From 'Café Romance' to 'Darvazeh Ghar'; strolling through the streets of Tehran's District 12

Cafe Romance, photographed by author

From 'Café Romance' to 'Darvazeh Ghar'; strolling through the streets of Tehran's District 12
Mahsa Alami

Her fingers full of silver rings, her lips shines with a light red lipstick, her hair dies in blond, she is the manager of the café Romance who showing off an infinite row of her regular teeth enveloped with a sweet smile: ‘smoking or non-smoking area?’. Seems to be in her forties, she is gliding around her café taking customers to their seats with her long Tiered Gypsy skirt that is short enough to unveil her Giveh (Persian traditional shoes). The old style dark wood chairs and tables were decorated by a couple of books of Sadeq Hedayat, who was the herald and pillar author of literary criticism of modernity in the realm of fiction (Milani, 2004). The café was in fact an old traditional Iranian house (room after another room) which was renovated eight years ago. A group of teenagers rehearsing opera in one of the rooms for their next week performance in the café, ‘since four years ago they are performing opera on the last Wednesday of each month’ said the manager.  In the rooms, a soft jazz music satisfies guests, young boys and girls, who are sitting chick to chick on the sofa or on the chairs, talking or discussing a project on their Mac laptops. A long list of variety of Iranian teas and Turkish coffees, sitting next to Fettuccine Alfredo or the Caesar Cardini’s famous invention in 1924: Caesar Salad. Right outside the café (in Ferdowsi Square in Tehran Region 12) the city looks embroiled and noisy crammed with brokers who assimilate the business life into the sidewalks. The massive reconstruction of the 17-storey dilapidated Plasco shopping centre reminds everyone the national tragedy of the building collapsed in fire in January 2017 in which ‘200 firefighters were battled the blaze and trapped inside the building for several hours before it fell to the ground in a matter of seconds’ (Metabunk, 2017). Meanwhile, a circle of brokers crowded around a stranger, offering her dollar, shouting rates. The growing heat of the late August afternoon, the crowd and the noises of brokers in the pedestrian thrust people to disappear into Metro station. 

Tehran’s metro is a playful underground city where the sheer flow of public life intermixes the realm of the city with the narrow realm of the train. The train as a public domain commingled people in single containers, yet voluntarily separating them by gender. In a sense that spontaneity of social life, which is gained in the company of others, can be released in mixed wagons where men and women’s bodies bear standing or sitting next to each other, but not in women-only wagons. The women-only wagon has another form of playful public domain: the zone of comfort.
Women Only Wagon, photographed by author
The next station: Imam Khomeini’, a voice announced. Sank into their seats, tiding their colourful scarfs nicely, two old women were drinking a bottle of orange juice while laughing on their memories about public bath: ‘we had to take so much food with ourselves since we wanted to stay till afternoon’ and continue whispering. Probably they were reminding each other that how in old days married and experienced women were choosing their brides in the public bathes since they could see the young girl’s bodies naked’ (Ahmadi, 2014). Four girls sitting in front of them pretending to mind their own work through using their smart phones. A feeling of comfort arouses which forms a realm of privacy within the bigger public realm. Here, one forgets the Islamic regulations of the country and lets her scarf to fall off on her shoulders, braiding or combing the hair, make up or even change the scarf and their manto (a robe to cover the body). ‘I told her that you can do anything you want but not allowing him to take advantage of you, keep your dignity’ she finished braiding her long hair at last, turning her head around looking for a hawker who is selling elastic hair band. The vivid mobile temporal market of the women-only wagons offers a pleasure of easy shopping to the passengers. Regardless of their gender, saleswomen and salesmen (the only men who are allowed to enter the women-only wagons) are circulating through the crowd selling their inexpensive products. Some saleswomen wearing pollution mask in order to not get recognised by others. Carrying their items in a suitcase, facilitated with the latest technology of mobile card reader, they thrive their business by hanging their goods from the horizontal handrails to tempt passengers into buying. The rhythm of their voices is turning the wagon to a theatrical stage where a repeatable speech melts the distance between the speaker and the audience;

‘Ladies! This new mascara is made in Turkey not in China, its price is 10,000 Toomans in bazaar while I am selling it for only 5,000 Toomans’,

‘Ladies! Wooden set of forks and knives, is all you need in the kitchen just for 10,000 Toomans’,

‘Ladies! Let me apply this new technology of hair removal on your skin’,

‘Dearest ladies! All sizes of new bralettes in all colors, without wires and prevents you from breast cancer’.

