‘Catch it and talk to me’ – flirting Tehran style

Johannes Lenhard
December 3, 2013

A surreal development complex sits in the middle of the city. Wide  concrete walks wind around isles of green, marble tiles and patches of  steel. Fountains set against Olympic torches dance to grand Western  piano music, producing what the authorities poetically call ‘Fire and  Water’. This immense area, surrounded by a city forest on one side and a  buzzing five-lane motorway on the other, has slowly developed over  recent years. With this contrived urban landscape as their stage, a  young couple emerges from the half-dark of the late afternoon. In front  of us – squeezed between a skate-park and a half-finished steel bridge  linking the food halls to more playful entertainment – they walk along,  happily holding hands.

Holding hands itself is not worth writing about – but as ever it is  the context that adds the intrigue: holding hands in Tehran, the  8-million-resident capital of Iran, is rather different from holding  hands anywhere else. Married couples are technically allowed to hold  hands openly, though popular convention essentially forbids it. One  rarely expresses intimacy for loved ones, and certainly one would never  kiss in public. Even people in their twenties seemingly follow these  unwritten laws, with exceptions only confirming the rule. It is a rule,  however, that is again linked intricately to context: it holds true only  for the contestable and sanctionable public sphere of the street, the  market, the church and the park.

Our first evening in this city overwhelms us as we receive an abrupt  lesson in following the rules Tehran-style. We not only lose $20 to a  taxi driver clever enough to charge us for our tourist naivety and  listen to a semi-legal congregation of French and Irani musicians  playing traditional local tunes, but we are also thrown into the world  of Tehran’s private party scene. ‘You can change there’, our host  explains, pointing at a basement room that has just released two  unveiled, high-heeled and practically undressed ladies. Baffled by the  shortness of their dresses rather than their beautiful dark hair, we  stumble upstairs, only to be confronted with a quantity of alcohol  dwarfing that found at the best underground parties in London. All of it  homemade or smuggled, obviously. The electro music is banging  Berghain-style, the girls are grinding like Miley, and the boys, one  after the other, develop the dreamy looks that only alcohol can produce.

Events like these are nothing new in the West, and indeed similar  things were seen in prohibition America. But other things are happening  here that even by Western standards are almost too creatively subversive  to be true. And they are happening in the vehicles that Tehranis covet,  partly because they make it easier to get around, but predominantly due  to their semi-privateness.

It is one of those crystal-clear nights that lets the stars shine on  you – even in the midst of illuminated Tehran. But it is not the stars  that brought us to this street. At first, everything seems normal – just  an abnormal number of cars driving from one part of Tehran’s wealthy  North to another. Car after car after car – some smaller, some more  impressive, but most of them Peugeot 206s, as they are manufactured in  Iran and so can escape import tax. After some time the constant flow of  cars is suddenly interrupted. There, just in front of us, a grey Peugeot  with two boys in the front seats slows down. They have seen something  of interest to the right of their car. One of the boys starts talking to  their neighbor, a similar Peugeot driven by a girl who is not too shy  to expose as much of her dark wavy hair as legally allowed. Rushed but  intense words are exchanged, but alas his attempt is not successful – no  phone number this time. The girls drive away in search of someone  wittier, some- one whose eloquence is quicker.

Tehranis call this hunting game ‘rounding’, driving around in circles  in a kind of car-speed dating. The streets chosen for these games have  to be changed continuously due to police interest in such openly  flirtatious arrangements. The gameplay is very quick, very limited, and  success is very much dependent on your self-presentation skills. It is  all about making as much as possible of the brief encounters between  complete strangers. But some people know how to delay the goodbye.

‘Catch it and talk to me!’ he yells while desperately aiming to hit  the right spot with the mobile phone he has been holding. A second later  the phone lands in the lap of the girl in the neighbouring car, which  has just started to accelerate. More nervous now he has made the first  and most important connection, the boy fiddles around with his other  mobile, pauses briefly (too nervous to remember the number), and finally  dials. The girl’s car is almost out of sight, but the excitement in the  boy’s eyes glows when someone picks up. I am not sure how many of these  games actually lead to anything, but I am certain that they are as  flirty as it gets in the streets of Tehran. And exciting they are – even  though we ourselves are not quite as successful at playing, though we  do try. Rounding is probably only one of many types of interaction that  happen in cars in Tehran, not dissimilar from the variety of happy kinds  of inter-human contact that can happen between acquaintances, friends  or total strangers in Western cars, but it is certainly one of the more  memorable ones.

With this game, intimacy that is typically banned from anything but  the most private nocturnal spaces is partly able to return during  sneaked daytime moments. At first glance, the windscreen is an  inadequate separation of our little space from the outside, but  apparently this transparent shield is enough. It is enough to make  people feel secure. And hopefully the security that our generation finds  in cars in Tehran can be extended. Currently, the odds look good.


All by
Johannes Lenhard