A Child in the Revolution - A Young Persian Student Experiences 1967-8 in Germany
in tehran i had often seen how whole streets were blocked off when his majesty mohammad reza pahlawi, king of kings, light of the aryans, drove to the airport. the streets were decorated with policemen in uniform. agents of the secret police, the SAVAK, entered apartments, stood against the balcony doors and watched the families eat their meals or listen to the radio. since his majesty often flew abroad, this picture was a familiar one to many people in tehran. and now i am standing alone on the big square in munich handing out this leaflet and i am not afraid – of anybody.
i was 17 when i came to germany; the bewildered child was taken up by the rebellion and consoled by it. ever since, the child has been trying to comprehend the question at the start of every revolt.
a demonstration against the shah was announced for the following day. the police had taken certain precautions in advance. they published a list of 113 iranians who were to be put up at the expense of the bavarian state in a bed and breakfast on lake chiem. the police were at pains to emphasise that the guests would also be given coffee and cake. of those on the list, only eight took up this ‘invitation’. 20,000 people came to the demonstration; it ended at the ‘square of the victims of national socialism’. there stood the president of the asta (general student committee): rolf pohle, the future raf terrorist, allocating the iranians to german fellow students. ‘you’re staying with this comrade!’ people shook hands and went away together.
‘send the shah to the usa, hallelujah,
persia is for persians, hallelujah!’
in the evening some german students were standing on the leopoldstraße – munich’s elegant promenade – beside a huge picture of the shah and a basket of eggs. passers-by bought an egg, threw it at his majesty’s face and denounced themselves for lèse majesté. (the chief public prosecutor’s office had recently charged a number of german students with the same offence. law students, for example, would not have been able to practise law as a result.) our german fellow students insisted that we iranians should not be in evidence; the police had threatened us with deportation. in exchange we requested the honour of supplying the eggs. the action took place in several cities simultaneously. 11,000 people denounced themselves; the chief public prosecutor dropped the charges. the following evening the shah went to the munich opera. as his limousine drove past and he, followed by members of the bourgeois elite, stepped into the opera house, the students greeted him with the drinking song:
‘who’s going to pay for this?
who ordered it?
who’s got so much moolah, moolah,
who’s got so much cash?’
we effectively spent all three days of the shah’s sojourn in munich at demonstrations. the nights we spent staying with german fellow students we had, in most cases, only just met. benno ohnesorg was already dead, murdered by a policeman called kurras at the anti-shah demonstration in berlin. there the city had put the ‘cheering persians’ – SAVAK agents armed with batons – in the best positions. they proceeded to beat up demonstrators and passers-by, under the watchful eye of the constitutional state. heinrich albertz, an evangelical priest and governing mayor of berlin, defended the police and their methods. but then his christian conscience wouldn’t leave him in peace; he investigated, and he did what he had to do. in a packed main auditorium at the free university in berlin he stepped up to the lectern: ‘i have made mistakes.’ then, to tumultuous applause from the students, he pleaded: ‘let us start afresh!’
only a few years earlier bob dylan wrote in his song Blowin’ In the Wind:
Yes, an’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, an’ how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
music as the bearer of the unconscious played a decisive role. it is no coincidence that ‘the schwabing riot’ is described as the father of the ’68 revolution. some young people were playing music – too loudly, apparently, in the stuffy post-adenauer era. the state power took harsh action. for two whole nights the young people battled with police; as if they wanted to take out all their frustration through fighting, while at the same time warning the authorities of riots to come.
in the midst of this revolt the child came to hear about auschwitz. a wound inflicted upon humanity, planned by the germans down to the last detail, carried out on an industrial scale; while everybody looked on, germans and non-germans alike. the auschwitz trials in frankfurt were for us a decisive event. and then the child read the words of franz fanon, the black messiah of the revolt: ‘whenever someone insults a jew, listen carefully: he means you too.’ and so our fellow students in paris cried ‘we are all jews!’ and defended daniel cohn-bendit, the student leader of the paris revolution, whom the french interior minister had reviled as a jew. and finally it was martin buber who took the burden of ‘collective guilt’ from our shoulders and spoke of collective shame; from then on this shame accompanied the child.
