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A very good thing
Muzaffar al-Din Shah's encounter with cinema

August 24, 2001
The Iranian

Once Upon a Time Cinema, or Nasir al-Din Shah Aktor-e Cinema, is one of my favorite films for more reasons than one. It is a film made before Mohsen Makhmalbaf became the preachy self-righteous filmmaker that he has now become, and in scene after scene we feel the director's love and enthusiasm for cinema. It has a lightness about it that is not frivolous, and is full of great scenes, from the court eating abgoosht as it watches jaheli movies, to the king's falling in love with Dokhtar-e Lor and drinking his sorrows away with Behrouz Vousouqi, to his becoming gaav-e Mash Hasan.

The film, in a great demonstration of the power of cinema to twist reality, begins with Mozzafar al-Din Shah's return from farang only to push everything, including the invention and use of the cinematograph, back to his great father's time, Nasir al-Din Shah. Nasir al-Din Shah, the fifth Qajar king, with his intense curiosity and love of photography would no doubt have loved the moving pictures but he was killed only a year after they were invented. It fell to his not-so-curious and not-very-passionate son to see the cinematograph in 1900, find it interesting, purchase it, and bring it back with him to Iran. Related photo

The following is the account of Muzaffar al-Din Shah's encounter with cinema as recorded in the daily chronicle (rouznameh) of his first trip to Europe. Each entry in Muzaffar al-Din Shah's travelogue is separated by the date and is not much longer than 3/4 to a page. Almost each starts with "We woke up in the morning" or a variation thereof and sets the tone for a journal entry that both meticulously and vaguely records the Shah's daily activities. What is interesting in this account is how the moving pictures was just one of the many sights that awaited the traveler. Cinema in many ways has surpassed all other art forms in what Walter Benjamin has called the age of mechanical reproduction. It is the perfect art for the modern era but at the brink of that era, in 1900, it constituted only a fraction of the spectacles on offer.

The Shah sets out from Tehran and travels eastward, crossing the Aras river on the northeast of Iran to Russia. He travels through Russia by either train or carriage recording the different instances he asked his akkasbsh (the court photographer) to take pictures. (He himself also takes some pictures.) Almost all instances mentions are pictures of diplomats and other functionaries that visit the Shah of Iran on his trip. On his last day in Russia, the "theater" was set up for him in a park where "for the purposes of paying respects to us (tashrifat), a large number of the nobility were invited for free." Three curtains of dance were shown. The final destination of the Shah's trip is a health spa in France where he hopes to improve his health by drinking the mineral waters. He and his entourage arrive there at night after two months of constant traveling and settle into a "hotel" with all his servants and assistants.

Throughout his trip but especially during his stay at the spa, the Shah regularly goes to the theater in the evenings. The first day of his stay though rather than go to the theater itself, he visits the sight of a theater that is being built saying: "We went to the building of a theater that they have recently started building here and watched (tamasha). They have built a very nice building. It fits about 150 people." Several days later, he again goes to the theater and says: "Right at sunset we went to the theater that was very beautiful and good. The plays (bazi) were not bad either." In some ways it seems that it is the physical presence of the theater that attracts him more than the content itself. Another aspect of the Shah's theater-going that emerges from the travelogue is the disjointed nature of it. Very seldom does he sit through the entire show, leaving it after the second or third curtains to go pray or to sleep. He never seems very engaged with what he is seeing, rather it is the act of going to the theater that, along with drinking the waters, strolling in the park, shopping, and target practice constitute important punctuation marks of his day.

