Tehran Noir Urbanism: Dark Visions of Life and Death in the Iranian Metropolis

Tehran’s rapid expansion as an urban landscape in the twentieth century entailed chaotic assemblage and ongoing creative destruction that went hand in hand with the capitalist reconfiguration of social life across the country. And like any other large city, Tehran and its historical trajectory has yielded dark urban imaginaries among artists, intellectuals and average citizens: notions of discontinuity, instability, disorder, inertia, anomie, alienation, delinquency, anxiety, nihilism, moral decay, egocentrism, nostalgia and disorientation. Can these notions of urban life and death be read and observed as a ‘Tehran Noir Urbanism’?

As Gyan Prakash has noted, the “dark form” can be understood as “a mode of representation” and “a form of urban criticism”. Indeed, ‘Tehran Noir’ has afforded a form of critique in fiction, art, music, social sciences, popular as well as administrative vernaculars: Perceptions, representations and visions of the urban fabric, the city’s morphology and its different spaces that bring out both metaphorical and concrete examples of inequality, polarization, fear and danger. ‘Tehran Noir’ is also, however, an aesthetic and a language – understudied so far in the literature on Iran.

In the vein of Gyan Prakash and other urbanists, this panel seeks to move from “considering the images of the city to the imagined city, from urban imagination to urban imaginaries”, building on the conviction that modernity “is inseparable from image production and circulation” and “visuality integral to our knowledge and practice”. By conceptualizing ‘Tehran Noir Urbanism’, the panel seeks to provincialize the ‘Western metropolis’ and its celebrated noir urbanisms by exploring dark understandings of the city – artistic, scientific, popular, subjective – within the material, spatial and geographical context of Tehran’s history.


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Lurking, trespassing, hiding and going astray are aspects of modern urban life explored in literature, popular arts and social critique everywhere. The restless subject, embodying the fear and frustration of the time, is a classical figure that moves through the Hobbesian asphalt jungle, experiencing its differentiated geographies, encountering its gendered, classist and state-coerced spaces. Fear can limit mobility and frustration can propel bodies to the dark interstices of the city, or even to transgress its internal borders. Defiant or aimless, these acts of movement beneath the skin of the city are part and parcel of the lived experience in societies undergoing rapid change and reconfiguration.

This paper explores the ways that the city of Tehran has been represented at different stages of its modern history: as a stage for individual struggles, and as a terrain of fear and frustration. Examples will be drawn from different time periods and from different media: the early 1920s (Moshfeq-e Kazemi’s novel Tehran-e Makhuf), the late 1970s (Fereydun Gole’s movies Zir-e pust-e shab and Kandu and Parviz Sayyad’s Bon-bast), and the early 2010s (rap music, particularly Hichkas’ album Jangal-e sfâlt).

From this diverse body of work, I will analyze a set of common themes and tropes, connected through an evolving vocabulary of spatially mediated emotions. The paper gives particular attention to how certain spaces – the dead-end, the back alley, the square, the café – are felt, sensed, understood and presented as nodal points in modern Tehran’s changing societal cartography.

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In this presentation I will look at the everyday streets of Tehran through the lens of photography. Street photography is taken as the object of analysis particularly because of the central position it occupies in the analyses of everyday life on the street in a range of urban studies. On the one hand, street photography provides an invaluable resource for historical and social analyses of urban conditions and societies. On the other hand, however, street photography has been extremely instrumental in shaping our vision and understanding of the street, particularly the quotidian street. In other words, one must not forget that what is called the everyday street is itself a cultural construct, shaped by particular ideas, visions and interpretations of the street and life in public. Therefore, by closely analysing the streets of Tehran in the work of a number of contemporary artists and photographers, my aim in this presentation is to explore the social interactions and cultural formations that are at work in the constitution of such images. In my reading of visual media concerning the streets of Tehran I detect two complimentary procedures at work: an emphatic removal of bodies in public conjoined with an over-exposure of urban walls. The ghostly existence of bodies and the assertive presence of urban forms produce the effects of an urban life that is cold, alienating, stifling and threatening. Interestingly, such aesthetics is discernable in the work of artist who, attempting to photograph the ‘everyday’, make use of the digital and cell phone photography as a form of ‘practice’ that best suits the everyday. Manifest in these photographs is the absence of colourful, light, happy, overcrowded, smiley and lively images that the mobile phone is commonly used to produce. In contemplating on the driving force behind the vision of the street that is presented in such images, I will introduce the problematic of visibility. By thinking through my case studies and reflecting on the social and cultural conditions to which they speak, I will subsequently pose the question what could be said about everyday life on the streets in Tehran through this particular visual culture.

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The end of human life caused by existential, supernatural or ecological catastrophes has been the prime theme of the apocalyptic genre. Since the genesis of ancient holy literature, authors’ prophecies have portrayed apocalyptic and dystopic representations in association with certain peoples as a means of criticism. The images of these peoples have been entextualized within specific spatio-temporal realms for various purposes, e.g. to depict moral, political, and social messages. In the last three centuries, such texts in modern European literature have voiced the anxiety of their authors and their time about the turn of the centuries (i.e., fin de siècle). Yet, this has been less studied in reference to Iranian literature. Focusing on the concept of chronotope (Bakhtin) and the entextualization of spatio-temporal configurations (Lempert & Perrino), the present paper investigates such aspects pertaining to emotional geographies (Davidson & Milligian) in two contemporary novels set in Tehran. The paper explores how Mahsa Mohebali’s “Don’t worry” (Negarân nabâŠ; 2008) and Asef Soltanzadeh’s “Book of exodus” (Sefr-e xorudj; 2011) point to seismic shifts of socio-political, emotional, and geological nature. Although both stories come about in close relation to the natural physiology of the Tehran metropolis, located at the foot of a volcano and rich in geological faults, the outbreak of the societal fear and furor arises in the two novels rather differently. Finally, the paper adds to the meaning of the emotio-spatial relationships between city and inhabitants from two different perspectives: While the former novel highlights the social and existential questions from an Iranian insider viewpoint, the latter demonstrates the political chaos in an Afghan migrant’s view.

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This paper discusses the representation of Tehran as viewed by those unable to physically be present in the city. Internationally imposed economic and trade sanctions have the effect of not only isolating the targeted country economically but also socially, constraining international urban perspectives and influences, to the point that images of the city and culture of the people are contorted and objectified as the patchwork product of images from Google Earth, Google Maps, Facebook, Instagram, and personal websites. Since these are the only sources of information for absent observers, their understanding of Iran on a macro city level and micro personal level is distorted through the lens of a digital objectification. The representations of Tehran exclusively through the lens of the internet creates a cognizable alienation, anxiety, and moral decay of the city, not unlike depictions of a ground war, resulting in a generalized dystopic "global cognition" of Tehran. Ironically, this comes with its own beauty and fulfillment of our human desire for ruins as iterated by Piranesi when depicting the death of ancient Roman architecture during the 18th century. Using Kevin Lynch’s analysis of observers’ interpretations of information on cities in The Image of the City (1960), I will discuss the Noir Urbanism representations and imagined stories produced of paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks through the darker depictions broadcasted on open source internet resources depicting Tehran. These open source representations of the city depict a betrayal of the cities utopian promise that was once advertised during the more accessible times before the Islamic Revolution, which could form a "global cognitive" perception that will influence future urban development.