Once upon a time Baghdad and Isfahan were celebrated as citadels of wealth and culture in the East. They were a source of pride; they were praised in poems. But now, in the modern East, the big cities are no longer a blessing. The mega cities are just a monument to the destruction of nature, villages, and small towns. They produce nothing and consume everything produced everywhere else in the world. They foster crime, pollution, even misery. Photos here
Chosen by the Qajar dynasty as the capital at the bosom of Alborz Mountains with a view of the scared Damavand peak, Tehran became a beautiful and modern city in no time. The aristocracy settled in the northern hills, while the poor were exiled to the south. Everything had its own order. But nearly two centuries and two revolutions later, Tehran — a third world metropolis of ten million people — is ruled by chaos.
Traffic symbolizes the city's culture. There is hardly any police officer in sight. Traffic lights are mostly blinkers. Larger cars and bolder drivers lead the traffic flow. During my summer visit, I realized how dangerous it can be. I was in a cab driving on a one way street when a huge yellow truck entered from the wrong side, sped toward us and virtually forced the cab driver to seek the safety of a gutter.
The city is lawless. Everybody knows you can only get things done through bribery. Some government officials condone this, even justifying it as “gifts to solve problems.” I was told that a judge had became angry with his clerk who had refused to take a “gift” from the winner of a case presided by the judge. “It wasn't a bribe stupid, it was a gift. It was offered AFTER the trial,” the judge had argued. It is even said that one of the ayatollahs has issued a fatwa saying if bribery helps speed things up, it is religiously permissible!
Life in the city takes surrealistic dimensions. The cultural deputy of Tehran municipality announced that Tehranis smoke five tons of opium every day! Just imagine the network needed to import and distribute such a quantity. Some accuse branches of the government for of being involved in smuggling. But it can't be true. Drug trafficking is done too efficiently for any government network to be involved.
A young man taunting a clergyman in a cab said, “We will bring you down as we put you up there on the throne [through revolution]”. “Well,” the clergyman replied, “when you made the revolution and brought us up, you were drunk on alcohol and full of energy. But now you cannot even bring down a fly, because you are all high on dope.”
Tehranis no longer look at villagers with disdain, as they used to. Now they look down on Afghans. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees poured into Iran during that country's civil war and are widely perceived as the source of crime. They are also suspected of smuggling opium from their native country.
When the new, reformist-dominated Majlis convened , its first request from the President was the repatriation of Afghan refugees. In fact, the government had been busy deporting Afghans even before the Majlis request. However, Afghans have also learned the “gift” giving game. It is said that once they are rounded up and put on a bus, a few miles away from the city, they pass the hat, collect a hefty sum and give it to the driver and the guards. They wait for the night, and the driver returns them to the city.
Once I was told that God has allocated each Muslim just one drop of rain a day. I am sure that is true because throughout my three month-stay in Tehran, I did not see a drop of rain. Also, being surrounded by mountains, there's hardly any wind. Indeed Tehran was partly selected as the capital because of this same fact. The former mayor of Tehran, the blessed Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, playing the role of urban Robin Hood, issued thousands of licenses for high rises. He used the money to build more highways. However, it just brought more mayhem.
Tehran is now gradually drowning in the middle of gigantic buildings, which deprive the city from what little breeze there was when you got up early in the morning. Tehran — nothing but a mountain range of cement, steel, plastic, and smog — is the symbol of man's complete victory over nature.
An estimated one million people escape the city on weekends to hike the Evin and Darrekeh trails. That is where mass frenzy is on full display . Fruit sellers, singers, Sufi chanters, male dancers, card players, tambourine players, girl chasers, armed clerics, “Sisters of Zaynab” vice police, political dissidents, and “punks” are all in a line on a narrow pathway.
Along the trail, a sign at the Zoghaal Chaal cafe reads: “Do not play chess. Do not bring anything with you for amusement. Do not show your hair. Be polite to others. Never forget God. Guests welcome!” There I found the only restroom in the city which still had a urinal. After the revolution, urinals were removed as it was considered unclean by Islamic standards.
Can Tehran reverse itself? Well, I suggested once that state offices should be moved elsewhere. That may help improve the quality of life. But a listener objected. “Move where?” He was right. The only city that may be able house two-million government employees is Isfahan. But no! I wouldn't wish this calamity even upon Isfahanis.
Rasool Nafisi, Ph.D., is the Discipline Advisor of General Studies at Strayer University in Northern Virginia. He is currently working on a book on resecularization of Iran. He recently returned from a trip to Iran.