|Ugliest city around
By Alidad Vassigh
March 13, 2002
I was going to write about Iranian delusions of grandeur, a common notion we
have that Iran is the centre of world attention and the object of perpetual plotting
preventing us from attaining our "place in the sun", to use the phrase
coined for imperial Germany. I've heard people claim, "we were going to become
a regional Japan (flooding the world with our Peykans) were it not for a revolution"
many blame on the West, who else?
Another comical claim is about how "they" kept President Clinton in salt
water [aab namak] and then unleashed him on us, who knows for what purpose, perhaps
to wave a thousand toman note and a dollar note in each hand and vow to make them
Music, I have heard, like almost everything else, originated in Iran, as proven by
the apparent link between "lyrical" and "Lorestan".
Our sense of importance is irrepressible; we are the great Persians after all. One
is reminded of the modern Greeks, all those shopkeepers and waiters called Pericles,
Socrates, Aristotle... still: Let us consider modern Tehran instead for a moment,
one of the ugliest and dirtiest cities around.
Everyone who has been there knows that; what we keep hearing though is praise for
the former mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, who supposedly turned Tehran into a modern
metropolis before his arrest for alleged corruption. A former interior minister,
one Besharati, urged Jacques Chirac to see the beauty of Tehran and stop boasting
about his own city, Paris.
Karbaschi, as visitors to Tehran will have seen, has
wreaked havoc and destruction on the city's charming northern suburbs. Farmanieh,
Kamranieh, Elahieh, to name but a few districts, have been turned from leafy suburbs
into concrete-ridden Hong Kongs, where skyscrapers loom over familiar alleyways,
The destruction is so thorough as to suggest a venomous intent, the urge to destroy
all remaining evidence of Iran's faded aristocracy. Gardens (baagh) have been cut
down and pushed back so the little alleys could become proper roads, where traffic
can freely circulate. This has encouraged more traffic, so that up and down Tehran,
at all hours, there is traffic and pollution. There is pollution on the Alborz foothills
and pollution downtown, it makes no difference anymore.
Of course the Islamic Republic's "Amir Kabir" forgot that "modern"
cities with modern highways have proper pavements or sidewalks. In theory citizens
should be able to walk all over the city, as they do in practice in London, Paris
or New York. Pavements in Tehran are capricious though, there one moment and absent
the next, broad one moment, so narrow the next as to force one onto the road, if
you can squeeze past badly parked cars.
This is not so bad in Tehran's older districts, downtown, developed under the Pahlavis.
That Tehran was built for citizens in a country where high society or just plain
society could mingle in the street, cafes, teahouses etc. The new suburbs are designed
for those who divide their time between high-rise flats and cars: that's the Haji
Bazaari idea of modernity and "class".
The city's architecture is also notable. One can hardly fail to note the chaos and
utter contempt for harmony in Tehran's buildings. When younger, I used to deplore
the ugliness of some of the villas we would visit, mostly built in the 1960s or 1970s.
Now those are quality structures compared to the rubbish built by the speculators
and vulgarians that make up the new rich (who want their sons to be doctors of course).
A ten-storey block built next to a bungalow is no rare
site, its ugly sides jutting out, pasted with plain cement if the developers can
be bothered to spend the money. Tehran structures are mostly plain rectangular blocks,
built on slots rather than occupying a self-contained space.
Residential blocks of the imperial era, such as Eskan or ASP in northern Tehran,
are planned compounds. They have integrity and more than adequately perform their
function. They provide comfortable living space amid a plain, modern elegance. Their
republican successors, however, are shoddy blocks with a single "ornamental"
fa'e disguising the building as an object of beauty.
The fa'e provides Iran's countless Aaqaa-ye Mohandes with an opportunity to indulge
their fanciful notions and turn the humble apartment block into a little Chrysler
Building or Palazzo Farnese. The result across the city is a sprawling mass of madness
and excess Salvador Dali could not have dreamt up after a pitcher of sangria.
Modern Tehran is an ugly environment that breeds ugly behaviour. People are stressed
before they reach their place of work -- if they have work. Mostly they stay at home.
This may partly be why they are selfish and anti-social.
Tehran residents like to park their cars outside the garage and on the public pavement,
forcing pedestrians to make a detour in the street as they walk past. Of course they
think nothing of sprinkling their cars spotless during the summer months of water
shortages, in the country where drought is another season. Worst of all, they place
their disgusting shoes and those ubiquitous plastic dampayees outside their front
doors in the corridor, in communal areas of apartment blocks.
The Haaj Aaghas and Haaj Khaanums who now live in Shemiran are terribly clean. You
see, they don't like people to walk into the home with their shoes, and damn the
neighbours (don't they put their shoes out too?).
Some of the more considerate ones place little shoe cupboards outside the door, allowing
you only to smell the family collection of shoes as you walk past. The smelly shoe
debate is a controversy dogging meetings of residents, where humbled taghutees try
to reason with their new, triumphant, mostazaf neighbours.
The dampayee has also become a part of the civil servant's uniform. What a site:
those public servants casually walking up and down ministry corridors, a home from home, making that very particular
sloppy noise as they drag their feet.
Here's how the daily routine starts: you arrive at work, take off disgusting shoes,
don disgusting plastic slippers, join colleagues for noon-paneer and tea and
then, well you go off to serve the public with dedication, what else?
Still that's not strictly relevant to Tehran. Many are leaving Tehran now for the
Caspian coast or mountain hideouts, where they can keep the ugliness at bay.
Once a city where excitement co-existed with refinement, Tehran has become one large,
filthy and expensive obstacle course. The only excitement now is the thrill of seeing
motorists shouting khaar-maadar abuse at each other in traffic jams and wondering,
will there be a fight?