An American in Tehran
“Why did we have a revolution if we can’t ignore traffic lights?”
Ocotber 5, 2005
I was disoriented most of the ten days I spent in Tehran this July. Although I have been with my Iranian wife and her family and friends for nine years, and seen their snapshots from before the revolution (1978), and studied Persian literature, architecture, carpets, and handicrafts, and we have translated the poetry of Omar Khayyam, I was unprepared for the taut, energetic, and yet warmly personal atmosphere.
My wife, returning for a short visit after thirteen years, our five year old son, her mother, and I were to have spent three weeks there, but my visa application was denied until she spent two weeks going to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran, son in tow, while I cooled my heels in Turkey.
I wasn’t the only one denied a visa. A Global Exchange tour was forced to visit Lebanon instead of Iran at the same time, and an Iranian-American friend’s daughter, who took a chance traveling without one, had almost been turned back on arrival at the airport. We thought we would have better luck, because a friend put my wife in touch with a man in the Iranian Interests Section of the Pakistani embassy in Washington. In February he said there would be no problem, simply apply to him a few weeks before we wanted to travel. In June, however, after the applications for me and our son had been in for a couple weeks, there was a new rule that requests had to be made in Tehran. He did issue our son’s, though, a week before we left.
We heard several reasons for the change in policy. The government was retaliating against ours for denying visas to so many Iranians. There was growing concern about spies. Presidential elections were approaching and authority was being recentralized until the results were known. Ahmadinejad, the candidate who was elected just before we left home, had promised to replace four out of five civil servants, and nobody wanted to stick his neck out by letting me in.
My wife called me in Istanbul to say that the Ministry would fax the approval to their consulate there the next morning and give her the authorization number, but when I arrived they hadn’t received it. I found a pay phone two blocks away for the first of many calls about the number. Each time I returned, I rang the bell, the inner door opened, the guard scrutinized me, opened the grille, ran a metal detector over me, and asked if I had a knife. They kept saying I should come back tomorrow, but I told them I’d wait since I had a flight at 11:00 that night. My wife’s uncle, who lives in Istanbul, gave them a call to let them know I wasn’t on my own. I sat in the waiting room trying to sound out Persian words in the magazines and watching Iranian television.
Finally my visa was approved and I filled out my second application of the day, left to pay the fee at a nearby bank, returned with the receipt, and learned that now I needed passport photos. Out and back again, still without a knife, to watch the janitor clean the empty room. Finally, in midafternoon, I had the precious visa. I landed in Tehran at 3:30 am, one of the 500 non-Iranian Americans, including journalists, who visited in the last year.
We saw and received many people during my stay, some with contact and experience in the government, some among the national and international business class and the professional, artistic and academic intelligentsia, and some ordinary people like myself. I apologize for not naming them or giving identifying details. I may be overly cautious, but I don’t want to take a chance of jeopardizing anyone.
They asked what I thought of Iran, and the first word that came to mind was chaos. That was partly due to fragmentary comprehension of a new and unknown place, partly because I had gotten only four hours sleep in the last two nights, and partly because of the heat (over 100 when I finally cleared customs just before sunrise and 117 by evening; the following days peaked at 110), but it was also because it’s chaotic.
The traffic was the first thing I noticed. It seemed like there are no rules at all. Then I realized that people drive on the right, most of the time. People slow for stop signs, most of the time. They slow as they approach a blind intersection, unless they’re in a hurry. They crowd into any available opening, turn right from the left lane and left from the right. They pull to the side of the freeway and stop, and I could never see why.
Eventually I noticed a general practice of accommodation. To turn onto a busy street, you don’t wait for a break in traffic, you nose into it and other drivers let you in. Pedestrians start slowly into the street (anywhere they choose, since traffic lights and crosswalks are far between), and the current separates slightly like water in a shallow, placid river as they wade across. People watch each other. In America, rules are followed; in Iran they are bent. For this to work, everyone must be vigilant, and the ban on alcohol probably doesn’t hurt.
