Beginnings: Stories, Sound and Belonging
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
Standing on a flat rooftop in north Tehran on a summer’s evening I am immersed in sound: the strains of the call to prayer echoing from local mosques; a rock beat from a passing car; the call of birds circling the mountains; a distant ringtone; the low-level hum of the city below … (personal notes)
This blog is part of the project Sonic Tehran and will provide a space for reflection, personal and academic, on different aspects of Tehran as a sounded space, and with a focus on memory and affect. My aim is for Sonic Tehran to be a truly multi-vocal and co-productive project, with contributions and guest blogs from a range of individuals sharing their sonic memories and experiences of Tehran. It will include conversations with urban designers, composers, sound artists, and others highlighting different facets of urban sound in order to understand what these sounds mean to people, how they have impacted their everyday lives, what sound tells us about the urban environment and how that environment has changed over time. The blog is a playspace for trying out ideas as the project develops and this first post is intentionally personal in tone as I relate the story of my own relationship with Tehran and reflect on the background and motivations behind the project and its significance for me.
Sonic Tehran has had a long genesis. I first became captivated by the sounds of the city on my first visit to Iran as an adult in the summer of 1999. Although having been born and lived all my life in the UK, I had spent several months in Iran as a young child, a time of which I have little memory. But family circumstances, compounded by revolution, war and their aftermaths meant that it was to be 30 years before I travelled to Iran again, a visit that was both a personal journal of ‘return’ and a research trip. Arriving in the early hours of the morning, I remember vividly the plane circling several times over Tehran - as was customary when international flights used to arrive at Mehrabad airport – and taking in the incredible view of the mostly sleeping, quiet city below and the looming shadows of the protective mountains. The most intense early memories I have from that time are of being overwhelmed by the sensorial and somatic experiences of the city – the sounds, smells, colours, and so on - all of which contributed to the sense I had right from the start of Tehran as a living, breathing presence, a being in her own right. I was reminded of the children’s book Giant, in which the mountain one day awakens, rises up and walks away; and I half expected the sleeping mountains that form the dramatic backdrop to the north of the city to do the same. I knew from those early days of our acquaintance that here was a very special city and that I wanted to write about it. But it was the sounds of Tehran in particular that first drew me to the city. I spent many hours wandering the streets and alleyways, immersing myself and making recordings; no sound or location was immune from my recording device: taxi drivers calling out destinations, the ubiquitous Tehran traffic, the call of the azan, water flowing through the joob that channel the melted snow water from the north to the south of the city, the bustle of the Tehran bazaar, the singing of birds - caged in shops and free in the mountains -, the low-level hum of Tehran heard from the mountains, the buzz of electricity pylons, hawkers selling their wares on the Tehran metro, the women’s section of a sports club, street musicians, the muted sounds of a local shrine … and on.
The sonic experiences of that first trip to Iran as an adult brought home to me in ways that I had not hitherto fully appreciated, the intense power of sound and its crucial role in shaping space and place, and through which people come to understand and navigate their daily lives. Sound is of course basic to animal orientation in the world and human beings are no different. Again and again, I was reminded of the power of sound power to emote, to move, to subvert. I was familiar with the work of scholars such as Steven Feld and his concept of ‘acoustemology’, a way of knowing the world through sound, but sound studies as a field had yet to emerge. At that time, having recently completed a PhD on creative performance practice in Iranian classical music, I had embarked on a project exploring the role of music among diaspora Iranians in London. But several months of research left me somewhat disenchanted and out of sympathy with the project. The summer 1999 trip to Iran coincided with this work and led to me not only falling in love with the country of my heritage – one that I had had little opportunity to experience first-hand – but also abandoning the work on diaspora to focus on making the richness of musical life and the sonic worlds of Iran better known outside. There was also a sense of wanting to counter the singular and obsessive global media focus on politics and radical Islam – and after 9/11 discourses around ‘axes of evil’ and the so-called ‘war on terror’ - that presents such a distorted view of life in Iran. I felt a strong sense of belonging and attachment (and even responsibility) that was hard to account for, but was no doubt partly fuelled by my own intense need to belong somewhere. Growing up in a largely white, monocultural provincial town in the south of England, I had my entire life been very aware of my own difference. I would often try to imagine what it would feel like to be walking down the street, being at a social gathering, in a classroom, at a rehearsal … and not looking different from everyone else, with all the attendant assumptions and reactions from others. Now, in Iran, I was finally somewhere where I could disappear into a crowd and not stand out as different. Or so I thought. I soon realised that from a visual point of view, it was very obvious that I was not a local: from my body language, the way that I walked or wore my roopoosh, the angle of my headscarf, and the fact that I didn’t wear make-up (a stark contrast with most of the women in the circles I mainly moved in). It took the average taxi driver or shopkeeper three seconds to work out that I was from ‘over there’ (oon var), often before I had even uttered a sound. And then there was my voice. My odd accent, which those who didn’t know me often found puzzling and hard to place, immediately marked me as sonically different. Whilst people in Iran are quite used to younger diaspora ‘accented’ Iranians, visitors of my age are normatively assumed to have been born and spent at least their childhood in Iran, so the combination of age and accent placed me outside any of the usual categories (being one of a very small number of Iranians born outside Iran in the 1960s). I had for many years longed to visit Iran, to return ‘home’ to a place where I could at last belong. Friends and family had warned me that I would likely not feel at home there either: I was too ‘westernised’, had grown up and been educated in the UK and was ‘English really’. And yet, despite all that, I found that I did feel very much at home in Tehran, most likely because of my own need to belong, as well as the great warmth and hospitality of the people.
