Tehran’s Broken Spine

The faces of 'martyrs' killed during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) are reflected as a funeral takes place in the cemetery in the main square in Qom. Photo by Espen Rasmussen

The faces of 'martyrs' killed during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) are reflected as a funeral takes place in the cemetery in the main square in Qom. Photo by Espen Rasmussen

Iran is a country divided. Following the disputed election held in June 2009, that division was symbolised by a single street: Vali asr Avenue, the spine of Tehran. At one end, supporters of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have rallied in his support. At the other, massive crowds have come out in support of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the liberal candidate who many believe was cheated in the recent presidential election.

The avenue was built in the 1930s to link Reza Shah Pahlavi’s Marble Palace to his summer residence at Saadabad in the foothills to the north of Tehran. Some people still call it Pahlavi Avenue, which was its name until the 1979 revolution that deposed the Shah. After a brief interlude as Mossadeq Street (in homage to nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq) it became Vali asr Avenue, a reference to the 12th Shia Imam.

It has a claim to being the longest city street in the world, stretching for twenty kilometres and traversing the city from the more modern and liberal north to the conservative and poorer south.

During his visit to Iran in May 2008, Espen Rasmussen strolled down it in search of the contrasts described by David Ignatius in his book The Increment:

‘The avenue rises in the burly districts of downtown, where rage against the unbelievers is nurtured and sustained every Friday at prayers, and it ascends mile by mile till it reaches the heights of Jamaran, where one might think, to look at the Parisian fashions and big German cars, that the unbelievers are everywhere. But that is wrong: atop these hills are the secrets of modern Iran, a nation whose very identity is in some ways a fabric of lies. Nothing along this avenue is quite what it appears to be.’

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