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Taxicab Confessions: Tehran


07 May 2011 16:51Comments
Taxi-Tehran.jpg[ dispatch ] In traffic-congested Tehran, no one has their ears closer to the beat of the city than the taxi drivers. Shared cabs are the modus operandi of personal transport -- every day, a hundred faces of all ages and social backgrounds pass through the doors of a single car. With uncertainty lying heavy on the city in light of mounting economic pressure and ongoing scuffles in Iran's high politics, a friend and I take a midnight ride down some of the city's main arteries to get a feel for public opinion.

As we leapfrog from taxi to taxi, asking drivers' opinions of the reported rift between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei over control of the Intelligence Ministry, we collect a mixed bag of frustrations, skepticism, and conspiracy theories. While all interviewees have a definite opinion on the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei squabble, political goings-on overwhelmingly take a backseat to concerns over cuts in government subsidies, whose effects are beginning to hit local wallets.

"We are so screwed," says Driver 1, a middle-aged man with a thin face, unwashed clothes, and lackluster eyes. With the empty CD player's static on at full volume, he explains that his latest gas bill has increased more than 15-fold. "They [the government] are selling the country so cheap to countries like Lebanon, Afghanistan [with defense expenses] and Russia and China [with preferential energy deals]."

"I don't believe they are fighting with each other," he continues, before cutting the conversation short by cursing out of his window at an inattentive motorcycle driver. "We've had enough experience with this in the past years. They are cheating us, and we shouldn't believe them so easily."

Driver 2, a middle-aged man with a plump mustached face, is less choleric. He eyes us suspiciously from beneath thick glasses, and has a consternating habit of answering questions with questions. "For what are you hoping?" he asks my companion, who is middle-class and in his mid-20s. "If there is a fight, do you think it's gonna get better? It will be worse!"

My friend retorts that people near Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a top adviser to Ahmadinejad, are getting arrested. "Isn't that a sign of a real fight?"

By way of reply, the driver, becoming pensive, mentions the significance of the Intelligence Ministry -- in his opinion the only institution that knows how things in Iran actually work. "Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are fighting over control of intelligence forces, because those are the most important," he says. "Whoever controls that is in real power."

But then, he muses, "It's possible that this fight is a kind of game. These bastards are worse that we think.... Don't believe in news. The news is never right."

The driver of the third taxi, an elderly man with a pleasant but exasperated visage, does believe the news. His hair appears to be dyed the same shade of black as the squeaky clean leather of his car. Traditional music fills the vehicle, and an automated woman's voice makes an announcement each time the doors open and close. "I just paid 50,000 tomans for water, how about you?" my friend begins. "I feel like killing myself."

"No, don't do that," says Driver 3. "Why would you want to?"

"You are right," my friend says. "It seems politicians are killing each other, and that is enough. But I'm worried, because some people are saying that this is not a real fight."

"Who is saying that?" Driver 3 says, incredulous. "It is a real fight, and we the people need this. They should be fighting: If we cannot kill them, they should kill each other."

"But Ahmadinejad seems to have some hidden power," my friends retorts, cracking a joke about the administration's alleged dabbles into the occult. (Some of Ahmadinejad's mystical aides were recently arrested for invoking genies, or "djinn.")

"Ahmadinejad is a fly," Driver 3 laughs. "In any case, it's clear he cannot afford to continue giving cash handouts to the people. The government is broke, and effects of these subsidy cuts are beginning to be felt now. Prices are rising, and in this way people can't survive."

Money is not a concern for our last driver, who is 27 and clean-shaven, with gelled hair and a carefree demeanor. As soon as he understands the topic of our conversation, he waves away the offered fare and takes us for a free ride, eager to share his knowledge of the "real situation." He says he is acquainted with a man who works for the government and has a habit of sending out public service messages via SMS. "One night last week," Driver 4 says, "he texted me: 'We will not let somebody stand against our leader Khamenei. There is a new movement against our Leader in this government, and we will not stand for it.'"

"That's the point," the driver says decisively. "It's a real fight."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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