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Features of Reza Shah’s cultural politics

Interpreting culture in its broadest sense, this book brings together contributions from different disciplines such as literary history, social history, ethnomusi- cology, art history, and Middle Eastern politics. In this way, it combines the cultural history of Iran’s modernity with the politics of the Reza Shah period. Irrespective of the discipline from which the authors come, there are several themes consistently recurring throughout the entire volume.

One of these issues is the question of agency in Iran’s cultural modernization during the 1920s and 1930s. The image of Reza Shah and his all-powerful state pushing the whole nation towards progress and modernity has been challenged more explicitly by recent research and is also questioned by the contributions to this volume.18 For instance, when we look at the shah’s personal interest in specific cultural reforms, his role as single engine of the comprehensive reform program appears questionable. He turns out to be not a wholeheartedly committed reformer, as his dedication varied from case to case: he ardently supported the excavations in Persepolis and personally urged the archaeologists for faster results.19 His involvement in the foundation of the University of Tehran, however, was actually limited to his participation in the opening ceremony, even if he certainly approved higher education in Iran.20 So, how authoritarian was Iran’s modernization during the early Pahlavi period and who actually implemented it?

There is a general agreement that a group of elite politicians including ‘Abdolhoseyn Teymurtash, ‘Ali Akbar Davar, and Mohammad ‘Ali Forughi were the initial driving force behind the comprehensive reform agenda. In the cultural arena, their importance manifested itself in their membership in or affiliation with the “Society for National Heritage” (Anjoman-e asar-e melli), a key institution in formulating the nation’s cultural memory until the mid 1930s.21 These men unquestionably played a crucial role in the country’s transformation towards a modern nation-state, but the circle of the architects of modern Iran was much larger, as this volume shows. An essential group among these modernizers was that of the intellectuals who did not necessarily hold high-ranking public offices. In addition to prominent figures like Malek al-Sho’ara Bahar and ‘Isa Sadiq, there were many personally committed individuals whose ideas and individual initiatives provided the creative sparks for later governmental programmes.22 However, in order to implement their concepts on a national scale and to achieve long-term effects these individuals were heavily dependent on state institutions, as the examples of Mir Mehdi Varzandeh or ‘Alinaqi Vaziri demonstrate.23

Other members of the Iranian intelligentsia were not involved in state politics, but due to their artistic or literary productions had a great share in the cultural life of the 1920s and 1930s: this group includes Tehran’s young literati like Sadeq Hedayat and Bozorg ‘Alavi or popular playwrights like Reza Qolizadeh.24 Of course, we should not ignore the new bourgeois middle class as a decisive factor in the process of cultural modernization. The initial target group of governmental and non-governmental reforms, the members of this social stratum for the most part readily integrated innovative technical devices and new forms of entertainment into their daily life.25 And the wealthier ones among them commissioned pioneers of avant-garde architecture like Gabriel Guevrekian to design and construct their private homes, thus promoting the country’s visible change and contributing essentially to the popularization of modern culture.26

What did “modern culture” in early Pahlavi Iran mean? The contributions to this volume emphasize the strong influence of Western ideas on Iranian reformers. In their conception of modernity, they heavily relied on concepts and ideologies that were prevailing at that time in Europe, like Varzandeh who was influenced by Social Darwinism and eugenics or Bahar who based his literary history Sabk-shenasi on Darwin’s theory of evolution.27 Western trends in literature, music, theatre, and architecture inspired a growing number of creative professionals inside Iran. And on the material level, the adoption of Western modernity manifested itself not only in official architecture or private residential houses, but also in new means of transportation and the spread of mass consumer goods.

