Money, Money, Money…

Money matters a great deal in Iran.

More than you might imagine if, like me, you often lie in cushy western places where the cash in your hand can easily be taken for granted. People in Iran have to face vastly more change and pressure on their money than most people in most places. The currency is hit hard by international sanctions, quite mad inflation has bitten (almost) everyone but especially the poor and the middle class, and doings things we take for granted such as buying a book on Amazon, or a song on iTunes, is impossible for Iranians due to those same sanctions.

Sellers of almost anything imported in Iran have to either resort to Hawala transfers (a system of ‘you pay me, and my friend will pay your friend in Zurich’, which, as you can imagine, takes a lot of trust), or lugging bags of hard currency around the world which, as you can probably also imagine, raises the ire of most national police/Customs services for infringing cash transaction reporting regimes.

So, money is a bit of a problem.

It is also, for foreigners, a bit tricky to get a handle on at first. It takes a few weeks with any new currency, of course, but the Rial tends to be a bit harder to fathom at first thanks to some archaic references.

Maybe the best way to describe the system is to point out that the official currency is the Iranian Rial (IRR). By the way, a little known fact, the Rial was, as at the start of 2013, the world’s LEAST valued currency – which really takes some doing, as you can imagine, competing with the likes of Zimbabwe and the Congo.

Anyways, the Rial, is a bit like the dollar for Iran, but in practical terms because of its very low value, more like the cent. It is the most basic unit of legal tender in Iran. Spending 1000 of them is almost impossible; its value measured more for how well it encompasses  your old chewing gum.

As another aside, and another little known fact, the name derives from the Spanish real, which was for several centuries, the currency in Spain. Why? Sorry, my genius has limits, I have no idea why this is so. Anyone can tell me, please drop me a line.

For the visitor, or the new arrival, where it gets confusing is that people don’t talk about Rials. Only foreigners do. Locals talk about toman which, by the way, used to be a formal currency name for Iran. But everything, or rather, most things, are priced in Rials when you take a gander at a price label (if you know your digits). But when you talk prices, it is the toman that rules.

It so happens that despite being used everyday, the toman is no longer an official unit of Iranian currency. However, it used to be 10,000 dinars in the Ilkhanate Dynasty – which was actually a Mongolian House, not a Persian one, from when the Mongols ruled this part of the world. So, yes, it’s a load of old cobblers, dating to the 13th century to be precise. Why toman is still used is a bit of a mystery to a foreign devil like me. But, perhaps, just sometimes, ‘why?’ is an unimportant question.

Anyway, one toman is ten Rial. So, clearly, the easiest way to do things is read the figure in Rials, drop a zero, and this is your toman figure. Until you go to the checkout when all the talk is 3 zeros less than you figured. This is why: 500,000 Rials, for example, is the same as 50,000 tomans, which is expressed variously as 50, or 50,000. So, it is essential when talking with people to quite constantly clarify when they say 50,000, do they mean 500,000 Rial? I often just flick up a note and raise my eyebrows. If they take it, it was enough.

By the way, this is how the Rial looks (100,000 of them):

 100000_IRR_complete

Exchange rates

With international sanctions, and the closing off of the Iranian economy from much of the world, the currency has come under enormous pressure and has been devalued quite seriously against, for example, the US dollar. The Rial has been on a VERY tough ride.

It was slowly losing its value from 2003 (when a dollar got you about 8000 Rial) right up to 2011 (when a dollar got you 10,800 Rial), but then it really took a nosedive.

In January 2012, when new, tougher international sanctions were announced, the Rial lost 50% of its value in a day. Poor Iranians just had their monthly wage obliterated.

By September of the same year, the Rial had dropped to 26,500 Rial to the dollar. By early October 2012, the poor, haemorrhaging Rial had plunged even more dramatically to 38,500 Rials per USD. In the 12 months leading up to the last Presidential Election, won by President Rouhani, the Rial lots more than half its value.

