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Iran Standard Time | A Taste of Tehran by Taxi


02 Nov 2012 23:53Comments

3081843169_1b19f7462a_z.jpeg"I'll eat your liver!"...and other thoughts to chew on.

[ dispatch ] As my taxi driver pulls onto the highway from Imam Khomeini International Airport, I ready myself for a conversation all the way to central Tehran. Cab fare in Iran more often than not buys you a performance covering the driver's views on the hot topics of the Islamic Republic: inflation, corruption, and sex.

Which is why, in the early hours of the morning, I am relieved to discover my cabbie, Mosafa, just has breakfast on his mind. "You are my guest!" he says, pouring us two glasses of tea from a thermos as he drives 75 miles per hour, straddling lanes. Handing me the tea, he pops a sugar cube between his front teeth. "A hundred years ago there was a fatwa to boycott sugar because the Shah gave the trade to Belgium," he explains. "But another mullah said it was not haram [religiously prohibited] to use it like this," he says, sipping tea though the sugar cube.

Suddenly, he pulls over at a rest stop and triumphantly opens his trunk to reveal a prepared breakfast of cheese, pomegranates, and fresh sangak, all neatly laid out on a little Persian carpet. Perched on the edge of the open trunk, we eat and listen to the call to prayer from the four gigantic minarets of the Behesht-e Zahra complex, where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, is buried.

"That's where the 12th Imam sleeps!" Mosafa says sarcastically. Shia Muslims believe that the Mahdi, the 12th successor of the Prophet Muhammad, did not die in the tenth century but was "hidden" until his reemergence on Judgment Day. "He returned in 1979," Mosafa jokes. "But the innocent lost and the greedy won."

Approaching a working-class district of south Tehran, its hotchpotch concrete buildings painted with the faces of martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War, we watch an argument unfold beneath an adjacent traffic light. A woman is applying makeup in her rearview mirror, oblivious to the green light ahead of her. The man in the car behind impatiently beeps his horn, prompting her to casually put away her lipstick, lean out her window, and scream "Yabo!" at him -- donkey. "You father's a donkey!" he angrily retorts, but she is long gone.

On the Chamran Motorway, named after an Iranian NASA scientist-cum-Islamic revolutionary, I hail a passing cab, which stops 150 feet down the road and deftly reverses back to me against the oncoming traffic. The driver, Amin, used to be a senior engineer at IranAir, but lost his job last year after the domestic carrier was put on the sanctions list. "Now I drive this car and smuggle in air parts though Dubai and Turkey part-time," he explains in perfect English, thumbing his earlobe. "Iran's domestic planes would not get off the ground without the black market. They use old Russian planes or Boeings that have just been patched up since the early 1980s. It's very dangerous for the people."

The skills of the average Tehran taxi driver are often depressingly surplus to the job's requirements. It is not uncommon to meet engineers, lawyers, and even doctors behind the wheel of a cab. Most have lost their jobs due to the broad economic malaise caused by sanctions and monetary mismanagement by the outgoing Ahmadinejad administration. "We had privatization in the 1990s, but the businesses just went into the hands of people in government," Amin says. "It could be Sepah [the Revolutionary Guards], the mayor, or the politicians. Somebody is always taking a cut."

By way of demonstration, he slaps the outside of the door of his Peugeot. "Ten million rials of every assembled car in Iran goes straight to the Supreme Leader's office," he says. "The ideology has all gone; it's only about money now. People at the top don't know how much longer they may be in their positions, so they are racing to fill their pockets."

But Amin does not place sole responsibility for Iran's problems on its leadership. Sanctions play a role, as well. "Do the Americans and the Zionists think that putting us into poverty will change what our leaders do?" he says, letting out a humourless laugh.

Returning home in the evening, I am picked up by a young driver named Reza in a domestically manufactured Khodro, souped up with alloy wheels, stereo subwoofers, and flashing aqua-blue lights around the dashboard. Speeding around the now empty streets of uptown Tehran, he blasts out pounding house music and chain smokes Bahmans. Then comes the boasting about how much sex he has in his taxi and, warming to his inventions, a story about how a girl once paid him a million tomans to make love to her in the back seat. On the motorway we pick up speed, causing the car to rattle as Elton John's "Sacrifice" blares from the sound system. Catching up to a car of young women, Reza shouts the lusty catchphrase "I'll eat your liver!" at them, laughing hysterically as he flies by. "Jigaret ro bokhoram."

"You like kubideh?" Reza abruptly inquires. He's asking about minced kebab, an Iranian favorite. I give a perplexed nod. "Everyone cheats with kubideh now. They should be only lamb, onion, lots of fat, and no eggs. Because of the inflation, people are putting in sawdust," he says irritably. "Everyone is a cheater in Tehran today."

Thankfully, our journey reaches its end and I ask how much the fare is. "Ghabel nadare [for you it costs nothing]," he responds, adhering to the Persian rules of ta'rof, the codified exchange of blandishments to demonstrate one's hospitality, humility, and generosity. "Ta'rof nakon!" I reply -- don't do ta'rof -- itself a form of ta'rof.

Finally, he asks for 15 tomans, a high fare. I curtly hand it over. Taking the cash, Reza winks and says, "There are no fair prices in Iran anymore."

Photos by Ian and Julia (homepage, November 2008) and camshots (above, April 2006) via Flickr.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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