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Tehran’s crazy traffic is just a prelude to the culture gulf

My first mission was to find something to eat, and in order to accomplish this I would be obliged to expose myself to the most dangerous thing the average foreigner would encounter in Iran. This was not of the variety one would expect based on Iran’s media image. It had nothing to do with the Revolutionary Guard, the Basij militia, nuclear weapons, irascible hostage takers, atomic fatwa-issuing ayatollahs, charges of apostasy or any combination of the above. Rather, it was the catastrophe of Tehran traffic. I felt like I should have taken out special life insurance when faced with the daunting prospect of crossing the road to get a kebab. My first reaction was to freeze on the spot, whimpering and staring balefully at the incessant streams of cars and motorcycles snaking up and down each side of the avenue, everything from shiny new Mercedes to sputtering Paykans, while the kebab shop beckoned enticingly across the road. There were no traffic lanes, only lines of vehicles following each other in loose rows which kept shifting, and no apparent crosswalks either. Cars would never come to a full stop, so pedestrians were obliged to cling onto each other for protection and weave their way through the sea of traffic whenever it slowed down enough to them slip though, knocking their knees on license plates and chafing their heels on exhaust pipes. If one successfully defeated the traffic, a final, insidious obstacle awaited in the form of the joub – a deep, open gutter with concrete sides and water coursing through which lined the roads. One had to quickly clamber over the joub, taking great care not to trip or lose one’s footing, since a misstep could easily result in a broken leg or worse. The whole process felt more like the knockout stage of a military obstacle course than merely crossing the road. In addition to avoiding mangling and dismemberment, there were additional sartorial complications for women (or at least for those unused to veils) to ensure the headscarf didn’t slide off, all while sweating profusely and choking on smog. Returning to the residence that afternoon, I was sure I had never worked so hard for a chicken kebab.

Tehran traffic

The act of street-crossing gradually began to feel less like crossing the Rubicon as I got more practice. By the end of three weeks, I was a seasoned Paykan-dodger and could clear a joub with a leap worthy of Rudolf Nureyev, even if I lacked his panache. The next task to master was taking a taxi. Although a perfectly mundane activity in London for instance, in Tehran this required a little extra initiative. On my second day, I had made plans to meet a friend from Oxford in Tajrish Square, atop a hill at the end of Ali Shariati Avenue. This area of north Tehran, picturesquely undulating, was situated just before the foothills of the Alborz Mountains began their steady ascent. I extended my arm to hail a taxi. The catch was that taxis were unmarked; in effect, any enterprising driver could turn his car into an impromptu taxi and pick up passengers for a small fee. Once a vehicle stopped, which usually happened within moments, the driver would roll down the window and you would shout out your desired destination, not an exact address but a general area or landmark. He would nod briskly if he was going in your direction and you would jump in. Sometimes all of this would take place without the vehicle ever coming to a complete stop, so my joub-leaping skills came in handy. The previous day a friend had shown me the ropes and I was now keen to try out my newly-acquired Tehran taxi savoir-faire.

A newish white car, looking like a Honda, pulled up to the kerb. I tugged at my headscarf, which was forever slithering down the back of my head, lowered my sunglasses and peered in the window, asking for Tajrish Square. The driver, a young man with a sculpted beard and a friendly, open face nodded, so I jumped in to the front passenger seat. The taxi was empty. Another quirk of Iranian taxis is that they are usually shared by complete strangers who are travelling in the same general direction. A driver will keep stopping to pick up more passengers until all the seats are occupied, unless one of the passengers specifically requests a private ride for a higher fee – known as ‘darbast’. However, I soon found out that ‘darbast’ had its own pitfalls. The young driver turned to me with a grin and asked if I wanted ‘darbast’, which I declined. Foreign tourists are still relatively rare in Tehran – although that may soon change with the alleviation of sanctions – and taxi drivers are notoriously garrulous and opinionated, chattering away to anyone in earshot but especially when they get a foreign captive audience, which is not often. Like many young Iranians, he spoke good English, and began to ask me the usual questions – where was I from, what was I doing in Tehran, did I like Iran etc. In order to avoid being tarred with the inevitable secret agent or spy label, I usually stated my country of birth, Canada, rather than England, my country of residence. Canada was innocuous, devoid of a sinister imperialist past and chock-full of successful Iranian émigrés. Everyone I met seemed to have an Uncle Ali or Cousin Reza managing banks, fixing teeth or making kebabs in Toronto or Vancouver, and did I know him? England, on the other hand, was renowned for its long and ignoble history of meddling in Iranian affairs, a reputation which it had never managed to shake off.

Shadors in Tehran

After a few minutes of polite small talk the questioning took a new turn. “Do you have a boyfriend?” he inquired casually. I confirmed that I was indeed romantically attached.

“And do you have sex with him?” I balked and stammered for a moment, as thrown by the insolent nature of the question as by its casual delivery. ‘I beg your pardon?’

The driver had evidently decided that I was going to get ‘darbast’ whether I wanted it or not, paying no heed to potential passengers on the street and seemingly engrossed in our tete-a-tete. He was perplexed at my prudishness.

“Well surely sex for you is no big thing, it happens everywhere, every day, right? Like having breakfast. Or breathing”.

