Into the Belly of the Beast (I)


“They drove like people to whom the motorcar was new. They drove as
they walked; and a stream of Tehran traffic, jumpy with individual stops
and swerves, with no clear lanes, was like a jostling pavement crowd.”

—V.S. Naipaul, Among the Believers

TEHRAN — That was written three decades ago, and not much has changed in the meantime – except a few more cars have presumably been put on the road. Tehran is one of those overgrown cities, like Istanbul and Sao Paolo and numerous others, that ballooned in size only very recently as impoverished migrants from the countryside descended on it in hopes of a better life.* The 1979 revolution egged on this population explosion, and while its official tally is 8 million, Tehran’s actual population may be closer to 17, thus putting it in the same league as New York and London. And however many people there are in that total number, every one of them drives like a mental case.

I certainly got the impression of a newly huge megalopolis on the way through Karaj, a suburb of 2.5 million I’d never heard of some 40 kilometres west of Tehran, when traffic on the six eastbound lanes – into which cars and trucks crammed themselves seven or eight abreast – simply stopped. It was around this time that I came to appreciate the upside to the madness of driving in Iran on two wheels: if nobody else is following the rules, then you don’t have to either. When in Rome, they say, and I followed all the other motorcyclists and scooterists as they split the lanes, used on- and off-ramps not for their intended purpose, and rode between concrete dividers down lengthy stretches of median. Large Iranian families, inured to the noise and diesel fumes, staged elaborate picnics on the grassy patches next to the highway, while intermittently posted traffic police stood there and didn’t appear to do much policing at all. I zigzagged my way left and right across all the lanes, looking for holes just wide enough to squeeze through, and after burning half a tank of gas – and presumably, whatever was left of the cork in my clutch – I found myself in the brown and grey concrete mass of central Tehran. Once I’d left the highway, the only Tehran landmark I’d seen before in pictures conveniently appeared in front of me, and I pulled over for a picture right after an Iranian Air Force Chinook helicopter took off from somewhere nearby and buzzed the neighbourhood.

I did a perfunctory lap of the Shahyaad Arch before heading east towards the most central of Tehran’s central business districts, where I had a room reserved at the Hotel Atlas. Drivers on Azadi Boulevard, the main east-west artery through the city, somehow kicked things up a notch. This roadway ranges from ten to fourteen lanes wide, and here you can witness automotive stunts that beggar the imagination. The driving style is that of a sixteen-year-old boy with a bellyful of Jack Daniel’s and a girl to impress, one who’s never learned his lesson by getting in an accident. This guardian-angel quality to the way people drive here is improbable not just because Iran’s roads are the deadliest in the world, but also because there are a lot of bashed-in door panels and bumpers in to be seen.

And yet, despite all the recklessness and stupid chances taken and hair’s-breadth close shaves, I saw no ruffled feathers. At one point I found myself stuck next to the driver’s side window of a car that was being towed, its mirrors nearly scraping those of adjacent cars. I looked over, and the guy behind the wheel was fast asleep, his feet up on the dash. Tehran’s drivers simply accepted things for what they were, and wore bored expressions on their faces as they fought their way through the exhaust-choked tsunami of traffic.

Once I’d arrived downtown my GPS map was, for once, accurate, and I followed it straight to my hotel. I gave thanks to the patron saints of geosynchronous satellites, checked in, cleaned myself up, and grabbed a taxi. I’d arranged to be introduced to Tehran by yet another set of folks I’d gotten in touch with via Couchsurfing: Sara and her brother Amir, who lived up in the hills in the north end of the city. Tehran is two cities in one, essentially, the northern half being a well-to-do enclave of the old Shah Mohammad Reza Phalavi’s regime and its western-leaning establishment classes. As my taxi driver volunteered his take on contemporary Iranian politics – his English was shaky at best, but he did manage to describe President Mahmoud Ahmajinedad as a “shithead” – we made our way north towards Tajrish Square, the commercial heart of this Persian Beverly Hills. Above the plane trees lining the roads, I could make out skyscrapers and hotels done up in 1960s internationalist concrete, albeit with goofy decorative flourishes added to imply luxury. One such building had a Rolex logo protruding from its façade, barely distinguishable from its surroundings thanks to decades of built-up grime.

The taxi got stuck in a jam, and I sat and watched pedestrians go by. People strode purposefully down the broad sidewalks in a big-city way, the women among them testing the limits of Iran’s hejab regulations with such reckless abandon that it verged on the unseemly: vaguely form-fitting manteaus came to an end well above the knee, and many headscarves loitered way, way back on the crown of the head. Sometimes, I could even detect lipstick. Many of them were extremely good-looking, although evidence was limited, and so I added another item to my long list of reasons why theocratic dictatorships are usually a bad idea. The dudes, not to be outdone, stretched the boundaries of official decency by aiming for a Williamsburg hipster look, with skinny jeans, Chucks, tight checked shirts, and big shaggy hair. Some guys even went Full Outlaw, parading up and down the street with bouffant hairdos that were well outside the hairstyle regulations rolled out by Iran’s Ministry of Islamic Guidance earlier this summer to “confront the cultural assault by the West.” (Executive summary: The High & Tight and the Elvis, totally kosher; the ponytail and the mullet, go directly to jail.) What was left of my own hair, meanwhile, posed little threat to the regime.

Tehran hipsters in their natural habitat

It was inspiring to see the decency laws defied so flagrantly, but despite the focus on fashion it remained clear that whatever glitz and glamour that existed here before 1979 had either been euthanized or chased behind closed doors by the Ayatollahs. Even in this most liberal of Iranian neighbourhoods, there were no cafes or restaurants opening onto the sidewalks, and the only public gathering places appeared to be the garishly-lit fast-food joints lining the boulevards. That’s not to say that all signs of vitality had been repressed, mind you. Everyday retail was running full-tilt, and not all of it was healthy: every street, it seemed, had an outsized candy store that was obviously doing a brisk business. Meanwhile, long lengths of storefront had barrels overflowing with pistachios and other fruits and nuts in a dizzying range of hues, and I caught a glimpse of a seriously packed night market.