It has come back a bit lately, rebounding around 20%. Last week, I changed dollars (at an official outlet, not black market) for 30,000 Rial each. One presumes confidence in the President’s ability to see the end of sanctions will see the currency improve as long as the omens remain positive. Some more bad news, however, and it will sink again like a concrete hat.

A friend of mine in business for himself in Iran told me 2012 was such a terrible year for his business (import), because of this currency fluctuation. He recounted to me how each day he called his broker and asked what the rate was to the dollar, and the broker replied, “Depends, do you want the rate now…. (three second pause) … or now?” J

Street Value

So, what does the Rial buy you? How much are things?

As I said, inflation has bitten badly. You will continually be forking out large wads of currency to buy anything. I got some photos printed the other day, professionally, and I had to fork out 9.9 million Rial. or about 300 USD. Grocery shopping for things like milk and bread, or fruit and veg, and you don’t come home with more than two plastic bags of things for 2-3 million Rial. It seriously runs out of your hands for the simplest things. Doing anything, costs you millions. Your first day in Tehran, change a few bucks and you are a millionaire. But don’t worry, it doesn’t feel very satisfying for very long to be a millionaire when that is what you spend on fruit and veg the same day.

Redenomination

So, with everyone talking millions, the idea comes that there might just be a few to many zeros these days.

There is, and has been for a long time, talk of redenomination (for the layperson, this means dropping a handful of zeros). The issue has re-emerged and been under discussion, as a result of issuance of larger banknotes over the last 10 years. At present the largest banknote in most common use is 500,000 Rials. People talk about a 1,000,000 Rial note, but I have yet to see it. The 500,000 Rial note buys you two and a half pizzas. Or one packet of Lavazza ground coffee.

It is not a simple matter though, apparently, to lop zeros from your currency. Opponents of redenomination in Iran cite more inflation resulting from psychological effects, and an increased ‘velocity of money’ (not the same, so a banker-friend tells me, as the speed at which money flies out the window when tied to a rock, but rather the number of times a Rial is spent to buy goods and services per unit of time .

In 2008, an official at the Central Bank of Iran was reported to have said the bank planned to slash four zeros off the Rial and rename it the toman. He backed this up by then printing two new travellers cheques, which now work precisely as banknotes, and these are our 500K and 1m Rial notes. They have the figures “50” and “100” written on their top right hand corners, respectively, which is seen as the first step toward a new currency, which hearkens back to the earlier comment I made about how 500,000 Rial is 50,000 toman, and also called just ‘50’.

The debate, and plans, continue. There is no clear sign of any zero-lopping anytime soon. Out of interest, one source has it that a website to poll the public on the redenomination plan was launched on 21 July 2011; the public was allowed to vote on how many zeros to cut and what the new currency’s name should be. Preliminary results indicate that four zeros will be cut (in line with the government’s recommendation) and that the name will be changed to the Iranian Parsi.

Thanks for the pizza, that will be 3 million Rial. Oh, you mean 30? No 30,000. Great, so how many Parsi was that?

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Questions of water…

There are two main questions about water that visitors to Tehran ask.

The first one is – can you drink the tap-water?

The second one is – do you drink bottled water?

Let me try to answer them in this order.

Tap Water

 tap-water

On the issue of tap water, in the following, not being an egghead myself, I will try to cut through some of the technical language but forgive me for including some. Sometimes there is no easier way to say something without losing meaning. If anyone wants the detailed technical studies on which I base my comments, please just drop me a line.

So, here we go. 🙂 The only problem with Tehran tap-water is not pollution, per se, but hydrocarbons.The water is safe enough to drink, brush your teeth, and boil up your pasta if you are visiting Tehran. I might even say it is nicer tasting than tap-water I have had in many places, including my home town of Brisbane (which – sorry family and friends living in Brisbane still – after you have been away a while, is a taste that takes some getting used to). In my view, Tehran tap-water has something particular in its taste, and its smell. For example, I have noticed it makes Earl Grey tea taste very odd, and have not yet worked out why that is. For dental health, it is also worth saying that Eau de Tehran has respectable levels of fluoride in all seasons.

