Tehran Stories: 'Pain, maybe, never mind,' said the doctor as he reached for his power drill

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It was an unpleasant surprise to come back from a holiday abroad and find no herbs in the greengrocer and no salads in the restaurants. On most Tehran tables there will be a big bowl of freshly cut basil, parsley, coriander, radishes and mint, with cucumber yoghurt, pickled garlic and other delicacies. The herbs give a clean, summery air that offsets the richer stews and rice dishes of Persian cooking.

A cholera scare is to blame. Although the epidemic has been small by local standards, with fewer than 20 deaths, it was caused by irrigation water, and the municipality has ordered the destruction of the herb crop in fields south of the city.

People have been very confused about the hygiene measures they should take. "You wouldn't believe what my neighbour was doing the other day," an Iranian friend told me. "She had a big bottle of disinfectant and was scrubbing down the outside of a watermelon. What an idiot! You only have to wash it with soap."

This ignorance is not due to a lack of medical expertise: the Iranian capital has a surfeit of experienced doctors and skilled surgeons, many of whom learned their trade on the frontline during the eight-year war with Iraq. These doctors treated more serious injuries in the course of a year than most of their European equivalents would in a lifetime. They also have very different ideas about what constitutes an acceptable pain threshold.

"Pain, maybe," said Dr Nasseripour, reaching into his bag for a suitable implement to extract two metal pins he had put into my wrist a month earlier for a fracture. My eyes bulged in terror as he briefly considered a power drill, before settling on a pair of pliers. There had been no anaesthetic. His face broke into a toothy smile as he rolled up his sleeves: "Pain, never mind," he said.

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On the city streets, fortune-tellers gull the anxious and the lovelorn who seek answers to the big questions in life. Nomadic tribeswomen read palms, Armenians look into coffee granules and street vendors sell sealed packets of verses by the great Persian poet Hafez, which are used to predict the future.

Zubaideh, a Qashqai tribeswoman, was sitting by the side of a busy road. She had been unable to see the future very clearly until her palm was crossed with silver, or in this case a crumpled green note bearing the distinguished features of Ayatollah Khomeini. With a rapacious glint in her eye, she predicted I would have many lovers.

Fortune-tellers used to advertise in newspapers, but the practice has been banned in the wake of several cases of extortion. Now the most common approach is employed by Afghan or Baluchi street children. They sell you Hafez verses for a few pennies. Some have small budgerigars that help pick the package for you.

"The moon doesn't compare to the beauty of your face; it is you that I seek; you are a king that none can better; and you are ahead of all your rivals," reads my message. I should be pleased: this is an unusually clear couplet by the enigmatic poet.

* * *

People are so used to the suicidal antics of motorcyclists in the streets of Tehran that the death of a stunt rider on TV caused little comment.

Javad Palizbanian, who once successfully vaulted the Karun river, planned a jump over 22 coaches. As he rode back and forth in front of the crowd, the organisers were pleading with him to abandon the attempt. They said the ramps were at the wrong angle and his bike was not powerful enough. Even on TV you could see he would never make it, and he didn't. But nobody seemed to think he should be stopped from trying, or that the tragedy should not be broadcast live.