The Iran I saw

I was born in the late 50’s and grew up in Tehran through the late 70’s and after college graduation I came to and settled in the U.S. I have returned to Iran about once a year since the mid 90’s, primarily to reunite with family, especially the ailing and aging parents in Tehran whom my wife and I hold close to our hearts. As we tend to age, the unexpected phone call in odd hours scares the daylight out of us, as we fear the inevitable loss of a loved one.

During these visits, which have numbered about a dozen so far, besides staying extensively in Tehran, we have also traveled extensively to the major cities of Shiraz, Esfahan, Kerman, Bandar Abbas, Kashan, Zanjan, Qazvin, Natanz, Rasht and the Caspian Sea region, and to many smaller rural communities. During these visits we have endeavored to mingle with Iranian locals of all walks of life so as to grasp a better understanding of their psyche and their aspirations and challenges in life. Caught in a dichotomy between the Iranian and American cultures, (and certainly not a sociologist by training), I have nevertheless made some observations of the social trends in Iran while there. It is interesting to compare these sociological observations to the Iran of yester-year and to the current norms in the west in the dire hope of effectuating social reform there. Moreover, let me disclaim a possible allegation that if I tend to critically evaluate the social ills in our native lands, that in and of itself should not by any long shot be misconstrued as our considering the west as utopia.

Caught between a rock and hard place, and as the first and second generation patriotic Americans of proud Iranian heritage for instance, and despite our affluent and highly educated community of one million strong, we grapple daily with the dose of xenophobic stereotyping, discriminatory practices, impediments and numerous impeding challenges that are by and large reactions to the lingering politically charged rhetorical crescendo between the two respective governments. After all, let us bear in mind that the word Democracy or individual rights for freedom of expression has not been cited even once in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist papers, or the U.S. Bill of Rights!

We at best have a “representative” democracy that is orchestrated by the corporate and media conglomerates, whereby we play a symbolic role in such circus. Political establishments come to power based in part on opportunistic and strategic moves and can sometimes sustain power with repressive measures. One cannot, however, deny the socio-cultural necessities that serve as the anchor on which such political systems thrive and allow them to penetrate their tentacles deep into every aspect of social life including bedrooms and bathrooms. The complacency of foreign powers to legitimize such political systems is secondary to the internal social predicaments.

As painful as it may seem to the nearly three million expatriate Iranians in Diaspora and their few million brethrens, highly educated westernized elites and technocrats inside Iran, there are independent studies that if a national referendum were to be held in Iran today that the majority of the people, against their own long-term interests and without their cognizance, would still cast their ballots in favor of retaining the current Islamic Republic, perhaps with some in-house reforms. When the conditions are ripened for a fundamental political change, as history has repeatedly indicated-the case in point is the overthrow of the Pahlavi Dynasty- a society would rise to rid itself of the incumbent system, irrespective of the hitherto harsh repressive measures imposed on it.

True, one can hardly identify a measurable number of Iranians who are truly content with, and thus in full unequivocal support, of the Islamic Republic. Nonetheless, when you ask most Iranians whether or not they are committed to effectuate fundamental change by putting their socio-economic or political clout on line for change, they mostly back-pedal. The lack of in-house or worse outside viable oppositions further exacerbate the impasse. And then there are those, mostly youth or disgruntled Iranian yuppies who yearn for the Americans to bomb and liberate them of their miseries, or leave the country for the west. When we share with them our lifelong experiences of good, bad and ugly in the west, they only hear the amplified good as shown by Hollywood and become selectively deaf for the rest! One is not quite sure, however, if they truly mean this wish or that they struggle to be figuratively sarcastic for expecting the American invasion and can envisage the detrimental consequences. It is one thing in the Diaspora to nostalgically wait for fundamental change brought about by an outsider or perpetuated by the uprising of the insiders; but the reality is that many of the 75 millions insiders are just as ardently awaiting the arrival of Mehdi to establish the “just” kingdom of God!

As to Iranian culture and history, I have remained one of its staunch proponents and supporters through my rather prolific writings. There are many aspects of Iranian history and culture that have immensely contributed toward civilization as whole. That said, in today’s Iran, one cannot help but to be perplexed since many daily misbehaviors and misconducts put any human being to shame. There is no way to rationalize the ill-conduct of a society as a whole when nepotism, cronyism, cynicism, skepticism, conspiracy theories, in-confidence, insecurities, incompetence, egocentrism, patriarchy, embezzlements, extortions, deceptions, petty and major “organized” crimes, hypocrisy, patronage, low productivity, apathy, innuendoes, rhetoric, and sloganeering are more the norm than the exception. And so, without further a do, allow me to share with you some close encounters and humbly recommend a set of Do’s and mostly Don’ts that I’ve come up with after spending a month in Tehran this past summer:

If you dare asking a taxi agency or the airport taxi how much the fare is before you board the vehicle, as surprised as the driver or the agency dispatcher usually are at the question itself, be aware that their answer is usually lower than what they will actually charge you. At the end of the ride, and after a few times of saying, “Be my guest really”, and “It’s nothing”, expect a much bigger fare to be thrown at you, which you are expected to pay with no argument. And a tip of up to 25% is always expected but not appreciated. My family members and I simultaneously took two taxies from the same agency and to the exact same destination of less than five miles, and yet were charged two different fares of 3,500 and 5,000 tomans, the latter for the older rickety Peykan taxi! God forbid if you specifically ask for an air-conditioned taxi, as the fare goes up by an additional 25%.