Drivers are pushy but they don’t necessarily insist on their right of way. When a car drifts into their lane, they simply avoid it without the aggrieved honk you would hear here. Horns are used for information: “Watch out, here I am,” or “No, I’m not going to let you in.” My wife says this is a change -- honking used to be constant and universal, and self-interest prevailed. There’s a story that soon after the revolution a driver asked the cop who stopped him for running a red light, “Why did we have a revolution if we can’t ignore traffic lights?”
People are working out ways of coping with the disorder, but there’s a high level of illogical foolishness. One evening we went for dinner at Darband, a small valley heading up into the steep northern hills. The crowded footpath climbs beside a rapid stream surrounded by open air restaurants, souvenir shops, and vendors selling candied fruit and nuts. Fountains are piped from the stream and water jets in arcs beside the patios under trees strung with lights. Our son stopped to have his fortune told by a parakeet that plucked a ghazal (poem) by Hafez from a box upon a folding table. For an hors d’oeuvre we bought liver kabab from two young men tending a charcoal brazier, and later we dined on a platform cantilevered over the creek while our son explored the multi-leveled restaurant, chatting with diners and waiters, indulged by all.
Most people park on the street before it tapers to a single lane which finally ends at a small parking lot where the footpath begins, but a few insist on seeking a spot as high as they can drive, and when they can’t find one they’re forced to turn around. A car trying to turn blocks the cars behind, and now a driver coming down stops within inches, blocking it from above. All circulation stops; even the walkers must squeeze between the cars. The smell of exhaust, brake fluid, and burning rubber permeates the night.
Although no one can move and everyone is suffering, no one honks. Although thoughtlessness and self-interest have generated this condition, there seems to be a general acceptance, a resignation and patience while it gets sorted out.
Other travelers back from Iran have described it as chaos, but let us not exaggerate. Life cannot exist in pure chaos. It’s a question of just how much there is, and why, and how people cope.
In twenty-five years Tehran grew from two and a half to some fifteen million people. That kind of growth is hard to manage, and there is evidence that this government cares more to maintain its power and enrich its members than to improve conditions for the people it rules.
In order to raise funds, the city has allowed unrestrained building on most available sites. There are cranes and construction and building everywhere, but the infrastructure isn’t always ready. In a new area at the edge of town, streets between the highrise apartments are only the ruts left by construction vehicles. In many areas the streets are too small for the additional cars. A modern high speed, automobile-based city is being built on a dense urban grid. Buses, which would alleviate the traffic, are infrequent and crowded, and the subway has only two lines.
It is commonly accepted that if you don’t know your contractor you can’t expect decent or even safe construction. Much of the masonry tile being used for walls seemed to be of poor quality. A general contractor we know was not even sure if there are building codes. He did point out a highrise, though, where construction had been halted until structural calculations were redone and more steel added.
The odor of petroleum-based chemicals is pervasive: Car exhaust, gasoline, diesel, transmission fluid, kerosene, fertilizer, plastics, cleansers, shoe polish. Even the dugh (curdled milk) we had with lunch one day in the garden of a palace tasted like chemicals.
Gasoline is imported, surprisingly, because Iran has the world’s fourth largest oil reserves. Its refining capacity is small, however; while we were there, a refinery opening was celebrated on television. The price of gasoline is subsidized at 40 cents a gallon, which encourages the use of cars. Tehran, like Mexico City, tries to control their number in parts of town at certain times, and to reduce its thick smog, the city is beginning a program to buy and scrap 200,000 old cars. A friend pointed out that this also happens to benefit the car manufacturers at taxpayer expense.
