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from the July/August 2003 issue

from A Little Less Conversation

Golmohamad turns and makes for the cab. The driver nods and mumbles politely as he turns the key in the ignition. He's wearing a light gray suit and looks like a young Leonid Brezhnew. As they drive down Hafez Avenue, Golmohamad is struck by the fact that in Tehran, you're rarely more than twenty feet away from a pizzeria serving cheeseburgers in a setting of purple bathroom tiles, fake black marble, and pink neon, with syrupy Iranian soft-rock in the background.

The driver switches on the tape recorder, and Golmohamad recognizes Neil Diamond's song "Two-bit Manchild." "Hep-Hep." says Neil Diamond. "Hep-Hep--you want me--and I can't deny I'm a man."

Owing to his father's corporate career in multinational pharmaceuticals, Golmohamad grew up attending polyglot schools in six different cities in five West African republics, and moved back to his birthplace just over a year ago. When asked about motives for returning to Tehran, he refers to childhood memories, to family, to his mother tongue. "Something about the light, the landscape. Roots." The more he makes himself sound like a palm tree, the more people are touched.

The city's appeal, he decides, as they head for the highway leading toward the Karaj suburbs, must be the mere fact that it doesn't try to please, consisting largely, as it does, of sand, dust, glass, neon, and eight-lane motorways running straight through concrete housing projects. Surrounding the official center are scores of satellite towns and villages that are very similar.

Over the past twenty years, eight million locals joined the preceding four, most of whom were newcomers themselves. Swifter than speech, Golmohamad decides, somewhat theatrically. Lighter than language. To describe Tehran would be like spelling out a frenzied, hourlong dinner table discussion to a complete newcomer. Personally, he'd take Tehran over Isfahan flower gardens and donkey bridges any day, and finds a smug sense of satisfaction in the fact that there are many who would beg to differ.

Very recently, European architects in Prada dinner jackets and Le Coq Sportif have been here, reciting statistics from Dutch coffee-table exhibition catalogues, of the new avant-garde status of third world metropoles carelessly breaking all urban records, proportions, and aesthetic standards. Western concepts and terminologies, they say, trying to sound apocalyptic, ominous, touched, enthusiastic and nonchalant at the same time, can no longer do justice to the many Tehrans of this shifting world.

Golmohamad is well-groomed and tall, and though visibly very sure of himself, he seems oddly self-conscious. This makes him what the French would call sympathique. Whether, on the other hand, the Germans, who like a certain touch of noncommittal humility in a young man, would grant him a sympathisch is an open question. For he is indeed the type of person who makes you wonder whether the difference between charm and egotism, or between concern and condescension, was as obvious as you had assumed.

Yashar, an elder relative and close friend of his father's, lives in one of the many satellite villages near the suburb of Karaj. With his two meters height, his corduroys, denim shirts, and handsome, arrogant features, you might see a gentleman farmer in him, if it weren't for his high-pitched giggle, and his pubescent sense of humor. He likes to surprise you by sticking his little finger in your ear and making obtrusive grunting sounds. Or by suggesting he had recently had sex with your mother, out in his apple orchard somewhere.

Some time ago, Yashar inherited a sizeable amount of land from his father, and over the last thirty years or so, has earned the reputation of a skilled and distinguished host, conversational gambits notwithstanding. He speaks very little, and is considered an outstanding listener. During the many afternoons Golmohamad has spent at the farm, he has witnessed army officers, political dissidents, a dervish, a folk musician, housewives, farmers, Swiss journalists, Arab tourists, and a TV newscaster sitting on the veranda, mumbling at Yashar as he sat with his hands folded in his lap, and his head cocked to one side, doing a fantastic job appearing to be sympathetic.

During the Iran-Iraq war, when both Baghdad and Tehran were pelted with Euroamerican missiles, dozens of families moved out of the city center to stay at Yashar's, where they went for long walks in the orchards, played volleyball, or sat around sipping date liquor and reciting eleventh century poetry. The dust on your doorstep / a paradise to me / a fervent pheasant / I fling myself / on searing arrows of your glance." Or suchlike. In the evening, there was cheap dance music from L.A. and Istanbul blasting from a tiny tape recorder, and opium with sweet tea and honey pastries.