However, when the driver arrives, don’t expect him to have the A/C on necessarily, but be happy if he does not light up his cigarette. And if you dare ask him to put out his cigarette for medical reasons, expect him to grudgingly hold the cigarette out the window and suck on it now and then, all the time giving you a distinct displeased Persian stare through the rear view mirror. And then, there are the majority of taxi drivers who constantly test your guts by driving like maniac “suicide drivers”, tail-gate zigzagging in all three lanes and the shoulder and median if needed, at a speed, which though “only” 120 Km/hr, feels like 220!

As if all that weren’t enough, expect to be asked “which way should I go?” by the driver when you jump in and tell them your destination; you must serve as his navigator, or else that’s extra, too. God forbid if you have luggage, don’t expect any assistance. They may open up the trunk but they expect you to load and fit in your own luggage, and remove it too without any damage to car. It does not matter if you have asked for a taxi that could accommodate four luggage pieces and three passengers to the airport. Expect to be made to feel guilty when everything does not fit in the small Pride car they have sent, where you will have to cling to one huge suitcase balanced on your lap all the way to the airport in the back seat, which is over an hour away.

And if you dare scream in warning or shock when an accident is about to happen; rather than the driver appreciating your warning, expect swearing from him to you and a scornful “why are you shouting unnecessarily, as I am in charge; your screaming will make me have an accident!” And if you need to catch a taxi in the street, chartered or shared, assume every car is a taxi, unless otherwise proven. Perhaps more than half the private cars, (now numbering in the tens of millions as Iran is among the top ten major producers of cars), serve as gypsy cabs. And I dare you to even ride on one of the crowded buses of the soon to be disappearing government bus agency (sherkate Vahed) which currently cost a meager 10 tomans (1 cent). These buses are being replaced with private bus lines of the same quality and sardine like approach to passenger accommodations that will cost 15 times as much.

In major streets, they are assigned a special lane, but private cars snick in to use the same line, taking advantage of easy traffic. The much cleaner and orderly subway lines will provide you with assorted perspiration aromas that have their origins in colorful Iranian culinary traditions, professions and recreations. With such aroma, the dress style and general appearance, you could still intelligently guess the socio-economic status or the ethnic traits of most passengers.

And as for the new monumental airport located in a desolate desert to ensure first time arrivals a vivid impression of Iran – cutting lines for passport checks and customs inspections by opportunists or those with government connections is a reality you soon have to (bitterly) accept. And hold on to your nose and mouth tightly after a long deep breath and before you enter the public restrooms in the airport or other public places to minimize intoxication by the noxious odors.

As you walk in the airport, dodge the large number of blackened gum stains on the floors, and don’t bother looking out the panoramic windows as they are only semi-transparent and covered with dust and dirt. And when you take an internal flight with one of the few available airlines, do not be surprised to hear once on board that the 40 plus year old two engine prop-plane has had close sisters that are now deceased yielding the loss of hundreds of innocent lives due mainly to poor maintenance and economic sanctions for new planes or spare parts and service.

As for bodily searches in gender-segregated cubicles upon arrival to identify potential “terrorists” or “drug smugglers”, do not resist if the “mind twisted” guard repeatedly gropes your sensitive private organs, as you are expected to not complain and express appreciative pleasurable sighs. When you are anxiously waiting to board the plane, you can enjoy the same identical “cappuccino” imitation in 10 Oz disposable cups at any of the three coffee shops with the different prices of 2800, 3500, and 4200 tomans ($3, 3.5 and 4.5, respectively.)

Whether at the airport or any other public place like a park or a movie theatre, reciprocate by staring back at people when they stare at you for a long period of time. It is no longer necessary to open your mouth to be recognized as that gullible, simple hearted and transplanted Iranian from abroad, be ready to be exploited by the local “sophisticated” compatriots! The way you walk, breathe or “not” look around will let it out that you are the prey ready to be taken advantage of by the predator in the Bazaar or the doctor’s office when the prices jack up instantaneously. Do not try to admonish any corporate CEO that it is unethical to grease someone’s palm in power, have honorary share holders or board of directors’ members in high places.

The cost of living, especially when it comes to goods beyond those for minimum sustenance, is comparable to the global/American market; the salaries, however, remain meager to such expenses. In fact, food and many daily commodities are more expensive than their counterparts in the U.S. The real estate market, the only non-consumable commodity that is, despite dramatic oil revenues, the driving force behind double digit official inflation of up to 35%, is said to have become stagnant, in places 20% down than its peak of over a year ago. And yet, a modest 500 square feet apartment in an average neighborhood in Tehran for $150 grand is hard to come by.

