Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- Visiting Tehran for the first time one is struck by its contradictions. Indeed, the city is filled with them, but least we forget that our inadequate understanding of contemporary Iran is a prevailing factor.
A first visit to Iran catches you unaware; the stereotypes evaporate and you find that Tehran is a clean and open city where you can find anything and everything you can think of. Although the city does not boast glorious architecture, in fact it is characterized by simplicity and practicality, the Alborz mountain range that frames the capital transforms it from a plain city into an incredibly beautiful one.
But Tehran isn’t simply the capital but also the largest city both in terms of size and population, with approximately 14 million people most of which are youth. As such, the city has the most student organizations, movie theaters, restaurants, [political] parties and women’s organizations. It is the seat of government and the center of debates, newspapers and the intellectual circles. It comes as no surprise that Tehran is a multifaceted city, each part with its own characteristics so that the northern area differs from the center, southern and western areas of the city. And yet, central Tehran is not the commercial and financial heart of the city, historically the commercial center has always been in the south. Presently however, the north has become a strong competitor in terms of dominating businesses, trade and new projects.
Central Tehran houses various ministries, hotels and museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Carpet Museum [of Iran], yet Tehran’s real influence and character are evident in the southern and northern areas. The city’s south, which was the real heart of the city throughout the 20th Century, is home to Tehran’s Grand Bazaar as well as Iran’s most remarkable museums, including the National Museum of Iran, the Treasury of the National Jewels and the Golestan Palace [the Palace of Flowers], a fort that was build under the Safavid dynasty.
At the end of the 19th Century, during the reign of Nasser al Din Shah [Qajar] who was a prominent ruler of the Qajar dynasty, the citadel was converted into a Western-style palace. The streets of Tehran are planned following the Western style and the longest one is Valiasr Street, which extends from the city’s north to south and is considered by Iranians to be the Middle East’s longest thoroughfare. Like many Iranian streets, the street’s name was changed from ‘Pahlavi’ to ‘Valiasr’ after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The modern Western-style of Tehran’s buildings, particularly in the center where buildings are gray matchbox designs, can be traced to the English influence on 19th-Century Iranian architecture when Nasser el Din Shah began to adopt Western styles in construction and design.
As for the north, this used to be a semi-rural area approximately 30 years ago, but has now become Tehran’s most exclusive neighborhood and is where the Sadabad Palace Complex and the Niavaran Palace Complex are situated. This area houses the residences of the affluent senior officials as well as having the largest number of foreign embassies and modern shopping malls that sell American and European goods. Just outside the northern area, a number of Swiss-style tourist villages were built on the side of the Alborz mountains in addition to several upscale restaurants and cafes, which are scattered along the slopes of the mountains. Driving a mere half-hour by car from the southern or central area to the north one almost feels as if they are in a different city. The traffic is relatively quieter, and on the streets one sees Western-style high-rises and modern spacious villas with their swimming pools and gardens concealed behind iron gates and walls that reflect the immense wealth of their inhabitants. Shopping malls sell the latest trends in fashion, electrical appliances and entertainment devices, while the elegant restaurants are divided into a number of cuisines, including French, Italian, Chinese and Spanish, in addition to Western-style supermarkets. The northern area is the neighborhood of choice for Iran’s technocrats, senior state officials, merchants, entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors, writers and publishers, who are continually traveling to the United States, Europe and the Gulf [Arab states].
The prosperity of the north is mirrored in the cars around the area; unlike the Iran Khodro cars that dominate central Tehran one sees an abundance of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Honda, Hyundai and Peugeot cars dominating northern Tehran’s streets.
In the north it is quite normal to see female university students on their way to college in the morning wearing full makeup and dressed in elegant clothes, especially boots, jeans and short jackets. They wear colorful headscarves; it is rare to see a woman dressed in a chador in this area of the city.
Between the capital’s affluent north and its poverty stricken south lies Tehran’s Grand Bazaar in the southern section of the city. Considered one of the oldest and largest bazaars worldwide, it is estimated to control approximately 30 percent of the trade in Iran. Carpet merchants in particular have hard-currency capital and, like banks, they can lend money and charge interest.
There is no accurate information as to when the bazaar first appeared, however some researchers contend that travelers recounted its appearance in their writings to have been a few centuries after Islam was introduced into Iran. It is believed to have started out as confined and limited only to have grown and developed to its present size. A section of the bazaar was created during the reign of the Safavid dynasty and up until the 17th Century most of the bazaar area was still uncovered rather than its present covered state. Today, the bazaar has several walls and buildings that date back to 400 years, however the major part is only 200 years old.
Divided into narrow corridors, each alley has merchants who specialize in a specific trade; one corridor has merchants selling carpets, another for gold, silver and copper, a third displays home appliances as well as others for clothes, spices and traditional handicrafts. One corridor is designated for designer knockoffs, clothes that range from Yves Saint Laurent to Calvin Klein, Pierre Cardin, Lacoste and Nike. Some of these alleys are 10 kilometers long. The Grand Bazaar has several entrances, some of which are locked and guarded at night. Unlike Cairo’s Khan al Khalili Bazaar which almost never sleeps and is always overcrowded with tourists and visitors until dawn, Tehran’s bazaar closes at 7 pm and closes from noon on Thursdays until Saturday mornings. Surrounding the bazaar are banks, mosques, exchange bureaus, small hotels and restaurants.
At the heart of the bazaar stands the Imam Khomeini Mosque and the Golestan Palace; and together, the marketplace, mosque and palace create the triangle of authority in the East. The Golestan Palace was the ruling palace during the reign of Nasser al Din Shah. Within the bazaar lies the Imam Khomeini Mosque (formerly the Shah Mosque), which was built at the turn of the 18th Century and which has a courtyard that opens onto the bazaar. Historically, the mosque played a role in bringing the bazaar merchants closer to the authorities since the merchants would congregate inside the mosque for prayers, after which they discussed their concerns, coordinated over all matters including electoral voting and determined their interests operating as an organized lobby or pressure group.
During Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign, the bazaar’s interests conflicted with his policies as the merchant class did not benefit from the 1974-1978 oil boom, and was marginalized with the Shah’s efforts to industrialize Iran. In an attempt to weaken the bazaar economically and therefore politically, the Shah built several side alleys inside the bazaar with the intention of breaking up its once-insulated unity, while also financing supermarket projects and setting up cooperatives that bolstered state control over the sale of meat, sugar and wheat. However, the eruption of Iran’s revolution  gave the merchants the chance to counteract; they closed down the bazaar, crippling the economy until the Shah was exiled from Iran.
Since the Iranian Revolution, the bazaar has been closely tied to the government, however the relationship between the two reached its peak to an unprecedented level of coordination under former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who sought to transform the Iranian economy into a free market economy. This step was also accompanied by a decrease on the taxes levied on merchants. Most of the recurrent complaints by the Iranians at the time were over many of Rafsanjani’s economic policies, especially those related to privatization, which favored the interests of the bazaar merchants. Rafsanjani’s successor, Mohammad Khatami, continued to enjoy the bazaar’s support not only for his economic policies that were running smoothly but also by virtue of his social policies.
Many bazaar merchants were not opposed to Khatami’s social orientations when it came to their children since the latter were exposed to the outside world and traveled frequently as a result of their new economic situations. This segment of youth comprised the fundamental social force that backed Khatami. Likewise, the fathers also supported him and his social reforms, voting for him in the presidential elections.
Today, many of these merchants do not support President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad similarly because of their children. Many of them feel outraged at the harassment their sons and daughters are subjected to on the streets by the Basij Resistance Force [a paramilitary organization connected with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps] if the girl’s headscarf reveals some of her hair of if a boy’s hair is too long. Although Khatami sought to restrain the Basij’s interference into public freedoms, the force has witnessed a revival under the Ahmedinejad’s administration who has been reinforcing it.
“Even if an individual is conservative or is of a traditional mindset, it is enough that he/she sees their son returning disturbed after having been stopped by the Basij because of his long hair, or his/her girl returning in tears for being stopped over her headscarf. They feel anger and are furious for what their sons and daughters have been subjected to. This is normal – it’s parental instinct. In private gatherings, these parents speak against Ahmadinejad because of it and also over economic mismanagement. One should not forget that 70 percent of Iranians are below 30 and 65 percent of them are below 25,” Reform activist and sociopolitical expert, Zahra Nejad-Bahram, told Asharq Al-Awsat.