Only one street map of Tehran is available, and a friend said it is only approximate. Main thoroughfares are shown but smaller streets are not, one-way streets aren’t indicated, and apparently continuous streets turn out to be dead ends. Left turn lanes direct you into one-way streets coming toward you. Why is this? Mapmakers might have trouble keeping up with construction in the newer areas, but the older streets haven’t changed, except for being renamed to honor martyrs. Even taxi drivers are unsure of routes and locations. They arrive in the general vicinity and start asking passersby and other drivers where the street is, how to get there from here, and how the numbering works, but sometimes even local shopkeepers don’t know.
This all shows a lack of public planning, an absence of controls, a laissez-faire rule. To the extent that planning is absent, chaos increases; and coping with chaos takes time. Many Iranians tell me that they just can’t get their compatriots to work together, but a great deal of energy is being put into civil society efforts -- which the government supports up to a point. One of our friends is organizing a wildlife and camping society, and its mere existence, he said, will be subversive, since people will gather and make their own rules. Planning takes discussion, compromise, and agreement. There is much talk these days of democracy building; we would do better to talk about consensus building.
Maybe so much growth in such a short time is uncontrollable. Maybe the best cities have developed like this and smoothed their rough edges when expansion slowed. Istanbul, New York, and London have good public transportation, room on the streets, shops within walking distance, public spaces -- they are comfortable places now, but consider their past unrestricted growth. And consider how cold are planned cities like Frankfurt, Brasilia, and Paris’s La Defense, and how much a “planned society” smacks of twentieth century totalitarianism. Maybe a crazy place like Tehran has a better chance than Frankfurt of becoming comfortable, since its development springs from the diversity of individual choices. I suppose we can’t help analyzing and prescribing, but in the end our theories and prescriptions may count for little. People develop and adapt on their own.
Tehran feels like a war zone, a chaos where rules are suspended, self-interest governs, and decent people carry on their lives as best they can. My Russian piano teacher has described her childhood during the siege of Leningrad and life under Stalin. It’s one thing to hear about and another to visit. The ruling mafia started a war with Iraq just after the revolution and they have found methods for maintaining the atmosphere. Anxiety and fear serve the purposes of certain governments, like the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Bush War on Terror.
I learned a few things about America on this trip. The US is becoming more like Iran in its use of fear to create an obedient populace. (Some observers say it always has.) Look at recent developments: Nonsensical airport security measures, colored terror alerts, corporations looting pension funds, HMOs denying proper care to patients, NAFTA and CAFTA moving jobs out of the country, manufacturers making shoddy and unsafe products, underfunded schools and libraries, the huge number of African-American and Hispanic males in prison.
Outdoors behavior is restricted. Men and women cannot shake hands. Women must cover their hair. They must wear drab clothing at government offices. (My wife was refused entry to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when she wore pants that were too colorful.) We attended a concert in the walled garden of Niavaran Palace, once used by the shahs. To one side was a lovely 19th century traditional pavilion, and behind the stage was a 20th century palace in high commercial style. Women are not allowed to sing unaccompanied by a man, so one of the men had learned the trick of singing so as to be barely audible. (Before the revolution Tehran had a good opera company. Not now -- there is a problem performing half the repertoire.) Just imagine how much effort has been wasted to cope with this particular restriction.
There is evidence of a mean and vicious streak. The customs people who processed me at the airport were rude and one bordered on malicious. Now and then unshaven men with untucked shirts would stare at us with hostility in the street, though normally they ignored us as we ignored them. People talked about beatings and detentions of students and journalists, and Akbar Ganji’s hunger strike in Evin Prison was closely followed.
The random brutality of state-sanctioned violence charges even casual outings. One night as we left the city to drive over the hill for dinner at Zardeband, traffic became a crawl at a checkpoint. We were waved through, but the unshaven types were searching other cars for alcohol. As we sped up, our driver, an Iranian friend who recently moved back after twenty years in Los Angeles, joked that the lack of lane markers on the freeway actually improves circulation since everyone can move anywhere as conditions change. He mentioned that it had taken him six months to grow moderately comfortable with local traffic.
