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Iran Standard Time | Two Hours on Bucharest Street


05 Apr 2012 10:22Comments
argentinesquaresigns.jpg"Iran Standard Time" is a new series about daily life in Tehran and around the country.

[ vignette ] As I get into a taxi and ask to be taken to Argentine Square, I notice the light traffic around Tajrish Square and the ease with which I found the cab. I ask the driver how come it is so quiet, the square so empty, and he nonchalantly reminds me that it is the Nowruz holidays and Tehrounia (slang for folks from Tehran) are mostly out of the city.

The travel time from Tajrish to my destination is generally about 40 minutes in regular traffic and sometimes more than an hour during rush hours, so making it in under 20 minutes, as I do on this occasion, is delightful. Unlike the usual taxi ride, in which a conversation almost invariably springs up with the driver, this ride is quiet and I rather enjoy it that way today.

I pay the fare, which is 10,000 tomans -- 100,000 rials, equivalent to about $8.25 at the official exchange rate. I think about the impact of such costs on the day-to-day lives of people here in Tehran. They're certainly higher now than they were six or even four months ago. Transportation or, better put, driving people around for a fee is a big employment filler. Most of the drivers are private citizens who work full-time jobs and then drive for six to eight hours afterward to augment their income, carrying passengers around town for negotiated fees unregulated by the municipality. Only the regular yellow or green taxis have set rates, and even with them, the minute you ask to be taken "darbast" (solo, exclusive) the set rates go out the window and you should have the fare agreed to as you get on board. The number of private drivers around town seems to be growing. Soon there may be more freelance drivers than passengers who can afford the fare.

The cold weather here has not allowed the trees to bloom yet and the winter dreariness persists. Although it rained last night and the air was quite fresh, that has been the only sign of spring. The square is all dolled up with flag runners and colorful strings of lights for Nowruz. The first thing I notice is how the square is surrounded by banks: To my left is a row of four, in front there are two, to my right another two, and around the corners between them two more. It seems to be empty behind me, but on closer inspection I see it is the entrance to the city's central bus terminal.

There are more than 20 government banks and deposit agencies and 15 or 16 private banks in the country. They open up branches everywhere and anywhere there is foot traffic, but the fact that they routinely do it right next to each other -- literally next door -- is striking both conceptually and visually. A friend once claimed to me that there are more banks in Tehran than there are grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants combined. At a spot like Argentine Square, you can just about believe it.

The banks are pretty sharp about their façades and interiors. They almost all sport lots of glass in an ultramodern style, brass-and-chrome finishes, flashy logos. And the names -- at once high-toned and very solid-sounding: Eghtesadeh Novin (New Economics), Parsian (Persian), Saderat (Export), Kar Afarin (Creator of Work), Pasargad (Persepolis), Melli (National), Tejarat (Trade), Mellat (Citizens). They all pay 20 percent on long-term deposits of five years or more; since the inflation rate is officially at 20.6 percent, everyone seems to be OK with a guaranteed loss of 0.6 percent of their money's value. I am not so sure the average fellow here performs this calculation, and the real loss of value has been a lot more than that, but the banks seem to be very busy opening deposit accounts these days.

I slowly counted the banks in and around the square again and found a total of 12 on the square and within the visible stretch of the first blocks of each street pouring into it. Five or seven streets converge at Argentine Square, depending on how you count (check it out yourself here). Along with the main circle around the fountain and flags, there are two half circles with small sitting parks. I sit on the stone bench in the southwestern part of the square and watch the few cars and pedestrians that pass by. I have been to this square before and the automobile and foot traffic has always been very heavy, but not today.

The newspaper kiosk next to the flower stall across from me is just opening. After a few minutes, I walk over to buy a paper and again I am reminded by the kiosk guy that it's Nowruz and none of the major newspapers publish until after the new year's 14th day. I ask him why he bothers to open up then, and he points to the magazines and puzzle periodicals and to the cigarettes and chewing gum and he smiles and says he still has to sell some things every day to pay the bills.

