Iran on Four Wheels. Politics through the Paykan’s Rear Window
Iran on Four Wheels
Politics through the Paykan’s Rear Window
By Alice Aziz
November 29, 2020
Nostalgia is both temporal and geographical; like young Iranians’ sentimental contemplations of their parents’ era, mobility and migrations generate reevaluation from afar. Edward Said describes the formulation of his Palestinian identity at a New England boarding school: “The fact that I was never at home or at least at Mount Hermon, out of place in nearly every way, gave me the incentive to find my territory, not socially but intellectually” (Out of Place, 1999). Writing about Shahin Armin and Sohrab Daryabandari’s film, “Iran’s Arrow: the Rise and Fall of the Paykan” (2017), from my vantage point as an Iranian-American who has never been to Iran, elicits a similar experience of removal from the “original.” It also provokes self-recognition elsewhere. Absorbed with Iran’s iconic car, the Paykan, I am revisited by my mother’s experiences of working as a child in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a chapter of her life recounted in slivers so minute that I was never able to form a picture of the whole. Iranians’ attachment to the Paykan feeds my own cultural yearning.
A dozen men line up in front of identical automobiles in a parking lot with the mountains north of Tehran in the background. They have gathered to reflect on the significance of a car that, in the words of painter Hossein Soltani, “is part of the subconscious of any Iranian who has lived in Iran at any point in the last forty years.” Even Iran’s happy birthday song originates with a Paykan advertisement commissioned by its devoutly monarchist manufacturers, Ahmed and Mohammad Khayami, celebrating the automobile’s third anniversary.
The Paykan (1967-2005) was first manufactured in the aftermath of waves of migration to Tehran in the 1950s following a series of sweeping reforms during the White Revolution, including land reforms and the women’s right to vote, implemented by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Guided by the recommendation of John F. Kennedy and intended to quell resistance to the Shah’s authoritarian rule, one result of the reforms was that farmers abandoned the countryside and migrated to Tehran and other cities including Mashad and Isfahan, which quickly erupted into major metropolises. From 1965-1975 alone, Tehran’s population grew from 2.5 to 4.6 million, nearly doubling. It was at this moment that the Khayami brothers founded IranNational, acquiring the rights to produce a version of the British-owned Rootes Group Arrow platform, the Hillman Hunter, which they called the Paykan, meaning Arrow in Persian. The Paykan soon became Tehran’s ubiquitous mode of transport, both as private cars, official and, later, unofficial taxis. Its affordability meant that it was more accessible than the large United States cars that had previously dominated the market. It brought mobility to Iranians who could not previously have afforded a car and a dramatic increase in women drivers. Cheap and easy to repair, anyone who had a Paykan would learn how to fix it. If it broke down, you could tie a pair of pantyhose around the fan belt and drive for another fifty kilometers.
Central to Armin and Daryabandari’s documentary is the tension between the Paykan’s exploitation as a nationalist symbol and Iranians’ perception of the car as a loyal ally in the face of two abusive governments, a coup d’état, a revolution, an eight-year war, reconstruction and economic crises. Under both Mohammad Reza Shah’s monarchic rule and the Islamic Republic, the Paykan was appropriated as a tool for mobilizing consent. The self-denominated Shahan Shah (“King of Kings”) identified the Paykan as validation that Iran was on its way to first-world status, leaving behind it’s “backwardness.” He also seized the increase in Iran’s oil revenue, following a brief period of the industry’s nationalization in 1951, as further evidence of his success. Mohammad Reza Shah situated himself as the conveyor of United States and European modernity to Iran as well as the symbolic descendant of Cyrus the Great, the sixth-century B.C. Persian Emperor and author of the first decrees on Human Rights. “Sleep in peace Cyrus, I am awake,” the Shah outrageously pronounced in front of Cyrus’s tomb.
Mimicking Britain’s colonial pretense of bringing “civilization – or, as the Shah put it, “The great civilization” – to Iran, his neocolonial developmental model promoted consumerism and the bourgeois, nuclear family with its suburban houses and automobiles, a United States prototype exported to Iran just as IranNational was now a Complete Knock Down (CKD) manufacturer of the United States company, Chrysler, and the Paykan itself was the British Hillman Hunter.
