|Letter from Tehran|
Issue 03 (December 2004)
Greetings from Tehran, where I've been having such a marvelous time that I haven't had enough time to write a proper letter till now. I could easily write you a book of my adventures. Here goes!
Before leaving the U.S., my expectations of life were hazy, but realistic. I've had few disappointments and many pleasant surprises. I knew Tehran was a big city, but I expected it to have more Arabesque architecture with gold and turquoise. There's a lot of construction, with dusty bricks dumped all over. Buildings (offices and dwellings both) are mostly two to four stories with a few fairly tall hotels (15 stories). Almost all streets, both business and residential, are tree-lined. (Each tree has an ID number–wood is very scarce here!) Grass is a rarity. Sidewalks seem to be built by each property owner–the designs change frequently, and in residential areas the sidewalk elevation jumps and drops sporadically. Like others, I often walk in the street.
You probably have the idea that the Holy City is a place in Israel. Not so. Tehran is really it. Two nights ago I was strolling down Pahlevi Ave. (the main street) when I nearly stepped right into one of the famous sidewalk holes. My left leg went more or less straight down, and since I landed on my right knee and hands, most people probably thought I was indulging a sudden urge to pray (Moslem style).
Yes, you really ought to watch where you walk around here. Sooner or later everyone manages to plant his foot in the "jube", i.e., the open flumes. (In winter it's especially tricky to avoid them, because the snow covers them up!) The jubes are on every street, and in some places the water rushes along, and in others they're still or dry. They're not smelly and don't seem exactly dirty, but I've seen people dump pails of garbage in them. Not far from my home I've seen women washing clothes in them, and I've heard that a few people wash dishes there.
Every few days I spot a small flock of sheep on the streets–once just outside my gate. One time I saw one on the sidewalk freshly slaughtered–facing towards Mecca, of course. I finally saw some camels a few weeks ago. Twice, in fact. A pack of four camels laden with dung were being led to someone's garden. Dogs and cats are poorly cared for and very mangy. Chickens and roosters are acceptable kitchen pets, however.
Many women and girls wear chadors, head-to-toe semicircles of cloth; sometimes holding them closed with their teeth. Among the unchadored set, European fashions prevail, and women hobble around on the tallest shoes they can find. Skirts cover the knee, and pants scrape the ground (even with 5-6" heels). Men wear jackets, although the younger ones get by without them for casual wear. Businessmen will continue to wear ties until June. Lower class men run around in what look like blousy cotton pajama bottoms and knit stocking-like caps.
Now that the weather is turning warm (80s), at lunchtime I see these pajama-clad types stretched out on the sidewalks, maybe in the shade, where they take a little snooze. They line the streets where they work.
It's a man's world. Women alone walk briskly and look angry. Window shopping and acting interested in your surroundings may invite unwanted attention.
So far I haven't had any real unpleasantness, but I can feel eyes upon me, and sometimes they say things that fortunately I don't understand. Being a foreigner attracts a lot of attention in itself, although not as much as it used to, I'm told. With 39,000 Americans in Tehran, they're getting used to us.
Another negative is the dirty, dusty, dry air. Your hands and feet tell you this. All the little lines in your skin absorb dirt which just hates to be washed out. I occasionally scrub with cleanser and a fingernail brush, and then slather thick cream on. Handling chalk [as a teacher] all day doesn't help.
If you like carnivals, come to Tehran! I don't know if Iranian drivers are the best or the worst in the world, but they certainly are talented! Driving and walking here is like a game of chicken–whoever acts the most determined gets the right of way. Neat lines of cars are unknown, and if a driver sees an extra inch of two of space, he will take it (no exaggeration). Pedestrians are everywhere, and jaywalking is often easier and safer than crossing at intersections. Red traffic lights are to be disregarded unless a cop is there. Also vying for space are occasional vendors who weave through traffic peddling flowers, newspapers, balloons and inflatable plastic Santa dolls. And sometimes a pajama-clad fellow will wash your windshield unasked; if you're not a clod, you'll give him 5 rials (7¢).
There is a system to it all, although words are inadequate. I've been in only two negligible accidents–a car nicked my school bus one afternoon as I was hopping out, and the other time my friend Farshid nicked a man pushing a cart in the street. An exchange of curses takes care of it.
