Histories of Urban Life: Society, Space and Cosmopolitan Tehran

This panel seeks to explore how urban life has changed in Tehran from the early twentieth century to today, and how this change reflects developments in both the broader global and national context and in the local socio-economic, cultural and artistic context. Particularly, the panel will study how the spaces, places and virtual realms of the capital have generated and embodied visions, forms and expressions of cosmopolitanism, sociability and conviviality, middle class lifestyles and cultural capital, vibrancy and vitality, at various stages of its history.

“The cosmopolitan” and cosmopolitanism as concepts escape easy definition: they are inherently ambiguous notions, prone to simplistic observations and academic well-wishing for a world that seems ever more parochial, regressive and hostile to diversity. And yet, the idea of a cosmopolitan city and cosmopolitan urban life has been able, time and again, to expand the horizon of social imaginations, interactions and encounters. At different stages of the transformation of Tehran from an imperial headquarter to a bustling metropolis, ideas of cosmopolitanism were infused into the shaping of middle class society, identities and self-representations.

This panel explores these notions as they became tacit or overtly expressed in attempts at negotiating status and identity, infusing and accommodating difference and diversity, and fashioning and refashioning the city. The panel treats different actors as part of a whole: migrants, minorities, women, filmmakers and rappers; in different periods of modern Tehran’s history, from the first three decades of the 20th Century to World War II and on to present day; and how these actors, in the context of each their historical period, created new spaces - whether the cinema, the factory, social media or in rap music - in which middle class Tehranis could engage in the making of community.


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Digital media play an increasingly transformative role in everyday, middle-class life in Tehran. As elsewhere across the globe, digital technologies affect how the city is witnessed, mediated, imagined and understood. Camera phones and their integration into online social networks modify how, where, and with whom we ‘experience’ travelling through places. Contemporary Tehran presents a particularly salient example of digital technology’s capacity to foster mobility and cosmopolitan co-presence, amongst a dynamic middle-class of popular media producers actively desiring their city to be seen in cosmopolitan terms. Moreover, in some cases, digital media also form the only possible vehicles for ‘travel’ to and from the city for some foreign and Iranian visitors. These factors, and a constellation of socio-technological, political and economic developments have led to the increasing presence of what I call ‘virtual cosmopolitans’: individuals from, visiting and assembling in the virtual city of Tehran through its numerous online communities. Social networks and photoblogs are the primary sites of these virtual cosmopolitan encounters, wherein locative media and geotagging yield new opportunities for re/writing urban space (geographical, social and cultural), through embodied mobile cartographies. In the virtual cosmopolitan metropole, new and old relationships with Tehran--its streets and parks, apartments and neighbourhoods--are experienced and re-visited en masse, where they connect with individuals’ actual and/or imagined impressions of the city.

But what can be said of the different phenomenological context in which Tehran is today opened out to broader interpretive communities, online? How does the city’s virtual cosmopolitanism impact upon its offline social dynamics? In what ways do virtual urban experiences compare to other remote forms of knowing the city, similarly rooted in ‘virtual’ realms such as memory, nostalgia and imagination?

In this paper, based on ethnographic research conducted in Tehran and online, I explore these questions, and related social implications, posed by this middle-class cultural shift towards everyday life going online in Tehran, from the early 2000s to the present. I conclude by suggesting that the present ‘digital moment’ of virtual urban cosmopolitan sociability in and in relation to Tehran signifies a historical juncture in the ways in which the city collectively negotiates its already ‘virtual’ identity in popular images and imaginaries. At the same time, I suggest that Tehran’s contemporary virtual cosmopolitanism presents less of a rupture, than continuity with a longer history of (and scholarship on) Iranian, middle-class urban cosmopolitanism, evolving alongside its locus of study.

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Iranian Rap music, known as Persian Rap (Rap-e Farsi), born in Tehran and is considered as one of the sub-genres of Iranian underground music. The emergence of this music was one of the results of cultural climates during President Khatami in 1990s. Coming originally from the west, ‘Rap’ became one of the most popular genres of music among Iranian youth. The music adopted by youth and came to light from middle and lower Tehrani families.

