A very good thing
Muzaffar al-Din Shah's encounter with cinema
August 24, 2001
Once Upon a Time Cinema, or Nasir al-Din Shah Aktor-e Cinema,
is one of my favorite films for more reasons than one. It is a film made
before Mohsen Makhmalbaf became the preachy self-righteous filmmaker that
he has now become, and in scene after scene we feel the director's love
and enthusiasm for cinema. It has a lightness about it that is not frivolous,
and is full of great scenes, from the court eating abgoosht as it
watches jaheli movies, to the king's falling in love with Dokhtar-e
Lor and drinking his sorrows away with Behrouz Vousouqi, to his becoming
gaav-e Mash Hasan.
The film, in a great demonstration of the power of cinema to twist reality,
begins with Mozzafar al-Din Shah's return from farang only to push
everything, including the invention and use of the cinematograph, back to
his great father's time, Nasir al-Din Shah. Nasir al-Din Shah, the fifth
Qajar king, with his intense curiosity and love of photography would no
doubt have loved the moving pictures but he was killed only a year after
they were invented. It fell to his not-so-curious and not-very-passionate
son to see the cinematograph in 1900, find it interesting, purchase it,
and bring it back with him to Iran. Related
The following is the account of Muzaffar al-Din Shah's encounter
with cinema as recorded in the daily chronicle (rouznameh) of his
first trip to Europe. Each entry in Muzaffar al-Din Shah's travelogue is
separated by the date and is not much longer than 3/4 to a page. Almost
each starts with "We woke up in the morning" or a variation thereof
and sets the tone for a journal entry that both meticulously and vaguely
records the Shah's daily activities. What is interesting in this account
is how the moving pictures was just one of the many sights that awaited
the traveler. Cinema in many ways has surpassed all other art forms in what
Walter Benjamin has called the age of mechanical reproduction. It is the
perfect art for the modern era but at the brink of that era, in 1900, it
constituted only a fraction of the spectacles on offer.
The Shah sets out from Tehran and travels eastward, crossing the Aras
river on the northeast of Iran to Russia. He travels through Russia by either
train or carriage recording the different instances he asked his akkasbsh
(the court photographer) to take pictures. (He himself also takes some
pictures.) Almost all instances mentions are pictures of diplomats and other
functionaries that visit the Shah of Iran on his trip. On his last day in
Russia, the "theater" was set up for him in a park where "for
the purposes of paying respects to us (tashrifat), a large number
of the nobility were invited for free." Three curtains of dance were
shown. The final destination of the Shah's trip is a health spa in France
where he hopes to improve his health by drinking the mineral waters. He
and his entourage arrive there at night after two months of constant traveling
and settle into a "hotel" with all his servants and assistants.
Throughout his trip but especially during his stay at the spa, the Shah
regularly goes to the theater in the evenings. The first day of his stay
though rather than go to the theater itself, he visits the sight of a theater
that is being built saying: "We went to the building of a theater that
they have recently started building here and watched (tamasha). They have
built a very nice building. It fits about 150 people." Several days
later, he again goes to the theater and says: "Right at sunset we went
to the theater that was very beautiful and good. The plays (bazi)
were not bad either." In some ways it seems that it is the physical
presence of the theater that attracts him more than the content itself.
Another aspect of the Shah's theater-going that emerges from the travelogue
is the disjointed nature of it. Very seldom does he sit through the entire
show, leaving it after the second or third curtains to go pray or to sleep.
He never seems very engaged with what he is seeing, rather it is the act
of going to the theater that, along with drinking the waters, strolling
in the park, shopping, and target practice constitute important punctuation
marks of his day.
