Tehran or Farangistan: Visions of a Cosmopolitan City in the Early Twentieth Century

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.