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Tehran and the Dream

by HOUMAN HAROUNI

04 Oct 2011 23:09Comments

[ Bīstoon ] Dear C.,

mehran-mohajer-04.jpgThere is no city in the world that lives its daily life so closely linked to a dream as does Tehran. This might sound strange, because Tehran is an ugly city.

There are cities that are dreams: they were dreamt by a people (as were Kyoto, or Manhattan) and were slowly born. And other cities whose lives have penetrated the dream-world, and from that world they are recreated and reborn again and again. Paris is such a place. But Tehran's dream is not at its inception -- it's not a dream that gives birth. Tehran's dream happens at the very end, at exactly the moment a living person encounters the city, and its function is linked to the process of birth through an obscene inversion: its function is to end the city as it is.

There are cities in which the citizens are dream walking. Perhaps London (and again Manhattan) is such a city. If the dream walker stops and really looks at the city, then she will become lucid, the dream will be disrupted. She will see that until then she had been kept in the thralls of a trance, pulled to-and-fro with drives not entirely her own. Such lucidity, which occurs too rarely when we think of the ample opportunities that exist, and yet less rarely than television shows would have us believe -- such lucidity would constitute a moment of reckoning. The city will cease to exist as it once did. In Tehran, however, the opposite is true: the dream begins just when the citizen stops his activity and carefully considers any piece of the city that is in front of him. If in London the dream must end before the eyes can see, in Tehran vision begins with a rejection of reality. The blindest person in Tehran is precisely the one who accepts its reality.

The dream that is linked with Tehran takes many forms. Sometimes it rises out of the past: a dream of what the city once was. (Once, at a dinner at my mother's place, an American guest asked her why people would have moved to Tehran in the first place, with its unbearable heat and pollution, its imbalance of seasons. Very patiently my mother began a reverie about the Tehran of her childhood. She described in vivid detail the unimaginable pleasantness of its weather, the clarity and softness of its sunshine, the impeccable cleanness of its air, the temperateness of its four seasons that seemed almost humanitarian. There had been some alcohol at the table, and my sister cried a little as our mother went on speaking.)

But most often the dream begins because the citizens think of what the city could be. I say "could" instead of "can," because in this dream there is the sense of an immense failure. A promise that was not fulfilled, that was perverted. In the last hundred years, Tehran has experienced four great rebellions. Thrice the government has been overthrown. Yet another rebellion is at any given moment brewing. Change is demanded of Tehran, and change it does. Few other cities have developed so quickly over so few years. This development, however, almost invariably is a form of deterioration -- a deterioration that the citizens cannot help but feel in their lungs, their nostrils, their shoulders, their eyes, and their minds. Few cities have developed with so much expectation that has been thwarted.

The dreamer looks at a detail of the city and imagines it different: the traffic, the air, the buildings, a neighborhood, the very people. In that dream, sometimes the difference is palpable: in a taxi or at home, the dreamer can suddenly begin to describe the vision to those immediately around him. In fact, he can rarely contain the vision. The reality offends him on such a visceral level that the violence of the blow expels the words from him. Only the tough-skinned dreamer can be reticent with the dream information.

More often, however, the dream has no shape. It is only a foggy space in which one feels that things have changed, that in a particular instance a reprieve has suddenly -- miraculously -- been granted.

But because the dream -- whether clear or vague, whether insane or prophetic -- never takes over the entire city, because it is always a collection of fragments, the Dream Tehran is an angry and disjointed place. It is as nightmarish as the reality itself. One way of dealing with this is to leave the city as often as possible, or to build a haven that resembles another city in another time -- a periodic escape available to the very rich. The other cure is much more difficult to handle: to actively train the inner eye so that it slowly connects all the disjointed dreams into a cohesive whole. This is difficult because the mind in Tehran becomes trained in rejecting what it sees and feels. It now needs to both reject and embrace at the same time.

Without the dream the reality is unbearable. But the dream does not make the reality bearable in the manner of an opiate (even opiates cannot manage that in Tehran). The dream -- even the broken nightmare -- is in itself a participation in reality. It is hope; it is the spirit of Becoming.

That is why, perhaps, that I write you this. I am hoping that if one day you see the city up close, then you will be equipped with the only tool that will make it bearable for you, that will allow you to dream.

Houman Harouni has written for Iranian Studies, Connect, and Harvard Educational Review, among other publications. This is the first in his series, Bīstoon Chronicles, which will appear regularly on Tehran Bureau. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo by Mehran Mohajer.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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