Wednesday, February 18, 2009


"For just a moment, just a fleeting second, I have this thought as I stand scrunched on the overcrowded Tehran metro, hanging on with my nose in some guy’s armpit as it lurches into Mirdamad Station. The thought being, “what’s the point of any of this?” Thank God the train stops just then.

I walk along the platform, feeling pretty uninspired until about the fifth person bumps into me, then the juices started flowing and I get in the swing of things, cutting off an old lady right as she’s about to step onto the escalator. The edge of her chador is wet where she grips it between her teeth. Going up the escalator, I stare long and hard at some guy on the down escalator. He stares back. Why the hell do Iranians stare so much?  Is it genetic?.

I cross the footbridge over the highway and squeeze into the last seat on the taxi to Vanak. I always kick myself for not getting my money out before I get into a shared cab, but I never do manage to remember. I start digging around in my back pocket for the 2,000 rials I need to pay the driver. It takes a lot of careful squirming, because I’m wedged so damn tight between two other passengers. Even as careful as I am, a woman sitting next to me gets the idea I’m trying to play grab-ass and she somehow manages to retreat an additional fraction of a centimeter by exhaling the last of the oxygen in her body or something, because there sure wasn’t any room to move in that back seat. She gives me an irritated- as-hell glance and I smell onion on her breath.

The traffic is so bad that some of the passengers start to bail out before we get to Vanak Square, figuring they can walk there faster. I stick with it, intent on getting my 2,000 rial’s worth. Once I get out of the cab, the next choice is, do I hop in another crowded taxi or do I walk up Valiasr Street? Some nights I take a cab, but tonight it’s not so cold, so I walk.

These strange things have been installed on the sidewalk along Valiasr. I can’t really describe them. They have two narrow yellow treads and a handrail on either side, and they don’t seem to have any purpose, other than to make people walk around them. I stand near one of them and listen to two guys speculate about what they’re for. One guy says, “They’re for people to exercise.” They do have a kind of treadmill look to them, but there are no moving parts. Anyway, who’s going to stop in the middle of a busy city sidewalk and start exercising? And why? Just to make sure you breathe in the maximum amount of polluted air? The other guy doesn’t buy it, either. He has his own theory. “They’re to keep motorcycles off the sidewalk.” For God’s sake, I think, motorcyclists could go right around those things. Maybe they’re for pedestrians to take refuge from motorcycles on the sidewalks. That I could believe. Actually, though, up here in the north of the city motorcycles don’t go on the sidewalks. They only do it down where I live. Where life is cheaper, I suppose. I’ll bet not even the guys who installed these things with the yellow treads and handrails know what they’re for. That would be typical for Tehran. Somebody somewhere knows about them, but that person has long been out of the loop. He got fired or shipped off to Ahvaz. So here they sit and no one knows what to do with them. That’s so Tehran.

I make my way up Valiasr and on the sidewalk right in front of United Colors of Benetton, there’s a young guy selling DVDs of new, first-run movies: One Khomeini each. I’ve bought them from this guy before and they’re the real thing, not something someone shot with a video camera from the back of the theater. I just can’t figure out how it works. How does someone get their hands on a movie that’s still in theaters (not theaters in Iran, mind you, but some faraway place like the Great Satan), make illegal copies, and somehow get them into this country and to the man on the sidewalk? All for one Khomeini! I mean, there must be half a dozen middle men. Is each of them making about a rial a piece in the deal? This is the kind of economics that only makes sense here. Maybe the government subsidizes the price of illegally copied movies just to shut us up and keep us distracted from all the crap happening around here.

So finally I get to the coffeehouse and I know right away there’s something wrong. It looks too quiet. I go around the corner and see two green and white vans. A couple of policemen are there with a couple of women dressed like they’re on the way to the mosque or something. It’s Gasht Ershad and they’ve already ruined everyone’s night, hassling people about the way they’re dressed and about whether the person the opposite sex that they’re sitting with is a relative or a date. It’s mostly girls who get hassled for wearing high heeled boots, slathering on too much makeup, showing too much hair, etc. etc. We guys don’t have a lot to worry about unless we’re trying to imitate Kid Rock.

I stand around for a couple of minutes and I’m almost tempted to mouth off to the Gasht Ershad people. I’m that pissed off. But I’m not up for that much excitement. I got myself all the way up here just to sit in a coffeehouse and look at girls. That’s about all you can do around here for thrills. And even that’s been taken away from me tonight.

I start to trudge back down Valiasr toward the cabs that run to Mirdamad Station. On the way I stop at one of the mystery contraptions they’ve installed on the sidewalk. I put my hands on the rails and lift myself off the ground, my feet moving like crazy like I’m running in air. Running fast and going nowhere. That’s so Tehran."

Sunday, February 8, 2009


When I first met Davoud five years ago, he smiled little and laughed not at all. He was quite religious. He spoke disparagingly of women who were pushing the limits of Islamic dress and expressed unhesitating support for his government. Since then he finished college with a degree in economics and did his two years of military service.

Eight months ago Davoud moved to Tehran from his small hometown. The traffic in Tehran still makes him so nervous that I had to help him cross the street. We took a long walk the other evening, Davoud with his perfect posture, me slouching alongside. Now he drinks a little alcohol and he’s become somewhat critical of his government. Over dinner he announced that he has a girlfriend. “I think you never would have believed I have a girlfriend,” he told me. To prove it he called her on his cell phone and asked her to speak with me. I could hear her say “Chera!?” (“Why!?”). Afterward he explained that he chose her after assessing several girlfriend candidates using a spreadsheet and a rating system. She scored the most points. “What about what your heart tells you?” I asked him. “Oh yes,” he said,”I awarded points for that, too.”