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How things have always been
>>> Photo essay: After being outside of Iran for quite some time, upon returning I found some things to be completely new and at times shocking and others quite old and familiar



G. Ali
November 7, 2006

Before leaving I was asked by some of you to send some information about life in Iran and I promised to do so after a few months. Well, here it is. I’m including a number of other people in the list since I haven’t given any news in quite a while (sorry for that, but I’m sure I’ll hear back from you and we’ll discuss the details in a civil manner) and I figured this will fill in that gap. Of course I am still not at liberty to express anything about the outlook as far as our future in Iran is concerned. That decision will occur in another six months. But I am obliged to give some information to those of you who asked for a glimpse into life in Iran in case you were going to try it as well or have simply forgotten about all the absurdity.

Absurdity is so prevalent that I just can’t get away from it, so that’s all I can tell you about. It can be a positive and fun phenomenon or a negative and nerve shattering one. That only depends on the eye of the beholder. Or the day of the month. I am still trying not to pass any judgment or make comparisons and only look at things as they are. But sometimes I think a small dose of amnesia would help. So I think that I’ll send along some images as they can do the talking much better than me. Inevitably some notes have been included because it’s really difficult to hold back.

After being outside of Iran for quite some time, upon returning I found some things to be completely new and at times shocking and others quite old and familiar. Naturally. For instance, you might not know that Iranian TV has a program similar to c-span that shows the happenings in Majles uncut, while there’s still an abrupt break in all programs for Azan. By the way, Huch the Honey Bee was sighted not long ago on one of the channels still searching for his mother.

Or for example the apparent hideousness of our new president might not be a shock to most of you as it falls in the familiar and expected category, but the fact that an ape has learned to speak, and with eloquence for that matter, is another story. (Finally Koko the Gorilla has been beaten.) But in general, although the craziness, and the extreme contradictions, that shroud Iranian life and culture are among those aspects that are old and familiar, I still find them new and bizarre regardless. So, you already know what is expressed here. Let it serve only as a reminder of how things were, perhaps with a touch of newly imported post-modernity. How things have always been.

Without the quintessential motorcycle, Iran would shut down. In traffic-ridden Tehran everyone relies on someone’s bike everyday. Yes that includes you too. Bikes deliver everything in Tehran now. Everything, literally. From chicken’s milk to human life. On a personal level you normally have your food delivered on bikes. You can shop via phone and have a bike deliver the goods as well. That’s how I get most of my software here. Commerce depends on them as you can see from the photo. Bikes deliver wholesale bread, meat, eggs, clothes, rugs, Pentium CPUs, shoes, soft drinks and bottled water, live chicken, cabbages, furniture, monitors, and refrigerators (small ones). They deliver blocks of ice too.

They can get creative with their craft as well. We spotted two guys on a bike with the passenger having his back to the driver and holding a television set in his lap. Bikes are also used as a tool for public transportation. You can hop on one and go to work in the morning. They almost charge what cab companies (ajans) charge. They are faster for sure. I should note that the health care industry has also found use for them as well. We realized this when a relative’s call to the emergency dispatcher resulted in them sending a motorcycle ambulance to the scene. Just yesterday we also spotted a fireman riding a red bike with two fire extinguishers attached to the side. Some say motorcycles are a major cause of traffic. There’s merit to that claim but we sure can’t live without them.

Yep, KFC it is. We also have MacDonald’s, Carl’s Junior, Subway, Burger King and many more. Well, variations of them anyway as it is evident from above. For some strange reason Iranians think of fast food joints as luxury. I’ve eaten in a number of these places. One thing that’s for sure is that they are not fast at all. You first order your food, and then you will be seated by an attendant. Another one brings you your drinks and then you wait fifteen minutes for the cook to make your burger and fries. I’m not complaining. I’d rather eat slow food, but the crazy thing is that the decorations inside are fast food styled, and people think it’s hip. The yellow and the red and the blue everywhere. Large counters with four to five cash registers. Cheap styrofoam and paper wraps. Plastic tables with bolted chairs. You can even get a junior’s meal.