Drivers communicate with other people by hand, mouth, horn and headlights. If they get really annoyed, they race, chasing another car, jump out and block traffic while they shake their fists in each other's face. This has happened twice to me as a passenger in taxis. Turn signals aren't used, and if you want to make a left turn for example, it's best to get into the extreme right lane before executing it. (No lie!) Horns toot at all hours, having multiple interpretations, mostly unfathomable to the uninitiated, but the primary message is "Get out of my way." At night, headlights may or may not be used; generally, parking lights are used, and low and high beams are flashed for various communications, sometimes in conjunction with horns. It's quite an intricate system.
For the agile pedestrian, crossing streets is no big hassle. You literally must plunge into oncoming cars if you hope to get across. It's not totally dangerous, because traffic is often such a snarl that it moves in jerky spurts and bursts.
Being courteous is a bad mistake–first, because you won't get anywhere, and second, because after five seconds of politeness, the drivers near you will be so enraged that they'll blast your eardrums with their horns.
Traffic laws do exist, but… Rather than go the wrong way on a one-way street, for example, the driver merely backs up a block or two, at high speed preferably, until he reaches his turning point. I don't think that's legal either, but it's less blatantly illegal than deliberately going the wrong way– and that too is done on smaller streets.
Woe unto the driver who doesn't heed the no parking sign! Iran has these wheel locks which are fastened on the front wheel, and you don't go anywhere until you pay your fine. (I wonder what happens if it's the end of the day and the office is closed?)
There are several taxi systems. By American standards, all are cheap. The most expensive one is a private car for under $4.50 an hour.
This system is good for practicing your Farsi. (However, you must lie and tell the driver you are Swedish; otherwise he'll want an English lesson.) The drivers are ever-so-pleased by any attempts at their language, and once I was delightfully rewarded for my efforts with a pastry made by the driver's wife!
The cheapest taxis are orange, and if you are aggressive enough, an effective way to get around. You stand in the street and yell your destination at each passing driver. These taxis litter the streets, and I usually catch one after only five or six yells. If your destination is compatible with the driver's, he'll toot or duck his head slightly. Then you hop in and share with up to four other passengers. If your destination is incompatible, the driver gives a little upward jerk of his head and leaves you gasping with exhaust in the face! You must know your way around to use this system. Many streets have an old name (which everyone uses), and an official name (which nobody knows, found only on maps and street signs). Also, street names change two or three times along the stretch. Most rides are short–it's oftener easier to transfer than find a taxi going exactly your way. A ride costs usually 15-30 rials (22-43¢).
Buses are pretty much for the poor. They're in much better condition than U.S. buses. They also have double-decker buses here, which surprises me. A ride is 3 to 54¢, but I feel awkward being the only un-chadored female aboard. I've never tried it alone.
Contrary to expectations, I am not working with military students. (Thank goodness–some of them are so ignorant that they have no idea what or where America is… "Is it far from Tehran? How long is the bus ride?”) My students are pretty nice; they're future helicopter mechanics /maintenance personnel who avoid their military obligations by serving five years with Bell Helicopter. (My employer, Telemedia, is under contract with Bell.)
Classes are small–usually under ten. But the classrooms are miniscule. When my class increased to 11, it became extremely difficult to teach. In the U.S. I would have never thought 11 to be a large class!
The physical working conditions are not so good. The school is in a five-story building designed for apartments. I was appalled to learn that this structure is only about two years old–I would have guessed 15-20. Handles of doors, windows, faucets come off in your hand. People occasionally get locked into classrooms or the bathrooms.
It's impossible to guess that the interior walls were freshly painted last October–but then, Iranian paint is very strange and chalky. Chairs break as fast as you sit on them.
Even by American standards, I have a nice apartment: Two bedrooms, large kitchen, big living-dining room, an entry "hall" that is larger than one of the bedrooms, and a three-part bathroom. My "luxuries" include three large closets and built-in shelves (many apartments have zero closet space here); a "moquette" (wall-to-wall carpeting comparable to American indoor-outdoor variety); chandeliers and working light fixtures in every room. My hall chandelier is full of dangling prisms worth a few hundred dollars. I'm also lucky enough to have a telephone; although it's shared with the landlady, I can't complain–it takes 2 years and/or a $2000 bribe to get one here.
Kitchens here are frequently ugly, unpleasant afterthoughts. Mine's pretty good, if you like green metal cabinets. Kitchen floors have ugly drains, and it seems the Iranian woman depends on them. I was flabbergasted when my landlady walked in my 2nd day here, turned on the faucet for the washing machine* that I didn't yet have, and started slopping water around. What the heck, I decided it was a good time to start scrubbing the floor.
*Special washing machine plumbing is a real luxury–most washers are tucked in the bathroom with a drain hose that goes into the toilet or floor drain!
Iranians love light, which suits me fine. Most or all doors in a house have thick, translucent panels of glass. This goes for front doors, bedroom doors, even bathroom doors! And sometimes part of an inner wall is made of this glass–probably because most "halls" are in the middle of the house and therefore windowless.
You would think my bathroom a bit unusual. One section opens off the hall and has the same moquette carpeting. It contains the washbowl and mirror. To the left is the bathing room. The tub is luxuriously long and comfy, equipped with European hand shower. The real shower is out in the middle of the room, so there's a drain in this floor too. There's a button on the wall to summon the maid to come scrub my back–only I don't have a maid (shucks!). The other section of the bathroom is the toilet room with an Iranian toilet, i.e., in the floor. There's no toilet paper holder, since Iranians prefer to clean themselves with water. My john has both hot and cold water with a metal hose–very classy. It doesn't bother me, surprisingly.
My bathroom is the cleanest and best I've seen in Iran, and it impressed me immensely after what I had seen while apartment hunting. My apartment has an average rent–40,000 rials/month, $570.
Domesticating isn't so convenient here as at home. I have a nice big hot water heater in my kitchen. If it doesn't get a regular fix of "naft" (kerosene, I believe), I have to boil water to bathe. It takes about 25-30 liters of naft a week–under $1.50.
My brand new stove is very nice, but gas is not yet piped in in Tehran. Therefore you have to purchase cylinders of gas from the gas company–they're big ugly monsters about two feet high, and well scratched up–they sit out in the room next to the stove. Very unsightly.
I am extremely fortunate to have an apartment with more than ample electric power. Some people can't watch TV and run the washing machine at the same time. I have so far run 3500 watts plus lights without a hitch.
Winter heating is by gas heaters, which use the same kind of gas heaters as the stove, or by naft heaters, which require exhaust pipes in walls. Summer cooling is not by American style air-conditioners; instead water coolers are used. I don't really understand how they work, but I know that they do put some moisture back into the air. Mine works beautifully.
Eating out is cheap, except at the luxury hotels. I've had a filet mignon dinner for $2.50. Lots of good restaurants and many kinds of international cuisine.
Waiters are an interesting breed. No matter how posh the place, they think nothing of handing you a plate to pass to someone else. Coke is served in the bottle and plopped in front of you. Ask for ice and you'll probably get ice water. (There must be a trick to this, because when Iranians ask, they get a bucket with tongs.) When the waiter returns your change, you'd better pocket it quick, because he may grab it up, thinking/hoping it's his tip. You want to linger after the meal? How confused the waiter will be! Oh, it's time to collect dirty napkins and send them to the laundry? The waiter won't disturb you-oh no, he'll just quietly snatch it right out of your lap!! (No kidding–this happened to me at a big hotel where four of us spent $100!) Besides, you should be glad you had a napkin at all. They're not all that common, and people usually pass a box of Kleenex at meals if they think of it
Iranian food is yummy–except those yoghurt specialties: it’s yoghurt and ice water with some kind of green vegetable or spice–a national favorite. You can even buy it in a soft drink bottle–UGH! Another yoghurt nightmare is a concoction with cucumbers. How the Iranians smack their lips over it! And they also wash their meals down with plain yoghurt–it fills the spaces between the rice.
There are many little supermarkets stocked with lots of European and American goodies. Betty Crocker lives in Tehran, and so does Mr. Clean. You can Stay-Puff your Tide-washed laundry, or bathe with Camay and clean the ring away with Comet. After eating your Kellogg's cornflakes with Foremost milk, you can brush with Pepsodent, Crest or even Close-Up (but this one's tricky because it's packaged in France and masquerades as "Tres Pres"!). Many of these things are made in Iran and cheap, but imported things aren't, e. g., Comet–$1. 25 (regular size); Campbell's soup–$1.70; Hunt's tomato sauce (the U.S. 27-31¢ size) =$2.35…
Certain foods are available, but you can only justify them in moments of acute homesickness. Imported frozen chickens are readily available, usually from England or the U.S. I now understand the term "well-plucked chicken"–picture me standing over a stupid chicken with a pair of tweezers in hand, removing the stubs of feathers that only seem to emerge as the meat cooks and shrinks. (Ah! The things I used to take for granted!)
