Unseen Iran: Solid Ground
22 May 2009 18:49
By MANI DJAZMI in Tehran
[TEHRAN BUREAU] I felt the ground in front of me with my white stick. My cousin guided my left arm. We had to take this a bit slowly as the ground was particularly uneven -- fairly flat for a few steps before a random depression forced a small gasp out of my lungs as my foot went down further than I'd expected.
"There's a bit of a drop here," he warned. It was something like half a meter. "You have to stretch your leg to get across this stream and then step down off the wall," was his next instruction...
We weren't hiking in the Alborz mountains or trekking through the Golestan jungle. We were walking down a street in Tehran. I don't want to give the impression that Iran is some kind of a decrepit and disintegrating country. It isn't.
Tehran's ten-year-old metro for instance, with its 60+ stations, has meant a lot of redevelopment while the country as a whole has more arteries to clog up its traffic than ever before. But there are swaths of pavement in every town and city which are so bad that, frankly, it would be easier to hike up a mountain than walk a hundred meters from shop to shop.
At least these days there are fewer motor cyclists trying to bypass the blinkered, beeping and log-jammed traffic by cutting through the pedestrians. We were on our way to Tehran's Grand Bazaar and in order to get there, we inevitably had to cross some roads...
Probably the worse that can happen to someone picking their way along the uneven streets of Iran is a twisted ankle. Crossing the roads -- now that's something altogether different. I've never seen someone die in an Iranian road traffic accident. This might sound like a strange statement to make. After all, how many of us would expect to actually witness such a tragedy? But this is a genuine surprise for a visitor to Iran who's used to a society where there's some sort of respect for highway etiquette. For those who are sighted, crossing Iranian roads is something of a calculated risk. If you're blind, it becomes a lottery. I once asked a blind person who lives in the north-eastern city of Bojnord how he crossed the roads. "Always with help," was his reply. "If we crossed roads by ourselves the only place we would go to would be the cemetery. Drivers in Iran don't care about sighted people; do you think they take notice of a white stick?"
So, one evening, I steeled myself and decided to test the accuracy of this bleak assessment. I strolled along the street, in early spring evening warmth, taking in the distinctive aromas of the juice and sandwich bars which so vividly characterize Iran for me: sugar and fruit, meats and gherkins. Then I got to the road. A car -- which had been idling, suggesting that the driver was letting me cross -- suddenly moved into gear and shot past me. Then, a long beep of a horn from another car, dropping in pitch as the car shot past me from right to left. Suddenly, quiet. I took my chance and crossed quickly. I had reached what appeared to be an island. My stick hit a low wall. A low wall! On a traffic island! Then my stick became entangled in a bush. It was almost as if a town planner, and I use "planner" in the loosest possible sense here, had realized the incongruity of a random wall on a traffic island and felt that something needed to accompany it in order to justify its existence.
I stepped up on to the wall thinking that perhaps I would have to cross it before crossing the road on the other side but I just found a patch of turf. The traffic continued to whiz past in front of and behind me. I returned to road level where, after some more poking about, I found a path to the curb. A few cars drove past and then it all went quiet. Just as I was about to cross, a man took my arm and, unbidden, began guiding me. Normally this really, really annoys me. Unsolicited help is firstly unsolicited and secondly unwelcome. But I didn't say anything. I had crossed Iranian roads unscathed. Sometimes you just have to quit while you're ahead.
The first thing I noticed about the Grand Bazaar was the noise. Walking up to the entrance, I was plunged into a cliched world of vendors shouting their wears -- everything from clothes to pots and pans. Tehran's Grand Bazaar is the biggest market of its kind in the world. It has traditionally been the country's economic pulse but the global technological revolution has forced more and more big business towards the affluent and western-looking districts of Europhile Northern Tehran, causing the influence of the conservative and religious Bazaari merchants to wane.
Before we went into the Bazaar itself, we saw an old man plucking a home-made string instrument, rather like a violin. Immediately, my western upbringing kicked in and I just had to have a photo with this quaint, ethnic gentleman. Not so much of a gentleman, actually. It turned out that he was partially sighted. Feeling some affinity, I paid him 1,000 tomans (US$1) for taking the time to stand beside me in a photo.
He saw this as the thin end of what he obviously hoped would be a pretty large wedge. He grabbed my cousin's arm, insisting at least the same amount from him. "I'm a beggar, he's a beggar," he insisted, referring to our shared disability. "Well, actually ''" I started but it was no use -- his attention was elsewhere now. "If he can pay me that much, so should you!" he told my cousin. Eventually, my cousin managed to extricate himself from the old man's vice-like grip after threatening to drag him into the Bazaar with us and we went in.
The Bazaar, once you get inside, is like a town under a roof. Its broad corridors, which are like streets, slope down towards a dry channel, a couple of inches in width which run down the middle of the walkway. The corridors are flanked on both sides by tiny shops with barely enough room for ten people to squeeze into. Apparently, if you place all the corridors end to end, they measure more than 10 km in length. The way in which the corridors criss-cross, and the ease with which one could get lost, wandering from one cross road to another, reminded me of a fairytale I read as a child called The Princess and the Goblins in which a princess was kidnapped by the goblins who lived under the mountain near her father's palace.
The Grand Bazaar could have been that underground domain, though to describe its merchants as goblins would be unfair -- even the ones who refused to give discounts. Mind you, I couldn't blame them. My cousins, who insisted on doing the bartering, decided to use the argument, "He's come all the way from England," to which the Merchants, understandably I thought, replied with "If he's from England, then he doesn't need a discount."
In the end, I bought a couple of rings and some hand-made cushion covers. One of the best things about the Bazaar is the relatively smooth ground. As long as you can avoid being pushed into the central channel of the corridor by the crowd, it's a fairly easy terrain. But all good things come to an end.
"We're just about to leave prison," said my cousin as we headed towards the street. "What do you mean?" I asked. "Feel these bars," he said. The exit of the Bazaar had evenly spaced bars from ceiling to floor, presumably to stop cyclists or motor cyclists. The bars weren't that widely spread out and because of their imposing height, they did make you feel as if you were somehow breaking out of prison. From then on, every time we came across a set of bollards on the pavement, which are definitely there to discourage motor cyclists from taking a short cut, the simple alert was, "prison!"
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau