I want to begin with a story. Like the best of stories, it is true.

In mid-March 2003, I am sitting in the living room of my Persian teacher’s house, in an established older neighborhood on the north side of Tehran. We have been chit-chatting for a few hours, and catching up. I haven’t been in Iran for about a year, and this is a short visit, so now is our one chance to exchange news. I have been hearing the latest about the house, which is a very big, very old, Qajar-era summer mansion set in a large, overgrown garden off a good-sized main road. When the house was built, in the nineteenth century, it would have been the hot-weather summer retreat for a wealthy family from central Tehran, a fairly simple two-story structure with open balconies running around four sides of the building, in a big walled garden, surrounded by other gardens, orchards, fields and forests. By now, a good 100 years later, the ground-floor balconies have been glassed in, the chenar trees in the garden are some of the biggest I’ve ever seen and the pastoral surroundings have been replaced by a combination of building sites, high-rise apartments, abandoned upper-middle-class properties and the manicured villas of the newly rich. (I have recognized the house we can see if we climb the stone wall, in the glossy photos in an architectural exhibition.) For the past few years, the question has been, what will be the future of this house, or more specifically, this property?

My teacher shares the house with a woman whose family owns the property, which is really a compound with at least two other, smaller, more modern, normal houses on it. Other members of the family live there. The whole property is jointly owned, a shared inheritance that is simultaneously a white elephant and a gold mine. The garden is too big to manage easily; everything needs renovation and there’s no money. But the land itself is a speculator’s dream, and is worth literally millions of dollars. Any developer willing to pay that price, however, will knock down all the buildings, including the Qajar mansion, cut down all the trees, including the huge chenars, and happily forward the process of turning all of north Tehran’s former green space and gardens into cheap, low-design, residential high-rises. The siblings have wanted to go for the money: Sell and be done with it. My teacher’s friend, a classical pianist with a strong corollary appreciation of her own cultural heritage, has been urging her family to accept an offer from the municipality and the national heritage foundation. They would landmark and purchase the property, and eventually convert the old house into some kind of cultural center; they are offering at least $1 million, although they can’t match a speculator. Amazingly enough, the family has just agreed to accept the municipality’s offer. On this unexpectedly bright note, I am just wondering if it is time for me to get up and go, when the door bursts open, and the evening takes a turn.

Literally, the door bursts open, propelled by three young men standing in the frame, wearing kerchiefs tied over their noses and mouths, and carrying fruit knives. They look like comic bandits, and it is quite several minutes before I understand that this really is a home invasion, and not a joke related to Chehar-Shambe Souri. That’s the holiday close to the Persian New Year, mostly celebrated by children and young people, which involves getting rid of the last year’s bad spirits by jumping over a bonfire and reciting a rhyme, preferably in the street at night in the dark. It doesn’t involve dressing up, but for some reason it has always reminded me of Halloween, which is probably why I thought our young visitors might be playing a prank. In any case, Chehar-Shambe Souri was only a day or two away, and I sat there smiling welcomingly until I figured out that something else was happening.

It wasn’t really my fault that I was confused. I don’t think my friends knew what was going on either. Our visitors’ entrance was so sudden and unexpected, their appearance so bizarre and their behavior so theatrical, that there were a few minutes when it was unclear what was the genre of our drama. They would only say “Saket, saket” (“Silence, silence”) in low threatening voices, and they moved with an attempt at controlled menace, but they were basically three skinny kids with scarves and fruit knives. I still think that if we had been quicker to realize what was going on, and had simply thrown the coffee table at them while jumping around and screaming, they might very well have run away. But would they have? And they were armed, even if only with fruit knives. In any case, by the time we realized they were serious, it was clear what our parts were to be. This was a robbery, we needed to cooperate and they were going to tie us up.

