It’s impossible to just walk for the sake of walking in the wealthy northern Tehran. There’s so much irony, I can’t stop taking snapshots and scratching my head.

What in the heck happened here? I’ve been asking during my first stroll here in five years.

Saeideh and I are sweating our way up a steep incline toward what 40 years ago used to be the tiny village of Sohanak in the slopes of the incredible Alborz mountains skirting northern Tehran.

There wasn’t anything here but farms, chickens, mud shacks and modest weekend villas.

Now it’s home to expensive high rises and the occasional poor who eke out a living on the sidewalks.

It’s also home to both the traditional and the Iranians who identify with all things Western.

Fashionable “bacon”

At a mall called Platinum Complex, I can’t find any Persian store names or Farsi script. Names like Cafe Viuna and Prague Cafe Pastry all appear in Roman characters.

Two Irans on a single stroll - Platinum Complex, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com
Two Irans on a single stroll – Platinum Complex, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

At Patiss Cafe & Bakery, the girl behind the counter greets us by rattling off a list of sandwiches: “Bacon turkey, bacon with tomatoes, bacon and cheese …”

I’m confused. “You’re really selling bacon here!? It’s a Islamic country.”

She laughs. “Oh, it’s all beef. We just call it bacon.”

“Why?”

“It’s fashionable,” she says.

Sandwich that costs 1/3 of worker’s daily wage

The menu is entirely in English and all the prices are conveniently missing three zeros. A “Rustic Ham snack” goes for 72, which means 72,000 tomans.

Two Irans on a single stroll - Cafe Patiss, Platinum Complex, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com
Two Irans on a single stroll – Cafe Patiss, Platinum Complex, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

72,000 tomans is – and this is probably the primary reason behind the ongoing violent street protests – more than a third of an unskilled worker’s minimum wage for an entire day.

The woman sitting at the table behind us at Patiss is not covering her hair. Then I see other young women walk by with their head scarves down and hanging on their shoulders.

“With all the protests going on, no body cares anymore,” one of them tells us.

Two fashions, two worlds

Then I see a girl wrapped up in lots of black hijab, giving me an angry eye when I raise my phone.

Two Irans on a single stroll - Platinum Hijab and no hijab, Platinum Complex, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com
Two Irans on a single stroll – Platinum Hijab and no hijab, Platinum Complex, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

Nearby, on the grass, sits another young woman with salon-colored red hair and matching manteaux, again with the kind of hijab that would surely get her in trouble with the authorities.

She is posing for a product ad on Instagram. Happily nods at my request to take a snapshot.

Two irans on a single stroll - Instagram model, Sohanak Iran
Two Irans on a single stroll – Sohanak Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

All this is happening directly across the street from a branch of Azadi University, where students enter through segregated male and female entrances and so much as sneezing without hijab could end in a lifetime expulsion.

Permanently affixed above the university’s gate is a smiling portrait of Qasem Soleimani, the general who was assassinated by a United States airstrike in 2020. The entire university is named after him. It’s impossible to walk any street in Iran without seeing his portraits.

Azadi University, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com
Azadi University, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

The 20,000,000,000 apartment

Further up the hill, we ask the caretaker at a new high-rise about the apartment prices.

The cheapest is a 4-bedroom on the first floor for 20,000,000,000 tomans. Yes, 200 billion, or about $700,000 USD, in a nation where only the luckiest office worker might make $400 a month.

“You mean you now need $700,000 to have an apartment in Tehran?” I ask Saeideh.

She laughs. “Come on. This is not the most expensive neighborhood,” she says.

High-rise, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com
Nameless high-rise, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

The caretaker is curious about my ignorance.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

He shakes his head when I tell him. “You are kidding, right?” He says he can’t believe that we returned to Iran – a typical statement we’ve heard before.

“God is good”

On the same street, a shoe shiner toils on the sidewalk.

yunes_khaleghzadeh-shoe-shiner High-rise, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com
Yunes Khaleghzadeh-sidewalk shoe shiner, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

Yunes Khaleghzadeh, a native of the area,  charges 10,000 (about 27 cents USD) to polish shoes and 35,000 for repairs.

Where is your shop? I ask.

He laughs. “This is my shop,” he responds with nary of sarcasm or anger. “At night I put my stuff in that store over there and go home.”

Why don’t you have your own store?

“I don’t know. That’s how things worked out. It’s fine. God is good,” he says.

Further up the hill, we enter “Haj Hasan Dairy Cafe”, signage again in Roman characters.

Haj Hasan Dairy Cafe, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com
Haj Hasan Dairy Cafe, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

A kilo of cheese goes for 190,000 tomans. A kilo of honey is $350,000, two-and-a-half times a worker’s daily wage.

“Why do you have the name of the store in Roman characters? There can’t be that many people here who don’t read Farsi,” I ask the proprietor.

“It’s fashionable,” he says.

Searching for the old

We go hunting for what might be left of the old Sohanak structures. It’s like fishing for needles in a haystack.

High-rises, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com
High-rises, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

There’s an old mosque with a poplar tree that must be at least six meters in diameter.

Mosque, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com
Mosque, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

There are portraits of martyrs here and there, of course; a common sight all over Iran.

Portrait of a war martyrs, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com
Portrait of a war martyrs, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

A few old quaint old buildings sit in the shadows of the new high-rises, the sight of which instantly excites me.

Old building not yet replaced by high-rise, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com
Old building not yet replaced by high-rises, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

 

Old buildings not yet replaced by high rise, sohanak, tehran, iran, copyright escapefromtehran com
Old buildings not yet replaced by high-rises, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright EscapefromTehran.com

When I see buildings this old, I remember my childhood.

I remember an Iran that wasn’t this maddeningly divided between the rich and the poor and between the traditional and the fashionable.

Even in this concrete jungle, it is still possible to find beauty. Saeideh goes all googly-eyed at the sight of a tailor’s shop draped with grape vines and flowers.

“Look how clean the sidewalk is. Someone here cares about their place here,” she says.

Tailor's shop, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com
Tailor’s shop, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

The incredible rise in property prices – it’s now at least 20 million times the pre-Revolution prices 43 years ago – has led to some comical construction, like this building that can’t be more than three meters in width:

Comical bizarre construction sohanak, tehran, iran, copyright ali torkzadeh, escapefromtehran com
Comical bizarre construction, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright ali torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran com

Or check out this old hut surviving in the shadows of the high-rises.

That’s someone’s home. Probably someone grateful to have a home at all. If he owns it, he’s a billionaire!

Surviving the shadows of high-rises, Two Irans, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright ali torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran com
Surviving the shadows of high-rises, Two Irans, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright ali torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran com

Finally, we reach the end of the construction to where the bare hills begin.

From here, Tehran and its 10- or 15- or 20-million people – nobody really knows – spreads below us under a permanent haze of pollution.

Tehran city sprawl under haze of pollution, viewed from Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright ali torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran com
Tehran city sprawl under haze of pollution, viewed from Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright ali torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran com

Then we see a hand-written metal sign addressed to the “dear mountain gobblers”. We can’t tell if it’s being serious or making fun of this crazy time. There’s no contact info. Who wrote it?

Sign, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright ali torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran com
Sign, Sohanak, Tehran, Iran, copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran com

Translation:

“Of attention to the dear mountain gobblers,
Here, at the height of 1900 meters of Tehran,
The city hall is issuing building permits.
Hurry up.”

I’m sure, many are hurrying up, ironies notwithstanding.