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March 25, 2005

Nowruz, Festivity or Test?
Arash Jalali  [info|posts]
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It is the time of the traditional Nowruz festivities; the beginning of a New Year in the Persian calendar. FToI has been rather dormant during the past few months. We thought about breaking the ice by writing a piece on Nowruz, but writing apathy aside, there was really nothing original I could personally write on Nowruz. There has been, however, something on my mind for the past couple of months, which I used to suspect might be yet another over-blown dramatization of an issue; something that probably stems from my pessimist nature. This year's Nowruz, or the weeks before it rather, reaffirmed the validity of my concerns. I think the city of Tehran is on the brink of a major crisis.

The words crisis and catastrophe, when mentioned along with the name "Tehran" immediately bring the word earthquake in mind. There have been a number of articles both in local newspapers and journals about the aftermath of a serious natural disaster such as an earthquake in Tehran.If Tehran does fall into a major crisis, it will threaten not only the well-being of its more than eleven million official and unofficial inhabitants, but will also pose a threat to the national security and the stability of the whole country. However, in my view, the crisis need not be created by an extreme type of natural calamity, but by a mere push to its already far-stretched resources.

Some Facts and Figures

To put things in perspective, there are certain figures and facts that should be mentioned here. I have tried to only cite figures and statistics released by official organisations and authorities. The actual figures in certain cases are typically different from those officially released, as they are either deliberately biased towards more face saving numbers by the regime, or are truely unavailable due to lack of any proper means for accurate measurement.

Official population of the city (excluding suburban areas) 6,758,845
Official population of the Tehran province ~ 11 million
Tehran's water consumption in Feb. 2005 45,477,550 m3
Official subscribers to city's power grid 4,600,000
Average annual power outage 3 Hrs.
Automobiles (privately owned) in the city ~ 2.5 million
Total area of the city ~ 700 Km2

Some Far From Worst-Case Scenarios

So what exactly does it take to bring the city into a crisis? Surprisingly something far less malignant than an earthquake; Several days of rain-fall or snow, a highly publicized football match like the world-cup qualifiers, something that would call for a week-long (or even longer) national holiday like the death of an important regime figure, a persistent cold weather front, and yes the Nowruz shopping season.

During the last couple of months alone, we have witnessed clear examples of how vulnerable Tehran really is. First, it was the heavy snow that lasted for more than a week in Tehran and northern parts of Iran. Schools had to be shut down. The government offices had to shift the start of working hours from 8AM to 9AM and later. The major means of transportation, i.e. the so-called Raahi1 taxis, either refused to come to work or they had decided to cease the opportunity and cash in by hunting for exclusive2 (or Darbast as they say in Farsi) passengers. The streets were full of people waiting to find anything (and I mean anything) to take them to their place of work. The pedestrian walks were totally ignored by the municipal authorities. The city authorities had to call for help from the truck owners to give them a hand in pouring sand and salting the frozen and slippery avenues of Tehran. The afternoon and evening gridlocks were of epic proportions.

In the midst of this chaos, people started to take advantage of this opportunity by selling anything that had anything to do with snow at an unbelievably high price. The price of plastic shovels used for plowing snow, for instance, reached up to 1000% of the real price. Fortunately this time, the snow did not last long enough to cause any shortage in food supplies in Tehran but what happened in other less fortunate cities like Rasht, gave us a preview of what could have happened in Tehran, had the bad weather persisted for another week. Even after the snow ended and the sky was clear, the government had to keep the schools closed because there was not enough natural gas in the pipelines. Households in many parts of northern Tehran had to spend several days and nights in freezing temperatures because there was no gas. This again created a black market for portable gas cylinders. The government had to resort to desperate solutions such as distributing petroleum among the people of such neighborhoods, only to create yet another black market for obsolete heaters that work with petroleum. Electric heaters had also gained popularity. The authorities warned about the possibility of scheduled power outages if the electricity consumption remained at high levels.

Then, a couple of weeks later, just about when the city authorities had managed to finally clear the side-walks of frozen snow and ice (with the help of sun-light of course), there came several days of heavy rain. The streets were yet again filled with people without any means of transportation. The taxis and Raahi's were again ready to cease the moment. I personally had to pay a guy ten times the usual price to take me home from work (and no I wasn't the only passenger in his car!) Water washed away whole parts of several main passage ways; the water that was supposed to have flowed inside a water canal! There were vast gridlocks all over the city again. Ironically, this time it was the water supply of several neighborhoods that was cut. The reason? Too much rain had diluted the water reserves with mud, making them unsuitable for public consumption. The water shortage lasted days after the rain-fall had stopped.

