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Uncivil society
Smoldering in Tehran, Part 8



Sima Nahan
December 5, 2005

The government notwithstanding, a major problem of building civic culture in Iran is the widespread absence of civility. People litter with complete ease as they call others heyvan for doing the same thing. Restaurant owners and staff ignore the patrons’ unanimous complaint of deafeningly loud music once the food orders are made. Traffic regulations are for the birds.

It is the law, for instance, that motorcyclists wear helmets. So now riders zip through the traffic with helmets dangling from their handlebars, as if the object of owning a helmet is to avoid getting a ticket rather than surviving a crash. People seem remarkably unaware of both personal and collective benefits of civic agreements. No amount of motorcyclists sprawled in pools of blood on the street—not an uncommon sight at all—is going to get them to change their minds.

On a greater level of tragedy, the looting that took place at Bam after the earthquake was ugly to witness. Some of it happened while there were still people alive under the rubble, calling for help. A relief worker told me that while earthquake survivors in tents nursed a photographer who had fallen ill, the last of their possessions was being looted back in what remained of their houses. People are very concerned about what would happen in a large city like Tehran in the event of a similar catastrophe.

As I looked at the many buildings under construction in Tehran I could not help but notice that the building material looked awfully shoddy. The new bricks were already chipped and cracked. Steel reinforcements, when there, looked awfully flimsy. It is estimated that an earthquake in Tehran of the magnitude of the one in Bam will kill up to four million people.

When talk about this shoddy state of construction affairs comes up, the first object of blame is the mullahs. “They have brought us to this,” everyone immediately says. (It is surprising that the earthquake in Bam was not blamed on the mullahs, the way the flood in Tehran in the mid 1980s was.) In a basically lawless country, there is very little regulation to protect the public. But the sensible regulations that do exist are seen merely as obstacles to be gotten around with bribes.

Government officials consider it their natural right to accept bribes from developers and contractors or the average bloke with ideas to improve his house. Neither side has any regard for the purpose of building codes. People’s lives and the most basic principles of social contract mean absolutely nothing. These people are not “mullahs.” They are not necessarily Rafsanjani cronies. They are regular folk who, in their turn, do not hesitate to blame everything on the mullahs.

As I wondered what a civic response to this lack of regard for social contract could be, an interesting case of it occurred. A relative of mine owns a small unit in a well-made pre-revolution building. A few months ago, the small lower units were bought by a woman who clearly had no plans to live there. She started to remodel the units in order to sell at greater profit. She knocked down some walls, removed columns that supported the building, and even dug into the foundation. Soon, as the building shifted, cracks started appearing on walls in other units. City Hall officials had put in an appearance early on but had been silenced by her bribe.

The building residents were of course troubled. They formed a residents’ association to fight this new woman but felt they had little recourse. They knew that even in the event of bringing a successful case to the courts the result would be that she would be fined. She would swallow the fine of a couple of million tomans while selling the renovated unit for close to a hundred million. The building would not be fixed.

By the time I left Iran, the residents’ association was still debating what approach to take. Some argued that it would probably be less trouble to wait and see who buys the new unit. The hope was that someone who wanted to live there would buy the apartment and in the interest of his own safety would consent to remedy the damage to the foundation and columns. The other tenants, of course, would have to share the expense >>> Part 9

Smoldering in Tehran: Index

Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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