Recently they laid cobblestones on my street in the heart of old Tehran and renamed it The Avenue of Faiths, as three churches, one mosque, one synagogue, and one Zoroastrian fire temple are within shouting distance of one another. On Saturdays, during services, the door of the synagogue stays open all morning, with no need—unlike in much of Europe nowadays—for a security detail. Yet whenever I relay this to people who make a living off of vilifying the Iranian regime, they draw a blank stare and say nothing. It is not what they want to hear. Theirs is a frame of reference stuck in a loop of time, in the likes of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis, books that despite their erratic merit only hawk the past wounds of their narrators at the expense of any nuance.
As for my now beautifully cobblestoned street, the neighbors complain anyway. Because that’s what Iranians and especially Tehranis do: complain. They complain because they see conspiracy everywhere. It’s their default button. They take one look at the sickening cost of real estate on the north side of the city, where the rich have their spreads; they stare into the windows of the new elegant cafés whose menus they can’t afford; they get almost run over several times a day in Tehran’s helter-skelter traffic; and their patience keels.
I know, however, that my neighbors in fact love the new face of The Avenue of Faiths.
About that helter-skelter traffic, my friend Habibe wrote recently that she was taking a Latin American journalist around the city. Her guest commented that not even in mega-metropolises like Mexico City or Bogotá or Cairo had she witnessed the kind of kamikaze-like feats that take place between pedestrians and the barreling automobiles in Tehran. A little later that day Habibe brought the journalist on an express bus ride. In the crowded bus there was an Iraqi woman who was utterly lost; she did not know where her hotel was. With their broken Arabic, the other riders managed to figure out where she was staying and told the driver. The driver, in turn, against every rule in the book, halted the bus right in front of the Iraqi woman’s hotel— the hotel of a woman from a country Iran had fought a bloody eight-year war with. There were about a hundred people in that bus and they all clapped for the driver, commenting that it would not do to leave a guest in the cold. As the woman was getting off the bus, she turned to everyone, smiled, and said a grateful goodbye in Arabic, ma’ salama, to which everyone responded with a solid chorus of good-byes in Persian, khoda negahdar.
Tehran—a city of kamikazes, conspiracy enthusiasts, new cobblestone streets everyone secretly loves but pretends not to. And, finally, a city that will stop an express bus far from its station for a lost guest.
Salar Abdoh was born in Iran, and splits his time between Tehran and New York City, where he is co-director of the creative writing MFA program at the City College of New York. He is the author of the novels The Poet Game: A Novel, Opium, and his latest, Tehran at Twilight. His essays and short stories have appeared in various publications, including the New York Times, BOMB, Callaloo, Guernica, and on the BBC. He is the recipient of the NYFA Prize and the National Endowment for the Arts award. He is also the editor and translator of the anthology Tehran Noir.
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