subway culture

1 04 2008

[By Shideh]   When I walk to a metro station, whether it is in the Bay Area (California), New York, Tehran, or Boston, I look at the people around me and quickly plan my next move.  Is there a seat available? If so, are there older people standing? If not, who should I sit next to? If there are no available seats, where can I find a spot without getting hurt or being on the way?  Once I manage my way in and find a spot, I usually start day dreaming about the events of the day or something I am planning in the days to come, or read an article or a book.  I quickly lose count of minutes and my surrounding and only pay attention to the name of the station each time the train stops.  Recently, however, I have become more aware of the social aspect of subways.  I want to get to know the people with whom I happen to travel from a source to a destination.  After all, trains give us the opportunity to make many friends and learn about our surroundings. 

During our last trip to Tehran, when I entered a metro station I first noticed the majestic artwork on the walls and the neatness of the station as a whole.  Tehran-metro is truly one of the most beautiful and comfortable subways I have ever used.  People formed lines in an organized way, and were much more polite than other places.  In Tehran, at least in my experience, there is no need to ask people to get up when a pregnant lady or an elderly walks in.  When an older woman walked in, younger people got up and offered to help – a scene that is seldom experienced in NYC or even the Bay Area.  I was surprised to see that unlike busses, Tehran metro did not have separate sections for men and women — It turned out, however, that I had walked into the wrong section!

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Photo of Tehran Metro, courtesy of Bahadorjn 

Shawhin and I spent last weekend in New York City.  Taking metro in New York City is not trivial by any means.  You are surrounded by many different faces, races, cultures, ages, and economic backgrounds.  The social aspect of New York subways are fascinating.  The advertisements on the walls usually get my attention for a few minutes while I notice an excellent band playing music in the subway station.  I quickly see a homeless in the other corner begging for money and scolding those who refuse to help and an old man without teeth on the other side is asking whether I am willing to buy his metro ticket (which he seems to have stolen from someone).  I notice a frustrated mother on the other corner with 2 little boys who are being as loud as possible and are quite hard to control.  There are young girls putting on make up on the other side, laughing, singing, and joking every now and then while flirting with boys who pass them by.  Suddenly a group of rich coworkers walk in and quietly wait for the next train and look at their surrounding with disgust.  There is an artist on the other corner drawing our faces and is getting a good laugh at it while smoking something that doesn’t smell like cigarettes.  You might see anything and everything when you are waiting for the train in a New York City metro station — unexpected things. When the train arrives, all of us sit next to each other in crowded narrow halls of the train. 

In the Bay Area, seats are arranged in a way that passengers are not forced to sit next to each other or interact (rows of seats with their backs to each other, with the exception of a few in each train cabin).  In NYC and Tehran, however, the seats are on the two sides of the train and face the center.  Last Sunday, a fantastic group of break dancers were dancing in the train when we walked in to go to Soho and Café Habana from our hotel in Union Square.  I felt fortunate to be given a chance to watch the dance of a few young African Americans for no fee really while waiting in the train.  I was a part of the energy of the crowd that was traveling below the streets of New York while experiencing unexpected events, seeing new faces, hearing new music, listening to new stories, and watching new dances.  Imagine listening to young Iranian musicians playing Santour, Tonbak, Daf, and Tar in the subways of Tehran while enjoying a cup of tea and  waiting for the next train. 

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power of colors

29 02 2008

[By Shideh]   On our way to Iran from San Francisco, we stopped in Amsterdam to change planes.  Shawhin and I got our coffee and orange juice (I’m the coffee person and he’s the healthy one) and we were on our way to find the gate for the KLM flight to Tehran.  It turned out finding the gate was much easier than expected.  All we had to do was to follow the large number of familiar eyes who spoke Farsi very loudly.  It’s not common to speak loudly among Iranians, but somehow it seemed like we all wanted to make sure others noticed that we are Iranian, kind of like a signal, a way of communicating, a way to make sure other Iranians see us and can come to us if they are lost or need help of any sort.  

I felt the excitement of going home after 8 years; it was amazing being among all those familiar eyes, familiar accents, familiar smiles, or familiar complaints.  I realized in the middle of my excitement, however, that those eyes and accents were not our only guides to the right gate.  It was something much more visual and obvious: the black clothes!  Sadly I must acknowledge the current trend of fashion among my fellow countrymen.  Black, black, black.  All I could see was black, dark blue, dark gray, dark green, basically all sorts of varieties of black with different shades.  I told Shawhin if he noticed that we were the only ones not wearing black at the gate while we were waiting for our flight.  He laughed and nodded.  I saw that his happy eyes transformed to something more like worried happy eyes.  Well, I did not want to ruin this experience for him so I changed the topic.  I was however deeply concerned about the effects of this color on people’s everyday life back home.  Imagine living in a black city where colors are not widely accepted, are thought to be cheap, or are not even allowed in many public places.  I wonder if anyone in Tehran or other big cities in Iran worries about this, but there I was waiting at the gate deeply struggling with these thoughts and emotions.  I was emotional and excited with the thought of landing at the Mehrabad airport, seeing the Azadi tower when the pilot does a turn around it before landing, kissing the ground of my city, the city that really belonged to me.  My fear of black, on the other hand, was constantly on my mind.  I wanted to get the microphone from the flight attendant and ask all the passengers to change their outfits and wear brighter colors and was frustrated with my lack of power to do so. 

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A girl in Sanandaj, Iran, wearing traditional colorful costumes. Photo courtesy of Ddokosic

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