food / travel

Journey Through The Myriad Contradictions Of Modern Tehran

An Argentine writer unfurls his summer diary from a sweltering visit to the Iranian capital.

Woman walking in a busy Tehran street
Woman walking in a busy Tehran street
Matías Capelli

TEHRAN â€" The biggest danger in Tehran is "crossing the street," says my Iranian friend Nozhan, who lived in Europe 12 years before returning in 2013 to the megalopolis that is Iran's capital.

He knows that as a Westerner, I am unnerved by a range of threats I have come to associate with the Islamic Republic. Now that I'm here, I realize most of those ideas are unfounded. Nozhan's advice, on the other hand, proves to be quite sound. "Avoid the zebra crossing in particular," he advises, because cars "accelerate instead of slowing down" when they see pedestrians using them.

Public transport, consisting of buses and a metro, is modern and cheap in Tehran. But it is insufficient for the 10 million people moving around from Saturday to Thursday, the Iranian workweek. Most drive a car or use phone cabs, or "shared" taxis that can take up to four or five passengers. The result: crazy traffic.

Add to these a fleet of "informal" taxis or people taking passengers in their cars to earn extra cash (many are commuting employees), and negotiating fares with passengers. You will particularly see them hawking in the morning and evening rush hours, driving around looking for passengers on the right-hand side of the road, or even double- and triple-parking outside stations, loudly announcing a direction like peddlers in the Bazaar.

It doesn't help that the city is almost without traffic lights. The few that do exist, with their tremulous orange light, work intemittently. An overly cautious pedestrian could wait hours for the right moment to cross the street. The only option is to venture out with a mix of caution and recklessness. That instils respect from oncoming cars, forcing them to either slow down or swerve around you.

Parched in public

Another danger foreign visitors to Tehran face is ending dehydration and heat stroke. In late June, the thermometer reaches 40 very dry degrees celsius, in a very polluted city. In the month of Ramadan, it is forbidden to eat, drink or smoke in public from sunrise to sunset. Thus all cafés and eateries are closed until evening. You can buy a bottle of water, but taking a sip in view of anyone can mean trouble with the police.

Inside one can eat normally, but that is tricky for a foreign visitor, who doesn't have a home to duck into. At one point, overcome by the heat and thirst, I just can't stand it anymore. Nozhan starts talking to a grocer who lets us go to the back of his shop, where he offers us water and fruit.

A refreshing few minutes later, after eating some cherries and a banana, we chat a bit out of courtesy, with Nozhan translating. The warmth and friendliness of the people is apparent beyond the insuperable language barrier. After a while the best thing is to keep quiet and listen to them speak among themselves, appreciating the musical quality of Persian, with its opaque sweetness. Before going we try and pay, but the grocer will have none of it. How could he charge for giving us refuge, he asks?

Currrency confusion

Another good afternoon refuge is one of the museums (Tehran has excellent historical museums and one of contemporary art with, unexpectedly for me, pieces by Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon and Warhol, among other artists), or the Grand Bazaar. Its alleyways are shaded and cool, an unending labyrinth of little shops and kiosks selling anything from cheap trinkets to sumptuous carpets.

How much do things cost? Difficult to say for sure. The official currency is the rial. All banknotes carry Ayatollah Khomeini's face, with writing in Persian and Arabic numerals. But people speak and think not in rials, but in tumans â€" a tuman being 10 rials. Rials replaced tumans in the 1930s, but both are used today, and that may confuse foreigners. The price tag says one thing. The seller says another.

Here and there, in corners of the Bazaar or in a park, you may find the odd person furtively violating the Ramadhan fast, ever alert to possible police presence. What is not violated in public, however, are clothing norms. Men cannot wear shorts. Women cannot wear clothes that reveal parts of their body or are too tight (revealing their form), and must cover up at least their nape and ears. Some are uber-covered, with a body-length black cloak or chador.

Strolling in a middle-class type shopping center, I notice the number of women who have had nose operations. There are a lot of "perfect noses" and numerous signs of recent, face surgery. It is not surprising, since the nose and face is all they can show in public and these inevitably become their only tools of seduction.

Behind closed doors

Indoors, people do as they please, in all areas. Women in miniskirts, topless men, widespread use of recreational dope and soft drugs just to cite some examples. The blatant divide between public and private is typical of this country. Homes play the role of a social veil, and even the smallest ones are to some extent, private palaces or fortress.

As the afternoon progresses, pedestrians take on a ghostly aspect. The fast reaches an almost unbearable point just before sunset, when you pray and can eat and drink. Not alcohol of course. Apart from a few specimens of home-made wine drunk indoors, alcohol is notably absent, even as so many bottles of water in Tehran homes are clearly, former bottles of whisky and vodka.

As prayers begin in the city's mosques, there is a sense of imminent relief. People come out with ice boxes or portable samovars, looking for a place to lay out a rug and "chill out." Nozhan insists we go to the Ab-o-Atash (Water and Fire) park. He says I must see the Nature expand=1] Bridge recently opened over one of the city highways, linking this to the larger Taleghani Park. "It's much prettier than the New York High Line," he says proudly. He is proud of Iran, and of himself for having traveled so much in the 10 years he was in the Netherlands.

It is night time, and friends and families fill the park. Its main attraction is a system of fountains and two towers with fire burning at their tips. People move away from the busy paths, looking for secluded spots to lay out a carpet. Leaving their shoes on the grass, they settle to eat, drink, smoke, and recline and chat for hours in the cool of a Persian night, as their ancestors must have done.

Nearby, the bridge's ultramodern silhouette stands out against a gleaming motorway where the mighty traffic rumbles on. Nozhan was right: It is somehow enigmatic and quite simply magnificent.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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