Iran 2009: Tehran a city that illustrates issues facing the country

02/04/09 12:50PM By Steve Zind
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(Host) In a country with twenty five hundred years of history, Iran's capital and largest city has very little past. 

Two centuries ago Tehran wasn't much more than a town.  Now it's the political and economic heart of the country. 

Each day, ten million souls make their way through the city's crowded streets. A drive across Tehran can take as long as the journey from Montpelier to Brattleboro.

Today in the third of his series of reports from Iran, VPR's Steve Zind describes a city that illustrates many of the issues facing the country today.

(train sounds)

(Zind) I've become a Tehran commuter. 

In the morning I take the subway uptown.

Sometimes it's so crowded I don't really need to hold on when it lurches, because I'm propped up by the crush of men around me.  At times like these women retreat to cars reserved just for them.

 (cab drivers sounds)

(Zind) Out of the subway, I walk to a corner where the drivers of shared taxis call out their destinations.  I squeeze in with the other passengers and we begin our creep through the streets of Tehran.

This is a city of epic traffic jams. Public transportation is limited, so you have to drive to get anywhere.

There are days when I gaze from my hotel window at a city swimming in a caramel colored smog soup, and the magnificent Alborz mountains just north of Tehran are invisible. 

I visited a hospital where doctor Majid Mokhtari runs a pulmonary and critical care program. He told me the pollution takes more than physical toll - there's an emotional cost for his patients.

(Mokhtari) "And if they are nervous, angry, they look dark, they look as though the oxygen level is down, I just guess:  ‘You live somewhere with a high level of air pollution and traffic?  Oh, how did you know?'"

 (Zind) Not that Tehran is full of angry people. 

(Zind in Farsi)  "Do you speak English."

(Driver) "No English."

(Zind) This cab driver named Reza is friendly enough.   


(Zind) Reza works 15 hours a day seven days a week.  A generation ago, his family came here from the countryside - part of the migration that accounts for Tehran's dramatic population increase.  They came looking for work.   

A fellow I met in an employment office told me he is here from the city of Ahvaz. 

(Man in Farsi speaks)

(Translator) "But wherever you want to work in Ahvaz, they want years of experience."

(Zind) Like so many others, he's come to Tehran hoping for a new start.  

(Street sounds)

(Zind) Tehran embraces two Irans:  the deeply traditional and the modern. I sit at a traffic light and watch a businessman roll down his window and pay a boy to burn an herb to ward off the evil eye.

In the poorer south of the city chickens wander the highway.  Laundry flaps from the windows of run down apartment buildings.  Women in black chadors line up for bread at little corner bakeries, drumming from a traditional Zoorkhaneh -or house of strength - echoes in an alleyway.

 (Zoorkhaneh sounds)

(Zind) In the cosmopolitan north, there are expensive high rise apartments on tree lined streets with beautiful parks.


(Zind) Pricy clothing and electronics shops line busy Vali Asr Boulevard.  Once-banned pop music drifts from the passing cars.

Women in high heeled boots dress in tight coats, and pushed back scarves, testing the limits of proper dress.

The officers of "Gasht Ershad" are on the prowl up here, looking for inappropriately dressed men and women.  "Gasht Ershad" means ‘search guidance'.

(Sidewalk sounds)

(Zind)  Tehran exemplifies the contradictions, problems and potential of Iran:  

The city's universities are turning out a generation of highly educated men and women - but they're leaving the country for better jobs elsewhere.

Iran can't refine enough of its own oil, so it imports gasoline, and then subsidizes the price.  It's a huge drain on the economy and cheap gas means clogged Tehran streets. 

An inflation rate pushing 30% picks your pocket every day and a corrupt and inefficient government bureaucracy makes even the smallest tasks complex.   

Tehran is where the tectonic plates of Iran's past and its future push against each other and you can feel the tremors in the social changes taking place -  the once forbidden mingling of young men and women, the changes in dress and music.

But the political and economic change Iranians long for seems far off and hidden, like the Alborz mountains at Tehran's northern edge obscured by smog.  

For VPR news, I'm Steve Zind.

(Street sounds)

(Host)  You can listen to Steve's reports from Iran and take a look at his photos at our Website, vpr dot net. 

Tomorrow, our series concludes as Steve introduces us to some of the women he's met who are working to change to cultural and legal barriers faced by women in Iran.




Related Links

Steve Zind'sIran Journal 2004 Iran 2009 Photo Gallery Iran Journal Photo Gallery Steve Zind's Report From Iran 2005 Steve Zind's January 2009 blog report from Iran Steve Zind's Iran Today 2006
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