Monday, 15 October 2012

Day 194 - Economics and Gender Studies. (Iran)

Approaching Tehran we were prepared for the pollution that allegedly kills over 40,000 people per year. Tangling ourselves in the mass of traffic and the maze of roads, it’s an incredible number, but sadly not unbelievable. And that figure doesn’t even include road tolls which there are more of per capita in Iran than any other country in the world. Cars, buses, scooters, pedestrians and anything else that finds itself on the road literally push each other out of the way, completely ignoring signs, markings and other objects. Having driven in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Chengdu on this trip, not to mention Paris, Rome and Brussels previously, I can quite confidently say that Tehran roads are the most challenging I’ve ever come across. As a very unusual turn of events we chose not to drive around town during our stay, not so much even because of the traffic (because that’s actually kind of fun), but because of parking. Parking was next to impossible.
The Tehran bazaar covers more than 10 square kilometres and is said to control one third of the entire country’s economy. It has the usual bag district, shoe town, suit village, jewellery precinct, shisha street and carpet city, but everything is on a huge scale and to a greater extent than usual. The carpet sellers are said to be the big guys, not making their money from selling the much sought-after Persian rugs, but from the ongoing currency and gold exchanging that brings in the big bucks. The building that houses the bazaar is in the traditional Persian style with domed roofs adjoining domed roofs, separated by archways and decorated with colourful bricks and tiles.
We visited the bazaar on our first day in Tehran, and in hindsight were very glad we did because the following day it was closed. Closing down a third of the country’s economy is a pretty huge statement. From what we’ve gathered, this would be similar to if the stock exchange closed for a day – it does not happen.
That day was a bit surreal – Tehran had gone from being this bubbly hub of life and activity, to suddenly most of the city being alarmingly deserted. After our first encounter which I mentioned in the previous blog (Blog Day 193 – Batons and tear gas) where a nice man warned us to take a detour around the square and briefly explained that the protests were about the disastrous economy, we stumbled upon various signs of the chaos.
We’d caught the metro to a particular station and after navigating our way to the underground exit, emerged into daylight, caught ourselves up in what we presumed to be regular Tehranian pedestrian traffic and rounded the corner to cross the road. Tom Unkles was in the lead and he stopped abruptly, turned around and started walking back towards us. Looking ahead we spotted the 100 or so armed policemen facing away from us towards the road intersection and realised that we had inadvertently made our way to the back of a police barricade. Hastily re-entering the underground we found a different exit, skirted around that particular protest and continued on our way. A little way down the road we noticed black smoke billowing from a building one or two blocks away, and over the course of the day we came across several flaming bins and many smashed windows.
Most of the protestors were shop owners or people from the bazaar who’s business was taking a hasty downhill slide as the value of the Rial dropped (so I don’t know why they were vandalising each other’s properties). Although we didn’t actually witness any violence first hand, a Tehranian man who showed us around for a couple of days found himself amidst a riot and felt the tear gas that the police implemented.
That evening we sat on the roof of our hotel and watched the street that we had struggled to navigate our way down a couple of days before, now almost deserted and eerily quiet. Several entirely empty buses drove past, and streams of police vans whistled down the road. We weren’t quite sure whether these protests were going to fizzle out or blow up.
The day after that main day of protests we went back to the bazaar, hoping it would be re-opened. Parts of it were open, but huge sections were still completely shut up. A few weasels had decided to open up and take advantage of the lack of competition that day, while their fellow bazaarians were still out protesting for their livelihood.

On the metro there are women’s only carriages and uni-sex carriages. Most women travel on the women’s carriage, but there’s always a few travelling with the men. On our first trip I chose to board with my male companions and ride the uni-sex carriage. After we squeezed on to the already packed train, another hoard of travellers forced themselves on. I was almost lifted from the ground by the force, and breathing through the stench of BO, breath and aftershave was a feat. I endured a man’s arm that had been tangled up in the throng and wrapped around some other torsos, strategically resting on my body about 10cm below my chin. There wasn’t much I could do, but when the wave of bodies swayed and moved at the next station, an onlooker who had witnessed my predicament kindly stood up and offered me his seat. I decided to give the women’s carriage a go on our next trip.
I never travelled with the men on the train again. The women weren’t as smelly or as pushy and there was marginally more space. They were all very jovial with each other; it felt as if the whole carriage was occupied by one group that was travelling together. I was still stared at, but more out of interest than disdain – at least that’s what I’m happy to believe.
We stayed near the centre of Tehran, slightly to the South, which is the poorer, dirtier and more conservative part of the city. Thinking it would be nice to experience a different side of Tehran we adventured to Ghandi Street in the North. It was a bit of an adventure to get there as the exit from the metro took us onto the wrong side of a freeway intersection. We had to sidle down the side of the freeway, then double back to get onto a sort of footpath, cross the freeway and go under a bridge, then scramble up a grassy slope at the side of the road that took us to the grounds of a stable which backed onto an unfinished but very well guarded Docklands (in Melbourne) style futuristic building project. A few side streets later we found the Ghandi Shopping Centre and there we found an array of Western style cafes selling coffee, and a selection of boutique clothes stores. The difference in wealth between the South and the North was abundant – everyone on this side of town was well-dressed, the cars were slightly less bashed up, the shops were posh and expensive looking, and the women especially were much less conservative in their clothing style.
Although we carry our own shisha which we bought in Kazakhstan and use regularly whilst camping, we do like to visit shisha bars in cities when we get the opportunity. A packet of molasses which will last for maybe four shishas costs between 10,000 and 25,000 Rial ($1 = 24,000 – 35,000 Rial depending on the ever fluctuating exchange rate), but sitting in a cafe with one will cost 50,000 Rial. It’s a huge mark up, but we enjoy doing it anyway. Unfortunately though, the only ones we found in Tehran wouldn’t let me in. We have heard that until recently women were allowed to smoke shishas in public, but four months ago it became illegal. It is also illegal for women to smoke cigarettes in public, and this rule really is abided by. A few places have chosen to overlook the law and allow the women’s section to remain, but most have become completely men’s only establishments now. I assume there were plenty of men’s only places to begin with anyway. Unlike the trains where there are women’s only carriages, and women are allowed in the men’s carriages, the men’s section in a shisha bar is for men only, but men are welcome to join the women in the uni-sex section.

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