So overall, it is not a bad tap water. It is not polluted in the way that term is technically understood by, for instance, the WHO.

However, the one major issue with the Tehran tap-water relates to a thing called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. These hydrocarbons come from human activity. They reach water bodies mainly through dry and wet deposition, road runoff, industrial waste-water, leaching from creosote-impregnated wood, petroleum spills, and fossil fuel combustion. These are a problem because, depending on their levels, they are teratogenic (which, for the layperson, means causing malformations of an embryo or fetus), carcinogenic (which, for the layperson, means causing cancer), and mutagenic (which, for the layperson, increases the frequency – via DNA – of mutations in an organism) and may induce lung, bladder, as well as skin cancer. In addition, exposure to high levels of PAHs has been shown to produce immuno-suppressive effects and is capable of causing oxidative stress during its metabolism.

So, now that you are suitably terrified by this lead up, let’s wrap this up quickly. While the PAHs in Tehran’s tap water have been shown to NOT be polluted according to the WHO definition, this definition is somewhat limited. It does not go far enough, as it only focuses on the concentration of benzopyrene, which is used as an indicator of water pollution. The definition does not, however, take into account the molecular weight of the PAHs found. I am informed, this matters a great deal.

Tehran tap-water’s single-most serious problem is the average occurrence of PAHs with high molecular weights, higher than desirable for human consumption.  Cutting to the conclusion of the studies in this area: carcinogen PAHs are present in the drinking water of Tehran in levels higher than those defined by the EU as acceptable, and can cause threats to human health. I am still, however, boiling my pasta in it. Just not making my tea with it. Enough said.

Bottled Water

index

There is not too much research out there about bottled water quality in Iran. One very interesting study, however, was aiming to look at fluoride levels. Incidental to this was an assessment of whether the makers of bottled water were being honest in their flouride content labelling. I know what you might be saying: flouride content alone is not a litmus for water quality. That is certainly true. But if the veracity of labels is a litmus, then this study can be useful to guide us as to water to drink and water to avoid. A good enough guide for me.

It turns out, the bottled water in Iran is overall of good quality and mostly safe. However, there is more than a small amount of falsehood in the labelling. Most bottlers were found to have overstated their flouride content, some dramatically so.

I live by the rule of thumb that if I find someone is telling fibs about the content of their water, drink something else. If truth in labelling is a good consumer indicator, then brands to avoid based on this study include: Damarvand, Damash, and Bisheh. Brands that came out of the study as having the least false labelling (remembering all were at least a little inaccurate, and some – presumably – just plain lies), are VATA, Kouhrang, and Nestle Purelife,

When out and about, or living, in Tehran, it pays to be picky about the water bottle you pick up at the corner store.

So, hopefully this does not put you off your tea. That’s all for now.

Oh, wait, PS: Before anyone tells me about the threat of dioxin in plastic water bottles left in the sun, or frozen, I will tell you this is an urban legend. Purported to be a Johns Hopkins University study, the university denies any such research, and denies any such finding. (http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/healthyliving/cancercontroversies/Plasticbottles/)

For Men and Boys, on Women and Girls

I hope readers of this blog will forgive me for a moment if I digress for a short public welfare message, about women and men, boys and girls.

People, the world is not as it should be. We are out of balance, and not enough is being done by men and boys to make sure that we achieve the balance necessary between men and women.

It is not enough to say that we need equality. It is not enough to say equality is something that we strive for; that equality is an ideal.

Equality between men and women is essential. Equality between men and women, boys and girls, is like oxygen. Equality is the very stuff of life.

Men and boys who actively block equality are depriving our world of the oxygen we need to co-exist as man and woman.

Men and boys who deny, or fail to acknowledge equality, risk suffocating the rest of us,

Men and boys who do not even realise the little things every day they do to deprive us of equality between men and women, may as well be holding a pillow over our faces as we wither.

Wake up.

Men and boys must wake up to the existence of inequality, the everyday reality of inequality, and do everything within their power to make sure we can breathe.

Stand up and speak up for equality between men and women. Every day. Every minute.