February 5, 1999
Southern Tehran is humbling.
In Tehran, class is defined by latitude and altitude: the further north and the higher up one goes, so one does in socioeconomic status. That is no small thing as even the air one breathes is affected by one's class in this city: The air of southern Tehran has volume and texture that coats the nostrils and lips and tongue (and presumably the lungs) with a fine dark dust and obscures any view of the majestic snow-covered Alborz mountains in the north with a brownish haze. In northern Tehran, the altitude as well as the relative abundance of trees allows for cleaner air and a cathartic breeze. After a day (or two or more) in southern Tehran, breathing the air makes one feel exhausted, thirsty and beset by headaches.
Even without being sentimental and melodramatic, I find southern Tehran far more interesting than its northern counterpart. For one thing, the area is older, the streets are narrower, and the buildings (the ones that have survived numerous cycles of municipal "beautification" and urban "restoration" anyway) are less uniformly "modern" and ugly. For another, the area is less familiar to me. Whether it be my foreignness or my social background, southern Tehran is not an everyday area to me. Faces, accents, voices, gestures, and interactions are different than those in in the north. There are still little old men on their donkeys selling their ware around the bazaar. The kind of wheeling and dealing that goes on in and around the bazaar in southern Tehran has changed very little in centuries. There are some exquisite architectural masterpieces of various eras to be found here. From the exquisite Shams-ol-Emare to the Golestan Palace complex with its vast beautiful garden filled with parrots and swans to some old lowly anonymous buildings with beautiful plaster-work (coated in grime), elegant (but chipped and peeling) wooden window and door panes, and wrought iron details not to be found in north.
Lines seem to be better observed than in northern Tehran, where any chic (bottle) blonde- and red-haired babe in the latest fashion sees fit to cut any line and step on any toe, as if the earth, the service provided, the place in line, or even your poor feet are her inheritance from god. Surprisingly, I find southern shop-keepers more polite than the northern salespeople who seem to have perfected the art of rude nonchalance. The fabulously informative and friendly antique dealers on Manuchehri Street are an exception, but then it seems as the center of town continues to shift further north (I am told that Vanak square is now the "real" center of town) Manhucheri really falls in the southern half.
The poverty in southern Tehran is overwhelming. Every five steps or so, there is a woman in a heap drowning in her black chador with a child extending her hand for money. It is cynically said that they rent the sickly children in their laps and that they "make more money than we do." Some incredible number, their presumed take, is usually estimated. There seems to be a jaded venom in the interaction with the very poor. Our venerable language so easily lends itself to the master-servant relationship. It is so simple -- just a change of pronoun from the plural "shoma" (comparable with the French vous) to the familiar "to" (tu in French) and a slight imperious tone -- to address another human as the inferior in the interaction. It is in fact recommended to do so, I am reminded frequently as I use "shoma" unsparingly and indiscriminately.
One step above the beggars are the ancient men and women selling their humble and meager wares -- gum, pencils, "fals" (the Persian equivalent of horoscopes) -- and the very young slender boys with their boxes of chocolate and chewing gum, following you doggedly, practically begging you to buy from them. There are other young boys in the bazaar itself, pulling unbelievably heavy-loaded trolleys through the mass of people and the narrow alleys, acting as gofers for the bazaar merchants -- who treat them unkindly, loudly, without trust. In this country -- where we boast of our hospitality, our "atefeh" (affection), our kindness, our generosity -- those characteristics do not seem to be easily extended to those outside our close circle of friends, relatives, and acquaintances.
I always assumed that in southern Tehran I would find staunch defenders of the more conservative elements in the regime, but whomever I addressed, whatever conversation on which I eavesdropped, whatever gestures and manners I observed testified to the derisive and pessimistic view of the people towards the regime. Everyone is exhausted and the conversation is invariably about the intended increase in the price of gasoline to 350 rials per liter (4 cents) and the falling value of rial in the black market. In a city where the most prosperous cab-driver makes 2,000,000 rials per month (today, that is $228; one week ago, it was $262 the rial has fallen by 14% in the last week alone), and the ordinary civil servant around 300,000 rials per month ($35), the increase in the price of gasoline means inflation: the price of all goods will increase as the cost of their transport goes up. In the bazaar, where the goods are brought from far and wide, this effect is felt close to the bone.
As poverty has gone up, so has theft on one hand and addiction to escapist hard drugs (such as opium and heroin) on the other. During a visit to Mowlavi Street -- of bird-sellers-market fame (where falcons were being illegally offered for sale alongside the more ubiquitous pigeons and finches) -- we heard much commotion and screeching of tires as car after car came to an abrupt halt diagonally across Shush Square. We saw eight green-uniformed Revolutionary Guards chasing down a barefoot man across the unbelievably crowded square, cutting in front of cars and throwing the crowd aside, and finally tackling the man, ripping his shirt in half, and dragging him to their tinted-windowed van. My well-heeled cousin who has just completed his military service indifferently explained that the arrested man was probably a thief and deserved to be arrested. The driver of the taxi which we then hailed had a completely different opinion: "They can only do this to us, because we are powerless. What had the poor guy done? Probably just had a little bit of drugs on him. He will go to prison now and they will make a file for him there, so that they can bump up their statistics and the ones who bring in the drugs by the ton will pay 12 million toman fines ($14,000) -- even make monthly payments -- and are freed right away, because they know all the right people to pay off."
Like all the other times on this trip, I was taken aback by the bluntness with which criticisms of the government were voiced. I also for the first time viscerally felt the vastly disparate relations of the affluent and the poor with the state: while the affluent complain about the absence of THEIR rights but inherently trust the role of the state as the provider or security and services, the poor in Iran (and this is certainly not a scientific survey, but rather a generalization of numerous anecdotal evidence) mistrust the state altogether. They see it as corrupt, thieving, incompetent. They mistrust the veracity of promises and the honesty of officials. The same taxi-driver commented on the upcoming elections, "We elected all those educated gentlemen and what have they done? Now why should I go vote for the illiterate Haji Javad of the grocery store at the end of street so he can steal from me too?"
Hardship has hardened attitudes, and optimism and belief in redemption are in very short supply. The population seems to be divided equally between cynics on one hand and fatalists on the other. Southern Tehran, the polluted, old, amazing, confounding, revealing southern Tehran teems with a mixture of both.
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