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Traffic conversations
Smoldering in Tehran, Part 4



Sima Nahan
November 14, 2005

As population grows and construction explodes, traffic chokes the city. New, domestically assembled cars stream into the streets daily, while no old cars running on leaded gasoline are retired. Delivery services are widely used. Anything from groceries and restaurant food to haircuts and beauty services are delivered to the doors in the affluent parts of town. And of course the number of taxis on the streets, both official and unofficial, increases daily.

There are two kinds of cabs in Tehran, those who take you door to door and those you hail for specific distances as you incrementally approach your destination. The latter you share with other passengers, generally three in the back seat and one or two in the front.

I noticed a change in the tenor of conversations in these taxis. In the early days of the revolution and war, conversation was much livelier. Back then, these random assemblies were used by drivers and passengers to vent anger at the way things were. Inevitably someone would find opportunity to hiss the old threat that someday a mullah would hang from every chenar tree on former Pahlavi Avenue. People seemed to get energized by taking strangers into political confidence and to derive solace from the camaraderie.

Now, these accidental groups don't quite gel. Cab rides are much quieter. Even though people speak freely and with more sophistication when they have a chance, the sense of urgency to connect and communicate with strangers has somewhat faded. Oddly, there used to be a sense of hope in the dark days of revolution and war. Now the mood is exhausted and depressed. Political views are no longer black and white, for and against, us and them. Nevertheless it is taken for granted that with the exception of a very small group of people everyone wants change.

I found the door-to-door agency cabs more conducive to conversation. The stop and go traffic creates ample opportunity for the driver and passenger to make each other's acquaintance. It is a rare driver that avoids a conversation. Most are eager to engage in elaborate discussions. At the end of a long trip you sometimes regret breaking away from the conversation. There are times when the driver just pulls over and you continue talking, saying goodbye eventually with reluctance. Some give you their cards to call them directly (not through the agency that gets a cut of their fare) if you need a car and a driver for a whole day.

The social, professional, and educational background of these drivers is staggeringly diverse. Half the male population of Tehran seems to have to resort to driving these cabs at one time or another, either as a main or supplemental form of income. The drivers can be old or young, college graduates or barely literate, and with any imaginable background. I rode with retired air force pilots, former factory owners, teachers, civil servants, engineers, and a great many jack-of-all-trades. I heard that there are even physicians who at some point or another resort to driving cabs.

The plurality of views and convictions among these men was eye-opening. Among them were supporters of Khatami, Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani, the Shah, and bitter antagonists of all of them. There were those with combination views: pro Khomeini but anti Islamic Republic (the "revolution went wrong" philosophy); pro Reza Shah but anti Mohammad Reza Shah ("the father had guts, the son didn't"); pro Khatami and also pro Ahmadinejad ("one couldn't effect change, the other will"); and any number of less articulate or even more contradictory combinations. But ultimately these men's personal thoughts and experiences were most interesting, and with these they were characteristically open and forthcoming.

One hot day our driver apologized for needing to pull over for a minute to cool off. He drank from his flask of cold water and rested a bit in the shade. He explained that he is a janbaz (injured war veteran), still suffering from the effects of mustard gas on his lungs and skin. The heat brings on breathing difficulties. (Janbaz, "one who risks his life," is a relatively new official term -- an improved replacement for the old shahid-e zendeh, "living martyr.") The janbaz are ranked according to injury: 25% disability is the lowest rank qualifying for benefits. But our driver, 25% janbaz with 122 months of service, was not qualified because he was a retired army officer with a pension. Janbaz benefits are reserved for militia (basij) members who do not have a retirement.

With pensions far from enough to support a family, many non-basij war veterans resort to driving cabs. This driver had also suffered an injury to his leg from a landmine, a relatively minor injury as those go. I told him that a few years back I had learned that the Islamic Republic does not allow aid from international organizations to victims of landmines. "Don't believe those organizations," he told me. "Their money comes from the companies that make the landmines." He said that there are still plenty of antipersonnel and anti tank landmines left on the fields in Khuzestan, blowing up farmers and tractors. "Let them come and clear those fields instead of distributing prosthetics -- those we can make ourselves."

Another 25% janbaz, with 82 months of service at the front and a leg injury, said that he had decided not to retire from military service. He was a powerfully built and tightly wound man who could barely fit in the driver's seat. He said that he was in a special forces unit -- "like the American Green Berets," he explained -- and that for him retirement would be death, although he was feeling the effects of his age and injury. "I drive a cab because I need money, but I'm a warrior, not a taxi driver," he said.

