Iran in the 1960s and 1970s witnessed an era of cultural florescence, a period remarkable for artistic creativity, the rise of new talents, and greater international exposure but also greater state sponsorship. Expressions of artistic and intellectual dissent, often transmitted through a language of symbols, emerged in cinema, poetry, and popular music. Such efforts were tolerated by the state and even patronized by the state-controlled media and by governmental and semigovernmental cultural institutions. They were treated as outlets for intellectual dissent and deemed necessary as cultural safety valves. The period also witnessed a new drive for glorification of Pahlavi rule and for the shah’s vision of imperial greatness. Curiously, the two currents—cultural subversion, operating underneath a calm surface, and glorification of the monarchic cult—lived side by side and even nurtured each other. As the author and cultural critic Jalal Al-e Ahmad once commented, the state successfully managed to bring all intellectual dissidents into its cultural stable. This complex dialogue bore important consequences during and after the 1979 revolution.
SUNLIGHT OF THE ARYANS
In April 1965, when the shah closely escaped another assassination attempt by a soldier of his royal guards in the Marmar Palace, he became even more convinced that he was providentially protected. A small cell of intellectuals with Maoist leanings had masterminded the assassination attempt. They were tried and sentenced to death but later pardoned. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that in the same year the shah also assumed the title of Aryamehr, or “Sunlight of the Aryans.” The Majles bestowed it on him, no doubt at his own instigation. Coined by a professor of ancient Iranian studies in Tehran University, the title was a nod to the Persian notion of “royal glory” (farr) and in recognition of all the benefits the shah had offered to the Aryan nation of Iran, so it was declared, through the “Revolution of the Shah and the People,” which was accomplished under his aegis.
The magnitude of imperial self-glorification became more evident two years later when, in 1967, after twenty-six years on the throne, the shah decided to officially celebrate his coronation—and that of Queen Farah—in an elaborate ceremony. Driving through glittering decorations of the Tehran streets in a carriage reminiscent of the British royal household, the shah and the queen arrived at the Golestan Palace (fig. 12.1). There, in full royal regalia and with much heavier accoutrements than his father’s coronation outfit, he first placed on his own head the Pahlavi crown and held the royal scepter. He then placed a newly made crown, designed by the New York jeweler Harry Winston, on the head of his queen. Despite its fairy-tale extravagance, the event was not treated as a farce, at least not by most Iranians, who probably enjoyed watching the fanfare on television and were content to see their shah having his moment in the sun.
Yet his thirst for celebrations grew, almost addictively, to fantastic dimensions when in 1971 the shah celebrated 2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy in a more extravagant style. It was an event aimed, even more than the coronation, to place the Pahlavi monarchy and the reign of the shah in particular within an imperial narrative that stretched back to the ancient Achaemenid Empire. The idea, first proposed by European Iranists in the 1950s, was escalated in scale by the mid-1960s to a huge event of loftier consequence. It was to commemorate not merely the founding of the Persian Empire (presumably calculated from the death of Cyrus in 530 BC rather than the conquest of Babylon in 539 BC) but also the very continuity of Iranian imperial history that had culminated in the Pahlavi era and the return of Iran’s might and glory.
Figure 12.1. Royal cavalcade during coronation ceremonies, October 1967.
The Land of Kings, ed. R. Traverdi (Tehran, 1971), 4.
The subtext was unmistakable; Iran’s “immortality,” as the propaganda for celebrations reminded many foreign guests, in reality meant to script the image of a prophet-king, a latter-day Cyrus, into an Iranian metahistory. It was not without reason, therefore, that at the beginning of the commemoration ceremonies, the Sunlight of the Aryans stood before Cyrus’s mausoleum in Pazargad, near Persepolis (in Fars province) and as an homage to the founder of the Persian Empire solemnly declared: “Cyrus the Great! Rest in peace; we are awake” (Kurosh-e bozorg! Asudeh bekhab, ma bidarim). These were words that a generation would be destined to sound so sobering and yet ironic, given the velocity of the revolutionary process that destroyed the Pahlavi regime—and seemingly forever ended monarchy in Iran—less than a decade later.
The festivities left in many minds, Iranian and foreign, a curious impression. It became the staple of many reports about contemporary Iran to view the extravagance and the ludicrous expenses lavished on foreign invitees as demonstration of the excesses that eventually brought down the Pahlavi regime. In October 1971 some six hundred foreign royals, heads of state and other dignitaries, and their entourages were brought to Shiraz to be housed in a 160-acre luxurious tent city that had been set up on the reforested plain of Marvdasht, opposite the colossal ruins of Persepolis. They dined in a marquee for the banquet that was two hundred feet long and served on Limogès dinnerware manufactured for the occasion, sat around opulent tables decorated with fifty roasted peacocks with their tail feathers set in foie gras, ate Caspian golden caviar and other delicacies catered by Maxim’s and flown in from Paris, and drank such rare wines as a 1945 Château Lafite Rothschild. A visual show with fireworks followed the nearly six hours of formal dinner, accompanied by Iannis Xenakis’s musical piece Persepolis that had been commissioned for the evening. It all went down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most lavish official banquet in modern times, a very dubious distinction for the host country, given the enormous cost and breezy arrogance displayed by host and guests alike.
The next day, below the stairway of Persepolis, foreign guests witnessed a parade through the ages of Iranian imperial armies, from Achaemenid to Pahlavid, with performers in colorful period costumes, complete with gear and military equipment. Even a full-scale model of a navy vessel and a siege tower from the Achaemenid period were rolled through—all choreographed no less spectacularly than a Hollywood epic and with taste and expertise drawn from Hollywood studios (pl. 12.1 and fig. 12.2). Yet from nearly all these festivities, even the march of colorful imperial armies, the Iranian general public was excluded as if the events were merely to impress foreign guests and satisfy an outsized royal ego that had been long injured by a sense of inferiority. The shah had to prove that he was no less majestic than his European counterparts.
Figure 12.2. Qajar regiment of the Nezam Jadid, Persepolis parade, 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire, October 1971.
Spiro T. Agnew Papers, box 48. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.
There were also security issues and fear of popular protests or armed attacks on the shah and his guests. Queen Elizabeth and President Richard Nixon both declined their invitations, apparently for security concerns, dispatching others instead. It is small wonder that as many as 250 red Mercedes-Benz limousines were assigned to transport guests through the massive security that radiated beyond Persepolis to cover nearly all of the country. In a carefully designed operation, the Savak rounded up hundreds of political dissidents, blocked roads, monitored airports, and cordoned off neighborhoods.
Of at least $21 million spent on the event, no doubt the most enduring aspect of it was the commemorative monument, Shahyad Aryamehr, built at Tehran’s gateway in a novel style that incorporated Persian architectural traditions. Designed by Hossein Amanat (b. 1941), a graduate from Tehran University, the vast square and monument at its center display Iran’s cultural continuity while at the same time conveying a message of revival. The four massive columns rising to make the two complementing arches of the Sasanian and Islamic epochs are intertwined in an hyperbolic latticework of stone and mosaic beneath an observation tower reminiscent of the Toghrel Tower of the Saljuqid era. A 148-foot concrete structure encased in crafted blocks of white stone from Jowsheqan marble—with its complex geometry, modernist contours, and advanced construction techniques—espoused not only a conceptual departure but also an optimistic sense of permanency beyond its immediate function (fig. 12.3).
In the following decades, Shahyad endured the test of time throughout the fiercely antimonarchical revolution of 1979, hosting under its arch some of the most memorable rallies, which were attended by millions carrying revolutionary banners. Renamed Borj-e Azadi (freedom tower) in the aftermath of the revolution, in the following decades it transcended both its monarchical and revolutionary past to become perhaps Iran’s most popular icon. No longer a state symbol, it was adopted by most Iranians as a national emblem and as late as June 2009 as a memorial site for the Green Movement’s mass rallies.
In the following years the shah was ever more convinced of his prophetic mission and ready to drag Iran across the threshold into his Great Civilization. In February 1971 his court minister Asadollah ‘Alam recorded in his secret diary a private conversation with that shah:
His Majesty mentioned strange things about his belief in divine support for him. “I have noticed that whoever opposed me, he has been eliminated, whether domestic or foreign.” He gave the example of Kennedy Brothers. The [US] president and two of his brothers, who were senators, and disliked the shah. “John Kennedy was assassinated. Robert, the senator, was assassinated. And the last of them, Edward, because of a strange affair over the death of a girl, was scandalized and now his star is fading. Nasser, the Egyptian president, was also eliminated.” Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, who also disapproved of His Majesty, was eliminated. In Iran, too, whoever opposed the shah was deposed, for example Mosaddeq and to some extent Qavam al-Saltaneh. Razmara, I am sure, held ominous designs for the shah and he, too, was assassinated. “Mansur, who was an obvious American poppet, a man of unbridled ambitions, was also assassinated.”1
Also well evident from the pages of ‘Alam’s secret diaries, and the shah’s own public statements, for him Iran increasingly turned into a utopian object to be desired, a mechanical contraption to be assembled, and an edifice to be embellished rather than a complex society—often in disarray, deprived of a voice, and deeply skeptical of his enterprise. If the best of intentions were to be assigned to him, the shah demanded obedience and gratitude in exchange for an imagined fairy-tale land that he believed was within his grasp. However, self-aggrandizement, coupled by a profound conspiratorial perspective in international and domestic politics, misplaced pride, and overconfidence in his judgment, blurred the royal’s vision and prevented him from seeing trouble on the horizon. Virtually in every international event of consequence the shah saw the hidden hands of the great powers. From the Vietnam War to the Arab-Israeli conflict to political upheavals in neighboring Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan he saw British or American or Soviet covert involvement. Domestically, too, he attributed any criticism of his policies or any independent trend to some behind-the-curtain foreign force, a reflection perhaps of his own insecurities. Nor did the shah sense the climate of cynicism and indifference that gradually set in during the last decade of his reign, despite efforts to rein in or whip out forces of opposition.
