Wandering Across Tehran


I was seized on the descent of my plane by an acrid smell that reminded me that I was in Teheran, that miserable city with its oily breath. After having waited for an hour in the company of an Italian carpet buyer and a German on a commercial mission, I headed to the street, entertained by the strange concert made up of a cacophony of blows from horns that accompanies the anarchic flow of cars. It is easy to circulate by night beneath the banners to the glory of the regime, yet I had to wait for the next day to examine how the city had changed since my last visit. Tehran is undoubtedly the capital of eclectic do-it-yourselfers. Merchants are everywhere, surprisingly young, and sell almost everything–down to the rusty remains of a cellar that has been emptied. In a shop, a caged bird sings among motorcycle parts.

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Young Iranians are pushing antique carts on which they pile anything from Chinese goods to soda bottles. Fresh walnuts, pistachios or small peaches are sold at every corner, but it is necessary to buy quickly in order to avoid being crushed by the motorcycle that suddenly careens past at a high rate of speed. As for the melon sellers, they pile their food in a small van and circulate in the streets announcing the price with a loudspeaker. From the eighth floor of a building, a woman opens her window and questions the quality of the goods. Despite the plethora of merchants, business does not seem to be flourishing: too many merchants and too few buyers.

Poverty is real in any case and sick people are limping into Sina hospital, a bandaged foot covered with nothing but a plastic bag. As for the Muze-ye Melli-ye Irān, the museum in charge of highlighting the pre-Islamic past of Iran, it contains only a few objects and even fewer visitors. After several decades of sanctions, which have only reinforced the regime, Iran lacks investments and part of its youth sometimes dreams of heading for France, South Korea or, more often, the United States. This does not prevent the Iranian people from demonstrating the most exquisite politeness. There are many poor, with an occasional scattering of wealthy Iranians. The latter have their own quarters: in Laleh Park, for example, they play chess in the shadow of trees.

A woman adorns her hair with an American flag tied as a veil, illustrating the draw the United States continues to have among some segments of society despite the regime’s demonization of the US. At the exit of the metro, which diffuses Viennese waltzes, one distinguishes a young Mullah, wearing a turban of almost supernatural whiteness and enhancing his dress with a coquette cape falling to his feet. He is both elegant and good mannered and the passers-by listen to him with reverence. A young girl with the pink chador passes quickly next to him, a violin in her hand.

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The government has forbidden Facebook, Twitter and YouTube since 2009, and does its best to restrict access. However, all the youth are able to gain access to these websites through the use of proxies, easily overcoming the government’s attempts to control information. The true revolutionaries believe that Rohani has won the election only due to dishonest means and believe that he has betrayed his own regime. The conservative forces therefore propose to reject him to the periphery. Yet despite the turmoil immediately beneath the surface, everything appears calm and the capital remains a safe place to visit.

Will this tranquillity last?

Despite some announcements claiming large foreign investments, development seems to be suspended. Yet investors are there, attracted by the gigantic market, yet not always knowing how to approach it. In this context, Iran shows visitors two very different faces at different times – variously appearing vengeful towards those who it deems to have been the cause of its economic problems, primarily the United States, or taking on the affect of the affable merchant, attempting to draw all passersby into commerce. The stiffened warrior and the malicious merchant, this may be the contradictory legacy that perpetuates itself here and symbolizes a deeper dichotomy within the Iranian character.

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At the flagship University of Tehran, the inexhaustible creativity of the professorship categorizes, defines words and above all invents new concepts. Any enclosed space tends to result in the creation its own legends and fantastic tales: one hears, for example, in a course that “the native Indians are about to revolt in the United States” or that “the Israelis have negotiated to obtain a territory to settle in Australia after the collapse of their states in a few decades”. The young ladies who attend University come by subway and have the privilege of choosing between the women’s cars – located at the front and rear of the train, respectively, or those in- between, in which they can mix with men. The fashion here is to shorten one’s nose. The operation is performed in the clinics of the northern quarters of Tehran. In any case, these young ladies are the only ones who take notes or pass on questions in the form of little papers reaching the professorial chair. They walk as if they were Queens, but after all, it might be the privilege of a revolutionary state to grant royal privileges to each of its citizens.

The bus that travels from Tehran to Qom is nearly full. As a few places remain empty, the driver leaves the door open. The receiver of the tickets places himself at the entrance, hailing the passers-by at every crossroads: “Qom! Qom!” The municipality has planted many trees, mostly in the immediate vicinity of the southern districts. But after a few miles, all vegetation disappears to give way to an arid desert, highlighted by the white crust of the salt lake. In Qom, the holy city, the Shiite Iraqis have set up their bazaar in the immediate neighbourhood of the sanctuary of Fatima Massoumeh. They offer iced melon juice to the pilgrims who wander to the mosque before heading to the Sanctuary of the Martyrs.

Is religious fervor in Iran growing?

The success of the pilgrimage from Iraq would tend to prove so, but the attention of the average Iranian is also drawn, perhaps more so than by religion, by other attractions. The widespread use of mobile phones makes them less voluble than a decade ago. The iPhone charger is the most sold object in the metro, and sellers are sometimes only six to seven years old. The authorities are concerned about what they refer to as the “great electronic confinement” – that is, the tendency for people to get wrapped up in their electronic devices and isolate themselves from what is going on right around them – and are currently dispatching posters in the subway and other public places showing a man lying on the ground in a square prison formed by 4 iPhones. A doctor, equipped with a first-aid kit, tries to rescue him. As for television, it is broadcasting an advanced consumerist model, featuring small upper-class families, in an aesthetically pleasing setting.

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The great bazaar of Tehran has changed remarkably since my last visit. Even if one can still find some picturesque scenes to paint, it has been gradually sanitized and the merchants shout less strongly than before. Stalls have become real shops with showcases, at least in some avenues. This does not deprive the bazaar of its charm because the central market, teeming with life, is still present. At the entrance, several noisy groups of merchants buy US dollars. It is the local stock exchange. A chicken merchant does not hesitate to dye some of the little birds in pink or blue in order to attract the attention of passers-by, another one paints the head of his cacti with a fluorescent colour in order to attract attention. Some parts of the bazaar have been restored or enlarged with nice new bricks.

In the evening, the goods remain on the spot, simply covered with a blanket. To the north, one of the prides of the city is the museum dedicated to the Iran-Iraq war. In front of its doors are exposed the four cars of the Iranian nuclear scientists eliminated by magnetic bombs, as if these martyrs were guarding the entrance. The museum begins with the butterfly gallery, a room dedicated to the souls of the illustrious fighters who died during the war. A film shows a monstrous insect devouring a map of Iran. But the strangest piece is certainly a long perfumed corridor, above which are suspended thousands of military identity plates lit by a red light. This long corridor of martyrdom leads to paradise: a monumental room, illuminated by an immense chandelier. Two gigantic buffets, gilded with fine gold, reflect its light. You enter expecting a museum, yet within a short period you realize that the Iranian regime has not so subtly plunged you into the hart of a mausoleum the purpose of which is to cause reverence for members of the military who died as martyrs.

Martyrdom is thus central: this is why any reinforcement of the current sanctions would inevitably revive this spiritual posture of Iran.

thomasflichyThomas Flichy de La Neuville teaches geopolitics at France’s prestigious Saint-Cyr’s military academy. He has also recently been named as a Research Professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. Neuville has published numerous articles on international relations, some of which have been featured in The World Post.

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