Crossing Tehran

Sisters take a madcap journey through Tehran to watch the first football match open to women.

Tehran. 2013. Photograph by Newsha Tavakolian.

Editor’s Note: We published Stranger’s Guide: Tehran in 2021. We noted at the time that Iran’s capital is one of the few major cities in the world where Google Maps offers no street views. For many Americans, the country exists primarily through geopolitical headlines. We wanted to show a nuanced portrait of this place and most importantly its residents, the millions of people who must navigate living publicly and privately. We placed particular emphasis on showcasing the work of women writers in the country. 

A year later, 22 year-old Mahsa Amini (also known as Jina Amini) was killed in the custody of Iran’s “morality police;” her death sparked a protest movement, lead largely by Iranian women of different ages. In the face of increasing force from the government, the protestors have continued gathering. They frequently use the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom.”

Tehran is a grand contradiction: a city swathed in the illogic of its buildings and its residents, its driving habits (if you follow the rules of the road, you will cause an accident), its government offices where documents are stained with hints of yesterday’s bread and cheese and sweetened tea, its football madness, its haphazard newspapers, its murders, its art market, its everything.

For some years now, the cinemas have been in the business of showing mostly frivolous mass-market flicks about love triangles, but if you go to one of the vegetable bazaars run under the auspices of the municipality to purchase your potatoes and onions, you’ll have the chance to hear Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 blasting from loudspeakers—a piece of music that many in Tehran first heard through the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut.

In other words, absurd theater is not just an idea in Tehran; Tehran itself is absurd theater. This is a city where people will dash out onto the street to dance and party after the humiliation of watching their national football team lose an international match, miserably. The dark humor of, say, a Samuel Beckett is always in the air and on the tip of one’s tongue. In fact, one time while watching a performance of Waiting for Godot, I heard this exact exchange between the couple sitting in the row behind me:

Woman: “Who is the author of this play? Sounds like he’s famous?”

Man (speaking authoritatively): “Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Who else!”

The author. Tehran. 2018.

Tehran is a city where folks still throw garbage out the window of their cars, but at the bakery line in the early morning, you might hear a casual conversation about Bertolt Brecht and his influence on the twentieth century. A city where on a single block you’ll glimpse French windows, Roman pillars, classic ceramic work in the style of Esfahan and imposing behemoths right out of the streets of New York City. A city where taxi drivers double park in order to perform their prayer on the grassy portion of a traffic circle and then take a nap in the same spot. A city where they’ll often show movies in the mosques; I caught Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers and saw Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg playing a romantic fantasy in Ghost inside of one. A city where the profane and the sacred are frenziedly intertwined.

Then there are the exchanges that take place inside taxi cabs when we are all thrown together. For instance, once in a shared taxi at six in the evening the other passengers and I heard the announcer voice: “It is 6 a.m. Tehran radio.” Everyone in the cab looked bemusedly at one another until the driver said, “Poor fellow is sleeping.” One of the other passengers corrected him, “He’s not sleepy. He’s drunk.” This last explanation is most likely the true one. Despite Tehran being a capital where drunkenness is a serious crime and alcohol is strictly forbidden, it is consumed often. In Tehran, everyone is always a little drunk. “Drunk without wine,” as our poets say.

The contradictions of Tehran can be maddening for a visitor. There’s a lot of laughter in this city, and a lot of weeping, and I mean the kind of bawling your heart out that, to an outsider, might seem completely irrational but is, in fact, the embodiment of a culture, a city, that breaks your back at every turn only to make you more smitten with it.

I want to tell you about one such occasion of collective blubbering that I shared on one June day in 2018.


2 P.M.

I sit behind my desk at the film magazine where I’ve been editor-in-chief for 10 years; I’m seething as I read an awful translation of an article about the television series Game of Thrones. I’m doubtful we’ll publish the article.

