Ignoring red lights
Letter from Tehran
By Borzou Daragahi
January 21, 2002
Everything here is a hassle. I called a gym to get membership info. The
guy told me I'd have to come to the gym first. I asked him where it was
located. "You mean you don't know? How did you get the number?"
Um, I called information, I replied. "We're not taking any new members
right now," he said, and hung up on me!
I've taken to taking long walks. Even that can be a hassle. Motorcyclists
take shortcuts through sidewalks and drive the wrong way down one-way streets.
Beautiful boulevards and walking paths lead to ugly dead-ends.
I seem to be the only person I know who has a map of Tehran. But it's
almost useless because it uses the post-revolutionary street names (Martyr
Such-and-such Street, or Ayatollah Whomever Boulevard) while almost all
people still use the Pahlavi-era names when they give directions. Even the
locals are lost and confused. Often, while I'm walking down a street, it
seems every single passerby asks me for directions.
I've also been keeping myself busy going to cultural events, which I'll
describe in another letter, and engaging in some sight-seeing; although
-- to be honest -- there aren't that many sites here to behold. Cheap Afghan
laborers and massive construction cranes raise neo-classical office and
residential towers. They're going up all over the northern section of the
city, which looks far more like Wilshire Boulevard than any quaint Middle
Eastern cliche. (To get an idea of what Tehran looks like, visit http://www.tehran24.com).
On a recent day, I decided to take a trip to the Tehran bazaar, where
the Lonely Planet guide tells me not to spend more than an hour.
(In fact, Lonely Planet advises tourists to get out of Tehran as
quickly as possible -- it's neither pretty nor historical nor rejuvenating).
The bazaar is on the southern side of the city and to get there, I had my
way to a place called Vanak Square, a transportation hub where drivers stand
outside their cars and call out names of destinations.
I'm glad I wore my boots. It's the dead of winter here, and a brittle
cold has settled in, making the unplowed sidewalks and roads icy. I notice
a couple guys standing aside motorcycles. "I'll give you a ride on
my motorcycle," says one of the cyclists. "No red lights, no one-way
streets, no traffic laws, no nothing. I'll get you there in half the time."
I'm tempted, but considering the icy roads, no thanks.
I finally locate a car heading toward the bazaar. Five passengers cram
into the little Iranian-made Peykan, two sharing the passenger-side seat
and three in the back. A middle-aged woman in back talks the whole way.
She really gets on my nerves. She complains about how uncomfortable the
car is. She describes her husband's BMW. She whines about how her kids don't
respect her. Then she says something that makes everything clear: "In
New York, where I live, things are a lot different." How typical that
the most obnoxious person I've encountered here is a New Yorker!
I'm stuck in the front seat with some other dude, so I have a perfect
view of the nightmarish ride past the city center to the bazaar. The driver
hurtles his decrepit Peykan into traffic circles without even slowing down.
I try to make small talk, but he ignores me. He also ignores the red lights.
He cuts in front of cars. Lively Persian pop music blares from the tinny
speakers. Swarms of motorcycles continuously come at us - I mean right at
us- and we narrowly avert a dozen horrific crashes.
Why do the motorcyclists pay absolutely no attention to the most basic
traffic rules? Apparently, this was a phenomenon that started with the revolution.
One person told me that in the early days of the revolution, when the oil
workers went on strike, fuel became scarce and people began to conserve
gas by ignoring red lights, cutting down one-way streets, sidewalks, etc.
Another person told me that during the revolution, gangs of Islamic militants
would drive around Tehran on their motorcycles with guns swung over their
backs. These folks later evolved into semi-official morality enforcers.
No one dared mess with them. Even today, cops have to wonder whether the
motorcyclist they're about to stop is a two-bit ride hustler or a plainclothes
An hour after I set off, I finally arrive at the bazaar. The total cost
for both cab rides: about 50 cents. As soon as I get out of the cab I gasp
for air. My head begins to hurt. I look around, but the air is so smoky,
I can barely see anything beyond 50 feet in front of me. The cold makes
the air in the northern section of the city where I'm staying fairly clean
and these days you can always look to the north to see the snow-capped Al
Borz mountains from which the city gets its water supply.
But in the southern part of the city, on the southern slope of the mountain's
rise, the air is almost always awful. Coincidentally, southern Tehran is
where the poor people live. But there are no romantic images of poverty
in southern Tehran. In fact, no images of anything. Just the noxious smell
of automobile exhaust.
In the bazaar itself, a sprawling, partially covered complex filled with
little vendors selling everything you can imagine, there's less smog. Still,
motorcycles drive through the narrow passages and you have to constantly
jump out of the way. The stalls sell everything and nothing. Plain white
t-shirts, socks, curtains, rugs, carpeting, bulk women's lingerie, decrepit
belt buckles, pieces of piping; very little you can't get on Manhattan's
All the shopkeepers just stand or sit doing nothing. But youngsters
hustle around pushing wheelbarrows. A traffic jam ensues when two wheelbarrows
encounter a motorcycle going the other direction. I duck into a shop selling
bulk socks. The guy in the shop looks at me and - perhaps quickly realizing
I'm not a buyer -- looks back at his ledger book. "How's business?"
I ask. He shrugs. I look around. Almost everything is made in Thailand or
After about 45 minutes of wandering I find my way out. I stumble upon
an ultra sleek, ultra modern subway station! I decide to make my way in
and to take a ride to wherever. The contrast between the ancient grime of
the bazaar and the sparkling 21st century shine of the Metro is alarming.
It's cute the way the conductor will wait as much as two whole minutes for
passengers buying tickets to board the train.
The map says the train goes to a stop that's somewhat near where I'm
staying, but after only four stops the train stops. End of the line. I find
out later that the money for the Metro ran out before the system could be
completed. Another beautiful path to an ugly dead-end.