Under Mohammed Reza Shah, the Paykan’s Western origins were sublimated in the name of a contrived authenticity. Paykans became associated with Iranian patrimony, whether by accident or design. For instance, when in 1970 IranNational commissioned an advertisement by Kamran Shirdel to celebrate the Paykan’s third birthday, Shirdel based his ad on a song he asked Anoushiravan Rohani to produce and perform. This song was subsequently adopted as Iran’s national birthday song, inadvertently feeding Mohammad Reza Shah’s rhetoric. The Paykan was instrumentally included in a glitzy celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1976 at Aryamehr, now Azadi, Stadium in Tehran, when workers marched onto the playing field wielding an array of Paykan parts. Lining themselves up in groups five deep and ten across, they assembled fifty automobiles, from scratch, before a packed stadium audience.
Concurrent with the Shah’s pomp and fanfare, in 1971, nearly half of Iran’s population was living below the poverty line. Unrest and resistance to his absolute rule were quelled with armor. With the support of the United States and Israel, the Shah constructed a security state enforced by his brutal secret police, SAVAK (Organization of National Intelligence and Security), repressing dissent through mass imprisonment and torture.
“Iran’s Arrow” explores Iranians’ love for Paykans in spite of the Shah. After decades of Britain’s humiliating economic exploitation, they identified with the Paykan, resisting the misuse of their beloved automobile to celebrate authoritarianism. Armin and Daryabandari’s documentary includes footage from a film commissioned by IranNational – Kamran Shirdel’s “Paykan Industrial Film” (1970) – in which Shirdel eludes the tradition of paying homage to Mohammad Reza Shah by using imagery and music alone. His wordless narrative critiques the economic model dictating factory labor and conveys the harsh conditions to which the workers were subjected in IranNational, wielding gigantic tools on mechanized, gratingly loud assembly lines. Unlike other industrialists, the Khayami brothers made certain humanitarian gestures toward the workers, but the age of Fordism had nonetheless arrived.
The Paykan was first the object of the Shah’s, then the Islamic Republic’s, opportunism. The aesthetic management of the car under the two regimes could not have been more different. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, there were several models of Paykan, including Paykan Delux, Paykan Work, Paykan Taxi and the hip Paykan Javanan (Youth Paykan), which came in a variety of colors with interior flourishes. In 1979, the Islamic Republic immediately nationalized automobile companies. Iran National was renamed Iran Khodro and produced only a single Paykan model. Focusing on affordability, it was stripped of the embellishments associated with Shah-era consumerism and refashioned as an icon for revolutionary progress. In addition to the Islamic Republic’s ideology of austerity, harsh socio-economic sanctions meant diminished industrial resources. Left with the factory and old, worn out automobile machinery Iran bought from England during the Iraq-Iran war, Iran Khodro manufactured a bare bones, inferior looking version of the Paykan. Ironically, the Shah’s rhetoric about putting Iran on wheels was echoed in the new government’s promise that it would provide this humbler, ascetic Paykan to every family.
Their cherished car degraded, Iranians became ambivalent about the Paykan. On the one hand, Paykans’ lingering production and the tiresomely uniform look was an embarrassment. Daryabandari elucidates this: “The Iranian people were offended by foreign intervention as well as the incompetence of the Iranian government. Not only did they unleash the war upon us, but we were put in a situation where we ended up riding the same clunky car for at least thirty years more than we should have.” On the other hand, the Paykan evoked loyalty, even friendship. With the United States-backed Iraqi war on Iran (1980-88), the car was conceived as an emblem of dogged endurance and continuity in the midst of catastrophe, conveying families fleeing from the bombardment in Paykans crammed with passengers and their few belongings. Daryandari continues: “Paykan drivers had more asabiyah or solidarity. If you got stuck on the road, it was more likely that a Paykan would stop and help. Not only because the driver was more friendly, but also because his car was the type that broke down more often and he would be carrying tools and he expected help from others when he himself got stuck.”
War and economic strife in Iran result from foreign interventions governed by oil interests. The history of the Paykan cannot, therefore, be understood in isolation from Empire-building and, hence, Iran’s oil-rich reserve. During the late nineteenth-century, Russia (later, the Soviet Union) and the United Kingdom staked out their spheres of influence in Iran, with the ultimate hegemony of the British. Central to Britain’s endeavor, and sustained by Mohammad Reza Shah’s father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, was the Anglo-Persian (later, Anglo-Iranian) Oil Company (AIOC), which also acquired the rights to the First Exploitation Company, now known as British Petroleum (BP). Set in Abadan, in Iran’s extreme southwest, the refinery was founded in 1908 to become the largest in the world. Britain reaped the rewards of Iranian oil extraction with scant compensation to the government. Many of the company’s Iranian laborers were destitute, living in a shantytown without running water or electricity, and looked upon by the managers of the AIOC as uncivilized.