I’ve actually been in something of a continuous rage since last night, when I spent hours unsuccessfully trying to buy a ticket for the Iran-Spain 2018 World Cup match in Russia that will be broadcast live tonight on a colossal 1200-square-meter jumbotron at the 84,412-seat-capacity Azadi Stadium in my exasperating, beautiful city. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women have been banned from attending football matches at stadiums in Iran. If women are allowed in tonight, it’ll be the first time in 40 years. The news is mixed. Tehran’s Governor’s office, the President’s office for Women’s Issues and the police force are still in a hot dispute over whether women should be sold stadium tickets or not.

One of my colleagues, Ali, shouts from the next room that the link for buying tickets for tonight’s match is finally live. Ali knows I’m a football junkie. The other day, I even went to watch Iran’s first World Cup match against Morocco in an out-of-the-way cinema off Haqqani Freeway. Cinemas usually show the really important international matches, and women are not barred from them. But stadiums remain forbidden. Why? No one knows. It’s as if someone high up in the Islamic Republic long ago decided the entry of women into stadiums would shake the foundations of the government and bring it crashing down.


3 P.M.

I finally manage to buy two tickets in Balcony-1 of the stadium. I have no idea why I buy two. Probably out of sheer excitement. Ali reminds me that even if everything goes according to plan, the game will not end before midnight, and the stadium happens to be in the far outer limits of the city.

“Since you don’t have a car and the metro doesn’t run that late,” he says, “think of something so you don’t get stuck.”

“I got two tickets. I’ll find a saaye-sar to come with me.”

A saaye-sar, or “shadow-head,” is an expression Persian women use for a guy who’ll watch out for you through thick and thin, including returning from Azadi Stadium at some ungodly hour.

I call two journalist friends—newspaper men—who had planned to attend the game but now have excuses for why they can’t go. “Why do you seem so happy? Just because they’re allowing women in?” Emad asks, which gets on my nerves. “I’ve been waiting my entire adult life for this,” I reply. “And my entire childhood.”

A few minutes later, my younger sister, Faiza, calls to ask if she can stay at my place tonight. She’s 28 and more like my daughter than a sister. I explain that I’m going to the stadium and am not sure when I’ll be back.

Shocked, she asks, “You mean they’re allowing women in?”

“Apparently. I got two tickets.”

She jumps at the chance to go with me.

“But you should know we probably won’t get out of the stadium before one, even two in the morning. We don’t have a car and there are no trains that late.” I add that we can’t hope for a Snapp ride either (the equivalent of Uber in Iran). “There’s going to be who-knows-how-many thousands of people pouring out of that stadium tonight, and probably half of them will be searching for a Snapp.”

“I already realize all this. So?”

Faiza’s job is at the ASP complex in northwest Tehran; mine is at Parkway Junction near Tajrish Square. Each of us is a good 20-odd kilometers away from the stadium. We decide to meet at Freedom Square and go together from there.


8:30 P.M.

I’m riding on Line 4 of the metro toward Freedom Square when my cell phone rings. It’s Emad with news:

“Look, I called to tell you not to bother going to the stadium. News just came in. Tehran Judiciary cancelled the stadium entry license for women. Come back, wherever you are!”

Even though this town never ceases to dump on you, I’m still in shock. I quickly Google the situation and find out Emad isn’t kidding. There are only two hours left until the start of the game. I call my sister, who is at Valiasr Square getting on Line 4 to meet me. When I give her the news, she stays quiet for a while and then asks, “Sis, what do we do now?”

Truth is, I have no idea, but this is not the answer I want to give my little sister. Going back to the house feeling defeated is out of the question. I want Faiza to remember this day—and to remember, always, that in this town you can’t give up. It’s a lesson that Tehran itself teachesyou each and every day.

“Start walking toward College Square. I’ll start that way too. We’ll catch up at Charsou Mall. We’ll watch the game from over there. No matter what, we’re going to watch this game on a big screen tonight and with other people.”

