• World

The Great Chicken Run of Iran: Why Poultry Makes Tehran Anxious

6 minute read

In Iran, it’s a fowl time. Due to the Iranian rial’s severely diminished value, which has hiked up the costs of imported chicken feed, chicken prices have risen sharply of late. Open-market chicken prices in Tehran hover between 7,000 and 8,000 toman per kilogram—a bit over $1.50 per pound, a price many reports claim is nearly three times that of last year. (In the U.S., prices stand below a $1 per pound.)

But Iranians have found at least a bit of comedic value in the “chicken crisis” that now looms over the country, a consequence, in part, of international sanctions aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear program. A few weeks ago, a new meme emerged on Facebook among younger urbanized Iranians mocking the Iranian police chief’s message to refrain from broadcasting television footage of Iranians eating chicken — images, he claimed, that could provoke class conflict.

“Some people might not be able to afford [chicken],” Police Chief Esmail Ahmadi-Moghadam was cited as saying. “Some, observing this class gap, will say, ‘let’s grab a knife and get even with the rich folks [who can afford chicken.]’”

Chicken is ubiquitous in Iranian cuisine and its scarcity offers a glimpse into the country’s social history. “During harsh economic times before the revolution, kids at my school used to collect chicken bones to boast to their friends that they ate chicken the night before,” said a middle-aged barber in northern Tehran, who himself seemed unfazed by the chicken craze.

Others were in the grips of it. On the heels of Moghadam’s comments came six-hour chicken lines at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Mossalah prayer hall, where authorities held a ten-day festival of sorts in which producers of various foodstuffs directly release their goods into the market—chicken included—at discounted prices during the holy month of Ramadan. Since then, the meme has taken on a second wind, playing off myriad pictures in the local mediaof throngs gathering at markets in cities all throughout Iran to collect their share of government-subsidized poultry.

One popular shared image compared lines of eager customers clamoring for iPhone 4s in the U.S. to Iran’s very own “iMorgh” (read: iChicken) phenomenon. The chicken craze even spawned a bit of unrest in Neyshabur—a town on the outskirts of the northeastern Iranian city of Mashad—which recently witnessed a small-scale demonstration against the high price of chicken. Subsequent news reports indicated that no one was injured or arrested.

Several days ago outside the entrance of the Tajrish Bazaar in northern Tehran, the chicken line struck again: Iranians of all socio-economic backgrounds massed in a shapeless clump behind a recently parked semi-truck that had just docked near the bazaar, its backdoors propped wide open. Above hung a banner that loosely translates to “God’s Banquet Project,” a term used widely during the holy month of Ramadan when food is distributed at subsidized prices—or sometimes for free—in keeping with the holy month’s messages of generosity and charity. The truck’s operators were handing out Costco-sized boxes of pre-packaged, frozen chicken.

The crowd, most having no idea how much the chicken cost, where it was from, when it expired, and whether they could buy it in bulk, decided to abandon their daily routine and line up anyway. The mere hint of “4,000 toman chicken” (referring to the government-advertised 4,700 toman per kilogram chicken) had attracted droves of curious shoppers who had only a vague idea of what to expect. Information eventually filtered from the ad hoc cashier’s desk down where the line began: the chicken was frozen, of Turkish origin, and required the purchase of an entire 10-piece $35 box all at once.

“You take two, I’ll take three, and you take a few,” bartered one woman, who after learning that the chicken-truck’s operators would only sell the boxes in full, started scheming how to divide the 10-piece set with other ladies waiting around her. Customers hauled their boxes of chicken off to the side, ripping the boxes open like Christmas gifts so they could place their chickens inside plastic bags for easy transport home.

A semi-bearded man who appeared to be in charge of this government-backed pop-up chicken stand explained that the subsidized chicken trucks show up almost at random throughout the city without advance notice. He added, as way of reassurance (though without citing a reason why) that “the price of chicken will lower, don’t worry.”

While this chicken truck parked itself directly across from a local Tajrish butcher—who continued to offer his chicken for 7,200 toman per kilo for the twenty minutes it took for the truck to sell out its supply—subsidized chicken has been provided both via impromptu trucks and through direct provisions to brick-and-mortar butcher’s shops alike. At the onset of Ramadan, the state-run news agency ISNA reported that 20,000 tons of frozen Brazilian chicken was on its way to Iran, with 60,000 more ordered. Thus, the Turkish origin of the chicken handed out at Tajrish was a bit unexpected.

The flutter over chickens has led the Islamic Republic’s officialdom entering the fray.President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed at an Iftar dinner with parliamentarians July 29 that the rise in chicken prices is a “fleeting issue” and that Iran is currently confronting “bigger problems.” But more provocatively, Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi went so far as to suggest that people should consider avoiding chicken given that the “majority of the medical community says meat isn’t good for humans.”

National vegetarianism hardly looks on the cards, but, for an elderly cabbie who lined up behind the drove of taxis that normally accumulate outside the Tajrish Bazar’s gateway, chicken has suddenly become a luxury he cannot afford.

“I’ve quit chicken since it’s become expensive,” he said. “I’ve learned to exclude it from my diet—I replace it with carrots and other vegetables in my meals.” When asked to elaborate justhow he managed to “quit” chicken, he claimed that more Iranians should learn to do the same and “cut back.”


More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com