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This isn't my real job
Tehran's real estate agents are hated by larger society

January 2, 2002
The Iranian

The sight that now rivals the snow-covered mountains as you travel north in Tehran is that of construction sites, rows and rows of unfinished buildings rising not-so-proudly from amongst the rectangular concrete houses jam-packed into Tehran's skyline. These half finished buildings occupied by construction workers of various ethnicities are everywhere, a reminder (as if you needed one) of Tehran's frightening rising population.

I am a contributor to this rise and thus in search of an apartment, preferably a furnished one.

Real estate agencies in Tehran come in two kinds: The old-fashioned kind, with gray metal desks, wooden chairs, rotary telephones (either gray or cream colored), and one or two old men sitting behind the desks or big, burly middle-aged men with moustaches, sitting behind their glass store fronts, chatting with friends and colleagues. These agencies often close shop for lunch, sometimes write descriptions of the houses they're selling or renting on index cards and stick them to their window, and importantly, answer their own phone calls.

Then there are the modern ones, the ones in the fancier parts of town, run by young men with gelled hair, nice clothes, and friendly demeanor who look like they are always ALWAYS busy. In these agencies, the storefront is not of plain glass so as not to reveal the heavily made up secretaries answering the phones with headsets and the room where the agents work is separate from the receiving room. They never close shop for lunch and make you fill out cards with your name, phone number, budget, and other specifics for their secret "filing systems".

And there is the Price Club of all real estate agencies, a certain office in the middle of town where what looks like almost 50 agents are stuffed into a not-so-large room. It's the only real estate agency I know of that advertises in all parts of town (most are local for obvious reasons), and whose answering service contains a message in both English and Persian about what to do when the operator eventually answers.

Here, when you enter the room, you are first hit by the odor and heat of bodies, so many of them, sitting behind non-descript desks, answering phones, talking to customers, and overall just looking busy. When you enter, to your right sit four young not-so-friendly girls who say to you coldly, yet politely, "befarmaaeed". You give them the name of the agent you're there to see and one of them not very happily gets up and directs you to him. She will navigate you through a labyrinth made possible by makeshift screens its logic of which I am still not sure.

He, the real estate agent, is often a man in his 30s, aged well beyond his years, sitting tightly with four other men behind a small desk with one or two phones and several newspapers spread carelessly around. Behind them, along the wall are endless rows of files, containing what I understand to be names and addresses of sellers, renters, buyers. As one eager agent told me "this agency has the best filing system in town." I do not doubt that for a second.

Real estate agents are known to be charlatans, not to be trusted, as my relatives pointed out several times. "Bunch of moft khors," (parasites) someone said to me disgustedly. The sentiment is not baseless and makes sense considering that it is to the agent's self interest to make you pay a higher price. The agency's commission is one month's rent and of that, the real estate agent gets up to 30 percent. (It was no doubt for this reason that not even once, when the agent asked me how much I was "willing" to pay for rent and deposit, did I get a nod of agreement in return. Every single time I was told, in a caring and knowing tone "Khanoom-e Sohrabi, I really doubt you can get anything at that rate.")

Regardless, real estate agents exude an air of sadness and one cannot but feel sorry for them. I have yet to meet one who felt comfortable in his skin and inevitably it would come out in our conversations that "man een kaareh neestam." (This is not my line of work) Seems like all real estate agents in Tehran, aware fully of the stigma attached to them, would rather tell you they failed at other jobs and are here temporarily than have you think they actually like their job.

Throughout my one week apartment hunt, I came across a variety of agents, young and old, kind and cocky, all of whom reminded me of the characters in David Mamet's Glengarry Glenn Ross. I had a brief encounter with one, a man in his 50s, scraggly looking, wearing an old winter coat with a tattered green and red scarf around his neck even inside the over-heated office. Once I was seated, a man who looked in charge called him and told him to see what I wanted. He sat down in front of me, and I could see the struggle in his body as he attempted to take on a seller's persona.

His tools of the trade were simple: A notebook, of the kind we used to write math equations in when I was a junior high student in Iran, covered with an old newspaper and plain plastic for protection. He opened it to a page for one bedrooms where he had written descriptions and phone numbers. Once in a while he would attempt something like "You're going to love this place," but he was so unconvincing even to himself that he gave it up after a couple of minutes. After he asked me what I did and why I was in Iran (student, research), the tables turned immediately and he took on the tone of deference often reserved for those coming from the U.S.