Figure 12.3. Shahyad was dedicated in 1971 and renamed Azadi Tower in 1979.
STATE SPONSORSHIP AND CULTURAL REVIVAL
By the middle of the 1960s cultural patronage came to occupy a greater place in the Pahlavi search for imperial legitimacy and for appeal to a larger spectrum of Iranian population. Empress Farah and her coterie were instrumental in projecting a softer, more refined image of the Pahlavi state through media, music, architecture, literature, and visual arts. Dissident intellectuals and artists of earlier years, and potential dissidents among the younger middle classes, found the more relaxed cultural climate appealing. So long as the boundaries of political dissent were not crossed, artists and intellectuals could explore new, even implicitly subversive, themes through television production, cinema, theater, painting, and music. Though not completely free of harassment by the Savak, vast numbers found employment in the well-funded state media and cultural institutions. Farah Pahlavi’s frequent travel to remote towns and villages of Iran also presented a new image of a caring queen willing to learn about the country and help improve the lot of ordinary folks (fig. 12.4).
The shift in cultural policy relied on tangible changes in Iranian society. Beyond the circles of power, Iranian society of the 1960s and 1970s underwent sociocultural and demographic integration, which in turn revealed new sociocultural demands. Although regional identities, ethnicity, religion, and class remained indelible parts of the landscape, public education, growth of a national market, and growth of media and entertainment boosted a greater sense of homogeneity. Public media, particularly radio and television, though completely under government control, were able to patronize Iranian art, music, and cinema that contrasted with the positivist Westernizing obsessions of earlier decades. Some members of the clergy, and their followers, avoided the new media on the grounds that it disseminates deviant pleasures such as music, but most Iranians welcomed radio and television, and increasingly foreign and domestic motion pictures. By the 1960s the introduction of battery-powered transistor radio sets and the expansion of the provincial radio broadcasting network increased audiences in towns and villages. Television, too, quickly replaced traditional storytelling in the coffeehouses. The prominent display of a television set installed high up on a makeshift shelf on the wall of the neighborhood coffeehouses, with patrons watching a low-budget Hollywood production, symbolized the state’s new means of dominating the public at the expenses of local voices and local dialects.
Figure 12.4. In Kish in 1977 Queen Farah listens to children on a Persian Gulf island. African Iranians are descendants of the slave trade of earlier centuries.
Farah Pahlavi, Safarnameh-e Shahbanu, ed. M. Pirniya (n.p., 1371/1992), 64.
An earlier example of the state’s patronage of high-quality programing, with the aim of offering a more sophisticated take on Persian musical heritage that was more palatable to the middle classes, was the celebrated Golha (Flowers) program produced by Radio Iran. Started in the mid-1950s, it was a natural outcome of earlier efforts by ‘Ali-Naqi Vaziri (1887–1979) and his music academy, established in 1923. In its mix of orchestral, vocal, and solo performances, Golha interspersed Western instruments such as piano, violin, and clarinet with Persian tar, nay (reed pipe), tunbak, and santur (Persian dulcimer) to produce an elegant Persianized music loyal to the radif system but culturally confident enough to employ Western composition and orchestration with a romantic undertone—all while preserving Persian taste and texture. This was a genre greatly appealing to Iran’s bourgeois sensibilities. Vaziri was highly influential in this reincarnation of Persian music.
Born to a father who was a Cossack officer and a celebrated feminist mother, Bibi-khanum Astarabadi (1859–1921), young Vaziri, a German-educated military officer was a product of the constitutional era and no doubt deeply influenced by the modernizing trends of that period. He established the first academy of music in 1924 and soon after Iran’s first national orchestra, and he was among the first to commit Persian music to Western notation. In his musical academy he taught composition, orchestration, and theory, as well as training some of the best musical talents of the generation and himself composing new pieces for Persian instruments and developing new performing techniques for tar. Although occasionally criticized for trying to discipline the probably undisciplinable Persian quartertone (rob’-e pardeh), Vaziri’s contributions were crucial not only for the development of technique and for adapting the radif to orchestral demands but also for presenting Persian classical music as a “respectable” tradition on par with Western tradition, and for including music in the school curriculum.
The Golha program was the brainchild of Davud Pirnia, descendant of an important Qajar family of the cultural elite, who also attracted descendants of other cultural families to the program as well as new talents. Among them was Abol-Hasan Saba (1902–1957), an influential composer and music teacher who belonged to a family of poets and painters from Kashan whose origin went back to the eighteenth century. He was a master violinist in the Persian style and a composer for the Persian radif. His students mastered Persian style and dominated the musical stage. Gholam-Hosain Banan (1911–1986), a vocalist of great ingenuity, also came from a Qajar family. Of the latter group Mortaza Mahjubi (1900–1965), a piano virtuoso with his own distinct Persian style, demonstrated how European instruments could be employed in a completely different genre. Marziyeh (1924–2010), a stage name for a young and talented female tasnif singer with a powerful range and nuanced voice, was of humble origins. Singing old tasnifs of the Qajar era, she was a product of the Golha. The most influential, however, was Ruhollah Khaleqi (1906–1965), a gifted composer and musical director of the Golha Orchestra who, as a student of Vaziri and admirer of Saba, emerged as the musical force behind Golha’s success and in his short life composed many memorable pieces in the 1950s and early 1960s. By all accounts the Golha project rescued Persian music from the formulaic tedium and barren repetition to which it had fallen for decades.
As early as 1944, during the Allied occupation of Iran, Khaleqi had become well known for his composition of a patriotic song “Ey Iran” (Thou Iran!), which was based on a folk song from Gilan (known as “Zard-malicheh,” which means “Yellow sparrow”). Performed in the Dashti mode, the playful melody was first picked up by Saba but later, in Khaleqi’s hand, turned into a vivid and moving piece (fig. 12.5).
The lyrics by Hosein Golgolab (1895–1984) reflected Iranians’ injured sentiments under occupation, praising Iran as a “bejeweled land” and “wellspring of human gifts” and wished it to “endure for ever, immune from evil designs.” The patriotic song, first performed in a public concert by Banan in the same year, soon came to be adopted as Iran’s true national anthem and a song of resistance, in clear defiance of the imperial (shahanshai) anthem commissioned by Reza Shah in 1933. As much as the official anthem glorified the shah and the imperial power, “Ey Iran” highlighted the land and people of Iran without any reference to the shah or state. All through the Pahlavi era and later under the Islamic Republic, “Ey Iran” reflected such dissenting sentiments. As late as 2009 during the Green Movement (Jonbesh-e Sabz), the youth would sing it among other places in street rallies and while riding Tehran’s subway cars.
Figure 12.5. Persian National Music Society Orchestra, conducted by Khaleqi, performing in the 1948 Persian movie Tufan-e Zendegi (Life’s tempest). The orchestra’s principal singer, Gholam-Hosain Banan, was accompanied by the first violinist Abol-Hasan Saba and Mortaza Mahjubi on piano. The Westernized style and the predominance of Western instruments reflect the hybrid musical culture of the time. In later years, as the Orchestra of the Golha Program, it came to include Persian instruments.
Still from the 1948 Iranian movie Tufan-e Zendegi. Jamal Omid, Tarikh-e Sinema-ye Iran, 1279–1357 (Tehran, 1374/1995). Courtesy of Jane Lewisohn.
The creation of the National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT) in 1967, funded and controlled by the state, incorporated—almost coercively—not only the nationwide radio network that had been in operation since 1928 and other local radio stations under the state umbrella, but also the privately owned National Iranian Television, established in 1958 by the entrepreneur Habib Sabet, which chiefly served the capital with coverage of about two million viewers and limited domestic production, later expanded to Abadan. By 1971, NIRT rapidly increased its coverage several-fold, and by 1976, thanks to generous government funding, especially support from Queen Farah and under the energetic directorship of Reza Qotbi, it offered complete nationwide radio coverage and nearly 70 percent television coverage, amounting to more than twenty million viewers.
The significant growth of NIRT provided the Pahlavi state with a powerful monopoly to relay not only its overt political message but also a subtle agenda of secular nationalism. Television sets became an essential household good, first for the affluent middle classes in larger cities and soon in smaller towns and many villages, with a growing viewership from all ages. Domestically manufactured sets made television more affordable, and multichannel broadcasts—including an international channel in English that in 1972 replaced the US Army broadcast of earlier years—and regional stations with folk music and some production in local dialects, helped expand the appeal of the new media to one of the most effective arms of the state.
The growth of state media absorbed intellectuals and discontented university graduates, with artistic and literary talents, and others with technical and media expertise into a growing organization with an institutional culture different from the state bureaucracy. An effective means of diverting dissent into exciting yet politically benign activity, NIRT reserved relative independence in its production and internal policies so long as it paid effusive homage to the shah. The state’s monopoly on broadcasting nevertheless meant sketching a bright future for the nation in a sanitized narrative devoid of meaningful criticism. It also meant a barrage of pro-Pahlavi propaganda suffused with images of the beloved Aryamehr extemporizing, inaugurating, hobnobbing with world leaders, or promoting his liberating White Revolution. From time to time it also had to stage Savak-sponsored “shows” or even allowing the public to witness trials of Marxist intellectuals in military tribunals.