Although the hawkers are not receiving equal attention, the high level of interaction between them and others, regardless of social class differentiation, advances the sociability of the space. However temporal, the train’s women-only wagon, celebrates an irregular, informal, non-linear urban form which stands for the host of face-to-face loose and free interactions among people. ‘The next station: Panzdah-e Khordad’ (accessing the Grand Bazaar, the name of the station recalls the demonstrations of June 5 and 6, also called the events of June 1963 in which people protested in Iran against the arrest of Ayatollah Khomeini). Everyone gets ready to get off the train. Passing through the escalators, people hearing vague noises from outside the station. By taking each step the noises getting loader. By the last step it turns to a jumble of noises from invasive traffic, to men’s shouting:

The best fabrics in the city;
Persian rug;
Cotton candy;
Handcraft framed silk rug;
Moslem kabab;
Dried nuts;
Tabriz leather shoes...’

Seems all Tehran is relocated in Grand Bazaar. The main access of the Grand Bazaar: Panzdah-e Khordad Street was pedestrianised in 2008 (ISNA, 2008). Here people orients themselves by the noises, smells and their vision or simply by bumping into other strangers and asking addresses. As Benjamin (1997, p: 169) declares ‘the stamp of the definitive is avoided here’. Buildings, all shops or storage, are boxes in two stories which are being used as a popular stage for daily commercial contact of people; the open flow between the inside and outside improvising the opportunities for the spontaneous interaction and the ‘casual physical mixing of people’ (Sennett, 2018; 223). The street life in front of the shops renders a porous relations between the solid (the buildings) and the void (street, square and alleys). 

Panzda-e Khordad promenade, photographed by author
Panzdah-e Khordad promenade, photographed by author
Walking through Panzdah-e Khordad promenade, there is Sabze Meydan (Green Square) in front of the main entrance of Grand Bazaar, known as the first square of Tehran, used as a place to plant greenery during Zandieh dynasty (1750-1794) and early Qajar era (1794-1925). However it was served as the main place for the public execution as well, until Amir Kabir (the chief minister to Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar) transmitted the executions to another place and dedicated the square to daily-based gatherings of people or ritual ceremonies. Keeping the same nature as a gathering place, today Sabze Meydan is functioning like a stock market as well, full of currency exchange rate traders and buyers. On the south part of the square, the crowd flows into a small whole; the main entrance of Grand Bazaar. Passing or intending to enter, people are stopped before the entrance to observe the infinite number of bodies mingling, appearing or disappearing in front of their very eyes: the bodies that ‘subsuming into the world of flux’ (W. Frank, 1991). The flux world of bazaar, the unrest ambience of a lunch-time Saturday, encouraging people to be part of a common everyday task:

When I was a teenage girl, my mom was taking me to bazaar every time she wanted to go there, so she wouldn’t be alone by herself. It was very masculine. Since we couldn’t go to a restaurant there, my mom was making sandwiches to have on the way in mini-bus from Tajrish to bazaar. In bazaar she was shy to ask the salesman a bra for herself, so she would lie to say she needs a bra for her fat old mom staying at home’, said a 63-year-old woman who lives in Tajrish, North Tehran.  

‘I was my father’s assistant since I was 4. He took me to restaurant here every day. Taking a whole pors (a huge helping of a dish) for himself and a posht-band (half of a helping dish) for me. But it wasn’t enough and I could never ask him to get me another one because that was the tradition of bazaar; shagerd (the assistant) should eat less than oosta (the master)’, said a 73-year-old rug seller, in the Grand Bazaar. 

‘In old days, bazaar had a specific respect and culture; bazaaries were pulling up the shop’s shutters by whispering ‘Bismillah-ir-rahman-ir-rahim (in the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate). Also the last two months of the year when families were getting ready for Nowrouz, bazaar became feminine with Chadori women, even foreigner women should wear chador back then (worn by Muslim women, chador is a large piece of cloth wrapped around body leaving only the face exposed). Whereas now, no one respecting bazaar’s traditions anymore. Women pouring into bazaar every day by metro with loose hijabs and heavy makeup talking and laughing to salesmen. Salesmen are not trusting each other anymore’, a 63-year-old bazaari explained.  