Called ‘underground music’, this music not only takes place in the basement of houses, the lyrics and videos are showing the most invisible parts of the city. This forbidden music talks about today’s youth culture, middle class life and issues of urban and daily life of Tehran. Lyrics and videos reveal the very unknown identity of third generation of youth after revolution and specially the lifestyle, ideas and concerns of middle-class Tehrani’s.

My paper is about the image of Tehran, as one of the main subjects of Rap music and one of the main key metaphors of its lyrics. In this presentation, I will argue in the ways third generation of youth after the Iranian revolution are representing Tehran. How they are introducing the social identity, ideas and dilemmas of middle class Tehranis? And in which way they are introducing the urban life of Tehran.

Tehran, as the capital of Islamic Republic of Iran in last 35 years is portrayed as a site of crime, disorder, poverty, drug addiction and class division in Persian Rap. This representation is totally different with images of Tehran, which are given in state-official music in last 35 years. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of Tehran in Rap music is so international at the same time so local to be discovered. The city is addressed as an ‘unfaithful lover’ and modern Tehran is compared with ‘Shar-e No’ district. However in some lyrics the diversity of the city is praised. This hybrid representation of Tehran makes the very true explanation of the multi-cultural, multi-language and multi-colored sides of the city.

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In the early twentieth century, when Tehran had become a refuge for many of Iran’s war-ridden neighbouring empires, the city witnessed unprecedented changes that solicited perceptions of a “new time.” The exchange and circulation of diverse peoples, increase in urban population, the emergence of new technologies, in addition to government-led societal and urban transformations, allowed for and necessitated the creation of new practices and novel spaces for the congregation and entertainment of Tehran’s diverse population. During this “new time,” cinema emerged as a new technology, culture, and space, which then became pivotal in the shaping of Tehran's urban cartography.
While “Iranian cinema" has gained some momentum in the media and in academic scholarship, “cinema in Iran,” i.e., the space and vision that it engendered—especially in the early twentieth century when a Persian-language cinema had not yet solidified—has not received much scholarly attention. Through a close reading of newspapers, memoirs, travelogues, and official documents that pertained to cinema in the first three decades of the twentieth century, as well as a close visual analysis of early films, this paper will investigate Tehran’s urban cartography and highlight the shaping of urban imaginaries during this time. Considering it not only as a technology, but also as a medium through which the spectators experienced, this paper argues that early cinema acted as 'an opening to the world.' The projection and reception of international films in Tehran of early twentieth century facilitated hybrid encounters, shaped either through the depiction of various lifestyles and cities onscreen, physical encounters between diverse communities in movie theatres, or through the day-to-day conversations of Iranian residents about screened films. Such encounters, I contend, further refashioned Tehran into a cosmopolitan metropolitan centre that included a myriad of diverse practices and heterogeneous visions. The paper then demonstrates that cinema as a 'space of becoming,' played a role in the construction of modern cosmopolitan subjects in Iran, prompting a horizon of expectation for the nation that was spurned by images and dynamics captured by and re-presented in cinema.

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After the Soviet occupation of Poland in September 1939, hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees spent more than a year in exile in Siberia before being relocated to Iran in 1941 by Allied forces. While many of the men joined Anders’ Army (the Polish volunteer army that fought under British command) to support the Allies, women remained in Iran and encouraged the development of Iran's nascent urban middle class culture. Those women engaged in diverse and broad range of business opportunities. They established dolls factory, beauty parlor, became personal fashion consultants, and more. Their visibility in wartime Tehran was crucial, and to a large extent their role in the development of war economy in Iran, and especially Tehran, was pivotal.

By examining the ways these Polish refugees negotiated their status, this paper analyzes Polish interactions with and integration into Iranian society. This paper argues that these migrants and refugees integrated into Iranian society and established cultural institutions, which in turn helped encourage Iran’s nascent urban middle class. Together with hundreds of thousands of Allied Armies personnel they transformed the urban society into a more ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse community and made a significant impact on the self-perception of Iran as a cosmopolitan society. This positioned minorities in the center of the nation-building process, away from the marginal position they had possessed before the war years.