Public Spaces and the Politics of State Experience in Iranian Cities

International Conference: The Contemporary Oriental City from a Linguistic, Literary and Cultural Perspective

Dept. of Interdisciplinary Eurasiatic Research of the Institute of Oriental Philology Jagiellonian University

Krakow, Poland

21 May 2009

1. Oriental City: A Post-Colonial Approach

A conference on Oriental city in an occidental city is the inescapable context of the paper I shall be presenting to you. Since it reads my text, I might be allowed to read the context. So I start with the term ‘oriental’.

The Orient, an originally geographical distinction implying a chronological delimitation, is of course a historical term, the connotation being double: it is as much temporal as it is geographical. In the beginning, there was no Orient. After its appearance in the west, the orient itself was not aware for a long time it was oriental. After its recognition by all its inhabitants, it seems nowadays to be drifting away and absorbed by an integrative exclusion that no longer calls it an opposite pole, the orient, rather a collection of ‘peripheral cultures’.

In order to delimit the notion of Oriental City, one has to refer to history. One can say contemporary oriental city is a contradiction in terms. When we speak of the orient, it brings into mind the past of eastern countries. It seems as if we can no longer talk of the east and west, but the west and the rest. At the time when the orient still had some sense to it, oriental cities were not peripheral to anything: They were civilizations connected with other civilization. They were centres, intensities within existing networks, not margins and contexts per se. Thus, no matter how much they borrowed from other civilizations, they were considered authored cities not literally translated.

2. Studying the Oriental City: The Two Modalities

In studies of oriental city urbanism, both in terms of the methods applied and subject delimitation, a detachment is boldly distinguished between the past and present of these cities. The detachment has received a simple name: modernity. Contrary to its occidental counterpart, modernity here is not taken as an opening-up, a dynamic gap where some kind of authorship takes place, rather, as an act of literal translation: violence towards a pre-existing urban language. Thus, the oriental city itself is considered as two different urban texts: one historical the other contemporary, one central the other peripheral, one original the other counterfeit. These are to be studied separately (one in itself, the other in relation to the occident model, the exemplary original text it translated in accordance to translated social conditions) then bound together through a period of ‘becoming’ and transition.

Speaking more generally, the history of the Orient is studied in two ways: in itself or in relation to others; one usually anthropological, the other comparative. Such divide is well reflected in the academic institution as well: departments consider either the contemporary and hybrid or the traditional simple original orient. In the case of the former, the emphasis is on how the original text of tradition altered through an interaction with the west. In the case of the latter, the problem, of course, is how an immanent research can be possible at all. In urbanism, there are certain approaches which claim ‘scientific neutrality’ through an objective study of building typology or urban structures. What is usually meant by objective here is usually an attention to the physics of the building with regards to its formal qualities or the city considered as an object. Considering the fact that oriental craftsmen used to follow certain design patterns due to numerous constructional, functional and economic reasons, the architecture and urbanism of oriental cities usually yield easily to such classifications.

3. Doing without the Observer: Classifying Lived Experience?

Classification of type is based on formal characteristics and particularly similarities; it takes singular differences as insignificant deviations. The more such study becomes ‘objective’ the less it has to say about the object. When it tries to ‘interpret’ the ways in which the object operates, it has to suppose some sort of a grammar of space habitually borrowed from an analysis of a familiar lived history for which sufficient explanatory historical texts exist: that of the west. For instance, in the case of public and private spaces, the public space is usually considered synonymous with being-together, with an active presence of domus, with social interaction, and ultimately, the idea of democracy. The platonic idea that inspires it is, of course, that of the Greek Agora and Roman Forum. This way, the absence of certain public spaces in Iranian urbanism can, for instance, be easily interpreted as a sign for the lack of social structures and behaviours corresponding to it. However, such a relation cannot be directly established without first assuming a universal grammar of space extracted from a European history of urbanism. Having removed inhabitants from the equation, a typological approach escapes the general critiques facing anthropology in the same matter.

The anthropological approach is, in turn, interested in buildings and cities as political, social or cultural markers, i.e. as products and not factors influential on the politico-cultural subjects. It tries to understand how people interacted in historical buildings and cities the way they did, the reasons behind it considered of little importance: they are nothing more than expressions of, or further testimonies to, the infinite multiplicity of human nature. If the reasons behind this are ever studied, they are confined to the socio-political and economics; the place itself is deprived of agency.

