The question on the Harvard Business School application asked me to describe a typical day. What I started to write about was not a typical day, but one which I hoped would give a flavor of life in Tehran.
I went to work at 8:30 in the morning. I had to make a few phone calls before my appointment at 9. The person I was to meet arrived on time — this does sometimes happen in Iran and should generally be taken as a good omen. At 10:30, I rushed out of the office to pick up my skis, meet a friend, and head to Shemshak ski resort, north of Tehran.
It was the tail-end of the Iranian New Year holidays in early April. This meant that like on any other holiday, there was at least one check-point with revolutionary guards making sure everything in the car was kosher, so to speak: no boyfriends or girlfriends on board, no alcohol, no foreign music and above all, no “rap.”
Here, the word rap has taken on a new meaning. It's anything that represents America's culture of “sex and corruption.” You get religious-fanatic types writing graffiti on Tehran walls: “RAP = AIDS.” In response, our corrupt youth respond with something like “RAP = LOVE.”
These “rap” boys and girls are probably dressed in “rap clothes” (white basketball shoes and baggy pants), and have “rap haircuts” (for guys, any puffed-up, blow-dried, or well-combed look, and for women, any style whereby the hair covers as much of the headscarf as possible, rather than the other way around).
As I suspected, we got stopped by a revolutionary guard.
— “Let me see your car papers.” — “Here sir. How are you doing today?” He sees the relaxed smiles on our faces. — “Hey man, my boss is looking so I gotta act like I'm doing a thorough job.”
Let's not forget that many of these much-feared guards are doing their military service, meaning that they actually prefer not to bother and do as little work as possible.
— “What do you have in your trunk?” — “Junk. Do you want me to open it?” — “Yeah, why not! Open it.” I do. He sees a large bottle of water among the junk. — “What's in there?” he says with a knowing smile. “It's water,” I laugh. He smells it. We're off.
By noon we were in Shemshak on a particularly crowded day. For the past few days it'd been snowing at night, with the sun shining during the day. Perfect conditions, except that the wait was quite long.
The lines for men and women are separated and run in parallel toward the lifts. Ironically, as one has to side-step in the line to get to the lifts, all the men end up facing a row of women who have their backs toward them, as if lined up on display. And in Shemshak few women really adhere to the strict dress code. Also, as the two lines often move at different speeds, you end up seeing many of your friends on the other side of the ropes and can make plans for lunch.
As I got up on the old chair-lift, enjoying the hot sun, I remembered the first time I came to Shemshak three years before. That time, as I was going up the lift under a similarly blue sky, blazing sun and beautifully powdered snow, I suddenly understood the events of 1978.
“Now I understand why people didn't see it coming,” I told a friend. “People were having too much fun. How can you think under such conditions?” From that moment I gained a great respect for my parents' generation for being able to think at all; it would be so easy not to.
As the lifts close at 4 p.m., by about 3, people start to get impatient and want to do as many runs as possible in the last hour. Being in a good mood, I had great fun feeling superior and civilized by waiting correctly in line and practicing my street language by cursing all those who cut through.
This is a very tricky job for it is known that many a fist-fight has started this way. One has to be careful and judge one's target and choose the right words of attack. You can be downright rude (untranslatable), forward (“Where do you think you're going?”), or just plain polite, challenging the person's integrity by being nice to him.
The last strategy usually works best. In general though, I was not very successful; it seems people's integrity span has shortened over the past few years. First, they feel shame, and stop to stand in line correctly. But after a few minutes, they get bored and inevitably start pushing again.
“Excuse me sir,” one person told me, a few minutes after I had chastized him. “Could you please move over slightly so that I can go through?” If there were any room to move over, I might have actually moved. “I'm sorry my dear,” I replied, “there is no space to move.” He moaned: “Just a little bit, just so I can pass through.” The nerve.
At 4:30, just like the day before, the clouds suddenly came in and it started snowing, like clockwork, like my morning meeting. Miraculous.
We drove back to Tehran and relaxed for a couple of hours, watching CNN and an old rerun of NYPD Blue. It has taken Tehran to make me appreciate dumb TV shows and American football.
At night, a friend made dinner, and among various dishes, there was a tomato and mozzarella salad with REAL mozzarella! In Iran, one gets to appreciate and enjoy the “little things in life.” What you can easily buy at a 24-hour deli in New York becomes a luxury item here: French cheese, Swiss chocolate, Italian olive oil.
At dinner, we talked about everything from Majlis elections to art. I started concentrating on my food when talk turned to “the reasons for our backwardness.”
This conversation has been going around in circles for the past century in this country and a countless number of books and articles continue to be written about it. But as Omar Khayam says, “[These wise men] did not lead us out of this dark night; they all told their tales, and fell asleep.”
Yet people still feel exorcised when the “reasons” are regurgitated around dinner tables. I guess it gives us a sense of control over “fate,” some ground to stand on in a society that is constantly alienating itself; a sense of bearings in this jungle of unwritten laws.
By the time I got home, it was just past 2 a.m. As I was opening the door, I heard a voice: “Engineer sir, could you get me a cup of tea?” It was Alireza, our own homeless neighborhood “idiot savant.”
Our street would not be the same without him. All the neighbors take care of him and provide him with a regular supply of tea and cigarettes. Every once in a while he gets taken away to some insane asylum, where he is given injections and becomes relatively stable. He then finds a job for a few months. But he eventually returns to our street.
When he is away, the neighborhood mourns his departure. When he returns, the word spreads quickly: “Alireza is back,” the neighbors tell each other as if talking about Santa Claus. He spends his time making fun of the world and provides some sort of teenage-rebel alter ego for all of us.
He gives public speeches making fun of politicians. He sings; sometimes love songs. He openly breaks the fast in Ramadan and generally has a great sense of humor.
“Alireza,” I told him, “no one has any tea at this time of the night.” He looked very surprised. “Hmmm… OK.”