In light of the political and ideological shifts that Iran is witnessing, it would be completely inaccurate to generalize and uphold the traditional view that the bazaar merchants are conservative in their social, economic and political thought. There have been many factors that have resulted in changing the bazaar and its merchants. Indicative the difficulties confronted by bazaar merchants and the decline of their social and economic status, many of them are turning to other businesses, including real estate investment and trading in Asian-manufactured electrical appliances – it also indicates that their ideas are changing.
Due to the economic conditions and the general lack of tourism in Iran, the bazaar merchants can no longer afford to hold on to and preserve the production of traditional handicrafts, as it is too costly. Today, there is an onslaught of Chinese products, cheap and low in quality these goods distort the image of the bazaar, transforming it from a historical location to a popular marketplace of little value. Against the colorful walls one sees plastic shoes, aluminum kitchen utensils and ugly gilded mirrors. Most of Iran’s handicrafts were replaced by shops that overflow with Chinese goods. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the Chinese have been producing imitations of the Iranian handicrafts, such as hand-painted plates and the oyster-shell inlaid pictures – all bearing the ‘Made-in-China’ tag
Muhammadi Abbasi, a merchant at the bazaar told Asharq Al-Awsat, “What can I do? People want cheap things. I can no longer sell Iranian goods. What am I to do – put them in a museum?” However, Majeed Ali, who is also a merchant, had a different view. Ali said that the Iranians dislike the Chinese and described the inundation of markets with Chinese goods as a government decision to ensure that China continues to defend Tehran during the [UN] Security Council consultations regarding the Iranian nuclear program, “How can we buy these poor manufactured products for money? They are not worth it,” he added.
Generally speaking, Tehran is congested with cars with over 2 million cars on its streets, exceeding the capacity that the streets can accommodate. Iran Khodro has been manufacturing cars for decades with an average price of 11-12 million Toman, approximately US $11,000-13,000, which is an affordable price for Iran’s middle class. [Iranian currency is Iranian Rial (IRR). There exists another unit called Toman, which is equivalent to 10 Rials. Toman is more common in oral quotes, while Rial is the official unit and is used in most documents]. Eighty percent of car spare parts are locally made in Iran, including the exhaust pipes that are responsible for polluting Tehran’s air, in addition to being the primary factor behind 5,000 deaths annually from diseases linked to air pollution.
Driving in Tehran is a near-death experience because cars, buses and motorcycles come from every direction speeding without signaling or slowing down. Traffic related accidents are estimated among the world’s highest rates making driving in Tehran a risky experience generally speaking, particularly in the northern area because of the roads on the mountainous inclines. One should not attempt to interfere or advise motorists to slow down or drive in a different manner because he/she would say, “This is how the Iranians drive. We are used to it.” They might be correct. Over 12 days, I saw various accidents involving cars and motorcycles of which none resulted in fatalities. I saw an Iranian female activist smoking a cigarette and chatting on her mobile phone while fixing her headscarf every 30 seconds, all while she was driving up the mountain north of Tehran.
One decision taken made two years ago by Tehran mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, required that motorcyclists wear a safety helmet, which resulted in the rate of fatalities in traffic accidents in Tehran to decline. Moreover, the entry of cars into central Tehran during the two-day weekend (Thursday and Friday) was regulated according to registration numbers in order to reduce congestion. Three hundred kilometers of new roads have recently been built in the capital and an underground system with a capacity of holding 600,000 passengers daily was established in Tehran three years ago. Despite all that, these developments have only slightly contributed to alleviating the traffic congestion problem in the overcrowded capital.
One remarkable fact is that private cars in Iran can operate as taxis without a license or any special documentation. On Tehran streets one can see a very opulent private car operating as a taxi in the afternoon or during the night. This practice is not illegal, the car’s owner is not subject to any conditions and there is no tax levied on the driver. The phenomenon has seen an increase by virtue of the economic conditions and the youth’s growing need fort income sources. For this reason, the authorities in Iran have yet to intervene or attempt to regulate or control it. This is very confusing for visitors to Tehran who are unaware of this phenomenon. An Iranian youth, one Banahi with his fiancée seated beside him told Asharq Al-Awsat that if he was going to the cinema with her in the afternoon, he would pick up one or two passengers along the way to help with his marriage costs, or at least pay for the cinema tickets.
