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Ugliest city around
Tehran (astaghforellaa)

By Alidad Vassigh
March 13, 2002
The Iranian

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 equal.

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, kuchehs.

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?

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Alidad Vassigh


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