The View from Valiasr

Beginning in Tehran’s conservative suburbs and stretching to the Alborz Mountains, Valiasr Street is the city’s main artery and political mileage marker. The longest street in the Middle East begins at Rah Ahan Square south of Tehran, enters the center of the city near the Tehran bazaar and then begins a long, sleepy climb into North Tehran, bastion of the opposition green movement. To travel the length of Valiasr Street is to experience the undercurrent of a society that few media reports attempt to reveal.

I have been to Tehran two times, and one of my first nights in the city I had a roasted vegetable pizza at Bix, an upscale eatery just off Valiasr Street in the Gandhi Street Shopping Center. Bix’s menu advertises “California-Mediterranean cuisine,” and many of the patrons could have been plucked off the boardwalk in Malibu or Nice. Most of the women wore colorful, form-fitting manteaus and tapered designer jeans—the kind of fashions that the regime’s morals police regularly try to rein in, but with dubious success.

There I met Parviz and his wife, Afshin. American citizens, they had lived in Tennessee for the past twenty years but spent several months of each year back in Iran so their nine-year-old daughter could gain an understanding of her parents’ ancestry.

I asked Parviz what he thought of the reformist candidates from the contested 2009 elections—Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi—who had all but disappeared from public view and were reportedly under house arrest. Did their calls for reform of the ruling order earn them any stature with the people? Both were previous government men who had once served the regime they were now trying to overhaul, if not overthrow.

Strollers at Sa'dabad Palace, Tehran

“Same shit, different shade,” Parviz said, but then he forced a thin smile. “Something was gained by the elections, though. The people have finally seen that there’s nothing inside these leaders.  And for the first time the leaders were scared. They learned that the people are willing to fight them.”

The next day I took a walk in the mountains accompanied by Rashani, a calligraphic artist I’d met at a museum in central Tehran where several of her works were on display.  In a roomful of gallery hoppers she was comfortable enough to chat with a visiting American, but not sufficiently at ease to talk politics. In a country where cell phone conversations are constantly monitored, that discussion was saved for a remote mountain trail.

“All this talk of nuclear power and arguments with the West are just ways of keeping the people distracted,” she said. “They’re not what the people really care about. We’d like to see much more attention paid to the problems in our own country.”

In two weeks in Iran I had found almost no one who admitted to supporting the Islamic regime. In two weeks of informal polling, the highest estimate of government support I was given was ten percent. So I asked Rashani—what would the people want if the government were to collapse? What kind of society would they want?

“I’m not sure. I’m not really sure what I want. There would be a lot of confusion. For most of us this is all we’ve ever known, but we do know we don’t want all this religion in politics.”

The next morning I planned to visit Golestan Palace with my guide, Sohrab, but the tour almost didn’t come off. The road to the entrance passed between two government buildings a short distance from Valiasr Street—the police had blocked it. When we pulled up to the barrier they tried to shoo us away, but Sohrab grabbed a manila envelope off the seat and waved it out the window. “We’re from the foreign ministry!” he shouted. The envelope contained only the papers from the tour agency, but it worked—the guard drew the barrier aside.

On the street in Hamadan, capital city of Hamadan Province

“They push, you push back,” he said, with a glint of satisfaction. “Nothing in our culture tells us to accept that kind of authority. The words of our poets—Ferdowsi, Saadi, Hafez—tell us that the people are supposed to lead, that that’s where leadership comes from, not rulers. That’s what we have to do, get back to the true nature of our society.”

Tehran has a well-deserved reputation for being a very lively city, but for all the activity on the streets there is another dimension of Iranian society that is only found behind closed doors. Another night I had dinner at one of Tehran’s three Armenian Clubs, social centers for the country’s Christian minority, which are allowed to operate outside the religious strictures of the Islamic regime. Stepping past the wooden door a few blocks from Valiasr Square felt like walking into a 1920s speakeasy. In the brightly lit dining room, women wore tank tops and their hair fell unrestrained to their shoulders, their manteaus and headscarves left hanging on the coatrack by the door. At a nearby table a man ordered a glass of ice cubes and added a splash of Johnny Walker from a bottle taken from his jacket pocket.

All through the meal a couple eyed me across the room. When they got up to leave the woman came over to my table. Iranians are intensely curious about outsiders’ perceptions and quick to disassociate themselves from the government, seen as something like an embarrassing relative who has completely ruined the family reputation. She asked politely if she could intrude and then fired a battery of questions: Is this your first trip to Iran? Where are you from? Why did you want to come here? What do you think of Iranians? We chatted, and eventually I got around to asking her if she supported the government. “Oh, no!” she said, quickly and emphatically. I asked why not; she hesitated, then fell silent. The dress code of the Islamic regime had been checked at the door, but fear, its primary instrument of control, is prêt-à-porter.