I asked him whether the Islamic Republic was not afraid of a coup d'état by disaffected people like him in the armed forces. "Maybe," was all he said. (Some say that the election of the new president will eventually reveal itself as the military coup that it is -- a coup by the corps of revolutionary guards and not the armed forces.) I felt his reluctance and pressed: "Some people say a military coup is the only alternative to this regime -- some even fantasize about a coup by the supporters of Reza Pahlavi -- what do you think?" He fidgeted in his seat, clearly uneasy about discussing this. "Look," he finally said. "We are mercenaries. We need a strong leader."

Some drivers pass on interesting information. One driver who spoke some English told me that around election time a group of foreign journalists hired him to drive them around. He said that they met with people in high positions for interviews and were also interested in the political prisoners at Evin. I asked if he remembered the names of the newspapers. He named some American ones. "But it was strange," he said. "They were constantly on the phone with their editors taking directions about whom to talk to and what to ask. I thought journalists were free in America."

I had a particularly interesting long talk with one driver whose front seat was covered with newspapers and books. He occasionally pulled one out to demonstrate a point. He was a Khatami supporter and called him Iran's greatest statesman after Mosaddegh (the prime minister who nationalized oil in 1953 and was ousted through a joint US/British coup). "Mosaddegh's motto was Œeducated nation, powerful government,' but Khatami's was Œeducated nation, powerful country'," he said. "Khatami was working not just to build a government competent to rule but a nation competent to rule itself." He pointed to the many publications on the seat next to him: "When Khatami became president we only had two newspapers. During his tenure the hardliners forced the closing down of over ninety publications. That means hundreds were given permission to publish." >>> photos

I asked him whether he thought it was likely that the U.S. would attack Iran. He laughed. "This is all posturing," he said. "Each time the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes comes to an impasse one side comes out with a bluff. At this point it's the Americans who are doing most of the bluffing." I jokingly asked if he agreed with Khomeini's famous words: "America cannot do a damn thing." "No, not exactly," he said. "They can do a lot of damned things, but their military hands are tied right now. They cannot possibly pull off another occupation like in Iraq, but why would they want to do that in the first place? This regime has a lot of use for them -- in fact, the hostility is useful for both sides. One keeps the other in power."

This analysis is quite common in Iran -- the U.S., Israel, and the Islamists are seen as soul mates in brutality and deceit, and mutually dependent. So what is the concrete bargaining chip of the Islamic Republic vis-à-vis the Americans, I wanted to know. "To dominate the region the U.S. does not need actual military presence everywhere. It can have intelligence presence at much less cost," he said. "The Islamic Republic can provide that -- it's already sitting on a lot of intelligence. We can be the eye and ear of the Americans."

"But America is not our immediate problem," he continued. "Poverty is." He pulled a magazine to show me the estimate that between eleven and twenty-two million Iranians live below the poverty line. "That's why people voted for Ahmadinejad. That's why they voted for Qalibaf who outright promised 50,000 tomans for every vote," he said. We laughed about the effects of inflation: Back during the revolution, the Islamists promised that 100-toman bills -- the oil money the Shah pocketed, it was explained -- would be distributed door to door after the Shah was gone. (A young woman from Mashhad told me of her conversation with an old gardener of her family who was going to vote for Qalibaf. She mimicked his Sabzevari accent: "100,000 tomans for me and my wife and another 100,000 for my son and his wife, that's 200,000 tomans right there." She laughed, "I told him, ŒAmu Jan, see how good it is that women have the right to vote?'")

A few times this driver referred to his lack of formal education. I told him that I thought he was more informed and well read that many educated intellectuals. "Never underestimate our intellectuals," he said. "It is their work and sacrifice that has educated people like me. They have paid a high price. We owe them a great deal."

And in the thick of the politics, oppression, and high general anxiety there were those self-composed individuals who maintained a cheerful sanity that was almost shocking. I rode with one driver who would not speak a harsh word about anyone. He spoke with equal respect of the Shah, Khomeini, and everyone else. He made measured comments about moderation and public participation. (I saw murals extolling "public participation" in elections.) I wondered if as a truly polite gentleman, that was his way of avoiding a conversation with me.

Twice I rode with a driver in his mid-thirties who was only interested in talking about his daughter. "When she was three my wife noticed that there was a clicking sound in her knee joints. She wanted to take her to the doctor but I said it was not necessary. I told her all she needed was lots of full-fat milk and exercise," he said. "When I was a child I had the same problem and it was cured by the milk they gave to school children during the Shah's time. Every day when I go home I take my daughter a bottle of high fat milk and sit with her until she drinks it all. I work out every day with weights myself, and she watches and copies me lifting bean cans. I've also enrolled her in gymnastics class and now you should see her run and jump on the parallel bars! No more popping knee caps... " >>> Part 5
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