... where chaos rules
Written & photographed by Rasool Nafisi
October 2, 2000
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
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
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
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