Flaneur: My Enlightened Tehran

April 2024

“Were you culture-shocked?” is the question people often ask upon discovering that, at  the age of twenty,  I moved from Iran to the West. “Of course I was,” I usually say. “I still am.” 

But I suspect they mis-imagine the tribulations of that transition. Exchanging the Tehran of the 2000s, where I spent much of my teenagehood, for the anglosphere (the United States, Canada, and Britain) where I’ve spent much of the rest of my time since, wasn’t the oriental drama they have read about. 

Sure, there is something to the stories they imagine – the persecuted dissident who fled darkness for light and exchanged repression for freedom. I was, after all, born and bred in the Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the most closed societies in recent world history. Think China’s Cultural Revolution meets The Handmaid’s Tale. Schools and buses were segregated by gender. Every morning we’d line up in neat rows in the front yard of my high school to chant revolutionary slogans such as “Death to America” and “Khamenei is our leader.” If you so much as held hands with a member of the opposite sex on the streets you could get thrown in jail. Police would raid house parties if teenagers played their music too loudly, and the offending adolescents could get thrown into a van, taken to a cell, and whipped as mandated by the Islamic law.  Official censorship restricted every line in every newspaper, every minute in every film, every scene in the TV shows we watched after school. These stories are all true.

Yet, when there is repression, there is also resistance. And there was so much  daily, continuous resistance that we didn’t think of it as such. Dissidence was a lifestyle.

Memories of my childhood don’t slump under the weight of repressive fanatics – they are buoyed by a bright community of brave peers in which I learned to love and treasure  theater, cinema, literature, music, dance, and even politics. The fact that the Islamic Republic openly hated much of this community and what it stood for only enhanced our élan and enriched our sense of purpose. This was our enlightened Tehran.



I experienced my first bout of culture shock in 2008, when I left Iran for Toronto. I was enrolled in the University of Toronto, the country’s most respected institution of higher learning. There, if you can believe it, I was met with blank stares when I asked my fellow students the sorts of questions to which any one of the members of my Iranian cohort could have supplied a litany of answers: Which theater do you frequent? Which is your favorite poem by  Langston Hughes or Pablo Neruda? Do you prefer Ionesco or Brecht?  What are your thoughts on Ozu? Are you, too, keenly anticipating Arundhati Roy’s next novel? What are your views on Karl Popper or Hannah Arendt? Wasn’t Jacques Lacan wildly overrated?

Unhappily, I came to see that not one of these questions resonated with my new community. It was impossible to find friends to accompany me to the theater or even to the movies. Many had never even been to a play. Most people, even most students of political science, had only a passing interest in politics both foreign and domestic. At house parties, lunches, and dinners, pop culture was the only variety of culture ever discussed. To my horror, this was true even in the leftist circles and the socialist group I joined on campus.

Am I prettifying my origin-bubble by drawing this comparison? I don’t think so. Culture really was what interested us. By “us”  of course, I don’t mean everybody. In high school, the cultured “we” was a minority. But it was a sizable one, and it definitely included the humanities students at most of our universities. 

Our cohort coalesced at the City Theater, a sprawling complex in central Tehran with five stages on which, on any given night, several plays appeared. That gorgeous round building is a masterpiece of Iranian architecture, designed after the twelfth-century brick tomb of Tughril, founder of the medieval Seljuk Empire, with influences from ancient Achaemenid columns and Roman amphitheaters. It is Persepolis meets Colosseum meets Perso-Turkic mosques. The architect, Bijan Saffari, was a lodestar of his time, who cultivated and then relied on close connections with the art-friendly Queen Farah Pahlavi to run many artistic programs. Saffari had audaciously organized a symbolic gay wedding with his partner in 1977 in a leading Tehran hotel. Fittingly, the Student Park surrounding the theater has long been a central hangout for Tehran’s LGBT community. It still is, despite the fact that the Islamic Republic threatens the death penalty for male gay sex.

The opening performance at the City Theater in 1973 was Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, directed by the Iranian-Armenian Arbi Hovhannisyan. The 1979 revolution had battered the institution and led Hovhannisyan, like many luminaries of pre-1979 Iran, to a Parisian exile. But the City Theater had survived and even the great Arbi himself occasionally returned to stage plays.

We would go to the theater a few times a month. We’d see the works of Iranian playwrights – old masters such as Bahram Beizaei, a towering scholar-artist with deep knowledge of Iranian and Islamic traditions, as well as rising lights, many of whom were our friends. And there was much from elsewhere. I saw Brecht’s  didactic masterpiece The Caucasian Chalk Circle on the massive mainstage with a star cast. It was directed by the legendary Hamid Samandarian, who had translated it into Persian himself years before while still among the first generation of the City Theater artists. That translation had cost Hamid a lot. Its communist leanings had been cited by the Islamic regime as a primary reason for his expulsion from Tehran’s University of Fine Arts during the Cultural Revolution of the early 1980s. But he had been able to gradually find his way back to the university and to theater in later years. He staged many plays and authored many translations, including works by Ionesco, Miller,  Sartre and  Durrenmatt.

