'Chance of a Century' International Investors Flock to Tehran
Part 2: Culture Shock
Bernbeck falls silent for a moment, but on his face one can read the disbelief of a man who is not only exhausted from the traffic of this megacity, but also from the political games of the other Western nations in Tehran. In front of his office door, he swings around again and says: "This here is not a matter of good and evil, or perhaps even the nuclear deal. It's really about a great deal of money."
"Salam, khub hastid, khoshhalam," Bernbeck greets a number of board members from the chamber of commerce who have been waiting for him. He bows slightly and places his right hand over his heart. Bernbeck knows Iran. As the oldest son of a Protestant priest, he grew up in Tehran in the 1970s. He experienced the oil boom under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. A few years later, he asked the Shah of Iran's daughter Farahnas for a dance after a day of skiing at a fancy resort in the mountains north of Tehran.
Then came the revolution in 1979, and the fledgling Islamic Republic made many of his childhood friends into Revolutionary Guards, who wore uniforms and sped through the streets in all-terrain vehicles. During the Iraq-Iran war in 1981, when blackouts were ordered throughout the city and the power was turned off, Bernbeck sat in the basement of the parsonage in the district of Gholhak, and played rummy together with his parents and siblings.
Today he speaks Farsi almost as well as he speaks German, and he hears the difference between t'aarof and the truth. T'aarof is a term that covers a broad range of polite etiquette that doesn't necessarily have to reflect reality. Westerners are often driven to despair by t'aarof, because they think they understand the content of the message.
When Bernbeck returned to Iran 26 years after spending his formative years there, he also had to deal with culture shock. The chamber of commerce was mired in the corrupt undertow of an Iranian mafia-like network before he took charge. Now Bernbeck is endeavoring to establish his notions of "transparency and truthfulness." Of course, it's not always easy.
Only recently one of his employees slipped him another one of those ubiquitous envelopes. It contained a heavy gold coin -- a bribery attempt. Bernbeck was asked to go to special lengths for a certain individual. But he personally returned the gold coin to the sender. "Send me flowers, cake, but nothing worth more than 100,000 toman," he said (100,000 toman is the equivalent of roughly 30).
Respect More Important than Peace
As someone who understands both worlds, Bernbeck has no problems imagining how the West came close to war with Iran. He says it has to do with a chain of observations, each of which is coherent in its own right, yet not necessarily understood by the other side.
An angry radical like former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could only be elected because he represented the will for independence -- even if he spent billions on the nuclear program, ruined the economy and perhaps even endangered world peace. The Iranians thought that he would win back respect for their country, says Bernbeck. For many Iranians, respect is more important than peace.
Bernbeck packs his briefcase and puts on his winter coat. He wants to make an official visit to the new president of the Iranian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, where representatives of business organizations from around the world are standing in line.
On Vali-e Asr, the most prestigious avenue in the capital city, he gazes at a young couple. The two are walking hand in hand, and the girl's headscarf is only barely covering her hair in a halfhearted attempt to comply with the law. She is wearing black eyeliner and bright red lipstick. Behind the couple is a group of young, pious women dressed in black full-body hijabs that don't reveal a single lock of hair.
Looking at the couple, Bernbeck says that Iran has become a divided nation. Many Iranians long for freedom and individuality -- and their dreamland is the United States, he contends. The others still shout the same old hostile slogans -- like "death to America" -- after Friday prayers.
German Interest Comes Late
President Rohani would like to move his country forward economically, but he is hardly capable of easing the strict rules that govern Iranian society. The young woman wearing makeup can expect to be disciplined by the guardians of public morals. Bernbeck spreads out his hands like a horn of plenty. He says that the economy could perhaps change the country. But can money and prosperity also bring liberalization?
Since the beginning of Rohani's presidency, the pressure on young people has been even greater than at the end of Ahmadinejad's term in office. Private parties are raided by the guardians of public morals, websites are shut down, and the sites' operators are thrown in jail. An increasing number of prisoners sentenced to death row are hanged from construction cranes in the city streets.
The young people are going underground, literally. Many parties, concerts and art show openings are held in cellars, because it is cheaper and organizers are afraid of being persecuted.
"They play with us, get our hopes up and waste our time," says Gelareh Sheibani, "and I don't have that much time." She is 28, making her old enough to recall the enormous expectations that she pinned on earlier so-called attempts at reform, which ultimately failed. And now the hardliners in the country intend to show Rohani once again that they still call the shots.
Sheibani's dark hair falls down to her hips. She is sitting on a large velour armchair in a small recording studio in downtown Tehran basement. She is not wearing any jewelry, but she does wear eggplant-colored nail polish.
Sheibani is a singer. But solo singing by women is forbidden in Iran because it has an "erotic" effect on men, according to clerics. Nevertheless, she has launched her professional career and now regularly performs abroad.
Bernbeck rolls with his SUV into the garage of his home in Gholhak. With all the foreign delegations in Tehran he has to work late these days, and his three children are already in bed. Bernbeck checks his emails and discovers another three requests for information from Germany: What are the labeling requirements for energy drinks in Iran? How can I organize a pasta sales network? And, last but not least, please compile an analysis of merchant marine jobs on the Iranian coast.
The Germans are arriving late, but they are coming after all.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
- Part 1: International Investors Flock to Tehran
- Part 2: Culture Shock