Friday, May 27, 2005

Tehran Stock Exchange

Walking into Tehran Stock Exchange, the Bourse as it is known, I get the feeling this place is very different from NYSE or AMEX.

The building sits on a major north-south street in a busy section of Tehran. There is no evidence of any security which I am used to see both here and in New York.

Men with funny Farsi accents, from small cities in central Iran, sell a variety of business dailies right outside.

The doors are wide open but the entrance is crammed with men just standing there. As you walk in the stench of body odor hits you in the face and welcomes you to a packed room of men and a handful of women.

Everyone standing tightly, almost touching each other, and staring at a series flat-screen monitors for the latest updates on a wall. At the end of the entrance hall a few computers kiosks provides on-line information.

On far left, a guard in forest green uniform, one of the many of Iranian military outfits, stands by an unpretentious door which provides entry to the actual trading room.

Upstairs a glass rotunda provides a bird’s eye view of the trading floor and a big board which posts the latest changes and top movers. There are seats around the U shaped glass area but all are taken and much like downstairs the place is overcrowded.

Men sitting around debating and watching the changes as if they are at a soccer match as they play with their tasbeh, prayer beads, with one hand.

The place has a feel of an Off Track Betting location than a sophisticated stock exchange. I see a few men squatting in a corner reading their papers, and one guy fervently talking on his mobile phone with tension.

Shady middle aged Iranian men, unshaven and wearing buttoned up shirts with no tie huddle in small groups. Perhaps sharing the latest on a jockey or wheatear their horse runs well in the!?

There is no sense of urgency here. No sell sell sell, or men signaling for buyers. All the trading is done on the floor. Administrators, who sit behind computers, take calls and place orders inside the trading room.

I get the feeling some people are just here to watch their stock or may be the exchange.

After I take my pictures I swam my way back through the sea of people. Through my struggle with my heavy backpack, I hear “take my picture mister”. Younger men realizing that I am a reporter and perhaps a foreigner, practicing their latest international communiqué.

I smile and node and continue to push through. In this polite society you don’t need to say ‘excuse me’ or ‘I am sorry’ as you bang your way out.

Stepping outside and into Tehran’s heat, I now have to deal with midday traffic but I don’t miss the body odor and the constant touching.

Ramin Talaie – Tehran, Iran - May 25, 2005

Monday, May 16, 2005

Presidential Elections - Over 1,000 Iranians Bid for the Office

Scores of Iranians encouraged by family and friends turned up to the Interior Ministry seeking a bid to run for the 9th presidential election of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Most seemed to have walked off the street while many had found an opportunity to make a point. Only a few appear to have a legitimate claim and a chance for the office.

Over 1,000 Iranians registered as candidates for the presidency in the upcoming June 17 election. The list of applicants significantly higher than 4 years ago, up from 814, will be submitted to the Guardian Council for approval. Last term about 10 of those 814 were approved; officials at the ministry expect the same result this year.

Iran’s Interior Ministry’s building, a government tower with a helipad on its rooftop erected distance away from the street, was the filing center for this very first step in the Islamic Republic presidential election.

A spokesperson for the ministry, overwhelmed by the number of hopeful applicants, during this five-day period explained “the problem is that there is no age, education or even experience requirements”. Filing an application is open to every Iranians. The very first step seems to merely requiring applicants to know how to read and write.

Among the more powerful claimants for the position, front runner and former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani showed up on the second day to sign up. Other politicians such mayor of Tehran, former chief of police, and various members of Majlis (parliament) paraded daily to file the necessary paperwork.

A young revolutionary teenager, Mohammad-Ali Delgardi, 19, sporting a jet black beard and rosy cheeks from a town in central Iran, said he was simply doing his religious duty by filing an application. When asked about his chances of becoming a presidential nominee, he left it up to God’s will.

Another applicant, a 60 year old woman, Kobra Ashori, seemed to be there of out retribution. Ashori, currently unemployed, but with years of experience in various industries, thinks of herself qualified and as someone who will stand up for women’s rights.

She justified her lack of political experience by saying “for close to 30 years these people with no understanding of government ran this country” referring to the leaders of the Islamic Republic, “I am sure I can do a better job than them.”

Ashori proclaimed, “We need a female president to look after our rights,” raising her voice slightly for others to hear, “I would proudly vote for a woman in this coming election”.

Majid Hashimi, 70, a silver haired retired man with a gentle grandfather demeanor thinks friends and family’s backing will win him the job. Hashimi says he has no money to run his campaign, nor did he have a clear platform, but was banking on those who love him and have encouraged him to run.

Shrugging off a reporter’s question, a young woman in her early 20’s, replied “I came here to file an application since I had nothing else to do” during an interview with the state-run TV, suggesting frustration of her generation’s lack of opportunity.

