By Shahin Shahin
Imagine an ordinary man, used to driving in an orderly manner. We will transport him to a different place, where driving is a matter of survival, every inch has a hidden danger, skirmishes with fellow drivers a certainty. We have transported him to the Twilight Zone of all traffics; it is called Tehran Traffic...
I went to Tehran last month. It was my second visit this past two years, and the second in twenty one years. I have traveled to many countries in the world, and have driven in quite a few of them, but nothing can prepare you for the gladiatorial struggles of men and machine that occur on the streets of Tehran. It is without the doubt, the craziest thing I have seen in my life. The second craziest thing I have ever seen was bull fighting, but even that had its rules, which everyone observed.
The Tehran streets' version of bull fighting spectacle has few Tehrani flavors, but the main theme is basically the same. You will get into your car, and instantly become a vicious conqueror (a bloodthirsty matador), out to grab as much glory and trophy as you can on your way. You will not give way to anyone. You stand your ground. Nothing but total defeat of the beasts, whether on foot or in other cars will suffice. Mercy is not in your vocabulary. You will not take the opponents alive. Once you have slain the beasts, you will proudly cut its ear off and throw it in triumph at the feet of the hapless traffic police, whom are made to stand all day and be a witness to the carnage as a punishment for some unknown sin they may have committed in this life, or the one past.
Then there are the foot soldiers, Kamikaze pedestrians, drilled and trained in Shinto, they move around in totally oblivious of their surroundings. Their armor is their fearless combat readiness against the four-wheel monsters. Grasshopper has nothing on them. On one occasion a woman crossing the road got her chador caught in the bumper of a car. For a second I thought it was Reza Shah driving the car, resurrected to do the kashfeh-hejab (taking off the veil) thing again. She lost her chador; undaunted, she ran after the car, and managed to retrieve her chador. Good reflexes I thought.
Question: How do you get off an eight-lane expressway, if by some reason, such as not reading the big signs above your head, you pass your intended exit?
Possible answer: You reproach yourself for being careless. You will then take the next exit, right?
WRONG. Here is what you do in Tehran. You will immediately screech to a halt once you realised you have missed your exit. You will then put your car in reverse, and drive backwards in the path of oncoming traffic. Sod the rest. Can't they see you have missed your exit? Once you reach your intended exit, you will then leave the expressway.
Another question: On a six-lane-wide avenue, how do you turn left at the intersection?
Possible answer; Before reaching the junction, you carefully look into your rear-view mirror, making sure, the coast is clear behind you. You will use your indicator, alerting other cars of your intention. You will then get into the furthest left lane, ready to turn. Once reaching the junction you would stop, look out for traffic and then proceed with your manouver. Right?
WRONG- in Tehran, you will carry on carefree, not looking out for any other road users, since they should be telepathic and immediately receive your brain thoughts, and therefore aware of your intentions. You will then stay in the farthest lane on the right, and once you reach the junction, you will then swerve to the left, cut into everyone's path, and if lucky pick up a passenger or two at the junction, whilst carrying out your maneuvre.
I was utterly frightened. Friends and family thought it was funny that a grown man cries out in hysterics, and invokes the names of saints of all known religions, when seated as a passenger in a car. It was difficult not to look at the goings on around me, alas I did try my best to ignore it.
It appeared to me that help was at hand. Authorities unleashed division strength of traffic police, reinforced by armies of conscripts, notebook in hand, writing out traffic tickets. The police stood at places where usual shenanigans take place. Numbers are recorded with a vengeance. The bystander is fighting back. Officers and conscripts stand on the lines in the middle of expressways, ensuring cars are driven between lines, and not on lines. It is an uphill task of educating the Tehrani drivers; so little achieved, so far to go.
One way of not getting scared, was for me to try and look at the scenery. Oh boy, I swallowed up every scene, like a puppy eating his favourite chow.
The buildings, trees, shops, people were so new to my eyes, it was virtually a new country for me. Nonetheless, there was familiarity, things that triggered my memory, and took me back to my boyhood days. Sometimes the scenes made me want to be a little boy. It was difficult holding back nostalgic tears.
The morning I arrived, I arranged to meet a friend at Vanak Square, outside the gates of the Funfair. Do you remember it? Long time ago it was a huge place, full of wonderful rides. When I got there I was shocked. It looked so small to a man in his thirties. The disappointment was immense. Boyhood days were gone. I had the same feelings when I passed our local park, where we played football. Did we really play football in that tiny little place?
On the other hand the buildings have turned into huge monsters, towering pedestrians and smaller undeveloped buildings. And the trees. Big trees everywhere; new trees planted in all sorts of places. We still have green fingers. Something to be proud of. Take everything from us, but leave us our gardens.
* Also by Shahin Shahin:
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