Eventually the taxi made it to Tajrish Square. I found Sara and Amir waiting in their car, introduced myself, hopped in, and we continued up the hill to Darband, a vast complex of restaurants, hooka lounges, and shops clinging to the steep foothills of the Alborz mountains. This 4000-metre-high wall of brown-grey rock is visible from pretty much everywhere in town, and it keeps a lid on further northern expansion of the city. We parked, and climbed up hundreds of wet stone stairs to Sara’s favourite restaurant.

Now, I’ve been told by the dozen or so regular readers of this blog that these posts sometime read like a paid promotion for, and this time will be no different. Within a few hours of arriving in Tehran, there I found myself sitting cross-legged on a Persian carpet high in the Tehran hills with real live Iranian siblings – total strangers from the internet, keep in mind – and tucking in to my first-ever bowl of Abgoosht, a tasty traditional stew, while we peppered each other with questions. I learned that Amir, the younger brother, is studying kung fu, and appears well on his way to being able to beat the crap out of any bad guys who might come his way. Sara, meanwhile, studied chemical engineering and is now working on her master’s degree while holding down a 9-to-5 office job.

I was on the receiving end of a lot of questions. They worked their way through the standard Iranian inquiries – How old are you? What do you do for a living? What do you think of Iran? – after which Sara got down to brass tacks.

“Do you play sports?”

“Not really,” I said, but qualified that by explaining the tremendous effort that goes into hoisting pints of beer to one’s mouth over and over again.

“I can tell,” she said, smiling broadly and pointing towards my midsection, “because of your belly.”

I had no comeback for that. It reminded me of my first few months acclimating to life in Hungary, where people I barely knew could be bracingly straightforward. Try as I might, I couldn’t find anything about this in Wikipedia’s entry on social customs in Iran – in fact, they’re supposed to be all deference and courtly language here – and just chalked it up to Sara’s being a very amusing smartass.

Sara: a real comedienne

After I’d stopped laughing long enough to get a word in edgewise, the two of them ordered a baffling variety of desserts. The popular Iranian custom of stuffing one’s face with sinfully delicious sweet things, I theorized, is a sort of decadent substitute for drinking. I really could’ve gone for a beer right then, after my ride into town earlier, but this was a dry country where boozing is technically punishable by death. While I don’t recommend teetotalling in the long run, I’d begun to notice a pleasant wholesomeness to these evenings out in Iran, and I had a fantastic time chatting with my Iranian hosts. (And, of course, working on my belly.)

I took it easy in the following few days. I moseyed down to South Tehran’s Grand Bazaar – the largest of its kind in the world, and, no foolin’, it’s pretty damn big – to stock up on much-needed fluids for the Vespa. Refreshingly, it’s purely a working market, with virtually no tourists to be seen and no hard selling, making a visit there much more pleasant than to the touristy bazaar in Istanbul. While everything under the sun can be found there, no matter how obscure, it’s not for the easily discouraged: simply finding one item can take several hours of poking around and asking for directions to a specific corner of its 11 kilometres of passageway.

South Tehran is visibly more conservative and working-class than the north, and one thing I noticed was the sudden profusion of Vespas and Indian-built Vespa knockoffs, badged as Bajaj and LML Star bikes. You just don’t see them in North Tehran. Here in Iran, the Vespa is the furthest thing from a SWPL status symbol as you can get. It’s the Vespa used as it was meant to be used, a poor man’s workhorse for getting around and hauling goods. Most of the bikes I saw had seen better days.

In need of a bit more than a fresh coat of paint

There were more people from Couchsurfing to meet: Maryam and Shohreh, two postgrad students, had invited me out for coffee, again up near Tajrish Square. I hopped on the Hamburglar and rode north, past the aftermath of several non-fatal motorcycle accidents and into the slightly more sedate streets of North Tehran. I found the girls, introduced myself, and I made my demands clear: take me to this world’s best pistachio ice cream that I’d heard so much about. It was just around the corner, and sure enough, it was pretty damn good. After that, they led me down leafy Valiasr Boulevard and into a beautiful park with a neoclassical theatre as its centrepiece, and with a cafe hidden in the courtyard behind.

Continued in Part II (coming soon)

* For an excellent book on this last “great migration”, I recommend Doug Saunders’ hot-off-the-presses Arrival City. I’m halfway through, and so far so good.


12 Responses to “Into the Belly of the Beast (I)”

  • Andrew D. Says:

    Sean, you made us wait a whole month, but this post rivals some of Chatwin’s best moments. An absolute delight to read and taste pistachio ice cream vicariously through you.

    Allah mek, habibi. -a

  • david Says:

    great stuff really enjoying the journey

  • Ravi Says:

    Good to know that you are in India, driving to Tajmahal etc.

  • Tshewang Says:

    Hey hi..^_^ first yeah ur vespa is way cute..i always wanted to own one scooty. any ways..i heard about u in one of the Indian news paper. i think whateva u are doing is cool thing. i am s journalist student from Bhutan..and i am guessing u have no clue where Bhutan is…or maybe u do. its small and beautiful country. i was wondering if u can visit Bhutan. trust me u will like it.
    P.s: there are no heavy traffic at all and yeah…don’t expect to be very developed fancy country.^_^ all the best

  • Into the Belly of the Beast (II) | The Vespa360 Project Says:

    […] – (Continued from Part I) Maryam and Shohreh* led me to the buzzing courtyard of Café Gallery, which was, by all […]