At 6 a.m. the sun casts a swathe of hot light over Elahiyeh. From my grandmother’s balcony there is a view of the whole neighbourhood, nestled in the purple shadows of the Alborz mountain range. Even now a woodpeckering of machines – drilling, boring, smashing and scraping – disrupts the early morning calm. Cranes like mechanical trees swing across the skyline of northern Tehran. In my neighbourhood, as in many others across the city, construction is king.
Between various emerging monoliths I can see my old street, Amin Street, and my family’s plot of land, which once contained the villa built by my grandfather, an engineer/architect. The brick wall that surrounds the property is still there, buckling like an old man’s creaky knees. Within its perimeter stand two white-stone apartment blocks, three storeys high, with still, dark and dusty balconies. Of the gardens, only the plane trees remain along one side of the narrow street, where a melt-water stream flows from the mountains – a typical sight in Tehran, one that has not yet changed.
The capital is in the throes of a housing boom. Predictions estimate that the city’s population will swell to fifteen to twenty-seven million in the next four years. Fifteen to twenty families living in multi-storey apartment buildings have replaced the four or five families that once inhabited a handful of big houses along my street. Despite increasing pollution, overcrowding and failing amenities, even the threat of earthquakes, skyscraper construction continues unabated. Elahiyeh, once a gracious garden suburb, is being consumed by urban sprawl. Can its infrastructure– sewage, water and electricity, which once served a few, withstand the pressure of so many?
Change came slowly to the area. In 1979, when families abandoned their houses and embassies closed their gates, the new government appropriated many of the properties. These either entered a state of limbo where deeds became null and void, or newly established Islamic charities laid claim to land and houses belonging to the Shah’s ministers, high-ranking army officers, foreigners, old-money families and the embassy crowd. A different set of neighbours moved in – supporters of the new regime, and the homeless and poor.
Although there was no census around the time of the Revolution, floods of people from towns and villages on the border with Iraq fled the bombs and sought refuge in the major cities. Between 1976 and 1982 Tehran’s population mushroomed by three million. Revolution and war also impacted on birth rates for the next decade. In some years the rate went up by a third in twelve months. Suddenly the government found good use for the empty plots in Elahiyeh, where land was cheap and plentiful. The era of skyscrapers had begun.
By 1992, under Gholamhossein Karbaschi, then the appointed mayor of Tehran, they increased fivefold. The mayor became known as ‘the man who sold Tehran’s air’ because the empty space above buildings was also valuable. High rent meant constant pressure to build above legally permitted levels. At the right price, the municipality allowed developers of high-rise and luxury apartments to turn a one-storey building into however many storeys they could afford. Sometimes the municipality entered into partnership with the construction companies and profited from the sale of flats. However, due to the increased social density of some neighbourhoods, there were demands to enforce a height limit on buildings of four to six storeys.
Meanwhile, land prices skyrocketed. Plots worth three hundred thousand tomans (roughly three hundred pounds today) in 1971 sold for a hundred times more. Overnight, the garden estates of Elahiyeh became construction sites.
Elahiyeh means ‘paradise’ in Farsi. From my grandmother’s balcony, some greenery is visible through the skyscrapers, the remnants of walled gardens that date back to 1921 when the whole of Elahiyeh, composed of three estates, was passed down by a Qajar king. While I find it nearly impossible to imagine wheat fields and orchards of pear, apple and cherry where the superhighways now crisscross, my grandmother cherishes such childhood memories. She and her family made the day-long journey from southern Tehran on the back of a donkey to the coolness of the foothills of the Alborz Mountains. All summer long the children raced up and down the hills and soaked themselves under waterfalls. At night they slept on the roof, under a dizzying canopy of stars, and woke at dawn, sheltered from the mountain chill under thick blankets. Elahiyeh was their Eden.
In the 1930s my Swedish grandfather Jacob Mellegård came to Tehran as a young engineer, established the construction company, Svenska Entreprenad AB (SENTAB) and won large contracts that helped build the modern nation of Reza Shah, father of the last Shah. In every corner of the country, SENTAB constructed bridges, hospitals and roads. It built the University of Tehran and Mehrabad Airport. Whenever I land there I recall the stories my parents told me about the 1960s, of international partygoers heading to Mehrabad for a cooked breakfast after dancing all night. The imprint of that era is faint in the bricks and mortar of the city today.
