Tehran sits on a remarkably consistent slope – the poorer south on flats that edge onto hot, dry plains, the richer north clinging to the foothills of the Alborz Mountains. For a visitor, this means navigating the city is quite straightforward. Uphill is almost always north.
Running through the city like a spine, downhill from north to south, is Valiasr Street, one of the longest boulevards in Asia. On either side of the road are watercourses a few feet deep and wide, rows of trees planted in the middle, through which the snowmelt of the mountains flows. In the northern suburbs – known as squares – the water is crystal clear and fast flowing, but by the time it reaches the Imam Khomeini square on the south side of central Tehran, it is no more than a muddy trickle.
The air changes, too. Blasts of cooking meat and flavoured tobacco smoked through hookahs are universal, but in the north these are tempered by the scent of cut grass and jasmine, whereas in the centre and south they mingle with the faint stench of human waste and something more pungent, as though someone nearby is burning painted wood or garbage, or both.
In the lead up to June’s presidential election, Valiasr was at the centre of the spontaneous street party-style political gatherings that many Tehranis compared with the celebrations that accompanied Iran’s successful qualification for the FIFA World Cup. In both cases the authorities avoided heavy-handed tactics, dispersing some of the gatherings where it was possible to do so without resorting to force and monitoring from the edges those they could not.
As the world witnessed, though, in the election’s immediate aftermath Valiasr became a battleground, with crowds of mostly young people, convinced that the elections were rigged, fighting running battles with police and members of the Basij militia.
The riots came as a surprise to me. I had at one stage suspected that the revellers’ mood would turn nasty if the election didn’t go their way, but the night before the election changed my mind. I had spent the preceding few nights travelling up and down Valiasr, where the thronging supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi faced off against the heavily outnumbered followers of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mostly these were good-natured confrontations; people on both sides would be smiling as they chanted slogans, cheered and whooped. I even saw one car load of guys, clearly there for the festival atmosphere and a little eye-candy rather any political convictions, carrying both Mousavi and Ahmadinejad posters with them. There were occasions, however, when things got out of hand and fights broke out, with young men from each side hurling rocks at each other.
On election eve, however, with a curfew in place, the streets were empty. I took a taxi up Valiasr to Tarjish square, one of the oldest parts of Tehran. This journey would have been impossible on previous nights, with every intersection, every turn clogged with revellers. Tonight, however, it took less than 15 minutes to cruise up the suddenly deserted street. It was eerie, like going to the bathroom in a crowded nightclub only to return and find the dancers gone, the music off and cleaners mopping the floors.
Don’t fool yourself, I thought. The regime is still in charge here.
The night of the election, June 12, was quiet, too. Walking through the Ferdowsi square, I saw the (probably Afghan) staff of Tehran’s garbage and street-cleaning services scraping the posters of the various candidates off the walls. Iran, it seemed, would be ready for business as usual tomorrow.