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A recent photo of the gridlock in the days prior to Nowruz holidays - ©MMV Arash Jalali

And then, came the Nowruz shopping season, with gridlocks both in the main streets as well as small alleys. The side-walks were also madly crowded. Street sellers from other cities and the suburban areas of Tehran had took over all the side-walks of many parts of Tehran. By then, it had turned into a general rule for the taxis and Rahis: when there's heavy traffic, do not take normal passengers; go hunt for those who are rich or desperate enough to pay ten-fold. The water supplies of parts of the city were yet cut. The was simply not enough water due to the high water consumption for spring-cleaning. More than a day after the New Year count down, the telephone lines, especially inter-province communications between Tehran and other places, were totally jammed because there were simply too many people in Tehran who wanted to call their relatives in other provinces or whose friends and relatives wanted to call them. The telecom company had issued warnings prior to the New Year, asking people not to send too many short messages on their mobile phones fearing a crash of the nation's SMS servers.

Looking at all this, I just wonder, what would happen to someone in an ambulance on their way to a hospital in such a gridlock? What happens if a riot breaks out in some part of the city and how are the Police supposed to get there in time? Nowruz is not an unexpected event. People, as well as the authorities know when Nowruz will come, and yet the city is as clueless and as chaotic as it were during the unpredictable snow or rain-falls. If they can't plan for something as predictable as Nowruz, how can they possibly prepare for a real catastrophe ? If people can't afford each other mercy in a simple rain-fall what would they do if things get really serious? It is true that the regime isn't doing much to solve problems, but even assuming that they want to, what exactly is there to be done for Tehran?

Notes:

1. Raahi's are privately owned cars that unlike taxis sometimes come in no special color or distinguishing marks and carry passengers along a specific route between two specific points in the city. UP

2. Unlike many countries, in Iran, a taxi is not normally taken by only one individual. Instead, a taxi works pretty much like a bus, taking on four or five passengers with the same destination. In a sense the fare is shared among the passengers. That is why taxis are more affordable in Iran compared to Europe and America. However, sometimes people would pay a typically larger amount than the four- or five-fold fare to rent the taxi exclusively. The word "darbast" in Farsi means "with closed doors", or exclusive. UP

Comments
yaser at March 25, 2005 05:45 PM [permalink]:

Happy Nowruz. Just want to say that Nowruz should be written with this spelling according to here
http://www.iranian.com/Opinion/2005/February/Nowruz/

Arash Jalali at March 26, 2005 01:52 AM [permalink]:

Happy "Nowruz" to you too Yaser. Thanks for the tip. I don't quite like this spelling. Actually, I think it's the worst choice among the many choices, phonetically speaking; but since according to that page it has been adopted by most authorities I guess we better follow it as well. So I changed all my "Norouz"'s to "Nowruz".

heydarbaba at March 29, 2005 11:42 PM [permalink]:

Arash,
Raahis here in US are called GYPSY drivers. It is basically the same thing as it is in Iran except that these gypsy drivers are not on the streets every where but they usually wait in the parking lot of supermarkets ...if you go to the same supermarket for a while...after some short time you can easily spot these gypsy drivers inside the supermarket...mostly latinos..they will give you their phone number and anytime you need a ride from anywhere you can call them and (it is not legal but...)....those Iranians who live here in Massachusetts..can easily see these gypsy drivers in the cities of Lowell, Lawrence and many other cities that have a good size of Spanich community...many of these drivers are either retired folks, or some people who just do this after their regular jobs..funny enough many of these drivers are lot better dressed than the official taxi drivers here and lot more cleaner for sure...another quick point...I read that people in US used to celebrate the beginning of the spring as the new year..till 1752...at that year law!! makers passed a law and made the jan 1 as the beginning of the new year...(I had written some other things about your comments on Tehran and I had compared it to NY city but my computer crashed and I lost it all...Ghesmat nabood....!!)happy Nowruz..

Arash Jalali at April 2, 2005 07:04 AM [permalink]:

Heydarbaba,
Believe it or not, when I was writing the piece I wanted at some point to just make up a word for the Raahis and it incidentally happened to be "Gipsy drivers" !
I hadn't heard what you said about the Americans celebrating the New Year in the beginning of the Spring until as recently as the 18th century but a friend of mine and I were recently talking about the commonalities between our traditional occasions and that of the Christians. For instance, April's fool and "Doroogheh 13" (lying at 13th of Farvardin), painting aggs at Easter and at Nowruz, "Spring cleaning" and "Khaaneh-tekaani". There are also certain rough analogies between the names of some of the months in the Gregorian Calendar and the ordinal number of months in the Persian Calendar. I haven't yet done any research on whether these similiarities are accidental or not.

AmericanWoman at April 11, 2005 07:19 PM [permalink]:

Are these problems new Arash? Improving infrastructure seems to be a standard campaign platform of every election I've ever seen. --For the employment value, if nothing else! Tehran used to be always under construction, didn't it? Why is the present administration not addressing this? What would stand in the way of a movement to address the issue? I know concrete prices are up, some big project in China is sucking up the world supplies, but regulating taxis shouldn't be that hard.