My grandfather built the house where I spent the first years of my life – a redbrick one-storey villa with a porch and sloping roof. There was a patio paved with large stones and beyond that a garden fringed by rosebushes and the canopies of tall trees near a swimming pool. It was a style of architecture favoured by Europeans.
Occasionally, life intruded from Amin Street. In spring a man brought carts piled high with mounds of camel dung, which he tipped onto the lawn, creating an unbearable stink. As a child, the odd trips to the baker at the end of our street were filled with adventure for me: the sight of the bric-a-brac man, or the smell of corn on the cob grilled on a brazier and then dipped in saltwater and butter.
Whenever I come home to Elahiyeh I like to wander through the neighbourhood and take in the changes. However, I have often noticed that, as a woman alone, I attract unwanted attention: men stare and mutter under their breath. Nowadays most people drive, and the lack of pavements is not conducive to long walks. In many ways I am trapped in the Elahiyeh of old, when it was quiet with little traffic and many hills for rambling.
Two women walking together is more socially acceptable, so twenty- eight year-old Samaneh Ghadarkhan, a city reporter, agrees to accompany me as I research the neighbourhood. Samaneh, who was born after the Revolution, is fascinated by Tehran’s past – one she, too, believes is quickly being obliterated.
Directly ahead of us is Amin Street. Ten metres wide, it seems narrower with the cars hugging the stream and trees on one side and our old brick wall on the other. The whole of the opposite side of the street from where my house used to be is taken up by grubby, three-storey brick apartment blocks.
To the right, at the end of the street, the smell of fresh bread has attracted a breakfast queue outside the bakery, mostly Afghans and construction workers waiting for the sheets of stone-baked lavash to be folded into steaming piles out of the tanoor. A young man called Nasari sits outside the last brick villa on the street, tearing into the hot, thin bread and rolling it around a bit of cheese.
That is the house where some Swedish neighbours of ours lived before the Revolution. When they left, an Islamic charity took it over, but from what I can see no one has lived there since. A glimpse through the garden door reveals that the roof of the house has fallen through, and branches are growing into the windows.
We walk back up the street to where my old house used to be. The house number is the same but now there is a buzzer for the flats in the blocks occupying what used to be our garden. Mr. Sadekhi, a distinguished grey- haired man in his sixties, comes to the door and immediately recognises my family name. When he tells me the electricity metre is still registered to the Mellegårds I joke, saying I hope we will not have to pay twenty- six years’ worth of bills. Mr. Sadekhi bought the plot from the woman to whom my mother sold the property, and for six or seven years he lived in the house. There was a swimming pool but he had been afraid he might be reported for having decadent Western habits; so it lay empty, peeling and withered.
When Mr. Sadekhi’s children were earning their degrees in Germany he built apartments for each of them, and in 1999 the villa, garden and swimming pool gave way to blocks of flats. By this time my grandparents’ house, which once adjoined our property, had already been built over.
This coincided with a dark period before Khatami’s 1997 elections, when journalists, political activists and writers were murdered in a brutal purge. The thread of suspicion, which weaves through most societies in a state of flux, knotted itself into the fabric of everyday life. People who lived in houses became fearful they were being spied on and reported to the secret police. Many sold up and moved into what they considered the safety and security of apartments. There were economic incentives as well. Interest rates abroad were at a high, and profits from Tehran property sales grew in foreign bank accounts.
Dusk encircles the neighbourhood of my childhood. A faint breath of wind lifts dust like a sigh – an exhalation at the end of the day. Traffic crawls along. Quiet, leafy streets built for families living in houses cower under the weight of twenty-storey buildings with several apartments to each floor and never – ever – enough parking.
Samaneh and I make our way down Amin Street, but I am confused. How did the tower blocks come to be built in the first place? If the law prevented anyone from building more than two or five storeys, according to the mayor of the day, how was it ignored? A twenty-storey building is not exactly easy to hide. We walk past an estate agent and decide someone in the property business should be able to tell us.
‘Construction is more powerful than the law of the land,’ explains the estate agent, who asks to remain nameless. He takes us a few streets away to the old Swedish embassy, a seven thousand square-metre property where a giant skyscraper is under construction. A notice has been placed on the gate: in October 2003 permission was granted to build twenty storeys. In 2002, under Malekmadani, the limit was two. When I ask the estate agent what happened he only shrugs. Apparently, there were ways of circumventing the law: by having permission from before it was passed, for example, or by using contacts in government. ‘Property, power and politics – they’re intertwined. It’s like a mafia controlling everything,’ he says.
