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Dispatch | The Water Pipe Wars


22 Nov 2011 10:40Comments
6065041424_ce391d609f.jpgConfusing rules, conflicting agendas. Sometimes a pipe is not just a pipe.

[ dispatch ] "Who cares about the election? Will there even be one? I doubt that," the rough, edgy voice of a middle-aged man exhaling a puff of white tobacco smoke from a three-foot-long water pipe (ghelian) cut through the giggles of the youngsters sitting on the neighboring table-bed and interrupted my conversation with the waiter.

It was a cold autumn evening, and the restaurant in the Farahzad district of northwest Tehran was half open to the elements. It had been raining on and off for the past month and it had even snowed a couple of weeks before, but neither the threat of precipitation nor even chill night winds dampen the spirit of those who have few other options for finding fun outside of home. The Iranian capital's restaurants and cafés tend always to be packed, especially in popular areas such as Farahzad, Darakeh, Tajrish, and Velenjak.

I was having dinner with my girlfriend, Bahar, and had just asked the waiter for a water pipe and the story behind the "water pipe wars." The waiter, a tall, skinny lad in his early 20s, had no apparent knowledge of the current political climate. "Well," he said, with a little shiver as if he was unsure that I was not a government agent or plainclothes police officer, "it is a circus. We don't know who is who anymore." He spoke about the "morality police," the special security force responsible for enforcing behavior and dress codes, using their shorthand name: "The Amaken tell us it is OK to serve water pipes, but the police come the next day and shut down the restaurant and prohibit the smoking of the pipes. It is confusing, because we have to keep paying both of them off."

Bahar, who had just finished her dinner and lit a cigarette, said, "Of course, the Amaken are appointed by the governor who is appointed by the president, and the police are controlled by the Leader and are directed by the judiciary branch. This is all a political maneuver to win votes in the upcoming parliamentary election." The waiter looked baffled: "Judiciary what? Which election?" The group of youngsters on the neighboring table-bed erupted in laughter at the waiter's confusion. It was at this point that the middle-aged man cut into the conversation.

Bahar ignored him and picked up her cigarette with her thumb and index finger. Holding it upside down, she raised her hand and, gesturing at me with it, said, "Do you know that I can get arrested for smoking this cigarette in the street? There are so many new regulations that are being issued left and right by the police contradicting the normal laws that govern the society -- not that those were any better -- that it really is confusing." Her voice was filled with conviction, and who was I to contradict her?

One of the boys in the group of youngsters, who was smoking his water pipe so forcefully that I wondered if he might turn blue at any moment, looked at me. Blowing smoke out of his mouth and nose simultaneously, he said, "Where do you live, man? Who cares about the election? Are you from outside of Iran?" His friends erupted again in laughter. "In Tehran these days, only one man rules and that is Ghalibaf," said a girl in the group, referring to the capital's mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. The girl, whose nose sported some small bandages indicating recent cosmetic surgery, continued in her squeaky voice, "Any place that is operated by Tehran municipality is almost a self-governed island, and neither the Amaken nor the police bother those places."

"Dameshoon garm," said the hardcore young smoker in a streetwise accent, "right on, man." "Free concerts, free entertainment programs.... Man, do you know how much a ticket is for a concert by" -- he named a popular singer -- "at Milad Tower? Sixty-five dollars per person and you're lucky if you get a ticket. We saw him in Azadegan Center" -- a municipal cultural center in the southwest of the city that Ghalibaf inaugurated in July -- "for free and not just once but several times. For 30 days, the municipality held free entertainment for the public during Ramadan. There were other shows as well." As he spoke, all of his friends except one were backing him -- "Yeah, that is cool." Then the lone holdout spoke up: "But that MF has his own plans and they are not for this parliament." Bearded, with a serious expression, he seemed defiantly at odds with his friends. "He has his own agenda," he continued. "He is the next Leader's pet."

ghahvekhune.gifThe middle-aged man reentered the conversation in his hoarse voice: "There is another cultural center run by the municipality located in southeast Tehran on Khavaran Expressway called Ibn Sina. It was inaugurated at the same time as Azadegan. They had free programs there as well." He concluded, referring to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "I guess Ahmadinejad has lost the capital."

Across from our three tables and just next to the restaurant's decorative fountain, now shut off, a group of conservative types sat, eating dinner. They looked as if they were from out of town. One, a stout, bearded man who was sitting with his back to our table, turned and with a Semnani accent said, "Tehran maybe, but not the provinces."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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