Principal agents of Western modernity were well-known foreign figures like Ernst Herzfeld, Arthur Upham Pope, or Andre Godard who assisted the Pahlavi state in shaping its cultural policy in the field of arts, archaeology, and museology.28 Less known, but likewise trendsetting, were foreign physical instructors, engineers, and physicians practising in Iran.29 The key role in this process, however, was played by Iranians, particularly by those who had spent some time abroad and brought new ideas and a distinct awareness of a modern way of life and material culture back home to Iran. Most chapters of this volume point out that a stay in Europe had a trigger effect on individuals to actively contribute to the modernization process.30

Motives for the adoption of Western culture were manifold. There certainly was a feeling of backwardness, especially regarding technological progress, but concerns to improve the Iranian “race” and to prevent the society from degeneration were also determining factors in adhering to Western role models. Important, but often overlooked is also the very individual motivation of returnees to continue the lifestyle they enjoyed in the West, whether for reasons of comfort or in order to distinguish themselves as avant-garde. Being modern in the sense of being up-to-date with latest Western trends could serve the middle class as a marker of their social status, as some of the following articles will show.31 The aspect of entertainment played a crucial role in popularizing modern culture and was tightly connected to the spread of new forms of pastime activities (tafrih) and technical innovations. Gramophones and radio popularized different kinds of music, new transportation led to the emergence of tourism, and visiting cinemas and theatres replaced traditional participation in religious performances.32

The frequently mentioned sense of inferiority and backwardness became a commonly accepted motive to explain the Iranians’ adherence to Western modernity, thus giving a very negative connotation to the country’s quest for modernization. While reviewing the contributions to this volume, however, we had the impression that the reforms of the 1920s and 1930s had been undertaken in an open-minded, almost relaxed atmosphere and we could scarcely detect a pessimistic impetus for modernization. There might be inklings of concern about a specific Iranian identity, but not to the degree of the regularly invoked fear of Westoxication, to be encountered from the 1960s onwards. Of course, the fundamental question of how and to what extent to embrace Western forms of culture was permanently debated by different groups of reform-minded Iranians. In the course of their discussions a great number of reformers advocated a total adoption of European models, almost the introduction of Western culture in its pure form.

This leads to another question: Was there a distinct cultural policy of the Pahlavi state? When we look at the actual implementation of reforms - which many of the contributors to our volume did - we see a high degree of pragmatism, so that Western innovations were adapted in a rather nonchalant and unconcerned way. This pragmatism was characterized by many ad hoc decisions which persons in charge of a specific cultural institution made in order to meet a demand that was pressing at that particular moment. The development of an Iranian system of higher education, the efforts for the protection of national heritage, the introduction of Western forms of music or sports, the establishment of a public health service, a modern transport system, or even of official censorship are examples of pragmatic cultural politics, since none of these efforts followed a coherent long-term plan.

This can be ascribed to several reasons. First of all, the state was confronted with a number of already existing initiatives that had been started privately, building on the great enthusiasm of individual modernizers. Concerted plans for cultural modernization by the government could be thwarted by such projects, especially during the first decade of Reza Shah’s rule, when the young Pahlavi state had to face more urgent problems than cultural reform and therefore kept its involvement in this sector limited. Additionally, due to Iran’s highly personalized power structure a decision in favour of a specific reform or against it was very much dependent on personal antipathies of the officeholders.

However, this pragmatism is just one aspect that characterizes the implementation of specific reforms and does not sufficiently answer the question whether the Pahlavi state actually followed a distinct cultural policy. The answer heavily depends on which stage of Reza Shah’s reign one considers. There is a clear change in the state’s cultural involvement in terms of both quality and quantity, with a striking increase during the 1930s. This second decade can be considered as the crucial period in the enforcement of reforms aiming at a deep transformation of the country’s society. While Stephanie Cronin regards the years between 1925 and 1927 as the factual starting point of the strong Pahlavi state and thereby suggests a convincing periodization with regard to Iran’s political history,33 for the cultural history we propose an alternative periodization which emphasizes the second decade of Reza Shah’s rule.34 During the 1920s, the state had still been concerned with internal power struggles, military reorganization, and the project of national unification under a strong central government.35 At that time, first activities aiming at cultural change, such as the reform of men’s dress, appear rather as a test run for the newly established administrative apparatus.36 From 1930 onwards, however, the state carried out more and more social and cultural reforms, created fundamental institutions for modernization, and took advantage of the initiated bureaucratic institutionalization to control the public and cultural sphere.