Sabze Meydan, photographed by author 
The Main Entrance of Grand Bazaar, photographed by author
Inside the Grand Bazaar, photographed by author
As the main witnesses of historical, social and physical changes of the bazaar, old bazaaries forming the main molecules of the Grand Bazaar’s body: ‘the Hajeb-od-Dowleh Timche (timche: roofed courtyards which confined with shops or chambers) was in fact a gift from Nasser al-Din Shah’s mother to Hajeb-od-Dowleh in praising the murder of Amir Kabir’, said a bazaari in his 80s. The active interaction among social differences creates a new draw based on the playful display of a collective manner: the ‘inclusion rather than integration’ (Sennett, 2018, 223). When it comes to the confines of the bazaar, there is a ‘closely knit hierarchical organisation in which people’s position and obligations to one another are defined and recognised (Whyte, 1993). For example the rich rug seller, who commutes everyday by metro from the most affluent part of the city, and the cart puller who comes from poorer part of the city in order to work for those rich bazaaries are representing the segmentation of social classes which are not mixing at all. It seems the sociability among people is happening in a transitory space. By concentrating the capital into the hub of the bazaar and keep it alive to beat as the economic heart of the country, the social fragmentation intensify on the bazaar’s periphery. The joy and excitement of being part of the playful life of the Grand Bazaar transformed into fear by reaching to the southern edges; Mowlavi Street and more towards south in Harandi neighbourhood. In Mowlavi Street (after 8:00 pm) vendors are not selling ice-cream or beautiful scarves. Instead they are selling one or two items which has been either found or robbed from a better place. ‘I was a teacher when I was young, now look at me selling watches on the street. Everyone becomes a thief these days, people are savage. This city has nothing to be loved, Tehran is always noisy with traffic horns’, said an old vendor. Sitting on a corner of the main street, wearing ripped dirty shirts, with their messy hair covering their face, three men smoking opium pipe. A man feels an obligation to admonish them. ‘Police is doing nothing here, this part of the city is less being watched. They only arrest drug dealers, it seems we are not citizens of this city to be protected by police’ said a young local. Walking towards south, for less than half an hour, the fragmented city falls into a sudden silence; a forgotten land infamously referred to as Darvazeh Ghar (literally, The Cave Gate, aka Harandi neighbourhood). Drug dealers and addicts dominate all narrow alleys and streets, poverty mirrors the intense social class hierarchy right in neighbouring Grand Bazaar. Whereas in bazaar that the social classes were more mixed and inclusive here is homogenised and integrated. The framework of everydayness is slightly still here.  Motorcycle echoes its raspy noise passing the alleys looking suspiciously at strangers who are new to the neighbourhood. The condition of city dwellers is more degraded here. ‘Tehran forgets us, we are not part of Tehran, no one cares about us. But every four years during the presidential election they remember that we are living here spending day and night on the streets. They bring food and paint the walls. We have no food, no shelter. Stealing is the only option’, said a homeless in  Darvazeh Ghar. The whole urban space is decayed, left the neighbourhood unorganised in a way that its social practice disappears; ‘As a women I’m not scared of these addicts, I am used to them now after 25 years of raising here. Every time I’m leaving the house, an addict is the first thing appears on the frame of the door. I’m sure some people see flowers when they are opening their doors to the city’, said a 25-year-old woman.

a homeless in Harandi's alleys (Darvazeh Ghar), photographed by author
The everyday narratives of the city of Tehran, can be read through the senses and voices of the main actors of the city; the people. Contemporary urban visionaries such as Sennett believes that the city should be a site for necessarily messy business of living not consisted of codes as means of organising and bringing order to the diversity and livelihood of the street (Sennett, 1976). The question is that how much the means and policies of organising the city, which are set to enhance the functionality of the city, have been fruitful when it comes to deprived and poor areas in cities? Does it mean that a poor, messy, noisy and disordered neighbourhood can be considered as a paradigm for the emergence of what Sennett refers to as 'a site for necessarily messy business of living'?


Milani, A (2004) Lost Wisdom: Rethinking Modernity in Iran, Washington, D. C: USA. 

Tehran Plasco Highrise Fire and Collapse (2017) ‘’, Available [Online] at: 

Ahamadi, M (2014) Parseh dar Ahvalate Teroon O Teroonia (Loitering around Tehran and Tehranians), Hila Publication: Tehran.

 ISNA (Iranian Student News Agency) (2008) The beginning of the second phase of Region Twelve’s traffic flow: The second phase runs for six months, ISNA, Available [Online] at:

Sennett, R (2018) Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City, Penguin Books: UK.

Benjamin, W (1997) One Way Street and Other Writings, second edition, Verso: New York.

Sennett, R (2018) Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City, Penguin Books: UK.

W. Frank, B (1991) ‘For a Sociology of the Body: An Analytical Review’ in: Featherstone, M., Hepworth, M. and Turner, B. S. (eds) (1991) The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory, SAGE Publication: UK.

Whyte, WF (1993) Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum, 4th ed, The University of Chicago: USA.

Sennett, R (1976) The Fall of Public Man, Penguin Books: England. 


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