Early, historical references to Tehran describe an arcadia of tranquil gardens and bountiful orchards and, more surprisingly, networks of secret tunnels where thieves stashed their loot. Today, remnants of those ancient and semi-mythical times are occasionally unearthed as areas of the city are bulldozed in preparation for modern urban developments that spring up to cope with the ever-expanding population of what is now a megacity of over 12 million people.
This vast metropolis and its contemporary cultural life is the subject of Transit Tehran, a book that brings together the work of journalists, photographers and artists who live and work in the city. They lead us into the city’s contrasting public and private spaces, its polluted streets, shady parks, slums, brothels, teahouses, seminaries – and even the successive graves of soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Through their words and images we encounter a diverse cast of prostitutes, transsexuals, thugs, junkies, clerics, intellectuals, lovers, soldiers and martyrs.
The contributors to this book are Tehran’s own people, those whose lives and identities have been shaped by the city and who in turn play an active role in the city’s ongoing cultural transitions.
Photographer Omid Salehi’s study of the daily life of an Islamic cleric and his followers was born out of fascination with these revered men whose cloistered world exists in parallel to his own non-religious life. Not without some scepticism, he entered this world to create what is ultimately an illuminating picture of tranquillity and devotion.
Javad Montazeri returns to the beach where he spent his childhood summers before the Islamic Revolution. In those days women were free to wear swimsuits. Now they play in the waves with their children wearing full-length black chadors. Montazeri surreptitiously photographs these scenes using his own seven-year-old daughter as his cover. In two summers time she will herself have to adopt the strict dress code.
In Abbas Kowsari’s photos of a female police squad on their graduation parade the chador is teamed with semi-automatic rifles. Images of Islamic women wielding guns – their covered faces abruptly drawing associations with masked assassins – are always striking. The accompanying text by Samaneh Ghadarkhan reveals the shifting rules governing female involvement in public life. The artists in this book work in the context of an authoritarian regime that isn’t shy about censorship. Even when not overtly political, the very nature of their creative inquiries can be deemed a threat to the “psychological security of the society”. Some – like the darkly comic political cartoonist Ardeshir Mohassess – have been forced to work in exile; others find themselves dragged into court and even imprisoned.
Khosrow Hassanzadeh uses the aesthetics of propaganda painting to celebrate the “everyday martyrs” in his community. These garish portraits are underpinned by a deep sense of irony and compassion for the people he feels have been let down by the Revolution.
Hassanzadeh was once a loyal soldier of the Revolution and later a painter of martyrs for Khomeini’s Basij paramilitary force. That he “didn’t tell the government he was a painter”, withholding his talents from a regime with which he had become disillusioned, was itself a subtle act of political defiance.
Edited by Malu Halasa and Maziar Bahari – prominent journalists who work for both the Iranian and Western press – Transit Tehran is perfectly pitched to a Western audience without compromising on quality or depth. Unearthing complex ideas and moments of pathos and humour, it provides an insight beyond the stereotypes of either exotic Persia or rogue Islamic state. As Western leaders debate whether they should “talk to Tehran”, this book allows Tehran talk to us, in myriad rich and compelling voices.