There are houses valued at over 10 million dollars! Day laborers, mostly illegal Afghani nationals, comparable to many Hispanic laborers in the U.S., are hard to hire for less than $25. The cost of a few hundred square meters land covered with a typical two-story, 30 year old building in Tehran, soon to be demolished and replaced with a five story apartment building and three levels of basements for parking, utilities and storage, is $10,000 per square meters ($1,000 sq.ft.).

The generation of municipal utilities remain constant, or in the case of electricity, is actually diminished thanks to U.S. driven sanctions leading European Siemens et al to not provide spare parts for gas, oil and coal based electricity generators. The result is daily black-outs of up to a few hours on several occasions, and a trickling to zero water flow. That does not stop the profiteering firms from pushing all sorts of electronic gadgets on Iranian technophiles.

A typical house has up to three TVs including LCDs, one or two desktop and laptop computers and its paraphernalia, and several “mobile” phones that now cost as low as $50 with a monthly bill of $5; a price that many, over 40 millions, can afford. Do not be surprised if audience members pull out their cell phones for a chat while in the movie theater or better yet, during a live show. Just consider it an unrehearsed extension of the show! And be careful when hopping over street streams and cut-off sidewalks as they are constantly being re-macadamized to be dug up the next year.

The average monthly household income for Iran’s urbanites is 500,000 tomans ($500), but especially in larger cities, one can hardly conceptualize how a family of 4-5 could survive on such a meager income. That has easily put the up to 50% of the population with an un/under-employment below the poverty line. The result is that a second odd job, mostly gypsy or agency cab services, becomes the necessity for supplemental income. Selling one’s conscience for political ends to receive subsidized luxury items (to be sold at higher prices) or selected governmental hand outs is another alternative. Tehran is a mega-city of up to 20 million, where some “elite” families of the political establishment spend as much as $100,000 a month! While there, just don’t get sick, as the national healthcare system and its private insurance counterparts cover next to none. Plastic surgeons, though they charge less than in western countries, (Iranian surgeons who have retired overseas but travel to Iran charge up to five times compared to local peers), nonetheless expect them to be regarded as God, and with no legal or ethical accountability.

And when you buy one of the many fake name brand products that look more authentic than the real product (the salesman swears by it), do not be disappointed if it breaks or rips before you get home. And don’t dare to question the fruit stand shopkeeper when he shoves the rotted or un-ripened green peaches into a plastic bag at $4 a kilo, or else be prepared to have your intelligence insulted by a statement such as “these are from Damavand and whether they’re green or rotted they taste the sweetest as you must know.” And look the other way when people throw rubbish everywhere, or when your neighbor pushes the piles of debris from his door front or on his side of the sporadic water stream (nahre ab) , only to your front yard, as this is more of the norm than the exception.

And when the birth of the 12th Imam, Mahdi, is celebrated for almost a week feeling like a month, don’t feel shell shocked when the so called westernized upper class co-ed citizens, young and old, rush to mosques, and luxuriously decorated street stages, to benefit from the bounties of pastries, foods, fruits and deserts, while flirting with one another under the temporary amnesty of the Imam, and while shedding a few crocodile tears for the martyrdom of Hossein as well. But please do liberate the foreign tourist surrounded by a growing number of onlookers, some practicing their English while others throwing jokes (matalak) in Persian at the tourist. And walk away from fights or car accidents as they become street theatrical events, where within seconds, the extras take the first actor role, you included!

Dodge the ubiquitous number of Gashte Ershd (vice and virtue agents) green mini vans, and keep your emotionally charged opinions to yourself when witnessing a poor teenager arrested for a few exposed hairs on her head or for displaying a bit of lipstick. Ironically these officers are among the worst perverts with their eying everyone that passes. The same goes for witnessing the boy arrested for wearing a western T-shirt. To sum it up, with the above daily financial and social scrounge, who could even think of aspiration for socio-political change? Don’t be surprised not to find a Sunni mosque in Tehran despite 15% of the population being Sunni. And accept the Shiite Friday Imams appointed in Sunni majority cities (Sanandaj, Bandar Turkman, Torbate Jam, Sagghez, Banehm, Mahabad…) and stop looking for Sunni Imams appointed by the people.

Let me reiterate again my reaffirmation of love and affection for Iran our nation, and its diverse peoples. The purpose of sharing the above observations is not to deny that there are indeed many positive aspects to Iran and to Iranians as a whole, as that is well known among us all. My wishful thinking and hope is that we, both those inside and those outside the country wake up and recognize our social ills and devise remedies to fundamentally refine and reform our culture and daily ways of life if we are seriously looking forward to preserving the Iranian identity and heritage globally for future generations. At the end of the day, whether it is our homeland or our plights in Diaspora abroad, the question is not any longer whether or not the glass is half empty or half full, as by its sheer physical evidence it is factually half-full! The more appropriate question is what specific fluid it is half-filled with, and whether or not it could accommodate refinement and reform…

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Serena Shim Award
Meet your Persian Love Today!
Meet your Persian Love Today!