Enghelab Street, A Revolution through Books: Iran 1979 1983
(Spector Books and Le Bal, 2019)
The title of Iranian photographer-artist Hannah Darabi’s latest book, Enghelab Street, A Revolution through Books: Iran 1979-1983, refers to an avenue in Tehran known for its publishing houses and bookshops. The name comes from the Persian word “enghelab,” meaning revolution in English, after the violent breakup of the Iranian government in 1979 in which the Shah’s government dissolved and Ayatollah Khomeini came into power after his exile in Paris. Interestingly enough, the publishing community on this very street blossomed at the time of the revolution when both publishing houses and photographers alike experienced a momentary taste of liberty known as the “Spring of Freedom.” The collection of works presented in Enghelab Street were amassed by the artist over this several year period.
As such, Darabi’s Enghelab Street casts a broadly curated lens on the sociopolitical turmoil induced by Iran’s Islamic revolution, which spanned from the decline of the Shah’s government beginning in 1977 to the consolidation of the post-revolutionary government in 1983. This transitional period offered a moment of freedom as well as uncertainty in a time when experimentation with new political and artistic ideas was occurring. When the monarchical government came into power after the CIA assisted in deposing the nationalist Prime Minster Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, an authoritarian grip was placed on the publishing community to stifle left-wing activists who promoted Marxism and other progressive political ideas.
Eventually the Shah’s government produced a censorship system that used required registration numbers to monitor new publications through the Ministry of Culture and Arts, which reported to the Shah’s political police. In the early 1970’s, an avant-garde strand of opposition book publishing known as “white covers” quietly evolved, producing anonymous books with little to no publisher information. Accordingly, once the rising discontent with the Shah erupted into a revolution beginning with demonstrations in 1977, the interest in white covers grew immensely among the political opposition. Some white covers were produced without registration numbers, but more remarkably others were able to obtain registration numbers and pass through the then-weakening Ministry of Culture and Arts despite their subversive content.
Enghelab Street was published as a companion to the exhibition of the same title at Le Bal in Paris (January 9 – February 11, 2019) and marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. Supplemented with essays by Paris-based researcher Chowra Makaremi, this thick, oversized book is filled with documentation of political photography book publishing in the capital city of Tehran during that time, and carefully historicizes white covers and their larger political impact. Printed on thin, daily newspaper-like paper stock, the pages are rife with nostalgia, echoing a not-so-distant era of political unrest in Iran that was multiplied in late 1980 with the start of the Iran-Iraq war.
Within the pages of the volume, photographic illustrations of propaganda are combined with the personal, as Makaremi’s fairly objective historical treatment is enhanced by Darabi’s first-person narratives about growing up and attending university in Tehran. Towards the end of the book are interviews Darabi conducted with book publishers and photographers from the period including Alfred Yaghobzadeh and Rana Javadi of the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran. These narratives allow the reader to experience a micro history of what types of books were being published during the revolution, as well as a glimpse into the period’s documentary photography. Weaving in Darabi’s own personal interest in her hometown, the book offers a look at how history itself is constructed through the production of books and images.
Darabi presents a variety of rare, self-published titles such as political fanzines, photobooks, and cultural magazines like the anonymous The Instigators of Revolution (1979) and Kaveh Golestan and Mohammad Sayad’s Riot (1979) as well as government-sanctioned propaganda and didactic, religious texts such as Hajj and the Islamic Revolution (1983). Given the subject matter of Enghelab Street, the content of Darabi’s book is at times chilling and certainly not for the faint of heart. Images of murdered bodies, bloodied faces, and physical destruction are scattered throughout its pages. Other photos depict children suffering in poverty and war-stricken environments. For example, images pulled from a paperback titled Hoveizeh: The Martyred City illustrate the occupation of Hoveizeh, a city in southwest Iran, by the Iraqi army and later freed by Operation Beit ol-Moqaddas in the spring of 1982. This small book used both aerial photography and ground photography to pay homage to the martyred city, showing deserted places and buildings in ruins. In another instance, she displays a highly pedagogical publication with color photographs printed on glossy paper documenting the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which has been a longstanding source of discord between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
According to Darabi, Enghelab Street builds upon inspiration drawn from American photographer Allan Sekula’s teaching that images can contain a multitude of messages given their different contexts. Darabi uses Sekula’s notion to guide her curatorial sense whereby illustrations of period photobooks are used to take the reader into Iran at the time of governmental upheaval and violence. The work’s format, in a sense, allows for Darabi to create her own nuanced history of book publishing during Iran's revolution while acknowledging the challenges that the various levels of censorship presented to publishers.