Remember the Ayatollah's funeral

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: While Iranians are gripped by the upcoming election, 20 years ago today they were focused on a larger event ? the death of Ayatollah Rholla Musavi Khomeini. He's the man who led the revolution that established the Islamic Republic of Iran. Here is Khomeini's son announcing the death.

TRANSLATOR: The lofty spirit of the leader of Muslims and freemen everywhere, his Excellency Imam Khomeini has gone to heaven. Imam Khomeini was God's spirit in the body of time and God's spirit is eternal.

MULLINS: The government of Iran proclaimed 40 days of morning. In the city of Isfahan mullahs lead Iranians who were stricken with grief. It took two days to bury the Ayatollah. On the first attempt there was so much chaos authorities cancelled the burial. More than two million mourners had poured onto the streets of Tehran. Among the American reporters there was PRI's John Hockenberry. He was working for NPR at the time. This is how he remembers Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral in Tehran.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: The morning of the day of his funeral was a beautiful morning in Tehran. The sun came up. It was absolutely crystal clear. And people all over the city were gathering, were walking, were driving. And the men were dressed in formal outfits and the women were all clad in chador, the full hijab. So it was men in black shirts and black pants and all black women converging on the center of Tehran.
And I had an opportunity in that morning to get on a helicopter that the Iranians were taking journalists up to see what was going on in Tehran in that morning. And it was sort of funny because I had to leave my wheelchair behind. And I rolled hysterically to the helicopter realizing all of a sudden that the fellow that was with me, a stringer who I'd kind of impromptu pulled out of a crowd to sort of help me around that day was going to take my wheelchair and keep it safe for me. And of course I trusted him but as the helicopter took off he vanishes back into the crowd. Everyone's wearing black. My wheelchair was black. As the helicopter takes off I can't see my wheelchair anywhere. But I'm sitting on this helicopter and as it lifts over the city of Tehran there is an ocean of reverent quiet worshippers. It was a moment of fear; a moment of trepidation; a visually it was a moment of such sort of human solidarity to see the city of Tehran from horizon to horizon filled with the heads of men, you could see, and the hijab covered bodies of women right next to them. The sea of humanity. And we toured around and came down. I remember one of the Boston Globe reporters came up to me and said well what was it like? What was it like? And I tried to explain and it was all sort of halting and I was so overwhelmed emotionally by just seeing this. I was actually a pretty bad reporter. And I remember this reporter from the Globe just said oh thanks John it was 'gnarly', what am I going to do with that? And so the rest of the day then was spent trying to get to the funeral place and sort of seeing the emotional outpouring of the people of Tehran. And realizing of course, when I got back, the most important lesson of the day you know as my helicopter landed, I'm thinking 'where's my wheelchair', and sure enough my minder comes out of the crowd, rolls the wheelchair up to me. I get into it and this sort of gentleness, this quality of being a host, this notion that thank you for coming to this moment that's so important to our nation. All of that was wrapped up in this kind of surprise that I actually did get my wheelchair back. And I remember talking to an Iranian friend later on that day. I said to him you know I was a little worried. And he looked at me and he said we're a religious country. It's not like New York, thinking that of course I would have lost the chair if I was in New York. I've never forgotten that. And the rest of the day was everyone trying to get to that place where Khomeini would finally be laid to rest. So from that point on this peaceful moment of enormous crowds in Tehran became almost an individual emotional outburst as each person figured out their own way of saying goodbye. And of course it culminated right at the burial sight which was this giant field outside of Tehran as they were trying to maintain some security. And it was very, very difficult because the crowds would break through. There were woman who jumped into the grave. There were men who were hitting themselves you know recreating a Shia ritual of martyrdom as they were carrying his casket to the place where he was buried. At one point he actually spilled out of the casket. The shroud was torn. There was even a remark made by one of the television commentators talking about this in Iran, that now the Imam is in the hands of the people which was both literally true and figuratively true in the sense that his reputation as an Islamic leader was now no longer as symbol but was literal. And from that point on Iranians, it would be up to them to determine what the legacy of the revolution was. But it was a violent moment. And indeed my experience with Iran was always one of ambivalence. There was this death to America chant constantly when I was there. And yet there would always be people who would pause in their saying of death to America and say we love the American people. You want to come back to my home and have dinner? So this was this contradiction of Iran that played out in this dramatic way on the day of his funeral. And it was such an emotional moment. It was difficult for the people of Iran to say goodbye. Partly because of what Ayatollah Khomeini had meant but also this sense of their on their own. That essentially the truth and value and significance of the Iranian revolution, for good or ill, would be proven only after Khomeini's death. And that all that had happened up to that point was merely prelude.

MULLINS: That was John Hockenberry recalling the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini 20 years ago today. Hockenberry is co-host of the PRI program, The Takeaway.