by ABI MEHREGAN
One man’s life on the streets of Tehran.
Last April, the newspaper Iran, which is run by allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, published a series of shocking photos of homeless people being beaten and manhandled by private guards reportedly hired by Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. Iran followed up with interviews and investigative reports aimed at exposing rampant mendacity in the mayoral office. While this was widely interpreted as another iteration of the long-standing Ghalibaf-Ahmadinejad rivalry in the run-up to next year’s presidential race, the publicity that it generated helped focus attention on a social phenomenon unfamiliar to many: the homeless worker. Here is the story of one such person.
Adjacent to Chamrun Parkway, there is a small square known as Street Sweeper Park. A bronze statue of a street sweeper, holding a broom, overlooks a filthy ornamental pool. On the pool’s far side is a metal basket, holding metal flowers. To the right of the statue there are some benches on stone legs. On one of them a homeless man in lying down. Even though the weather is cold, he is in a deep sleep under the weak winter sun. Around him, you can see his meager belongings; his hat has fallen to the ground. The fountain in the middle of the pool is, as always, not in operation. A municipal park worker in his green uniform leans over the pool, scraping the scum away with a small brush. The homeless man wakes up, looks around, picks up his hat, puts it back on his head, rubs his face, and sits upright on the bench.
This is Seyyed Hassan, who lives under the ceiling of the sky. He is 63 years old, of medium height, broad shouldered, with yellow upper teeth and no lower teeth at all. When he speaks, you can see his tongue through the space where his teeth used to be. His face is covered with a white beard. He rarely looks at you while speaking. He has a kind face, but there is no smile on it. His hands are big and dirty, and there is a silver ring with a glass bead on one finger. Look at his neck and you can see that, underneath his black coat, he is wearing five or six shirts, one on top of the other. His dusty coat is buttoned all the way up. He’s wearing a dirty white pair of pants. There are two bags, one small, and one large, with two pieces of tarp around him. These are all of Seyyed Hassan’s possessions.
As one can hear in his accent, he was born in the Galoobandak neighborhood of Tehran. A street vendor by day, he sleeps in the city’s parks at night. He does not have a real home. He says he comes to Street Sweeper Park two or three times a week. He talks about his homelessness: “The first time I left my house I was 14 years old. I was a shy teenager, but I left our home because my parents were fighting all the time, and I could not take it anymore. That day I spent walking around the streets till nightfall. I did not have a penny in my pocket, and I was hungry and the weather was really cold. My pride did not allow me to return home. Tired and hungry, I huddled in a street corner, but I could hardly fall asleep because of hunger and the cold.
“In the morning I started walking again, cold and hungry. Around noon, I came upon a street vendor selling sandwiches near a school. I stood by a tree on the other side of him, dreaming about having one of his sandwiches. A lady was passing by, looking at me she asked why I don’t have enough clothes on in that cold weather. I did not answer. She asked if I was hungry. I lowered my head and did not answer again. She asked if she could get me one of those sandwiches, and I said, ‘No, thank you!’ She went and got me a sandwich anyway. I was too embarrassed to accept the sandwich. She insisted, and also gave me two tomans and told me to go back home. I could not accept the money, but she put it in my hand anyway. I waited until she left, and then started eating the sandwich. I was so eager to eat the sandwich that I realized I had eaten the two-toman bill with it too! I remember that day as one of my best memories.
“My parents’ fighting continued. Eventually, I found some friends, but they could not fill my parents’ place. Knowing my situation, some of these friends really abused me. I ended up going to jail because of some of them. I was really disappointed. I trusted everyone, and everyone misused my trust. To be a good friend, I did everything I could for them. The worst of them was my best friend who gave me a package to deliver, which I found out contained illegal drugs. I could not understand why they were doing these things. Because of them I was arrested, but they all said they didn’t even know me. Once, with a bunch of them, we went to Shiraz. But in the middle of the night, they stole my money and my belongings and left me alone there. I had to walk to Yazd, because I didn’t know what else to do. I realized that I was just a pawn in their hands. I was so proud and shy that I decided I would walk all the way to Tehran. On the road, I helped a man who had a flat tire, and he agreed to take me back to my home in Tehran. All this happened before I was even 30.
“At the age of 30, there was a transformation in me. I became a different person. It was as if I was born again. The world had a different meaning for me. I realized that if I got close and friendly with anyone I would end up being hurt again. I realized the world is full of people who should be kind to each, but they are not. They don’t know how. They hurt each other as if it is part of their nature. That is when I realized I don’t even know this world of ours. I didn’t want to wall myself away from the world, but at the same time I was not willing to get into any friendships either. That’s how I chose to live among people, but without friends. I can’t really complain.”