Yet beyond the propaganda function, NIRT also conveyed a message that inadvertently contrasted the regime’s glossy narrative. Through serials, music, variety shows, and documentaries television soon became the most influential media and a source of information and entertainment. Replacing imported American serials—Peyton Place was exceptionally popular—Iranian television audiences began to learn through domestic productions about their own country, its social problems, and its ordinary people and their subsistent struggles. Though sanitized and made politically harmless, often the comic serials of life in poor neighborhoods, housing problems, overcrowded rental quarters, struggling itinerant handymen, the changing face of villages as they were devoured by cities, increasing urban crime and problems of law and order, the pretentious irrelevance of the old elite and their xenophobia fostered a certain level of social awareness.
The mini-series Da’i-jan Napoleon (Dear uncle Napoleon), directed by Nasser Taghvai, was a highly successful production aired by NIRT in 1976. Based on a satirical novel by Iraj Pezeshgzad, it narrated the coming of age of a young boy during the World War II Allied occupation of Iran. The central character, a retired Cossack officer, is the patriarch of a “Qajaresque” extended family whose internal feuds shape the hilarious plot and many subplots. Dear Uncle’s paranoid fears of British mischief and his imagined victories in bygone battles no doubt were a parody of the conspiratorial anxieties of the old elite.
The cultural sponsorship of NIRT was complemented by other sources of patronage linked to Farah Pahlavi’s cultural office. Persian music, modern painting, new museums, cultural centers, art festivals, cinema and theater, children literature, and innovative television productions were among them. Her interest in architecture allowed for experimentations in modern style far subtler than the rude imported modernism of the 1960s, and with a Persian component. The art and architecture projects primarily monumentalized the Pahlavi era, albeit with more sophistication. Yet their effect on the outlook and training of artists, performers, filmmakers, and architects cannot be underestimated. A whole generation of artists, filmmakers, and actors who later became representative of Iran’s independent cultural flourishing in the post-1979 era first learned their trade in the Pahlavi institutions and with some form of state support.
The Shiraz Arts Festival (Jashn-e Honar) was one obvious example of injecting enthusiasm and interest within both the Western and the Iranian art communities. Initiated by a pioneering filmmaker, Farrokh Ghaffari (1921–2006), heir to another remarkable artistic family of the Qajar era, it was meant to be an artistic bridge between diverse traditions from Europe and the Americas to Japan and Southeast Asia. It was also a conscious effort to recapture authenticity in Persian music and performance arts and put them on stage unapologetically and away from the positivist anxieties of earlier decades. Established in 1967, the festival invited a long list of celebrities ranging from Arthur Rubinstein, Ravi Shankar, and Yehudi Menuhin to playwright August Wilson and theater director Peter Brook. Their dazzling performances and avant-garde productions, interspersed with performances by Iranian master musicians such as tar virtuoso Jalil Shahnaz (1921–2013) and great tubak percussionist Hosain Tehrani (1912–1974). The candlelit performances, accompanied by the odes of Hafez recited on the very site of the poet’s tomb (a Persianized “temple of love” designed in the 1930s by the French architect André Godard) in the midst of a Persian garden, offered a novel experience (pl. 12.2).
After a decade during which it was annually held and at great expense, the festival left behind a mixed legacy. Above all, it helped promote traditional Persian music, boosting its preservation and development for decades to come. It was here that the great vocalist Mohammad Reza Shajarian first found a live audience more eager and more demanding than that of his mainstream radio programs. With an amazing vocal range, musical texture, technical knowledge, and artistic consistency, he worked his way through the Shiraz Arts Festival to become one of the greatest artists Iran produced in the latter half of the twentieth century. Parisa (Fatemeh Va‘ezi), another vocalist of quality and grace, who sang Persian radif in the festival with the same ease as she did Qajar and early Pahlavi tasnifs, was the representative of a generation of performers and composers who made there debut at the Shiraz Arts Festival. The Western music and theater, classic or avant-garde, and other ethnic performances in the festival left only little lasting impact.
CITY OF TALES
Theater in particular became a conduit for an ambiguous message of dissident that was barely tolerable by the state’s security in any other venue. As early as the latter half of the nineteenth century modern theater began to take roots in the Persian cultural environment primarily as means of educating the public and social awareness. Outside Iran playwrights Fath ‘Ali Akhundzadeh and Zain al-‘Abedin Maragheh’i produced plays critical of the decaying social mores, superstitions, and moral ills. The masterful verse rendering by Mirza Habib Isfahani (1835–1893) of Molière’s famous play Misanthrope, published in Istanbul in 1875 as Mardom-goriz, was a literary breakthrough even though this play, and others produced abroad, only received a limited readership and was never staged for larger audiences. Nevertheless, like imaginary travel accounts, novellas, and other reform literature of the late nineteenth century, this body of early plays had some echo in the Constitutional Revolution’s sociocultural setting.
From the mid-1920s on, theater gained wider reception among the Iranian urban middle classes, especially in the capital. With the growth of leisure time, a number of modern playhouses were built in Tehran and in the provincial centers, and new theatrical troops routinely performed, mostly adaptations of French plays. They met the entertainment needs of a secularizing intelligentsia but also conformed to the Pahlavi modernizing project. The moralistic messages in plays such as those staged by Sayyed ‘Ali Nasr (1891–1959) were unmistakable, stressing family values versus decrepitude and such ills as drinking and addiction, reason versus superstition, and of course patriotism and sacrifice for the fatherland. With some trepidation, women, first Russian émigrés or Armenian and Assyrian semiprofessional actors, appeared on the stage. Not unlike European nineteenth-century drama, themes of honor and shame received ample attention. There was even a touch of social naturalism.
By the 1940s and early 1950s the ascendency of the left in Iranian artistic milieu also found its place in dramatic productions, often with a mild sociopolitical message. A number of talented Tudeh directors, actors, and actresses staged Western dramas distinct from the moralistic plays of earlier years. Yet original Persian plays of substance were seldom staged. One of the few in the 1950s was Sadeq Hedayat’s Mohallel (a temporary husband needed under Shi‘i law to allow for a special kind of marriage annulment so that the original parties can resume their earlier union). It was a predictable commentary by a sharp critic of Islamic shari‘a on the outdated practices of Shi‘i law and its grip on Iranian society. The post-1953 climate of censorship and intimidation brought this interlude in Iranian theater, thriving and hopeful though it was, to an abrupt end. Cinema, mostly Hollywood movies, and a growing number of movie theaters successfully competed with the stage and by the early 1960s largely sapped the entertaining appeal of the theater.
A new lease on life for Persian theater came in the late 1960s, this time voicing a more refined critique of the prevailing social order. Allegorical and increasingly in tune with the European “committed” theater, as the theater of the Jean-Paul Sartre era came to be known, and even with the theater of absurd, it found a smaller but more engaged audience. Playwrights such as Gholam-Hosain Sa‘edi staged new productions in a playhouse built by the Pahlavi state and ironically named 25th of Shahrivar—ironic not only because the playhouse was built and named in honor of the shah’s coronation in 1967 but also in that it was patronized by Queen Farah, who called for a more open cultural space at times at odds with the pressures of censorship and the Savak. Despite their innocuous surface, the new plays predominantly cast a skeptic, at times surrealistic, shadow on the boasted “glories” of the Pahlavi state and its White Revolution with subtle hints to the suffocating political climate.
A remarkable example was the 1968 Shahr-e Qesseh (City of tales) by Bizhan Mofid (1935–1984), a musical play with rhymed prose that employed Persian animal fables and children folktales to convey a semi-satirical commentary on the Pahlavi state, society and identity. At home with the working-class culture of his home city, Tehran, Mofid used street lingo and popular proverbs along with Persian music to depict a richly allegorical tableau. Pantomime, animal masks, and a mix of satirical and sardonic dialogue created an ambiance of childlike innocence but also mockery of the realities of modern Iran. The “fabulous City of Tales” resembles the “city of Farang” (shahr-e Farang), a reference to the fast-changing face of the Iranian urban landscape and its artless mimicking of the West (fig. 12.6).
The cast of characters, inhabitants of the city, included a crafty mullah in the guise of a fox, a lecherous fortune-teller in the guise of a bear, a sycophantic poet-parrot, and a cynical intellectual in the guise of a monkey. While the first two satirized the clerical establishment and the folk religion of the poorer classes, the parrot hinted at the literary establishment and its adulation of the Pahlavi regime, and the monkey sneered at the intellectuals’ marginality. A luti in the guise of a donkey represented the working classes. By profession he was a turner, a maker of wooden household implements, a craft that had been ruined by the invasion of plastics. In a moving monologue, unmasked, he shared with the audience his nostalgia for bygone times and the depth of alienation felt by ordinary Iranians. The elephant, another character from Persian children rhymes, was a curious newcomer to the glittering city. At the outset of the play he slips and breaks his tusk. In pain, he appeals to the inhabitants for help, but unschooled in the complexities of the city, he receives nothing but mockery and tricks. In the end he comes to a bitter realization that not only has he lost his tusks, the most precious symbol of his identity, but he also has morphed into a miserable composite, a mirror image of the ramshackle place that is the City of Tales.
Figure 12.6. Shahr-e Qesseh (The city of tales) was first performed at the Shiraz Arts Festival in 1968.
Courtesy of Vali Mahlouji.
