(Persia Digest) – USA TODAY reporter, Kim Hjelmgaard, writes that Tehran is a city teeming with 12 million people and seemingly more cars. The volume is comparable to Bangkok, Istanbul, Los Angeles and other notoriously congested cities. Here, however, it's far more freewheeling, maniacal, almost like a video game.
The six-hour flight from London to Tehran was routine.
We landed in a landscape that resembled Death Valley in California’s Mojave Desert.
At London’s Heathrow Airport, I noticed that the majority of the women who boarded our flight looked fully Westernized in skirts, tank tops and other normal European summer attire. They disembarked wearing hijab, chador and other "modesty-preserving" items.
The barren expanse between Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport and north Tehran, where I was staying, yielded little of note to look at in terms of scenery.
Apart from one thing: the mausoleum of Khomeini, the deeply anti-American religious scholar who became Iran’s supreme religious leader and founder of the Islamic Republic.
Khomeini’s shrine houses a marble tomb and has a huge gold dome. It is the size of a football field and contains a shopping mall, a center for Islamic studies and a parking lot with space for 20,000 cars.
Incredibly, the large complex remains under construction – nearly 30 years after Khomeini's death.
After I checked into my hotel, a 27-story building with views over Tehran’s dry, earthenware-like terrain, I consulted a map. "Evin University," the prison, was around the corner.
I hoped the authorities would not feel compelled to help me further my education.
My first full day in Tehran was consumed with not getting killed crossing the street.
Tehran is known for its massive traffic jams and spirited drivers. Morning. Evening. Well past midnight.
I don’t know how many cars, trucks and motorbikes there are in Tehran, which is bigger than New York City. It has a population of about 12 million people in the metropolitan area, but at a conservative estimate, I’d put the vehicles on the road at about a gazillion.
In fact, after the captain of my flight from London had announced before takeoff that our arrival into Tehran would be delayed by approximately 30 minutes, an Iranian man sitting next to me on the plane started craning his neck, trying to get the attention of a flight attendant.
"So we’ll get in at 6:15 a.m. local time, right?" the man asked in a nervous tone. He was concerned that this minor delay would totally mess with his carefully calibrated plan to avoid the horrors of Tehran’s traffic.
"Great, no traffic," the photographer I hired for the duration of my stay in Iran had said in a WhatsApp message a few days before my arrival when I told him what time my flight would land at the airport.
Nevertheless, I was still totally unprepared for Tehran’s traffic.
Not so much the scale of it, which I had seen in comparable volume in Bangkok, Istanbul, Los Angeles, Moscow and other notoriously congested metropolitan areas; it was more the freewheeling, maniacal, video-game-like approach to road safety of Tehran’s drivers.
This I had not previously experienced.
Amazing to me was the average Tehran driver’s ability to make quick decisions and ignore distractions in the service of disregarding red lights, pedestrian crossings and busy intersections. These skills have allowed Iran to distinguish itself by having one of the world’s highest number of per capita road deaths.
It had been awhile since I felt the need for help when crossing a road. In Tehran, I instinctively found myself reaching for my translator’s arm whenever we had to get to the other side of the street.
"Just stay right next to me. I’ll tell you when," my translator said on these occasions as I cowered like a nervous school child behind a parent on the first day of classes.
Other pedestrians seemed unperturbed by the tangled mass of taxis, trucks and motorcycles drifting across lanes and stampeding down Tehran’s surprisingly broad avenues while their drivers screamed, weaved, beeped and hand-gestured for every extra inch of road.
Under Iranian law, the car’s driver – in any road accident involving a pedestrian – is always deemed responsible and can even be required to pay blood money to the victim’s family.
How else to account for a scene I saw over and over again on my very first day in Iran?
A man and a woman riding an aging motorcycle. Noisy. Smelly exhaust fumes. While he takes care of the driving and navigation, she takes care of a hijab that is covering her head yet blowing in the wind and gradually untying itself. Sandwiched between them, a child; sometimes, two; once, three. None wears a helmet. All appear to be oblivious to the accident statistic they could become.
Another thing that became apparent quite quickly in Tehran was the abundance of white cars on the road – reportedly caused by the economic sanctions. They are usually cheaper, therefore more affordable to the average cash-strapped Iranian. For reasons no one I met was able to explain, people also seem to just prefer white cars. When a red or black car does appear, it can seem a novelty.
Maybe that’s a good thing. White cars obviously stay cooler in an extremely warm climate. Although it’s not an exact science, research using police data has shown that white cars are among the safest of any color because they are easier to see. I saw the odd Porsche, BMW and Mercedes gliding through Tehran’s wealthy northern neighborhoods. However, the majority of the cars on the street are made by Iran Khodro and Saipa, two local brands that, alongside France’s Peugeot and Renault, dominate the market.
These cars are small, relatively easy to repair and overwhelmingly white.
On my first day in Tehran, I expected to find at least some evidence of a villainous and barbaric terrorist state as portrayed in countless movies, TV shows and right-wing political speeches. It might be out there. I hadn’t seen it. On an extremely narrow side street, as I was leaving an interview with an official, I did notice a taxi parked at a strange angle. It was jutting, dangerously it seemed to me, into the middle of the road, as small as this road was. Both front doors were open. The driver’s bare feet stuck out on one side. His head, tilted back, on the other. He was sleeping. Snoring, I think.
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