tehranbureau An independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora

Tehran: Paradox City 1


30 Jan 2011 01:43Comments
Tehran+joob+bwcrop.jpg[ feature ] Tehran is not an "interesting" city. It is not like its regional counterparts Istanbul or Cairo, with their long imperial or colonial histories, pivotal geo-political locations, memorable architecture, and natural charm. Tehran remains a provincial metropolis of some 12 million people, with streets choked by four million vehicles and air pollution that kills 3,600 inhabitants per month -- factors contributing to a "livability" ranking that places it among the ten worst cities in the world, between Dakar and Karachi. But it is a city with extraordinary politics, rooted in a distinctive tension between what looks like a deep-seated "tradition" and a wild modernity.

In the West's imagination, Tehran has principally been seen as a city of lofty minarets, piercing calls to prayer, bearded clerics, and women veiled head-to-toe; a city of mud bricks and narrow alleyways populated by extended families. This is the Tehran of Not without My Daughter. The aftermath of the June 2009 presidential elections presented the world with a very different view: for weeks during and after the massive street demonstrations, thousands of images of the city and its young protesters circulated in the international media, showing a secular citizenry with all the markers of a contemporary sensibility: satellite dishes, Twitter, blogs, and so on. The Green Movement also disclosed the more complex reality of Tehran -- a city with a tumultuous history that is traversed by glaring contradictions and marked by a persistent social and spatial defiance. This city's population has tripled since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, while its architecture and spatial pattern have been steadily modernized. Through all this, it has remained a divided, plural urban realm. For Tehran has resisted being "Islamized." Secular resilience, ongoing socioeconomic inequalities, and political exclusion have turned the city's main squares and backstreets into political battlefields.

Three decades on from the Islamic Revolution, Tehran remains a dramatic space of contention over the legacy of 1979 and the claims of citizenship.

City of the Shahs

No one knows exactly why, at the end of the 18th century, Shah Agha Muhammad Khan, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, named a backwater enclave in the shadow of the Alborz Mountains as the capital of a country which had not long before had Esfahan as its shining imperial metropole. There are probably better explanations for the choice of Ankara, another "un-interesting" city in the region, as Turkey's capital. Yet once Tehran was chosen, the interests of multiple forces -- elites and bureaucrats, the poor, foreign influences and international capital -- combined to create and shape a remarkable, contested urban blend. From a walled city of 19 square kilometers with an estimated 230,000 inhabitants in 1900, marked by the salience of three national institutions -- bazaar, mosque, and royal court -- Tehran had by 2010 evolved into a metropolis housing almost a sixth of the country's population.

The city's traditional social fabric was defined by the mahalleh or quarter system, which organized urban space not along class lines, but according to ethno-religious divisions, clustering citizens of the same ethnic or religious affiliation, whether rich or poor, within particular quarters.

This pattern remained unchanged, and the city itself quite stagnant, until the second half of the 19th century, when Naser Eddin Shah extended the city walls and ditches. The main motivations for this were the need to integrate the growing numbers of "outsiders" -- not only migrant poor but also elite Persians and foreigners -- and to control riots, which would frequently erupt in protest at bread shortages. But the works were also partly inspired by a vision of a "modern city" derived from Baron Haussmann, whose ideas spread at this time from Paris to the Middle East, and were adopted by Khedive Ismail in Cairo and the Ottoman rulers in Istanbul. However, expansion did little to alter the underlying mahalleh system. Social inequality within the various quarters persisted, and was reinforced by a speculative land market in the early 20th century. From the early 1920s, Reza Shah's modernization project engendered new social and spatial divisions. An officer of the Cossack Brigade, Reza Shah rose to power in conditions of remarkable political instability and social insecurity caused by years of civil war, foreign occupation, and nomadic uprisings. After a British-engineered coup in 1921, he became war minister, using his position to assert control over a splintering polity. In 1923 he seized the premiership and set out to establish a strong autocratic state -- initially on the model of Atatürk's Turkish Republic, though by 1925 he had reconsidered, opting instead to crown himself Shah and found his own Pahlavi dynasty. Still, the new Persia was to be a modern, unified, secular nation-state; Tehran was to reflect this desired image. The city walls were demolished once and for all in the 1930s, and attempts were made in the following decade to end the mahalleh system, through the adoption of a zoning pattern based largely on class segregation. A new urban model took shape, with modern buildings and boulevards designed by European and European-trained architects. Nevertheless, many aspects of the older urban structure and social organization persisted, now juxtaposed with the emerging realities of the city of petro-dollars.

For oil became central to the social, economic, and spatial life of Tehran. The oil industry developed rapidly in the 1920s -- production more than quadrupled over the course of the decade -- with British capital dominating the sector. It was the nationalization of the oil industry by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1951 that prompted his removal in a CIA-instigated coup two years later. The toppling of Mosaddegh's nationalist and secular democratic government allowed Reza Shah's son, Mohammed Reza, to consolidate his autocratic rule -- and then to accelerate the modernization project. The post-coup era, notably the 1960s and 1970s, saw remarkable economic growth -- with rates averaging 11 percent annually from 1963 to 1972, jumping to 30 percent during 1974 and 1975. Oil income financed extensive programs of industrialization, national education, and urban development, while land reforms enhanced capitalist relations in the countryside, curtailing the power of feudal lords and turning the peasantry into smallholders or rural proletarians, many of whom subsequently migrated to the cities. In the course of this historic shift professionals and technocrats, the working class and women gained prominence at the expense of the traditional social structure and forms of authority: the feudal class, bazaar merchants, the ulema and Islamic institutions in general.

Tehran became the spatial embodiment of this surging accumulation process. In and around the city, industry, commerce, services, and foreign enterprises mushroomed. More than a place of production, Tehran became a site of ever-increasing consumption, as new spending patterns and Western lifestyles were adopted; restaurants, cafes, and exclusive uptown neighborhoods appeared. The Shah's regime sought to reshape Tehran into a decentered L.A.-type suburban entity. The first Comprehensive Plan of Tehran, drawn up by the Californian architect Victor Gruen in 1963-67, envisioned a city divided into ten large and fairly self-contained districts of 500,000 inhabitants, linked to one another through a network of freeways and a rapid transportation system. This post-modern plan, however, failed to account for what had amounted to Iran's "enclosure movement" of the 1960s and 1970s: the land-reform program had effectively released some three million landless peasants from the countryside. They looked to the cities, primarily Tehran, to rebuild their lives. Mass rural-urban migration swelled the capital's population, contributing to its virtual doubling from 2.7 million in 1965 to 4.6 million in 1975. The new arrivals were predominantly poor, but it was urban planning and the zoning policy that turned them into "marginals," hashiyenishinan. The free market in land and its high price, as well as problems of cost and the restrictive construction standards set by planners -- on the size of lots and the form of construction -- all pushed poor newcomers to put up their shelters informally, outside the city limits. Underdog neighborhoods such as Shahbaz Jonoubi, Javadieh, Naziabad, and Biseem-e Najafabad sprang up, occupied by mainly rural migrants. Housing supply had previously been tight: in the mid-1950s, over half of all households in Tehran lived in rented homes, and some 40 percent, mostly rural migrants, lived in one or two rooms. By the 1970s, some 200,000 new homes were needed every year to keep up with the demand.

The shortage of supply would only expand the slums, squatter settlements, and satellite communities around the city. The process of marginalization accelerated in the years after 1966, when Provision 100 of the Municipality Law authorized the demolition of unlawful constructions within the city limits as well as in the buffer zones, harim, created around the city. The inhabitants of the overcrowded slums and informal settlements came to form an estimated 35 percent of Tehran's population by the late 1970s. Their rural origin and ethnic backgrounds -- they were mostly Azeri and speakers of other Turkic languages -- marked their social and cultural segregation from the Westernized urban rich, who stigmatized them as dahati (rural, backward), amaleh or hammal (laborer, inferior). The very names of their communities came to connote disparagement, reinforcing their lowly status on the periphery of urban life.

By the eve of the 1979 Revolution, Tehran -- with a population of nearly 5 million -- exhibited a distinctive class hierarchy, expressed not only in economic, social, and cultural terms, but also in the city's segregated spatial layout. To the far north, at the upper end of the sloping landscape in which Tehran is situated, were the most opulent neighborhoods -- Darrous, Tajrish, Zafaraniyeh, Farmanieh -- including the first gated communities in the Middle East; at the very summit of the city was the royal palace of Niavaran. The middle areas, from east to west, housed the relatively large middle classes: state employees, professionals, and small-business owners. To the south, the lowest lands of the city went to the poor, new rural migrants, and the lower strata of working people.

The distinction between affluent north and poor south Tehran -- between bala-ye shahr, the "upper city," and paeen-e shahr, the "lower city" -- was unequivocally registered in the language and the popular imaginary. The dividing line between the two was formed by Shahreza Street -- today Revolution Street, Khiaban-e Enqilab -- the epicenter of Tehran's political geography. A sociological "green line," the street housed Tehran University campus, dozens of bookstores, and large bus terminals linking Tehran to the provinces. The street thus connected diverse social groups with key institutions and with the flow of knowledge and news. It was here that the first sparks of the 1979 Revolution were lit by student demonstrations, before spreading rapidly across the city and then the country in just two years. It was here, too, that the silent march of hundreds of thousands of Tehranis in June 2009 was to mark the birth of the Green Movement that shook the clerical establishment, three decades after the Islamic Revolution.


Revolutionary streets

The 1979 Revolution and subsequent war with Iraq (1980-1988) had a dramatic effect on the city. Even though Tehran's pre-revolutionary structure and architecture remained, these were now to be overlaid with a revolutionary ideology and reshaped by the practices of a new regime and a changing citizenry. Tehran became an extraordinary space of chaos and contradictions: freedom coexisted with suffocating control, an egalitarian ethos with deep discrimination, promise with despair. It seemed as if the Revolution had inscribed its logic into the spatial and social fabric of the city, which now expanded wildly and haphazardly, with little managerial direction and few amenities. A spectacular sense of energy and optimism overtook the city's public spaces after the downfall of the Shah. The central streets, public parks, taxis, buses, and lines outside bakeries turned into unprecedented sites of debate and dispute over the meaning of the Revolution. Now everyone, including the marginal poor, wished to claim the city through their physical, vocal, and symbolic presence. The end of the Pahlavi dynasty had been accompanied by a general collapse of central authority: there were no secret police, no municipality guards, not even traffic police. Many businessmen had deserted their companies; managers had left factories; landlords departed their large estates; the rich abandoned homes, hurriedly leaving behind million-dollar properties. In the end some 150,000 housing units -- palaces, hotels, villas, and unfinished apartment blocks -- were eventually taken over by the Bonyad-e Mostaz'afin, the Foundation of the Dispossessed, a vast charitable endowment that had been the Pahlavi Foundation before being nationalized in 1979.

Meanwhile, landless peasants confiscated large agribusiness estates, hundreds of factories were taken over by workers, and government employees began to run the ministries and departments. Even the unemployed, who essentially lacked any institutions through which to participate, took control of the streets by regulating traffic. The revolutionary youth and newly established pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) took charge of the city police. Indeed, it was various grassroots organizations, as well as new "revolutionary institutions" (nahad-haa-ye enghelabi) such as the pasdaran, the paramilitary basij volunteers, and the Housing Foundation, that quickly moved to fill the power vacuum.

In the cities, the popular classes launched a spectacular takeover of mainly public lands, which led to the rapid expansion of Iran's urban centers, notably the capital. The land area of Tehran doubled in just two years, and continued to grow thereafter; some half a million hectares of land developed in this fashion between 1979 and 1993. "Revolutionary institutions" such as the Housing Foundation played a key role in the transfer of property. The overwhelming share of new construction -- 75 percent during 1979-82 -- took place outside the formal city limits and without authorization; almost all was built by private individuals.

Hundreds of satellite villages around the city turned into urban townships, becoming part of greater Tehran. Why so much expansion? Firstly, in the immediate aftermath of the Shah's fall, a large number of migrants had rushed to Tehran to harvest the fruits of their revolution -- jobs, housing, and dignity. Scores of villagers camped in Tehran's main squares to receive their share of the "free homes" that Ayatollah Khosroshahi had promised to the mustaz'afin, the "downtrodden." The rhetoric used by the Islamist authorities reflected the intense competition between them and secular leftist forces over who could mobilize the poor politically. The poor took advantage of this discursive opportunity to advance their claims -- without, however, lending much allegiance to either side. Secondly, in addition to the rural migrants, there was an influx of 2.5 million Iran-Iraq War refugees and, starting in the mid-1980s, of 2 million Afghans. These factors combined to make the country's urban population shoot up by 72 percent between 1976 and 1986, much of this increase taking place in Tehran. In the 1980s, an estimated 300,000 homes were needed each year in the capital to keep up with demand, and this in conditions where private investment in housing had almost totally collapsed: the total number of homes built with a permit in 1982 was only one tenth of that in 1979.

Laying claim to state or public land or taking over empty apartments was for many a practical solution to their housing needs. The Islamic state itself also contributed to the city's spatial expansion: in need of revenue during the war, it sold public lands, often below market prices, mainly to middle-layer state employees -- notably to members of the new revolutionary bodies. As a channel for social mobility, the state bureaucracy had grown dramatically in size, from 1.7 million in 1976 to 3.5 million in 1986.

While the new arrivals colonized the city's peripheries, street vendors took over the central sidewalks. Stalls and kiosks selling books, newspapers, music cassettes, and tapes of political speeches proliferated -- mostly run by politicized, unemployed youth or students, filling the pavements of the better-off central district around Tehran University. Many stall-holders helped themselves to electricity from nearby power lines, illuminating their surroundings with colorful lights. Every evening the sidewalks turned into funfairs, with shoppers and passers-by browsing amid heckling, jokes, music, and plenty of politics. Within two years of the Revolution, political vendors and student squatters of homes and hotels were confronted with the wrath of the Anti-Vice Court, the pasdaran, or demolition squads. But ordinary vendors continued to multiply, and persisted despite periodic crackdowns. These vendors tended to be drawn from among rural migrants, war refugees, young unemployed Tehranis, and low-income state employees. Plying their trade in poorer neighborhoods as well as on central thoroughfares dense with traffic, they sold almost every type of goods imaginable, from stale bread and gasoline ration cards to electronic equipment and their own muscle power. With meager capital, and relying on public space as their key asset, these subaltern traders altered the street life of Tehran.

Top-down transformation

As a result of these struggles, and the initial economic populism of the Islamist revolutionaries, the 1980s brought a degree of class egalitarianism. Many of the pre-revolutionary poor and marginalized were now more closely integrated into the social and spatial structure of the city. By 1982 some 62 percent of Tehranis were home owners compared to 53 percent just before the revolution.

Indeed, the very process of the revolutionary struggle had already narrowed somewhat the previously existing social and cultural divide. The well-off denizens of north Tehran had demonstrated side by side with the humble residents of the south -- men with women, young with old, modern with traditional, secular with religious.

But this exceptional solidarity and the "spring of freedom" did not last long. The populist policies of the new regime went hand in hand with a relentless political and ideological exclusion of secular, liberal, and democratic constituencies, as the government began to Islamize society from the top down. The program of "cultural revolution" that began in 1980 shut down the universities -- hotbed of anti-Shah campaigns -- for three years, as the authorities sought to reorganize the education system along Islamized, conformist lines. Workplaces, factories, offices, banks, schools, and hospitals were transformed to uphold moral prescriptions and sex segregation, and made to institute daily collective prayers. Revolutionary posters and slogans adorned every wall, and the constant blaring of religious recitation from loudspeakers drove home the arrival of a new social order. Western names and symbols disappeared from the city's streets, to be replaced by political graffiti, murals, posters, and placards; bars, nightclubs, and the red-light district vanished completely. The sar-e kouche, or street-corner subculture, in which young men would gather to socialize or pass time, was lost to the regimentation of city spaces by pasdaran and Khomeinist hezbollahi vigilantes, who patrolled the streets with clubs and guns to enforce the new moral edicts. The war with Iraq, meanwhile, had produced victims and martyrs from almost every street, dramatically changing the symbolic landscape of the city as street names beginning with shahid -- martyr -- multiplied. But perhaps nothing was more jarring than the sudden disappearance of bright colors from public spaces; black and gray, as embodied in women's chadors and men's facial hair, now dominated the city's visual landscape.

In the aftermath of the revolution, then, Tehran experienced dramatic physical expansion, mass migration and the deterioration of urban infrastructure and services. Even though little changed in terms of any enduring new "Islamic" architecture, significant transformations took place in the social and political domains, giving rise to a paradoxical spatial order. The large public spaces and squares were virtually taken over by pro-regime vigilantes, who turned them into the enclosed or "interior" spaces of their "ideological self," at the expense of those whose modes of life and tastes did not conform.

As a consequence, private spaces and homes became for many the key loci of communication, sociability, and recreation. While redistributive measures and a reduction in numbers of the rich helped to narrow the class gap, deep ideological and political differences divided Tehran's inhabitants. The well-off and Westernized residents, who under the Shah had dominated the city's main public places, were now pushed into the enclosed spaces of their private habitats; in their stead came the new Islamist elites, regime supporters and families from lowly and "traditional" backgrounds.

