by Pedram Moallemian, former Iranian student
Shortly after the revolution of 1979, Iranians were busy changing names. Names of thousands of streets, buildings and even cities that had been named after the Shah, his family or others close to the former regime needed to be changed and replaced by new idols and symbols of the revolution. Perhaps the most prominent was Tehran’s major thoroughfare going from Pahlavi Street to be named after the regime’s renowned adversary, Dr Mohammad Mossadegh.
As teenagers, we didn’t limit the move to names related to the former regime though. My family lived in a new development where streets were numbered but that didn’t stop us from changing ‘19th Street’ to ‘Mehdi Rezaei Street’. Mehdi was one of the youngest victims of the former regime, having been arrested, tried and executed, all before his 21st birthday. He was someone we could relate to.
The process was just too easy. We would make cardboard signs in the shape and size of actual street signs, replace the old ones or better yet glue new ones on top and wait until people started using the new name. In many cases, they were eager to do it, particularly when it was a name of a despised character they were replacing.
Other times, it never actually ‘took’. Shahreza Avenue, named after the patriarch of Pahlavi dynasty, was quickly changed to ‘Enghelab (Revolulion) Street’ but our old street is still called 19th, to this day.
Imagine the chaos all of this had caused everyone, from cab drivers and mailmen to just ordinary people who were not sure what street their own houses were on anymore. But chaos is just part of any revolution and this was another ingredient of ours.
So, by that faithful day in May of 1981, when the news of Bobby Sands’ death was received in Iran, we had plenty of experience and there was no way the memory of someone we considered a great revolutionary who had stood up to the British for his people and at the highest cost could be forgotten.
It happened more on a fluke. I was part of a small circle of friends, all under 15 years-of-age that was always attending speeches together, covering the local streets with political graffiti, distributing flyers and occasionally getting beat up by those we pissed off. One of us lived on a street that backed onto the British Embassy in the heart of Tehran and because of this central location and his parents’ more liberal approach, we’d often gather at their flat.
Our original plan to honour Sands was far more risky. From their windows, you could see the Union Jack flying prominently in the embassy’s yard. We wanted to sneak in at night and replace it with an Irish flag! That plan ran into a few problems. If there was a place to buy an Irish flag in Tehran, the 13- and 14-year-olds in our gang had no luck finding it. We made one, but it looked horrible and because the colours we had used were closer to the Iranian flag, we were worried it would be taken as the wrong flag and maybe the wrong message.
We finally decided on a big white sheet and wrote ‘I.R.A.’ across it. Even that was problematic, as we tried it once on the roof and it was so heavy, it would not wave and be seen fully and we were worried that if it just sits hanging from that pole, it’ll only be a white sheet and nothing more. There was also a concern about guard dogs we had never seen, but could occasionally hear on the other side of the wall.
With all that, the flag plans were abandoned late one evening with all of us frustrated and exhausted.
Then somebody within the group brought up an old practice: let’s rename the street. I honestly wish I’d remember who said it first to give him full credit, but I just don’t after so many years.
The plan wasn’t as exciting and adventurous, but we were desperate at this point. We all agreed and had soon bought large white construction paper and navy magic markers to make signs. I was the most graphically gifted of the bunch, so I’d draw the shape of the actual signs, copying the real ones made by the city and the rest of the gang would colour and cut them. We made about twenty of them and got out when it got dark to cover the old signs.
Next evening we returned to see if any of them were left and to our surprise there were a few new ones made by others too and, thanks to the glue we had used, even the ones very close to the embassy compound had remained in place. However, the occasional missing corner was proof someone had tried to remove them. Soon the entire street had new signs and the city officially changed the name also.
To me, the first big victory came a few months later when at another Tehran street corner, where passengers holler their destinations to passing cabs in hope of being picked up by someone feeling the route is profitable enough, I heard a woman yell, ‘Bobby Sands!’ The name had stuck and it was now certified and far more official than the city putting up actual metal signs.
The larger victory, however, was when we discovered the embassy had been forced to change their mailing address and all their printed material to reflect a side door address in order to avoid using Bobby’s name anywhere.
What we had no idea about, was how the news of our little ‘prank’ that had turned much more significant now, had reached across the great distance to get to Ireland, its people, the activists and even some of the remaining prisoners.
Years later I was told of how that little gesture had showed them they are not alone and even in far away places, people respect and honour their struggle.
