Tehran Winter

There was snow on the mountains to the north of Tehran. Morning light, falling on the snow, revealed the direction and line of every ridge. Then the smog of the city of motor cars banked up and screened the mountains. In the summer the smog had been like the color of the mountains; and it had seemed then that it was only the summer haze of the dusty plateau that hid the mountains. Now the smog could be seen rising against the snow like a dark cloud. By the middle of the day mountains and snow could no longer be seen, until, for a few minutes at the end of the day, the setting sun fell red on the snow of the highest ridges, and they were like a red cliff suspended over the clouded city, darkening fast, pricked here and there with electric lights, and soon jumping with neon lights: the old glitter, remarkably surviving.

The city was free, but it remained the Shah’s creation. In the winter of 1980, a year after the revolution, it was still awaiting purpose. To many—like the hotel people gathering to chat in unoccupied, half-serviced rooms, like the man in the ITT-built telephone room sleeping on the floor, as on the desert sand, covered from head to toe by a blanket—to many people the city was still like a camping site.

Here and there were small-scale building works. But the cranes on tall unfinished buildings didn’t move. With the rain and snow, metal girders had rusted; and unplastered, roughly mortared brick walls looked weathered. The shops were full of imported goods: it was there the money was going, the oil money that gushed up every day like magic. Sudden great wealth had created—had imported—the modern city and bred the inequalities and alarms that had led to the revolution. That same wealth had bought time for the revolution.

On Revolution Avenue (formerly Shah Reza) south of Tehran University the picture-sellers still offered views of Swiss lakes, of forests; pictures of animals; a little boy zipping up his trousers, a little girl trying on her mother’s shoe; pictures of children and beautiful women with tears running down their cheeks. Side by side with this was still the theme of revolution. The cassette-sellers played Khomeini’s old speeches. Some people still offered old picture albums of the revolution: executions, bodies in morgues, blood. There were pictures now, too, of Che Guevara, and colored posters illustrating various kinds of machine gun. And still, every few yards, solid piles of Russian communist literature in English and Persian—in spite of the cartoon that showed Iran, a sturdy peasant figure, fending off two snakes, one marked Russia, one marked America; in spite of the helmeted skull that in another cartoon stood for the composite enemy: Russia in one eye socket, America in the other, a scarf below the helmet flying the Union Jack at one end and the flag of Israel at …

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