Speaking of eateries, this is probably one of the best places we’ve eaten this trip. And if you’re curious about the inside, well here it is:

Yes that’s where you are served. Actually there’s a terrace upstairs that’s nicer. But hey, the food’s what really matters.

Ah, another Iranian essential. How can you live without tea? Our craving for tea is so intense at times that these kids have made it their business to serve us our tea while we’re walking around shopping at the mall. This happens to be in Tajrish and we gladly sat on some random stairs and sipped away all that shopping fatigue. I’ve come to believe that tea is also responsible for all the rush and hurry Iranians have in their daily lives, especially behind the wheel. In a flash of a second
only to sit and ... sip ... their ... tea.

If you think there’s a lack of choice in products available to the Iranian think again. We have low fat, we have no fat, we have 3% fat, we have 2.5% fat, we have 2% fat. If you think you want to get away from a consumer society, think again again.

These mysterious things are everywhere (you should be able to spot another one in this document). It’s quite eerie, as if left over by another distant alien civilization, but they have now developed a life of their own and have grown in every terrain across the country. The few that I managed to check were fairly empty. Either they are ignored, or there are still operatives of that old civilization that actually drain them regularly.

I’ve included this photo for those of you who are really nostalgic. I’m sad to say that production of Peykan has been halted. Some say that when we tried to sell the line to some wretched country across the seas they rejected it, and some say they took it. Who knows, news in Iran can be quite blurry.

And another bit of nostalgia with a twist. Above is the old Zamyad (now Saipa) after being mutated by the self-sufficiency virus.

Please forward this photo to George W., so that he might stop criticizing our budding democracy. I must say that the election campaigns were quite amazing. The money that was spent, the advertisements that we saw and all that Jazz. Some night we passed by one of the candidates’ campaign headquarters. They had recruited 18-25 year olds, boys and girls, dressed ultra-fashionably, mingling and eating food and soft drinks, while the earth was shaking to the beat of some techno DJ. It was all quite dizzying. Of course we got so dizzy in the end we don’t know what happened. We just woke up with a bad hangover and a foul taste in our mouths.

Come on ... Raja’i was actually not a bad-looking man.

Tehran subway from Mirdamad to Toopkhaneh. I just love the everyday contrasts. Now, I know neither of the subjects here are extremists in their respective schools of thought, but believe me you see the extremes as well. I just didn’t have a photo.

Jom’eh Bazaar in Tehran. I think I listened to this old man trying to carry a tune on the toy with his index finger only, for a good five minutes. I don’t know why. Maybe the simplicity of it all got to me, or I was secretly admiring his lack of inhibition.

I suspect the manager of this restaurant may be on this email list. If that’s the case can you please tell us where the heck the actual restaurant is? Thanks.

Above is in the domestic section of the Mehrabad airport. I’ll refrain from commenting.

Just remember that despite what you’ve been told, image is nothing, the first impression doesn’t matter and no one cares about the presentation.

I always thought I can run away to Iran if the ad bombardments ever started to get to me on the other side of the planet. Well I had another thing coming. They’re all here. Not just the nationals. They’re all here: Samsung, HP, Nokia, LG, Coca-Cola, Breitling, Esprit and and and. And if you think they’re the usual run-of-the-mill fake “nemayandegis”, you got another thing coming too. They are legit. Yes my friend, even HP is legit. In some ways we’re even worse than the west. But because a lot of times we have no idea what the hell we’re doing, we can get quite cute. Just check out the next:


That’s a video and game store in Tazeh-Abad. Good old Tazeh-Abad between Rasht and Rezvanshahr. That night while we were driving around in Rasht looking for something to eat, I felt like I was in Khiabooneh Jordan back in Tehran. The young couples walking hand in hand, the fashions, the hairstyles. All I’m trying to say is that Shahrestan is changing. They’re turning into “Shahr”s. I certainly hope so.