Maybe one day I’ll be walking down an Irish street and be pleasantly surprised when I get to Mossadegh Square. Maybe.
Footnote: In 1981 the Iranian government was officially represented at Bobby Sands’ funeral and presented to Mrs Sands ‘a plaque from the people of Iran’.
Bobby Sands once wrote: “Of course I can be murdered. But I remain what I am, a political POW, and no one, not even the British, can change that.”
In 1981 the Iranian government officially changed the name of Winston Churchill Street where the British Embassy is based to Bobby Sands Street. According to one press agency at the time, “the British nationals employed at the embassy don’t want to be located in a street named after a man whose organisation brought terror to the UK.”
The response of the British was to seal the entrance to their embassy on Bobby Sands Street and knock through the wall into Ferdowsi Avenue, which is now their new address.
In January 2004 it was discovered that during the third of five trips to Iran by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw over the course of the previous two years, Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi had been lobbied by Straw to change the name of Bobby Sands Street.
This was rich given that in Ireland the British administration renamed many streets, towns and cities after her overseas conquests, her colonial battles, her royal personages and her soldiers, and did the same in every native land she conquered through imperial terrorism.
The nationalist community in the North of Ireland was delighted and proud when the people of Iran honoured an Irish revolutionary and reminded the world of British oppression and its black history, of Britain a country which brought suffering to the four corners of the earth in contrast to the courage and sacrifice exemplified by the name Sands.
It was that reminder which continues to stick in the craw of the British and which is why they want two words, Bobby Sands, erased from view, as if it were that easy to erase the spirit of freedom he continues to inspire.
In response to Straw’s lobbying the Iranian government the Bobby Sands Trust launched a petition to Iran which received thousands of signatures. The petition was presented to the Iranian Embassy in London in 2005.
The street remains Bobby Sands Street.
To: His Excellency Hojjatoleslam Sayed Mohammad Khatami, President of Iran
BOBBY SANDS STREET, Tehran, Iran.
THE name Bobby Sands is known throughout the world, symbolising the heroism of an Irish prisoner and his comrades who died on hunger strike in their unequal fight against their British jailors. Over the course of the past two years British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has been lobbying Iran’s Foreign Minister to change the name of Bobby Sands Street, where the British Embassy is situated, in the capital Tehran. (It was formerly known as Winston Churchill Street.)
Bobby Sands was an Irish patriot and martyr, who died on 5 May 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike. Whilst in prison he was elected as a Member of Parliament [MP]. One hundred thousand people attended his funeral, including the Iranian ambassador to Sweden.
The British government has no right to be in Ireland, just as it has no right to be interfering in the affairs of any other nation.
We appeal to the Iranian government and its people not to bow to requests from the British government to rename Bobby Sands Street.
Here is a PDF of the Iranian petition of all those that signed the petition and their comments.
By Danny Morrison
(From the Andersonstown News, 12 May 2003)
IF you type “This Day in History, May 5th” into the search engines of the History Channel or most newspapers it will show up something along the lines of, “In 1981, Irish Republican Army hunger-striker Bobby Sands died at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in his 66th day without food” (‘Boston Globe’). In other words, Bobby Sands’ name has been immortalised by his and his comrades’ hunger strikes twenty-two years ago.
A news reporter on Fox News in the USA last week soon found out how much a legend is Bobby Sands when he attempted a crude joke on television. At the end of the news, Steve Shepherd, said: “On this date Bobby Sands died after sixty-six days on a hunger strike in prison in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The moral of the story: eat more often.”
Irish-Americans were outraged and an online petition was soon organised which forced Fox News and Shepherd to apologise. Fox TV Network is, of course, owned by media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, an old friend of Mrs Thatcher and it was Murdoch’s HarperCollins which advanced Mrs Thatcher $5.4million for her almost unreadable memoirs.
Shortly after Bobby died in 1981 some idiot, in an attempt at irony, wrote on a gable wall in loyalist East Belfast, “We’ll never forget you, Jimmy Sands.”
Travel almost anywhere in the world, mention that you are from Ireland, and the response you are likely to get is, “Ireland – Bobby Sands!” No one answers, “England – Mrs Thatcher!” though nowadays they might answer, “England – George Bush!” Bobby Sands’ name lives on and the legacy of the hunger strikers continues to inspire not just Irish republicans but many nationalities that associate it with nobility, sacrifice and courage in the face of a bullying power.