Welcomed by audiences first at the Shiraz Arts Festival and later in the 25th Shahrivar Playhouse, Shahr-e Qesseh was the longest running play in history of serious theater in Iran. It succeeded in reaching wider audiences beyond the Tehran intelligentsia because its rhythmic narrative and the characters were entertaining without being banal, and its poignant message was not lost even on the nonelite. What Al-e Ahmad articulated in his Gharbzadehgi (translated as “Westoxication”) some years earlier with a defiant tilt, here is conveyed by Mofid in a metaphorical language attuned to the Persian era. He nevertheless shared the disenchantment typical of the dissent culture of his generation. The play was a noted example of how the subtle messages of dissent were conveyed through theater, cinema, and television to a wider audience—an inadvertent, and possibly inevitable, outcome of Pahlavi efforts to widen their popular appeal and coopt actual or potential dissidents. The coded language of allegories and allusions went a long way, even through the state-controlled media, to increase cynicism toward the state and its privileged elite.
NEW ARTISTIC DEPARTURES
Aside from Mofid, only a handful of artistic personalities of the period were able to transcend political disenchantment that dominated the culture of the late Pahlavi era. Sohrab Sepehri (1928–1980), whose minimalistic style of paintings and poetry offered a new mystical reading of nature, is one such exception. He was a poet of water, of trees and birds, of solitude and serenity, an artist in pain about a fast-disappearing space that was about to be conquered by the forces of modernity. In the poem “Water” from his 1967 collection Hajm-e Sabz (The expanse of green) he wrote:
Let us not muddy the water,
Downstream, maybe a dove is drinking,
Or on the woods afar, a finch preening its feathers,
Or in a hamlet, an earthen jug is being filled to the brim.
Let’s not muddy the water,
Perhaps the stream is on its way to a poplar tree,
To quench a heart, heavy with sorrow.
Perhaps a pauper has his hand immersed, dipping his stale bread. . . .
Upstream, people understand water,
They did not muddy the water,
The simple imagery drew Sepehri’s readers to his reflective space, a world detached from trivial realities of his surroundings. His deep interest in Buddhism no doubt shaped Sepehri’s worldview and references in his poetry. Yet here, too, references to breeze, dawn, and light, among others, can be read as elusive symbols calling for a moment of deliverance. Much of his appeal to the younger generation of Iranians lied not only in his poetic simplicity but also in his desire to experience an authentic self.
Figure 12.7. Installed in the Niavaran Palace in 1972, Parviz Tanavoli’s Heech (now in the Niavaran Palace Museum, Tehran) may be an acerbic statement on the ephemeral nature of power.
P. Tanavoli, Heech (Tehran: Bongah Publishers, 2011), 35.
On a different plane, but with a similar urge to break the conventions of his time and seek artistic authenticity, was Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937), a sculptor known for his artistic perseverance stretching over six decades. Even more than Sepehri he moved away from the committed art of the 1960s to experiment with new concepts and media. As one of the founders of the saqqa khaneh (water fountain) artistic genre, Tanavoli sought in Shi‘i popular symbols and rituals raw material for his abstract sculptures. His journey through mourning emblems and shrine symbolism and his recasting of Farhad, the tragic hero of the Persian romance, as his artistic alter ego, eventually led him to an existential quest. A series of sculptures on the theme of nothingness conveys a seemingly perplexing message. One may see in his sculpting the word heech (nothing) in numerous variants a skeptical view of the cultural milieu within which he was operating (fig. 12.7). Similar to Sepehri, Tanavoli’s artistic message was novel insofar as it was free of ideology and distant from the prevailing discourse of political dissent. Yet the existential anxiety, along with aesthetic quality and masterful craftsmanship, proved lasting. His Heechs remained confident and uncompromised, as if in their glossy surface the words mirrored the transience of their surroundings.
POPULAR CULTURE AND ITS ICONS
To complement social commentary, television also offered light entertainment and, significantly, Persian contemporary music, popular with audiences across class barriers. Perhaps the best-known diva was the gifted singer and actress Googoosh (Faegheh Atashin, b. 1950), who since the late 1950s had appeared first as a prodigy child entertainer and later as a successful pop singer. Her melodramatic voice complemented her melodramatic private life, which was followed by the press at every turn. A victim of the male-dominated entertainment industry, most of her successful songs bore sad melodies and gloomy lyrics. They narrated her personal story as much as the mood of her audiences, and with a growing touch of dissent. Her 1971 “Qesseh-ye Do Mahi” (Tale of the two fish) recounts the tragic end of two fish in a murky sea, intimate and in love and oblivious to the perils ahead (fig. 12.8).
Figure 12.8. Googoosh on the cover of the 1971 album Qesseh-ye Do Mahi (Tale of the two fish).
Album cover, SARE-1009, Ahang-e Ruz record company, Tehran, 1971.
When a kingfisher takes one fish, the other mourns the loss and waits for its own fatal end. This was evidently a reference to the young guerillas fighting and dying in the street battles against the security forces of the kingfisher:
We nipped at big bubbles,
Until a kingfisher killed my pair.
May be he damned, that wrecker of the nests,
Now is my turn, its shadow cast over the water.
After us, it’ll be the turn of other pairs,
Days are ahead for other hearts to be cruelly wrecked.
No longer I wish to be a fish in the sea,
But wish to endure in tales.
The subliminal message of suffocation and despair came through with dramatic undertones in the songs of another well-known pop singer, Dariush (Eqbali, b. 1951). His highly popular 1971 “Bu-ye Khosh-e Gandom” (Fresh scent of wheat) with lyrics by Shahryar Ghanbari and composed by the gifted Iranian Armenian Varoujan Hakhbandian (1936–1977), voiced the fate of the dispossessed, who, having lost all their belongings to the powerful, only wished to preserve a patch of land on which they could survive. These are people, as the lyrics went, whose skin is the color of the night. They are coming from the city of prayers with golden domes and are longing for the scent of the wheat. The song calls on the people of power and affluence whose skin is made of velvet of the dawn; they are travelers from the city of Farang and their goal is to build a forest of steel and skyscrapers. But “what is the use of moaning the loss?” so asks the song. The dispossessed, the blood in the veins of the land, will cry out this time, demanding not only the fresh scent of the wheat but also their harvest and land, an obvious message of protest directed at the ruling elite.
For me the scent of the wheat,
For you whatever I have.
For me a patch of land,
For you whatever I reap.
I am from this plague-ridden eastern clan,
You are the glassy traveler of the land of Farang.
My skin is of the color of the night, yours of the red velvet,
My wound is of blisters, your robe of leopard skin. . . .
You are thinking of forests of steel and skyscrapers,
I think of a room big enough for you to rest.
My body made of the soil; yours made of wheat stalks,
Our bodies are thirstier than ever for a drop of water.
Your land is the land of Farang, its people clad in embroidered silk,
Mine is a city of prayer with golden domes.
Your body is like an ax; mine a dying root,
Carved on the tree trunk a heart still throbs. . . .
Enough lamenting for the soil of my body,
You are a passerby; I am the blood in the veins of this land.
My body doesn’t wish to be injured in your hand,
And I cry out laud, whether there is someone out there or not:
“For me the scent of the fields,
For me whatever I have.
For me a patch of land,
For me whatever I reap.”
The lyrics not only alluded to the outcome of the land reform and fate of the displaced peasants but also reflected the brooding public mood and dream of repossessing a lost cultural legacy. The familiar imagery of the night, code for all-embracing political suppression, had traveled from highbrow new poetry of the earlier years to popular songs, and with wider popular appeal. Most striking, though, was the reference to the city of prayers with golden domes. Like Forugh’s messianic allusions in her later poems, here too the imagery had come out of a purely secular milieu. The veiled call for a return to Islam and Shi‘ism was reminiscent of Al-e Ahmad, and reclaiming the land for the dispossessed at the end of the song reflected the growing aspirations for revolt. Not surprisingly, the singer, the lyricist, and the composer ended up in Savak’s brief detention.
The most overtly activist, however, was Farhad Mehrad (1944–2002), who voiced the same sense of despair but with a more discernable revolutionary vigor. He too was detained by Savak. His 1971 “Jom‘eh” (Friday, lyrics by Shahyar Ghanbari and music by Esfandiyar Monfaredzadeh, b. 1941), the day of rest in the weekly calendar, represents not only the boredom often associated with Friday but also doom and gloom. Monfaredzadeh, a gifted composer, made this song as an implicit commemoration of the Siahkal incident:
Through the soaking frame of my window,
I see the picture of a bleak Friday.
How dark is the black of her mourning dress,
In her eyes, I see, black clouds thickening. . . .
Blood drips from those black dark clouds,
Fridays, blood comes down instead of raindrops. . . .
Friday’s age is nearly a thousand years,
On Fridays grief takes its toll,
Bored with oneself,
One cries out with the mouth shut. . . .
“Friday is the time for departure, the season for breaking away.”
But he who is my fellow traveler,
Stabbed a dagger in my back.
Black (siah) is a clear wordplay with the word Siahkal, with mourning and blood allusions to how the incident went awry and collapsed into disaster. “Stabbing in the back,” a reference to betrayal by a fellow guerrilla fighter, perfected the modern martyrdom narrative bemoaned by a generation of sympathizers. The “Siahkal genre,” as it came to be known, was plain and accessible, with a message effectively released through record singles, then popular with middle class youth. It romanticized for a generation an armed revolt that idealized revolution as the only way ahead. During the thousand-year-old barren Fridays of repression, as Farhad reminded his audience, one can only “cr[y] out with mouth shut,” a paradox of silent protest that defined the spirit of the age.
