‘It was like a scary movie.’ On the streets of Iran, coronavirus has forced this photographer to take a hard pause

A father’s memorial, a building-wide singalong, a phone call with a stranger. A photographer documents the strange, suspended state of life in the country.

By Newsha Tavakolian
photographs by Newsha Tavakolian
Published 22 Mar 2020, 17:22 GMT
The Iranian New Year is celebrated on the first day of spring throughout the country. Normally, ...
The Iranian New Year is celebrated on the first day of spring throughout the country. Normally, 33-year-old clothing designer Ida Afshar sells out of her supply of coats and sweaters leading up to the event. This year, due to the fears around COVID-19, she sold very little.

I head out to take pictures of the coronavirus crisis in Tehran. In Iran we are used to crises and we adjust quickly to new realities. I put on latex gloves, place a mask over my mouth and nose, and pack a steriliser in my camera bag. The new normal. Streets that would normally be bustling with people and cars are deserted. I try to breathe through my mask. It’s suffocating. I feel as if I’ve stepped into some dystopian future.

I pull the mask down. A sweet whiff of spring hangs in the air. Here, this means the Iranian New Year is upon us. For millennia, way before Islam and other religions, Iranians would start their year celebrating the eternal cycle of defeat of light over darkness. On the first day of spring families, friends, and loved ones gather to wish for a healthy New Year.

But this year we are told to stay home by the authorities. They mismanaged the crisis and are now, at best, struggling to contain it. Iran is one of the worst hit places. We don’t know where it will end and are worried.

One of my favorite uncles, a tall and gentle giant, is fighting coronavirus. At home. All hospitals are so full that they have placed beds in parking lots and stadiums. “Stay home, don’t move, maybe you’ll live,” overworked doctors told him. They gave him some pills. We hope he will live.

A pathway winds behind the author's apartment building in Tehran. Though the virus has emptied the streets, she continues to walk and photograph in her city.

The fear is everywhere. Fear of death, fear of the future. Fear of a terrible year ahead.

My past year has already been terrible. Like now with coronavirus, life forced me to stop and drop everything. It did so in ways I could’ve never imagined.

In the "Ekbatan" apartment complex in west Tehran, inhabitants come to their windows at 8 p.m. to dance and sing. Thousands of people are quarantined in the sprawling building.

I was one of those photographers who is always on assignment somewhere around the globe, for 23 years, capturing the suffering of others and trying to create awareness. There was predictability in my chaos: I was always running after deadlines, forgetting myself and those close to me.

Life can smack you in the face, and boy it smacked me hard.

The author's mother, Jila, stands in front of her bedroom window to gaze at the tree blossoming in the garden. It "makes her happy," Tavakolian writes, "at least for a moment."

I was having dinner in Amsterdam, when my husband called me from Iran to say my sweet 64-year old father, Behrooz, had just died of a heart attack in front of his eyes. Days after the funeral, in a totally unrelated event, Iranian press authorities revoked my work permit for no reason, banning me from taking pictures in Iran.

I was forced to make a hard pause. Good. Because more was coming.

Instead of hand shakes or hugs, a new greeting has taken hold in Iran: the foot tap.

Two months later our housekeeper was killed after she was hit by a car in front of our building. No ambulance showed up and we had to wrap her in a blanket to get her body out of the street. My brother was diagnosed with lymphoid cancer and had to take chemotherapy.

I withdrew in our apartment. Nowadays we call it ‘self-quarantine’, but for me it was plain old depression. My cameras stood gathering dust. For the first time since I was 16, I didn’t take pictures. I didn’t want to talk, I tried not to think.

The pain forced me to face my problems. I was a workaholic, always feeling guilty when I needed love or time for myself. This emergency stop broke my endless cycle of assignments and trips. The time it gave me made me see life’s beautiful, small details. From blossoming trees to the sparkle in my husband’s eyes, slowing down reignites your senses.

Status, fame, and, most of all, monetary growth—goals I had long thought were clear concepts—have become abstract and unimportant. My hard pause has made me feel freer and happier than ever.

My father died exactly one year ago. Our family had planned a big commemoration ceremony, invited guests, ordered food. But we had to cancel everything. It was very sad but what else could we do? We decided to go to Tehran's Behest-e Zahra cemetery. It’s massive and usually very crowded. Iranians love to visit their loved ones and especially do so in the weeks leading up to the New Year. But when we went, it was empty. There was no one there. It was like a scary movie almost.

Exactly a year after the author's father, Behrooz, died, she and her sister went to lay flowers on his grave. They had planned a large memorial ceremony with guests and food, but had to cancel it as the coronavirus outbreak spread through Iran. The cemetery, normally full of people in the time around the Iranian New Year, felt eerie and abandoned. "I tried to think of my father, but there were so many distractions," Newsha Tavakolian writes.
Photograph by Newsha Tavakolian, National Geographic

The virus also gives a lot of stress. My sister went out to buy flowers for my father’s grave, and we yelled at her because she wasn't wearing any gloves. Coronavirus is so contagious that you have to be careful and worried all the time. I tried to think of my father, but there were so many distractions.

Millions of inhabitants of Tehran are stuck inside during the coronavirus pandemic. The hospitals are so full that even infected patients are sent home to recover.

The Iranian minister of health announces the number of dead and infected each day on state-run television. "as a photographer I always want to know the story behind the numbers," says Tavakolian, "but this time it's just impossible."

Kamran Arashnia, a 34-year-old musician, has been self-quarantining for more than a month. When friends come over to visit he sprays them down with disinfectant.

I received my credentials back three months ago and can work here again. I walk the streets of Tehran with mixed feelings. I’m afraid of what the future will bring, of loved ones dying, or even of myself being in danger. But I take some comfort that this is a collective and global halt to everything. We are facing this ordeal all together, no one is alone in their house, because we all are. Pressure leads to unity.

Tired of staying inside the house, the author's sister dons a face mask to play badminton with her friends.

My mother’s phone rang the other day. It was a lady who had dialled the wrong number. They spoke for an hour, discovering that both their husbands had died during the past year. My parents, Jila and Behrooz, were married 46 years. My mother hung up and laughed. “I feel good,” she said. It made me feel good too.

At the same time, Iranian people have been worn down by sanctions, unemployment, and the threat of war. Some aren’t taking the coronavirus seriously, and continue to gather and travel. A catastrophe might be in the making. Happy New Year and a happy spring to everyone, everywhere. May we blossom as a civilisation.


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