Actually, that came a little later. Initially, there was a certain amount of negotiation, which involved the apparent leader of the operation asking where the gold was, and my teacher, annoyed, telling them to look on the roofs of all the mosques (she is not overly fond of the Islamic Republic). They were arguing the point when one of the others noticed my wedding ring, which is gold with a carved carnelian stone. Not roughly, he tried to take it from me, but the shock of being touched made real to me that this was not a joke, and I freaked out. Also, it’s my wedding ring, which as they say has a certain sentimental attachment, and it made no sense to me that he should have it. So I folded my hands tightly in my lap, looked at the ceiling, took a deep breath and introduced myself. “Man arous farangi hastam,” I said. “I am the foreign bride.”

It is hard to convey the precise hit of meaning this statement carries in Iran. For one thing, it is an anachronism; “farangi” is more precisely the word for European foreigner, based on the Crusader-era term for the European Christian armies, the Franks. It is exactly what a woman like me, an educated, cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic professional, would not usually use to describe herself. It is a two-generation joke in the family, originating with the Austrian wife of one of my husband’s uncles (father’s brother, the particular affiliations matter), who lived in Iran for more than 30 years, before, during and after the 1979 revolution. The first few years they lived in the extended family home of her father-in-law, my husband’s grandfather, where my own father-in-law mischievously assigned the arous farangi label to the family’s initial “foreign bride,” an identity that easily fell to me in the next generation. The term is an anachronism precisely because those families that might find themselves in receipt of an arous farangi, a European or Western daughter-in-law, are typically precisely the kind of secular, middle-class families that would go out of their way not to replicate the old-fashioned terminology of fixed social roles. But that is also why the term is a useful self-identification for me: It locates me exactly where I am, both inside and outside of Iranian traditional social culture, and it makes specific demands on that traditional culture’s obligations toward me. If I am the arous farangi, I am simultaneously a guest of and a member of the local community; having chosen to marry in, I am reciprocally owed the validation of that choice. Identifying one’s self as the arous farangi means laying claim to an informal kinship with the national community, and therefore to the social obligations of that kinship, a mutual recognition that structured relations of social hierarchy imply reciprocal obligation. In the ongoing context of Iranian social negotiations, announcing myself as the arous farangi is both deeply serious and very funny, and it is occasionally my most canny card to play, especially with those, whether thieves or petty government officials, who would demand an automatic obedience.

Given that my Persian is not really good enough to engage in the politesse of negotiation, I had been careful not to open my mouth until this moment. But now my accent and my announcement confirmed my status as a foreign guest. Not to mention my grammatical mistakes. “Een baroye arous,” I added, pointing to my ring. “This for bride,” a sentence neatly lacking any trace of a verb. But it worked. When in doubt, always count on the intractable obligations of Persian hospitality. The one thief immediately backed away from my ring, and the third one, who had been going through my bag and had already removed all the money, now replaced everything (including all the cash) and gently set it down by my side. My property was inviolable, although unfortunately this did not apply to my Iranian hosts, and I still got tied up. From experience, I can tell you that a silk scarf knots more tightly than a cotton one; the scarf around my wrists eventually had to be cut off, and my hands stayed red for days because of the lack of circulation, but my teacher was able to shrug off her coarser cotton scarf when the time came. But that wasn’t for hours. From about 8 pm until 11, we all entertained each other. Two of the thieves insisted that my teacher come with them while they searched the house. Her friend, the actual owner, and I remained in the living room with the one who seemed the youngest of the three, keeping an eye on each other. My teacher had whispered that she thought she had seen a gun. Did she imagine it? But a gun, like a foreigner, changes everything, so we were taking things seriously. Tied hand and foot, we sat in the living room and ate tangerines.

