Art, heat, and acclimation 8.21.2014 / by Walter Kitundu

Up at 5:30am yet again but I've accepted that my strategy is to lay low while the jet lag wears off and then emerge fully into Tehran. As it stands we head out for two or three hours as evening approaches. Depending on the location and amount of sunlight, temperatures can swing by ten degrees from block to block, 90 to 100 and back. As we make our way toward Haft-e Tir, a large open area at the heart of Tehran, we see:

a cat perched on the edge of a blue dumpster,

a street-side cobbler using his leather shaping tools to repair a friend's soccer ball,

a canary in full song near an air conditioner,


Cool air pours onto the street from chilled storefronts and offers some relief to passersby. Haft-e Tir is packed and the sidewalk is a dance floor. Lead or follow, but always improvise and stay on your toes. Shirin teaches me the finer points of street crossing so my dancing feet don't partner up with an oncoming car. 

We turn to follow a major thoroughfare with the sun blaring down and glancing up off the tiled walkway. Something seems wrong. My breathing is becoming a bit labored but I assume it's residual jet lag or anxiety and keep walking. Now it is getting hard to breathe through my nose and I feel like I can't quite extract enough oxygen with each breath. I try different things and soon realize this isn't mental but physiological. 

We are on our way to a park but reach a bookstore and decide to check it out. Within minutes by breathing returns to normal and I feel fine. I realize that the level of the street, the number of cars, the heat and lack of breeze, all serve to create a caustic stew of low lying fumes that for some reason I succumbed to. I wondered how everyone else seemed to be faring so well.

In the bookstore there was an interesting confluence of figures in the bio section as books about Obama, Ghandi, and Bin Laden nestled together. Upstairs was a warmly lit cafe and a resident DJ playing uncommonly serene music.

We stepped back out onto the street and continued. The semi-fresh, air-conditioned air in my lungs held me until we turned off and wandered down to a lovely urban garden, Parke Honarmandan. 

As the sun retreated, this cool green landscape provided shelter for elderly men playing backgammon, young couples, concrete soccer, outdoor ping-pong, grand sculptures, family picnics, feral cats, smokers, musicians, vendors, and a motley crew of extras that my fume addled brain neglected to draw into sharp enough focus to adequately describe.

We walked into the edifice on the south end and entered a series of photo galleries, browsed the gift shop, and ate in the cafe, disappointed that the garden side tables were all taken. Nevertheless, it was lovely.

Walking back we discussed some horrific current events and I tried to understand why it is that people are capable of harming each other in such brutal ways. This conversation took place as the sky grew stained with the deep blue of night and the air, now sweeter, flowed in eddies at the perfect temperature. I recalled two children we saw earlier, begging on the sidewalk, their faces coarsely disfigured by burns. I only saw one child and my imagination assigned the same fate to the other, unable to grasp why else they would be paired on the fume filled streets of Haft-e Tir.

When we re-emerged onto the thoroughfare, my breathing reacted to the thick air and I resigned myself to inhale deeply, to acclimatize, to get on with it. Walking back we smelled then saw fresh corn, grilling on silver-red embers, at the foot of a man seated on the curb. I only have to remember the glowing heat and charred corn and the smell comes back to me. It seemed a balm to my suffering lungs. Too many days on the California coast being force-fed Pacific breeze has made me tender.

We took a cab home and the driver maneuvered as if a leaf in a stream, flowing from side to side and, remarkably, every other leaf on the road knew the current too. We washed up on Malek Street and trotted home safe and sound, another micro-adventure complete.