Sunday, February 26, 2006

the demolition derby

there is one mission for this day and that is to exchange my money. it may seem like a simple task, but as i learn with each passing minute, nothing is that easy here. my cousin and i head out early in the day towards the nearby market area known as tajreesh. it's a 20-minute walk from my uncle's house, but she's lazy and opts for catching a cab. or should i say "catching a cab." the way it works in tehran, just about anything on wheels can become a makeshift cab. all manner of
people, looking to make a few extra bucks, will pick up passengers along their way to wherever and take them as far as their paths are one. a man on his way to work, a couple going out for dinner, a family taking an afternoon ride, every car that passes is a potential ride. what you, the passenger, must do is stand by the side of the road and as each car passes, lean down and state your destination. if you are in luck and there is a match, someone will eventually slow to a halt and let you in.

then the real fun begins.

driving in this city, in this country, is unlike anything in the states. take new york, multiply it by boston and raise it to the 27th degree: this is driving in iran. the wide boulevards become improvised demolition derby tracks, with rusted peykans (the national car), sparkly pegeots and pieced-together franken-cars weaving in and out of each others way, racing towards some unmarked finish line. traffic lights are mere suggestions and lane lines nothing more than decoration.resolute drivers squeeze five cars side-by-side in a three-lane road and at intersections vehicles careen violently toward one another, jerking to a stop with barely a breath's space between themselves and utter disaster. all the while, pedestrians dart across the road, never bothering even to glance at the oncoming traffic.

this is where i find myself first thing in the morning.
after 10 minutes and barely 10 meters worth of gain, my stomach, already delicate from inhaling the world's third most polluted air, is on the verge of turning. one more slam of the brakes or one more thick, sweaty passenger added to the cab and my breakfast of feta cheese and lavash will be making an encore appearance. by the grace of allah, we finally arrive at our destination and my cousin leans forward to hand the driver the equivalent of 50 cents. we slide out of the car and i peer out at the money store sitting across the six-lane (or should i say 10-lane) boulevard we must now navigate.

"how about a cross walk?" i ask.

my cousin laughs, grabs my hand and says "close your eyes, it'll be over in a minute."

the american cousin arrives

after what seems like months of planning and preparation, i finally arrive in tehran's mehrabad international airport late on a thursday night. as the plane descends, the passengers begin bustling about; the men rummaging for their cell phones and passports, the women dutifully donning the mandatory hejab (usually a mid-thigh overcoat and head scarf) that will cover their hair and bodies from now until the they're back on a plane to wherever they came from. the packed flight consists mostly of iranians (with the exception of a german couple, a group of african businessmen, and the french wife of an iranian man on board) and as we deboard the plane and climb into the shuttle bus that carries us to the terminal, each turns to the person next to her and strikes up the kind of conversation you would hear between distant acquaintances.

once inside the terminal, the crowd simmers down to a hush, all nervous for the next stage of the journey: passport inspection. even though the government has made it much easier in the past few years for expatriots to come spend their foreign currency in the country, the sour queasiness - a learned reaction to facing any government official of the post-revolutionary regime - never truly fades away. i avert my eyes and smother a smile as my iranian passport is inspected and scanned (it is obligatory for any person born in iran or born of two iranian parents to be a citizen in order to enter the country). relief! i make it through without a hitch, and just in time to snatch up my luggage, now greasy from the multiple transfers during the 16-hour trip, and wheel through customs. "do you have any gifts, food, electronics?" "no, no, no," i lie, and i'm through.

the way the mehrabad airport is designed, as a passenger approaches the exit, they are encased in a glass hallway that widens into glass doors that are perpetually open and lead into the main airport lobby. i don't know how international visitors are greeted in any other place, but here, EVERYONE comes to welcome you home. there are rows of bodies, ten layers deep, pressed up against the glass and swarming the exit doors. as i part the crowd with my baggage cart, i'm struck by a strange sense of familiarity. most of the men resemble my father and the women all echo my mother. just then, i spot my uncle blowing kisses at me through the last bit of glass and i see my aunt waving a bouqet of flowers at me from the back. i push past the anxious greeters, all disappointed that i'm not someone else, and am encricled by no less than nine of my family members (the number is "small" because my last visit was just over this past summer). they bustle me out of the airport and package me, my bags, and five cousins into a prideB (think, hyundai's poor little brother) and send us on the path to my uncle's house. along the way, the cousins (all within range of my age by five years) roll down the windows and blast a mix cd of black-eyed peas, tupac, and the latest in LA persian pop. they hang out of the windows, singing and dancing to announce my return. but wait a minute: didn't we in the US hear about a crack-down on "western" music in iran? won't we be stopped by the morality police and questioned on our religious sensibilities?

no matter, the american cousin has arrived!