"I am not much of anything," he said to my murmur of ekhtiar dareed, "but I love history. Do you know much of our ancient history?" he asked politely. The sadness he carried on him stayed with me long after we saw a small studio whose door opened on to the building's parking lot and whose owner was appropriately dressed in a wife beater.

The real estate agent I finally got was at that great warehouse of real estate agencies . After traveling through the maze and passing rows and rows of sardined young middle-aged smoking men, I reached a gentle man we'll call Mr. Shirazi. Mr. Shirazi is a 29-year-old going 40. He has black hair parted in the middle and glasses, and his wardrobe never ever changed from the maroon suit, cream-colored shirt and knitted vest, and dark pants he was wearing the first time I saw him.

The second or third sentence out of his mouth was "this isn't my real job. I'm just doing this because I failed at another business," at which point he dropped his head and stared at the ground. "I'm real good at it though," he continued, "my strength is in negotiation." I nodded my head, not really knowing what to say and I was definitely not surprised when his next sentence was "is it hard for someone like me to go khaarej (abroad) for studies? How much English do I need to know?"

In one of our several outings, I invited Mr. Shirazi to a cup of coffee at Tehran's coffeeshop center on Ghandi Ave, where 5-6 coffeeshops sitting next to each other cater to Tehran's upper class youth's entertainment needs. It was early and CafedeFrance (written as one word) was somewhat empty. Sitting behind its dark wood tables, drinking coffee, eating banana splits, and caressing each other were two couples. We sat next to the window in the warm sun.

Mr. Shirazi did not seem more uncomfortable than he normally seemed. Over a cup of coffee that purported to be Qahve Faranseh but tasted oddly like Nescafe, he told me about his business venture. He used to have a business in Qazvin that went under and forced him to get into real estate. He had saved enough money to buy land, enough to plant 120 kiwi trees. After two years, the trees had given their first fruit which had by the time we spoke, been picked and stored in large freezers waiting for Noruz and the rise in prices to come out and be sold on the market.

This being Iran of course, it wasn't that simple. Turns out that the land he had bought was confiscated land that belonged to a "Savaki" (secret agent in the Shah's regime) who had now returned to Iran to reclaim it. The government had acknowledged the alleged Savaki's right to the land and now Mr. Shirazi, my 29-year-old real estate agent who lived in Tehranpars but showed luxurious apartments in Fereshteh, Tajrish, and Za'feraniyeh to rich clients, had to go to court and settle things with him. He didn't seem bitter just tired, or maybe even too tired to be that. "I just have to keep going to court and see what I can do," he said impassively.

My several apartment searches with him and with other real estate agents proved to be fruitless. The market for rented apartments in Tehran is very hot and the prices high. As one agent told me (and another homeowner confirmed), furnished places (and even nicely located unfurnished one bedrooms) are quickly taken by rich men who need an extra place to "entertain guests". I eventually found a place through the most efficient medium for getting anything done in Iran: ashnaa -- acquaintances and friends of friends.

I have become extremely sensitive to the sight of these half-finished tall buildings set against Tehran's skyline. Standing on the pedestrian bridge that traverses Moddaress Highway and connects Jordan to Elahiyeh, I fight the feeling that I am losing something, something precious and irreplaceable. Change has always been part of life, I tell myself. Nothing ever stays the same and even things that I wish would stay the same forever were different in a time before mine, I think to myself, as construction workers bang away at a concrete monsters standing where once trees stood.

And I imagine the future, the 100s of new apartments with their brand new white exteriors and their untouched insides, being shown to couples and families whose upward mobility manifest itself in an apartment in a borj in Fereshteh, and men in need of a home away from home in a place where no questions are asked as long as your pants are bulging big with hard cash. And I imagine the men who show them these apartments and who, mistrusted by their clients and hated by larger society, make their way to work every day from somewhere else, Tehranpars, Resalat, Jannatabad, thinking every minute to themselves: "man een kaareh neestam."

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By Naghmeh Sohrabi

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