In the ever-changing metropolis of Tehran, they say there exists one constant. When the afternoon sets in, dele adam megeere.
Roughly translated, this phrase denotes the midday sense of melancholy that overcomes each city dweller as he gazes at the Tehran skyline.
This omnipresent loneliness and longing became familiar to me over the course of my trip to Tehran this summer. I spent six weeks in the city of my birth visiting my big, fat Iranian family, sightseeing with friends and volunteering at a women’s shelter.
My time in Tehran overlapped with a critical juncture in Iran’s relations with the international community. Anticipation of an agreement on the nuclear issue hung over the city in the days leading up to the announcement. It was an extended period of anxiety during which I played both witness and participant.
While the nuclear deal is frequently invoked in relation to its political implications, news outlets rarely discuss what it means for the Iranian population.
The sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the West, many of which the deal will lift, have crippled Iran’s economy and pushed its people into increasingly deteriorating living conditions. When polled in 2013, 85 percent of Iranians said the sanctions have hurt their personal livelihoods.
As much as the sanctions have devastated the general population, they have had no impact on the ruling class. To the contrary, its members continue to live in multimillion-dollar penthouses and drive the most expensive sports cars while dressed in luxury brands.
Throughout my stay, I noticed the impact of the sanctions on ordinary Iranians in every interaction. By devastating the economy, the sanctions have exacerbated widespread drug abuse and poverty and have left the population with little hope for the future.
Ali, the 27-year-old custodian at my grandparents’ apartment complex, attained his master’s in engineering from the most prestigious university in Iran. Now, because of rampant unemployment, he barely makes minimum wage sweeping floors.
Women experience the lack of job opportunity, too, but with a twist.
“If you’re a female in Iran, you have two choices: You can be smart, or you can be pretty,” my 20-year-old cousin once remarked.
Because college degrees no longer correlate with job security, many women are choosing the latter option — beauty.
Iranian culture emphasizes Western beauty standards. My cousin recently dyed her black hair bleach-blond and began wearing blue-colored contact lenses over her honey-brown eyes — trends picked up by many of the women I saw on the streets of Tehran. Many seek to attract wealthy husbands by pouring money into improving their physical appearances. Lower-income families resort to paying for their daughters’ operations by taking out loans.
My cousin is scheduled for a nose job later this month. It will be her second. I was unsurprised to learn that Iran has the highest rate of nose surgery in the world.
Sometimes I think that what made me stand out most in Tehran was not my American accent but my lack of plastic surgery.
I again bore witness to Iran’s socio-economic crisis at an orphanage I visited.
The shrill of children’s voices rose as I neared the orphanage’s playroom. Poking my head into the 8-by-4-foot, scantily decorated, white-walled room, I watched a frantic woman struggle to peel off the toddlers hanging from her arms and legs. She was the sole caretaker for more than 20 children.
I, too, was overwhelmed by a sea of toddlers. A few were completely or partially missing limbs. One girl, Sara, clung tightly to me. Her eyes were slanted, and she stood several inches shorter than the other children. The nurse told me she had never learned to speak.
Recent figures estimate that Iran has one of the highest addiction rates in the world. According to the head of the orphanage, many of the mothers were addicted to heroin, opium and crystal methamphetamine. They used while pregnant, causing their children to be born with physical and mental disabilities.
The day a decision regarding the nuclear deal was set to be announced, I visited the Tehran bazaar. A young girl approached me on the metro, asking for spare change.
Barefoot and wearing tattered clothes, she was covered in a layer of dirt from head to toe. A chipped, plastic purple bracelet dangled from her wrist.
I didn’t have any money, so I gave her my lunch instead.
“What’s your name?” I asked as she gripped the packet of almonds with her tiny fingers.
After she walked away, I continued to watch her. She approached men to beg for money. If they ignored her, she softly kissed their hands and continued with her lips up their arms.
Reaching my stop, I stood to leave.
“Khanoom, your jewelry,” said the gray-haired man next to me, pointing at the floor.
Lying in front of me was the plastic bracelet. I scanned the metro in search of Fatima, but she was gone.
A couple of hours later, I was wandering through the bazaar when it erupted with a boom of cheering and clapping. Shop owners abandoned their stands to embrace one another.
A group of men crowded around a nearby television set on BBC. The headline: “Breaking news — Western powers and Iran reach nuclear agreement.”
That night, traffic was worse than usual. Iranians from every walk of life poured into the streets to celebrate.
Men and women danced in the middle of traffic and flashed wide smiles and peace signs for pictures. Drivers waved flags from open windows. Car horns blared, and music blasted from stereos. Red, white and green fireworks lit up the streets.
On my final day in Tehran, I stood peering from the window of my grandparents’ apartment, out past the scattered high-rises and dusty mountains and into the horizon. I again experienced the dull aching that had visited me each afternoon since my arrival.
This time, however, it was accompanied by another feeling. It is one that I have come to recognize as hope.