Yashar speaks fluent British English, with the high-pitched, whiny singsong of the Persian accent. He learned it as a student at the Imperial College in Kensington. He soon discovered how to withdraw considerable amounts of money from London banks, by using alternating surnames and account numbers. This was how he paid for university tuition, a reasonable nightlife, and a Mini Rover; although he didn't own a driver's license, neither Iranian nor British. When a bobby politely demanded his license, Yashar showed his Iranian birth certificate, apologizing for everything being written in Farsi. In the symmetric center of the document, there is now a stamp saying, "This driver's license is hereby endorsed for six months".

In the 1930s, Yashar's father, as well as both his grandfathers, were officers under Reza Shah. Reza was the Iranian Atatürk, very keen on modernizing the country, by any means necessary. Iran, he insisted, was to be taken seriously. Reza found the term "Persia" embarrassing, seeing as it smacked of water pipes and flying carpets, and had it replaced by "Iran," which refers to the country's Aryan heritage. The Aryans were little more than a despairing mob of hungry Siberians who settled in what is now Iran a very long time ago. Most had long forgotten they had ever existed, when a small flock of German Romantics in wigs, white stockings, and fluffy shirtsleeves suddenly decided the Aryans had successfully colonized vast parts of Asia and Greece, and declared them the "Cradle of Civilization." Reza Shah very much approved of the idea, as do many Iranians nowadays.

Be that as it may, Reza found the nomadic Iranian tribes of the early twentieth century at least as embarrassing as water pipes, if not more so, and took to luring the tribal leaders to peace talks or religious ceremonies, where he had them imprisoned, or shot. This was the line of work Golmohamad's ancestors were in, before settling down in a village which was, at the time, a good stretch away from the outer limits of Tehran.

On the way to Yashar's village, the taxi driver makes a detour through the Ekbatan housing project, an enormous assemblage of right angles, functional voids, and horizontal strips of glass and concrete, the stuff people refer to as "Stalinist," although Stalin actually preferred gigantic wedding-cake architecture, playful squiggles and pointed turrets. Designed in the mid-seventies, at the peak of the hysterical optimism of the Shah era, Ekbatan is the largest housing estate in the middle east. At an art opening in north Tehran last week, someone claimed Ekbatan had as many inhabitants as Sweden.

The car stops by the outer courtyard of block 44 D, where Afsaneh has been waiting for them, reading a paperback romance by Nicolas Bouvier. Afsaneh is a young up-and-coming video artist with a perfect gap between her front teeth. Watching her approach the cab, crossing the smooth concrete courtyard in the glaring afternoon sun, Golmohamad tries to relax the muscles in his gut by taking several deep breaths, as if to pull the air all the way down into his stomach. This is a technique he learned in acting classes as a teenager, a method against stage fright.

As Afsaneh climbs into the cab, the driver mumbles another standard greeting before resuming the journey towards Karaj. Golmohamad is still nursing a hangover from a housewarming party in his apartment the night before. The air flowing in through the open windows is hot and unpleasant.

At Yashar's, they find a small group of visitors having a late lunch on the veranda. They all interrupt their meal to awkwardly stand up and shake hands, and in a confused fit of coquetry, Golmohamad declines to join them for lunch, watching on as Afsaneh is offered cucumbers in raisins, yoghurt and fresh mint, along with lamb and eggplant sauce on saffron rice with sour berries and a baked crust.

Afsaneh is wearing olive green army pants, Charles Jourdan shoes, and a light blue T-shirt that says "Death to America" in pink. She praises Golmohamad for the things he has been pursuing since his arrival--his showroom in the making, his many ingenious plans and ideas regarding the gallery website, the merchandise, and the making-of documentary.