If spatial distinctions of class and status diminished, gender discrimination surged. Managers and workers could dine in the same canteens, but men and women were prevented from mixing in the same refectories, libraries, or sport centers, as basij militias constantly humiliated women for improper behavior or incorrect wearing of the hejab. Urban spaces became still more regimented and masculinized. In the meantime, the trend away from living in traditional homes towards more affordable apartments placed further pressure on women; for while older residential architecture had offered spaces of privacy and neighborly sociability -- courtyards, terraces, and rooftops -- the boxy new apartments reinforced the seclusion of women, who were forced indoors as neighborhoods were colonized by the vigilantes. Yet in a further paradox, for many "traditional" families, whose underdog status had excluded them from the public spaces of the Shah's Tehran, the new "morally safe" city facilitated their active presence: women from conservative backgrounds could emerge from the confines of their homes and into the public realm.


In the 1990s, a new form of post-Islamist thinking combined with neo-liberal policies to alter the capital's profile once more. The end of the war with Iraq in 1988, followed a year later by the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, inaugurated a new phase in the life of the Islamic Republic. The technocratic and pro-market government of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, in office from 1989 to 1997, aimed to leave behind the exceptional years of revolution and war, scaling back the command economy and replacing rationing with increased opportunities for consumption. Postwar reconstruction took place under the aegis of two Five-Year Development Plans. The First (1989-94) revealed Iran's alarming developmental problems, such as rapid population growth and insufficient infrastructure, while the Second (1994-99) called for efficiency in urban planning and management, municipal self-sufficiency through the introduction of a poll tax, and some sort of decentralization of authority via city councils.

Rafsanjani secured the appointment of Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, a former theology student turned urban planner, as mayor of Tehran in 1989, a post he was to hold until 1998 -- making him the longest-serving mayor since the post was created early in the 20th century. Karbaschi stripped from the capital its earlier revolutionary and exclusionary character, transforming it into a post-Islamist metropolis of pluralism and mélange -- but one still sensitive to pious sensibilities. Revolutionary slogans were replaced by commercial billboards and orderly murals, while the mandatory painting of shops and offices lightened the gray mood of the city. After a decade of dreariness, glimpses of bright color returned to citizens' fields of vision. Boulevards were planted with flowers, while 600 new green parks and thousands of acres of forest planted on the city's edge invoked visions of an Olmstedian public landscape in which diverse classes, genders, and cultural groupings could mix in morally safe spaces.

Scores of new shopping malls and Shahrvand (Citizen) department stores offered not only a more modern and efficient distribution system, they also served as vital spaces in which young boys and girls as well as retired men and women could socialize, at a time when the role of the traditional mahallehs and sar-e kouches in forging group identities was rapidly declining. With this new modern infrastructure, the young could now extend their horizons beyond the confines of their mahal to the shahr, the city, as a whole. At such major events as football matches, election campaigns, or mass street protests, people increasingly came to act more as Tehranis than as residents of particular districts. Yet alongside this process of spatial leveling, the elites began to reassert their distinction through fashion and other symbols of consumption.

In a further attempt to promote safe recreational spaces, the municipality built some 138 cultural complexes and 27 sports centers, and turned 13,000 vacant lots into parks or playgrounds. Many of the cultural centers, such as the Bahman Cultural Complex -- a former slaughterhouse -- were established in south Tehran, providing arts, music, theater, and sports for rich and poor, traditional and modernizing audiences alike. The cultural centers bolstered the tremendous popularity of Western and Iranian classical music among the young. In the mid-90s, over 75 percent of concertgoers were young boys and girls, and 65 percent of the visitors were women, including young women from poor and traditional families.

The municipality also made efforts to reduce the sociocultural, if not the economic, divide between north and south that had disfigured the capital for over half a century. Although north Tehran continued to get more attention -- by 1998 its budget was 72 times that of 1990 -- considerable investment was also made in the south, where the budget increased 47 times over in the same period. The many rapid expressways and arteries Karbaschi's administration built -- three times more than had existed in the city's history -- and the 50 percent increase in public transportation vehicles compressed the north-south spatial distance.

End of Part 1 | Part 2

Asef Bayat, Professor of Sociology and Middle East Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His latest books include "Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East" (Stanford University Press, 2010) and "Being Young and Muslim: Cultural Politics in the Global South and North" (Oxford University Press, 2010).

For the author's footnotes, please refer to the New Left Review, where this article originally appeared.

SHAREtwitterfacebookSTUMBLEUPONbalatarin reddit digg del.icio.us
blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.