So many of my memories of those years are bound up with theater. How could I ever forget going with friends to see Fando and Lis by Fernando Arabal, the Spanish playwright who was a contemporary of the painter Dali and the filmmaker Bunuel? (Bunuel’s autobiography My Last Sigh was a best-seller in Persian translation.) What could explain our lives better than Arabal’s satirical absurdism? In him we saw ourselves. 

As much as we loved the City Theater, my favorite stage was in the home of Mahin Oskooyi, an old-school communist born in 1931 who was among the first women ever to perform theater in Iran. In the late 1940s, when she was only a teenager, Mahin had played in Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird, directed by Abdolhossein Nooshin, who was both the best-known theater artist of his time and a leading member of the communist Tudeh Party. Like Nooshin, Okskooyi had spent years studying theater in the Soviet Union before returning to Iran and staging everything from Ibsen and Lillian Hellman to Chekhov and Gorky. Her translations of the collected works of the seminal Russian theorist of theater Konstantin Stanislavski had influenced generations of actors in Iranian theater and cinema, exactly as English translations of Stanislavski had revolutionized acting in the West. Mahin now ran a coveted acting class out of her home where those lucky enough to get invited could watch riveting performances, such as acting students doing etudes of various animals. I remember tearing up, watching, enthralled, as a talented friend imitated a wolf. This was pure and foundational theater. With her biting tongue and flowing admixture of Persian, Russian, and German, Oskooyi was a monumental figure.  In a country in which women were reduced to second-class citizenship, she was suprahuman.



The City Theater stood at the intersection of Tehran’s two most important avenues, Enqelab and Vali Asr. Before the revolution, they had been respectively named ‘“Pahlavi”, for the ruling Dynasty, and “Reza Shah,” for its founder. Their new post-1979 names meant “Islamic Revolution” and “Imam of the Time” (referring to the messiah who, according to Shia doctrine, went into occultation in the tenth  century and will one day come back, together with Jesus Christ, to save us all) .But artists, bohemians, and students who had made this corner of Tehran the center of their lives didn’t care much about either Pahlavis or their Islamist successors. This incongruous nomenclature always made me chuckle.

A few kilometers encompassed vast cultural riches. Walk fifteen minutes west and you would  hit the University of Tehran, the country’s premier site of intellectual prestige and political struggle. Here, in December 1953, three students had been killed when they protested the visit of Vice President Richard Nixon, who was awarded an honorary doctorate in law by the university the day after their deaths. Here, in July 1999, mass student protests rocked the regime, the most serious challenge it had faced since 1979. Seven students were killed, some defenestrated out of their dorms by regime goons. For us, these were hallowed grounds.

To the west of the university lay the Revolution Square (fittingly for the Marxists, this was where the Revolution Avenue met the Worker Avenue, which accounts for its nickname: Workers’ Revolution Square,) surrounded by publishing houses and bookstores. And all of it was lined with bakeries, eateries, and cafes. Perhaps the best known is the France Bakery (Shirni Faranse), opened in 1965 with a Swiss pastry chef. Now as then,  leading intellectuals devour its confections while arguing about politics and ideas. A number of my favorite movie theaters still stand on these same streets, among them the Modern Times (Asre Jadid) on Taleqani Street, named, of course, after Chaplin’s masterpiece. Before it closed down in 2021, it used to screen the latest from Iran’s new golden age of  cinema.

 A jaunt northward leads to Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Arts, also sponsored by the magnanimous Queen Farahi. Its striking architecture is modeled after Iran’s desert windcatchers. The Islamic Republic has failed to destroy it, though it did pack up and store its dozens of masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, Gauguin, Renoir, andGiacometti. The portrait that Andy Warhol did of the Queen – who was a friend of his – is collecting dust down there, too. The museum now also holds Tehran’s Cinematheque, where audiences queue to watch whichever classics make it past the censors. My favorite memories of those threadbare seats are of watching Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle and the 1964 Soviet adaptation of Hamlet based on a translation by Boris Pasternak and directed by Grigori Kozintsev. After experiencing the latter, our group grappled collectively and for years with the essential question: Has there ever been a greater Hamlet than the one conjured by Innokenty Smoktunovsky?

Our rich days fell into a ritualistic schedule. You and a friend from university together walk to the Revolution Square to get some books and engage in an impromptu debate with whoever else happened to be there. The group gets some coffee and sensational profiteroles from France Bakery, which you eat on the way to the City Theater or the Modern Times or the museum. The subsequent play, exhibition, or film offers intellectual fodder for the subsequent conversation with friends in the park, which you engage in with gusto while the lot chain-smokes. When darkness falls, the gang retreats to a friend’s house. Some bootleg beer and, if you are lucky, some wine will be served. The night would often end around a tv with an illicitly acquired VHS or DVD. These were precious, illegal objects in those pre-streaming days. (“If you come over, I’ll play you Cape Fear!”)