At another table a woman clad in a black chador and hejab (Islamic covering) reviewed her application before handing it in. 34 year old, Fatima Kianpour, a professor at Tehran University teaching management theory, seemed to be the most qualified applicant in this field of merchants, clergymen, bakers, unemployed, housewives, retired, students, and a male singer.

The record breaking 1,010 candidates includes 89 women, perhaps a small sign of progression and push by Iranian women for more freedom. The youngest candidate is a 16 year old boy, a legal age in the Islamic Republic of Iran, while the oldest is an 86 year old man.

On May 25, the Guardian Council will publish its approved list of candidates. Disqualifying the masses among those politically charged individuals and moderates, including those who may seek closer ties with the US.

A spokesperson for the council has already announced that the current process will be examined and revamped by the next election. Making a suggesting to change the application process to be more fitting for the office of the presidency. However, the Guardian Council will continue to be the ultimate voice in selecting those individuals who should run.

Ramin Talaie – Tehran, Iran

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

I am Here

Eight hours earlier a young Iranian girl was sporting a wife-beater and low-riser jeans while parading her midsection in the Munich Airport. As we prepare to land in Tehran she is now covered in appropriate Islamic attire. She has a black scarf covering her hair and a tall tight fitting leather jacket down to her knees. Eight hours ago she was reading a book and smiling. Now she is silent with a blank stare.

A middle-aged Iranian woman in front of me was chatting with a German lady in broken English during the flight. As she gets up to leave she adjusts her head scarf concealing her hair. In Farsi she talks to a friend in a row behind me “why don’t men wear their hejab (Islamic covering)?” mocking the whole process as she fixes her scarf. Then she translates her conversation to her new German friend who is also wearing a hejab now. She explains, “men don’t have to wear this” pointing to her head, “they can wear short sleeves shirt and do what they want”, they both laugh. Carrying on the conversation she says,” I guess they are the boss” as they both laugh again like teenage girls sharing a secret. A few seconds later, the Iranian woman continues, “but inside the house we do what we want and we are the boss”, they burst into laughter again. She fixes her scarf once more which barley covers up to the middle of her head. With a frustrated gaze looking at her friend behind me and loud enough for others to hear, she says “this is Islam” in annoyance.

We have just landed in Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In less than ten minutes someone has already voiced her disapproval of Hejab. Scores of international flights are arriving bringing with them the privileged and well connected Iranians along with Asian and European businessmen. As we leave the plane we are reminded that there are no photography is allowed at the airport.

Tehran Mehrabad International Airport is a mess. There is no way to describe its inadequacies with regard to international standards and safety issues. The airport sits dangerously in the middle of this ever expanding city. The airport used to be on the outskirt of Tehran. However, years of poor city planning and neglect has allowed homes to be built all around the airport property. The new airport, Khomeini International, which was completed last year, is still not operational. The Revolutionary Guards took control of the airport and closed it down, once they learned that Euro-Turkish contractors were in charge of safety and flight security.

After the passport control and picking up my luggage, I make my way to the sea of people on the other side of the glass in the waiting room. It is amazing how many people are here. A large group bursts into cheers and push forward at the same time. They must have noticed their loved one making his way out. I feel like a fish swimming against the current. There must be 10 to 15 visitors for each traveler.

I finally step out of the terminal and take a big gulp the polluted Tehran air. As I look around for a taxi, a few gypsy-cap drivers rush up to me offering their services. After negotiating with a driver for a fair price we get on our way. Bargaining is a must her in Iran. I haggled him from his 5,000 Tomans asking price to 3,500. It is late and I am tired, but if you don’t haggle here, you get screwed.

It is 38 minutes before midnight and Tehran is alive as Times Square. There are no fancy neon lights or scores of tourists snapping pictures of each other. There are just men and cars. We circle the Azadi square in my driver’s white Kia. He suddenly starts chatting with me to which I node and look directly into the back of the cars in front of us. He says “there was a time when people used to go out and have fun agha (Farsi for mister)”. Not sure what his point was, I say nothing and nod to be polite. He continues “now people are out doing nothing.” I am still not sure what he is trying to say. The traffic is heavy and swarms of men, young and old are at every corner and turn. Perhaps women are camouflaged with their black chadors (a long black sheet covering head to toe) in the dark. The driver sighs out load “eey Khoda” beseeching God. Still, I don’t say anything, but he continues. “Now agha people go out because they don’t have nothing to do.”

Not even an hour into my journey in Iran and I have witnessed a woman’s objection for wearing hejab, and a taxi driver’s rant about the socio-economic issues of Iran. I have arrived, I am here, and this is Iran.

Ramin Talaie - Tehran, Iran