To these, one should add another approach, prevalent among the academia in oriental countries but also popular in the west, which claims some sort of immanence and authenticity for its mode of study. It tries to read into oriental buildings and cities certain texts taken from the local cultures. Trying to escape a western look and to see it from the local viewpoint, it tries to reconstruct some sort of ‘pure’ local discourse in which the buildings and cities regain their lost meaning. As far as the Iranian academia is concerned, I have personally found these researches extremely insubstantial for a myriad of reasons, among which is the undecidability of choosing text (whether political, literary or religious) for reading a place and the idea that a single discourse was active through the past centuries as well as the impossibility of establishing the exact meaning of what the people of the past had in mind. This is reflected in the fact that the conclusions derived are too rigid and consistent to be true in reality concerning any given culture.

If the building or city is to be studied from the standpoint of the lived experience it entails (i.e. considered as, to use the architectural jargon, a place and not merely a space) one needs to determine first the extend to which an urban experience in an oriental city is actually a state, religious or cultural experience and what sort of texts in which fashion could have comprised the urban experience. This cannot be defined universally rather has to be applied to each case with much care and hesitation. One has to take into account singular differences and to ground every analysis in a specific historical context, which, in the current paper, is limited to Shiraz of the 19th century.

In order to keep alive, at least theoretically, the lived experience in an analysis of oriental urban spaces, one should leave aside the idea of urban space as a manifestation of a homogonous set of values or a coherent culture and consider it rather a space with a myriad of contradictory potentialities crossing one another. Such a conception would not be far from Michel Foucault’s idea of Heterotopia.

4. Oriental Urban Spaces as Heterotopias

Foucault defined the term Heterotopia in a lecture given in March 1967 titled ‘Of Other Spaces’: ‘There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places—places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society—which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.’ (Foucault 1967)

Foucault distinguishes six principles for what he calls heterotopology: ‘Its first principle is that there is probably not a single culture in the world that fails to constitute heterotopias. That is a constant of every human group. But the heterotopias obviously take quite varied forms and perhaps no one absolutely universal form of heterotopia would be found. […] The second principle of this description of heterotopias is that a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion; for each heterotopia has a precise and determined function within a society and the same heterotopia can, according to the synchrony of the culture in which it occurs, have one function or another. […] Third principle. The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. […] Fourth principle. Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time—which is to say that they open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronies. The heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time. […] Fifth principle. Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place. Either the entry is compulsory, as in the case of entering a barracks or a prison, or else the individual has to submit to rites and purifications. To get in one must have a certain permission and make certain gestures. […] Sixth principle. The last trait of heterotopias is that they have a function in relation to all the space that remains. This function unfolds between two extreme poles. Either their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory (perhaps that is the role that was played by those famous brothels of which we are now deprived). Or else, on the contrary, their role is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.’ (Foucault 1967)

It can be argued that instead of a clear-cut distinction between public and private spaces we might well speak of heterotopias in Iranian architecture and urbanism. Foucault actually touches this idea when referring to Persian gardens as examples of heterotopias. By substituting the idea of heterotopia for that of ‘public space’, I will try to show how a different understanding of a lived experience of oriental city urban space can be plausible.

5. State and Religious Experience in Iranian Revolutionary Cities of 19th Century

Parallel to Deleuze and Guattari’s formulation of official lineage of philosophy as ‘state philosophy’ Irit Rogoff proposes the idea of ‘state experience’. To her, state experience is experience that can only be understood through the markers that frame and legislate it. What is sensed as well as the way in which it is interpreted might be marked by a state authority. Similarly, in the case of pre-industrial Iranian society with religion powerfully interconnected with political and social life, one might expect to be equally justified to speak of religious experience. In such conceptualisation, public places as sites of social experience can be studied from the viewpoint of the experience they allow or prohibit and the extent to which these experiences are actually ideological experience.

Not exactly applying the same terminology, the studies on Iranian urbanism have considered both stances on the subject. It has been common to divide the art and architecture of the Qajarid period into royal and religious. The political and religious power structures of the time and their relation to urbanism are well marked.

