Tehran’s Nightlife and Spatio-Temporal Configurations

Abbas Jong, Humboldt University of Berlin

 

The transformations in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s regime of power in the last two decades have been accompanied by a new kind of political economy. The density and concentration of large capital, a predatory and highly rentier economy, and a certain kind of clientelism—along with a distinctive politics of identity and religion—have caused many strata of society to be excluded from various political, economic, and cultural spheres. One of the consequences of this transformation has been the emergence of the military bourgeoisie and the concentration of power and capital in the hands of non-democratic, non-elected governing institutions, primarily under the purview of Iran’s supreme leader, military forces and other influential power blocs within the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), resulting in a notable departure from democratic norms. This political economy has manifested itself most powerfully in the temporal and spatial occupation of cities. For example, in Tehran almost the entire metropolis is under the control of the dominant regime of power, which is striving to reconstruct and control space, place, and time according to its requirements. But the very political economy, urban policies, and associated identity politics that sustain this regime are also laying the groundwork for the emergence of new and unintended strata and groups. In particular, a stratum of youth with distinct cultural and identity characteristics has formed in everyday urban life precisely as a result of the struggle over the regime and capital’s control of the temporal and spatial territories of the city.

This paper argues that nightlife and marginal spaces reveal the contradictions, absences, and unintended consequences of capital and power’s quest for control. Public space in Tehran may be flooded by day with the capital of the dominant regime of power and its ideological apparatus, but the night, and some marginal areas, are reconstructed and constituted with distinctive features by new strata and groups. For example, at night, in an ongoing and uneven process, young people in Tehran are constructing new spaces and establishing new times for congregating. But this is a dynamic form of spatial consumption, dominance, or spatio-temporal configuration because the regime of power does its best to destroy these spaces and recapture them based on its own rationale and interests. Therefore, we are faced with new forms of spatio-temporal configuration in Tehran’s nightlife in which fluidity, relationality, and indeterminacy are the main pillars; configurations that have been constructed in an ongoing antagonism. While examining the conditions of possibility of these new spatio-temporal configurations, the present article will analyze the configuration of spaces called simply “view” in four locations in Tehran and will highlight their key characteristics. The term view is utilized by the actors themselves to designate certain locales in the foothills of Tehran. During the first half of the 2010s, these areas were significant sources of spatial conflict. Over time, due to the rapid and unregulated proliferation of these spaces coupled with the resilience of everyday actors and the inability of the police and ideological forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran to assert full control (along with the subsequent advancement of Tehran’s informal nightlife in recent years) views have evolved into a form of established spatial configuration.

Tehran as a Contesting City

Mahsa Amini, a young woman from one of Iran’s small Kurdish towns, decided to travel to the legendary capital of her country in September 2022.  As she excitedly disembarked at the Haghani metro station to visit one of Tehran’s touristic sites, she was arrested by the city’s morality police, who impose the standards of the Islamic regime on the spaces of the city with authority and violence. Her lifeless body was found a few hours later in a hospital in Tehran. Her only words before being arrested were: “We are strangers in this city.”

The capital of Iran swallows its own children. Tehran is a revealing mirror of contemporary Iran. It creates a contradictory feeling of fear and fascination with its urban disorder and mismanagement; chaotic architecture; uneven development; endless and extensive crises; narrow and dark alleys; intense conflict of interests; endless traffic jams; severe air pollution; occasional mass migrations; emergence of neighborhoods with different ethnic backgrounds; towers and neighborhoods more expensive than Beverly Hills; cafes, restaurants, and shopping malls like the ones in East Asia; unofficial gambling houses like Las Vegas; and parties that are more luxurious than many European casinos. Since being designated as the capital of Iran two centuries ago, Tehran, like many other metropolises in the Global South, has undergone significant, uneven, and broad changes that reflect local political as well as economic contexts.

The city of Tehran has been marked by various regimes of power over the last two centuries. Numerous studies cast the city as a passive object, merely subject to the urban policies of different governments (Madanipour 2006; Mashayekhi 2019). These studies have delved into the social, cultural, and pathological consequences of such policies (Moeini et al. 2018), explored political, ideological, and class conflicts (Bayat 2010), and investigated the intersections of capital and space within the framework of political economy (Shalchi and Jong 2016). Each of the studies highlight and conceptualize aspects of this complex and heterogeneous city, but they typically fail to consider Tehran as a distinct entity and an independent platform for constructing temporal and spatial configurations. Instead, Tehran should be seen as a master space for different types of heterogeneous configurations. Akin to numerous capitals in the Global South, Tehran serves as both the subject of regimes of power and an active agent, catalyzing diverse and extensive developments. Consequently, comprehending Tehran necessitates recognizing it as a distinct and dynamic entity, possessing internal coordinates and unfolding transformations, within the broader context of Iran’s macro-level developments.

Many spaces within Tehran are constantly and unevenly shaped by conflicts and contradictions, particularly in the conflict domains of formal and informal territories, day and night, time and space, official ideology or politics and the resistance of the masses, as well as between those with capital and those without, ruling elites and ordinary people, residents and outsiders, and between city dwellers on the margins and in the center. These conflicts are more prevalent in Tehran than in other Iranian cities, and it is their occurrence in this city that renders them influential. Any change in the ruling regime of power precisely transforms the various facets of these conflicts in Tehran. And conversely, Tehran, as the core of the country, becomes the origin of other extensive developments on a national scale. Hence, studying this perpetual process necessitates an approach that, while acknowledging the conflicts’ meaningful indeterminacy and fluidity, considers them within the framework of a complex entity known as Tehran. Here, the idea of configuration is used to make sense of the indeterminacy, fluidity, unevenness, and connectivity in the construction of some urban spaces in Tehran (Jong 2023, 2022).

Transformations in the Regime of Power in Iran and Emerging New Strata

In the last two decades, the Islamic Republic has witnessed severe political, economic, and cultural conflicts between the internal currents of power and different social and political groups. One of the consequences of this contention has been the emergence of the military bourgeoisie, the new influential conservative clergis—who are the owners of large capitals— and the rentier groups affiliated with them. More specifically, the rise of the military bourgeoisie was the result of the deepening of three general characteristics of Iran’s economy: it is predatory, a highly rentier economy, and exhibits a distinct kind of clientelism (Vahabi 2015; Kepel 2002). The last decade in contemporary Iran was a period of decline for traditional market businessmen (Bazaari), the neoliberal rentier bourgeoisie, technocrats and entrepreneurs, the middle classes and influential forces of civil society, as well as for dominant clerics and religious authorities affiliated with the IRI, and networks and currents associated with the traditional left and right wings within the IRI. Their decline was matched by the rise of the military bourgeoisie and their rentier and corrupted institutions and networks who were able to direct abundant oil revenues from the official economy to their unofficial or governmental enterprises and institutions. This development led to a huge concentration of capital and the emergence of a new economic sector. This new sector was largely controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its (in)direct affiliates (as well as the governmental institutions under the supervision of Iran’s supreme leader and conservative clerics) and worked according to their institutional and ideological requirements, relationships, and interests.

Tehran was both the platform and the target of these power struggles. The severe conflict over the Tehran Municipality and the nearly two-decade rule of IRGC commanders and affiliates over the municipality is one manifestation of this process. Various policies have been employed by this military force to capture urban spaces in Tehran. One of the outcomes of this accumulation of capital and its related policies was the reconfiguration of Tehran’s urban spaces and urban politics, which manifested itself most of all in the (re-)construction of consumer and entertainment space, in the unbridled occupation of urban spaces, and in the real estate sector. The accumulation led to the construction of many shopping malls, as well as residential towers, commercial centers, and luxury housing. The great expansion of the financial sector, as well as its close relationship with Tehran’s real estate market, created hidden realms of money laundering and rent distribution for this emerging bourgeoisie. But the huge accumulation of capital urgently needed consumers. Therefore, at the beginning of the 2010s, we witnessed the emergence of the largest shopping malls and entertainment centers in Tehran, centers that, although their ownership was not clear, were all related to military or governmental institutions. Along with the IRGC, the Iranian army, the police force, and the Ministry of Defense engaged in extensive economic activities as well as in Tehran’s real estate market so that they could benefit from the state’s huge oil income.

The new spaces developed in Tehran in the last decade also served as a platform for the emergence of a new consumer stratum, which, as a result of the rapid expansion of mass communication, had extensive global and transnational characteristics. These groups, which were mainly composed of teenagers and young people from the urban middle classes, could consume whatever they liked with relative freedom in shopping and entertainment centers. These youth, who had been socialized in contradictory spaces between the official ideology of the Islamic regime and the private and unofficial spaces of families and peers, were now being resocialized into the consumer society on the margins of official and ideological spaces and apparatuses of the regime. This resocialization was accompanied by social configurations in which many dominant and official cultural and identity categories were suspended and reconstructed. These configurations were mainly built in the context of permanent differentiation from the signs of official Islamic identity and ideological politics in the cultural-consumption fields (Jong 2016b, 2016a). The dominant regime of power did not consider the relative freedom, new social configurations, and emergence of new strata as a serious threat to its existence but rather saw the strengthening of mass consumer culture as an opportunity to suppress the educated and organized forces of Iranian civil society. However, as time passed, this freedom and new stratification came to pose a serious cultural and social challenge for the Islamist regime. The wide spread of these strata in Tehran’s everyday life granted them relative cultural and then social independence, which generated the potential for mass social mobilization. This unintended consequence posed a serious challenge for the ruling regime and provided the basis for profound transformations in contemporary Iran. Therefore, it began to deal harshly with these strata, their configurations, and their constructed spaces. Many of the urban spaces of contemporary Tehran were built as the result of this conflict.

Tehran’s Night Life

The intersection of time and place in Tehran plays a vital role in constructing different types of social configurations. The regime closely monitors the city by day, especially in formal or official spaces. This surveillance is in line with the interests of big capital and the military bourgeoisie and their unlimited desire to conquer urban spaces. Cultural restrictions, particularly those pertaining to clothing and the body, are much less stringent in shopping centers and other areas primarily owned by the military bourgeoisie and governmental institutions than in other public and entertainment spaces. If Mahsa Amini had gone to one of the big shopping malls or centers in Tehran, such as Kourosh Complex or Iran Mall, instead of going to the nature bridge and Taleghani Park, where she was arrested, it is quite unlikely that she would have been detained by morality police. The city at night and some marginal areas were for a long time also safe for many excluded strata to build their own spatio-temporal configurations, for different reasons. Tehran’s unofficial nightlife is an excellent and unique territory to identify and understand these strange and distinct configurations, a realm that well represents the informal and underground reality of Iran’s four decades under the Islamist regime.

Unlike many cities in the Middle East, Tehran does not have a formal nightlife, but what happens at night in this metropolis cannot be seen in any other city in the world. In general, Tehran’s nightlife can be divided into two official and unofficial spheres. The official spheres—which are open day and night—include urban transportation, hospitals, terminals, the Tehran International Airport, some holy shrines (especially in the north as well as south of Tehran), some entertainment centers, and a very small number of restaurants that have official permission to work after midnight. On special religious days such as Ashura (Moharam) or Ramadan, restaurants, sport complexes, cinemas and theaters, entertainment centers, and shopping areas are allowed to be open around-the-clock and provide services.

In Iran, shopping, entertainment, and business centers must close at midnight. Even many parks and public places are evacuated at this time, especially during the week, with a police warning. Meanwhile, many informal nightlife spaces are formed on the outskirts of the same formal places and are also active during the night. For example, next to hospitals, many families of patients who travel to Tehran stay out in the open, and this presence creates a new space. Because some restaurants on the outskirts of shrines are permitted to operate 24 hours a day, many young people congregate there and stay until morning. However, the true nightlife of Tehran is formed primarily outside of these spaces. According to the social nature of spatial configurations, in general, three types of spaces can be identified in Tehran’s unofficial nightlife: pathological spaces, entertainment and leisure spaces, and unofficial economic spaces. The focus of this paper is on the construction of public and urban entertainment and leisure spaces in Tehran’s nightlife.

On different days of the week, especially on weekends, Tehran continues its life with a different face after midnight. Parks, tourist centers, food trucks and many restaurants are resisting closure. Young people mainly gather at one of the entertainment centers based on their social and economic accessibility. The upper classes spend their time in the streets, patrolling with luxury cars, and in restaurants, parks, and certain touristic places in the north of Tehran. The lower classes (young people from the middle and lower classes and even from the suburbs of Tehran), gather in certain public places in their neighborhoods and also try to reach Tehran’s entertainment spaces in the center or north of the city. Social networks play a pivotal role in introducing public spaces for the gathering of young people at night. Their presence in these locations is more than just a physical presence for fun and entertainment. In these nightly gatherings, many of the dominant values and cultural norms are suspended. The ways women wear hijab and the ways these young people express themselves through their bodies, activities, interactions, patterns of consumption, and even their underground economy, are all in serious conflict with the culture and identity politics of the Islamic Republic. Therefore, in many cases, the formation of these spaces is accompanied by a violent reaction from the police, from closing some streets, confiscating cars, to arresting women and young people, or collecting and shutting down food trucks and coffee vans after midnight.

The coercive treatment of the government and the resistance by young people in the northern parts of Tehran, where the majority of these spaces are constructed, have laid the groundwork for articulating distinct spatio-temporal configurations in marginal places. One of these types of spaces in Tehran is called “view.” These spaces are located in the foothills of Tehran’s northern mountains in remote locations but with a view of the city from above. They have a wonderful visual appeal and provide a distinct space for citizens of Tehran away from the surveillance and confrontation of the police, Basij, and other repressive forces and generally dominant and official norms. Other locations, such as some highways in Tehran, where visual capacity and remoteness coexist, are also used by youth for gathering and spending time. Five years ago, I identified seven active and expanding views—also known as “Baam” (two cases on highways, one official Baam, and four informal views)—through participant observation. My research is focused on four of them.

Many young people from different parts of Tehran came to these places at night. According to the participants, they served as a platform for the formation of various types of social configurations. Young people from different social strata, especially those who had personal vehicles (or had friends who do), were the main creators and consumers of these spaces. A common feature of these configurations was that most of them were constructed in opposition to the signs, acceptable behaviors, and norms imposed by the regime of power, Tehran, and family. In these spaces, the youth had the unique opportunity, even if only for a short time, to suspend various social, political, and economic pressures, to think about themselves, their city, and their society on the horizon of Tehran. Young women in these places could express their true selves in a public place and escape the limits on their bodily expression imposed by patriarchal norms. Sometimes when a song was sung or music was played from a car, boys and girls danced freely together. Gradually, food trucks and coffee vans, as well as drug and alcohol dealers, also entered these places. After evening parties, many young people visited these locations, a practice known as “after.” They believed that after partying and drinking alcohol, being in such places gives them a sense of intoxication and emancipation. Even those who intended to commit suicide came to these places and spent hours thinking about themselves and their past from this vantage point. Many people, including women, sought refuge in these locations from domestic violence. Some young people came to this place with their dogs because their pets are prohibited from entering public parks and other places. This place became a place for young women and men to get to know each other.

Gradually, as these places moved toward consolidation, their photos were posted on Instagram or Facebook. The large presence of young people and the construction of new social configurations provoked the police, the morality police, and Basiji forces. At night, the police and Basij attacked these places and forced the youth to leave. When the youths resisted, either their cars were impounded, they were physically or verbally abused, or they were arrested. If the resistance was serious, the police would close the streets leading to the view with concrete barriers or put up obstacles to prevent the cars from stopping. Following these brutal police actions, the young people would seek out a new spatial position (with the same qualities and characteristics) and relocate. The cycle of configuration, stabilization, brutal police reaction, resistance, and then collapse would repeat itself for many of Tehran’s views.

The result of the conflicts and innovative resistance of young people in recent years has led to a significant growth in these spaces within the domain of Tehran. Particularly following the 2022 Iran uprising, young people have gained greater recognition and increased freedoms within the spaces. Simultaneously, during this period, and especially amid challenging economic conditions and the waning of strict government oversight, Tehran’s informal nightlife has experienced substantial progress, yielding notable economic benefits for the ruling political economy. Consequently, the municipal planning apparatus, under the deep influence of IRGC, now seeks to co-opt these informal nightlife spaces by transforming them into sanctioned religious pilgrimage centers, nighttime city tours, and other controlled initiatives. This pattern is repeatedly evident in the construction of Tehran’s urban spaces, wherein spaces are created by people’s actions in everyday life, immediately targeted for destruction by the ruling regime, leading to intense spatial conflicts in which ordinary actors emerge victorious. However, these aforementioned conflicts within Tehran’s urban spaces, which were clearly manifested during the Iranian 2022 protests, remain the primary basis for the formation of complex urban spaces, particularly those prevailing during the night. These conflicts are deeply rooted in the contemporary political, cultural, and economic transformations of Iran, especially the rise of military-led power and its contemporary implications.

 

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