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Dispatch | Days Wearing Thin


23 Apr 2012 20:52Comments
13910128191730472_PhotoL.jpgFor too many, too much work or none at all.

[ dispatch ] The Nowruz hangover is under way. A ghost town has returned to life. The thousands of Tehranis who fled for the holidays have found their way home and are coming off the highs of New Year vacations spent away from talk of the economy, sanctions, and a possible war.

For three weeks, Tehran was unidentifiable. The streets emptied, an odd quietness resounded, and shutters rolled down over thousands of storefronts.

Those who stayed behind reveled in the peace, exceptional for one of the world's most populated, polluted, and by some standards, unlivable cities. "We can breathe again," said one Tehrani as she went about her morning routine, buying bread from a sangak bakery in upscale Elahiyeh. Even the taxi drivers, with their customary list of complaints, had less to grumble about. Suddenly, 40 minutes crammed into a dirty car, thigh to thigh with strangers, had turned into just ten.

While silence seeped through the city, spring brought new life to it: the parks grew suddenly vibrant, tulips bloomed in urban squares, and the famous trees along Vali Asr began to sprout green. But the break is over, life returns to normal. Spring has now brought back the traffic, the pollution, the symphony of horns and hard reality.

"Everybody is depressed, it's just the general state of people," said Tehran native Mina Mehrain on the eve of the New Year. She swept the dust from her doorstep, her gol goli -- flowered -- chador tied around her. "It's not just something I feel today. It's everyone, it's all the time." A retired artist in her 50s, she has watched the value of her savings drain away as the cost of living soars. The latest round of sanctions and the impending European oil embargo were among the factors that caused the rial to crash late last year. Mina merely shrugged when asked about the government's recent slew of attempted economic fixes -- cash handouts, higher interest for long-term savings accounts, targeted investments. "It's too late," she said flatly.

Mohandese, 28, a primary school teacher who lives in a modest apartment with her unemployed husband in east Tehran, agrees. She's worried, but reassures herself that she is far from retirement age. She juggles her regular job and two others, tutoring Arabic. "I wonder to myself, if I didn't have these extra jobs, what would I do? Really, I couldn't afford anything." A strained look crosses her face. "I never thought about it until now, but if I didn't work so much, we wouldn't be so far from poverty."

Business owners, too, are increasingly concerned about simple survival. During Nowruz, most closed for the holidays, but not all could afford to. In trendy Tajrish Square, a storekeeper, his hair graying, his eyes rimmed black with exhaustion, slumped against the counter of his scarf shop, not two weeks into the new year. "Khaste nabashin, agha," customers greeted him. You're wearing yourself out, sir. Surrounded by a riot of color, shelves stacked to the ceiling, he managed a sluggish reply. A short conversation later revealed he was working his tenth day in a row; before that, there was a month straight of 12-hour shifts during the busiest time of the year. "Why don't you go get some sleep?" a curious shopper inquired. "How can I?" he asked gloomily. Then, muttering under his breath, "I need the business."

Now, as life returns to normal, he has managed a day off. He says the Nowruz rush was good, but it's what's going to happen now, as the city settles into its usual rhythm, that makes him nervous. "Everything is expensive and everyone complains about the prices, but what can I do? I'm selling things as I buy them. I'm not sitting here getting rich."

Businesses that stock more expensive, foreign goods are especially feeling the brunt. They are finding it nearly impossible to pay suppliers abroad because of the new banking sanctions. Meanwhile at home, many Iranians are deciding they can do without imported items as their prices swell.

But some are making money, or at least trying to find creative ways to improve their financial odds. One of the thousands of Tehranis who could afford to escape to Shomal -- northern Iran -- for the holidays is Milad. Unmarried in his 30s, he buys and sells machinery for a private firm. He is about to start a second job, learning how to trade petrochemicals.

Milad whiled away his week off, drinking (illegally) and dancing by the Caspian Sea with his friends. As he cooked kebabs on a minuscule balcony by the coast, with smoke and delicious scents wafting across the house he had rented for $400 a night, Milad tried to explain his new pursuit to his unemployed friend Hamid. Finally, he had to admit that even he didn't really understand yet how it works. "Hopefully, hopefully, I can make something out of it," he said. "A friend of mine got rich doing it so he's going to show me how. We will see."

Back in Tehran, the party is over. Milad says there is talk people will be laid off at his main job, so he's more determined than ever to make his side project work. He and everyone else have said goodbye to the holidays and are back in the swing of everyday living. The komiteh, arresting women for bad hejab as the weather warms up, are back too. For so many others, there is no work, no money coming in. But there are still endless costs to bear and unrelieved speculation about what the coming year will bring.

On the bus to Tajrish, a young man sums up a feeling that's far from his alone. Quoting that famous Ahmad Shamlu line, "Roozegar-e gharibist, nazanin," to the driver, he hands over his dirty 200-toman note, Khomeini's face pink and crinkled, and walks on by. It's such a strange time, beloved.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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