The fact that oil was controlled by British interests infuriated Iranians. Mohammad Reza Shah employed a steady military presence to protect the British in the face of tribal unrest and resistance. The single, fleeting exception to British expropriation was in 1951 after parliament voted in favor of popular, democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq’s bill to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. Mossadeq was subsequently removed from power in a 1953 Anglo-United States-backed coup d’état that restored the exiled Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to power. After oil finally came under state control in 1979, in the Anglo-United States, Iran went from being imagined as merely underdeveloped to violent and unmanageable. Whereas the administration of the AIOC saw the Iranians as faceless drones, “natives” with “disgusting habits” (Manucher Farmanfarmaian, Blood and Oil: a Prince’s Memoir of Iran, from the Shah to the Ayatollah, 2005), with Iran’s political and economic independence, it was demoted from merely uncivilized to anti-civilization, the “Axis of Evil” embroiled in a “Clash of Civilizations” with the West (Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, 2004). During the “Hostage Crisis” (1979-81) and “Iran-Contra Crisis” (1985-87) as in the present, Iran has consistently been projected within the United States and the United Kingdom as irrational and explosive, whereas the West is rational and levelheaded.
From the Achaemenid and Safavid Dynasties through contemporary Anglo-United States sanctions and interventions, Iran’s long history teaches us that no superpower prevails ad infinitum. The provisional essence of empire in a culture as ancient as that of Persia is conveyed by “Iran’s Arrow’s” subtitle; the car’s “rise and fall” speaks to Mohammad Reza Shah’s belief that Iran was on the cusp of preeminence. His thwarted project of overseeing Iran’s reemergence as a superpower resonates ironically with the termination of Paykan production. Tehran’s air pollution reached levels so high that in 2005 the government had the Paykan, with its gas-guzzling, outmoded technology, discontinued, investing instead in the production of more up to date automobiles with fuel-efficient, low-emission engines.
Though the Paykan ceased to be manufactured, it continues to be refashioned. Group art exhibitions dedicated to the automobile include “The Paykan Project” (Kuntsmuseum, Stuttgart, 2013), “Final Encore II” (Dastan’s Basement Gallery, Tehran, 2013) and “Paykan Iranian Automobile Group Exhibition,” a show using Paykan hoods as canvases (AUN Gallery, Tehran, 2013). A three-dimensional cardboard suburban family picnicking on a real Paykan hood speaks not only to the car as fetish but also to the kitsch of Mohammad Reza Shah’s imported neocolonial mindset with its concomitant bourgeois paradigm. The short video by Pouya Afshar and Neda Moridpour, “Agha-Nasrin Exhausted 74” (2011), explores the homosociality of car discourses. Afshar and Moridpour accompany one of the first women taxi drivers around Tehran in her unofficial Paykan cab, taking their video’s title from Nasrin’s license plate, which ironically nods to her struggle for acceptance in a male-dominated field through the appropriation of the Persian, Agha, or “Mister.”
Paykan art sometimes runs the risk of postmodernism’s relativization. Embellishments like royalist symbolism speak to the problem of aestheticizing an artifact by extracting it from its socio-political context; vestiges of the Western-informed Pahlavi dynasty blended with the remnants of steel and chrome. Daryabandari notes that certain young people restore Paykans so they look like the pre-revolution models. They even hang royalist symbols in their rear-view mirrors and front grilles and refer to them as “Aryamehri,” a reference to Mohammad Reza Shah’s title of honor, and “what His Highness left us.” A new generation copies what was already a copy, exalting the Paykan as a vestige of “genuine Iranianness.” Nods of approval to — even longing for — the Shah reflect depoliticized memory, calling to mind Proust’s admonition that “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were’” (Remembrance of Things Past, 1913-1927).
Writing this article reorients my nostalgic relationship to place. I am reminded that cars signify movement, travel, displacement, but also a sense of reconnection to home. As Daryabandari puts it, “A great part of the nation was suddenly put on wheels and thus empowered. The Paykan thus became an ‘ark’ for many Iranians at different stages in their lives. There is a way in which it turns into their home, or it adds something to the idea of home for them. It is important to keep in mind that sedentary life is not necessarily the better strategy.”
Alice Aziz is a writer and educator.