When Michael Turner posted, on Saturday morning, a link on his blog to this photo-montage-video about pre-revolutionary Iran, I spent a chunk of the day revisiting Iran’s past – and in a tangential way, my own.
Because I was in the middle of turning sixteen at the time of the 1979-ish Islamic Revolution, my attention wasn’t exactly riveted on the details of the events, though I was a daily reader of newspapers as a youth. I had a general awareness of the existence of the Shah, Reza Pahlavi, and remember the demonstrations against him in New York City when he spent some time there after fleeing Tehran.
For some – particularly people younger than I who may have had less exposure to Iranian history – this video might seem as fluffy and amusing as one made of stills of photos from any major urban centre in the United States: clothing and hairstyle fashions that now seem quaint, for instance. However, the video provides some very interesting food for thought.
The most obviously notable depiction is that of the role of women in Iranian society prior to 1979. Except for the apparent racial makeup of the faces depicted, and some characteristics of the physical environment (Persian signage, for instance), these could easily be scenes from California in the same era. Women are shown participating in daily life without the restrictions that have subsequently been imposed upon them by the theocrats who took over from the Shah.
Most of the images were likely taken in Tehran, Iran’s cosmopolitan capital, a city of over twelve million (the world’s fifth largest), so it’s important to remember that these images should not be assumed to tell ‘The Story’ of pre-revolution Iran. The creator of the video, clearly, thinks of the days of the Shah as the good old days and – relatively speaking – that would not be a difficult conclusion. Even comparing the Shah to the leadership of only other Middle-East countries makes nostalgia easy.
But of course, stories are always more complicated, and as with most other things, I wonder about the photographs from Tehran in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, that do not appear in this collection; photos that may never have been captured, stories of others who were never a part of the popular narrative, whatever their reasons for being overlooked.
Nevertheless, Tehran clearly appears to have been, by conventional liberal measures, a far better place to be – for many – under a heredity monarch with too much power (and too much CIA pressure) than it’s ever been under a series of Ayatollahs.
I learned nothing about Iran, or Iranians, in school, and I learned relatively little about Iranians from reading the Winnipeg Free Press or the Vancouver Sun. Where I learned the most, at least about a certain class of Iranians, was from expatriate Iranians. Over the years, I have met a number of people from Iran who were doctors, lawyers, engineers, university professors, and other professions.
At least, they had been those things before fleeing Tehran with absolutely nothing but the clothes on their backs and the contents of their pockets. When I met them, they were dishwashers, janitors, line cooks, convenience store clerks. As a scarcely educated seventeen year old busboy in a crappy restaurant in suburban Winnipeg, it seemed that I had considerably more cultural power than the ex-banker who was scraping the crusty egg yolk off of the plates that I was continuously dumping in front of him.
The Iranians I met in the late seventies and early eighties didn’t tell me who they were as much as they revealed to me who I was, though significant comprehension of the lesson didn’t come until much later.
After I watched this video, I couldn’t help but imagine what a similar, future, retro video might look like about, say, Vancouver. You know, the good old days, when we all* had iPhones and Fluevogs and plenty of water to drink and no one was threatening to hang us for our moments of dissidence, resistance, irreverence.
(* Exceptions undocumented)