At the edge of Zardeband we drove through another, unmanned, checkpoint. After dinner, where the use of video cameras is forbidden and women are not allowed to smoke qaliyun (water pipe) -- though they smoke cigarettes nonstop like the men -- we passed the checkpoint in the other direction. Now it was manned in glaring light, and a group of untucked shirts surrounded three or four young men and women with their hands on heads. There was dismay in our car as they told me the kids faced lashings and months in prison. I wondered why they had been so indiscreet as to have alcohol in the car.
According to a friend in a position to know, the church masters in Qom were not particularly well organized before the revolution. But they are very smart, and they went to the Vatican to learn how the Catholics minister to their flock. Now there is a computerized database of clerics in the villages, the cities, the neighboring countries, and around the world. (This friend also described his vision of the Middle East as a region which during the day is zoned into the countries of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Syria, and so on, but is at night a fluid, borderless network of people and goods moving along paths ordered by different rules.)
The government allows intellectual culture as long as it is discreet. They must, after all, in order to keep things running, but they control the level at which things run. The lack of planning, the level of violence, and the amount of chaos are generally assumed to be premeditated and calibrated. The leaders promote the popular culture which supports them, and they have chosen to promote religious fundamentalism. For example, a Bachelor’s degree can be had for memorizing the Koran. Puritan Islamic repression, though implemented more thoroughly in Iran, is of the same nature as the fierce Christian fundamentalism in America, and it serves the same political ends.
My wife’s aunt’s apartment building was built before the revolution and is therefore considered trustworthy. Recently, though, a woman bought the small ground floor apartment and enlarged it by removing a column. When cracks appeared in our aunt’s and other tenants’ walls, someone complained to the building department. The woman bribed the inspector they sent with money or sex, nobody knew for sure. Our aunt asked my mother-in-law what she thought about trying to unite the tenants to appeal, but they decided that the most she could expect would be a fine of a couple thousand dollars, which would not be distributed to the tenants, the column would not be replaced, and the woman’s engineer’s reputation for accomplishing tricky jobs will be enhanced.
They told me there’s really no civil remedy available. I didn’t learn why, but it’s clear that where shame is absent and law is not valued there is little to check acts of greed and cruelty. We see this trend here, where our rights as individuals to sue corporations are being diminished.
Not everyone is happy with the repression, and rebellion takes whatever form it can. As time has gone by, scarves have crept from the brow to the middle of the head. Women color their hair, make up their faces, and wear stylish shoes. The young ones wear tall platform shoes and make their drab overcoats into tight cocoons to reveal their shapes. Certainly their fathers and brothers and husbands support this, for they couldn’t push as hard alone. But they are in the front, and it could be that it’s they who finally bring down this government.
The history of the Middle East, and the world in general, is the patient creation of order and beauty followed by its destruction in war after war after war. A history of brutality and theft, and of small groups creating calm, civilized oases as best they can in the gaps. Culture and intellect require leisure, and another I realized that that leisure does not necessarily lead to cultivation of the intellect: In America it has led to the commodification of everything. (Consequently American intellectuals seek to create value in the face of banality -- the rest of the world knows that it is refined from chaos.)
At a family gathering where beer and vodka were freely drunk with the full consent of the host despite his strong Islamic belief, a young second cousin who is studying French at the university asked for my impressions of Iran. I told her it seems that there are two societies living in parallel, with little contact, the cultured one hidden from the other. “Yes,” she agreed, and added, “Many more than two.”
The thoughtful, graceful culture I had expected does lives. It is indoors, behind garden walls, in the apartments and houses, concealed in small enclosed spaces, where order and safety are found. There is the life of the mind, of friendship and family, where men and women kiss cheeks upon greeting, news of the world is as fresh as today, books are discussed, art and craftsmanship are prized.