Elahiyeh has the most expensive property in Tehran, if not the whole country. It is no surprise, therefore, that high-ranking government insiders and their families have already snapped up a significant portion of it. As the streets start to darken, the neighbourhood draws a different crowd; Kurds selling binoculars do a roaring trade. Because the skyscrapers are packed so close together in such narrow streets, a new pastime has emerged: peering into other people’s flats.
Earthquakes are not a new threat. Japanese seismologists, who made an assessment of Elahiyeh, concluded that the small tremors, commonplace in the country, were not a risk to the twelve metre-wide, skyscraper-filled streets. However, the next significant earthquake (over 6.5 on the Richter scale) would leave ninety percent of the population under debris and, because of the narrow streets, no help would reach them.
Speaking to Mr. Zahedi, a councillor in Elahiyeh in his eighties, we are told that, in the past, water management was a primary concern. Years ago some of the big houses used to release their sewage into streams running alongside the streets in the dead of night. A putrid smell would hang over the neighbourhood; but that does not happen anymore. The sewage system in the hills of Elahiyeh is the oldest in Tehran. It was dug five metres deep in the hills so that sewage would not mix with the water from the city’s natural underground springs. Because of the new apartment blocks the old system has been overwhelmed in some places and sewage burning through the old pipes has seeped into the drinking water.
Next to the bakery is a corner shop that has been in business for over fifty years. Crowded with packets of biscuits, cartons of sour cherry juice, squares of white cheese floating in water, boxes of tissues with cartoon faces smiling in brash colours, this small shop probably stocks just about everything in its nooks and crannies and stacks of floor-to-ceiling shelves. From behind his counter the owner, Mr. Heydari, has observed all the changes in the neighbourhood. When Elahiyeh was home to embassies Americans were his best customers and Europeans his worst. Now the store has become a crowded centre where the nouveaux riches buy milk alongside a few old-timers and gangs of chic youngsters from the nearby cafés.
Business is much better for Mr. Heydari now. He prefers the social melting pot. In the past, he says, the only contact he had with the wealthy residents was through their servants, drivers and gardeners, who came to the shop. The people in the big houses were from a high social class and thought a lot of themselves, he says. He sums it up using an expression I have never heard before: Haser naboodan ba shah faloodeh boghoran. (‘They wouldn’t have deigned to eat ice cream with the Shah.’) By his furrowed brow, it is obvious he does not miss the old days, when the flash, foreign cars threw up dust as they sped around the corner.
He has a vivid memory, and reminisces about the day my parents got married and my grandmother ordered boxes of fruit juice from the shop. He can also see my grandfather whizzing about with snow chains on his Volvo and wearing a seatbelt. Mr. Heydari’s face wrinkles into a chuckle, because first, only a Swede could handle the icy winters of Elahiyeh and second, people begrudgingly wear seatbelts now, let alone thirty years ago, pulling them across when they pass a policeman before releasing them again.
In the fizzy orange streetlight glare, Elahiyeh’s streets thicken with exhaust fumes from the masses of cars carrying rosy-lipped beauties and sultry- eyed young men to parties. Jammed side by side like sardines, there is enough time and plenty of inclination for flirting through car windows. Even though the cafés in the area display signs reminding women to wear their proper hejab, there is more freedom in this part of town, which attracts throngs of teenagers who want to do nothing more dangerous than hang out.
Back again on my grandmother’s balcony, I see the pallor of towering skyscrapers in the making. Construction is like a death rattle in this city. Yet whispers float over the streams running down my old street where my house and garden once lay. Even for someone like Samaneh, who has only known life after the Revolution, the garden remains an ideal. She confided that she, too, would one day like to have one, ‘if any are left’ after Tehran’s building frenzy.
These are not romantic, sentimental meanderings. The garden is a Persian invention dating back to the Achaemenid Empire (559bce – 330bce). In the old Iranian language of Avestan, according to Mehrdad Fakour in the Encyclopaedia Iranica, ‘the word pairidaêza, Old Persian paridaida, Medes paridaiza (walled-around, i.e. a walled garden), was transliterated into Greek paradeisoi, then rendered into the Latin paradisus, and from there entered into European languages, the French paradis, and the English “paradise”’.
Today, in Iran, much is promised by an afterlife in Paradise. Ironically, this metaphorical garden appears, at least for some, more real and certainly more important than the ones that have been burned down and paved over. Tehran is the capital of a modern Islamic republic, but in many ways it resembles other overcrowded and poorly managed secular cities.