FILMFARSI AND RECLAIMING INJURED HONOR
In the same vein, though at a lower register and emitting a subversive message at a slower pace, the Iranian popular film industry in the 1960s and 1970s churned out a huge number of low-rate productions essentially for the working-class market and provincial tastes. Despite the primarily entertaining function of these movies, some carried a message of social injustice and class divisions. They were labeled by highbrow film critics as “hodgepodge stew” films, in reference to the frequent portrayals of a poor family eking out a difficult but honorable existence, often symbolized by gathering around a bowl of Persian stew (abgusht). Starting in the late 1930s, Iranian popular cinema, labeled filmfarsi, like their Indian and Egyptian counterparts, often follow a simple plot: a righteous man of meager means (though seldom a woman) from a poor urban or village background who, having been exposed to the temptations of large city, money, sex, and bad company, sinks low into a dangerous or hapless lifestyle. He is saved only by a moral awakening of some sort that leads to a happy ending, often in the form of union with a chaste woman. Scenes of singing and dancing, often in a lowbrow nightclub, were associated with the evils of drinking and inevitable café fights (borrowed from Western saloons). The reformed hero, in contrast, upholds virtues of sacrifice, generosity, care for his parents, and, of course, manly honor. Though the affluent classes were not always demonized, there were plenty of villainous capitalists, land speculators, and money grabbers (pl. 12.3).
With captivated viewers who packed movie theaters throughout the country, filmfarsi competed with foreign imports, both Hollywood and Indian productions, in offering entertainment and moral messages customized for Iranian popular tastes. Such films as Ganj-e Qarun (Qarun’s treasure, 1965) and Soltane Qalbha (King of hearts, 1968) starred Mohammad ‘Ali Fardin (1931–2000), a freestyle-wrestling Olympic silver medalist who became a movie star. Dashing and athletic, his lead character often championed the cause of the poor and deprived, lived modestly but honorably, and upheld the bonds of friendship while remaining cheerful, adventurous, and entertaining. This was all in the garb of a down-and-out modern luti who was always ready for a good fight. Fardin’s physique, singing, dancing, and rascality that made him appealing in the film to rich and beautiful girls and opened the doors of privilege and wealth nevertheless could not divert the hero from his modest roots, a message particularly congenial to his viewers, who held the affable hero as one of their own.
In the best-known song in the 1965 Ganj-e Qarun—dubbed by Iraj (Hosain Khwajeh-Amiri, b. 1933), a professional singer of luti intonation—the penniless hero renounces the legendary treasure of Qarun (originally the biblical-Qur’anic Korah) along with other symbols of affluence and power in favor of a frugal but tranquil existence. As he sings, life is too short and not worth the trouble of amassing wealth, a message long embedded in the luti ethos. At the end, however, once the hero has defeated the rich villains, thanks to his chivalry, congeniality, and street smarts, he not only gets the girl but also the riches of Mr. Qarun, his own repentant father. More than just a predictable cliché, presumably a creation of Ahmad Shamlu, the happy ending reflected something of the aspirations of the working people, who were hoping to preserve values of modesty and honor while amicably sharing with the affluent their prosperity and pleasure. In 1965 more than two million viewers saw the movie and it brought in more than 53 million rial (about $7.5 million), remarkable numbers for any screening in Iranian film history.
In the 1969 drama Qaysar (meaning “Caesar” in Arabic and Persian), directed by Mas‘ud Kimia’i, the theme of working-class morality took a very different turn. With a more professional directorship and sophisticated plot, the motivating force in the story is not a happy ending but vengeance for soiled family honor. The central character is not a rascal but an angry luti in modern guise, furious but committed to his chivalrous code of conduct. He has been left with no choice but to resort to violence against vicious enemies who dishonored his sister and killed his older brother. The fateful struggle ends with the family honor restored not only by the spilling of the blood of the villains but also by the hero’s tragic end. The highly successful film, a hybrid of popular and artistic genres, did not employ singing and dancing or resort to a happy ending, as if reflecting a changing mood among its viewers. As later films by the same director made more explicit, Qaysar was a call to traditional values closely intertwined with religious symbolism. To save society from the onslaughts of its villains, there should be blood sacrifices, a message that not unsubtly denounced the Pahlavi vision of modernity and anticipated violence ahead.
A less idealized image of the changing code of chivalry than what was portrayed in Qaysar appeared in Dariush Mehrjui’s 1975 Dayereh-ye Mina (Enameled Circle; Cycle in its English release), a piercing critique of the health profession in Iran written by the foremost playwright of the time, Gholam-Hosain Sa‘edi. A psychiatrist by profession, Sa‘edi had long explored in his plays and short stories a subversive and yet surreal Beckett-like world of the Iranian underclasses: haunted villagers, forgotten fishing communities, pimps and old prostitutes, beggars. A prolific writer, his Tudeh activism of the earlier years was transformed in the 1960s and early 1970s into an imaginative, at times disturbing, body of literary works with covert symbolism. The horrific world of the professional blood seller is one such setting.
The film is a study of mostly poor drug addicts in the neighborhoods of southern Tehran who sold blood for a living and the Mafia-like network that monopolized the trade. This is the world of ‘Ali, a teenager coming of age in a big city. His metamorphosis turns him from an innocuous émigré into a ruthless agent of tainted blood, an antihero who in the process sells himself out, abandons his fatally ill father, and loses all his virtues in the ruthless pursuit of money and pleasure. The naked symbolism of the blood network, a commentary no doubt on the cruel forces that had infected Iranian society, especially its youth, was too naked to be missed. It was banned at the outset when the Iranian Medical Association protested the film’s portrayal of hospital administration and later by censors who found it to be a negative portrayal of Iranian society.
Despite the growing Persian film and television industry, both popular and artistic foreign films and serials, especially Hollywood productions, continued to dominate the Iranian écran throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Entertainment value aside, in these films Hollywood in many ways visualized for ordinary Iranians images of Western societies, lifestyles, and gender roles, and in the process reinforced potent stereotypes. It was essentially through film that Iranians perceived America as an exciting land of opportunity, though not free from violence. The images of cowboys in the Wild West, the Mafia fighting in the streets of big cities, and plenty of racism, militarism, and promiscuity all complemented in the eyes of the non-Western viewers the realities of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and political assassinations.
Biblical epics predictably were favorites of all classes, for they portrayed familiar stories of ancient prophets in a novel context. Starting with such high-budget productions as Quo Vadis? (1951) and The Robe (1953), the stream of movies with biblical content culminated with Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments, William Wilder’s 1959 Ben-Hur, and finally the 1961 King of Kings (released in Iran as Forugh-e Bi-payan, or “unending glory,” presumably to avoid implying the Pahlavi royal title shahanshah, or “the king of kings”). For Iranian filmgoers, especially in larger cities, these moralistic narratives of the origins of Judaism and Christianity were complementary to the Islamic portrayal of Moses and Jesus, and yet different in many ways. Qur’anic narratives (qisas) aside, for centuries the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, especially Joseph and Moses, and the story of Jesus and Mary, had been revered in Persian literature. Hollywood also displayed images of America not only as promoter of biblical narrative or liberating force that saved the world from Nazi Germany and later stood against Soviet aggression but also as a land of prosperity and industrial and technological advances. The high-budget epics, as well as adventure movies, slapsticks in early days and light comedies later, thrillers, and gangster movies each in their own way enamored viewers by their scale, glitter, technical marvel, and acting skills (fig. 12.9).
Figure 12.9. This Persian poster of the 1950 King Solomon’s Mines was typical of the publicity for Hollywood’s blockbuster adventures. M. Mehrabi, Sadd va Panj Sal E‘lan va Pster-e Film dar Iran
(Tehran: Nazar Publishers, 1393/2014), 480.
Movie stars were household names and beside American presidents just about the only American personalities known to the general public. Glamour, physical appeal, and daring stunts captivated younger viewers. For some, mostly the urban secular middle class, the films served as prototypes of fashion and outfit; for others—mostly males of puritanical religious persuasion—they were demonstrations of sinful outrage. As more movie theaters opened in smaller cities across Iran in the 1960s and 1970s, often screening second- and third-rate Iranian and foreign movies, the magic of cinema fascinated more Iranians not merely as a form of entertainment but also as a point of reference to measure the realities of their own society and culture and those of the others—a world of imagination that could be admired or despised, sought after or avoided, and many times mixed feelings of desire and rejection were intertwined. It is not without reason that from the mid-1970s movie theaters became chief targets of militant Islamist attacks, who burned them down especially in smaller and more religious cities as symbols of an alien malady.
TAKHTI, PEOPLE’S CHAMPION
The cinema and its popular heroes and antiheros had a strong competitor in the world of sports, an alternative arena in which the Iranian working classes could engage and occasionally excel. Of all the Iranian sports, traditional wrestling (koshti) made the most successful transition to modern sports to become what is today freestyle wrestling. Part of the workout in zurkhaneh, wrestling was the physical test for a pahlavan (champion), placing him within the ritualistic setting of the zurkhaneh above any other role model. The zurkhaneh, probably the most accessible venue for the underprivileged, with an exclusively male membership, were magnificent sports houses rooted in the Persian culture of chivalry (javanmardi), often affiliated in distant past with popular Sufi orders. In reality, they were often venues for neighborhood lutis and their rookies. Before their decline in the Pahlavi era, they could be found in most neighborhoods—a domed structure with modest appearance, a sunken arena in the middle, a morshed (trainer) in his elevated bench conducting the collective workouts with the exhilarating rhythm of an enormous Persian drum, reminiscent of kettledrums, and melodic recitations from the Shahnameh and from Shi‘i-Sufi poetry repertoire.
As the Pahlavi state began to encourage and sponsor modern sports through schools, factories, and modern gyms, much of the zurkhaneh’s talent and energy was diverted to new sports stages. Freestyle wrestling, along with weightlifting and soon soccer, became popular sports. Iranian teams made their appearance as early as the 1948 London Olympic Games, and by the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki they were earning medals. For the Iranian public, success in the Olympics was a source of excitement and pride coming at the time of Iran’s oil nationalization campaign.
