Young Iran and Its Inspirations Introduction
by Maziar Bahari, Malu Halasa
Garnet Publishing, 2008
Things are never what they seem in the art of Sadegh Tirafkan, the new feminist journalism of Asieh Amini, and the romance Shi'a-style by new fiction talent Alireza Mahmoodi- Iranmehr. Other contributors include Newsha Tavakolian, named Best Young Photographer of 2006 by National Geographic, Abbas Kowsari, Javad Montazeri and Omid Salehi, who have continued to document the social transformation of their country in the face of mass closures of newspapers and magazines by the government. Above all, Transit Tehran celebrates the country's long tradition of artistic and cultural resistance that has influenced young Iranians, noticeably in the work of veteran editor and journalist Masoud Behnoud, photojournalist Kaveh Golestan, premier satirist and illustrator Ardeshir Mohassess, and photographer Mohsen Rastani.
Satirical, emotional, nostalgic, tragic and realistic is how the contributors of this book interpret modern day life in Tehran, the capital of Islamic Republic of Iran. In Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its Inspirations, thirty Iranian and international photographers, reporters and writers with inside knowledge of the city share their experiences with the outside world. Like 75 percent of Iranians, many contributors to Transit Tehran are under thirty-five. They represent a generation with strong emotional and social attachments to their culture and religion while being critical of the Iranian government’s censorship of arts and culture.
Transit Tehran is a portrait of a country in transition, one which is largely misunderstood by the outside world. As one of the contributors who wishes to remain anonymous puts it, ‘Iran is moving from something like a traditional society to something resembling a modern one!’ In the short stories, art and photography in the book, we witness a clash of traditional and modern values which dominate the daily lives of artists and intellectuals every day. Yet Transit Tehran also includes more immediate concerns such as fear of arrest and imprisonment. As the same anonymous author admits, ‘Working in Iran is like walking on a tightrope. You always have to be careful not to fall down, especially if you are critical of something in the country. You always have to be careful who you’re dealing with, or who will be the people who may take you to court and make complaints about you.’ Although the atmosphere in the city isn’t as stifling as it was two decades ago, the author explains, ‘A woman is never sure whether she can be stopped on the street by the moral police or not. Artists and intellectuals may never be incarcerated but they can always expect unfriendly calls at midnight to be interrogated or appear in court. Authoritarian regimes like insecurity. The real threat is not as important as the perceived one.’
Like most authoritarian governments, the Islamic Republic is deeply insecure about its legitimacy. And anyone who questions its authority, or is even indifferent to it, can be regarded as a threat. The Iranian authors and photographers presented in Transit Tehran insist that they are apolitical but the very fact that they do not subscribe to the ‘official’ approach to arts and culture in the Islamic Republic can make their lives difficult in their country. The challenge for many authors is how to avoid self-censorship while avoiding government censors at the same time. They do not always win the battle. Over all, between them, Transit Tehran writers worked in about fifty magazines and newspapers which were closed down for threatening ‘the psychological security of the society’ and showing the Islamic Republic of Iran in a ‘black light’ and ‘weakening military and revolutionary institutions’. Over the period that the book has been put together, some of the contributors have been arrested and imprisoned at the time of writing.
Regarding journalism as a threat is not a recent phenomenon in Iran. Late photographer Kaveh Golestan, whose images from Shahr-e No (Tehran’s Red Light district) featured in the book, faced censorship before the 1979 Islamic Revolution and then again wrote about it in the 1990s1 more than a decade after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Transit Tehran’s photography and art are contemporary depiction of Tehran that draws on Iran’s rich cultural and visual heritage. Throughout the country’s long history of political turmoil, the arts have traditionally been a place of resistance. We are proud to include Iran’s pre-eminent cartoonist Ardeshir Mohasses (who is introduced by Shirin Neshat). Mohasses’ illustrations are some of the most scathing criticisms of monarchist despotism in pre-revolutionary Iran.
Under any regime, where dissent isn’t tolerated, metaphor becomes a strategy. Photographer Javad Montazeri ponders the issue of restriction by capturing women swimming in the Caspian Sea in full veil. In his notes, he writes that he takes his seven-year-old daughter to the Caspian beach of his childhood because in two year’s time she will have to swim with a headscarf. Veteran editor and journalist Masoud Behnoud begins his history of Tehran with buried treasure. Metaphors play an important role in how Transit Tehran contributors interpret the way in which government officials glorify war and martyrdom. In Transit Tehran, photojournalist Majid Saeedi prefers to stay neutral while documenting a theatrical demonstration of estesh-haddion (martyrdom seekers) — men and women willing to die for their country and their brethren in the Muslim world, while in series of sardonic portraits entitled ‘Guys in the Hood’, artist and war veteran Khosrow Hassanzadeh paints his friends and relatives in the style of government murals of martyrs of the Imposed War, as the eight-year war with Iraq is officially called in Iran.
The citizens’ contrasting behaviour in their public and private spaces is yet another defence mechanism against an intruding government. Hence, ‘dichotomy’ may be the word that best defines Tehran. The concept manifests itself in every aspect of the life of residents of Tehran. While Iranian rappers, death metal rockers and punks hold concerts in private houses in which dozens, and even hundreds, of people take part, as soon as they release an album as Kaveh Golestan’s son Mehrak (aka Reveal) writes, they can be called in for questioning for ‘propagating decadence and tarnishing the image of the holy regime of the Islamic Republic’. While many in positions of power prefer to keep their blinkers on and not to see the state of Tehran’s youth, some officials of the Islamic Republic understand that the paradox between the public and private spaces threaten the survival of the young republic. In her revealing essay, Danish anthropologist Janne Bjerre Christensen who spent many months observing drug addicts in rehabilitation clinics in Tehran, writes while the capital of the Islamic Republic has the highest number of heroin addicts in the world, it also has the first needle exchange centres in the Middle East. The religious establishment is torn between regarding addicts as patients or criminals.
Despite the constraints, photojournalists like Newsha Tavakolian, who won Best Young Photographer of 2006 by National Geographic, Abbas Kowsari, Omid Salehi, Kian Amani, among others, continue to produce in depth social documentary about women, clerics and the young. They capture the ideas, lifestyles and aspirations in homes, art and sound studios, police academies, the seminaries, on the street, and many other places across Iran. In Transit Tehran, Tehran is reported on and photographed by people who live and work there. It is a view from the ground up.
>>> Transit Tehran available from amazon.com
1) Kaveh Golestan, ‘Recording the Truth in Iran’ in Kaveh Golestan 1950 - 2003: Recording the Truth in Iran (Stuttgart/The Hague: Hatje Cantz/Prince Claus Fund Library, 2007), p. 26.
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