We were not just consumers of arts and politics but also producers of it. In those very streets, or maybe a couple of kilometers to the north, lay the offices of the newspapers we worked for, the publishing houses where we published our work, and the universities where we studied or held our political meetings. In 2007, at the age of nineteen, I was appointed international editor of a major daily newspaper. My translations were  published by major houses. houses. It felt to me like heaven, despite the hellish political landscape. When I think about it now, everything about it feels of an entirely different era. With a black tea in one hand and a cigarette in the other, working in a busy newsroom and hastily writing out a political commentary so I could meet that evening’s deadline for the headline the morning after. Writing was, and is, a solitary practice, but it was those communities, those streets, that gave us life.

 Years later I christened myself a flaneur, a term which I’d learned from Walter Benjamin, who had himself discovered it in  Baudelaire. For Baudelaire, flaneurs were the romantic idlers who clotted the alleys of his beloved Paris, pausing now and then in a café to write, making genuine art out of ordinary modern life. In his book on Baudelaire, Benjamin paid tribute to the cobblestone streets of Paris: “the favorite sojourn of the strollers and the smokers, the stamping ground of all sorts of little métiers.”

Benjamin was a constant companion in my young mind. I uttered his name an average of twice an hour, constantly invoking him in one argument or another. But I didn’t need Benjamin or Baudelaire to buy into the concept. Just as  we didn’t need to visit the Bronx to identify strongly with the urban energies that fuel Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air, another work in  our canon. I became a flaneur on the streets of Tehran – if the word hadn’t existed my friends and I would have had to invent it. 

The 2000s were politically heady days, of course. The relative liberalism of the era (compared to the more draconian 1980s and even 1990s) was the fruit of a political earthquake that shook Iran in 1997. Millions of Iranians voted for Mohammad Khatami, a mild-mannered cleric and former culture minister who offered a program of very limited democratic reform. The intellectuals, the women, and the young who voted for Khatami hoped for a swift transformation. There was a brief period when it looked like they would get it. Newspapers were freer than they had ever been and the culture ministry looked the other way and allowed the publication of books or the staging of plays the previous generation couldn’t have dreamt of.

Disappointment came swift on the heels of hope –  President Khatami proved no match for the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who outmaneuvered him and neutered the fledgling reform agenda. But even after Khatami was replaced in 2005 by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardliner who garnered international infamy by denying that the Holocaust had occurred, the struggle went on. The very act of showing up to those plays and reading those books was cultural resistance. In our small way we were part of something much bigger than ourselves.

It’s hard to overstate what newspapers meant to that era. With the TV being controlled by a powerful reactionary establishment, the dailies were the bastion of the reform movement and its most radical proponents. Their circulation ran into hundreds of thousands. No wonder that a judiciary emboldened by Khamenei started  shutting them down. But close one newspaper and three others were published in its place. It was an ongoing struggle. It still is.

The papers chronicled the struggle between the reform movement and the establishment in real time. They covered not only the reform movement itself, but the civil society it had awakened: the feminist organizations, the trade unions, the environmentalists, the advocates of Afghan refugees. 

But they also gave voice and home to the cultural world that shaped our lives. When I first left Iran and bought newspapers in Toronto, I was shocked to see that, unlike Iran, most English-language newspapers don’t have several pages dedicated to what we called Thought (Andishe), which was a broad cross section of philosophy, theory and history. When the likes of Jurgen Habermas and Richard Rorty visited Iran, they were astonished to see their movements reported on the front pages of newspapers as if they were pop stars, and their ideas hotly debated across several pages of several papers.

Our vociferous debates and differences didn’t concern only pressing political matters (should we electorally support reformists even if they had proven cowardly? should we vote for a centrist candidate in 2005 to block out Ahmadinejad?). We often discussed fundamental philosophical subjects. Some were Marxists, some ardent liberals. Some carried Gyorgy Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness beneath their arms wherever they went, some toted Anthony Giddens’ The Consequences of Modernity.

 And art was a source of constant conversation. Was Jane Austen neglected? Were the new Persian translations of her books worth reading? Was Godard’s Contempt a masterpiece or a pretentious flop? Was Kundera’s world the same as ours or not? He wasn’t the only dissident of the former communist world who found special popularity in the Iran of my youth; like many of my friends, I’ve read perhaps a dozen of his books in Persian translations.) Outside the Modern Times Theater there were long queues around the block for the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and, in the lines, long debates about the Soviet dissident and his spiritual cinema.

You already know that this story doesn’t have a happy ending. We lost the battle of democracy and Khamenei still rules. I can’t go back to my Tehran anymore, and even if I could, economically crushed, internationally isolated, and socially repressive, my Tehran does not  exist. But every day when I read the newspapers from across the ocean, and I see my friends posting about their artistic and cultural life there, I find hope that one day it will again. Many of the victories of that era have been preserved.

I don’t mean to idealize my past. It had its faults, too. It’s true that we knew a great deal about Lacan and Benjamin and little about our own recent history or current problems. A friend used to fume: “In a city that doesn’t have a proper wastewater system, should we be talking about Italian neorealist cinema?” And shouldn’t we have done more to learn about our own region and its cultural wealth –  a bit more Arabic for all that French and German?

But I can’t help but miss it. I’ve never quite found a milieu like the one that raised me. I don’t think I ever will.


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