Saturday, 19 August, 2017

Couple Turns Their Cab Into a Rolling Library; ‘Books on Wheels’

Traffic can be stressful in Tehran, but Yezdany and Sarvebaz Heraner are  out to provide a more relaxing transportation alternative - a taxi  that’s also a mobile bookstore. WSJ’s Bill Spindle reports.

TEHRAN—The husband-and-wife team of Mehdi Yazdany and Sarvenaz Heraner were cruising the streets of Iran’s sprawling capital in search of targets.

They homed in on a young woman standing at the side of the road looking for a cab. Her hair was covered by a black scarf.

Pulling over, they swung open the rear door and she slipped into their white compact sedan.

“Do you read a lot?” a smiling Ms. Heraner asked the woman as they drove into traffic.

Samira Chigani, 26 years old, was thus introduced to the quirky brainchild of Mr. Yazdany and Ms. Heraner: a mobile reading room and taxi service, complete with chauffeur-librarian.

Books surround them, from Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” to Charles Bukowski’s “Pulp.” There are also works by Iranian standouts such as Nader Ebrahimi, Zoya Pirzad and Sohrab Sepehri.

More than 40 titles, 130 volumes in all, are stacked behind the back, shelved on racks over the passenger window, cluttering the dashboard, crammed into side pockets and stuffed in the trunk. When you pay the fare, you can buy a book.

Mr. Yazdany, a 35-year-old with a baby face and broad smile, asked whether the air conditioning was comfortable. He put on some Mozart, part of a collection of Eastern and Western classical music designed to create a peaceful mood and compete with Tehran’s noisy traffic.

“Welcome to our car,” he said. “Where would you like to go?”

Ms. Chigani is one of thousands of passengers who have been transported by Mr. Yazdany and Ms. Heraner’s modest bookmobile over the past five years. Their project began by accident, when the two book-lovers stopped in the rain to pick up a pair of forlorn-looking, drenched Tehranis having trouble finding a cab.

Stuck in traffic, the four passionately discussed books, which were strewed about the car because of the 41-year-old Ms. Heraner’s love of reading and job as an English teacher. The two passengers complimented Mr. Yazdany’s selection of classical music.

“They didn’t want to get out,” said Ms. Heraner after they reached their passenger’s destination on the outskirts of Tehran.

The couple, who met working at a bookstore, knew that they were on to something.

Tehran is a sprawling megalopolis, a city of 9 million residents and mostly dingy low-rise buildings arrayed across the foothills of the Alborz Mountains. On most days, in most places, traffic is at a tense, horn-honking standstill as Iranians try to get to work.

Iranians are stressed. The economy has tanked, a result of mismanagement and international sanctions from the country’s standoff with the international community over its nuclear program. And their transportation system leaves much to be desired. Tehran taxis offer mostly curt drivers, loud popular music and no heat or air conditioning.

The husband-and-wife team dreamed of offering Tehranis a few minutes of contemplative bliss amid the chaos.

Mr. Yazdany refitted the couple’s Saipa Pride sedan with jury-rigged shelves and a high-end stereo and video system. The couple stocked it with an eclectic mix of translated international best-sellers and Iranian classics. They wanted their mobile library to be an inspiration, calling it “Ketabraneh,” loosely translated as Books on Wheels.

“We want young people especially to see that whatever your dream is, you can do it,” said Mr. Yazdany.

At first their dream didn’t go so well. Mr. Yazdany didn’t know how to break the ice with his first few passengers. They reached their destinations confused. One alarmed man told them he had changed his mind and didn’t need a ride after all, but the couple saw him hailing a cab a few minutes later.

Gradually, though, they struck up conversations. They don’t push books on riders, they say, but they’re eager to recommend titles. They sell about 30 books a day, they say. But they give books away to interested passengers who say they don’t have a couple of dollars to pay for them.

One passenger even invited herself to dinner and has become a friend. Hundreds have emailed their thanks after rides.

“I couldn’t stop smiling,” wrote one man a few weeks back.

Sometimes the two park and unpack their wares in a public place, and once a motorcycle policeman hauled them off to the station for parking illegally. After charming the commander, and passing a few books around the precinct, they left with a special police-issued permission card identifying them should they wind up getting arrested again.

Most passengers are just grateful for a few minutes of peace and quiet amid Tehran’s urban din. The business has slowly become well-known. Iran’s culture minister took a ride in their car last year. The United Nations recently chose them to receive an international peace award.

The couple is now looking to expand the Ketabraneh brand by opening a coffee-shop-book-store-reading-room next to a private school. The school’s owner sees it as a way to encourage reading among his students. The two have started publishing some of their own titles, mostly biographies of inspiring figures including Nelson Mandela and Steve Jobs that Ms. Heraner writes in Farsi from public sources.

Back in the car, their passenger Ms. Chegini, who was on her way to her job as a tech-support specialist at an Internet company, asked for a book suggestion—something upbeat.

“In Iran today, we need a lot of hope,” she said.

Mr. Heraner recommended a copy of Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” the 1970 novella, which is one of her favorites, as well as “The Most Beautiful Book in the World,” a collection of short stories by the French author Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.

“You’ve made my day,” Ms. Chegini said, stepping out and heading off to work, with books in hand.

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