Heroes, Activists, and Martyrs: Lending their names to the streets of Tehran

January 24, 2013

Tehran_Streets

When I heard the story of Granada, Spain planning to approve a measure to name a square in honor of the British punk band The Clash’s Joe Strummer http://www.theworld.org/2013/01/spanish-square-to-be-named-in-honor-of-the-clashs-joe-strummer/ I was reminded of the battery of street name changes that Iranian cities underwent immediately after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The changing of names applied not only to streets and boulevards but to schools, colleges, universities and any building or organization that carried a name resonant of the former regime and all those it supported.

Besides serving as a practical guide to find one’s destination, street names and place names in general, create symbolic connections with the past, or recent past by commemorating and honoring the contributions of historical figures, military heroes, political leaders, inventors, industrialists, and athletes. According to the cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky in Nation into State, “the United States has a long history of naming places, especially streets, after patriot heroes and other notables.”

I first came across the term “commemorative landscape” a term referring to “a wide range of material sites devoted to remembering the past,” in an essay entitled “Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina,” by Derek H. Alderman. We can safely agree that one of the most common of commemorative landscape types is the street name. In most cases, reasons to rename a street, monument or building are primarily politically motivated, reflecting the mood and sentiments of a new regime and its antipathy or respect for the past. When the Soviet Union collapsed, its satellites quickly set about a mission of de-Stalinization by renaming streets and building that once honored Stalin.

Though my recollections and understanding of Iran are memories frozen the moment I’d left the country in June 1978, I still remember those streets in Tehran named after American Presidents like Kennedy Square, Eisenhower Avenue, Roosevelt Avenue and British heads of state like Elizabeth Street and Winston Churchill Boulevard. Yet soon after the revolution these streets were renamed to honor martyrs of the Islamic Revolution and religious leaders. Kennedy Square is now Tohid Square, Eisenhower Avenue (named after the American President who helped the Shah topple Mossadeq) is Freedom Avenue and Roosevelt Avenue has been renamed Mofateh Avenue. Winston Churchill Boulevard, the site of the British Embassy in Tehran, was renamed Bobby Sands Street after the Irish Republican Army IRA member who went on a hunger strike and died in prison in northern Ireland in 1981. Apparently the British Embassy changed its entrance to another side of the building as they didn’t want the address to be Bobby Sands Street.

Tehran_Streets1

But not all American names have been censored in Iran. I read an LA Times article about Tehran’s decision to name a street in honor of Rachel Corrie, an American pro-Palestinian activist who was killed while protesting against the demolition of Palestinians homes in the Gaza strip. The photo below is proof of the street sign, which also includes a brief profile of Rachel Corrie.

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“Tehran street sign named after American pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie”

Iranian colleges and universities weren’t exempt from the name changing fever that had gripped the country following the 1979 revolution. Autonomous colleges, like the College of Surveying, or College of Statistics and Computer Science, or College of Mass Communication were phased out, merged and consolidated into university complexes named after revolutionary martyrs and religious leaders. Universities too saw their names changed, especially those that were named after the Shah or his family. Aryamehr University, known as the MIT of Iran, is now Sharif University of Technology, named after a former student who was killed in 1975. Melli (National) University was renamed Shahid Beheshti University. Farah Pahlavi University was renamed after the prophet Mohammad’s daughter as Al Zahra University. And the list goes on.

I haven’t returned to Iran since I left in 1978 but what I hear from friends and relatives who travel back and forth is that the old street names seem to still exist in people’s memories and used colloquially. It’s not unusual for passengers hailing a taxi to give their destination with the current name but also add its former name as backup. “Take me to Freedom Avenue, formerly Eisenhower.”

There’s a strange sense of belonging that happens when one sees and recognizes a familiar street sign. The main street leading to our home on Lane 8, off of Pakistan Avenue in northern Tehran, was Abbas Abad Avenue. That’s how I remember our ethnically diverse neighborhood of small mom and pop shops, the bakery, dry cleaners, and a vast empty dirt lot soon to be a large housing development. Our next door neighbor was a French diplomat. Across the street lived an American family from Maine whose eldest son was my brother’s best friend and attended the Tehran American School. A few houses down were a Japanese family whose patriarch would take strolls up and down our quiet street in the afternoons in his kimono and wooden shoes.

Abbas Abad Avenue has since been renamed as Shahid Beheshti Avenue. I have no connection to this new street and all that it represents, but one thing that seems to have not changed is the international flavor of the district that has carried on. Today, Shahid Beheshti, aka Abbas Abad Avenue, is home to embassies and foreign firms. Do you have any stories to share of the street names in your neighborhoods?

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI
www.acei1.com

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Filed under Education, Human Interest, Language, Politics, Travel

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