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  • Culture and Cultural Politics under Reza Shah: The Pahlavi State, New Bourgeoisie and the Creation of a Modern Society in Iran ed. by Bianca Devos and Christoph Werner
  • Rudi Matthee
Culture and Cultural Politics under Reza Shah: The Pahlavi State, New Bourgeoisie and the Creation of a Modern Society in Iran, edited by Bianca Devos and Christoph Werner. London: Routledge, 2014. 338 pages. $145.

Culture and Cultural Politics under Reza Shah is a most welcome addition to the slowly growing English-language scholarship on the Reza Shah period, the time when Iran took an irreversible turn toward the creation of a modern nation-cum-society. Conscious of the customary one-dimensional portrayal of the many changes that took place between 1921 and 1941 as the outcome of a one-man show, the editors are at pains to chart a new course — one that avoids an exclusively state-centered, top–down approach. They aim to infuse non-state agency into these two decades, focusing on “private” initiative, on “reform-minded individuals as masterminds of modernization,” and on the “symbiosis between the state and individual reformers and the common people’s contribution to appropriating modern culture.” They also propose to look at the middle class as a crucial agent in the reform process (p. 2). Most fundamentally, they pose the question whether and to what extent the Pahlavi state of the 1920s and 1930s, led by a semiliterate ruler, evinced a distinct and deliberate cultural policy — beyond the desire to instruct its people in the virtues of royalism and nationalism. With that, they acknowledge the nearly impossible task one faced in trying to circumvent the shah as the single engine behind the period’s comprehensive reform program.

The contributions that follow largely meet the expectations raised by this agenda, even if they show how difficult it is to find reformist agency separate from the state in especially the 1930s, when an increasingly autocratic and xenophobic state sought to extend maximum control over a narrowing civil society.

Part I consists of four essays. Roxane Haag-Higuchi analyzes the tenor of what she calls Iran’s first modern literary history, Mohammad-Taqi Bahar’s Sabk Shenasi (Stylistics), concluding that its author never analyzed the Iranian identity as a matter of inherent cultural superiority. Overlooking 19th-century proposals for the foundation of a national university, Christl Catanzaro argues that the origins of the University of Tehran, founded in 1935, are obscure, having to do with the rivalry that existed between its two most important 20th-century promoters, ‘Isa Sadeq, the well-known graduate of Columbia University who upon returning to Iran became the driving force behind the country’s educational reforms, and ‘Ali Asghar Hekmat, education minister as of 1933.

H.E. Chehabi follows with a well-researched piece on Mehdi Varzandeh, the founder of modern physical education in Iran. Using the platform of the new state and its search for a healthy people, and associating the traditional Iranian form of exercise, the muscle-building zowrkhaneh, with bombastic primitivism, Varzandeh propagated Continental, German-style calisthenics, which under his auspices came to Iran via Turkey and Belgium. Keivan Aghamohseni, addressing the question of the modernization of Iranian music, discerns various musical trends in this period, the first time when the country’s middle class became acquainted with music other than the traditional motreb genre, and when the number of female singers increased markedly.

A good example of the overweening role of the state as the progenitor of an emerging bourgeoisie is Talinn Grigor’s fine essay, [End Page 148] which discusses the transformation of Tehran — and urban Iran at large — between 1921 and 1941, beginning with the destruction of much that was old, and the way the era’s European-trained architects, working on the tabula rasa thus created by the 1930s, built Iran-e novin. This “new Iran,” Grigor argues, evinced the contradictory idiom of a “timeless” avant-garde modernism and an eclectic Orientalist, neo-Achaemenid–cum-Sasanian historicism, replacing the previous Shi‘i devotional sites. She sees Reza Shah’s “white” mausoleum as the epitome of this style.

Part II, “The Shah,” opens with a well-sourced discussion by Nader...


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pp. 148-149
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