The run-up to Persian new year should be one of the busiest periods for shopkeepers in the vaulted streets of Tehran’s grand bazaar, the centre of commerce in the Iranian capital. But in the days before Nowruz, the biggest celebration in the Iranian calendar, there is scarcely a customer in sight.
“Look. You can play football in the bazaar now,” joked Hamid, whose clothes shop has almost no customers. A bazaar usually noisy with vendors shouting to gain customers’ attention has gone almost eerily quiet.
“For 11 months, we struggled to keep the business going,” said Hamid. “We hoped to compensate for our losses in the pre-Nowruz market, which normally should be so busy that you cannot find space to drop a needle.”
Iranian new year, on March 20, is a time of widespread celebration but as authorities ask people to self-isolate to protect themselves from coronavirus, this year will be one of the quietest in living memory.
With Iran one of the countries hardest hit by the virus — so far 429 people have died in the Islamic republic and more than 10,000 have tested positive — people will be staying home instead of travelling to visit their family or going to parties.
“What kind of Nowruz is this when we won’t go anywhere, no one comes to see us, shopping centres are infected and everyone says nuts could transmit the virus,” said Razieh, 44, a housewife. “My husband and I will only see our parents and follow coronavirus news.”
After a year of crises — there have been widespread protests at rising fuel prices, a brutal crackdown, the assassination of revered military commander Qassem Soleimani and the mistaken shooting down of a civilian aeroplane that killed 176 people — many in Iran had been particularly looking forward to the new year celebrations, also known as Eid.
“After so many horrible things this year, I was looking forward to Eid to let my brain switch off a bit from bad news,” said Parvin, a mother of two teenage boys who has been forced to cancel their one-week holiday in the northeastern city of Mashhad for fear of contracting coronavirus. “Now, I’m stuck at home feeling more exhausted emotionally and sick of disinfecting everything.”
Even the Haji Firouz, the popular street entertainers who wear red and play tambourines, are usually seen at this time of year but have been in short supply.
With a low-key Nowruz planned and the atmosphere subdued, Iran’s frontline health workers have posted clips of themselves dancing on social media in an effort to lighten the mood. The clips, which have been viewed by millions of people, feature nurses in white hazmat suits, latex gloves and protective goggles dancing in front of coronavirus patients or in hospital corridors.
So far, Iran’s conservative leadership has made no public statement about behaviour that would normally be considered un-Islamic. With Friday prayers and religious speeches cancelled, there have been a flood of jokes on social media about how the theocratic state is finally loosening up. “Coronavirus has done so many things [ to damage] the Islamic republic that neither the US nor Iranians could do,” said Maryam, 39, a clothes designer.
For many, the impact of coronavirus on the economy has been worse than that experienced under US sanctions, introduced after President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal with global powers two years ago. Meysam, who runs a 50-year-old family business selling travel flasks, said that coronavirus has reduced his sales to almost nothing.
“This pre-Nowruz market means the weaker ones in the bazaar will be finished and only the stronger ones can survive,” said Moein, who sells fake Ralph Lauren shirts. “Our psychological health has been affected even more than our businesses.”
The fact that the bazaar thus far remains open reflects the fact that many shop workers cannot afford to self-isolate. Azar, a 40-year-old vendor in Tehran’s metro, said she had sold only two pairs of socks the day before, just enough to pay for her evening meal. “I do not have the luxury of staying at home. Who is going to pay my rent? At least last night I could buy one loaf of bread and cheese to have my little dinner.”
For now there are no customers in Farahbakhsh confectionery shop, which has operated in the market for about 80 years. Its shelves are full of freshly baked sweets, pastries and cakes, as well as a wide array of chocolate and nuts.
“Our sales have declined by 90 per cent compared with last year this time,” said a manager of the shop, who did not want his name published. “This is the worst experience we have ever had.”