The excitement in her voice is undeniable. “I hear you.”

Charsou Mall is a bulky seven-story structure at one of Tehran’s strangest intersections, where Jomhouri Avenue and Hafez cross one another under an extended overpass. It’s a place where throngs of motorcyclists, pedestrians, police, buses, pickpockets, taxis, cell phone dealers and food vendors blend into an ever-flowing sea of humanity. Six years earlier, Charsou, with its wide, well-lit corridors, food courts, cinemas, shining new escalators and countless cellphone shops, parachuted into the midst of the area’s pandemonium. Nothing much changed; the mall now sits here, and the chaos outside remains.


9 P.M.

Faiza and I squeeze into a spot at the mall’s food court, where four giant screens will broadcast the game. The place teems with people blowing their horns and carrying the red, green and white Iranian flag. We are surrounded by young hip- sters wearing flag hats. Someone tells us that at least half the crowd here is made up of people who, like us, turned back on their way to the stadium. Once they found out women had been banned from going, the guys decided not to go and to come here instead. Outside the stadium, there is apparently still a huge crowd arguing with the police over the last-minute change of edict.

The noise at Charsou is truly earsplitting, the horns and the shouts of “Iran! Iran!” not letting up for a minute. Faiza hungrily chews on a slice of vegetarian pizza, looking every bit the picture of innocence and determination.


10 P.M.

I receive a new message from the ticket sales office of the stadium: Dear customer, we wish to inform you that according to a new directive from the Ministry of the Interior, ladies are allowed to attend the match between Iran and Spain and you may at this time enter through the main gate of the stadium.

But there’s only half an hour left until the game starts. We are in the dead center of the city. To get to the stadium from here right now would be an Odyssean journey. Even if no more obstacles come our way (which is unlikely in Tehran), we’ll still miss the entire first half. Faiza and I look at each other. We could stay right here in the mall with the perfect air conditioning and the pizza and our new hipster friends and watch the game from the first minute to the last, or we can accept the challenge and take that dive into the bowels of the impossible city.

Faiza nods her head, “Let’s go!”

I feel pure love for Faiza at that moment. I think to myself: she’s going to make it just fine in this world.

Twice I call for a Snapp ride and twice the drivers accept the ride only to immediately cancel. I call the second driver and offer him more money.

“Madam,” he says, “going to the stadium from where you are right now is madness. Let’s say you get there; how will you get back? No one’s going to bring you back from that accursed place at two in the morning.”

“Thank you for your care. But that part of it is our concern, not yours.”


10:15 P.M.

A driver finally accepts the ride and waits for us near the mall. The information on him in the app is about as symbolic as you can get: First name: Isaac. Family name: Prophet. Turns out that Isaac the Prophet actually drives a regular yellow cab. I tell him that God sent him to us, since no one else was willing to take us all the way to the stadium.

“God himself is a football fan, Miss,” Isaac answers. “He understands the pain of people like us.” He explains that he lives in the Pich-Shemiran district of the city, but his family comes from Andimeshk in the south of the country, where everyone is football crazy. His brother, he adds, crammed his family of seven into their Peugeot and drove 6,800 kilometers round trip from Andimeshk to Moscow just to watch Iran’s games at the World Cup.

I understand now why Isaac the Prophet accepted our ride. I tell him that compared to his brother’s journey, going to the stadium from Charsou Mall is a joke.

Isaac agrees. “But there’s even a bigger reason, Miss. Respect for the ladies is more important than anything else. Especially ladies who are determined to go to the stadium.”

“Didn’t you want to go to Moscow yourself?” I ask.

“Miss, going to Moscow at my age is a tough thing.”

“Why? How old can you possibly be?”

“God knows!”

“You don’t know your own age?”

“Only my mother knew my age, and she died.”

There’s something about the angelic tolerance and stoic nature of the cab drivers of Tehran that always reminds me of the poetry of Omar Khayyam, the medieval Persian poet and mathematician of whom Borges, Ezra Pound and so many others in the West were so enamored.

