Translation by Salar Abdoh
Sitting at the table next to me was a slim man with glasses who looked to be around 30. He spoke loudly, with a thick British accent, and was enthusiastically comparing Tehran to London. Showing off a smattering of Persian words, he said that he was studying our language at the Dehkhoda Institute and that you’d have to twist his arm to have him return to London. When he saw the surprise on the faces of the two young Iranian women who were with him, he confessed how much more fun he had in Tehran: every night a different party, everything on the cheap. And the coffee he drank in Tehran was comparable to the best he could find in London. Then, he added something about the most beautiful “girls” in the world being Persian. This got a laugh out of one of the women, who said something back in English. He went on about how surprised he was that everybody spoke English here. A few months in and he’d rarely run into anyone who couldn’t speak his language.
I can only guess that this man had never stepped out of the upper-class neighborhood of northern Tehran in which I found him. He saw Tehran in a way I never could, and I was jealous of his delight with my city. And there’s no doubt that living in the neighborhood of Fereshteh had something to do with that.
Before I had met my girlfriend, Yasi, who lived in Fereshteh, this wasn’t a part of the city I had visited much. But through frequent visits, I soon began to feel like an insider—so much so that when people stopped me on the street for directions, I was able to guide them through the maze of streets that 3 8 would eventually take them to the main arteries of Shariati or Modarres. I settled in and soon found a few favorite spots, including Sam Café, where I became a regular fixture at the communal table. Sam Café has the deliberate appearance of a half-built structure, showing off exposed orange steel beams and fashionably old chairs. The servers are connoisseurs who offer you the world’s best coffee, brought directly from the source by the owner. Ultimately, though, it was the novelty of the communal table that distinguished this café. Why? Because it allowed patrons to sit together and eavesdrop or even join in on other people’s conversations.
One of the first things I learned about the Fereshteh crowd is that there are really two distinct sets: the old-timers and the nouveau riche. The first group earned their money through business dealings a long time ago or inherited it before the Revolution. For them, Fereshteh is like a small village. They know each other well and, like with any family, there’s no shortage of jealousies and gossip among them. The second set happened on Fereshteh through a mix of political and economic upheavals that bought them contacts and leverage in the government in the decades since the Revolution. But there’s still an overlap between the two groups in the world of business and politics. There may be differences in attire or approaches to home decoration, but opportunism and money bind them together.
It’s easy to tell the two groups apart by the façades of their buildings. While the established class sticks to tasteful brick and stone masonry, the newcomers favor faux Roman pillars, glitzy steel sofas and ostentatious mirrors in the lobbies of their fortresses. The ancien régime deem it beneath them to ever live in these kitschy structures, preferring to stamp their class through international schools for their children, private athletic clubs and foreign travel. Cultural cross-pollination between the groups is usually unheard of; you won’t find the old money crossing a threshold that has a fake Roman pillar and, conversely, you’re not likely to see new money stepping into a café designed around bare cement blocks.
Unlike other well-heeled neighborhoods like Zafaraniyeh or Sa’adat Abad or Niavaran, which often display flashy signs reading “VIP” or “Luxury” in their storefronts, in Fereshteh such trappings are noticeably absent. If a VIP sign means better service than what is available everywhere else, it would be beneath the Fereshteh set to conceive that the best of everything is not already here—be it cafés, restaurants, pastry shops, dry cleaners, hairdressers or high-end athletic clubs. The women from old money in Fereshteh apply little makeup, they prefer acupuncturists to dermatologists, they won’t wear high heels and they are allergic to loud or glittery hijab. They do like brand names in the clothes they wear, but even here, they have a particular method: if you’re going to display a brand, only one article of clothing or accessory can show its mark. For instance, you might sport a Fendi handbag, not a problem; the rest of you, however, is to stay discreet. Whether you’re a woman or a man, showing off more than one brand at a time is a sign of being a parvenu. Some years back, a young man came into Sam Café while I happened to be sitting there. He immediately threw down his two Vertu luxury cell phones, a Louis Vuitton wallet and the keys to his BMW. The man had spent the equivalent of several thousand dollars on his looks alone, but the glances he received from other tables were mostly ones of ridicule. And the more he tried to hide his obvious low self-esteem by pretending to be deep into some business on his luxury phones, the more scorn and pity he received.
Another time at the café, three middle-aged women entered with two girls in tow who couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. The girls were not interested in their mothers’ chatter, and their bored looks stayed focused on their tablets. But when it came time to choose from the menu, one of the girls asked her mother what kind of cheese each salad came with, then she wanted to know if they had croutons and what sauces were used. In the end, nothing seemed to satisfy her, and she asked for a simple plate of lettuce with olive oil. Seeing this exchange from several seats away, I lowered my head and proceeded to gulp down my butter cake to make it disappear faster.
Unlike others their age, young people in Fereshteh don’t much fantasize about emigrating elsewhere. Nor are they concerned about the price of the dollar against the Iranian currency or what kind of a jam the country happens to be in at any given time. Instead, their talk revolves around how busy they are or what travels they’ve just returned from. It’s not uncommon to overhear one person say they’ve come back from, say, London, and the other person will throw their hands up. “Really? I was just there, too. We should have met up!” In fact, many carry second passports from Canada or the UK or the United States, but they prefer to spend the bulk of their time in Tehran and see no reason to change that. Why should they? Outside of Iran, they are second-class citizens who would have to work for a living; here, they are at the top of the food chain. They can choose whatever line of work they want to go into, and several times a week, they can catch their friends at one party after another. However, there is, an odd mix of the new and of the traditional that manifests itself in some of their choices. For instance, they usually marry early and always within their own milieu. They’ll bring children into the world almost right away, but with the understanding that there are always nannies for these children so that the daily routines of life in Fereshteh will not suffer.
For the men of Fereshteh, business is everything. They are owners of startups, restaurateurs or heads of import-export firms. To work for someone other than yourself is to be a loser. And marriage here is often transactional: an unlimited credit account for her, freedom to do as he pleases (up to a point) for him.
Come nighttime, Fereshteh turns into a cruising ground for the most expensive cars in the city. Traffic slows to a crawl and windows come down. In any given hour, you might see the same Mercedes several times, circling different parts of the neighborhood. The drivers are almost always men, and due to the way their eyes dart every which way they appear to be the very embodiment of hunters on the prowl.
Fereshteh, too, is a microcosm of all of Tehran’s contradictions—the quiet and sometimes not-so-quiet back-and-forth between the old and the new, money that was and money that is. But on occasion, there is an intrusion from another part of the city—the less well-off will stick their noses into the monied streets. Children as young as six or seven scour the blocks, picking through garbage with their little hands, hoping to find some choice item to bring back to their part of the city to sell or recycle. Fereshteh is quick to eliminate any such blot on the map of the neighborhood by picking such trash-collecting children off the street and plopping them elsewhere, out of sight, unseen. Fereshteh, after all, has an image to maintain.
Aeen Norouzi lives in Tehran. His debut novel, The Gastrointestinal System, was published in 2017, and his short story collection, Soft Soil, was published in 2019.