Ten years ago, in the summer of 1998, I arrived in Tehran after an absence of more than two decades. Three vignettes describe some of what I experienced and why I decided to stay.
The Mayor. I am in a shared taxi with an architect friend who is pointing out some recent developments in the city. We are squeezed in the front passenger seat, three men in the back. The taxi’s radio is on, and all are listening intently to the live broadcast of the trial of Tehran’s high profile and dynamic mayor, Gholamhosein Karbaschi, the Robert Moses of Tehran, was on trial on thin charges of embezzlement, although most believed it was political retribution for contributing to Muhammad Khatami’s 1996 presidential election victory. Judge: “Is it not true that you controlled a number of personal accounts and moved money around them thereby violating financial laws?” Taxi Driver breaks in: “Agghhh! That Karbaschi! He’s lining his pockets just like all the others. What has he done for this city all these years? Nothing! Absolutely nothing!”
We break through some gnarled traffic and enter a wide urban highway winding down around several hillocks, all bright green, full of flowerbeds, sprinklers busy, a big clock sculpted into the face in rocks and plants. My architect friend: “This is a brand new road system opened only a few months ago. It has finally connected two parts of the city and eased the flow from the west to the north of the city. The landscaping? Oh that’s standard for almost all urban redevelopment.” On hearing this, the Taxi Driver broke in again: “Are you kidding me? (so to speak). That Karbaschi is a genius! I should know. I drive all day. Before him this city was a mess, it was unlivable. All these new roads are great and the city has turned a new leaf.” Later when I had decided to write a book on urban policy and local government in Iran I always reminded myself that pinning down what ordinary people thought about their city would not be straightforward!
The Park. An old friend calls at about 10 pm: “want to go for a spin? You’ll see something of the city too.” “Well, ye s… but isn’t it late?” Friend arrives at 11:30. By midnight we are at Park-e Mellat (the People’s Park) the largest in the city. With difficulty we find a parking space, the entire area is jammed with cars and people. “We’re going into the park now?” (Anyone who lived in New York in the 1980s would understand the incredulity.) But of course we entered — like the hundreds, yes hundreds of large extended families with small children carrying blankets, gas cookers, huge pots of food, canisters of tea. The weather is superb. Families are laying around, children playing ball or badminton, boys and girls easily straying from their parents, each feeling safe enough with all the “eyes on the street.” The night is warm. Young couples are holding hands on benches slightly out of sight, in the row boats on the little artificial lake. And me? My mouth wide open in disbelief at this idyllic urban scene: a public space supplied by a conscientious municipality and dedicated designers, used civilly and politely by huge numbers of people from many classes. Many, judging by their chadors and rougher clothes, were from the poorer parts of the city — this was a family outing, perhaps the next day was a holiday. “But when — in fact how — would they go to work?” I ask. The city is dotted with smaller parks, just as much used.
People have nothing else to do! We decide to see the movie everyone is talking about, Tahmineh Milani’s Two Women. But every theater we try is sold out. We have to wait two weeks to get a ticket. “This is amazing,” I say, “such a vibrant cultural life.” “Oh,” M replies, “because of the government restrictions people don’t have anything else to do, so they all pour into the cinemas.” (mardom tafrih-e digeh nadarand.) (I do finally see the film — it is powerful and important.) It is suggested instead that we go to the traditional local restaurants in the foothills of Darband. The description seems too good to be true: Persian carpets spread among trees and running streams in a mountain village 20 minutes north of the city, serving Persian food and tea amidst the cool mountain air; elegant women reclining on large cushions and so on. The orientalist in me thoroughly (and unashamedly) awakened, we head off … to a traffic jam about a mile long. The road entering the village is backed up with cars, some ordinary, some expensive. We hear that restaurants have waits of over an hour. (The New Yorker in me groans “not here too?”) Defeated we turn back. “I would never have imagined anything like this,” I say. “Oh,” M replies, “it’s because people don’t have any other opportunities for recreation.” Next: the theater. Only a friend who has connections can swing, with great difficulty, some tickets for the first of Mirbagheri’s play cycle. The stately City Theater is full of people who have come to see the plays, some also to see and be seen, a perfectly acceptable objective. I want a ticket for the next play, but we have to join a long waiting list and may not make it. (We don’t in fact succeed.) “That’s the way it is, unfortunately,” M observes, “people just don’t have any other distractions, so they have to come to the theater.”