How is it possible to eat tangerines while tied up, hands behind the back? You have to be fed, of course. Or to be more exact, my teacher’s friend, whose hands were tied in her lap because she was older and had to be treated with respect, started to talk to our guardian and then to smoke, and he leaped to light her cigarette. She was drawing him out about his plans in life, and why he wasn’t in school. Then, so I shouldn’t feel left out, she gave me a piece of tangerine. Except that tangerines have pits, so when the thief noticed I needed to spit them out, he jumped to offer a saucer. Pttt, pttt, pttt. At some point, he even got up, took a few steps, swooned and fell down, and then gloated at us for our concern, having proven to us what a good actor he was. In the meantime, my teacher was witness to the stripping of anything valuable from her own household, forced to accompany the thief who seemed to have the gun as he searched from room to room. The phone kept ringing. I was sure it was my husband, worried about what had happened to me. We tried to explain to the thief in the room with us that they should leave soon, that my husband would be concerned that there was no answer when there should be, and might come looking, or even call the police. In fact, I was quite worried about this. My husband might come looking for me, hop the garden wall when there was no answer at the gate and walk in unannounced. Then what? My husband is a senior black belt in two separate Japanese martial arts, and ordinarily he could lay out all three of our skinny thieves very easily. But that afternoon he had badly sprained his ankle (a side effect of other old athletic injuries), and then there was the question of the gun. What if my husband limped in, surprised the robbers and then they shot him? The edge of my concern was real enough, and it got our thief a little worried, too. He made a suggestion: I should call my husband, and tell him that my teacher’s friend, the respected older woman, had gotten sick, and we had had to take her to the hospital. No need to worry! Except I knew this would raise more questions at home than it answered: If someone was sick, why was I tagging along to the hospital and causing an extra burden to my poor friends instead of heading home where I belonged? We were now at such an absurd stage of experience that I had to convince him that I shouldn’t use the phone. It was clear he didn’t speak English, but even so I knew that giving an effective, concise explanation of our situation over the phone while actually sitting under our minder’s nose, and avoiding further unexpected consequences, was more than I could handle. We were neither truly scared enough to attempt risky subterfuge, nor quite relaxed enough simply to call home and give excuses for being late. So we waited.

In the end, the thieves loaded up everything they could find — jewelry, electronics, a camera, a guitar, small appliances — stowed it all in a car and drove off, leaving the three of us tied up there in the living room. After about two minutes of silence, we agreed they must be gone. My teacher pulled her hands from behind her back and started untying the rest of us. I was the only one who had to be cut free. She called the police. They claimed they couldn’t find the address, although the local police station is only blocks away. I called home. I tried to be very calm, but my conversation gave a good indication of why an earlier phone call might have been a bad idea. It turns out English is a bit linguistically ambiguous on some points.

“Hello? I’m here at my teacher’s. We were held up, but we’re fine.”

“Good. What have you been doing?”

“We were tied up, but they’ve left, we’re OK.”

“Did you have a good time?”

“No, thieves broke in, they tied us up and robbed us! But they’ve left and we’re all right!”

“What?!? You were tied up and robbed? Are you all right?”

Apparently my husband had called, but hadn’t worried. He knew I had been at my teacher’s and assumed we had gone out to one of the open-air traditional late-night cafés that are not too far from her neighborhood. He further assumed I had simply been too distracted or preoccupied to call, an assumption based on intimate experience. But as soon as he realized what had actually happened, he came right over.

So did the police, after they figured out where the house was. It turned out that our visitors had been part of an organized robbery of the entire compound; there had been two cars, and simultaneous robberies in the other houses. The police wandered around, not quite sure what to do until one of them suggested it was possible that the gang might still be hiding in the garden. Then the sergeant started yelling excitedly because the Tehran police force had just been issued brand new Mercedes sedans, and they had left the car with all the doors wide open unattended in the garden. The officer suggested my husband take our statements; my husband suggested this was the policeman’s job. But he agreed to take mine, so I could give my evidence in English. About an hour later, we went home. All I lost was my leather jacket, which was Iranian and had been hanging with the other coats in the hallway, and so wasn’t adequately associated with the arous farangi to be exempt from predation on one’s fellow countrymen. In a house containing at least two pianos, lots of old Russian furniture, fine carpets and other antique bric-a-brac, the thieves took exactly what the same kind of generalist would have taken in the US: mobile items easily saleable, nothing too distinctive or too hard to fence. I don’t know if they were ever caught. But I think I may have seen them a week or so later; they might have been working construction on the high-rise apartment building going up on a neighboring lot. In any case, I know they were disappointed. They must have thought they were raiding a paradise of fabulous wealth, the old mansion in the middle of that big garden, in a neighborhood where the families of some of the wealthiest members of the present regime are reputed to live. Instead, they found the run-down remnants of aristocratic glories from former days, the meager wealth of the current resident artistic intellectuals, and three moderately genteel ladies drinking tea and eating bread. And tangerines.