many people were awakened by the auschwitz trials in frankfurt and asked their fathers whether they had been nazis. the fathers’ silence increased their anger and drove the sons onto the streets. ‘hey mr. tambourine man play a song for me / i'm not sleepy and there ain’t no place i'm going to,’ sang bob dylan around this time, a thousand kilometres away. we too had no place to go, in those complacent years that provided us with no answers.
the political classes didn’t even try to hear the signs. chancellor kiesinger regarded the student protestors as wild animals and called them ‘a small radical minority’, without looking for the reasons behind this radicalisation. what could a 19-year-old german student identify with? with affluent german society?
When I’m drivin in my car
And that man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say
I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
’Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no
the rolling stones sang this song in may 1965 and in it perfectly expressed the aimless dissatisfaction of young people in a materialistic society.
she was 27, i was 19. she used to work as a seamstress before she started studying; sociology, of course. when we were introduced, she said: ‘i’m barbara, the foreigner!’ and the foreigner asked whether she would go for a drink with him. she was tired, she replied, and hoped that i wasn’t frustrated by her refusal. as if i had a right to spend the night with her. then she took her glasses off and i took her mouth; when we got to her room i leapt upon her.
afterwards she lit a cigarette, which we smoked together. when she stubbed it out, she said, ‘fine, so now we love each other!’ barbara devoted herself to us and to free love. later we got hungry, but neither of us wanted to leave the room. barbara fetched half a loaf of bread and placed it on her naked belly. we seized it, tore off chunks and put them in our mouths, interrupted by many kisses, accompanied by donovan and his songs. we licked the crumbs off each other’s bodies; that’s how we were then, and happy.
the next morning we went out for breakfast. barbara said she had a surprise for me and ordered a revolutionary’s breakfast: a cup of black coffee and a filterless rothändle cigarette. she had deliberately ordered only one breakfast; we drank from a single cup and shared the cigarette.
here, in the midst of the revolution, i came to know love as a rapprochement, not an emptying. until then i had had only a few smutty encounters with maidservants in tehran and painful experiences in brothels. in the reprieve between syphilis and aids we learned love, revolution and a previously unknown merging.
There's nothing you can make that can't be made.
No one you can save that can't be saved.
Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time,
All you need is love,
All you need is love,
All you need is love, love,
love is all you need.
in 1967 this beatles song was broadcast on british television; around 400 million people heard it.
one day a young woman came into the trikont café and asked whether an iranian comrade were here; they pointed to me. she told me she was married to an iranian, he was suffering from homesickness, would stand at the window reading hafis and weeping; we drove there. abdullah embraced me effusively, finally he could speak persian to someone; he spoke english with his wife. we read hafis together and drank tea; from the next day onwards he came to every demonstration.
the revolt also helped us get over our homesickness. we had no idea how bad it would be when it returned. one evening we were sitting drinking vodka when abdullah asked: ‘what will become of us? will our movement drive out the shah as well?’
we decided to ask hafis. i washed my hands, took up the divan, requested an answer and opened the book:
no safe haven for the night
and your goal is still far off,
yet know, the road is not without end.
be not downcast!
georg büchner said in danton’s death that the people are like a little child: it has to break everything to see what’s inside. every rebellion contains this mission; and that means violence. we were without guile, without cunning, in this time of seeking answers. it was the time in which everything was in uproar simultaneously. war in vietnam, black panther and beat culture in the usa, anti-colonial liberation struggles in africa and liberation churches in latin america, che guevara in the congo, general strike in paris, soviet tanks in prague, sartre at the sorbonne, flower power, moon landing, loveplay.
the vietnam issue was the core of the revolt. every day there were new reports about tortured viet cong or the use of napalm. i remember an action in munich. a leaflet was distributed: ‘on sunday at 3pm at the monopteros in the english garden we will set fire to a dachshund with napalm.’ bourgeois sensibilities were appalled; there was an outcry. ‘these barbarians want to burn a dachsie!’ 300 policemen encircled the monopteros and no dachsie was burned.
