April 21, 2015

ODD SORT OF GULAG:

Iran and I: Falling in love with my homeland that was never my home (Alma Bahman, April 21, 2015, The Week)

Tehran is nestled in a mountainside. Its hills remind me of San Francisco. Its buildings and shops remind me of London and Paris -- small, crowded in tiny spaces, built upward but not too far upward. The air is smoggy and gives me a headache. It's easy to see why many Tehran residents are moving to the suburbs where the air is cleaner.

Much of Tehran seems like it was frozen in the early 1980s (which it was). My grandmother has lived in the suburb of Karaj for the past 20 years, yet her neighborhood is still under development. Most cars are old, manual-shift Peugeots or Renaults, the kind where you have to roll down the windows and reach across to unlock the passenger side door.

My parents' college friends were stunned by how much I looked like an old friend: my mother.
At the same time, there are glimmers in Tehran of the modern, Western lifestyle. There are malls where people can buy the latest iPhone and Samsung tablet. There's no copyright law, so any small coffee shop can sell mugs with Starbucks logos. There's an "IKEA" -- but it's a teeny space on the bottom floor of a strip mall selling oversized chess pieces and artsy light fixtures. You will not find a Malm bed set there.

Flashing lights and signs advertise lunch, dinner, tea, groceries, and ice cream. With no (legal) bars or clubs, restaurants abound: fast food, pizza, smoothies and, of course, regional fare. Sidewalks range from pretty tiles to cracked concrete to stretches of dirt. Pedestrians encounter all three in the same city block. People seem to prefer driving, and no inch of road is left undriven. Traffic lines are meaningless. If there's room on the shoulder, three cars will squeeze by.

My father and I visited a mountainside neighborhood with a charming cobblestone street that winds up toward the peak. It's lined with shops selling dried fruit, preserves, lavashak (fruit leather), and of course, restaurants and tea houses. They're filled with hikers and friends. It's chilly in the early spring. The sound of waterfalls and happy chatter float in the fresh mountain air, rising above the city smog.

We went to the Ghahveh Talkh coffee shop (meaning "bitter coffee," which is also the name of a popular Iranian TV show). We sipped cappuccinos while checking emails and Instagram (the government selectively filters the internet, so no Facebook or Twitter). The barista seemed to have figured out that I'm American. He blasted "Chicken Fried" and other country music. "It's difficult to find good country," he lamented. "But I enjoy it very much."

So far, this is neither of the Irans I thought I knew.

My mother talks about the gasht-e ershad (the "morality police") with disgust. The morality police keep citizens in line socially. My mother describes the early days of the revolution where they were known to unnecessarily arrest and brutalize perceived rule-breakers. Things are better now, but they are still not good.

The uncertainties of a strict dress and moral code informed by religion are frightening. The more religious citizens follow the letter of the law, covering completely with a chador (a floor-length black cape that covers the head and body). Men and women who aren't related or married must avoid shaking hands or speaking directly to each other. The women don't remove their roosari or chador in the presence of those men, and they ride in separate sections of the Metro -- the front and back cars are women-only, the rest is co-ed.

The rest of Iran follows the spirit of the law, if not its letter. They also step out.

Non-religious men wear tailored suit jackets and jeans, or patterned shirts and colorful pants with leather wing tips. The younger men grow hipster mustaches or beards. Women adorn themselves in bright colors, chic fabrics, and gold jewelry. They treat their beautiful faces like a canvas, meticulously applying bright lipstick and eyeshadow punctuated with sharp, charcoal lines. Some have plastic surgery to plump their lips or enhance other features.

The one time I saw the gasht-e ershad -- a man in an army uniform carrying a semi-automatic weapon and a woman dressed in a chador -- the American in me froze. Should I be afraid? Are they going to arrest me?

My father thought it was a fine idea to ask them for directions.

The woman looked at me, sizing me up. She leaned over and asked my father if I understood "our language." He was baffled: To him, I'm clearly Iranian.

I was wearing my thick-rimmed, thick-lensed eyeglasses. My chambray shirt and too-tight gray jeans were visible under my one-size-too-big trenchcoat. She looked me up and down with what I can only describe as repugnance. She gruffly ordered me to button my jacket.

That was my mistake. I didn't realize I was breaking a rule.

This was the closest I came to my mother's oppressive Iran.


IRAN'S URBAN FUTURE: TEHRAN AND BEYOND (Matthew Stevenson, 04/21/2015, New Geography)

 I flew into and out of Tehran, the city that dominates the life of Iran. Even at 3:00AM the traffic was heavy, and when I went around on the metro, there was never a moment when I wasn't as squeezed as canned caviar.

For a city of never-ending tenements (similar to Queens or Brooklyn), Tehran remains, comparatively, calm. I never heard shouting, car horns, or confrontations, just as I never saw an armed police officer (except at the airports) or Revolutionary Guards. Omnipresent portraits of ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei are the only symbols of sidewalk,politics.

Diplomats and wealthier Iranians prefer to remain crowded into North Tehran, which feels like an alpine village, given the snowcapped peaks that soar in the background. This is where the last two Shahs had their palaces (which are now open as museums of imperialist decadence). The poor live in the desert flatlands to the south. I walked outside the embassy complex where in 1979 the American diplomats were held hostage; its twenty-seven acres looks like an 1850s textile mill in Pawtucket.

For reasons few can explain, Tehran works well as a city. The subway trains -- while packed -- come and go on schedule. The bazaar is a mall of plenty, even with all the sanctions; the university attracts the best students (including my gifted guide), and even the dense traffic seems to move.

Tehran may lack architectural grace, central focus, cozy neighborhoods, restaurants (I saw few), tea gardens, and sufficient parks. But it doesn't feel as if it is on the edge of a fundamentalist abyss, as it's portrayed in the Western press. It struck me more as an endless block party.

Posted by at April 21, 2015 1:52 PM
  

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