The tenth of the month of Rabi' al-Awwal was such a cold day that "we
didn't feel like drinking water or taking a stroll in the park." The
Shah was obviously restless and bored so "near the afternoon we ordered
Akksbsh to instruct the person who through Sani'i al-Duwlah had brought
the Cinemaphotograph [sic] and Lan-ter Magic [sic] to prepare them for our
consideration. Near sunset they prepared him. We went to a place near the
guesthouse where our servants eat dinner and lunch. We sat down. They darkened
the room. We watched both gadgets [asbab]. It is a very good novel
thing [bisyar chiz-i bad'i-i khubi ast]; it shows [tamasha midahad]
and makes corporeal [mujassam mikunad] most of the places in the
Exposition that it is a cause for utmost wonder and amazement [ta'ajub
va hayrat]. We saw most of the landscapes and buildings of the Exposition
and the way it rains, and the Seine river, etc in Paris and ordered Akkasbashi
to purchase all those equipment." After this, the Shah is informed
that "the theater is ready." He takes his leave.
We realize, several days later, that the Shah is going back to Russia
from where he will begin his "official tour" of Europe, modeled
self-consciously on Nasir al-Din Shah's three trips to farangistan.
Interestingly enough, the Shah uses this part of his trip to be a tourist.
His entries are now longer and full of details of the cities he has seen.
His description of Paris begins of course with his sighting of the Eiffel
tower, then a description of his reception and the smoothness of Parisian
streets. There are tree-lined streets in Paris with gas and electric lamps
(most 19th century travelers to Paris commented on the lights in the city);
there are stores and cafes, restaurants and hotels (he uses these two words
in transliteration) with doors and windows that open up on the street:
"They have put large, continuous, mercury-less mirrors such that
one can see very well the outside from inside and the inside from outside
except that every store or hotel that doesn't want to be seen from the outside
hangs a white lace from the inside, as it has now becomes fashionable in
Iran, so that you can see the outside from inside but from outside the inside
can not be seen." In addition, he notes that the "buildings of
farangistan are opposite of that of Iran. The space of every house and
building is limited to the alleys and streets. Inside the house there is
no place for recreation and fun [tafarruj va tafrih]."
The Shah spends his days in Paris walking around (he loves zoos), sightseeing,
and inspecting factories and military fields outside Paris. On one of these
outings he was the target of an assassination attempt ("His name is
Francois Salon; he is French and from an anarchist group; he's a youth of
24 years.") Two days later after this event, the Shah writes: "Today
because our hand was hurting a bit and we were also tired from yesterday,
we stayed in and didn't go anywhere." Instead, around 9 pm "we
went to the Exposition and to the Festival Hall where they were showing
Cinemophotograph [sic] which is tangible [mujassam] and moving pictures."
He begins by describing the building:
"We first entered the special door of this building around sunset
and the lights of the Exposition were turned on. When we first entered the
Festival Hall, it left an impression on us; it is truly an excellent building.
It is as big as two Tikkiyay-i Duwlats and like it, it is circular and its
ceiling is made of illuminated crystals and around it are two rows of red
velvet chairs that have been built for people to sit on. They show the Cinemophotograph
here. They raised a very large curtain in the middle of the Hall and turned
off all the electric lights and threw the Cinemophotograph's picture on
that big curtain. They showed a lot, for example travelers from Africa and
Arabia who were passing through the African desert with camels that was
very interesting [ddan] also other things were seen such as the Exposition,
the moving alleys, the Seine river, the movement of the boats on the river,
and people playing in the water, and other things that was very worth seeing...
We ordered Akkasbashi to buy all kinds of it and to bring it to Tehran so
that Insha'allah we make it there and show it to our own servants. We watched
about 30 scenes [pardeh]."
From there the Shah goes to the Building of Illusion where the "spectacle
[tamsh] here was even greater than there." In the end of this
spectacle-ridden evening, the Shah requests to see the architect of the
building and gives him a medal.
It is only when the Shah sees the various Panoramas in the Exposition
that he seems to be truly astonished. He writes with excitement and in detail.
The first Panorama he sees is that of Madagascar which "was so tangible
and well built that was no different from the real thing. All the city,
the stores, the trees, even the movement of the leaves which resulted from
the movement of air was so similar and tangible that one imagined they were
sitting in the city of Madagascar, in the Queen's palace and is looking
At the end of the day, the Shah feels that that for two hours "we
walked around the Madagascar Island and the Siberian desert and traveled
to Tehran and our own Museum hall and returned to Paris. Until one sees
with one's own eyes, s/he doesn't know of what quality it is."