Smoldering in Tehran, Part 3
November 9, 2005
Since my last visit in 1992 Tehran had changed almost unrecognizably. Back then the country was still jang-zadeh-war-stricken. The walls were plastered with war propaganda and death-to-America slogans. Food and consumer goods were in short supply. It was long enough after the revolution that cars and buildings had aged, unmaintained. New buildings were scarce and the better buildings tucked away inside old leafy gardens. Apart from the few and far-between billboards advertising rice-cookers and blenders, advertising was refreshingly absent >>> photos
Now, commercial goods are abundant at hefty prices. Billboard advertising appears all over the new highways and throughways that crisscross the city to relieve traffic. The stop-and-go traffic on even the newest and widest roads creates an ideal captive audience for advertisers. The advertising is mostly for electronic and communication gadgets, kitchen appliances, and prep schools to increase chances of getting admitted to good universities. There is even some advertising for luxury goods-Swiss watches, for instance. New, air-conditioned cars with windows tightly rolled up are not rare sights in the affluent parts of town any more.
The number of virulent revolutionary slogans and murals has somewhat diminished, with the exception of those celebrating individual martyrs or martyrdom itself. One gigantic mural shows a woman holding a baby, both of them wearing white headbands signifying readiness for martyrdom. "We love our children but we love martyrdom more," it says. Many slogans nowadays run to the moralistic, addressing the youth in the old nasihat tradition: "We must be truthful." "We must be diligent." "We must read fifteen minutes every night."
I only saw overt anti-American slogans on the walls of the "den of spies," the old American embassy compound. Without fanfare, however, there was advertising for American companies. Calvin Klein and Head and Shoulders were there. So was Caterpillar, occupying a clean new building marked openly with the name of the company. A cab driver told me that it sold spare parts through the Iranian Tejarat bank. On the other hand, it was amusing to see that the street named after Bobby Sands in the early days of the revolution had not been changed to a martyr's name like so many other streets.
Before the revolution the population of Tehran was 2.5 million. Now it is estimated at 12 million at least. The city has expanded in every direction, but mainly to the north and the south to become "Greater Tehran." The general vicinity of the great bazaar-the old "downtown" where the central bank, main post office, a number of ministries and museums, and many other significant establishments are still located-is now pretty much central. Outside government buildings, rows of scribes still sit on the ledge of the water canals with ancient typewriters, or some with just writing tablets and pens, in their laps. This is, in fact, the least changed part of town as many old buildings in various stages of dilapidation are under the "protection" of the National Heritage Institute. Decrepit as much of the area and many of the buildings are, something of the old beauty and architectural integrity still remains.
I visited the house of an old teacher and friend of my father's in Pamenar, not too far from the bazaar. His exquisite 150-year old house is protected as part of the country's national heritage. It is a gem indeed even if the owner cannot afford to fix the crumbling walls and the leaking plumbing. The secluded courtyard with the blue-tiled pool and fountain in the middle is surprisingly quiet. We plucked ripe figs from the trees and rinsed them in the pool. The sound of the rustling leaves and trickling water was somehow undisturbed by street noise. Inside the building, the rooms were airy and bright and quite tolerable without air conditioning. The basement was positively cool, with sunlight streaming in through the wooden lattice at the windows. I listened to my father's teacher recounting a memory of Ahmad Shah stopping by in his splendid carriage and asking whom the house was built for. "Your grandfather's physician," he was told. That was nearly a century ago. It is the kind of house where it is possible, and certainly tempting, to wipe contemporary Tehran out of one's consciousness.
The city expands far to the south with satellite towns: part shantytowns, part planned neighborhoods. New populations, mostly migrants from villages but also Afghan and Arab refugees, are settled here. By far the majority of the new population of the city lives here, even if not all the satellite towns are officially part of Greater Tehran. But this is not the site of the great construction boom of Tehran. The lucrative development is going on in the more affluent north where endless rows of high rise "towers" stretch far up into the outskirts of the Alborz range. These are enormous residential and commercial buildings-many with helicopter-friendly rooftops-whose nonstop construction, given the dire economic condition of the country, defies all logic. This real estate development has driven housing prices through the roof for the rest of the population. Karbaschi, a former mayor who was popular on account of planting trees and instituting good garbage collection in Tehran, relaxed zoning restrictions and sold building rights to developers against all considerations of safety and feasibility. Succeeding mayors all seem to have followed suit.
Old narrow alleys that developed out of dirt foot paths in what used to be villages in the north of Tehran, are now crammed with cars. Not too long ago it was the weary donkeys or chamush mules of peddlers that slowed traffic for the few neighborhood cars. Now the donkeys and mules are replaced by pickup trucks piled up high with melons. The old sing-song cries of the peddlers have given way to bull horn-amplified calls. The day after my arrival when I heard cries on loudspeakers in the distance I assumed it was chants or propaganda blared from some mosque, as in the early days of the revolution. But as the traveling sound got nearer it was pleasantly surprising to hear that it belonged to peddlers selling tomatoes and cucumbers or buying used clothes and household knick-knacks. On an unusually quiet street one day I heard a young man on an accordion, singing the title song from an old movie Soltan-e Qalbha-Sultan of Hearts. I smiled at him sweetly as he passed by and he gave me a dirty look. Later I was told that the singer was not being quaint-he was panhandling.
Now these same tight and crooked streets have to accommodate not only the neighborhood population explosion but also the cars avoiding the stop-and-go traffic of major streets. The savvier the driver, the better he or she knows how to zigzag through these streets. But these tiny alleys still have some of their old charm. Small produce and grocery stores are still strung with colored lights at night. The entrance to old mosques and bath houses are framed with red bricks and blue tiles that are chipped with age and rounded on the edges. Mechanics still work on ancient cars poking out of small garages as idle young men look on. Here and there a new mosque with a prefabricated façade is stuffed into a tight corner. In the unlikeliest upscale neighborhoods, militia recruitment centers are announced with gigantic banners: "The sisters' basij of Niavaran accepts members." And on each side of these old or reconverted buildings a tower is going up, surrounded by piles of dirt, lumber, and concrete.
Old houses inside big gardens, now called "villas," are knocked down and replaced by towers. Doorbells on old villa houses are rung many times daily with propositions from developers. Flyers are left at the door even more often. The standard practice is that the villa owner provides the land and the developer the investment, a tower goes up, and the original owner gets one or more units, depending on the negotiations. Because of the cost and hassle of maintaining a big house and garden many villa owners welcome the tradeoff.
Inside the remaining villas the beautiful old trees are covered with dust from the construction all around. Still, they maintain something of the cool and fragrant delight of the southern slopes of Alborz. At a friend's old house in Velenjak, his swimming pool was filled with icy cold well water and shaded by enormous trees. We warmed up in the ancient cedar sauna before jumping in. We floated on the water and ate mulberries that had fallen in the pool. They were a little dusty >>> Part 4
Smoldering in Tehran: Index