whom I’m going to call Mithra; because it’s shorter than his handle, means “friend” or “alliance” in Farsi and Sanskrit (there’s no doubt he’s brought a lot of people together) and because it’s nothing like his real name.

There’s enough reasons to be suspicious. He only joined Twitter when the election results were announced. It’s true that while he complains about slow internet, his connectivity is almost as good as mine (and no, Manish, our internet is not as slow as dialup, thankyaverrahmuch). He does have a knack for being on the safe fringes of violence: close enough to witness but not near enough to be dead. There’s some confusion about where he’s from and where his brother is. Apparently, his father came from their “home town” to take the two sons back. Mithra’s brother has gone back but Mithra and his father are in Tehran, fighting the good fight. He keeps reminding his readers of the violence that has taken place even when it’s quiet and peaceful outside, which makes it seem as though he wants to be provocative. Like Hilary Clinton, he seems to be unable to spell Ahmadinejad correctly. Most damning, Mithra’s chosen to Twitter in English, rather than Farsi like many others, so he can be understood by a much larger audience. He isn’t quite as fluent as Jazzapplejuice says he is unless of course he’s faking his grammatical and spelling errors but his English is indeed pretty good. It’s totally possible it’s all fake, said my father grimly. “You can’t put anything past Israel,” he said. “Mossad is everywhere.”

For my father and many people from his generation who grew up in Calcutta in the seventies, the disputes over the Iranian election are a weird and unnerving experience. On one hand, the events make memories of Naxal Calcutta rise like bitter bile and they can taste the fear, the horror, the blood and the hot metal as they read about the protests. On the other hand, it’s surreal to them that there is a ricocheting echo to almost every shot that the Basij fire and every bus that a protestor torches. When the violence was at its peak in that old India, almost no one heard the screams and flying bullets. People disappeared. Some slipped out of prisons because of influential parents, like one of my professors in college. His parents were able to bundle him out of the country and wrap him in the invisibility cloak of a modest, mediocre American university. By the time he returned to India, Naxalism was forgotten and he didn’t have to explain to anyone that he wore bottle glasses because his eyes had been burnt during the days he was being interrogated. A family friend lived in what used to be the suburbs and behind her house was a dimly-lit holding area for the randomly-arrested boys who were suspected of being Naxals. Their screams drove her insane and so it was easy to dismiss her ranting words as those of a lunatic. I wonder what she would have written if there had been Twitter in her times. Would anyone have believed her a little more if they hadn’t seen her speaking, wild-eyed and chattering unrhythmically like a clock powered by a dying battery that wants desperately to keep¬† ticking?

Twitter is an amazing, wondrous thing and no one can doubt how enormously powerful it can be. While the media applauds it and those using it (validly, might I stress), it would be silly to turn a blind eye to the fact that it is a tool that is only as reliable as its user. Mithra could be a plant; he could be lying; he could be charging for each word he types; and thanks to the popularity of his Twitter, if he wants e-coitus, it’s probably his for the taking. Just as he could actually be nursing insomnia and a bleeding leg while fretting about how he’s going to find the presence of mind to write an exam tomorrow, should it actually happen on schedule. A lot of my friends have been sending me Iranian links in emails with subjects like “Exit: Media” or (my favourite) “Journalism is dead”, which is just the kind of thing a journalist wants to see in their inbox first thing in the morning. As you can see, I only hang out with the most supportive and sensitive people. What you louts don’t see is that the more information there is and the wider the reach of things like Twitter, the more invaluable we journalists become. Because you need someone to tell you fact from fear, rumour and fiction. Because news reports can come from anywhere but for something to be news, it has to come from a reliable source. You believe them, for all their ideological biases, because they have proved to you that they are trustworthy, insightful and not simply tweeting because there are thousands of people searching Twitter with the term “#Iranelection”.

It’s worth remembering that as important as it may be to report a story as it happens, articles persevere in memory rather than news feeds because they make sense of what happened. When written well, an article finds the meaning in events and through this, it tries to put its metaphorical finger on the truth, as confusing as it may be.¬† So, for example, until someone trawls through all the eyewitness accounts, phone conversations, tweets and YouTube videos and then writes about what happened tonight, all I know is that it was quiet in certain parts of Tehran after midnight and that Mithra probably didn’t get to studying for his exam until Twitter went down for maintenance.

4 thoughts on ““140 characters are a novel when you’re being shot at.””

  1. Interesting post, thanks!

    Just one thing (my inner pedant can\’t resist):

    \”Like Hilary Clinton, he seems to be unable to spell Ahmadinejad correctly.\”

    Firstly, there isn\’t really a \’correct\’ way to spell the name in our alphabet – it can be transliterated in several ways (particulaly vowels). Secondly, if \’correctness\’ is what bothers you, you\’re aren\’t correct either: the \’j\’ you write here should be \’zh\’. :-)

    1. Haha! Thank you. “Correctness” doesn’t actually bother me at all but there were quite a few people who were pointing to him using “zh” instead of “j” as a sign that he’s “fake”. Good thing you cleared up that debate. :)

  2. And, of course, the eternal rule of the internet – quibble someone’s spelling and get something wrong yourself (in my case, “particulaly”…) :-D

    Basically, there are two Persian letters that correspond to varieties of ‘j’ in the English alphabet – the hard ‘j’ (pronounced as in ‘job’), and the softer ‘zh’ (pronounced as in the French ‘je’ or ‘gentil’). Ahmadinezhad contains the second, at least if you’re an English speaker; if you’re French, using ‘j’ probably makes more sense! Either way, the rules aren’t hard and fast…

    Thus endeth more than you could ever want to know about this letter. :-)

    1. I don’t suppose you want to start a “Learn Persian over Email” programme, do you? :-D

      Yes, we have the same j/zh issues in Urdu and Hindi (because the words are of Persian origin, I suspect). It’s really interesting how the intonation changes between the two languages. Engquelab and inquilab, donya and duniya, for example.

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