I paused awkwardly before pointing out that in the West, or in Oxford at any rate, we did not all lead lives of wanton promiscuity, replete with heaving bosoms and breathless bodice-ripping. If anything, it was quite the opposite – everyone was too busy studying or rowing. He seemed puzzled at this profession of asceticism but continued his interview in the same disarmingly good-natured manner, without the slightest trace of menace or licentiousness. His cheery bearing was so at odds with his line of questioning that the whole conversation struck me as most absurd. I put my sunglasses back on in a subconscious attempt to hide – not that it would make much difference at this point.

“So, will you have sex with me?” he asked breezily, as if he were inquiring whether I had a dog or liked gardening. “Just once” he added quickly in a graver tone of voice, as if such a considerate afterthought entirely normalized the nature of his enquiry. It was all clearly an experiment for him, conducted with the utmost candour and detachment. I abruptly turned him down, almost shaking with laughter and bewilderment.

‘Ah’ he exclaimed, ‘good woman, you’re a good woman!’ apparently satisfied that I had rebuffed his advances and passed his immorality detection test with full honours. I cast my eyes out of the window, wondering how much further it was until we reached Tajrish Square. The usual traffic swarmed around while people scurried up and down the hill like ants. He started talking about the inevitable cousin or uncle who worked somewhere in Canada, Uncle Hormoz I believe in his case. Like the Straits of Hormuz I said, referring to the narrow, strategic waterway at the neck of the Persian Gulf which separated Iran from Oman. ‘Ah ha’ he exclaimed once again, ‘you’re a clever woman too!’ I had thus gained his approbation on the grounds of intellect as well as feminine moral virtue – a double win.

We finally arrived at Tajrish Square and he pulled up to the kerb. In keeping with the delightful yet baffling Iranian custom of ta’arof , he refused to accept payment for the journey and suggested he take my phone number instead so I could join him and his friends at an upcoming party. I repeatedly insisted on paying for the journey, but he wouldn’t name a price. ‘However much you want!’ he declared, grinning effusively and throwing up his hands as if to emphasize his largesse. I pressed several notes into his hand, was this enough?

‘Whatever – more, less, whatever you want!’ We bade each other an amicable if awkward farewell and I stepped out of the car. One might expect that this brief encounter would leave me feeling indignant, even besmirched. However, I felt nothing of the sort. His manner had been entirely pleasant and oddly incongruous with his brazen questions, which themselves were borne of genuine curiosity. I never felt that he had any intention to offend. He supposed that I as a ‘Western’ woman – unlike his own womenfolk – would be free of sexual complexes and unruffled by overt propositions, responding to them as matter-of-factly as he asked them. His assumptions cut to the heart of the complications and misunderstandings surrounding sexual mores between ‘Western’ and traditional cultures. For many in Iran, the notion of the West is disproportionately coloured by satellite TV from Los Angeles – jokingly known as ‘Tehrangeles’ because of its large Iranian émigré community – which broadcasts a steady stream of scantily clad women reclining by Jacuzzis. This inevitably led to extrapolations about the prurient and uninhibited nature of Western females.

Tajrish ‘Square’ consisted of a small leafy island encircled by what appeared to be a Formula One training track, with cavalier drivers careering round and round at full tilt. I looked up and saw my friend Mikhail on the island, lounging by a shrub. He jumped up, waving manically, and I was faced with my next problem – how to breach the race-track to the island. I whimpered about the traffic, but Mikhail scoffed at my cravenness. This was for amateurs; in India one had to negotiate the hordes of donkeys and other animals who shared the streets with motorized vehicles. He spent the next fifteen minutes bellowing into his mobile phone in a mix of English, Russian and Hindi, attracting a fair amount of attention; several people approached us to introduce themselves, ask our nationality, check whether we needed anything and thank us for visiting their country. Several men even shook my hand, which was technically an illegal act. This gracious behaviour was repeated over and over both in Tehran and elsewhere by complete strangers and many other visitors I know enjoyed the same treatment.

Polluted Tehran skyline

We took a small bus to the Tochal cable car terminus, high up in the Alborz foothills. There was less of the ubiquitous dust at this lofty height and the heat was somewhat diminished as it was nearly four in the afternoon and close to the first day of autumn. A golden haze hung above us, as if the sun was not in a single place but hammered thin and rolled across the sky like white-hot foil. Huge mounds of gravel were scattered around beside the pathway and a few meagre shrubs and small trees clung onto the otherwise bare hillsides. There was a viewing area with benches to sit and take in the vast concrete panorama of Tehran unfurling beneath the crepuscular haze. The city of fifteen million lay in a bowl ringed by mountains and veiled in a semi-permanent layer of smog, its white rows of high-rise buildings and towers receding into the horizon like pebbles on a desiccated beach. Couple overlooking TehranTwo women of identical height in chadors walked side by side towards the edge of the hill, their black silhouettes stencilled dramatically against this strange backdrop. On a nearby bench, a young couple were contemplating the view. They sat at opposite ends of the bench, their bodies angled towards one another and arms draped over the back of the bench but their gaze turned outwards. The sky began to swirl in shades of pearl and mustard as twilight approached. The whole scene had the air of an Edward Hopper painting, an air of listlessness and urban alienation, yet at the same time there seemed to be serenity and an unspoken intimacy between the silent couple and the dusty metropolis which gaped indifferently before them.

Traffic photo courtesy of Shutterstock. Other photos by the author.

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