Even popular culture includes the classics. Lines from Khayyam are woven into carpets and ordinary people know his poetry by heart. Fortunes are told by opening a collection of Hafez’s poetry at random. Our son bought another fortune from a street vendor -- another verse by Hafez. Shakespeare is not so current among us.
People speak with quick wit and irony, without cynical affectation. Strangers would walk up and ask where I was from, which often led to frank and interesting conversations. You can say anything you want, though once my wife thought it prudent to tell a revolutionary guard that I was from Canada. She later felt bad about that and from then on we owned up to it. Nobody cared.
We headed for the bazaar one morning with a childhood friend and her son. Women board the buses through the rear door and sit at the back. The boys were young enough to go with them but I had to squeeze my way from the front door to low bar that separated us. No one talked to us on the bus, although they listened attentively to our English and Persian. On the subway a young man struck up a conversation in halting English and talked all the way up to the sidewalk.
The bazaar is an immense collection of narrow covered pedestrian streets, two or three stories high with shops at ground level, fans and air conditioners jutting overhead, surmounted by a skylit roof. Shops are grouped by what they sell -- jewelry, carpets, hardware, food. We took a passageway out past a mosque with a beautiful blue-tiled dome, crossed the courtyard, and entered another area where less expensive jewelry and stones were sold. In a tea small room men sat side by side behind small tables offering bracelets, rings, necklaces, pendants, and tea as we looked at their wares. They smiled and mussed our son’s hair. At another shop we bought bugles for the boys, the kind of noisemaker you find at sports events. We admonished the boys not to blow them in the crowded surroundings without success, because everyone smiled and surreptitiously encouraged them. We bargained a little over price but generally paid what was asked, figuring that a few extra dollars would help them much more than hurt us.
In some countries touts and beggars follow you down the street, but not in Iran. People respect themselves too much for this kind of self-abasement. In fact, it happened only one time, in the bazaar, where a man insisted that we look at his carpets, that the shop we were headed for was overpriced, and that our friend, who was leading the way, would be getting a commission on whatever we bought, and, by the way, were we sure that she was truly a friend? We laughed hard at that.
Not that sellers won’t take advantage of you -- if someone can overcharge you he will, and I heard plenty of stories of dishonest transactions. Dishonesty is not hypocrisy, though, and I’d rather deal with frank dishonesty than smug pretense. Even the few beggars are dignified as they patiently await alms.
Back in the USA, it took me weeks to readapt to the pervasive reticence and fear. Here nobody meets your eye on the street, no one smiles or greets you. This is a place, after all, where children are taught not to speak to strangers, and the grownups are afraid you might ask them for something. Everyone here is afraid of one thing or another. Afraid of losing their job, afraid of black people, afraid of walking after dark, afraid terrorists will sneak over the border and strike the shopping mall, afraid their kids aren’t being well enough educated, afraid of sex, afraid of the right-wing conspiracy. People won’t talk about politics, their salary, their boss. I speak of the educated white middle class, of course. The grandchildren of the slaves may be wary, but they’re not fearful.
Iranians are generous. We went to a bank one afternoon so my wife could pay the fee to leave the country. When a woman in line saw that the clerks (all men) ignored her, she energetically demanded the forms and then took the time to explain how to complete them. A few minutes later, a young couple turned disappointed from the counter as they realized they would have to return home to get the bit of money they lacked for their own exit visa. Another woman, a stranger, insisted that they accept the money from her.
Tehran has trees, public gardens, and well-equipped children’s playparks. Channels called jub carry running water alongside many streets, left over from the days (less than fifty years past) when they were the city’s water supply. Once a week the residents of each block met in the street to channel the water into their cisterns. Now water is piped but the jubs irrigate the trees and delight with their sight and sound.
Our son had a ball. Of course, he was the son of a beloved friend who was visiting after many years and a relative of many whom we met, and his sociability brings out the best in everyone; but more than that, Iranians treat children with affection and indulgence.