I’m sure there’s a reason for this. Yes that sign says “bazneshasteh”.

This is your heritage. If you don’t know what it is, then you’re a true Iranian.

What a strange people. They’re still the same bastards. It’s incredible. Lots of things in Iran have improved, but not people. They still have no regard for each others’ rights. They’re so porroo (does anyone have an English equivalent for this?) they put the Qazvini pumice stone to shame. They still rob you blind if they find the chance. They still stab you in the back just for the hell of it. They still lie like there’s no tomorrow. And at the same time the same people can be their own exact opposite. They can give you favorite nation status without expecting anything in return. The photo above was taken when our car broke down near Fooman and a random store owner gave us chairs, a table, some food and drinks (it was a really hot day), called some dude with a bike (told you we can’t live without them), sent him after a mechanic he knew in town, resent him to the mechanic’s house when he was not found at his shop, had the guy fix our car and didn’t take a dime for any of it no matter how much we yelled and insisted.

Not even the cost of food and drinks. Even the mechanic only charged us 2300 Tomans for the part he replaced. While we’re on the subject of people’s nastiness, let’s talk about driving. It is no doubt what brings the absolute worst out of the typical Iranian. Sometimes I wonder how some of these people have qualified for driving as they are still struggling with the concept of walking erect. Even a ten minute drive can be as stressful as having your nails pulled out. Just to clarify this, you should know that Sanam has an imaginary pistol that she uses to shoot other drivers with on a regular basis.

Traffic in Tehran reminds me of cockroaches. If you empty a box of them on the floor, the river of roaches starts running and once they hit any obstacle, they will find a way around or above it and continue going in the frenzy. Drivers in Tehran are the same. So I think I’ll open an interlude and write a small guide for those of you who might find yourselves behind wheels in Tehran, to at least familiarize you with the most important classes of drivers. Besides, I really need to vent. It will hopefully save you some trouble in the future.

The Flasher: This is a driver who gets very close behind you, no matter where you are and starts flashing his headlights, telling you to move out of his lane so he can pass you. No matter how fast you are driving, there's always a Flasher that will manage to get behind you. Even if you are in the midst of a pass yourself, if other lanes are blocked at the time or traffic is generally moving slow or has completely stopped in front of you and there's really no where to go, the Flasher requires you to get out of his way. You must find a way to do so or else.

The Ram: This driver targets you and drives at top speed in your direction. Although he usually does this from behind (and then turns into a Flasher), he may head towards you from any direction and you must calculate the collision course and move out or else.

The Speed Bump: He is almost the opposite of the Ram. He drives at extremely slow speeds regardless of where he is. You sometimes see him merge into highways at 8 Km/h. They don't seem to be aware that they can go higher than second gear. Make sure your brake lights work or you will get hit from behind if a Speed Bump appears before you.

The Pedestrian: Also known as motorcyclists. Although they are not true pedestrians, they truly think they are. Motorcyclists seem to believe they are exempt from all traffic laws and hence do as they please. I’ve noticed that the police agree with them too. You will find them anywhere a pedestrian may possibly go: on sidewalks, on grass, in stairwells, etc, driving in any direction that makes sense to them at the time.

The Hooter: The only driving tool that this driver has learned to use is the horn. Although in the early stages he starts using the horn for cussing, soon after a whole spectrum of meaning is added to his repertoire. These include "get out of my way", "hey I'm here", "don't even think about merging in front of me", “thanks”, “ciao”, “my friend is getting married”, and many many more. Soon after, the Hooter starts to honk very frequently and for any and no reason. He honks the horn in short bursts of staccato incessantly. It becomes a reflexive and uncontrollable action without the possibility of discerning any meaning from it. That is why some believe it to be a disease. The most dangerous thing about the Hooter is becoming one.