LAST year two small events showed how ordinary people if motivated and mobilised can make a political point and their voices heard. In November the BBC World Service, as part of its 70th anniversary celebrations, announced that it was holding a poll for the world’s top tune.
The poll attracted submissions from all around the world. Nearly 150,000
votes were received from 153 countries, nominating over 6,500 songs. Even The Beatles failed to make the top ten. One of the strongest contenders was a patriotic Hindu song, ‘Vande Mataram’, which is considered by many as India’s national song.
Someone, somewhere, came up with the bright idea of nominating ‘A Nation Once Again’ by The Wolfe Tones, and encouraging like-minded people to concentrate on that one song. Using the internet and the Irish Diaspora, e-mails poured into the BBC. As a result, ‘A Nation Once Again’, written in the 1840s by Thomas Davis and first recorded in 1964, was voted the world’s top song!
Of course, the reaction of the BBC World Service to this shock result was to announce that it was going to hold yet another poll to see if its listeners agreed with the result! Whether it went ahead I am not sure – but the psyche at play was quite revealing and not too far removed, for example, from that colonial practice of postponing native elections until one gets the results one likes.
Around the same time, BBC Radio Ulster carried out a poll for Ulsterman of the Century. I hadn’t even heard it was taking place and saw no reference to it in any internet bulletin boards, which suggests that there was little or no canvassing, yet, once again, Bobby Sands was up there in the Top Five (along with Ian Paisley, and the late Joey Dunlop who topped the poll).
THE intransigence of the British government at the time of the hunger strikes was made possible because its behaviour was never checked by concerned, domestic pressure. The British public was left ignorant by the great British media who moulded the public’s opinions of Ireland and of people like Bobby Sands. The conflict was presented as inexplicable or tribal or atavistic but never in an intelligent or, for that matter, in an honest or impartial way. We saw again in the recent Iraqi war how journalists identify and bond with their own troops.
Last year the veteran BBC correspondent, Kate Adie, published her autobiography, ‘The Kindness of Strangers’. Adie would be most familiar as that figure riding atop a British army tank, in her flak jacket and helmet, reporting from the Balkans or Afghanistan. But before that her job was often to explain the North to British viewers. And to her the hunger strike was “Bog-trotting stuff.”
I have written before, how on the morning that Bobby Sands died she interviewed me on the Falls Road. It remains the most hostile interview I ever did in twenty-five years. Still, I thought I acquitted myself well and got the better of her, but it was never broadcast. The BBC claimed that the film “didn’t come out.”
In her book she makes no mention of this interview but writes about sneaking into Bobby’s wake “in a headscarf and scruffy anorak”. She says: “In his coffin, Mr Sands did not present a pale face of suffered humanity. He looked like a banana. Luminous yellow. I sniffled and coughed and looked hard. This was not the time and place to comment on the effects of hepatitis A and liver failure – nor the fact that the local embalmer had apparently used furniture varnish by the look of it. Thank God no one put a friendly arm round my shoulder at my supposed overcome state. I’d just learned what actors meant by corpsing.”
Earlier she compares the British army to the locals. “The army was full of pink-cheeked lads, squat and muscly…”
Anti-H-Block marchers, on the other hand, were, “pasty-faced, lank-haired young women, with pushchairs of mewling children. Skinny lads, with hunched bony shoulders and pipe-cleaner legs; middle-aged – or perhaps not, but older – women, in groups, all smoking during the six miles up the Falls, skin shiny with anti-depressants, and voices raucous…”
These weren’t the people, the community I saw and was with during those dark, sad days: dignified people who were shot and pulverised on their own streets for daring to oppose British policy. Kate Adie claims that what came out of Belfast was, “Efficient and carefully judged journalism”, but in her own words she reveals something of the deep-seated prejudices which informed a style of reporting that kept the British public in ignorance and which did a disservice to the living and the dead.
1981 Hunger Strikes – America Reacts
Traces the evolution of public opinion in the United States from before the strikes – when few outside the Irish American community knew what the issues were in the north Ireland – to their conclusion when public awareness was at its height. It also examines the degree to which the American media and the Irish American public gave the hunger strikers the legitimacy they needed to press their cause in Washington and London. The purpose of the exhibit is twofold. First, to present a body of new primary resources and, second, to inspire reflection on the very nature of public opinion making.