The most luminous of all Iranian sportsmen in modern times, on both the national and the international stage, no doubt is Gholam-Reza Takhti (1930–1968), a hero of undiminished popularity whose tragic end elevated him in the public esteem to the pantheon of modern Iranian icons. A great wrestler with a magnificent physique who won medals in three Olympics—silver in 1952 in Helsinki, gold in 1956 in Melbourne, and another silver in 1960 in Rome—he managed to stay in form for as long as twelve years, during the golden years of Iranian wrestling when the national team twice was world champion. He was loved, however, beyond his sporting successes for his amiable personality, his shy and unassuming demeanor, and in later years, his independent political views. A stalwart supporter of Mosaddeq and a member of the second National Front, he personified in truth a modern luti in his most upright manifestation: someone who in the public eye revived the chivalrous tradition of the zurkhaneh and upheld its values. It was not without reason that in winning the traditional wrestling championship he earned the title of world champion (jahan pahlavan), bestowed on him by the shah, who personally fastened on Takhti’s arm the traditional armlet (fig. 12.10).
When he committed suicide in 1968 in a hotel room in Tehran, probably in a bout of severe depression, it was rumored that his death was foul play perpetrated by the Savak, just one of several untimely deaths of opposition figures (including Jalal Al-e Ahmad in 1969 and Ali Shari‘ati in 1977) attributed to the security services but without any credible evidence whatsoever. The symbolism of Takhti’s death was evident. He appeared to his admirers as a victim of the shah’s regime; he was a tragic hero reminiscent of the virtuous Dash Akol, the chief character of Sadeq Hedayat’s 1932 short story, who died fighting a wicked contender to save his honor. After 1979 Takhti was among the few popular heroes who survived the revolution. His name was conferred on many sport stadiums across the country so that it has become almost generic.
With the growing popularity of soccer through the 1960s and 1970s, and its regular media broadcast, wrestling and weightlifting took second place in favor of a team sport. Like societies of Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa, Iranian football soon emerged as an alternative public space reflecting collective aspirations, often in the absence of meaningful political venues. The gathering of large crowds in stadiums and the excitement of the match, particularly if played against foreign teams, carried a nationalistic weight. For the vast majority of Iranian fans attending the matches or watching them on the nationwide television broadcast, this was a shared experience of national solidarity. In the case of the 1968 match-up of Iran and Israel during the Asian Cup in Tehran, even though the Iranian team was victorious, afterward the Tehran crowd took to the streets in a mix of jubilation and an instantaneous anti-Israeli—and by implication, antiregime—protest. Fearing future such occurrences, the government introduced stringent security measures. A restive crowd displaying an ideological motive was an early indication of the popular defiance that would erupt a decade later in a popular revolution.
Figure 12.10. As a champion of traditional Persian wrestling, Takhti receives a medal of honor from the shah, Tehran, c. early 1960s.
Contemporary Iranian photograph, https://www.tumblr.com/search/gholamreza%20takhti.
PLAGUE OF THE WEST AND SEARCH FOR AUTHENTICITY
Signs of dissent in music, cinema, and sports complemented a conceptual rethinking of Iranian culture, and eventually a reassessment of religious myths and values. At the heart of this revisionist trend, beyond the familiar mood of frustration and despair in poetry and music that had been characteristic of Iran’s intellectual production ever since the 1950s (not to mention the postconstitutional era) was reassessment of such tokens as modernization and Westernization. To this end, Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s 1962 Gharbzadehgi was hugely influential in setting a nativist discourse of a return to the “authentic” culture and, by extension, to the authentic self. In the pungent days of the 1970s Al-e Ahmad’s discourse of cultural authenticity evolved into a journey of rediscovery for “true Islam.” A powerful motif before and during the 1979 revolution, Gharbzadehgi later rendered a rhetorical tool in the service of the Islamic Republic and its polemicists.
By all appearances Al-e Ahmad (1923–1969) was an implausible candidate for the Islamic hall of virtual martyrs to which he was elevated after his premature death. He was a beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking, heavy-drinking intellectualle de gauche, loyal to the demeanor of that type. Handsome and witty, with a critical outlook and a sharp tongue, he held court in fashionable cafés in Tehran, where he discussed the latest highbrow French novels and remarked on works of his protégés with an air of subtle sarcasm worthy of an engagé intellectual. After visiting the United States in 1965—he was a fellow in the Harvard program for foreign intellectuals run by Henry Kissinger—he also became a jeans-wearing jazz buff. He had married an American-educated professor of art history, Simin Daneshvar, who became a celebrated novelist in her own right and arguably superior to Al-e Ahmad (fig. 12.11). He was a translator of Gide, Camus, and Sartre, he read Steinbeck and Faulkner (in French or Persian translation), and he was influenced most visibly in his unique prose style by the French writer Ferdinand Céline. He was a literary critic, reviewing novels and plays as well as painting exhibitions; an ethnographer of sorts with a true nostalgia for the old world of the Iranian countryside and its dying culture; and a travel writer who visited the Soviet Union, the United States, and Israel, among other places, and wrote with his typical mix of biased sarcasm and skewed self-righteousness.
Yet there was more to Al-e Ahmad’s story. He was the son of a village mullah from the Taleqan region. His father immigrated to Tehran in the 1920s. In his teens young Jalal was a part-time apprentice in the Tehran bazaar while preparing to enter a seminary and become a mullah. His father’s hopes were dashed when Jalal abandoned the life of the Shi‘i clergy for a modern education and eventually became a high school teacher of Persian literature. Like most of the young and educated in the postwar era, he joined the Tudeh Party in its early days but soon became disillusioned with its Soviet-style communism after witnessing the duplicity of the Tudeh leadership and their subservience to Soviet ambitions during the Azarbaijan crisis and the botched Caspian oil concession. Reading André Gide’s 1937 Return from the USSR (which he translated from French to Persian) only confirmed his aversion to Stalinism, although it did not erode his faith in socialism. He split from Tudeh in 1948 along with his mentor, Khalil Maleki, and in 1952 he cofounded Niru-ye Sevvom (Third Force), the Iranian version of the French Troisième Force, as an affiliate of the National Front. In 1960 the Third Force, under the new title Society of the Socialists of the National Movement, attracted a host of independent socialists, intellectuals, and younger activists. Despite internal tensions, even between Maleki and Al-e Ahmad, the society survived for another decade, having been barely tolerated by the regime.
Figure 12.11. Simin Daneshvar with her husband, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Tehran, 1955.
The nagging ghost of the Islamic clerical past never fully deserted Al-e Ahmad. As if he never came out from under his father’s clerical robe, he discovered in the Shi‘i clerical space an “authentic” quality. In this he found a bastion against the onslaught of what seemed to him an alien, hegemonic “West” that metamorphosed non-Western societies into Westernized fakes that are gratefully subservient to their almighty hegemon. This was an outlook not in variance with the discourse of alienation in neo-Marxism of the 1950s and 1960s and its permutation among the French existentialist thinkers, and in line with the fashionable debate of machinisme, all of course with an Islamicized cultural twist.
Al-e Ahmad’s serious pitfall, however, was to take this accidental café talk on Gharbzadehgi a step further into a grand cultural theory that he hurriedly, and carelessly, pieced together. Its aim was to place blame for the cultural, political, and social ailments of non-Western societies, such as Iran, squarely on the shoulders of Western modernity, and more so on the faulty experiences of Westernism in the twentieth century. In this respect Gharbzadehgi turned out to be—independent of the author’s intention, perhaps—an ill-defined and self-righteous nativist theory. Such a discourse fit well into the grand narrative of Shi‘i persecution, for it laid all the blame on the shoulder of the villainous Other. Oblivious of the blind conservatism of the clerical elite, Ale-e Ahmad shepherded the hapless intellectuals of the post-1953 generation to go back to their origins by seeking salvation in Shi‘i culture of resistance, not in Marxism.
Al-e Ahmad’s Gharbzadehgi was, needless to say, an obvious reaction to the mindless positivism of the Europeanized (mostafrang) type that dominated the stage in the postconstitutional era and even more assertively during the Pahlavi epoch, a generation with a built-in inferiority complex over all things Western. These worshippers in the temple of Western “civilization” built the post–World War I Middle East from Turkey to the Arab World and South Asia. For them, even Europe’s mad militarism, genocide, slavery, colonialism, and litany of other evils that darkened Europe’s and America’s histories were not all visible, or at best were rationalized by the all-too-familiar rationale of “might is right.”
First inspired through reading other Iranian critiques of Westernism (such as Kasravi), a greater conceptual influence upon Al-e Ahmad came from Ahmad Fardid (1909–1994), who had coined the term gharbzadehgi. Fardid was a professor of Continental philosophy in Tehran University and for a while had become the focus of Al-e Ahmad’s attention and the core of his cultural orientation. As was Al-e Ahmad, Fardid was a reinvented intellectual who came from a madrasa background. A Heideggerian of sorts, or so he believed, with sporadic knowledge of Islamic philosophy and mysticism, Fardid had spent some years in postwar Germany, France, and Switzerland, where he immersed himself, un-systematically, in German idealist philosophy and was deeply influenced by the anti-Semitic and anti-modernist traits still strong in post-Nazi European milieu. Returning to Iran in 1955, he was exposed to a discourse of Iranian Shi‘i philosophy advanced by Henry Corbin (1903–1978), the French scholar and head of the Institut Français in Tehran. Also a former Heideggerian, Corbin’s keen interest in the philosophy of light (maktab-e eshraq) and the so-called theosophist school of Isfahan influenced a number of Iranian students of philosophy and intellectuals of his time. Corbin also belonged to a European circle of anti-modernist intellectuals who, concurrent with Heidegger’s teachings, thrived in the early part of the twentieth century in France and Germany.
