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The “common” Iranians and technology - three case studies

The articles by middle-class modernists discussed below illustrate the modernization debate and provide valuable and detailed information on how technology was actually adopted by ordinary Iranians in the 1920s and especially 1930s. They cover three aspects of modern life, invariably connected with modern technology: transportation, cinema, and the telephone.


The concern about Iran’s image in the West is particularly obvious in the opening phrase of an article entitled “bus stops” (istgah-ha), from April 1931: “Everything new that has gained a foothold in our country has immediately taken up our peculiar appearance,”57 states the author and disapproves of the local colouring Iranians give to innovations. Offering the example of public transport in Tehran, he complains about the common misuse of buses, which he considers to be unique in the world. As the article illustrates, it was customary in Tehran for only the starting point and the destination of bus routes to be fixed. The stops in between were not defined and depended on the wishes of the passengers.

[I]t is now more than three years that regular bus services have been established in the city of Tehran, [but] it has not yet assumed an orderly shape. ... Nowhere in the world is it acceptable that passengers get on and off every few metres; and that after three years of bus service, no fixed bus stops exist.58

The practice of using this means of transportation so uneconomically had negative consequences, which the author criticizes strongly. He complains about the waste of time and fuel caused by the frequent interruptions, as well as about the physical laziness of his compatriots who were obviously not willing to walk to a fixed bus stop. Furthermore, he calls on the passengers to keep order when getting on and off the bus. In his opinion, the police and other state institutions should be in charge of organizing the bus service in the “right” way: “We think that the responsible authorities and especially the traffic police (sho ‘beh-ye tamin-e ‘obur va morur) absolutely have to interfere in this matter and place it under their supervision.”59 A few days prior to the publication of this article, General Mohammad Hoseyn Ayrom, head of the national police force (nazmiyeh), had asked the citizens of Tehran in a newspaper announcement to obey the instructions given by police officers when walking in the streets. According to him, most accidents were caused by the ignorance of the people, and the policemen constantly had to prevent pedestrians from leaving the pavement and crossing the street wherever they wanted to.60 Almost three years later, in February 1934, a comprehensive bylaw (nezam-nameh) was issued, which in 83 paragraphs regulated all aspects of traffic.61 Compared to earlier traffic regulations it was the most detailed and restrictive yet, as its instructions were not limited to pedestrians and drivers of motor transport, but also covered animal-drawn vehicles and the handling of animals in the street.62

Eight months after the passage of this bylaw, a debate arose in the press on the high number of accidents. They were ascribed first and foremost to the recklessness of drivers and, to a lesser extent, to a lack of familiarity with traffic rules by pedestrians. The general benefits of technology were not open to debate; instead, the way of using technology was subject to discussion:

We have no right to say that automobiles are evil because of these harmful incidents; since all these devices, which civilization has created and which assure the fortune of mankind, are generally good; since the quintessence of their creation was to comfort, ease, and protect the existence of mankind and to defend human life in different ways. The whole discussion centres on how automobiles are used; when they are used properly, their inherent benefits will unfold.63

The first in a series of three editorials from September 1934 asserted that many drivers regarded the transport of passengers as a usual business without bearing their great responsibility in mind, pointing out this attitude as the most common reason for accidents. Thus, most drivers did not check the brakes or the engine before departure and, once behind the wheel, considered smoking, drinking alcohol, or even sleeping as admissible.64

Another malpractice was to overload the car with cargo or passengers, so that the danger that the vehicle might overturn and catch fire rose dramatically. If such an accident had destroyed transported goods, it was the immediate economic loss that was deplored; if there were casualties, the author complained about the loss of valuable manpower:65 “Every healthy person has an ethical and economic value for us. Every single one of these healthy persons ...

represents in his occupation an active unit of energy and power for this country.”66 Faced with the negative effects of such an imprudent handling of technology, the middle-class modernists raised the question of what could be done in practice to prevent accidents, especially since traffic on the streets was continuously increasing. As there were not enough policemen, at least not enough to position one at every street corner in order to observe compliance with the regulations of the bylaw, authors called for the personal responsibility of Iranian citizens. As a first step, drivers should be alerted and made aware of their liability for their passengers, who in turn were supposed to watch over the drivers’ performance and, if necessary, admonish them to observe the rules.67 The authors advocated further steps to improve the security of other traffic participants. Correct traffic behaviour had to become a matter of common knowledge, and specific measures had to be taken to enable pedestrians to cross the streets safely, such as the creation of sufficient crosswalks and the erection of traffic signs.68 Since nobody could trust the general adherence to traffic rules, timid pedestrians showed rather unpredictable behaviour when crossing the street: as soon as a car appeared, they started to run back and forth, thereby making the situation even more dan- gerous.69 In order to make people more confident, the authors regarded harsh penalties for traffic violations as essential; in particular, the legal punishment for accidental deaths was not sufficient:

Drivers, who cause an accident, must be punished, and article 177 of the general penal law (qanun-e mojazat-e ‘omumi), which defines the case of unintentional killing (qatl-e gheyr-e ‘amd) and which is applied for punishing indicted drivers, is not sufficient in the light of the multitude of accidents and the recklessness of the drivers. A more severe punishment is needed ... .70

The demands of these modernist authors were met with various measures to extend state control over traffic and transportation. In the following years, one can regularly find further provisions concerning the national transport system, such as the regulations for the transport industry in 1936.71 For the young Pahlavi state, traffic accidents and casualties were not the only problem modern transportation entailed. It also raised the level of mobility for Iran’s inhabitants, which the state in turn sought to control by means of travel permits (javaz).72 Another harmful consequence of modern means of transport, which the Pahlavi state had to address, was damage to historical monuments. One of the first measures to protect the national heritage of Iran was carried out in Isfahan in 1935, when it was prohibited to pass over the Si-o-seh pol bridge by any means of transport.73

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