Yet, once we start to survey the direct urban impact of religious and political ideology, it becomes clearer that such reduction is simplistic. There are several urban, economical and social reasons that suggest this and obstruct the way of a direct reduction.

On an urban level, the absence of public space, in its familiar western sense, makes it all the more difficult to find the manifestations of the being-together on which ideology works. Through introversion, the urban fabric ‘closes off’, as it were, to the political force; this appears in form of walls, gates, fortifications etc. which come in the way of a two-way interaction between the government and the people, desired, as stated by historical texts, by both sides. In Shiraz, the Qajarid governor’s ‘family’ lived quite like intruders within an isolated district. The detachment also marked the Qajarid government itself, which can also be considered a ‘family’. At the beginning of the Qajarid period the notion of ‘nation-state’ is still developing but is non-existent in its modern form. One does not ‘enter’ the government, he is born into it. The royal dynasty wanders around and conquers cities, one by one, before establishing itself as a central government. It is ‘cut’ from the people. The distantiation is carefully sustained by both sides and is also reflected in the economical relations between the government and the people as well as between the government and its buildings. Khalesjat was a name given to buildings built and sustained by the government differing systematically from those constructed and run by the people.

It was a tradition for the king to sell the governorship of different provinces. The non-political is quite distinguishable in this period and, apart from governmental tax and capital punishment there is little relation between the government and the people. (Few crimes might have been dealt with directly by the central government). The same way the government connected several power centres, reigned but not controlled in a modern sense, the city too represented a cluster. In the case of Shiraz, this can be clearly seen in the way in which the city is divided into different districts; each being under the influence of a powerful family. This familiar structure impeded a large-scale interference the political power within the social or any swift continuous restructuring of power relations. The individual was thus somehow supported against unrestrained political power or economical downfalls. Security meant, above all, not a stable place within the government, rather a proper situation within the fabric of familial relations. For these reasons, the political influence of the central government on the city, no matter how brute it might have been, was mediated and indirect.

Then, the influence of religious power structure was also indirect but in a very different way. On the one hand, religion was knitted into the fabric of all social relations making it impossible to distinguish tradition and religion.  The Church, in its double meaning as a building or an institution does not find a parallel here. The religious power in Shiite Islam is, in a sense, privatised and dispersed. It is more of an open guild than a rigid pyramidal structure. The pope is pluralized. As shown by other studies, including Mashallah Ajoodani’s Iranian Constitutional Monarchy, the dynamics of this ‘guild’ and its relation with the political power structure altered drastically during the Qajarid period dragging the religious leaders into politics and convincing them to transgress the distance they previously observed. In the case of Qajarid Shiraz, it is interesting how the local religious power also enjoys a familial form: the leaders of the Friday prayers form a dynasty. In Isfahan, the situation is different with religious leaders exercising much greater power than the head of large families. Yet, even there, the power remains local and very much independent on the person; it does not turn into an institution. Religion here works hand in hand with the private sector itself resembling an open market. It enjoyed a competitive quality; the religious leaders competed for followers free to choose to whom their religious tax should be paid. This is a different idea of an ideological ‘mass’. The audience is not presupposed and gains some agency.

As a kind of building too, the Church is very different. The mosque is much of a heterotopia, a public space rather than of place for a predefined congregation. Great mosques, particularly in the case of Shiraz, act as introverted squares entered and traversed from different points. The ownership is also public: once a piece of land is devoted to a mosque it falls out of economic equations. It is not owned by anyone.

On the other hand, having said all that and despite the omnipresence of religion in urban life, it is not possible to reduce the lived experience of this period to religious texts: a too common approach these days, particularly when speaking of contemporary Islamic societies. I would rather say that, at least as much as urbanism in the 19th century is concerned, people had learnt to live with the religion and not merely according to it. That is to say, the supposition is that, differences, which every ideology tries to suppress if not eliminate, did have a chance to coexist resulting in an array of social potentialities which the constitutional revolution later benefited from. The Qajarid period is marked by a weakening of a governmental power much due to changes in international power relations allowing the emergence of multiplicities and social connections that later developed but were already existent in the society. If the grasp of religious ideology was so complete so as to render every experience as ideological experience the appearance of revolutionary subject would have been impossible. If we are to prove this from an urban viewpoint, if we are to state that Iranian cities and the lived experienced they permitted could make possible such coming-together, then we should be able to point to actual spaces, to certain heterotopias where such potentiality existed. Yet, an aerial view of an oriental city suggests quite the opposite: ‘public spaces’, as one understands of the term, seem to be missing. Of course, there were squares and open spaces but these, as we know them to be, do not really qualify for what we understand, in a western sense, as public spaces.

