Before I flew out of Tehran nine years ago, I expected to miss my family and friends. But I wanted badly to be a writer, and if that longing was the price, I would pay it. What I didn’t expect, though, was to miss the city itself. The cafés, the shops, the streets, even the sidewalks. I had underestimated the bricks and concrete, the steel and glass.
Traveling back home has not been easy. Iran and the United States severed diplomatic relations four decades ago. To apply for a US visa, Iranians have to travel to a consulate in a third country such as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates or Armenia. The visa process can take weeks, if not months. This means a second trip to the consulate to collect your visa—if you’re lucky enough to get one. In the past nine years, I’ve been able to go back to Tehran only twice. As a result, my memories of the place have been fading.
I cannot really feel a place in my bones unless I walk in it and linger in its streets. The slowness allows the essence of a place to seep through me.
As I am not yet ready to be alienated from Tehran, I have tried to close the 6,000 mile gap with technology. I have teleported myself back to the streets of my home country through Instagram channels and Google Maps user images. Then I stumbled across a YouTube channel dedicated to walking in the streets of Tehran. The concept is simple: the creator of the videos strolls through the city and records the everyday, the banal. Watching the videos, I become that roaming eye. My memories come alive, and I make new ones. In this rectangular field of vision, I get lost, happily, in Tehran.
ENGHELAB STREET, NIGHT, DECEMBER 2020
The first YouTube video shows a full moon in the night sky. I am the camera, walking on the sidewalk. On my left are the westbound lanes of Enghelab Street, where a stream of cars creep ahead. The heavy traffic tells me it is not too late yet. A row of buildings is to my right, a long patchwork of façades, shop windows and doors.
Enghelab is one of the most celebrated streets in the city. The main campus of the University of Tehran is ahead on my right, perhaps a 10-minute walk from where I am now. That is where I did my master’s. The area is packed with bookshops, printers, publishers’ offices and all things book.
The sidewalk is roughly 12 feet wide, enough for at least six or seven people to walk side by side. In front of me are a young man and woman, perhaps in their 20s. The woman is in light blue jeans and a short jacket, a backpack slung over her shoulders. The man is taller. He’s swinging a white plastic bag in his hand. Like scurrying ants, motorbikes weave in and out of the traffic, sometimes intruding on the pedestrian space of the sidewalk. Even though most of the stores are shuttered, the scene is bright with streetlights, store signs, headlights and strings of lights hanging over the street.
I can’t turn my head to look closely at the shop I’m passing, but a chalkboard outside tells me it must be a new café. This is confirmed by a neon cup on a saucer glowing in the front window, but it is also a sign that I wouldn’t go in there. An old haunt of mine, past Sepideh Cinema, used to be a little way ahead. It did not have neon.
Enghelab sidewalks are far more crowded during the day. At night, it is almost deserted. Following three women, two in black chadors, the third with a light manteau and loose shawl draped over her head, her long braid swinging waist length, I reach the university. The campus is surrounded by a high, dark green metal fence. As I walk under the arcade of overarching trees, darkened by the night, I remember being on the other side of this fence some 15 years ago during a student protest. The riot police had gathered behind the gates, where I am now. They all wore black.
But mostly this street reminds me of a friend who lived nearby. Let’s call him Parsa. I hung out with Parsa and his friends sometimes, staying until midnight or later. He was in some kind of a relationship with a girl. I’ll call her Sara. One night, Sara suggested we have a threesome. I left Parsa’s apartment that night, a man who had rejected a threesome. I walked to Enghelab, stood by the side of the street with the nightcrawlers, then took a taxi and went home.
JAMSHIDIEH PARK, DAY, JANUARY 2021
Tehran lies at the foot of mountains. The Alborz range to the north is visible from many parts of the city. In recent decades, northern neighborhoods have been creeping up the slopes. Tall buildings have risen in narrow, winding alleys that scale the mountains. Uptown, to the north, is where the wealthy live.
Jamshidieh Park is one of the northernmost parts of the city. It’s known for its stone pavements and its dramatic setting. You can climb roughly 900 feet from its entrance gate to its highest point. This is where I am in the next YouTube video.
To my right, two ridges of the mountain form a V that holds a vast expanse of Tehran. The city is only partly visible, covered in a blanket of smog. But I know it’s there—I’ve seen it on clear days. The sad truth is that the air pollution is one of the reasons I was relieved to leave my hometown. It has gotten increasingly worse over the years. During the last winters I was there, on some very polluted days, the air made me nauseous. If you went up high enough in the mountains, you could climb out from under that blanket and see the leaden layer hover beneath you over the city.