Fadlullah, a university student who was on his way to Tehran University said he picked up passengers when driving to university in the mornings and upon returning home in the afternoons, or during evenings when he went out to meet with friends. He said he needed the money to buy clothes and music CD’s and added that it facilitates matters for him and eases the pressure and burden off his father. “It doesn’t hurt to help myself… IRR 8,000-10,000 a day gives me freedom,” he added.
However, this use of private cars as taxis during all times of the day raises some concern among the authorities, with some going as far to blame the increasing crime rate on this practice. Iranian Foreign Ministry official, Reza Nubakhti, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the authorities were working on regulating this phenomenon through issuing licenses for [private] cars that are used taxis.
As for Tehran buses, they are divided into two sections; the front area is designated for men and the back section for the women. Gender segregation is rare in Iran only to be also imposed on sports stadiums, while cinemas, work places, coffee shops, restaurants and numerous universities, with the exception of medical colleges, are not segregated on a gender basis.
Due to the high levels of pollution in the city, the Tehran Municipality has implemented a 10-year plan on buses that requires that they reduce petrol consumption – another point to be credited to Mayor Ghalibaf who is behind making Tehran one of Iran’s cleanest cities. Every day at approximately 9 pm the residents of Tehran take out their garbage bags, and from that time onwards until dawn the Tehran Municipality workers collect and dispose of these bags. Mayor Ghalibaf’s name is mentioned if you ask anyone about the capital and the system it follows. Ghalibaf is a politician with reformative ideas, and yet contesting in the last presidential election, he lost in the first run. He, like many other candidates, directed accusations against groups in the regime that interfered in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Ghalibaf, whom it is reported will stand in the next presidential election, is believed to have a great chance of winning by a considerable amount of Tehran’s population by virtue of the way he manages Tehran. Ghalibaf did not conceal his criticism of Ahmadinejad, with his appointment as the Mayor of Tehran; he accused Ahmadinejad of not achieving anything for the city and said that it was in poor condition.
As a result of the numerous universities in Teheran, the capital is deemed as the city for youth, its population of youth higher than any other Iranian city. Generally, one can say that Iranian youth are open and exposed to the outside world in addition to being knowable in terms of the events taking place worldwide by virtue of watching satellite channels, including ‘permitted’ Arabic channels like Al Jazeera and ‘banned’ ones such as Rotana. However, it remains paradoxical that the Arabic language, which is Iran’s second official language after the official Farsi, is only spoken by a few people, mostly clerics who study it more intensively through their studies of the Quran and fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence], thereby only speaking the classical form of Arabic and within religious contexts. However, most of Iranians study Arabic until the secondary stage in education. According to an Iranian female college student, studies focus on the rules of grammar, morphology and writing rather than the oral language. Due to the lack of Arab tourists and Arab companies in Iran, coupled with the lack of cultural communication between the two, most Iranians do not feel a real need to preserve the Arabic they learnt in school thus making English practically the second language in Iran. Today, especially among Iranian college students, more people speak English and they have a much better command of the language than the Arabic.
Many Iranian youth can only understand a few Arabic words; they can listen to songs rather than watch talk shows or newscasts on the Arab satellite television channels. Hameed, a young man in his twenties, upon finding out I was Arab laughingly exclaimed, “Do you know Nancy, Nawal, Haifa, Amr Diab and Raghib Alama?” [Arab pop stars]. He said he knew them through Rotana, pointing out that satellite dishes are not allowed in Iran but that almost every house had one. Hameed was also familiar with writers like Gibran Khalil Gibran and Naguib Mahfouz.
Although a visitor may not notice that there are there is an abundance of mosques in Tehran there are plenty in the city. Religion has a strong influence on the Iranian social and political life; however, this may not be noticeable at a first glance. Thus is Tehran, the city of contradictions.