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Dispatch | Ali's Mobile Motorbike Repair and His Dreams of Sheep


30 Oct 2012 23:41Comments

A life spent fixing.

5361213.jpg [ profile ] Shoush Square is one of the oldest of Tehran's major squares. The rectangular plaza at its center is roughly the size of a soccer pitch. Here though, the spectators are always rushing by, in taxis, private cars, small vans, and motorbikes -- a primary means by which the city's many thousands of small merchants run their errands. Filling the heart of the square, tired-looking women and men puff on cigarettes.

The din is maddening, a cacophony of automobile horns, coughing motorcycles, loud shouts. In a corner, away from the epicenter of noise and dirt, a man waits in anticipation under the scorching late summer sun.

Ali, age 44, leans against one of the buildings that encloses the square; beside him is his faded blue Moto Guzzi, age 20. He squints at a small ad in the paper. His lips betray his slow struggle to make out the words.

Bike tires and inner tubes lay in a chaotic arc around him. An old toolbox takes up one side of the double-pocket burlap satchel that straddles his motorcycle's metal pannier. In hand-sewn letters, each satchel pocket reads "Mobile Bike Repair."

Ali is thin-framed and his skin is tanned dark by the sun. His craggy face is covered with several days worth of silvery stubble, within which a permanent smile seems to have been chiseled. He gestures toward the people in the center of the square and says, "They're mostly burnouts.

"They're castoffs, no one bothers with them. Even the government doesn't pay them any attention. I think addiction comes from the blood. When parents are addicted, their offspring are drawn to it and become addicts too.

"I've dealt with such people since I found myself. Most people around me are of this kind. But I never became addicted and was never interested. I've never enjoyed nor developed a fondness for any kind of smoke. I have no time for such things. I am a simple worker, like the rest of my family. Our effort has always been to take some bread home. I can't even imagine that other fate, ever."

Ali starts work every day at eight in the morning and goes till nine at night. He visits the bazaar, the intercity bus terminals, and Shoush and Gomrok Squares, where the motorbike traffic can build to such an intensity that it resembles ants on a frightened anthill. They practically drive through each other, he says. He keeps an eye out for cycles with flats, or anyone who glances at their bike wearily. He gets to them in seconds and helps them out.

He folds his newspaper, and then carefully folds it several times more until it fits in his palm. He says, "I've been a mobile motorbike repairman for eight years now. Before, I used to repair car sound systems. But sound system theft became so rampant that you could get new ones almost for free, and the customers for refurbished ones disappeared. My work faded off. Slowly, I got into motorbike repair."

The continuous braying of the horns and throbbing rumble of traffic are suddenly overlaid with loud curses, the screams of a fight. But that soon dies off and the usual soundscape of the square reasserts itself.

Ali continues, "Motorbike repair is more varied than sound system work, and I enjoy some aspects of it. Practically all my clients are transient. I mean that they are mostly just visiting the area on business and don't live nearby. I have no permanent clients, except for friends and relatives. But the income isn't too bad. Sometimes I don't get a client for days, and then some days I have a bunch."

The areas where he works are among the most polluted in Tehran, which in turn suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the world. He cruises about for hours, from the hottest days to the coldest, taking the occasional break in spots where he can easily be seen.

Tucking his now palm-sized newspaper into his shirt pocket, Ali slips out of his shoes and sprinkles his bare feet with water from the bottle he carries. "To take the heat off." He smiles. "Thinking is free and guilt-free. In fact, the only right I have in my life is to have my thoughts. I am free and I can spend my free time as I will. I sit for hours and consider the unknown future, and how things turned out so chaotic. I review my memories of where I have come from, and then I feel my heart cringe as I look at those around me and see how they silently suffer."

He points to the lines on his wrinkled forehead and adds, "I don't think just of myself. I think of my family, my neighbors, of the passing woman worried about the simple cost of bread and how she is going to secure nourishment for her children. I worry about those who spend their hard-earned pittance on meth and opium in order to loose their worldly worries for a few moments. My wrinkles are from these thoughts."