"In Iran, such things are totally, completely new to everyone," Afsaneh is saying. "They're far more appreciated than anywhere else."

He nervously assumes Afsaneh is coming on to him, but then realizes with disappointment that she isn't, so he snidely tells her that to impress the locals with flashy gadgets and cosmopolitan prattle, he could just as well move to Wimbledon, but then stops, seeing as she's not really listening. Surely enough, she smiles, rubs his elbow absent-mindedly, and goes and sits down next to Yashar.

The swimming pool lies in the shade of an enormous oak tree, from which an occasional leaf or twig plummets down into the cool, dark water. Two men with shaved chests, gold chains and perfect tans are floating around on inflatable mattresses shaped like bright red cellphones. Visibly bored, they collect the twigs and stick them between their toes. A pop diva from Uzbekistan makes pleasant cooing noises from the tape deck.

Yashar is now standing by the gate, talking to five young men surrounding a small, bearded figure in a traditional white frock. Yashar introduces him to Golmohamad, saying this is his new neighbor, the famous Mr. Tarofi himself. In the years following the revolution, Tarofi was a notorious political figure, a traveling judge and henchman in one. One summer afternoon, Tarofi paid a visit to a drinking buddy of Yashar's, a Maoist poet, and dealt him a shot to the head in his own back yard.

Tarofi always wears Kojak sunglasses. His beard is remarkably thick, wooly and amorphous. For security reasons, he is always accompanied by his many sons. Tarofi insists on speaking English. He sounds like Joe Cocker.

"Europe very good nice. Very nice, very good," he croaks. "Learn English Birmingham."

"Birmingham. So you've been to England."

"Yes. I go Switzerland for gon."


"Yes. Go for buy gon. Engineers ABB. Brown Bovering."

"Guns for whom?"

"Gons for Iran. Very good nice."

"Yes. So you've been to Switzerland. Zurich or Geneva?"

"Go Bern."

So they chat, in Farsi now, and Golmohamad eventually ventures something like, "Mr. Tarofi must have many wonderful anecdotes to tell, about his exploits in the name of the revolution, he put in such great effort, let me go and sacrifice myself for him, may his breath be warm, may god give him life," and other standard Farsi formulae, but Tarofi refuses to go there.

"We made mistakes. But things have changed. And so have we." After the historical Iran-USA soccer game some years ago, Tarofi saw dancing couples and unveiled women on the street. He desperately wished to express his approval. "I share your happiness," he grunted at them. But once people recognized Tarofi, they formed a circle around him, clapping their hands and jeering, "Dance, Hâjji, dance." Feeling confused and disappointed, Mr. Tarofi returned home. Suddenly, he turns back to Yashar, asks him a long list of questions on irrigation techniques, then waddles quickly off into the twilight, his sons running after him like groupies.

During the course of the evening, as a drunken discussion on international politics unfolds, Golmohamad can hear Afsaneh categorically stand up for the Iranian cause, the exemplary character of the Iranian model, the dignity of the Iranian revolution, and the political maturity of the Iranian masses, getting caught up in contradicting moral platitudes, until she finally falls quiet, staring furiously at her Charles Jourdans.

Sitting next to her on the settee is Pantea Paknazar, the youngest of the six Paknazar sisters, a portly, loud, acrimonious intellectual. As the discussion grows louder, Pantea is sporting a familiar complexion on her peachy face.

Recently, in an uptown Hare Krishna restaurant called "Rama," Golmohamad watched her scream at a helpless waiter for a period of four minutes. "A reservation?" Pantea yelled at the slender young man in Dolce & Gabbana spectacles and a dark orange T-shirt. "A RESERVATION? Listen. Listen to me, darling. I'm NOT HAVING ANY of your FASCIST propaganda." The restaurant fell silent, except for the waiter's faltering apologies, and a George Harrison CD on the hifi.

"Goooh - vinn - daaa," said Harrison.

