Sticker shock in Iran is like an infuriating prankster waiting to jump you everywhere you go.

Perhaps it happens more often to the expats hopelessly stuck in 1979.

Two things make Iranian prices hard to swallow:

1. Decades of nonstop double- and triple-digit inflation

2. The Iranian currency’s persistent devaluation

Sticker shock is so ubiquitous, you can actually feel it approaching, like during lunch today at Mashhad’s fancy Mahestan Restaurant.

Surely these well-scrubbed young men in pressed blue uniforms aren’t bending up and down because they’re thrilled with me showing up in jeans and t-shirt.

But I still wasn’t prepared for the ridiculous numbers on the long slip of paper the cashier handed back to me.

The total at the bottom was, well, what you get when you add up ridiculous numbers: beyond ridiculous. (I’m too embarrassed to say how much I paid to just eat!)

Saeideh and our guests began strolling back to the car. I stand there, enthralled and curious.

Price of tea, the perfect measuring stick

I’m looking for what they charged for the tea.

The price of a single cup of tea is the perfect measure of Iran’s economic insanity because black tea is ubiquitous and identical, whether you drink it from a hand of a street vendor or in this pretentious place, which I hope someday goes up in smoke when the poor storm the Bastille.

Mahestan Shandiz Restaurant, Mashhad, Iran, Mahestan Shandiz Restaurant, Mashhad, Iran, © Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com
Mahestan Shandiz Restaurant, Mashhad, Iran © Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

Finally, I found the line item.

5

5

Then had to double-check the zeros. Counting zeros accurately is a prerequisite skill in Iran – ‘cause there’re so many of them and here they are tiny dots – see pic below – so easy to miss.

Four zeros. But that’s the price in rials. So you knock down one zero, to get …

The lunch bill at Mahestan Shandiz Restaurant, Mashhad, Iran, © Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com
The lunch bill at Mahestan Shandiz Restaurant, Mashhad, Iran, © Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

… 55,000 tomans

For one single-serving carafe of tea, a single cup, and some sweets (pictured above).

55,000 tomans

To me, who left Iran in 1979, this is an insane number.

Because in 1979, 55,000 tomans was worth close to $8,000!

I think this one number, and the ruthless inequality it represents, is connected to phenomena far beyond Iran.

It’s part of the reason that in Europe, even Nazi-affiliated anti-immigrant parties are now winning elections – even in Sweden! Or why millions of Americans think they need an orange man to build them border walls.

Because the Developing World’s angry turn into tenacious immigrants who scare the bejesus out of the rich.

This is why Iranians are angry: 

55,000 tomans is about a third of what the lady who cleans our apartment charges for an entire day.

The 150,000 Mrs. Imamian earns washing windows and vacuuming and scrubbing toilets all day is not enough to buy even a single kilo of meat, which goes for around 200,000, up from 50,000 a year ago.

(Saeideh and I try to relieve guilt by paying for her daughter’s education to hopefully propel the brilliant teen into a university education.)

Countless Iranians simply don’t eat meat – living on top of the planet’s fourth largest oil reserves.

It wasn’t like this

And 55,000 tomans is also about 10,000 times what a cup of tea cost in 1979.

When I was leaving in 1979 to finish high school abroad, three aunts and a grandmother each gave me a crisp brand-new 1,000-toman bill as a going-away present.

The 4,000 tomans were worth $571.

I laid on my bed and counted the four bills over and over, with the satisfaction of a miner who’d just hit gold. The memory is etched in my brain. I can still smell the paper.

In 1979, with 4,000 tomans I could’ve bought a car – and fled home like I always dreamed of.

Or booked a trip to Europe. Iranian passports were so respectable, you didn’t even need a visa for most of Europe.

Or sat in Tehran’s Naderi Cafe and bought coffee for Iran’s literary legends, 800 times in a row.

Any Iranian alive today and back then, wonders what life would be like if they could see 43 years into the future.

Today 4,000 tomans can’t buy you even a pack of chewing gum.

If today you handed 4,000 to a Tehran street beggar, be prepared for an angry stare and maybe a lecture. The tiniest act of charity goes for a minimum of 10,000 these days.

Always dumping your cash

Life is not easy living with near worthless currency and permanently out-of-control inflation.

Strangers meeting strangers constantly erupt into cries of shock and pain.

“I go buy cough medicine for my kid,” roared the taxi driver who picked us up at the airport. “I get to the pharmacy. It’s now 25,000. I say, ‘my dear man, it was 15,000 this morning! How can this be?’

The same medicine was 2,500 last year, he said.

Every Iranian with cash is obsessed with moving it into gold, stocks or property to stem the rapid devaluation of their buying power.

This causes prices of various investments move in waves and without apparent logic. Right now the stock market is in the dumps even though some stocks are trading at a fraction of their intrinsic value. Property prices are soaring – even though there few buyers. Gold is at a stand still, waiting for the outcome of the nuclear negotiations.

Even buying cars can be a good investment. I drive a Nissan 4WD my father bought 28 years ago for 10 million. It is now worth 300 million.

It’s a gas guzzler and it’s as comfortable as driving a 18-wheeler.  But I’ll keep driving it because it’s impossible to buy a decent car for 300 million or even a billion.

Stability impossible

“It means we never have stability here,” one Iranian told me. “How can you plan ahead? How can you say, ‘I’ll save three billion to buy myself that apartment next year,’ when that apartment might be six billion in six months?”

Prices here leap capriciously, usually with the dollar’s upward gains. Dollar goes up, prices go up. Dollar goes down a little bit, prices don’t go down.

What the government says on inflation is merely fodder for endless jokes people trade on social media.

The country stopped publishing its own inflation figures in 2018. It took a presidential gaffe last week to reveal the Central Bank’s secret estimate of 60-percent inflation for last year.

Expats learn to stay quiet

Iranians sometimes misunderstand expats’ reactions to sticker shock here.

When Saeideh and I were dating in 2015, I involuntarily yelped at a 12,000-toman bill for a cup of coffee.

Saeideh was wondering why I speak Farsi with the vocabulary of a child. But didn’t yet know that the Iranian in me is and will always be a 15-year-old stuck in 1979 – and still bawls at hearing Demis Roussos, a teen idol back then.

She went home and told her family some Iranian version of, “Wow, this guy counts every penny.”

She married me anyway. And now she too gets sticker shock when we return to Iran.

“How do people live with this?” she whimpered a couple of hours ago peering into a supermarket dairy refrigerator.

It’s the question I and every expat ask every time we return to Iran.

Supermarket, Vilashahr, Mashhad, Iran, © Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com
How do people make end meet? Supermarket, Vilashahr, Mashhad, Iran, © Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

How do people live like this?

The conversation goes something like this:

– So prices are three times what they were the last time I was here?

– Yes.

– Did the incomes also triple?

– No.

– So then how do people make ends meet?

– I don’t know.

The poor survive by eating and expecting less and scrounging more. People searching through garbage for food, that’s an old story. The government locks up some Tehran garbage cans to avoid that embarrassment.

It has to be something really novel to get your attention, like grave dwellers who have their own Wikipedia page.

As for the middle class, it doesn’t need to do anything because it no longer exits.

The rich, the tourists and the expats who spend dollars and euros – for us it’s a different story, which I think doesn’t have a happy ending.