Born in a village in the country's heartland, he abandoned school at the age of nine and went to work for a prominent family near his home. His father, a herder, worked for a man in an adjacent village.

Sweat now covers his forehead like morning dew. A few drops slip down from his temples, which he mops with his sleeve.

"My family inherited drudgery from our father. We had no land, no livestock, not even a chicken. We only earned by our brawn. That is a very difficult way of putting food on the plate. You have to check your brain out, hold your tongue, keep your head down, and prepare your ears for orders from left and right, then work like a machine, like one but faster.

"When I was a shepherd, starting at a very young age, I knew nothing but how to take orders from others. Once I had to descend a mountain in the dead of night, around two a.m., to deliver salt to a bunch of older shepherds my father's age. My mother became very indignant. But that's how it is. When a person is submissive, he will be abused by everyone. Sometimes I think that I would have made something out of myself if I had continued with school, but I despised school. Our teacher was constantly looking for excuses to beat us. I was a villager and in his eyes stupid, nor did my parents have any worthy views. Our school was in the adjacent village. It had 25 pupils and I attended for just two years, after which I joined my brother working for this or that other villager where we would get a share of the harvest. Then I turned to herding and eventually headed to Tehran."

Ali and his family left the capital soon after the Revolution, when he was 11 years old. They took residence in a house abandoned by a movie theater owner who had fled the country for fear of extrajudicial punishment by Islamic vigilantes. The house was divided into quadrants by simple brick partitions to accommodate four families. Ali lived there with his two sisters, brother, and parents. His father took a janitorial job in a commercial complex. Ali himself became a hired hand in an electronics shop. and his older brother, a house painter's apprentice. His sisters, both younger, were enrolled in school.

Five years after moving to Tehran, their father passed away, and only a year later their mother died too. Ali, then 16, and Hassan, 18, assumed responsibility for providing for the education of their sisters, Zahra and Zohreh.

He shades his eyes and looks up toward the sun as it reaches its noon apex. Then he turns around, still shading his eyes, and gazes into the middle of the square. Some of the people there have fallen asleep, using their shoes, stacked on top of each other, as pillows. Most of those still awake sit with cigarettes dangling between their lips. Ali fidgets a bit and sits down. He hasn't had any customers yet.

He says with a grin, "I am a war veteran. The Iran-Iraq War. I turned 18 and it was time to start military service. The war was already a couple of years old. I was sent to the front, but fortunately my brother, who was the eldest male child and also had the guardianship of our sisters, was exempted.

"I spent two years at the front. Most of the soldiers at the front were eager for martyrdom. I wasn't. I worried about the ruin that would befall my sisters if I was killed.

"When I visited Tehran on temporary leave, I would make some money fixing car sound systems and started doing that full time after my service was over. Later I got a job in a motorbike garage. But it was not worth my time. I would work dawn to dusk but was paid a fixed amount regardless of how many clients I would take care of. They always wanted me to work faster and cut my lunch hours short for a five percent raise so that they could make a lot more profit off of me. So I quit that and got a job in a kitchen. My shift lasted late into the night, but the pay wasn't bad. Then for some reason I lost my appetite and even with all the food around me, I couldn't eat. I was skin and bones.

"By that time we had had to move to a much less secure part of the city because of trouble keeping up with the rent, so I left that job too. I tried many different jobs that way."

With their sisters' encouragement, Hassan married a neighboring young woman. After the wedding, the newlyweds moved to a tiny house outside the city and Ali took on more of the responsibility for his two sisters. Soon after, Zohreh came down with multiple sclerosis and another crisis struck -- most of the equity they thought they had in their home vanished.