I thank him and wishing him success walk away, thinking of how strange it is that we have a 14-day holiday every year on the occasion of Nowruz that pretty much shuts down the country. I am thinking about our people's ability to eliminate all of their usual activities from their calendars for two whole weeks and basically ignore the entire world for that time. Could it be a natural reaction to the coming of spring and the need to reenergize for the sure-to-be-troubled year ahead? It makes a kind of sense to me, considering how tough things are in Iran these days and how much tougher they could get.

I walk down the street that enters the square from the north called Shahid Gheysar. Many, perhaps most, streets and alleys in Tehran are named after casualties of the Iran-Iraq War, regarded as martyrs and honored thus with the prefix "Shahid." The more important thoroughfares and highways are named after generals martyred in the war -- some of them soldiers of lesser rank who were promoted after their deaths in one heroic battle or another.

I find a café, a rare sight in most of Tehran's business districts. Through its plate-glass windows, I check out the large framed pictures of Al Pacino and Humphrey Bogart on the inside walls. I do a double-take at the name, Showbiz Café and Fast Food, then enter and ask if I can have a cup of coffee. The guy behind the counter asks if I can come back in 30 minutes since he has just turned on his espresso machine and it will take some time for the water to get ready. I look at my watch: 10 a.m. Noticing my gesture, he smiles and says it's Nowruz, so "we start late." I smile back and tell him I will return.

I walk past the Iran-Venezuela Development Bank, which is housed in a very impressive building. I am sure the bank instruments and letters of credit needed by Iranian merchants these days can not be issued by this bank regardless of its imposing edifice, since Venezuela's credit rating is even lower than the IRI's, and with the sanctions these venues are no longer open to the merchants anyway.

A few blocks of closed shops and utterly nondescript buildings later, I decide to head back toward the square. Arriving at the café, I take a seat and wait for the water to heat up. The barista/waiter, who seems to be the entire staff of the establishment, asks if I wish for a slice of cake. I tell him no thanks, and ask what the name of the street was before they changed it to a Shahid. He says this is Bucharest Street and that no one really calls it Shahid Gheysar. I ask him how come, and he shrugs and says there is nothing wrong with Bucharest and that it is one of the longest streets in Tehran with many major buildings and famous companies on it. I nod my head in agreement. (I heard a few years back that Halliburton had its offices on Bucharest Street once, but I am sure he did not mean them.)

I ask if he has been working here long and, with a broad smile, he says yes, about one and a half years now. He goes on to say that he is a native Tehrani and lives in the Pars neighborhood, which is in the central-eastern part of the city, and it takes him one hour to get here usually, but during Nowruz it takes him about 25 minutes. He asks would I like a café france or a cappuccino. Guessing the water must at last be hot enough, I ask for the café france, though I'm not sure just what it is, and stare at the empty street. A few minutes later, another guy walks in and goes to the back and I can tell he is the owner or manager, since the waiter starts getting busy cleaning the counter. It's around 10:45 when the boss-type shows up, and I imagine he is probably going to have the same Nowruz excuse. The waiter and I don't resume our conversation.

The Shah had good relations with Romania and its dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, who was tried and executed in 1989. The name Bucharest has stuck with Tehranis, and the martyr is honored, maybe even remembered, but hardly mentioned. I wonder if Tehran Street in Bucharest retains its name. I find out later via Google that Bucharest's Tehran Street is still there and no other name has been assigned to it. I also learn that Tehran Street is part of one of the Romanian capital's most expensive neighborhoods, Primăverii. Such is life. Tehran is expensive even when it is just a name.

My sojourn this Nowruz -- of which at least three people have reminded me in the span of two hours -- ends after my expensive café france: 6,000 tomans, about $5, for an espresso with heated milk on the side. For my trip back, I find a yellow cab on the square heading north and get in once the driver stops, having heard my call: "Tajrish?" I don't say "darbast," so it will cost me only 1,000 tomans and he can pick up three other passengers on the way, that is if he can find them during these quiet Nowruz days.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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