Once upon a time, in 1951, Iran’s first (and last) democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, proposed nationalising the country’s oil reserves. He received tremendous popular support for the idea, and intense international resistance to it. First from Britain, which had, so far, monopolised Iran’s oil, and didn’t like the idea of giving it up. And then from the USA, which didn’t like any ideas that sounded remotely socialist, and certainly not from other European powers at large, all of them recovering imperialists wary of such burgeoning independence in the colonies.

In 1952, the Shah of Iran, backed by the British and Americans, refused to grant Mossadegh military powers. Mossadegh resigned, and the Shah replaced him with Ghavam Saltaneh, who proclaimed, “The days of defiance have come to an end, and the time for obedience to the will of the government has arrived.”

What he got, instead, was three days of massive protests, with Iranians of all stripes, students, teachers, shopkeepers, spilling upon the streets. The police and army began by shooting at the protestors, killing many, but eventually stopped. Some even switched sides.

The Shah was forced to bring Mossadegh back.

Just a year later, in the (now) well-documented Operation Ajax, the CIA planned and instigated the coup of August 1953, overthrowing Mossadegh and (re)-installing the Shah in his place. Again, Iran erupted in protest; this time, hundreds were arrested, tortured, shot and killed. Mossadegh surrendered and was tried for treason, and spent the rest of his life a prisoner.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem Irani Talaba ke Naam (For the Students of Iran) is a tribute to these young Iranian protestors. It was published in 1952, before both the anti-Saltaneh marches of that year, and the anti-Shah protests of 1953, and yet it captures all the catastrophe that was to come.

The students of Tehran University continued to protest after August 1953, no matter how much harder it became to do so under the Shah’s growing dictatorship. Three months later, on December 7, when Richard Nixon, the the US Vice-President, arrived in Iran, Tehran was virtually under curfew, but still, on that day, the students of Tehran University organised a protest against Nixon and the Shah. The police came into gthe campus, opened fire on the students, and killed three of them. The day is remembered as “Student’s Day”.

Faiz’s poem is for them, these students who may seem so familiar to us today, in their obstinate refusal to blindly obey; these students who, like so many before them, continue to march upon the streets, continuing the struggle for our freedom and ideals.

For the students of Iran

Who are they, so bounteous,
whose blood like coins of gold,
chink-chink, chink-chink,
falls unstinting, to fill the beggar’s bowl
the earth holds out, insatiable, ever thirsting?

Who are these children of Iran,
reckless with generosity,
whose overflowing, youthful charm
is scrapped and stamped to dust,
crushed and scattered in by-lanes?
O children of Iran, O children of Iran!

Why did they, laughing, snatch away
the clear blue calm from their own eyes,
the precious red from their own lips?
That restless silver of their hands, to
what end was it put to rest?

Listen, stranger, since you ask,
these young men and women,
are that rawest pearl of light,
are that freshest branch of fire,
that sweetest glow, that bitter flame,
from which there sprang in darkest night
the buds of an insurgent spring,
a dawn that broke in heart and mind.

The glimmer, spark of their bodies,
their faces, each a jewel,
dazzling, shining so bright – 
should you, stranger, wish to see,
come and feast you heart on these:
These jewels on the queen of life,
The glory of the goddess of peace.

— Translated by Tahseen Alam and Parvati Sharma
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons