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Dispatch | Tehran Drift: Between Omar Khayyam and the Void


24 Feb 2012 04:03Comments
13900807130142375_PhotoL.jpgA fatalistic hedonism colors the spirit of the capital's residents.

[ comment ] For about three weeks, I've been riding Tehran's communal taxis on fixed routes, listening to people's conversations. Everyone complains about high prices on food and other essential commodities; they swear at their rulers and make fun of the clerics, but it stops there. There are no stirrings of a grassroots movement, no coherent ideology emerging from these discussions, and no sign of unrest or even a gesture toward any sort of political action that might bring about change.

Most major businesses are working at very low capacity. Factories lack raw materials and are cutting back production because they cannot transfer money anywhere. Many companies are giving their employees long holidays. Shops, however, especially food stores, are well stocked. While prices are increasing at an alarming rate everywhere, there are wide gaps between prices uptown, midtown, and downtown. For some items, prices as much as double when you move from the south of the city to the north.

This week the price of petrol increased to 10,000 rials per liter, almost $2 a gallon. This will immediately increase the prices on everything else. In the situation I see, there is no unifying ideology that can motivate the masses to move toward change or revolt. But having said that, everything I have observed in the past three weeks indicates a society that is in a very unpredictable state. The problem for people without any ideology living under repressive circumstances is that the outcome of any sudden popular movement would be anarchy and mayhem.


Tehran's communal cabs are usually shared by a maximum of four passengers -- one in the front, three in back -- either going in a common direction or following a fixed route. The many "line taxis," for example, each follow the straight line of one or another avenue. Each has a fixed rate, like a bus; the fare, ranging from 3,500 up to 10,000 rials depending on the route, is posted on the vehicle's front window. It was these line taxis I took down different routes and through different parts of the city in assembling this report.

From Tajrish to Enghelab Avenue, from Azadi Square to Ferdowsi Square, from Nazi Abaad to the Railroad Center, all the chatter indicates a life defined by a mixture of nihilism and Khayyamism. For an Iranian nihilist, everything is doomed: The ruling system is completely corrupted, despotic, and intractably theocratic. There is no hope for the future, there is no hope for a change. The whole world wants to bomb the hell out of you, your family, your neighborhood, and no one gives a damn if you live or die. Then the Khayyamist enters and says: Yes, your life is doomed, so just enjoy whatever you can, whenever and however before the bombs start falling.

Everyone expects things not to work, whether it is the bus or plane on which they are passengers, the government office where they are seeking help, or whatever. Everyone expects to hear lies from both the domestic and foreign media, expects the Israelis to begin bombing, expects a coup by the elite Revolutionary Guard officers -- and yet even the poorest person is saving money for a nose operation or breast enhancement surgery.

What I discovered, in sum, is that there is no hope, but life goes on -- there is always the fear that the worst is still to come, but that does interfere with the daily choices people make. The Western media can say whatever it wants, but Israeli or American bombing would be just another misfortune for the Iranian people, who have learned to deal with circumstances where everything that can go wrong, does. They would be completely surprised if anything for once went right -- if, for example, the international community suddenly lifted the sanctions or the regime declared the hejab no longer mandatory. This makes the Iranian people, or at least the ones I found in the taxis, seem utterly unmoored, nihilistic yet opportunistic, living only in the moment, day by day, minute by minute.


"You know, getting an apartment in the northern part of the town is a must, even if it is so small that you cannot spread your arms open all the way," said a woman to her friend. It was seven o'clock one Saturday morning, and the speaker was traveling from the poorer southern part of Tehran to the affluent north to her job as a as a housemaid.

"Damn these mullahs," complained a single mother of two returning from the factory where she works to her flat in Naziabad. She was talking about the Imam Aid Committee. "I got so much more money from the charity last year than this year. How do these stupid people think I can put my daughter through college?

"I worked so hard to get this loan from the bank and buy my flat, but they are cutting back the loans," she continued. "Damn them."

"Man, there is no freedom here," one young man said to another who got on at Enghelab Square. "I'm saving money to leave the country soon. There is no hope or future here.

"I heard you can do anything in Australia," he went on. "So I am buying this brand new guitar to take with me. I got a good deal on it, only $1,500. Can you believe it? The owner said he brought it directly from Los Angeles."

A middle-aged woman holding two plastic bags full of groceries was chatting on her mobile. "They are going to bomb us next week," she said to her sister. "I heard it from one of my friends who is in the political system. Then there's going to be a famine. Yes, I heard that too. At the Hypermarket [one of Tehran's largest supermarkets], people cleared the racks in two hours. They were even buying television sets. You know everything is going to get more expensive by the New Year [March 20] and, God forbid, after the Americans start bombing."

A man in his 30s got into a taxi with a friend at Jahad Square, bound for the intersection of Fatemi Avenue and Karegar Street. He was complaining about the expense of insuring his brand-new $30,000 Toyota 4WD, which he had purchased a week earlier. "Yeah man, the money is in Iran. Can't you see that there are more luxury cars in the streets? Sanctions, my ass. The Europeans would sell their mother now that they are more in trouble than ever. I am just upset about the new insurance costs. You know, I had to pay $400 for this year and it is truly a bugger.

"Man, I tell you the best market in the region for anything is Iran, but the foreign exchange situation is decreasing our margins tremendously.

"Yes, the market is really bogged down in the bazaar, but these crazy government people have a system that somehow works. I don't know what it is, but it is working. Damn them, why don't they just make peace with the Americans?"

See also Taxicab Confessions: Tehran.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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