Two Fridays ago, before the riots and the demonstrations and the millions in the streets, before the killings and the burning buses and the black-clad stormtroopers clubbing women from atop their motorcycles, before Facebook went green and Twitter usurped CNN, before the protests and then the counter-protests, the first, fraudulent vote count and then the likely just as fraudulent recounts, before the house arrests and the dorm-room beatings, before the tear gas and the sniper bullets and the rooftop rallies and the bonfires, members of New York's Iranian ex-pat community gathered in a small meeting room on the second floor of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Midtown Manhattan to cast their ballots in their country's presidential election.
There was no question as to the local favorite. Green dominated the room. There were green scarves and green sweaters and green socks; green t-shirts, green tank-tops, green rugbies, green ties; green polos, green pants, green trenchcoats (one); green handbags, green sportcoats; a green pork-pie hat.
"Green is for peace, I think," said a man sitting at a table in the hallway chatting with a pair of women. "Green is the slogan of this candidate." The man himself was dressed in brown. He had lived in New York for 16 years, he said, but he'd never in that time voted in an Iranian election. Mir-Hossein Mousavi had drawn him to the polls.
"I think he is a Barack Obama of Iran," he said. "He can tie the Iranian nation to the western world. It's about time for Iran to have close ties to the United States."
It was a common theme about the room.
"There's no reason to struggle, because now there is Obama," said a young woman with a green scarf tied around her neck. She had come from Iran two months ago to study International Relations at Syracuse.
"Ahmadinejad destroyed everything," she said. "We need someone to rebuild ties with the UN, with the world."
Downstairs, a group of ex-pats embraced each other as they passed in the lobby. A man and a woman, both clad in bright green t-shirts, were looking around for directions to the polls. "I wonder what it will be like," the woman said as they made their way up the escalator. They, too, had never voted before.
"We just wanted to support it," said the man. "I just wanted to come to do my part."
Two NYU students in headscarves (a relative rarity among those gathered) stood in line to get their ballots. One recorded the other with her digital camera as she gave her fingerprint to a volunteer manning the desk. "Look more excited!" she directed. They disappeared together behind the potted plants marking off the voting booths at the southern side of the room. Moments later they emerged smiling broadly, stopping in front of the ballot box to pose, index fingers held aloft, for several of the photographers roaming the floor.
"My mother's family back home is voting this time, and they haven't voted in 30 years — since the Revolution," one of them said. "It's a chance to be a part of something. It's like a new revolution."
"There were kids in Iran on the street demonstrating and dancing, really pushing the boundaries," said the man in the bright green t-shirt. "The only time I can remember people dancing in the street and not being arrested was after a soccer victory or something."
"Yay!" said a woman in a t-shirt and blue jeans, waving a brown passport in the air as she deposited her ballot. "That was easy!" The line was perhaps 20 people deep now, stretching out the doorway and into the hall.
People lingered after voting. In some cases for hours. They gathered standing in corners of the meeting room, in circles seated on the hallway floor. It seemed for many a reunion of sorts. ("Many of us know each other from holidays and things," said one of the women from NYU.) Everyone had their camera out, taking pictures of their friends, of the line, of the makeshift voting booths inside. It was all rather festive. It had the unmistakable air of an event.
At the end of the hallway, a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings stood in front of a window passing back and forth between them a series of Farsi-printed signs. A stream of cabs floated by behind them outside. There was some brief confusion as to who should be where holding what, but they sorted it out in short enough order, posing with their message for the photographers. Two of the sign-holders translated for the curious: "We voted not for the legitimacy of the government, but rather to show our displeasure toward extremism and for a move toward democracy."
It was, for a similarly young, intermittently idealistic New Yorker, an irresistible scene. There was optimism, there was righteousness, there were pure intentions, there was seriousness of purpose. There was also, however, one reluctantly suspected, a certain unreality to it all. The seeming unanimity with which the crowd had come out for Mousavi made a person wonder just how representative a group it might be. Could it actually be this simple? There is something inescapably fishy about politics performed in a vacuum. Watching the goings-on, a person couldn't help but think of Pauline Kael's infamous Nixon quip, or, to draw on a more recent case of expectations confounded, viewing the Bush-Kerry debates with cheering throngs in an East Village bar.
Across town, the city's other polling place, the Imam Ali Mosque in Woodside, Queens, provided what felt like something of a corrective. At a white, block-long building on Queens Boulevard across the street from the Second Calvary Cemetery, the mood was considerably more subdued (the crowd was considerably older and the color scheme considerably less green, as well). A charcoal drawing posted on the wall reminded visitors that headscarves for women were mandatory ("All Ladies Must Observe Islamic Covering"). Off to the side of the room, a television sat atop a media cart broadcasting election returns. Several people gathered around it watching impassively.
"Up until now Mr. President Ahmadinejad is in first," said a bearded man wearing a white oxford beneath a black suit. "About 10 million of 15 million votes." He was there as an election supervisor, he said. He was a conscientious host, offering reporters first gaz (an Iranian candy of nougat and pistachios) and later pastries — gestures that, curiously enough, had the effect of further exoticizing the scene. (Hospitality, after all, is often most vigorously extended to strangers. There was tea and a box of pastries at the Hyatt meeting room as well, but that was a strictly self-serve affair.)
So far they had seen some 500 people come to vote, the man said — more than double the roughly 200 that had come four years before. He attributed the increased enthusiasm to the televised debates held between the candidates — the first time in Iran for such a forum, he noted.
"All the people in Iran watched this debate, big and small, old and young. The people welcomed it very much."
And who did he think would win?
"I am not sure. First we must count."
A young man in blue button-down had voted for Mousavi. He'd just flown in from Tehran several hours before. He described the scene there as very peaceful when he left. "No violence at all," he said.
"People are just saying what they've wanted to say for the last four years. We're crossing our fingers and hoping for change."
A young woman in a red headscarf also voted for Mousavi. A student in New Haven, she was heading back to Iran that night. Among the people she knew, she said, he was the overwhelming favorite.
Others there were somewhat less forthcoming. Three women huddled in a corner of the room speaking quietly among themselves. Two were students at City College; the other was a middle-aged woman who smiled politely when approached, then nodded silently to one of her companions and walked off to another part of the mosque.
"All of the candidates have some good features and causes," said one of the pair that remained. "All of them are good. They each have some different ways to achieve their aims."
Pressed for her favorite among them, she offered the sort of non-response response that would make a White House press secretary proud.
"I would like to choose the president who thinks about the people's problems and solving those problems," she said.
The television, meanwhile, showed Ahmadinejad adding to what appeared to be, at any rate, a commanding lead.
"I can't say," said an older man in a dark suit when asked who his choice had been. He begged off any further questions citing his poor English, although his English was perfectly fine. Another man similarly declined to share his vote, although he was willing to engage on less personal subjects. He pointed to the four people — two men, two women — working the registration table. Each of them, he said, was a supporter of one of the candidates. Each was there, he said, to keep an eye on the proceedings.
"They would never tell you that," he said in a quiet, conspiratorial tone, "but we all know that's what's going on."
Would there be cheating?
"No," he said, "there's not going to be any cheating. They won't be able to add that many votes. It's not like Bush in Florida buying them for $3 apiece."
"How many votes can you add, really? Two million? Three million? Five million? You can only add so many."
As it turns out, he was wrong about this. But also, perhaps, right. •
Photos by Rachel Feierman