Down and Out in Tehran

“Brother, what’s with you? You act like a beginner. All of Tehran knows by now what you’re looking for.”

Translation by Salar Abdoh

This essay is part of a series from four Iranian writers, each describing a different view of their city, Tehran, in all its beauty, pain and absurdity. Read the companion pieces here, here and here.

Music at Cafe UpArtMaan. Tehran. 2016. Photo by Peyman Hooshmandzadeh.

The last house on Dastgheyb faces the wall of Mehrabad Airport. The end of the street is blocked off by the freeway. When planes are about to land, they pass right over our heads, and there’s a collective rattle from the windows. There are many of us here. Honestly, I don’t know how many. Only five of us actually pay rent: Shahram, Alireza, Saman and Hossein. I sometimes pay rent. Whenever I’m home, I cook for everyone. It’s my ticket to not paying rent and still having a place to lay my head. I cook huge pots of about-to-be-discarded vegetables from our local market. I mix the entire thing with a considerable dash of spices and add some meat or chicken stock from the freezer. Before long, we have that rarity here: food. It’s enough to feed at least 10, and if there’s more of us, I may add some eggs to stretch the stew. It’s not an exaggeration to say that our lives—the lives of 10 young people trying to make a go of it in Tehran—are bound up with my periodic forays into the kitchen.

The house is always full of guests. For a while, we tried letting in only our families and friends, but it was a losing proposition. People kept coming, and some of them ended up staying on. They’d eat from my communal pot of vegetables and smoke grass in Alireza’s room until morning. Whether they were invited to stay ultimately depended on whether they plugged up the toilet or not. Alireza was the final arbiter on that.

After a few years, the house got to be too much. Our core band of friends moved on to a new house and a new set of struggles. The new place was on Imani. This is when heroin began to overrun our group. Two people died of overdose. Our new place was near the canal, close to a kalle-pache joint where you could smell the various parts of sheep head being cooked from the early hours of the morning. Three of us were permanent residents there, but at least 12 others also had keys to the house. You could walk in at any given moment and find a party in full swing that no one had bothered telling you about. You could be in your room and, suddenly, a young woman wearing nothing but a tank top might pop inside and ask if you happened to have a hot water bottle. It was in this house that I found Alireza dead in the bathtub. Before dying, he’d just sat in the tub and left the water running. Water didn’t save him.

Another time, there was a knock at 1:30 in the morning. Shahram went downstairs to see who it was and came back up quickly. “Put your clothes on,” he said. “Mehdi is outside.” Mehdi had overdosed a few times but still managed to beat death each time. He was always at that edge between being and being gone; it was as if he had a sixth sense for how much to inject into himself to put one foot into the other side and then pull back at the last second. I’d just brushed my teeth and I cared only about sleep. I’d watched The Matrix for the first time and was still high from the film. I was desperate for the sensation to last and wanted to go to sleep with the feeling. But the way Shahram spoke, there was no doubt something was up. It was snowing. I put on a wool sweater, a scarf and an overcoat and went outside.

Mehdi was sitting on the stoop, bleeding. His face was a mess, and therewas a deep cut over an eyebrow. The blood had spilled over his jacket and pants and into the snow. His nose and lips were badly swollen, too. He must have been hit with something. I’d never seen him jones so hard. He could hardly sit. Alireza was trying to clean Mehdi’s face with a piece of cloth. I asked if he’d been in an accident.

Coolly, Mehdi put a hand in his pocket and came up with a large bill. Gesturing to Alireza, he said, “Alireza’s face is a dead giveaway. You take this money, go to Azadi Square and get me what I need.”

“Who do I get it from?” I asked. “Do you have a connection there?”

“Everyone and their mother is a connection there. Look around a bit and the right guy will find you.”

I glanced questioningly at Shahram and Alireza. Neither said a word.

Mehdi suddenly yelled, the way only a junkie can yell when they’re suffering. “Get going before I end up in an emergency!”

It was a hundred note he’d given me. Back then, you could have bought 50 baggies of heroin with that much money. So I asked, “How much of it do I spend on the stuff?”

“All of it. But make sure to not buy from just one dealer. Spread it out. Buy from a few of them.”