End of story.

Now, let’s begin again.

In 1978 and 1979 Iran went through a convulsive social and political revolution. Outside Iran, and to some extent inside as well, there is a general assumption that the revolution failed, either because of the repression associated with the post-revolutionary Islamic state, or because the new Islamic Republic could not achieve a promised utopia of justice and egalitarianism. But revolution is a long process, not simply a quick-fix change of regime. Even a revolution that succeeds at national liberation but fails to found an adequately representative, stable state (to make use of Hannah Arendt’s two-stage theory of revolution [1]) achieves something of lasting relevance to the ongoing process of national political and social development. So what are the post-revolutionary contradictions embedded in this little anecdote about one evening in Tehran?

To start with, there is the specific geography of the local urban political economy. Iran is that particular economic animal, a rentier oil state. That means that the government can count on a stable oil stream from a highly regulated export market. It’s a truism that oil-based economies are notoriously corrupt, and oil income easily makes its way into the pockets or the pet projects of regime insiders. Oil money tends to stunt the development of other aspects of the national economy, not to mention when the nation has experienced an eight-year war with its neighbor and an international economic embargo. Oil wealth can also be used to fund other social development projects, and although the Pahlavi shahs are credited with initiating Iran’s national modernization, the nationwide distribution of literacy, electricity and road networks wasn’t effectively accomplished until years after the revolution. In other words, Iran is now a modern country with a literate population, an integrated system of passable roads and electricity in even the smallest villages. [2] This national integration has also lead to increasing urbanization, while further accentuating the dominance of Tehran as the national administrative, economic and cultural center.

Tehran is where the big questions get posed and the decisions get made, even if the main actors come from elsewhere. In the past 20 years, the capital city has sprawled east, west and especially north into the foothills of the Alborz Mountains, becoming a metropolis of 7 million with a metropolitan-area population of 10 million. [3] The old mixed central neighborhoods are now déclassé, the solidly bourgeois neighborhoods of the north side now equally choked by smog and traffic. If they can, people move out of their old neighborhoods and head farther north. If they were already in north Tehran, aging parents either convert what had been a large single-family home into apartments that can accommodate grown children’s households, or sell the property to a developer in exchange for a deal that usually involves cash and ownership of two or three out of six or eight apartments in the new building. The problem is that because both houses and apartments have to be bought outright, cash in hand, the only way to get into the property market is to own property already. And because of the opacity and stagnation of the rest of the economy, the property market is the only economic sector that simultaneously offers the chance of both profit and security. If you own land, you have a future; if you only have a salary, you are trapped in the present.

For the established professional middle class, land is usually the only tangible material asset they can provide for their children. So families are either cash-poor and land-rich, usually meaning that they are still living in a house they already owned well before the revolution, or they have sold some or all of the family home in order to fund an appropriately middle-class existence for the next generation. My teacher’s friend’s house is exceptional because it is so big and so old that, despite the present ramshackle state of the property, it transcends its existence as mere real estate and has value as a cultural commodity, which is why the municipality was willing to buy it. But the family story is all too familiar, and the usual outcome is reflected in the adjoining individual lots of the immediate neighborhood. If the family have all relocated outside the country, the property is mostly abandoned, like the house across the street, awaiting the resolution of competing inheritance claims so it can be sold for unsupervised development. If the family is still based in Tehran, they might renovate an upper floor into an apartment for married children; if the house is big enough, still has a garden and is located in a northern but easily accessible neighborhood, they can rent it for well above local market rate to foreigners whose income is in hard currency. If the house and garden are exceptionally large, the family can rent them out for weddings and other private functions, like the older building in the lot next door. But even a normal-sized house with a reasonably sized garden in an old neighborhood of north Tehran can most profitably be sold for development as a 20- or 30-story high-rise (zoning limits the height of most new construction to four to five stories only in the old mid-north neighborhoods). This is what had happened to the lot around the corner, where the building’s skeleton already overlooked my teacher’s friend’s family’s property. Their house was unusual: neither open in any way to the public, like the wedding-rental or the architectural showpiece across the other wall, nor abandoned, like the empty house across the street. To a working-class construction worker unfamiliar with the post-revolutionary economic trajectory of the old middle class, an inhabited villa that kept its privacy would be assumed to be an easy source of riches. Why not take some then? Except that we turned out to be such a disappointment; the dream of instant satisfaction, whether through a robbery or a revolution, isn’t as straightforward as it would have seemed.