Ali looks down, remembering. His wrinkles are so deep that it would be hard for a passerby to tell if he was frowning or smiling. "A gentleman showed up with a stack of papers saying that he was hired as an attorney by the building's owner to reclaim his property. They served us lots of papers and took many actions. At the end, they paid 200,000 tomans to each of us and threw us out. There was nowhere to turn to, whether those actions were legal or not. They said that the fact was that we didn't own that building.

"After that, we rented a place near Khorasan Square in the south of the city. M.S. had paralyzed both my sister's legs by then. The expenses for her care rose so much that my other sister had to pitch in from her income. No government agency was willing to help. So my sister Zahra had to quit her job in a dentist's office in order to take care of Zohreh at home. The burden of all the expenses, household and medical, fell onto my shoulders. My brother, Hassan, had lost his job and was battling serious money problems of his own and wasn't able to help."

Ali currently pays 3,000 tomans a month rent for a two-room apartment of about 100 square feet, with shared kitchen and bathroom; there was a million-toman deposit. Married two years ago, he and his wife live in one room and his sisters in the other. His wife, six years younger than Ali, works in a small beauty salon. Although they would like to have children, they have put it off due to their present living circumstances. Ali says he doesn't want to create another person only to witness its suffering. He lacks the capital to establish a repair shop and as an employee at someone else's establishment, he wouldn't make half the 800,000 tomans per month minimum he needs to support himself and his family.

Suddenly, Ali stands up and points to something. Waving his hands up and down, he rushes to the edge of the street and approaches a man sitting on an elderly Honda. After they talk a bit, he fetches his hand pump and puts air into the bike's rear wheel. As he returns to his stuff. I can see a 500-toman bill in his palm -- worth about 40 cents according to the official rate of exchange at the time, closer to 15 or 16 cents at the market rate. He pulls out a bluish metal box from his bike's satchel and pushes the damp bill into it.

The smile on his face expands to reveals both rows of his white teeth. He sits back down on the sidewalk.

"I don't have issues with my life. I am not complaining about having to repair motorbikes without a permanent shop, and for having to use all my income to pay for my family and my stricken sister's needs. I put up with life's ups and downs. But my 36-year-old sister, paralyzed up to her neck, needs the basics of a life. Because of the embargo on drugs, specialty medicine can't be found and equivalents made here are as effective as rain water. [Ed.: While there is, in fact, no official embargo on pharmaceutical exports to Iran, sanctions restricting international financial transactions have effectively cut off the supply of many foreign medical goods to Iran.] I don't have the money to have drugs sent me from Dubai, like the son of the [Supreme] Leader. My sister has had three attacks in six months and each episode has worsened her disease. When I ask for help, the response is, 'Get her admitted to Kahrizak clinic.' That place looks good from afar, but I've been to its wards. It is a slaughterhouse.

"When you take your sick there, it means it's the end of the line. My 38-year-old sister has wasted her life nursing for our sister; she has not been able to marry. Thank God, I have a good spouse. She helps out with the extra money she brings in. She treats my sisters like her own, and is careful not to cause them any anguish."

Ali yearns to return to the village of his birth, although he has nothing there except a half-ruined mud house. If he could only save about 30 million tomans -- around $10,000 at the market rate -- he could repair the place, purchase a few sheep, and get into raising livestock. He says his spouse agrees. They would live far from the crowded city, where he feels the corruption and lies pressing down on him. He would set up a nice wooded bench in the corner of the yard so his ill sister could breath fresh air instead of the fumes of Tehran.

He shifts a bit on the pavement.

"Who could have imagined that this is how our lot would end up after the Revolution. Imam Khomeini had lofty ideas. He was the only one I loved, and when he left, he took everything with him. Iran will never be what it could be. It has fallen into the hands of a bunch of thieving people who think of nothing but their personal well-being. Siphoning off everyone's wealth is their main purpose. They falsely beat their chests in the name of religion while the parents of those here roll in their graves."

Abi Mehregan is a pen name. Abi is on the staff of Iran Labor Report and covers poverty for Tehran Bureau.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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