- Posted June 4, 2012 by
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Tehran, a city under smoke, snow and sanctions
Brief diary of a recent visit to Iran sent to us by anonymous writers
I slip $100 bill under the window of foreign exchange boot at UAE airport. “I need to exchange this with Iranian Rial please”, muttering in a tired voice - having just landed after 24 hours of a sleepless plane ride and schlepping across 2 airports. “We have no Rial.”, responds the man sitting inside. “Why is that? I ask in dismay. He reluctantly lifts his head off the newspaper, “Because all Iranian banks are bankrupt and we’re not allowed to work with the Central Bank either!” He lays it on me in a stern and frustrated tone. I walk away thinking to myself, whoh, I just had my first up close and personal brush with the sanctions against Iran… I thought the ‘big’ sanctions weren’t expected until July!
I board the final leg of my flight. Glistening city lights in the night sky create a spectacular show of light and color on approach to Tehran airport.
The cool crisp night air felt wonderful, as we stepped out of the airport and got onto a 6-lane highway heading home.
“Ghorboonet beram elaaahi”, says mom, as her old and shaky hands reach out to hold mine. Tears well up in both our eyes. Cousin Siavash is hauling in my suitcases, cousin Minou has set a beautiful dinner table; the aroma of Sabzi Polo emanating from the kitchen is heavenly. The first night in Tehran feels wonderful, warm, nurturing, safe; feels like Home. A feeling I rarely experience anywhere else in the world.
A gentle knock on the door in early morning hours wakes me up. Somebody answers the door. It is the heavenly smell of fresh warm bread that pulls me out of bed. “You guys have warm bread actually delivered to your door?” I ask the maid. “Oh it’s our sweet old Afghan door man. Agha Mirza, buys our bread, delivers groceries, runs our errands - a hard working, decent man” she replies.
I open the windows for fresh air and I gasp, as my nostrils are filled with the smell of smog that is only outdone by the view of a smoke cloud hanging over the city. Milaad Tower is barely visible in the distance. The only pretty site is the snowcapped Mount Damavand that seems to always wear a crown of snow.
Setting out to the streets. The bustling mega-metropolis that I once remember, has transformed into a jungle of cars, people, towering condominiums and noisy overcrowded streets where millions of pedestrians compete against millions of cars, for the rite of passage. The city has changed beyond recognition, and for the worse, I sadly observe. “Has the whole country moved to Tehran?” I sarcastically ask my friend as we negotiate the uneven pavement of the sidewalks and the sea of pedestrians who seem to be moving in every direction in great hurry. “Well almost”, she replies in an equally sarcastic tone.
Ahmadinejad’s targeted-subsidy plan that deceptively claimed to be aiming at eradicating poverty and unemployment; has proven to head in exactly the opposite direction. The subsidized farmers have no incentive to continue plowing the fields; factory workers are losing their jobs in droves; unemployment is sweeping the nation; major industries such as carpet weaving, textile, automotive, steal; are shutting down enmass in historic numbers; all of which has forced millions of Iranians to migrate to the capital city, in a desperate search and hope for jobs.
All the while, Mr. President, his administration, the Parliament, and every official, completely and unequivocally denies the impact of the sanctions on the country! Are they really THAT out of touch with reality? I wonder out loud.
My friend hails a cab. A civilian car screeches to a stop in front of us. Maryam yells “come on” as she climbs into the car. I follow in tow, whispering in her ear, “but this is not a cab – why are we…?” “Yeah I know”, she whispers back, “people use their personal cars as a taxi, to supplement their income!”
We reach the trendy restaurant where other friends are expected to meet us, for a mini reunion. At the door we are ambushed by ½ dozen beggars surrounding the entrance! Both lunch and the company are splendid. The shocker of a price tag however, made me feel like a great imposition on my friends who would not accept money from me despite a physical wrestling match. $30 (US Dollar) per person? For Lunch? In Iran? That’s nearly 60,000 toomans (with dollar having recently doubled in value) when average income scales around $1000 per month. I felt almost nauseous.
For the rest of the afternoon, we walked the streets, checked out shops and malls where price tags kept making me increasingly more ill. "How much?" I ask, pointing at the 10 lbs sack of rice in the corner grocery store. "32,000" the clerk responds. The overworking calculator inside my head converts that to $32 - omg, who can afford this? Rice being the most basic part of Iranians' daily diet...
That evening, I called every aunt, uncle and relative whom I knew were taking turns to invite me for dinner, which would include the entire clan, as is the cultural tradition. Gave them a militant ultimatum in no uncertain terms: No Dinner! I’m coming for tea only in early afternoon, and made up an excuse for the sudden change in plans, so as not to hurt their feelings.
I couldn’t bear the thought of burdening these folks with an exorbitant expense in such dire economic circumstances where I knew so many highly educated young sons and daughters of many families, including my own, have moved back in with their parents, or depend on a loan from mom and dad, out of necessity.
The greatest loss Iran has suffered in the last 33 years, particularly in recent years, has been the precious Human Resources. A country rich with oil and rich with 45 million young, smart, able and educated population; yet allows it all go to waste, solely because of poor management, ineptitude of the leaders and corruption at the highest level. Isn’t that how the Roman Empire fell apart?
Skyrocketing prices of food and housing have left so many malnourished and homeless. So many are either jobless or working double shifts. Educated people are forced to clean houses or drive cabs. Air pollution: mal-nutrition; contaminated food supply; lack of adequate health care; dangerous high-power microwaves (in the air) to disrupt satellite & internet; financial pressure; social pressure; and the overall atmosphere of fear and suppression, have resulted in rampant cases of cancer and a host of “unrecognized” diseases, in unprecedented numbers. Even recent headline news warned against drinking milk and locally grown produce!! No sir, this is NOT the Iran of my childhood. Damned those who have dragged my country through the mud (and blood) like this!
Friday we’re flying to Shiraz to visit my oldest living aunt, I am informed. How much is the airfare and hotel” I ask. “$80 flight, $100/night hotel” the voice replies. I gasp again.
I cancel more family events that were so lovingly planned in advance, for my visit. I can’t enjoy these wonderful plans, knowing what a financial burden they could be for the host.
On my last night in Iran, my young (unemployed) niece hands me an envelope; in it a beautiful card and 2 crispy new $100 bills. She writes: “My dearest Auntie Mame (she knows that was one of my favorite Hollywood movies), since you said you don’t want any souvenirs, please accept this little token instead. Come back soon.” Tears stream down my face as I politely accept, but later leave the money back on her night stand with a note of my own: “My dearest Niki, I am touched by your love. But taking money from Iran and from you would be “Haraam” – morally forbidden.
I hear on the news: Minister of Economy, Shamseldin Hosseini denies the impact of the sanctions on Iran’s economy!!!
Well, I think Agha Shamseldin can’t possibly be so clueless about the crushing cost of living these days. He’s either shamelessly lying, or he hasn’t been shopping in Iran. I suspect both.