A surreal development complex sits in the middle of the city. Wide concrete walks wind around isles of green, marble tiles and patches of steel. Fountains set against Olympic torches dance to grand Western piano music, producing what the authorities poetically call ‘Fire and Water’. This immense area, surrounded by a city forest on one side and a buzzing five-lane motorway on the other, has slowly developed over recent years. With this contrived urban landscape as their stage, a young couple emerges from the half-dark of the late afternoon. In front of us – squeezed between a skate-park and a half-finished steel bridge linking the food halls to more playful entertainment – they walk along, happily holding hands.
Holding hands itself is not worth writing about – but as ever it is the context that adds the intrigue: holding hands in Tehran, the 8-million-resident capital of Iran, is rather different from holding hands anywhere else. Married couples are technically allowed to hold hands openly, though popular convention essentially forbids it. One rarely expresses intimacy for loved ones, and certainly one would never kiss in public. Even people in their twenties seemingly follow these unwritten laws, with exceptions only confirming the rule. It is a rule, however, that is again linked intricately to context: it holds true only for the contestable and sanctionable public sphere of the street, the market, the church and the park.
Our first evening in this city overwhelms us as we receive an abrupt lesson in following the rules Tehran-style. We not only lose $20 to a taxi driver clever enough to charge us for our tourist naivety and listen to a semi-legal congregation of French and Irani musicians playing traditional local tunes, but we are also thrown into the world of Tehran’s private party scene. ‘You can change there’, our host explains, pointing at a basement room that has just released two unveiled, high-heeled and practically undressed ladies. Baffled by the shortness of their dresses rather than their beautiful dark hair, we stumble upstairs, only to be confronted with a quantity of alcohol dwarfing that found at the best underground parties in London. All of it homemade or smuggled, obviously. The electro music is banging Berghain-style, the girls are grinding like Miley, and the boys, one after the other, develop the dreamy looks that only alcohol can produce.
Events like these are nothing new in the West, and indeed similar things were seen in prohibition America. But other things are happening here that even by Western standards are almost too creatively subversive to be true. And they are happening in the vehicles that Tehranis covet, partly because they make it easier to get around, but predominantly due to their semi-privateness.
It is one of those crystal-clear nights that lets the stars shine on you – even in the midst of illuminated Tehran. But it is not the stars that brought us to this street. At first, everything seems normal – just an abnormal number of cars driving from one part of Tehran’s wealthy North to another. Car after car after car – some smaller, some more impressive, but most of them Peugeot 206s, as they are manufactured in Iran and so can escape import tax. After some time the constant flow of cars is suddenly interrupted. There, just in front of us, a grey Peugeot with two boys in the front seats slows down. They have seen something of interest to the right of their car. One of the boys starts talking to their neighbor, a similar Peugeot driven by a girl who is not too shy to expose as much of her dark wavy hair as legally allowed. Rushed but intense words are exchanged, but alas his attempt is not successful – no phone number this time. The girls drive away in search of someone wittier, some- one whose eloquence is quicker.
Tehranis call this hunting game ‘rounding’, driving around in circles in a kind of car-speed dating. The streets chosen for these games have to be changed continuously due to police interest in such openly flirtatious arrangements. The gameplay is very quick, very limited, and success is very much dependent on your self-presentation skills. It is all about making as much as possible of the brief encounters between complete strangers. But some people know how to delay the goodbye.
‘Catch it and talk to me!’ he yells while desperately aiming to hit the right spot with the mobile phone he has been holding. A second later the phone lands in the lap of the girl in the neighbouring car, which has just started to accelerate. More nervous now he has made the first and most important connection, the boy fiddles around with his other mobile, pauses briefly (too nervous to remember the number), and finally dials. The girl’s car is almost out of sight, but the excitement in the boy’s eyes glows when someone picks up. I am not sure how many of these games actually lead to anything, but I am certain that they are as flirty as it gets in the streets of Tehran. And exciting they are – even though we ourselves are not quite as successful at playing, though we do try. Rounding is probably only one of many types of interaction that happen in cars in Tehran, not dissimilar from the variety of happy kinds of inter-human contact that can happen between acquaintances, friends or total strangers in Western cars, but it is certainly one of the more memorable ones.
With this game, intimacy that is typically banned from anything but the most private nocturnal spaces is partly able to return during sneaked daytime moments. At first glance, the windscreen is an inadequate separation of our little space from the outside, but apparently this transparent shield is enough. It is enough to make people feel secure. And hopefully the security that our generation finds in cars in Tehran can be extended. Currently, the odds look good.
Illustration: Chris Townsend