Seyyed Hassan is not willing to mingle a lot. It is hard for anyone to know where he is on a given day, and where he will be tomorrow, on this or that street. He says, “If someone wants to get close to me, I ask them to keep their distance. It is not that I don’t want to be friendly, but the meaning of friendship has changed for me. I don’t have very many friends. I do not confide in anyone. Whenever I get too lonely, I think of my twin girls. I talk to them in my solitude, as if they are sitting next to me, sometimes for hours and days.”
In 1985, amid Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq, he married a girl from the north. Because of the missile attacks on the capital, she went back to her home province to live with her parents. Seyyed Hassan brought her belongings north himself, returned to Tehran, gave up their rental house, and became homeless. He used to visit his mother, who lived on her pension after years as a textile industry laborer, twice a week. Eventually, his brother insisted she move to a retirement home in Kahrizak. She died in 1995. This was Seyyed Hassan’s bitterest memory. He cut off contact with his brother and refuses to accept his share of the inheritance from the sale of his mother’s house.
Seyyed Hassan talks of walking the streets as one of his sweet pleasures. Even though he went to school for only two years, his command of the language is phenomenal. He says he practiced his reading skills on street signs and his speaking skills by listening carefully to people. He is very polite and always says hello to passersby.
“They don’t really bother me, and I am happy about this. A lot of them avoid me because of my clothing. They think they might get dirty. But I see them, listen to their conversations, hear their fights and disagreements. I find out about their troubles and difficulties without even asking them. Alas, I can’t do anything for them. Who will ever listen to me? I wish I could take some of their burdens away. Although I am sure they would be very surprised if they heard me say that.”
He sells toys as a street vendor. He earns around 15,000 tomans a day ($7 to $10, depending on the exchange rate). He uses about five thousand for his food, and saves ten. At the end of the month, he sends this meager amount to his family in the north. He realizes that it is not much, but it’s still of some help to them. When he talks about his family, he stares into the distance and speaks very calmly.
“Every few months, I go to visit my family. I saw them on the 16th of last month, and I won’t go again until after the Nowruz celebration. That will be another three months. I know there are a lot of people visiting during Nowruz. I am not saying I don’t like guests and family visiting. You know they say guests are God’s gift. But their house will be very busy and crowded. I’d like to go there when it is quieter, so that I can see my twins in peace. They are nine years old and they go to the same school that their mother teaches in. She is a first-grade teacher, and my twins are in third grade.
“I also have two boys. My eldest is a lot like me, very quiet, and does not talk much. He is doing his military service. From early on, he earned his own living. He uses scrap metal and makes weird sculptures out of it and sells them. My wife is a real hard worker. During spring, between March and June, she works as a laborer planting rice in other people’s rice paddies. She has to stand in water and mud up to her knees, battling leaches and other parasites in the water, bending to plant rice. As her wages, they give her rice once it is harvested. That is how she has enough rice for the rest of the year. She is a hard worker, who single-handedly raised the children, and was a father to them as well.”
When he goes home, he stays just four or five days. He likes it there. He likes to see his twins, but he loves living on the streets of Tehran more. Seyyed Hassan’s wife knows that her husband does not have a home in Tehran, but she can’t do anything but accept this fact. Now that he is old, there is no work for him in the north. Seyyed Hassan says he does not have a problem with his plight. Though his life is truly hard, he is thankful that he is not begging on the streets. He can take the difficulties, like today’s cold weather, in stride and sees this as God’s special attention toward him. He says that as he bears more burdens, he thanks God even more.
Ever since he was robbed, he collects his belongings every day and carries them with him. The theft occurred some time ago. As had happened before, some municipal workers told him not to return to a certain park. They also forbade him from using a nearby locker. When he didn’t pay that any attention, his belongings were stolen and no one accepted any responsibility for it. With the loss of his inventory, he had to go to the bazaar and procure toys from his regular supplier on installment, so that he’d have something to sell and live on. Now he walks around the streets of Tehran with his bag in hand and spends the night on whichever street corner he comes upon. He hates to be disturbed, and that’s the reason why he does not speak to anyone about his life. He moves constantly. So far, the police and municipal workers have mostly left him alone. They don’t inquire where he’s coming from or where he’s going. He is on his feet all day and does not ask for help from anyone.
Seyyed Hassan follows the news of the day. He hates wars. He likes to see everyone happy and content. He wishes injustice all over the world could be eradicated. He says if he could be born again, he would ask God to bring him back as a guide, someone in a position to solve people’s problems and give them back their lost hopes and happiness. Although he knows there is no such thing as reincarnation.
Abi Mehregan is a pen name. A labor activist, the author is on the staff of Iran Labor Report. File photos.