I wandered around Azadi Square. Travelers were waiting for buses to the Caspian Sea. A couple of cop cars were idling nearby. A cigarette dealer sat in his kiosk; outside it, there was a little gas stove where three or four people were trying to warm themselves. Several young conscripts sat in the grass area, which was covered with snow. A young couple was taking photographs of the Azadi Tower covered in white.

It was 2:30 in the morning by that point. I went and stood under the monument. I’d walked the whole way, thinking I’d score fast and return. But there didn’t seem to be any sign of a dealer. The couple asked if I’d take a few pictures of them. The woman actually did the asking, while the guy didn’t say much except to pose for the camera exactly as the woman asked. I snapped a few pictures, then suggested they stand near one of the street lights and hold hands. When the woman saw the photos on the camera’s screen, she got excited. “Take a few more, please!”

I looked around. The soldiers had stood up and were throwing snowballs at each other. If there was a dealer around, I didn’t see him. “Sure thing,” I told the couple. “I’ll take it from a distance this time.”

The police car’s siren blared and, for a moment, the soldiers stood there almost at attention. Then the guys in the cop car laughed, and so did the soldiers. When I gave the camera back, the woman thanked me profusely. The man asked if they could give me a ride somewhere.

“Someone’s coming to pick me up. Thank you, though.”

There was no one and no hope of scoring anything. After a while, the cops and the young couple drove off. The passengers waiting for the Caspian buses had built a snowman and were looking around to stick something where a nose should be.

A man finally came walking toward me. I stared at him.

“Brother, what’s with you? You act like a beginner. All of Tehran knows by now what you’re looking for.”

“Give me three packets.”

He wore a slight jacket and hat and didn’t show the slightest sign of being cold.

“Three packets? You don’t look like you have that much of a habit.”

“Just trying to have a good time.”

He put the stuff in my hand. “This is some strong shit. Don’t go dying on me and say I didn’t warn you.”

“Are there others selling around here?”

“Selling what? There are a few hash dealers, yes. You want some? I’ll go get it for you.”

I wasn’t sure how to tell him I wanted more heroin but from someone else. After an uncomfortable pause, I said, “There’s a bunch of us. We want to try different flavors, you know? Different qualities.”

He signaled me to come closer. “Give me back what I gave you and go buy from whoever you like.”

“No, it’s not like that. I got a friend, he insists he wants different kinds.”

He wasn’t convinced. I gave him the hundred note.

“Are you for real? You plan to buy all of Tehran with this much money? He examined the bill under the light lamp post. “I tell you what: your friend is too fucked by now to care where the stuff came from and what kind it is. So don’t worry about it.” He pulled on his jacket. “Wait for me here.”

Before I could say anything, he ran off toward the cigarette dealer’s kiosk. I assumed he was going to break my hundred note and bring the rest of the money back. But I also wouldn’t have been surprised if he just disappeared with the money. Maybe I’d have done the same.

He did come back.

“Listen, there’s cops everywhere. Put the packets under your tongue. If anyone stops you, swallow all of it. Don’t worry, nothing will happen to you. The packets are sealed tight.”

I put the three pea-sized packets under my tongue. They tasted like freezer bag and made my mouth run. I was hyper-aware of every single thing—the sound of my footsteps on the snow, walking by the soldiers and keeping my eyes averted, my own thumping heart. I must have spit a 100 times by the time I got home. Two hours had gone by, and everyone was sleeping. I watched Mehdi for a while, not sure whether I should wake him or not. Gauze sat on his torn eyebrow, and someone had given him one of my T-shirts to wear. A couple of half-smoked cigarettes lay next to him. I gave him a shake, the wet packets now balled in my palms.

He opened an eye and took the packets from my hand. “The guy who gave you these, where did he have them on him?”

“His pockets. Where else?”

“Why are they wet?”

“He told me to carry them under my tongue.”

Mehdi laughed, the way only an addict in pain can laugh. “You dumb bastard. They store these in the shithouse. You tasted the guy’s shit.”

Alireza had woken up and was standing at the threshold of the door. He was wearing his green and yellow vest. Alireza would be dead before long. That vest was his signature; he wore it all winter long, every winter. Until he didn’t need to wear it anymore.


Mohammad Tolouei

Mohammad Tolouei is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter whose books include Anatomy of Depression, Fair Wind’s Prey and I’m not Janette. He is the editor-in-chief of the nonfiction journal, Nadastan Magazine, in Tehran.

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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