Contentious and eccentric, Fardid had a paranoid view of Iranian modernity, which was inherited by Al-e Ahmad. Fardid’s ahistorical vision of the Islamic intellectual past made him argue that the course of Islamic philosophy had long been influenced—indeed, adulterated—by the Greek post-Socratic, and especially Aristotelian, philosophy; he first labeled this the “Greek-malady” (Yunan-zadehgi) and then gharbzadehgi. Having Heidegger’s notion of reorientation in mind, as well as the German philosopher’s preoccupation with pre-Socratic sages, Fardid prescribed a “return” to a new understanding of Persian mysticism and mystical poetry and to Islamic philosophy as a way of transcending the prevailing “reality” of the West.
Al-e Ahmad tendentiously borrowed Fardid’s gharbzadehgi and popularized it by injecting a heavy dose of third worldism. He also adopted Fardid’s anti-modernist stance, especially his critique of Iranian modernity of the twentieth century, from the Constitutional Revolution to the Pahlavi era, in nearly all its aspects. This was a revolt against the kind of modernity of which Fardid and Al-e Ahmad both were undeniable byproducts. “Westernism,” in Al-e Ahmad’s scheme, had become a pervasive affliction, like cholera or the plague, affecting all aspects of society and culture in Iran as in all non-Western societies. Such a malaise, he argued, affected all aspects of education, culture, lifestyle, economic development, and social relations. These are “symptoms that are devoid of any traditions to rely upon, any historical continuity, and any means of measuring change; they are only the gift of the machine.” The phenomenon of the gharbzadehgi, Al-e Ahmad believed, “is characteristic of an era in our history when we have not yet mastered the machine and are unaware of its structure and knowhow.” In other words an era when “we are not yet fully acquainted with [modern] science and technology.”3 Pahlavi modernism, he thus implied, was subservient to Western economic and geopolitical interests and the chief reason for Iran’s dependence and for Iranian alienation. Al-e Ahmad’s critique acquired him a growing readership, even though the censors had banned the book’s official release.
The weakest aspect of Gharbzadehgi was its often erroneous, and highly tendentious, reading of the Iranian past. His careless and ideologically colored assertions and his overall contemptuous view of Iran’s political legacy came to influence generations of eager but naive readers. In this respect Gharbzadehgi may be counted among the most damaging Persian texts produced in the twentieth century. Clandestinely available to all who wished to read it, in the climate of the 1960s and 1970s, when all other avenues of open and dispassionate political debate, even social criticism, were effectively closed, Al-e Ahmad’s pamphleteering offered a fresh alternative. Gharbzadehgi’s conspiratorial view of history blamed the West for everything that went wrong with the East (another questionable cultural construct). The premodern East was nostalgically painted as a pristine and “authentic” past that was, in his view, coherent and congenial, almost idyllic.
In Al-e Ahmad’s conspiratorial worldview, aside from the sacred history of Islam and the Shi‘i clerical establishment, few historical forces and actors remained unscathed. Culprits included movements of dissent from the Isma‘ilis of Alamut to the Sufis, the Noqtavis, new schools of thought including Safavid philosophers of the seventeenth century, and religious minorities including the Jews and the Baha’is. Political powers from the Abbasid caliphate to Turkish dynasties of the Islamic Middle Ages, the Mamluks of Egypt, the Ottomans, the Safavids and Qajars, and even the nomads of the Iranian interior were seen as creatures or collaborators or as unintended victims of sinister Christian powers that, ever since the inception of Islam, had been hatching plots against Muslims and especially against the people and culture of Iran. Their ranks included the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Vatican, the Venetians and the Genoans, European trading companies, Christian missionaries, European travelers, and the more predictable nemeses, such as colonial empires of the nineteenth century, oil companies, US spy agencies, and the economic and cultural long arms of Yankee imperialism.
In this cosmic onslaught of evil against the good, even the Mongols of the Gobi Desert and the Uighurs of Eastern Turkistan were not spared. European Christians not only had provoked the Crusades and the Mongol and Timurid invasions but also somehow instigated the Sunni-Shi‘i conflict between the Ottomans and Safavids. Later in the twentieth century the failure of pan-Islamism was considered the outcome of European plots. These were conspiracies to destroy the solidarity of the Muslims, taint their “pure” culture, and lay hands on their material resources. In Al-e Ahmad’s customary self-righteous tone and abbreviated style, this litany of assertions was appealing to his young and historically uninformed readership and soothing to their injured sentiments. His rendering of the Islamic past triggered a sense of victimization inherent in the Shi‘i narrative and conveniently placed the fault of Muslim “decline” squarely on the shoulders of hostile others.
Al-e Ahmad’s paranoid history aside, in many respects his Gharbzadehgi, though rushed and polemical, anticipated not only critiques of Orientalism in the 1970s but also the world-system and dependency theories of the 1980s. Here, emphasis on the wholesale import of the West’s material culture and ideas, adopting the so-called montage mentality, and relying on a rentier oil economy, was novel. It contested the Pahlavi modernism project and posed a counterargument to the modernization theory in its heyday, when “underdeveloped” countries were demanded by the likes of the World Bank to resort to heavy industry, a planned economy, and wholesale overhaul of their agrarian economies. By contrast, Al-e Ahmad questioned the kind of rushed “progress” that summed up the shah’s White Revolution that emerged shorty after and the mentality of the technocrats who presided over it. Before his eyes, Al-e Ahmad could see the dismantling of the village economies and village communities, growth of overpopulated and badly organized cities, and a way of life and an identity about to be wiped out. Yet despite the advocacy of cultural authenticity, Al-e Ahmad also believed that “inventing the machine” would remedy the maladies of the developing societies. Though informed by the then fashionable discourse of machinisme, it is curious that he also subscribed to the modernization theory as a means of liberation from Western economic and cultural hegemony.
Deeper still in Al-e Ahmad’s Gharbzadehgi was a fear of an alien intrusion revoking a Shi‘i-Iranian dichotomy of the “chaste” body versus the alien “polluting” agents. It was as if the satanic forces had invaded the “pure” core of believers. That is what brought Al-e Ahmad, and a generation of like-minded intellectuals, to the bosom of an idealized Islamic alternative. A popular slogan of revolutionary days: “Neither Western nor Eastern [but] the Islamic Republic” (na sharghi, na gharbi, jomhuri-ye Islami) aptly resonated, Al-e Ahmad’s lasting mark on shaping the Islamic Revolution. It is highly doubtful, however, that Al-e Ahmad himself would have survived that revolution even in its initial stages.
SHARI‘ATI’S REVOLUTIONARY ISLAM
Of comparable standing to Al-e Ahmad in the shaping of a nativist Islamic discourse was ‘Ali Shari‘ati (1933–1977), another generational icon with an eclectic worldview. In the late 1960s his fiery sermons, numerous popular books, pamphlets, and cassette recordings made him a new prophet of revolutionary Shi‘ism. Like Al-e Ahmad, who had an early influence on him, Shari‘ati too was born to a religious family from a village around Sabzevār, an old stronghold of Shi‘ism, to Mashhad, where his father, a lay preacher of some fame, ran a religious center with a revivalist agenda. As with Al-e Ahmad, the National Movement of the early 1950s and the dissident political culture that followed it into the 1960s also shaped Shari‘ati. He, too, was a high school teacher and supporter of the National Front. His path diverted, however, once he moved to France on a government fellowship, where he earned a doctora de l’université from the Sorbonne in sociology of religion. The not-so-rigorous degree, then acquirable with a modicum of academic effort, was good enough to land him on the faculty of Mashhad University. His dissertation, a run-of-the-mill textual analysis of a Persian mystical text, was of no scholarly value.
While in France, Shari‘ati became interested in politics of the left, and especially in the Algerian Revolution, then in the late 1950s in full swing. He supported the Islamic wing of the movement and sympathized with its anti-colonial objectives, searching all the while for new readings of Islam through the prism of sociology of religion, then an academic novelty. George Gurvitch (1894–1965), the Russian-born French sociologist and a strong advocate of Algerian independence, impressed Shari‘ati and helped him contextualize Islam not merely as a system of beliefs and rituals but as a socioreligious movement. He may have also been inspired by Louis Massignon’s 1922 La passion d’al Hallaj, a seminal study of the life and time of the early Shi‘i Sufi martyr. The young Shari‘ati could not have missed Massignon’s personal history (1883–1962) and his inspirational neo-Catholicism, with its ecumenical tilt toward Islam and with a growing fascination with the Shi‘i myth of martyrdom.
The greatest influence on Shari‘ati, however, came from the Caribbean-born Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) and his revolutionary anticolonial thesis then in vogue among intellectuals of the left. Fanon, a Francophone intellectual, became almost a role model for Shari‘ati, who translated into Persian his The Wretched of the Earth (Les damnés de la Terre) soon after it was published in 1961. Through Fanon, Shari‘ati came to view the struggle against colonialism, then epitomized by the Algerian Revolution, as an existential struggle for human liberation in which suffering and sacrifice of the oppressed were to restore not only political freedom but also human dignity and moral responsibility. Fanon had become the voice of passionate intellectuals and activists of the so-called third world, a term widely employed to define a geography of deprivation and dependency on the West. Still socialist in its core, Fanon’s anticolonialism went beyond Marxian class struggle to emphasize national, cultural, ethnic, and religious ties. These he held as crucial tools for struggle, even armed struggle, to cast off alien ideologies on both sides of the global divide. Shari‘ati absorbed that message but refashioned it to fit his own mytho-historical reading of Shi‘ism.