It’s always hard to separate perception from reality, desire from disillusion. Reliable crime statistics are hard to get, but in recent years there certainly has been an increased sense of insecurity. After repeated crackdowns on the independent press effectively closed it down as a forum for public debate on political reform, the remaining newspapers have reestablished the pre-revolutionary practice of printing a regular crime sheet, including as many gory details as possible. Everyone knows everything about all the latest murders, robberies or assaults, and is convinced that Iranian society is a cesspool of moral degeneracy and random violence. [4] If you live in an American city, this can’t but seem like a joke. My own story is a case in point. Within days, it had made the rounds of social circles in northern Tehran, so that someone actually told me about the three women who were tied up in Niavaran, and I had to explain that I had been one of them. The story is by now widely enough known that it’s become part of my informal résumé, a kind of street cred. When you meet someone in Iran, you first go through a general accounting of shared references: who’s your family, where you live, where you went to school, who your friends are. The same as anywhere, but more personal than it might be in the US, since in Iran personal networks are kept track of more carefully, are more densely interconnected and are more necessary to the management of daily life. So it often comes up fairly quickly that I am one of the women — the foreigner — who was tied up in the neighborhood of Niavaran.

What this tells me is precisely that my story is well known because it is unusual. People tell the story not because they know the details about the tangerines, but because it’s shocking, and it’s shocking because random personal violence, although much feared, is relatively rare. People talk about it because, although it looms large as a social threat, the actual experience is unusual. It’s not common enough to be an accepted fact of life. I used to try to explain to friends in Tehran that the robbery hadn’t really been terribly scary, but that only led them to conclude I was some kind of fearless American superhero. I was left making vague relativist arguments; it wasn’t nearly as terrifying as the same sort of thing would have been in the US, where the assailants almost certainly would have been armed with guns rather than fruit knives. There is random violence in Iran, and it probably is increasing. But there is also a deeply embedded local culture of negotiation that relies on certain predictable social and material continuities. Being tied up in Tehran means that life still goes on. You eat; you talk about the past, the present and the future; you respect certain codes of behavior and authority while breaking others; you don’t quite know whether you are involved with something deeply serious or you are playing roles in a game; you’re kind of scared, but you have a fairly sure sense that everything will be all right in the end, if you can only get through the crisis of the moment.

This is the status of political life in Iran, writ large. Being tied up in Tehran is indeed the perfect contemporary Iranian political metaphor: fairly serious, a bit surreal, inconclusive. Was my experience a thriller, a melodrama or a farce? When the intruders exit, will life resume its moderately encouraging trend, or will the after-effects on the residents — both material and social — be too seriously disruptive? Thirty years on, is life in Iran still all about negotiating from one crisis to another, or are the shared contradictions of collective experience a reasonable basis for an inclusive bargain over the national future?



[1] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1986).

[2] For an overview of women’s social progress since the revolution, see Zahra Mila Elmi, “Educational Attainment in Iran,” in The Iranian Revolution at 30 (Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, January 2009); and Norma Claire Moruzzi and Fatemeh Sadeghi, “Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire: Young Iranian Women Today,” Middle East Report 241 (Winter 2006).

[3] See Kaveh Ehsani, “Municipal Matters,” Middle East Report 212 (Fall 1999).

[4] See the unpublished paper on public perceptions of street crime and insecurity by Mahsa Shekarloo, “Publicly Intimate Tehran: Desiring Subjects in Buses and Cabs,” presented at the conference “Private Lives and Public Spaces in Modern Iran,” St. Antony’s College, Oxford, July 2005.

How to cite this article:

Norma Claire Moruzzi "Tied Up in Tehran," Middle East Report 250 (Spring 2009).

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