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Solemn City: Tehran on the Eve of the Protests

by CONTRIBUTOR in Tehran

26 Feb 2011 17:32Comments

Beneath the gloom, a sense of something churning.

6a010536ad4d4f970b0115711e12d3970b-800wi.jpg[ passport ] Last month I finally got the chance to fly back to Iran for the first time since the June 2009 presidential election and its historic aftermath. Before, any and every excuse to visit Tehran was valid. It used to be automatic, and I flew there at the drop of a hat, sometimes impulsively -- once with just a week-long interval between trips. But after the events of 2009, my lifelong goal of establishing an academic career equally balanced between Iran and Europe seemed neither so feasible nor desirable as before.

Work took on a different orientation, and so I found time to return only this January. Not with the usual rationale of academic fieldwork. Just vacation. It was due time I head back to the motherland to feel the buzz of Tehran's hustle and bustle. Reconnect with what had been a great love affair with the place.

It had always taken a few days to adjust to Tehran. A few days of estrangement before becoming attached again to the point that I would feel uprooted, ripped away, when my return flight took off. So I waited. Waited for that feeling to come back. That emotional attachment I felt to each and every nook and cranny of life there.

I went through the familiar motions, saw old friends, went downtown to the institute with which I collaborate. Things were still happening, it just cost a bit more money and life was still manageable with a measly academic salary. High-speed Internet had become more common in homes, more fancy restaurants had popped up, pseudo-intellectuals still had get-togethers and went to the theater. Some coffee shops had closed down and others opened up as usual, and the new buses and bus lanes made getting downtown easier during the day. Everything was in order, but something was not right. The aura had changed and I could feel the transformation everywhere.

There was no life left in people's eyes or their demeanor. It used to be a little adventure even hopping into a cab in the street -- but now, a gloomy atmosphere had settled in on the city, making everything dull, heavy, and hard to digest. People were just going about their business, looking at the ground and not intensely into each other's eyes like they did before. I looked hard for that spark, but as I dug to find it beneath the pall, all I found was anger and resentment.

I discovered that it took barely a single comment to trigger an avalanche of snide retorts from just about anyone -- not personal, but directed at the society. The bitterness and frustration ran deep. Everyone talked about the subsidies, Imam Zaman's meddling in the country's economic system, and how "this is not a life, this is a big joke," as the cab driver who drove me into town from the airport said. These sorts of mocking comments were usually followed by nervous laughter.

On the one hand, people are angry at each other for "not knowing what they want" as a cousin declared, "for going out in front of the broadcasting headquarters [in June 2009] and staring across the gates silently instead of doing something bigger" as a friend put it, for "being shocked and appalled at all the descriptions of detainment we read in the blogs of released prisoners" as a colleague explained. On the other hand, people feel sorry for their neighbors, friends, and compatriots. These contradictory sentiments yield an overall depression. Everyone is in a frustrating limbo. They can't help themselves, they can't help others -- a common helplessness.

There was something eerily imminent in the stillness of the society. It got too quiet at night in the streets. There weren't as many taxis or as many people lingering after dark, which added to the strangeness of the atmosphere. Word is that crime is at an all-time high. Streets are deserted from early on and though getting downtown has gotten a bit cheaper and quicker with the dedicated bus lanes, getting back is ten times more expensive because there is no choice but to take an ajans, a hired taxi that brings you from door to door. It isn't safe to be out in the street when it's dark. For the first time, I saw friends and colleagues shoot glances left and right several times during ATM transactions. Even the bravest opt out of taking a long walk home in the evening.

Another interesting transformation was the lack of Islamic police at major intersections and the presence of peddlers downtown during rush hour. These peddlers, who appear just as the sun sets, sell everything from clothing to fruit. In a sign of the effect the subsidy cuts are having, it appeared that a large share of the residents of these streets could afford to buy their essentials only from these peddlers.

Before heading back, I met an old friend who happened to be visiting Tehran at the same time. We reunited over tea and expressed our mutual distress at the state of affairs. It's not a place for us anymore, she said, shaking her head. Tehran had lost its charm and appeal.

The buzzing energy that was the city's hallmark had been replaced by what at first seemed to be a dull state of apathy. Oddly enough, it was an apathy very similar to that which I had seen in Egyptian eyes on my visits to Cairo in recent years. A "look" that made me long for Tehran badly each time I set foot in the Egyptian capital. Much to my despair, now I had found that look in my own people's eyes.

Returning to Europe, I spent a few days trying to make sense of all the new images I had carried back of my beloved city. It dawned on me that this is actually the real time of change.

As a fellow researcher in Tehran put it in weighted words before I left: I understand how you feel, but you should understand that the population has experienced extreme and rapid alterations to the conduct of its daily life over the past year and a half -- so much that it probably wouldn't have happened in 30 years if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hadn't come to power. This has been a period of self-reflection, developing consciousness of and responsibility for the current situation. The people have understood who and what they are dealing with and this is extremely important.

This observation made me realize that while the traditional joys of Tehrani life were nowhere to be seen, while all its lightness was burdened down, if you looked very closely, you could detect in the depths the churning of a long-awaited tide of transition.

Passport features essays from travelers. Related reading: And Life Goes On: An Iran Snapshot.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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