we were a student movement without student demands. ‘everything is possible. everything is allowed,’ enthused helmut heissenbüttel. we wanted a storm; what we got was rain, and everyone profited from it. we wanted everything and achieved nothing. nothing? this is the thesis historiographers like to peddle.
the ’68 revolt was the starter pistol for the democratisation of germany; plurality was victorious over homogeneity. the many civil society initiatives, and even parties like the greens, are the proof. willy brandt was just one consequence of this time. his government softened many societal structures and made social upheaval possible. when he fell to his knees in warsaw it said more than a thousand statements. ‘never look away again when injustice is being done!’ said willy brandt; he had taken up our challenge.
even the churches were not spared the influence of the revolt. a german friend told me that he and his brother officially left the church in the early 1960s. the following sunday the priest stepped up to the pulpit and named the two brothers. ‘my poor mother suffered a lot for it in that little village.’ the church can’t afford to do something like this today.
‘beneath their gowns the musty smell of a thousand years’
back then a whole world collapsed. the revolt called everything into question without really knowing what would happen next. established rules and rituals were broken apart. once, when i was coming out of the cinema with barbara, we bumped into a german fellow student. we stopped and exchanged a few words. he touched my military jacket, the kind we all used to wear, and praised its quality. ‘shall we swap jackets?’ i no longer remember which of us said it, and when barbara squeezed my hand i misinterpreted her meaning. when we got home she raged: ‘you know i love that jacket!’ and she continued to rage until i had called our comrade and cancelled the swap. by this time the child had learned to pay attention to his beloved and her wishes.
students made a point of going to the opera in jeans and prevailed despite the protests of both ushers and bourgeoisie. years later the procedure was repeated when the first parliamentary representatives of the green party announced that they would not wear suits and ties when taking up their seats in the bundestag. who can forget the outrage in parliament, which then quickly subsided.
the revolt swept away airs and graces and publicised the fact. a gay friend told me later that his best friend had asked him to be there for the birth of her daughter, as the father was absent. she opened herself to her friend as a sign of solidarity.
before 1968, a woman who smoked on the street was a slut. that was why all the female students smoked. of course this was not a great political achievement, but it was an excellent gesture with effective social consequences.
young women in miniskirts carried a banner saying, ‘no one has the right to obey.’ this sentence, written by hanna arendt in her american exile, encapsulated the spirit of the age. we didn’t want to obey, we wanted to discuss, with everyone. yet the authorities – back then we called them ‘the establishment’ – didn’t want to discuss with us. this refusal was also a reason why the violence escalated.
anyone who defends the ’68 revolt today finds himself accused of mythologising. yet myths are fuel from the past to energise the present – that is why they remain subversive. and woe betide the man who denies his own myths; he mutates into a sub-realist and remains thereafter the prisoner of numerical logic. even albert einstein, when asked whether two plus two was four, once answered: ‘as long as nothing moves!’ back then, everything moved.
nowadays, not much is left of the revolt. apart from the warmth the child still carries in his body. i was in paris in may ’68 and entered the UNEF building – union nationale des étudiants français – the stronghold of the french left. i no longer remember what i was looking for there. but that wasn’t important; the main thing was that one had been there. or perhaps it was a rumour that propelled me there? (i love rumours; they usually provide a better source of friction than the carefully polished facts.) the rumour claimed that in the UNEF building l’internationale – the communist anthem – was being sung around the clock. i wanted to experience this. i went up the steps and heard the internationale. then one of the comrades addressed me; when he realised that i only spoke german he fetched his girlfriend, who was from alsace. they didn’t ask me what i was doing there, they sang l’internationale with me. then they wanted to know whether i had a place to stay. that’s how we were then, and happy.
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Said was born in Tehran in 1947 and has lived in Munich since 1965. He writes in German, and has received numerous awards for his literary work. From 2000 to 2002 he was the president of the German PEN association.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Fikrun wa Fann, May 2008
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