As she recently confided in Golmohamad, Pantea is currently writing the screenplay for a two-hour motion picture called Twenty, set in multi-story apartments in postmodern skyscrapers in north Tehran. The story, if Golmohamad understood correctly, was that of a love triangle between two affluent single mothers and an Afghani kitchen help. The kitchen help lived in the hollow steel pedestal of an enormous advertising billboard for NOKIA cellphones. Golmohamad knew for a fact that hundreds of Afghanis did indeed live in billboard contraptions of the kind, but considers the story a scam, a ploy to earn a pat on the back as the daring-dissident-filmmaker, and hold moving talks for understanding audiences in progressive European venues with Sergei Eisenstein retrospectives and glossy catalogs. In the final scene of the movie, the Afghani blows up the Revolutionary Courthouse with a makeshift timebomb just as the single mothers are sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, by a judge played by Kevin Costner in a rare cameo appearance.

With Tehran being one of the flattest metropoles worldwide, filming ostentatious high-rises would amount to little more than a cheap rip-off. So these days, Golmohamad likes to smile patronizingly at Pantea, and make sarcastic remarks on bourgeois radicalism, despite the fact that, when she suggested he himself play the Afghani houseboy, he was, in truth, very tempted.


On the way home from Karaj, the taxi follows the Alborz mountains until it reaches the long Hausmannian boulevards of West Tehran. It's three in the morning, and the radio is playing "El Bodeguero". The desert landscape is punctuated by small concrete sheds and brightly colored neon in pink and green.

A week goes by. Golmohamad's bathroom plumbing makes odd chirping sounds. No matter how long he lives in this downtown apartment, every morning, he will always stop what he's doing and assume, ever so briefly, that he heard the sound of birds nearby.

His phone line makes clicking and humming noises, as it usually does when it's tapped. Under the Shah, the SAVAK's reputation was such that mere rumors sufficed to turn every disco into a potential antechambre to secret torture chambers with concealed doors, and every neighbor and relative into a potential spy. Subversive literature was read only in the small hours of the night, under thick blankets draped over reader and reading lamp. Now, by contrast, Farsi translations of Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault and Rushdie are available in every academic bookstore. And you can't sit down in a taxi without someone comparing the classe politique to all sorts of zoological species and organic materials.

Golmohamad can't help thinking of one of the interrogations upon being arrested last month--he was recently arrested and detained for filming the wrong government building at the wrong time--when Zip discs, VHS, mini dv tapes, minidiscs, audio tapes, CDs, handwritten notes, newspaper articles and photographs from his apartment were piled in a single heap in the middle of the room. A middle-aged man in a tea-stained shirt and plastic flip-flops reading "Xanadu" in orange and green walked up to the pile, picked up an article from the Süddeutsche Zeitung, loudly and annoyedly assumed it was Swedish, then grabbed a Zip disc and held it up to the light. Unsatisfied, he pondered a minidisc for a little while, placing it thoughtfully against a standard CD, to confirm the wondrous difference in size.

Prerevolutionary Tehran, the place Golmohamad has come to know from 1970s magazines and slushy family anecdotes, has its own type of zest. Cocktail bars, Shirley Bassey concerts, Buicks, Chevrolets, Oldsmobile station wagons, ballroom dancing, eurohippies, sidewalk cafes, fake eyelashes, fantastic political pageantry watched on small black and white TVs. These days, you do find, say, food courts, West Coast Hip Hop, international film festivals, Nike and Puma and Swatch and Longines, along with a heavy metal scene, pizza burgers, Jim Jarmusch retrospectives, Dutch and Korean package tours of Isfahan and Shiraz, and flamboyant teenagers in daddy's BMW convertible. But you won't find a Hard Rock Café, nor 50 dollar cocktails, nor pubescent Kuwaiti tourists in Motörhead t-shirts, nor Voodoo theme parties, nor sanctimonious Greenpeace demonstrations. A marvellous stroke of luck. If little else, the 1979 revolution still is, and hopefully always will be, a matter of dignity.

Read more from the July/August 2003 issue
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