Tehran, Iran – The azure that dominates Shia architecture, the Persian calligraphy and the Zoroastrian symbols adorning walls all testify to the beauty lying just below the surface of old Tehran, where the Grand Baazar provides more than just solace from the capital’s frenetic pace.
The monuments, mosques and mausoleums, jutting out onto traffic-engulfed streets, also attest to Iran’s rich history.
The Grand Bazaar is the biggest attraction of the old city, and has witnessed the cultural, social and economic changes of the Persian nation over the course of a thousand years – though many of its buildings are considerably more youthful than that.
The convergence of crowds and the quickened pace of shoppers easily gives away the location of the baazar, deemed the largest in the world, with 10km of winding corridors enticing bargain hunters, traders and merchants alike.
“This particular baazar is more than just a market of essentials for locals and souvenirs for tourists … it holds an important history as the former economic powerhouse of the country.“
The word “baazar” originated in Farsi, making its way to several nations that experienced Persian rule. When some of these became British colonies, the term was absorbed the word into the English vocabulary.
While modern shops selling mobile phones and flourescent lighting have replaced some of the traditional wares, this particular baazar is more than just a market of essentials for locals and souvenirs for tourists.
It holds an important history as the former economic powerhouse of the country. The traditional merchants of the Grand Baazar, dubbed “Baazaris”, contributed to the series of events which shaped the 1979 revolution and well before that, the constitional reforms of 1905-1907.
Although they have since refrained from active participation in politics, the consent and backing of Baazaris continues to be of utmost importance to the current administration – which is understood to have close ties with these influential constituents, who often are thought to identify with the conservative stronghold of Iranian politics.
But the blanket economic embargo imposed by the US in August added to the woes of an already ailing economy. These woes were exacerbated by subsequent round of economic sanctions by the European Union in early October. The value of the Iranian Rial has since depreciated by at least 40 per cent.
The latest round of EU sanctions, in which the Central Bank of Iran has been targeted – making most international transactions impossible for Iranians – led to immediate protests by foreign currency traders on the Bazaar’s Ferdowsi Avenue.
As merchants shut up shop, protesters chanted: “Dignified merchants, support us, support us.”
The overnight inflation caused by a sudden fall in the purchasing value of the rial has left alleyways empty at the baazar.
“Investors and people with savings here were alarmed by the sudden fall in currency value [and] have started to change to dollars, which further depreciated the value of the rial,” explained one Ferdowski Avenue black market currency trader.
But it is not just middle-class, white-collar Iranians who have borne the brunt of sanctions. The bazaaris themselves remain exasperated with the continuing economic downturn. Many feel the situation has worsened due to the stalemate between Washington, Brussels and Iran over the nuclear issue.
“The nuclear efforts have not yielded us anything positive yet. We have been the constant victims of this tug-of-war between the west and our government,” said one carpet seller, sat in his empty shop in the heart of the baazar.
“The nuclear efforts have not yielded us anything positive yet. We have been the constant victims of this tug-of-war between the west and our government.“
– Grand Bazaar trader
But life has been slowing returning to the corridors of the marketplace.
The Iranian government imposed austerity measures in late October, indicative of the dearth of foreign exhange in the country due to the sanctions. The sudden plummet in the currency value and the following government cuts sent shockwaves through the middle class.
“Imagine a middle class, the economic backbone of the country, that suddenly finds itself at the poverty line because the currency falls as much as 75 per cent within a day because of panicked investors – and we can’t have access to basic supplies in some cases,” said one woman, shopping while on her work break.
Underlying this concern is the case of Manouchehr Esmaili-Liousi, a 15-year-old from a nomadic tribe based near the city of Dezful. He was suffering with haemophilia, and died in November due to a lack of medication. Medics in Iran blamed disruption in the supply of medicines following the EU sanctions for Manouchehr’s death.
The sanctions do not directly target Iran’s pharmaceutical sector, but measures against banks and international trade make it difficult to access some medicines made outside the country.
Manouchehr’s death made headlines around the world and offered a glimpse of the potential horror that sudden supply cuts to essential items could pose for ordinary Iranians. Although such extreme cases have not been reported on a large scale, that some 80 per cent of Iran’s haemophilia medication alone comes from the US and EU is illustrative of the humanitarian consequences of blanket embargoes.
Following the US sanctions, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote: “Even companies that have obtained the requisite license to import food and medicine are facing difficulties in finding third-country banks to process the transactions.”
A finance student from the University of Tehran told Al Jazeera: “The one thing that sanctions have proven for decades is that they are ineffective in realising the West’s intentions of penalising the government. Their blanket measures only cripple those whose growth is necessary for an equitable economy.”
His classmate added: “The other thing that Iranians have proven to the sanctioning regimes is that they can find means around the barriers in terms of sanctions. There are so many multi-nationals operating here and international transactions happen despite the trade barrier.”
And this has held true for the most part, in terms of how the Iranian economy has evolved in a highly restricted environment, with many private businesses forming ties with the government in order to get around the sanctions. Inevitably, the attempts of the sanctioning countries to disempower the government has led to a dearth of an independent civil society movement disassociated from those in power.
Far from a monolith
After hours of walking through the meandering lanes of the bazaar, one eventually ends up at the Golestan Palace Complex.
The palace and its park stand in stark contrast to the commotion of the baazar. Once home to administrative departments and the royal treasury, they are solemn reminders of Iran’s former economic history.
A guide at the mostly empty palace grounds pointed to the Faravahar symbol and explains: “As a country with a rich heritage, we are far from a monolith, politically, religiously and culturally.
“Iran as a country – and we Iranians as a people – must be experienced both from within and independent of geopolitics.”
Here in the Iranian capital, where the old and the new interact in every facet of life, the Grand Bazaar stands testament to the perserverance of a people whose lifeline to the global marketplace is slowly being severed.