If we adopt the common terminology of ‘people’, ‘public space’, ‘ideology’ and ‘government’, a misunderstanding of public spaces in the urbanism of Iranian cities mght be inescapable with regards to their ideological character.

6. The Absence of Public Places

Foucault states, ‘[P]erhaps our life is still governed by a certain number of oppositions that remain inviolable, that our institutions and practices have not yet dared to break down. These are oppositions that we regard as simple givens: for example between private space and public space, between family space and social space, between cultural space and useful space, between the space of leisure and that of work. All these are still nurtured by the hidden presence of the sacred.’ (Foucault 1967) In such a conception, maybe the oriental cities were not so sacred after all.

When trying to be liberating and egalitarian while paying justice to central and peripheral societies, dominant political discourse draws a parallel between how these two societies are caught in their corresponding ideologies. Western societies need to resist the ideological call of their liberal cultures filling the space religion once abandoned while non-secular countries need to create this space first. In the absence of such space any claim for liberty or equality would be invalid.

Here we can bring into mind the first two principles of heterotopias: every culture constitutes heterotopias and it can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion.

It is possible that public places as such were insignificant in Iranian, but this is not to say that there were no various hybrid places where ideology would, in times, be silenced and enable ways of coming-together.

The case of Shiraz is a good example. An aerial view shows the extreme compactness of the city while each house is not that compact: the built area is very significant.

The open spaces squeezed out of the city are regained in the form of gardens. The habit of spending the weekend out of town with a large number of people in your own garden or someone else’s, a tradition well manifest in literary resources, has survived up to current date in Shiraz. Shiraz has the best examples of Persian gardens in their historical style. What happened in a garden was close to Georg Simmel’s account of carnivals. In gardens, the joy of life took over the strictness of ideological constraints.  Persian garden, wherefrom the word ‘paradise’ as the ultimate place for coming-together is derived, is the only extroverted topology of the hot and arid climate in Iranian plateau. The gardens functioned as heterotopias in which social distinctions could be suspended. This was also true of public baths with their connection with secular art. But these were only two kinds of heterotopias.

What we understand of parks as green concentrated public spaces were dispersed throughout the urban fabric, each house receiving a share. No matter how the houses were closed off to the street, what happened within them was anything but perfect individualism. The central courtyard and the Shahneshin can be properly called heterotopic spaces were a variety of social interaction happens. Each building might have housed a number of families: relatives who would rather be dispersed in a contemporary urban fabric. Yet, this collective group was not an independent nucleus. The door of the house was usually open and the house was indirectly but uninterruptedly connected to an alley of familiar neighbours. Visitors were always expected to arrive at any time. Then it is the concept of ‘mehmani’ which cannot be easily translated to party or banquet but is another source of coming-together: a regular visit of families done for the sake of keeping the ties. In a larger scale, we have the districts, each enjoying their independence, politically, religiously and culturally. The city is divided into families, not classes: no uptown or downtown. The house of the poor is adjacent to that of the wealthy. The political, economical or religious powers flow through familial channels.

But this is not all: no matter how strange this proposition might seem, the clear-cut line between the private and public space was blurred in these cities. There were many different levels of privacy: The more one penetrates the urban fabric the more the space becomes private while it always has the potential to open up and turn public. An example of this is how easily mosques, hosseiniyyehs or houses turn into gathering halls by opening their sash windows, covering their courtyard with a tent or using the roofs as places for spectators. The extreme connectedness of spaces alongside the possibility of extreme privacy and multi-functionality (which also marks well-designed metropolises) is what makes being-together possible in oriental cities and partly compensates for the lack of public spaces.


Foucault, Michel (1967) Of Other Spaces, accessed on 12 May 2009 at:

Ajoodani, Mashallah (2000) Iranian Constitutional Monarchy (Tehran: Akhtaran)