Letter from Tehran
by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran
25 Dec 2009 20:50
It's as if I never left, but merely stood aside to blink or rub from my eyes the smoke that sits heavy on the street corner. The pollution is still here, the traffic and rude drivers. But they cannot overshadow the beauty of the mountains or a stop at a bakery where you are not only given warm bread, but the warmest smiles. All the wonderful little stops that have always given a lift to my day still stand -- the Armenian bakery, Café Naderi and Lord Confectionery. Walking into them, being greeted by familiar faces, fill me with all the warm, wonderful feelings of the city I left and yearn to return to.
I have noticed that no one cares about my very short manteau anymore. Last year, I was warned not to wear it because of the "moral police." This year, I'm encouraged to go out in anything I please, and as my friends say, "make use of the situation." They remind me that the police are so busy cracking down on "other more important things" that they no longer care who wears what anymore.
Although I would personally never wear four colors of eye shadow or blow dry my hair just to run to the grocery store, I've missed seeing those bewildering girls with sky-high hair and layers of thick makeup. In all its oddity, every gesture symbolizes defiance, and that has never failed to intrigue me.
Trips to Turkey and Thailand and Malaysia are still all the rage in upper Tehran. At my salon, the wonderfully enchanting lady who does my eyebrows has been to all three and is on her second tour. But unlike last year, she does not talk about her trip. She tells me about the election instead. "Did you hear anything?" is the first thing she asks. "We were all in shock the day after the election. The city was silent for one day. Then we were screaming for weeks. Now we've all gone back to our business. People have to live."
In fact this is what I keep repeatedly hearing: "Mardom bayad zendeghi konan," people have to live.
But they have not forgotten.
From friends to grandparents to a 12-year-old cousin, the first question is almost always: "Did you hear us?," "Did you hear anything?," "Do you know what happened?"
I tell them we did hear. I tell them we know. I show off by giving them facts of events they may not have known or bits of news they may not have heard that I've learned to dig for online. Those of us on the outside may know facts and figures better than they do. Yet we know so little of the way life is in Iran. It seems to be going forward as if nothing happened. Everything has gone back to what it was.
But then there are the moments you come across a wonderful grocer stuffing green cloth in all his customers' shopping bags, or a 14-year-old who rushes to show you the little school newspaper he and his friends have produced, or you behold the debates being conducted on the walls of the city: the Greens "modifying" things written by government supporters, or vice versa.
You go out in the morning and it's as if nothing has happened. Everything is "chaotically" calm like it's always been. Sometimes it depends on where you go and who you talk to. On some nights, you may hear really, really loud chants of Allah-o Akbar and Death to the Dictator!, like the other night, and your heart trembles like crazy. You know something has changed, but it's not the coming of a revolution or anything of that sort. I think it will take us quite some time to figure this one out.
"We are survivors" I am always told. And this: the sanctions, the brutal regime, the excruciating living conditions, Ahmadinejad -- these too we will survive. "He's no worse than the Arabs or the Mongols," I keep hearing.
This city is scarred from years of struggle. But it lives and thrives under siege -- under the siege of harrowing pollution, vicious tradesmen, cruel winters and its unruly keepers. We are not just surviving, but creating and building and moving. Despite inner and outer sanctions, brutality and harassment, there's art and music and work breathing life into the city. Life will always find a way, and we have survived because we have learned not to merely struggle, but to take it on with grace.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau