{ utopia/dystopia }


The 19th century was understood as a dystopian state in the eyes of the Iranian elite. This was mainly a consequences of being exposed to new world powers and regarding the “West” with an admiring gaze, and understanding it as the “Utopia” or the “Farang”. The only way to avoid shrinking even more after losses to Russia and Britain was to reform and to catch up with rivals. The alternative was to capitulate and become openly subaltern.

But reform was actually a way of coming closer to “Utopia”. Only a real effort and there we are. Utopia was not out of reach this time; just look towards the West and copy and adjust it with the local conditions and there we are, in a utopian state.
“Men” were sent to the “west/utopia” to bring home knowledge and craft that would empower the kingdom. Several tries were made to reorganise/modernise the administrative set-ups and mainly build a reliable/modern army.

Inspired by the French revolution; “liberty, equality, fraternity” the utopia did not end with technical development. Constitutional revolution was a very utopian/modernizing act deep in itself, but it ended with the dystopian comeback of a new military-based Shah/monarch, Reza Pahlavi.

The new Shah was however faithful to some parts of modernization. It was still the West who held the keys, but this time enemies of old enemies were new allies. Then the “West” did not need to be that far away either. Ataturk who was also trying to make a new Turkey out of the Ottoman empire was western enough. So why not make the new young Iran out of old Persia and revive the glory of old days in the country of the lion and sword?

This utopian revival effort was brought by dystopian force. By imprisoning voices of the utopian ideals, modernisation on the surface was the new agenda. The new Iran should “Look modern”. So back to basics, infrastructure; mainly railroads, were high up on priorities.

Building the new prison of the capital on the former site of a summer palace, Qasr, and calling it as Qasr-prison, Palace-prison illustrates the paradoxes that pave the path towards modernity, or if you wish to read it as utopia.


Soroor Notash