SAM MORRIS / LAS VEGAS SUN
Tuesday, June 30, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
In the chaos after both incumbent and challenger crowed victory in Iran’s June 12 presidential election, an e-mail written in code landed in Moniro Ravanipour’s e-mail inbox.
“Busloads of people will be there if there’s a rally tomorrow,” it said. “People” meant soldiers. Soldiers meant violence.
Sitting in her Las Vegas study, Ravanipour considered the e-mail’s author reliable, an insider up on government plans. And the thousands who saw as a sham Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement of overwhelming victory with only 20 percent of the votes cast needed to know there could be danger if they gathered to voice opposition.
Ravanipour immediately posted the warning in Persian on her Web site.
So began a cyber vigil that continues to this day. The Iranian novelist, writer-in-residence in UNLV’s City of Asylum program, has not slept much in weeks, mounting a one-woman round-the-clock information service that relies on a network of more than 100 students, writers and others who know what’s happening and what’s going to happen across her country of 68 million.
The New York Times and other mainstream media have documented in recent days how ordinary people in Iran have become part of the news mix in the shifting sand of events postelection, blasting images and words into cyberspace via e-mails, blog posts, YouTube and Twitter, eventually landing them on newspaper and network Web sites and TV programs around the globe.
But Ravanipour is trying to ensure a more circular route. She wants information from Iran to make it back to Iran. The nearly 10,000 visitors to her Web site have few sources of news, whether it comes from across the country or their own neighborhoods.
Of course, like the postings from Tweeters and camera-phone-wielding Iranians linked to by the Times or shown on CNN, it is impossible to verify every word or image. Ravanipour posts them all. In a recent visit to her office at UNLV, she had posted a rumor about government forces torturing a former head of intelligence.
On another day, a fellow writer described the details of a bloody exchange of gunfire, hours after it happened. She posted it, making sure to delete the writer’s name.
As the days pile on and unrest continues, the number of sources for her site dwindles. “I’ve lost contact with friends, students. I don’t know what happened to them. Maybe they’ve been killed,” she says, resigned.
Twice, her Web site has been blocked in Iran, once last week for two days.
The continuing violence made her decide to make her efforts known in the U.S. “I didn’t give an interview for a long time. Now I have to say something,” she says.
Ravanipour would like to see greater international outcry against the violence, which she is convinced will continue unchecked. She wishes she could go back to her country. She left nearly three years ago, first taking a residency at Brown University and then, in July 2007, beginning another at UNLV.
The City of Asylum program “provides safe haven for writers whose voices are muffled by censorship, or who are living with the threat of imprisonment or assassination,” according to its Web site. Ravanipour’s eight books are unavailable in Iran; the state removed them from libraries and bookstores years ago. Some of Ravanipour’s “students” in Iran — a sort of correspondence-course relationship — have never seen her books, reading only scattered stories online.
“If I go to Iran today,” she says, “I would never get out.”
Sometimes, she can’t help but be struck by the contrast between the world surrounding her students in Iran and the ones at UNLV.
“American students don’t have any pressure; they have everything. Because of that, they don’t know about the rest of the world. They think we ride camels in my country and that I speak Arabic.”
The novelist has tried to deliver humor to her countrymen. When Michael Jackson’s death was announced, she posted a satirical note claiming that the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah had been found responsible for the pop star’s demise. The jibe was aimed at Ahmadinejad, who days before had begun blaming Western governments and media for the violence in Iran.
“I try to keep them strong, give them hope,” Ravanipour says of the thousands who go to her Web site. “They are nervous and depressed.”
Ravanipour said she cannot concentrate on writing these days. She is trying to deal with cold facts in a crisis, far from the fiction she creates the rest of the time.
“I’m a writer, not a journalist,” she says. “But it was my duty to do this.”