Photograph copyright © Ben McKechnie 2010
You will take taxis in Tehran. That’s a fact. I learned some lessons so that you don’t have to. This article will ruin the fun of finding things out on your own the ‘hard’ way.
Lesson 1 – Don’t slam the doors and expect to get away with it!
My friend Iman, a gregarious Tehrani, enters ahead of me. He lands on the middle seat next to a dazzling beauty with hair like a beehive underneath her hijab. I catapult in and slam the door behind me. The car’s frame reverberates. Outside, the first smatterings of rain hit the windscreen but I find my gaze being drawn upwards until it meets the driver’s in the rearview mirror. His stare holds mine as he speaks. Iman translates. ‘He welcomes a very strong man to his car. It’s not everyday that he has the pleasure of meeting someone with such impressive upper-body strength’. It’s my first taste of Persian sarcasm.
The taxi drivers of Tehran’s Paykan fleet – rusty, trusty automotive relics from the era of the last Shah of Iran – are highly protective of their vehicles. These great hulks of steel lived through the Islamic revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and the last forty years of wear and tear. You’d be protective too if you relied upon a leaded petrol guzzling antique to keep food on your family’s table.
After he’s said his piece, Iman apologises on my behalf and explains that I’m from the UK. ‘Inglestan?’ An enormous smile spreads across his face, an arm is thrown off the steering wheel and into the air with enthusiastic welcome after enthusiastic welcome shouted. Iman turns to me. ‘He says you are most welcome in Iran and he offers to do anything he can to make your visit more comfortable. He now understands why you closed the door so aggressively. He says he has heard stories of the wonderful taxis you have in London – surely they are able to take that kind of abuse. Please forgive his poor quality car. It is very old and falling apart. He would very much like one of those new Peugeots’. ‘I like old cars very much’, I say.
He drops us at Vanak Square in the north of Tehran. We try five times to press money for the thirty-five kilometre journey into his hands but he refuses each time – going above and beyond the number of attempts required in Iran to give someone a chance to back out without losing face. ‘You are our guest!’ he shouts from the window as he rejoins the flow of cars.
The next day, I close the door of a shared taxi so pathetically out of fear of rebuke, that it causes the taxi driver to comment that I’m surely a feeble-bodied Turk from the city of Tabriz in Iran’s North-West. It seems that there’s a fine line.
When you go to Tehran, try to nail that elusive medium. The textbook closure of a Paykan taxi door.