As we are getting out at the stadium gate, Isaac the Prophet reaches into his dashboard and comes up with two pears, handing one to me and one to Faiza.

“Ladies, this is for you. For you, because you are lionhearted women.”


11:15 p.m.

The first half of the match has ended in a 0-0 draw. Two police cars are parked near the gate, but they don’t pay us any mind. A street kid of about 10 runs at us, waving his color magic markers. Faiza and I glance at each other and then lend our faces to his art. The boy paints an Iranian flag on each of our cheeks. Then we run toward the doors that have been closed on the women of this country for four decades.

• • •


I was 18 when I came to Tehran to attend university. But really, I came because I was in love with this city even before I set foot in it. I remember the moment 29 years ago that I first came face to face with Tehran’s mountains, having only seen them in photographs. They were the first of many things I noticed about the city that stunned me and set my heart trembling. Walking into the stadium now, I feel not unlike how I felt then, catching sight of the great Alborz range north of the city for the first time. Hurrying through the semi-lit corridors, hearing the deep hum and ululation of the mass of fans, and then coming out into the balcony of the arena, momentarily blinded by those powerful white lights—“ecstasy” is probably the only word to describe it. We are, at last, really here, in Azadi Stadium, a place we never imagined we’d set foot in during our lifetimes.

It is the 60th minute of the game, and the score is still 0-0. Just one minute later, Iran opens the mighty former world champion Spain’s net with a free kick. It is as if a bomb struck the stadium. Tens of thousands of Iranian fans weep tears of joy. But moments later, the goal is declared null because an Iranian player’s hand apparently brushed the ball. Faiza and I hold onto each other and continue to bawl, out of happiness and sadness at the same time, because history is taking place here and we are a part of it. Whether Iran wins or loses tonight, this is an occasion that won’t be easily forgotten in the annals of the Republic. When I look up, I see that all around us grown men are weeping as well. Like us, they have trekked all the way out here just to have their hearts broken. But tonight, even a loss is a win and we, the citizens of Tehran, are a collective opus of weeping and release.

About eight years ago a colleague of mine met up with Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer, in London for an interview. Dorfman, who spent much of his life in exile after General Pinochet’s coup, described his yearning to return to Chile and glimpse its mountains—a desire he suspected a Tehrani would understand: “As far as I know, the mountains in Tehran are north of the city. This means you always find your direction, wherever you are, by simply looking for those mountains. You’ll know immediately where south, west and east are. If you get lost on the street, all you have to do is raise your head a little and find out where the mountains lie. It’s as if something is protecting you, watching over you. In Chile, our mountains are the Andes. Those towering peaks that occupy half the sky and without which I’m always lost. In the flat streets of Paris and Holland, I’m never not discombobulated. I don’t know where I am. Which is why I want to return to Chile for good and die there.”


1 A.M.

Roaring and screaming with delight, women and men and children dance their way out of the stadium after our national team finally, and perhaps inevitably, loses the match. Faiza and I end up sitting on the sidewalk because, of course, there are no Snapp rides to be had. But we still have Isaac the Prophet’s pears with us. We start to eat. As we do, I recall Ariel Dorfman’s words. I doubt I’ll ever want to leave this city—a city that I was not born in, but I’m certain I want to die in someday.


Habibe Jafarian

Habibe Jafarian is a writer in Tehran. She was editor-in-chief of the film journal, 24, and is now a senior consultant and editor at Nadastan Magazine and a columnist at Milan newspaper. Her essays have been translated into English at venues such as Guernica, The Millions and The Baffler.

As US-Iran relations continue to make headlines, Stranger’s Guide: Tehran brings readers to the streets of a city few outsiders have had the opportunity to explore. Through new works from Dina Nayeri, Jason Rezaian, and a number of up-and-coming authors, the issue explores ...

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