Returning to Iran in 1964, he was inevitably harassed by Savak and detained for his dissident activities abroad, but soon, possibly after giving assurances, he was allowed to hold his university position teaching sociology of religion and history in Mashhad University. He made a name for himself as a motivated teacher with radical views about Islamic history and setting it in a novel context for his growing audiences. His intellectual brinkmanship made him tolerable to the regime so long as he observed his rhetorical limits. Moving to Tehran a couple of years later, he soon became the most prominent public voice in Hosainiyeh-e Ershad, where he came to be known as an inspirational speaker who understood the younger generations of alienated Iranians.
Hosainiyeh-e Ershad was a modern religious institution in northern Tehran established in 1964 to promote a fresh Islamic perspective palatable to mostly university students and educated professionals. Reminiscent of Catholic establishments in France or Evangelical halls in the United States, or closer to home to Tehran’s former Baha’i center, it was entirely different from the familiar environment of mosques and traditional takkiyehs where Muharram mourning ceremonies were held. It was a domed structure with Persian tile work that covered a spacious hall equipped with auditorium seats, air-conditioning, an audio system, a library, and exhibition space. Qur’anic verses in colorful tile-work decorated the hall’s center stage. For Shari‘ati this offered the right ambiance to preach, for nearly a decade, his massage of Islamic rediscovery and Shi‘i activism in a language of restrained metaphors. For audiences who came in droves to listen to him, Ershad’s surroundings presented something modern, bright, and dignified, an ideal setting for a charming lecturer, handsome, well dressed in suit and tie, shaved, smiling, and speaking with a trace of a delightful Khorasani accent. He was a novelty even secularized middle-class Iranians could not ignore.
Shari‘ati’s style was sentimental, even melodramatic, and intense. He loved preaching, understood his audiences, and knew which sympathetic chords to strike. Though long winded to the point of being loquacious, repetitive, and declamatory, he was not boring, at least not to his young and dedicated followers who regularly attended his lectures, listened to his cassette tapes, and studiously devoured his growing oeuvre in print. His writing style was equally rambling, emotional, and intense, fitting the quasi-mystical and entirely ahistorical message that he was preaching. Sensational mytho-history was at the core of his popularity.
Considering himself a theistic existentialist, Shari‘ati sought a massage of liberation in the Qur’anic narrative and in the Shi‘i past. He was not interested in the empirical, factual history of Islam, which he dismissed as irrelevant and misleading, produced by oppressive powers and Westerners. Rather, he sought in the early Shi‘i sacred past archetypes for his vision of revolt against political and religious oppressions. In his message there existed a potent amalgam of Fanon, Sartre, and Massignon, alongside Marx, Mosaddeq, Algeria’s National Liberation Front, and Al-e Ahmad, not to mention Shari‘ati’s own father and his advocacy of “true” Islam. Such characters were synthesized and amalgamated in Shari‘ati’s mind to make his early Islamic heroes speak his revolutionary message. They ranged from ‘Ali, Hosain, and Fatima to such early companions of the Prophet as the emaciated Abyssinian slave Bilal and the pro-‘Alid figures Abu-Dharr al-Ghifari and ‘Ammar ibn Yasir. In the vocal and written universe of ‘Ali Shari‘ati they turned into champions of social justice, self-sacrifice (ithar), and revolt against the oppressors. The early deniers of the Prophet among the Quraysh and their Umayyad descendants, Mu’awiya and his son Yazid, were predictable villains. They were timely signifiers who pointed to the Pahlavi regime.
In this sacred past, the age of the early believers, Shari‘ati imagined a dynamic course when the pure, egalitarian, and self-sacrificing Imams and their companions actively resisted their corrupt oppressors. This he called the age of ’Alid Red Shi‘ism. Here in the House of the Prophet, the so-called Five of the Mantle (of the Prophet), more popularly known as the Five Bodies (panj tan)—namely Mohammad, ‘Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Hosain, and their loyal supporters—he sought a “religion of protest.” In this narrative of revolutionary Shi‘ism, Shari‘ati was a modern “promoter” (maddah) and a contemporizing “reciter of the sufferings” who assigned to his “wronged” heroes the urgent task of revolutionary rebellion against their oppressive villains. By contrast, his “Safavid Black Shi‘ism” stood for clerical conservatism, which he characterized as compromising, pedantic, and rapacious. The dichotomy of the two forms of ‘Alid and Safavid Shi‘ism was devoid of plausible historical reference. Furthermore, he believed that the rise of Safavid Shi‘ism against the Sunni Ottomans was the outcome of a conspiracy to divide Islamic unity, a conspiratorial perspective he shared with Al-e Ahmad. Yet his mytho-history was electrifying to his audiences, who could contrast Shari‘ati and his seemingly valiant and dynamic Islam to the stagnant world of turbaned Shi‘ism.
Shari‘ati’s criticism of the Pahlavi regime was understandably implicit, though not entirely veiled. Nor were his allusions beyond the grasp of the Savak agents who routinely monitored his activities and occasionally harassed him. Despite much disruption by Savak, and a break with Mortaza Motahhari (1919–1979), a representative of the less rigid clerical wing of Qom who also was active in Ershad. Shari‘ati went on lecturing and publishing until the closure of Ershad in 1972. His publications, widely available to people from all walks of life, was a source of anxiety to the regime. Yet the fact that he was not completely silenced, one may surmise, was because the regime valued him as an effective counterweight to a fast-radicalizing clerical opposition in Qom. Only in 1972, at the height of urban guerrilla clashes, Shari‘ati was seen as a serious threat. He was accused of collaboration with the People’s Mojahedin and subsequently spent eighteen months in solitary confinement, before being released with the shah’s consent when international publicity for his release were loud enough to make the shah realize the disadvantage of keeping a popular figure like Shari‘ati in detention. For two yeas after his release he lived under virtual house arrest with his health in serious decline. In early 1977 he was allowed to leave the country after Savak forced him to publish, or forged on his behalf, a statement in praise of the White Revolution. When he arrived in England in March, he was suffering from depression and other ailments. Soon after he died of a massive heart attack in a hospital in Southampton. Oddly enough, the circumstances surrounding his death did not alarm the British authorities enough to hold an inquest. Regardless, Shari‘ati was to be remembered by the Iranian opposition as another victim of the Savak, even though his premature death, like that of Al-e Ahmad, was due to health reasons, most likely heavy smoking.
DISARRAY IN A CULTURAL SPACE
Nearly two decades of state patronage had opened a wider and more exciting cultural space in Iran. Media, especially television, artistic venues, the press and book publication, and growing viewership and readership offered intellectuals and artists a broader market and greater recognition. These happened despite the shrinking political horizons and the state’s obsessive efforts to silence all forms of dissent or coopt willing partners. Voices of dissent survived, however veiled, in the state’s broadcasting network, in cinema, and in various cultural and public institutions. Insofar as giving Iranians a more articulate sense of themselves, the state was able to reap the fruits of a half century of Pahlavi nationalist policies. But as it remained closely identified with a vision of positivist progress and Westernizing modernity, it also set in motion a quest for “authenticity” and cultural sovereignty. Palpable in many quarters, among writers, poets and filmmakers, the return to the authentic self had an irresistible lure. Popular music, even artists whose prosperity was indebted to middle-class stability under the Pahlavi rule, could occasionally sing ballads of heroic fall, alienation, and martyrdom.
Intellectuals and activists who remained outside the state’s reach had their own possibilities. Such figures as Al-e Ahmad, Shamlu, and later Shari‘ati were able to frequent their own circles and speak, write, translate, and publish so long as they avoided taboos. Overt criticism was out of the question, but political symbolism of all sorts and allusions to political repression and social ills were not entirely silenced despite censorship and intimidation (fig. 12.12). Metaphors, hints, and literary brinkmanship had long been familiar in the Persian milieu, and unsurprisingly they became second nature to the post-1953 generation. Under censorship, strategies of dissent thrived, ensuring greater originality and innovation. The audiences, too, shared in the codified language of dissent and took pleasure in unraveling literary cryptograms and political clues. A prevailing culture of resentment that was mastered by intellectuals and artists was well suited to a language of allusions and symbols and to the recycling of old paradigms of Shi‘i Islam in a new activist guise.
Figure 12.12. A thinly veiled critical view of the shah and Pahlavi statesmen by the gifted satirist Ardeshir Mohassess. In this 1977 portrayal of a public audience, Mohammad ‘Ali Shah Qajar, with his Kayanid crown, substitutes for Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi during the last years of his rule.
“The existence of a suspicious cabinet minster was reported to the king,” Life in Iran, collection of drawings, Library of Congress, CD 1—Mohassess, no. 34.
High but sanitized culture came to serve a purpose: releasing excessive social pressures created by a booming economy and autocratic rule. While the secularized middle classes could, and partially did, become absorbed into the cultural milieu, the lower middle classes, the urban migrants, and the traditional sectors of Iranian society by and large remained outside the state’s reach. The state’s cultural policies were largely geared to absorb the intellectual left rather than the forces of religious dissent. The former could relay cryptic message of dissent, as much as possible, and hope for better days. The latter enjoyed fewer forums and had to rely mostly on its own traditional venues. The closure of Hosainiyeh-e Ershad ironically diverted more energies and attention to mosques, Qur’an study classes, and inspirational preaching presided over by activist clergy who were not patronized by the state.