During my last trip to Iran, my eight-year-old son who was overwhelmed with the new images that he saw around him began to say and do things that made me more conscious of the internal contradictions of the term contemporary. After the hustle and bustle of the long two tier trip, passport control and baggage reclaim, we finally sat in the airport taxi at 4am and set off for Tehran. The city is about an hour’s journey from the airport on a highway that passes the enormous shrine built to commemorate Rouhollah Khomeini, the late religious leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, whom some people, including Abbas Milani, describe as ‘the greatest enemy of modernity in twentieth century Iran’. Does this mean he was postmodern? No, it rather means he was a traditionalist. Yet, the revolution that he was the leader for initiated a margin to centre fluidity that pushed Iran towards the production of numerous parallel forms of traditionalism, modernism and postmodernism.
Rouhollah Khomeini’s Shrine of near Tehran International Airport
Anyway, seeing the shrine and the huge images of Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei, my son asked his Mom who they were and why their images, particularly those of the present leader Khamenei were everywhere. Hearing his mother’s explanations, he seemed to understand the case, but was still surprised at the number and the sizes of the pictures.
The pay toll of Khalij-e Fars Highway on the way from the Airport to Tehran
So from the following day, his references to these religious leaders became like a running joke in the family, particularly because he knows how to make us laugh. Each time he saw their pictures in the streets or on TV, which would be at least fifteen to thirty times a day, he said in his inimitable tone in Cambridge English: ‘Oh, Not that man, again’, with a bit of variation and some amusing remarks and made bets about how many times he was going to see them that day. What was interesting to me apart from his gestures and our laughter was that the pictures never stopped surprising him during our five week visit. Of course, these and other religious symbols and images of martyrs that occupy the walls of the city and its highways, were not the only things that attracted his attention: he was equally engrossed by the number of cars, the hasty competitive driving which makes every journey in Tehran like a grand Monte Carlo rally and also with the billboards and murals with fancy paintings, photos and pictures, as well as the intertwined bridges and tunnels, and high rise buildings that make Tehran such a combination of medieval and postmodern global architectural wonders.
Modarres Highway, Tehran
Tehran at Night
The surprise, of course, is a normal reaction when you go to Tehran even for those who grew up there and are used to the rapid changes that may take place in its cityscape within two or three years. As Homa Katouziyan notes, one of the major features of Iranian contemporary culture is that any building which is more than twenty years old is bought or sold with the awareness that it is ‘a pickaxe building’, which means it needs to be demolished and replaced with a high rise ‘UP-TO-DATE’ building.
A Fancy Mural with the Theme of Happiness
These rapid changes become more interesting when one notices the same range of Iranian semi-local nativist or universalized identities with their special range of habits and practices are reinforced and multiplied in their variations by their daily exposure to the tools and modalities of modernity and the mad race for the use of technology characterizing any Iranian above the lower middle class in terms of income.
A Commercial for Toothpastes
Every time, one visits Iran, therefore, one notices that any attempt to theorize the present leads to a dead-end. In fact, the attempt once and again results in the discovery that with the intensity of changes and the mushrooming multiplicity of co-existing forms of contemporariness, time is increasingly less and less important in defining the people’s identities, for the plurality of the layers of palimpsestic identities is so drastic that even the link and the meaning of the past and future has become a matter of space rather than time. People live with extremely different senses of the contemporary and even see, hear, feel, and voice the present in ways that are extremely different from one another.
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