A closer look at the period between 1930 and 1941 furthermore reveals a concentration of important changes around the mid 1930s:37 The political climate became more restrictive, as reflected in the decree against collectivist ideas in 1931 or the Gowhar Shad incident in 1935; the ruling oligarchy was exchanged, exemplified in Teymurtash’s dismissal in 1932 and the increasingly important role of the police (shahrbani) in controlling the public sphere;38 also, the state’s general attitude became more and more xenophobic. These trends and events had an equally strong impact on cultural life: the Society for National Heritage was dissolved in 1934; Varzandeh withdrew from his position in the Ministry of Education in the same year; Vaziri was dismissed as principal of the public school of music and replaced by Gholamhoseyn Minbashiyan in 1935; the works of the Rab‘eh group around Hedayat and ‘Alavi were censored from 1935 onwards; the latter author even went to prison in 1937; and foreign physicians and midwives were prohibited from practicing in Iran.

Notwithstanding these changes, essential new cultural institutions were also founded around this time: the University of Tehran was inaugurated in 1934; the Iranian Academy (Farhangestan) for purifying the language was established in 1935; and several tombs of national symbols like Hafez were completed in the years between 1934 and 193 9.39 Also in the mid 1930s, a coronation stamp produced in celebration of the tenth anniversary of Reza Shah’s rule set new trends in the iconography of his reign that served the state’s propaganda purposes. Remarkably, one of the recurrent themes in our volume is the millennium celebration of the poet Ferdowsi’s birthday in 1934, which definitely was an inspiring event that provided important impulses for further cultural projects.

The state gradually expanded its control over cultural and public life. This development became apparent in the promulgation of a multitude of regulations (nezam-namehs). In the following chapters we come across such rules as the Regulations on Theatre and other Public Events from 1306 (1928); two byelaws supplementing the medical law with regard to midwifery in 1307 (1928) and 1309 (1930); the Street Widening Act of 1933; the ban on rowzeh-khvani preachments in 1935; and new statutes for cinemas in 1936 and for press censorship in 1938 - just to mention some examples.

It is striking how many nezam-namehs were issued, especially during the 1930s, and how many aspects of life they set out to regulate. This “nezam- nameh-ization policy” can be seen as emblematic of the Pahlavi state’s ambition to control the life of its subjects in nearly every respect. Reza Shah might have had a personal interest in this comprehensive control in order to secure his power. But another key factor for the radical increase in regulations was the general concern of many Iranian reformers that, if people would not act according to their precisely formulated instructions, the initiated modernization would fail and possibly even bring harm to the society - or at least to Iran’s image as a progressive nation. The need to educate the Iranian people at large can be observed as yet another recurrent theme of this volume. In the state’s and the modernists’ opinion people had to be instructed in order to develop an idea of nationalism and a conscience of the nation’s history and heritage, to provide a strong and healthy basis for future generations, to maintain discipline and order, to present themselves in a national uniformity, and to accept the state’s authority. The means for achieving these aims were manifold and included textbooks, sport programmes, the periodical press, the radio, the theatre, cinema, literature, music, stamps, and architecture. Public instruction as a national task culminated in the foundation of the Sazman-e Parvaresh-e Afkar (Organization for public enlightenment)40 in 1939, an institution that centralized all prior educational efforts, but did not achieve significant and long-term success in face of Reza Shah’s abdication only two years later.

The contributions included in this volume focus on the actual implementation of reforms concerning modern Iranian culture and follow their impact on different levels of state and society in early Pahlavi Iran. They have been arranged along three different perspectives, from which they examine the cultural modernization during this crucial period in Iran’s modern history. Part I focuses on individual reformers whose ideas and initiatives were much more relevant and effective for modernizing Iran’s society than hitherto acknowledged. The chapters of Part II take up the commonly accepted perspective of authoritarian modernization, but also add completely new aspects of interaction between state policy and specific fields of culture. Part III emphasizes concrete expressions of the new bourgeois culture and takes a closer look at daily life during the 1920s and 1930s in Iran.

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