The Clairvoyant: This driver, believing himself to be a true mystic, does not rely on his sense of sight or hearing, and drives only with his sixth sense. He refuses to look for oncoming traffic when turning, changing lanes, backing out of his garage or coming out of a parking spot. His head is always looking forward and you never see it move to check his surrounding. It is said that even when looking in front of the car, he doesn't really "see" anything and instead "feels" everything. Most clairvoyants are covered by the Abolfazl insurance.

The Drifter: These drivers cannot drive in their lane, period. Their behavior seems to be completely out of their control though. You find them driving perfectly within their lane, between the lines, and suddenly you notice they are swaying to the left or right. Once half of their car is out of lane, they appear to realize the problem and slowly drift back until the process starts over again. They are very unpredictable and one should quickly pass them when it's safe or keep one's distance.

The Pusher: He displays the same behavior as the Drifter, but the difference is that he does it deliberately. You find him driving parallel to you within his lane, when he suddenly drifts towards your car. At first you think he is just another Drifter until you realize that he is not going back to his lane but continues to push into yours. You have no choice but to slow down to let him in. These drivers are the main reason why extra lanes are created in Tehran's traffic. Also of note is the sandwich effect which is caused by Pushers. That's when you find yourself between two Pushers drifting into your lane from both sides. A very dangerous situation indeed.

The Shield: Despite engaging in abnormal and uncivilized behavior in driving, Shields can often be beneficial. The Shield mostly appears when you are attempting to make a turn, or are trying to cross a busy intersection. Although usually his goal is similar to yours, to turn or cross, he doesn’t have the patience to wait behind you for his turn. Instead, while you are waiting for oncoming traffic to ease a bit and find a chance to proceed, the Shield will maneuver his car around to your side and attempt to beat you to it. Although he is now completely blocking your view, the benefit here is that you can make your move while the Shield is protecting you from all dangers.

The Chicken: As if driving in Tehran is not exciting enough, this driver looks for an additional way to spice it up. So he plays chicken. He crosses the dividing line and comes into the opposite direction traffic. This is usually accompanied with flashing headlights, taunting you. You also find him on one-way streets driving in the wrong direction. He should be ignored and avoided, otherwise you end up in a head-on collision or in a major fist fight.

The Kamikaze: This driver signs his own death certificate for a greater cause before getting into his car. He drives straight, and at top speed, especially when going downhill, and he does not allow anything to slow him down and does not swerve for anything. He usually slams into traffic that's merging, or turning into his path, or simply moving slower than him. If he doesn't annihilate himself and the enemy, he will at least have the satisfaction of totaling all cars involved.

The X-men: These drivers are usually found in the late hours of the night and on freeways. Before creeping out into the streets they load themselves with substances that mutate them into ubermen. As a result they acquire most of the above traits at once. They drive at top speed, change lanes like maniacs while zigzagging between other cars, flash their headlights and honk their horn. You often see them in pairs and racing. They usually have sub-woofers in their trunks and like to scream to the top of their lungs.

Most of the world has adopted English as its second language and Iran is no exception. As we are now host to a larger number of foreigners in the country than in the past, people from all walks of life have realized they should cater to this new group and communicate with them. To say the least it makes good business sense. And naturally, sometimes this strategy backfires and you find some very lost and confused foreign souls on the sidewalk staring into the void. Perhaps one of the best of these I’ve heard is a menu at some chelokababi. On it, chelokababe makhsoos has been translated as “very good chelokabab”, and the regular chelokabab is listed as “not very good chelokabab”. Think about it, it’s completely logical.

Things are not always what they seem. Despite being called a member of the Axis-of-Evil club and sponsoring terrorism, the world should realize that most of the time things aren’t as smooth as they are thought to be. We now miss all our friends and family in the outside and not much else.

Well, of course maybe some good wine and bloody red meat. Ah, and clean air too. Comment

For letters section
To G. Ali



The Poems of Hafez
202 ghazals in English
Translated by Reza Ordoubadian


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