I've been to a few bazaars, including the huge labyrinth one, but they're quite disappointing. They consist largely of stall after stall selling electric clocks, Seiko watches, chandeliers, weird Hong Kong sewing machines painted yellow-gold (putrid!), and items you can find anywhere! Also a few crafts.
I'd been here only 10 days when I took advantage of a golden opportunity to don a chador and visit a mosque. It was the tomb of a local "imum" (equivalent to a saint, I suppose). Anyway, you go there to pray and ask for favors. At the entrance you check your shoes and then walk over lovely carpets through a couple of halls, kissing doors as you go. The tomb room was small and square, maybe 15 feet on a side, with a high ceiling, ornate chandelier and wall light fixtures, and a few Arabesque recesses in the walls. You could hear someone chanting from the Koran. The casket was glassed in and enclosed by decorative silver (real silver) bars. People went slowly around this enclosure, clutching and rubbing the bars, pressing their faces against them, kissing them. It took maybe ten minutes to make the trip around. You should have seen inside the glass! The floor was totally obscured by paper money which can be slipped between the bars and through slots in the glass. Mourners were there also, their wailing occasionally drowning out the drone of the chanter... All of it was quite moving. As you leave, you back out, again kissing doors as you exit. (Note: I was only an observer, no a participant, in this ritual.)
Alack and alas! Good help is so hard to find these days, especially live-in servants. Maids dress in raggedy pants or pajama bottoms, with a short, ugly dress over top, and a long kerchief over their heads–perhaps three different designs going at once. They tend to look wrinkled and untidy, but not always. They're at the beck and call of everyone in the family, and they seem to prepare and serve a lot of tea, cook, clean, shop, fetch and carry. They're well-treated and may sit on the floor and watch TV with the family. If a lot of company is present, the servant may sit on the floor (Japanese style) near the guests to remove tableware and debris as the tea ritual progresses.
My friend Kamy's family has a daft maid, who is a million laughs–if you don't have to live with her follies. She talks to herself. She does things like polishing shoes with olive oil. Once, while we were eating dinner, she killed the pet chicken and brought the bloody knife for us to admire! Before the family barred her from answering the telephone, she would answer, announce that she was home alone while the family was away on vacation, and practically invite people to come and steal the carpets!
Now Ruz (pronounced "know-ruze') is the Iranian new year, and it comes March 21. New Year's Eve is the biggest let-down I've had. You stay at home in old clothes, go pray individually for five to ten minutes at about-9 p.m. At 9:12 the year changed, everyone jumped up, hugged, kissed, wished each other well, and sat back down to watch a half hour of Royal family speeches on TV. I was home in bed by 11:00 p.m.
The best part of Now Ruz is about a week before the year changes. Chahar Shambeh Suri (Wednesday Suri celebrated on Tuesday, if that makes sense) is reminiscent of Halloween. After dark, people go out on their streets and build a series of little fires, usually three or four, about four feet apart. Then you run and jump through them–like hurdles. Talented men do distinctly Persian semi-pirouettes as they leap. Little kids go in someone's arms. The fires may have small tables or chairs as part of their fuel. The tradition derives from the idea that you must burn away the old and get a fresh start on the new year. It was super. My block alone had nine or ten fires.
I've gotten out of Tehran only twice so far. Once to Karaj, a tiny city about a half hour away (once you escape the city streets of Tehran, that is). The main recommendation Karaj has to offer is that you must drive through empty countryside to get there. Tehranis seem to like it just for the change of pace. I've also managed a three-day weekend in the north, at a "villa" on the Caspian. Don't conjure up any images of luxurious palaces with sprawling gardens bordering the sea; when Iranians talk about villas, they are referring to cottages or bungalows, with a bit of grass and greenery, somewhere near the water. Even motels are called villas. Unless you want to gamble at the casinos, the Caspian offers cheap entertainment–a good place to relax, shoot cans with B-B guns, picnic, walk, build fires along the beach, scoop up the infinite supply of pretty little seashells (I brought home eight or ten pounds of them!) And there's a beautiful, winding drive through the mountains to get there.Doubtless I could go on and on with my impressions and adventures, but I'll save that for my next book! That's all folks ...
Daunna started her professional career as an English as a Second Language instructor in Iran in the 70s, managing to exit the country a few days before the Shah. Since then she has continued to teach, become a mother of two girls, and is actively involved in foreign language immersion and special education in her local school district.