Tall Tales in Tehran

Dancing the polka

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When I first moved to Tehran as a journalist in the late 1990s, I was scandalized by the chaos of traffic in the streets. The polluting shared taxis that seemed to hold a monopoly on public transport. I decided to devote one of my first articles to the subway — or lack of it. At that time, none of the metro lines worked, even though the project, a French idea, had apparently existed since before the Revolution. And so one day I met the young man heading up the metro company. He spoke French, learned from his studies in Belgium, and introduced himself as Mohsen Hashemi.

“You… Your family is the…”

“Yes, that’s my father.”

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: a darling of the revolutionary regime; a close associate of Ayatollah Khomeini; a member of parliament, later president of the Republic, twice, between 1989 and 1997; head of a family whose economic empire stretched from the production of pistachios to the assembly of Korean cars to the management of an airline company.

Instead of delving into why it might take another twenty years to launch the eight planned metro lines, the discussion turned to politics, a subject close to Mohsen’s heart. His father was, naturally, the best politician in the country. I wondered why the Pistachio Crown Prince was bothering with the ill-fated metro.

It took me less than a week to understand. The anniversary of the Revolution, celebrated each year in February, was coming up. That Friday, I got in an old man’s Peykan, darbast-style (“door closed,” meaning you’re paying for a private taxi), for a tour of key revolutionary sites. But the tour had only one theme: Rafsanjani. Every luxury building we glimpsed belonged to him. Every suspended construction site was his doing. Every traffic jam was ascribed to Rafsanjani for stealing the funds earmarked for a bridge or bypass that would’ve eased traffic flow. The American business magazine Forbes had apparently ranked Rafsanjani as the world’s forty-sixth billionaire. Only forty-sixth! (In one of those moments when rumor threatened to seduce me completely, I checked this out — it, of course, wasn’t true.

Ghassem, the taxi driver, had excellent sources: his passengers. Together, they indulged in the cheapest, most universal psychological treatment available: taxi-therapy. The sessions covered all sorts of common hang-ups — the regime, the mullahs, the Afghans, the Arabs, and Rafsanjani.

It dawned on me that shared taxis in Tehran, more than a means of transport, are a veritable gossip factory, spinning their way around Tehran and against the interests of M Rafsanjani. Besides rumors of embezzlement and huge Swiss bank accounts (whose pin codes some taxi drivers professed to know), cruel jokes were made at his expense. The former president had a plethora of nicknames: “Koussé,” meaning smooth-face (Rafsanjani did not sport a beard) and resembles kouzé, meaning shark; “Akbar Shah” (King Akbar); and “his eminence in a red robe,” as coined by Akbar Ganji, an offense which landed the famous dissident in jail.

If Rafsanjani had any hope of returning to power via the ballot box, those taxi rumors had to be crushed, and what better way than via the rise of the metro?

In February 2000, when the metro was about to launch, Rafsanjani ran in the parliamentary elections. The first results were catastrophic, and it took three months of careful ballot recounts for him to join the list of thirty Tehran deputies, at No 26. At the end of May, he ended up resigning from this hard-won position. In the taxis, he’d been dubbed “Aga Si” (Mr Thirty, referring to the election list) and “Aga Asensor,” illustrating his climb back up during the recounts.

By 2005, two metro lines were running, but it still wasn’t enough to guarantee victory, for Rafsanjani was beaten in the second round of the presidential election by the country’s current leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

From a technical standpoint, a taxi is the perfect rumor factory. A closed, anonymous space, surrounded by noise, one can exit at any moment. Iran’s political isolation means that ideas are filtered through the sputtering of shortwave radios, the read-between-the-lines copy of local newspapers, and the lousy television shows of the Diaspora in the United States. There is, of course, the ever-reliable internet, but this is only accessible to the bourgeoisie (including foreign journalists).

The country’s intellectual seclusion, accompanied by taboos instituted by the Islamic Republic, tend to prevent public research on the Revolution from being carried out and diffused. The sport of spreading conspiracy theories, which are rumors’ bigger sisters, has gained particular popularity. In taxis, we hear that the Revolution was orchestrated by Americans to weaken the country just when the Shah was making it powerful. We discover that the Revolution was a British plot to take back control of Iran, where Americans have settled far too comfortably. A secret alliance exists between the clergy Shias and the British. The media bytes contradicting these theories — such as the Rushdie affair, which for a long time ruined Iran-British relations — are only proof that the plot is in truth larger and much more sophisticated than most had thought.

There are those who stereotype this accusatory tradition as sore-loser syndrome. After all, Iran is a quasi-European, Aryan nation situated (as if by mistake) between Afghanistan and Iraq; a peaceful nation, it is continually invaded by barbarians; sophisticated, its people are classified by the media as brutes; superior, they are humiliated daily by the state of their economy.

The regime benefits a great deal from these so-called conspiracies, never missing an opportunity to fuel them in speeches on “internal enemies” and “foreign hands” at work in the country. Disclaimers are rare. (In 1998, when his son disappeared, Mohsen Rezai, former chief of the Revolution Guards Corps, claimed he had proof of an Israeli-led kidnapping. “Not at all, daddy, I had had enough and I ran away to the United States,” his son replied on the radio station Voice of America.)

I, myself, had an opportunity to assess intimately the power of the rumor. When I was on holiday away from the capital once, the owner of the apartment I was renting in Tehran sold it for a good price. On my return, I found my belongings scattered in the courtyard and the locks changed. I was going to protest, demand compensation, and justice and show that I had paid my rent each month, when my old landlord told me, “If I were you, I would leave quietly. You transformed my apartment into a brothel.” An additional surge of rage strangled my throat when he added, “I know the person responsible for extending your visa very well, and I took the liberty of writing him a letter, signed by two other tenants, to denounce the sexual orgies you organize, along with the date of each event and the description of its participants.”

Some time later, when I had settled into another apartment, I found myself facing the official in question. He confirmed receiving the letter. I explained the story and specified that the two other signatories, persons of old age living alone, had signed without understanding and had since recanted their tale.

“Be assured,” the official said, “your private life does not concern me. Still, for unrelated reasons, I am not authorized to let you leave the country.”

Nothing would be the same. Friends turned their backs. Dubious enemies appeared out of nowhere. One day, an article published in a conservative newspaper expressed astonishment that a perverted spy like me had been allowed leave to stay in the country. I left Iran a short while after, remembering that Ghassem, the taxi driver, had told me one other story about Rafsanjani — one that involved the former President being walked in on while dancing the polka, surrounded by fifty Chinese prostitutes in his posh Niavaran residence.