The tenth of the month of Rabi' al-Awwal was such a cold day that "we didn't feel like drinking water or taking a stroll in the park." The Shah was obviously restless and bored so "near the afternoon we ordered Akksbsh to instruct the person who through Sani'i al-Duwlah had brought the Cinemaphotograph [sic] and Lan-ter Magic [sic] to prepare them for our consideration. Near sunset they prepared him. We went to a place near the guesthouse where our servants eat dinner and lunch. We sat down. They darkened the room. We watched both gadgets [asbab]. It is a very good novel thing [bisyar chiz-i bad'i-i khubi ast]; it shows [tamasha midahad] and makes corporeal [mujassam mikunad] most of the places in the Exposition that it is a cause for utmost wonder and amazement [ta'ajub va hayrat]. We saw most of the landscapes and buildings of the Exposition and the way it rains, and the Seine river, etc in Paris and ordered Akkasbashi to purchase all those equipment." After this, the Shah is informed that "the theater is ready." He takes his leave.

We realize, several days later, that the Shah is going back to Russia from where he will begin his "official tour" of Europe, modeled self-consciously on Nasir al-Din Shah's three trips to farangistan. Interestingly enough, the Shah uses this part of his trip to be a tourist. His entries are now longer and full of details of the cities he has seen. His description of Paris begins of course with his sighting of the Eiffel tower, then a description of his reception and the smoothness of Parisian streets. There are tree-lined streets in Paris with gas and electric lamps (most 19th century travelers to Paris commented on the lights in the city); there are stores and cafes, restaurants and hotels (he uses these two words in transliteration) with doors and windows that open up on the street:

"They have put large, continuous, mercury-less mirrors such that one can see very well the outside from inside and the inside from outside except that every store or hotel that doesn't want to be seen from the outside hangs a white lace from the inside, as it has now becomes fashionable in Iran, so that you can see the outside from inside but from outside the inside can not be seen." In addition, he notes that the "buildings of farangistan are opposite of that of Iran. The space of every house and building is limited to the alleys and streets. Inside the house there is no place for recreation and fun [tafarruj va tafrih]."

The Shah spends his days in Paris walking around (he loves zoos), sightseeing, and inspecting factories and military fields outside Paris. On one of these outings he was the target of an assassination attempt ("His name is Francois Salon; he is French and from an anarchist group; he's a youth of 24 years.") Two days later after this event, the Shah writes: "Today because our hand was hurting a bit and we were also tired from yesterday, we stayed in and didn't go anywhere." Instead, around 9 pm "we went to the Exposition and to the Festival Hall where they were showing Cinemophotograph [sic] which is tangible [mujassam] and moving pictures." He begins by describing the building:

"We first entered the special door of this building around sunset and the lights of the Exposition were turned on. When we first entered the Festival Hall, it left an impression on us; it is truly an excellent building. It is as big as two Tikkiyay-i Duwlats and like it, it is circular and its ceiling is made of illuminated crystals and around it are two rows of red velvet chairs that have been built for people to sit on. They show the Cinemophotograph here. They raised a very large curtain in the middle of the Hall and turned off all the electric lights and threw the Cinemophotograph's picture on that big curtain. They showed a lot, for example travelers from Africa and Arabia who were passing through the African desert with camels that was very interesting [ddan] also other things were seen such as the Exposition, the moving alleys, the Seine river, the movement of the boats on the river, and people playing in the water, and other things that was very worth seeing... We ordered Akkasbashi to buy all kinds of it and to bring it to Tehran so that Insha'allah we make it there and show it to our own servants. We watched about 30 scenes [pardeh]."

From there the Shah goes to the Building of Illusion where the "spectacle [tamsh] here was even greater than there." In the end of this spectacle-ridden evening, the Shah requests to see the architect of the building and gives him a medal.

It is only when the Shah sees the various Panoramas in the Exposition that he seems to be truly astonished. He writes with excitement and in detail. The first Panorama he sees is that of Madagascar which "was so tangible and well built that was no different from the real thing. All the city, the stores, the trees, even the movement of the leaves which resulted from the movement of air was so similar and tangible that one imagined they were sitting in the city of Madagascar, in the Queen's palace and is looking around."

At the end of the day, the Shah feels that that for two hours "we walked around the Madagascar Island and the Siberian desert and traveled to Tehran and our own Museum hall and returned to Paris. Until one sees with one's own eyes, s/he doesn't know of what quality it is."

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Naghmeh Sohrabi


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