At this point I fall in love with the city. I decide to find a way to come back and, if possible, stay. So I did move to Tehran, first and foremost for personal reasons. I studied Persian classical music, met my current wife — we now have a little baby girl. I made many deep and meaningful friendships, which means, when we converse I feel that it is about something. At the same time, the conversation is always embedded in very human relations, about the interaction in ways I never learned in New York. I soon became involved in intellectual debates raging during the reform period, and once or twice got into trouble with the authorities.
Professionally, for the last ten years I have been working, teaching, and researching the newly emerging world of Iranian cities and local governments. Unlikely though it sounds, elected city councils several years ago emerged as a key battleground for new visions for society and governance. I quickly became involved in the work of newly established councils, worked on the laws, was asked for advice (occasionally, I was able to give some), engaged in international public diplomacy, organizing several exchanges between European and Iranian mayors. Most fulfilling was learning about Iran’s cities and towns and peoples through traveling to dozens of cities across the country. Only now, ten years on, do I feel I have something to say about the hopes for local democracy that were part of the reform agenda — arguably the most important institutional legacy of the reform period.
Ten years later, the “Long Tehran Spring” is over. What I initially thought was the beginning of the “Spring” when I arrived to stay in 2001, was, in retrospect, the downturn towards its end. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the Tehran that I experienced represented for another group of Iranians a negative and unwelcome image of social life. By 1990, with the grueling war with Iraq over, reconstruction was underway. Every Tehrani will tell you that Karbaschi transformed the capital from a morbid monument to the war dead — in the somber idiom of Shi‘a martyrdom — into a city in which life was affirmed through parks full of flowers and entertainment, where young couples could, discretely, entwine fingers and feel the pleasures of being alive, bookshops were accessible where one could browse the books, music cassettes, and CDs unavailable in the previous decade; a city which tried to be a more efficient and user friendly place for getting to work, for producing goods and services of everyday and banal use; in which brand new street lights would be efficient as well as a boost to the morale of residents, who could feel that that they were no longer living in a war-affected place. All this was desperately needed, especially by young middle class Tehranis who had lived through a decade of war and were now young university students and wanted to stretch their legs in a city connected to global currents and excitements.
But then millions of others had been involved directly in fighting the war, and tens of thousands of poor, mostly rural, families had counted their children among the war dead. They also came to Tehran, because after all, it was also their city. They brought with them a more burdened conscience; conservative, small town beliefs and values; sometimes Puritan morality as a means of honoring the memory of those who had died as well as their own experience; most of those who had volunteered, often without pay, to fight to defend their families, friends and country — and survived — they had suffered a decade of lost education, material progress, and savings.
These two groups — the young urban middle class and the lower-class war veterans — clashed on the streets of Tehran in the 1990s. The former wanted to put the war behind them; the latter surely could not so soon. Besides the memories, there was the sense on one side that the veterans deserved help in return for protecting the country and thus providing the tranquility that it appeared some younger Tehranis now took for granted. On the other side, there emerged a sense of resentment against the affirmative action for the families of veterans, who some viewed as cynically exploiting their status to cash in on free refrigerators and guaranteed college admission. This conflict was daringly portrayed in the film Glass Agency. Complicating matters, hostility and resentment latched easily onto the matter of sexuality, especially in public, and particularly around women. By the end of the post-war decade, the second group had obtained their degrees, gained professional experience in the bureaucracy, and was finally able to demand a seat at the table. Of course, some want the table itself, and are even making a bid for all the other chairs!
So the capital city is one, perhaps the arena in which an important set of challenges for the future of Iran is being played out. The Tehran municipality has been a disappointment, as have all elected local governments, who with the waning of national reform energies, have settled into being another sub-office of the governmental bureaucracy. With significant and ostensibly non-governmental resources, it has missed a chance to be the forum for Tehran’s residents. This challenge is at bottom a cultural and a national one — what will be the values that define the nation, who will we be? As yet, the city contains multitudes only numerically. The challenge is to transform the city from the battleground it often feels like, to a canvass on which a moral vision that can accept the conflicting values can form themselves into some kind of pattern that all, or at least most, can recognize and understand. We still occasionally go to the movies, the theater, and the hills. But more and more time is spent inside our homes. What the city needs most is the élan I felt that summer ten years ago.