Hell up close, heaven from afar

September 7, 2007

Modern Tehran is at once a city of nostalgia and one without memory, writes Amir Hassan Cheheltan.

In Tehran, grumbling at the state of things is almost a philosophy of life, and for two or three decades we Tehranians have spread our irritation all over the world. But at last we have begun to praise ourselves, constantly asserting the picture of "Iranian life" conveyed by the Western media is far from the truth. Yet we haven't succeeded in forcing a new truth on the world.

Why isn't the Western picture of us real? Is it because it not only tells of the mysterious East but also emphasises details that we think unimportant? The truth is that generalisations are meaningless, because they're almost the same all over the world. Differences manifest themselves in details, in small unimportant facts that always remain hidden from the Western gaze but not from me, a novelist living in Tehran.

What elements of Tehran belong to the past? What are new and modern? What elements of the past of this city should we preserve in order to shape a better future? I'm almost certain that even if we live in a modern way, we Orientals will in the end die traditionally.

At the end of a bright spring evening when I was seven, my mother took me to Tehran airport: her much-loved actress Gina Lollobrigida was coming to Iran. The police didn't succeed in keeping order in the vast crowd there to welcome the Italian star. Gina came and went without my mother catching sight of her. Two days after Gina left, this city experienced its biggest political demonstrations. The inhabitants of the southern suburbs stormed the streets in support of Ayatollah Khomeini and were violently dispersed by the Shah's police. Fifteen years later, Khomeini returned to Tehran in triumph, having succeeded in driving the Shah from the country.

How far does Tehran correspond to the cliche of Western observers, of an oriental city from One Thousand and One Nights , with bazaars, domed buildings, minarets and people with mysterious black eyes? This is a picture that has been supplemented in the past three decades with powerful mullahs in slippers, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, terrorism and nuclear power.

In order to understand Tehran as a cultural phenomenon you have to encounter the city first-hand, but as a Tehranian I prefer to distance myself from the city in order to be able to love it. Have the cliches influenced even me? On the other hand, being in my city, which has undergone a tremendous catastrophe, always fills me with secret enthusiasm, excitement and delight.

Tehran can't be separated from its political history, because for 100 years this city has known no peace. For a century everything has been provisional, as in a state of emergency.

Perhaps Tehran could be described like this: violent, but under the total control of smog and noise, full of junk, petty crime, great nonsensical carelessness and political folly. This city without memory, which has hardly any old buildings, infects its inhabitants with the virus of nostalgia. Tehran has a million houses, but the aesthetes and psychologists haven't been able to establish whether these buildings have been erected in keeping with the thought patterns of the Tehranians or in contradiction to them.

After the Shah's land reforms in 1962, the major cities of Iran were overrun by rural dwellers. Tehran was always at the centre of this invasion. Iran is constantly being reshuffled like a pack of cards. Forty per cent of Tehranians have settled here in the past three decades, and others have emigrated to Europe and North America.

Tehran is a megacity ringed by satellite towns, beyond which is yet another ring of wild suburban growth and homes. It is estimated that there are 4.5 million illegal city-dwellers. Whereas the population of Tehran grows about 1 per cent a year, the number of peripheral inhabitants has increased about 80 per cent in a few years. The true threat to Tehran is that if a new Bonaparte arose, this horde could bring down the wall between it and the Tehranians. About 30 years ago, precisely that happened. In February 1979, at least half the leaders of the revolution spoke a village dialect.

I spent all the holidays of my youth in the cinemas of the Lalehzar district, which two or three decades ago resembled the Latin Quarter in Paris. There were cinemas where you could buy a ticket for two films; American and Persian. Tehranian families preferred Persian films. They generated an atmosphere that was fundamentally contradictory to the Shah's modernisation propaganda.

When the first Qajar ruler, Aga Mohammad Khan, chose Tehran as his capital in 1785, the city was a village without a name. No one then guessed that the choice of this sultan, who was incapable of fathering a child, would become one of the most populous cities in the world.

It was more than 150 years before a meeting of the three most important rulers of their time first put this city in world headlines. In 1943 Stalin, Eisenhower and Churchill chose Tehran as a place to discuss the war. Tehran was then occupied by the Allies, and to serve their personnel, bars and cafes were built, in which homeless Polish women who had crossed the border from Russia danced waltzes and rumbas with half-drunk American and British officers.

Behind these cafes, run by Armenian or Russian emigrants, were courtyards where only selected guests were taken. There conjurors would swallow pigeons' eggs and then produce a swarm of pigeons from under their coat-tails, and slim dark-skinned dancers would dance in short skirts and tight-fitting blouses on long-stemmed crystal goblets. This was the nostalgia of the older generation, which my generation inherited.

At that time the city had a red-light district, whose young prostitutes, fallen women from remote provincial towns, weren't to the taste of foreign soldiers. Fifty years later young revolutionaries, some of whom perhaps had previously been among their customers, set this district on fire.

At the outbreak of the revolution, the administration of this city, which had brothels, cinemas, theatres, cabarets, liquor stores, universities and bookstores, was transferred to rural Islamic lawyers. The prostitutes moved their activities to street corners, and the actors opened kebab restaurants. Universities and liquor stores were closed. Everything had to become Islamic, but a problem continued: it was impossible to shut down Tehran.

The particular forms of dress and behaviour of the girls and young women who didn't accept the lifestyle of the Islamic Republic is just one example. They wore bright, cheerful colours, used make-up and showed some of their hair on any occasion. To exterminate what the authorities called the culture of nakedness, strict rules were laid down for women's access to schools and state institutions; among other things their clothing was limited to three colours: black, brown and grey.

During its war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988, Tehran resounded with military marches and songs of mourning. Mourning became the liveliest colour of the city, and the amazing talent of its inhabitants for weeping reached extraordinary heights. After eight years the war finally ended. Many frontline fighters returned to cities where violence had gradually taken root; some of them were commissioned to punish stubborn women and girls on the streets of Tehran.

In 1986, death sentences were passed on political prisoners who had been condemned in legal proceedings that were restricted to three questions and answers. The Islamic Republic has never published anything about these courts and verdicts, but unofficial statistics speak of hundreds, if not thousands, of executions over one or two months.

Who claims that petroleum income brings no happiness? Some time ago a newspaper published photographs of the Sheik of Dubai's camels. Camels, which for millennia had borne burdens in barren deserts under scorching heat, were now paddling in the paradise of the waters of a swimming pool. We Iranians likewise have a share in paradise. But according to the Islamic Republic we will experience it only after death, provided that we've died a martyr's death. Everything in this city bears witness that all business will be postponed until later - perhaps to the time after death.

In Tehran no one works; the only comprehensive and purposeful activity of the inhabitants of this city is to squander the petroleum income. The state subsidises the use of petrol to the tune of $US60 billion ($73 billion) a year, so that Tehranians can buy 12 litres of petrol with just one dollar. They consume this in 3.5 million cars and 4 million souped-up mopeds, which use twice as much petrol as necessary. On average, Tehranians spend three hours a day in traffic. Experts have said that to breathe in this city for one minute is equivalent to smoking nine cigarettes. We've embarked on collective suicide.

George Bush is constantly saying that the military option for Iran is on the table. It would be better if America shelved this option. Even without a military attack, Tehran is in every respect just one stop away from hell.

The New York Times

Amir Hassan Cheheltan was born in Tehran in 1956, and lives there with his wife and son. His stories and novels focus on exile and return, life under dictatorships and the clash between the Islamic world and Western culture. He has survived two attempts on his life.