A subdued sunlight washes over the pavement. The path is flanked on the right by a short wall that functions as a bench for those tired of the climb. On the right runs a narrow ditch in which water murmurs down past me. Yellow, orange and brown autumn leaves cover the slopes on both sides. Down I go, squeezing past occasional couples. The place looks the same as when I was last here. The same stone paths, the same dry trees, the same occasional street light among bushes. A little boy dips the tip of his sneaker into the running water, an older woman limps up the path, a bright orange shawl on her head. But there’s something new: everyone is wearing masks because of the pandemic.
I approach the gate at the main entrance of the path, where years ago I had a fight with my then-girlfriend. I remember her being very upset. We stepped out of the park onto the steep street outside. She got in her car and left. I have a picture in my head of the red taillights as she drove away.
As I walked down the street without my girlfriend, a passing motorbike slowed to a stop by my side. An Afghan man was driving it. In those days, Afghan immigrants didn’t enjoy a good reputation; they were associated with cheap labor, and the general xenophobic thought was that they were dangerous, even criminals. The man offered to give me a ride. I thanked him and hopped on. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember I mentioned the Taliban. It was around 2006, and I was an inconsiderate 27-year-old. The group had been in the news for a number of years, and the US invasion of Afghanistan was still new. I was about to lament the Taliban’s heinous acts when the man shouted, “I’m a Talib, myself!”
I must have leaned forward to hear him over the rattling of the engine and roar of the wind. I was shocked and a little afraid. I had never been taught the appropriate behavior at the back of a Talib motorbike, when whizzing through the streets of uptown Tehran.
I don’t remember the rest. What I know is that I stopped talking about politics. I rode with the Talib, thanked him when he dropped me off at Tajrish Square and watched him throttle away into the traffic.
KARIM KHAN BOULEVARD, EVENING, APRIL 2021
Constants and changes—these are what I look for in my digital wanderings. I am a twenty-first-century flaneur. I walk the streets of a city that’s thousands of miles away from where I live now.
My last promenade begins at Valiasr Square. One of the most famous parts of the city, Valiasr, is a large roundabout at the intersection of equally well-known streets. Among the many establishments in the area is a cinema. To the east lies Karim Khan Boulevard: eight lanes with a wide tree park in the middle. I have been there innumerable times.
I cross the street to walk on the northern sidewalk. I spot a new bike lane, paved crimson. This is a big change. I see a young woman pedal past—that was not an everyday sight. I walk past a closed bank. On the sidewalk in front of it is a concrete bench. The girl on the bike comes back into view. She has to veer out of the lane and onto the sidewalk to avoid a man and woman walking in the bike lane. Up ahead, a young man has his arm around a young woman’s shoulder. Her arm is hooked around his waist; she’s pressed closely to his side. They, too, were a rare scene ten years ago. Tehran is more beautiful with them in it. Things are changing. Maybe the new generation is more daring, or the circumstances more lenient. Or both.
I want to turn left, but my YouTube guide crosses the street under Hafez Bridge. Stationery stores appear, back to back. Then a famous bookstore. Women seem to be wearing lighter colors. A street vendor sells nuts in clear, prepackaged plastic bags, stacked on top of each other. He has made his own nut city on his cart.
Somewhere on my right was the café where I saw the famous author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi the last time I was in Tehran. But I can’t see the café now. I must have been looking in another direction. Then, I walk past a branching street where my mother worked for decades as a surgical technician. I do not see that street, either. If only I could turn my head.
I am, at last, at Haft-e Tir Square. I see a red bike parked haphazardly on the sidewalk. On closer inspection, I notice that it’s similar to the one the first girl was riding. I rewind the video and see yet another one. They look a lot like the Lime and Ofo bikes that I have seen here in St. Louis. Bike sharing has come to Tehran. I walk past the entrance to the subway station, where someone is selling colorful sweatpants. And here the video ends. Two blocks slide across the screen like two closing eyelids. The screen turns black.
Ali Araghi is the author of The Immortals of Tehran (Melville House, 2020) and the winner of the 2017 Prairie Schooner Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing. His writing and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, Prairie Schooner, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Asymptote, among others.