His lack of inhibition worried me now and then, such as when he flopped on the floor of a shop to act like he was praying. He did this more than once. I keep forgetting to ask him why, but he probably doesn’t know himself. He did like the azan (call to prayer) sung five times a day. Certainly he’s too young to be sardonic, but I worried that someone would think he was making fun of something they hold dear. No one ever seemed to react at all, though.
He took swimming lessons at a nearby daycare so he’d meet other children and get some relief from the heat. The teachers were all young women, in hejab of course, kind and attentive. The children were cheerful and friendly and played well together. Although none were older than six, separate lessons were held for boys and girls in the small pool in the garden.
One afternoon we visited friends in an apartment building with a pool. After buying tickets at the building office, we strolled in the shade under the trees, enjoying the whiff of kerosene in the air, past a woman in hejab tending the garden in the heat. Our friend mentioned that during the winter, men and women use the indoor pool at different times, and in summer women use the indoor and men the outdoor. It was masked from the path by a hedge and my wife had to stop short of the opening so that she wouldn’t see the men in their swimming suits.
My son and I were clearly foreigners and English speakers, and I had no idea how this would be received. Presumably the swimmers were building residents -- upper class, professional, and educated -- but these mostly unshaven men didn’t seem particularly cosmopolitan. However, though they checked us out, they didn’t stare. Nobody talked to us.
Everyone was subdued. There was no play, no splashing, no laughter. The men -- there were no children -- talked quietly in small groups. One spectacularly muscled middle-aged man who swam decently gave pointers to a respectful young man. Four or five teenagers lounged at the edge in a self-absorbed group. The air of restraint and inhibition was unsettling, or maybe it was that there were no women.
My son pointed out that the bottom was dirty. There was also dirt and trash around the benches, hedges, and corners. As soon as I reasonably could, I suggested that we leave. The changing room floor was slimy. We left for the clean, welcoming camaraderie inside the apartment.
Our friend rued the building’s shabbiness. His parents had lived there since before the revolution, when apartments belonging to members of the Shah’s cabinet and other prominent people were confiscated and given to families of martyrs, men from the south of Tehran or the countryside killed in the war with Iraq. The new people pretty much trashed the place and later sold their apartments, but after twenty-five years some remained. All these years the building had been poorly maintained. Our friend had been encouraging members of the tenants association to contribute three thousand dollars per apartment for repairs and upgrades to the elevators, lobbies, and common areas, but no one trusted anyone. People feared that the person in charge would take the money or that it would be unwisely spent. He couldn’t convince them that the value of their apartments was dropping and unless repairs were made it would reach a point where they would be impossible.
Much about America is admired around the world -- its popular culture, consumer goods, and its former democracy and generosity -- though this is rapidly changing as it becomes an empire. A cultivated, thoughtful lady who spends part of her year in Canada and part in Tehran working in her family’s business told us that visiting us at home would be difficult, because her Canadian passport reflects her origins and she is not welcomed at the border. When we pressed her to find a way to come, she said that as much as she likes us, she dislikes the US too much to visit. Another friend had enough of the US at college in Denver, and though she has friends and family here would rather spend her vacations elsewhere.
Having heard Americans speak disparagingly of foreign places they’ve traveled, it was refreshing to have a few foreigners do us the courtesy of returning the favor. This summer I happened to visit Jordan, France, Turkey, and Iran, and talked with people from still other places. People everywhere are well informed about the world and the US, and we would do well to listen to their comments.
Travel is a wonderful thing. You get away from the grind, see beautiful things, and acquire new perspectives. In Europe and North America toilets are fixtures with a seat seventeen inches above the floor and a roll of paper nearby for wiping. In the Middle East they are a hole in the floor bracketed by two platforms for your feet and a faucet or hose nearby for cleansing. Some Americans find this risible and primitive. An Indian friend says that in her mother’s opinion, civilization, in its course from India westward, ends at Greece, where water is no longer plumbed beside the toilet and people are forced to use that unsanitary paper.