And so began my admittedly romanticised and romantic relationship with this fascinating city. Tehran didn’t seem to care that I was a different kind of Iranian; it sensed my longing and enveloped and immersed me in its sonic embrace. And it has never left me, no matter how far away I am, or how long circumstances have prevented me from visiting. Tehran inhabits me as much as I inhabit it when I am physically there. Every research project is without doubt also a personal journey and this one is no exception. Tehran is the locale of much of my most immediate heritage – where my parents grew up and many other family connections. But there is also something deeper that draws me to this city of a thousand stories - its people, its alleyways, its rooftops, mountains, bazaars and the many hidden spaces – and that compels me to write about it. It is above all an affective and emotive attachment that drives this research.
I returned from that initial research trip particularly interested both in the ‘official’, authorised pop music that had re-entered the public domain following the landslide election victory of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, as well as other kinds of popular music that were emerging as part of the new ‘underground’ unofficial grassroots scene. I was very aware that there was no academic writing on these, and for the next decade and more dedicated my research to writing about and trying to make Iranian popular music better known outside Iran. Throughout this time, I remained interested in the broader sonic life of Tehran and continued to make recordings on my various trips and to plan for an urban sounds project. I was aware of the growing interest in issues of sound more generally, and of course the emergence of a broad field of sound studies, much of this work located in urban environments. Meanwhile, others had also started to explore the sounds of Tehran and I have listed writings and sonic work that I am aware of on the ‘Related Resources on Tehran’ page, and would welcome suggestions to add to this list. Towards the end of my last trip to Iran in the summer of 2015, I came across the Tehran Soundscape Project (part of the ‘Anthropology and Culture’ group of the Iranian Anthropology Association), led by Mohsen Shahrnazdar, who has been documenting Tehran sounds, conducting sound walks around the city and producing sound maps. I will be writing about this project in a later blog.
So, more than 20 years after I was first captivated by the sounds of Tehran – and many trips later – I am privileged to have the opportunity to dedicate focused research time to this work, supported by my institution and the Leverhulme Trust to whom I am indebted and grateful for their faith in the project. My aspiration is for this website (and the book that will result from the project) to become a repository of sounds, images and oral testimonies, and to give voice to sonic experiences through guest blogs, interviews, sonic diaries, sound walks and through the online map, which will host uploads of sound clips from Tehran, past and present. The broad aim is to compile an oral history of sonic experiences, curating and weaving together stories about sound and the city, and using sound as a trigger and starting point for narrating other memories of the city.
But this story is also about the silences - the unsounded sounds and those that remain unheard, that have been prohibited, silenced or erased from the public ear. I am interested in who and what ‘sounds’ and who and what remains silent or hidden. This has obvious gender dimensions, but I’m also interested in the sounds of marginalised groups more generally, particularly in the context of Iran’s long history as a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-linguistic entity. And what about the once-but-no-longer sounded histories of revolution, war and protest that continue to reverberate and to shape the present? Sonic Tehran engages directly with the entanglement of sound and power: it asks who controls the sonic environment, which sounds dominate the public soundspaces, who has the power to be heard, and what are the sonic resistances? It aims to uncover and re-sonify stories that have been untold or voices that have been forgotten. Black and Bohlman write about the ‘auditory scars’ that are the ‘result of acts of silencing past and present’. What are the ‘auditory scars’ of Tehran, the sonic erasures, the ghosts and traces that linger, carried within us and from generation to generation, long after the acoustic echoes have faded? Sonic Tehran asks what we listen to when we listen to the city and how power shapes both sound and silence; to quote again from Black and Bohlman, ‘how do we listen in an environment that is already shaped by and coursing with power?’ (2017).
I should just note that this project was planned long before the arrival of Covid, but the most recent phase of Tehran’s sonic history will of course also be part of this ongoing story.
As well as the focus on memory, affect, power and gender, other themes that are central to this project include sonic heritage; the intersection of sound and the built environment, including people’s sonic experiences of places that have undergone rapid change, as in the case of Tehran; and sound as an integral part of a rich, multi-sensory urban environment. I am also interested in questions of materiality - sound as touch - and how this very materiality enables sound to physically connect people and tap into areas of emotion and affect in ways that are arguably all the more powerful for its apparent (and often conventionally mythologised) immateriality. Sound is also fluidly and subversively leaky. I love this ‘leakiness’ and the acoustic blurring that enables sound to transcend the often strongly policed boundaries of public and private, as well as its potential to both mark boundaries and to transgress or transcend them.
So, what story does sound tell us about Tehran? And who is listening? Through the blog posts that will follow, I ask this question again and again, through the lens of different dimensions of the city and invite others to reflect on the sounded space of Tehran and what it means to them. I hope you’ll enjoy reading and immersing yourself in the sounds of this fascinating city!
Thank you for reading! If you have any comments or thoughts on anything discussed in this blog, I would love to hear from you via the comments box below or the contact form on the website.
Mindmap of Project Keywords and Concepts
Black, Amanda M. and Andrea F. Bohlman. 2017. ‘Resounding the Campus: Pedagogy, Race, and the Environment’, Journal of Music History Pedagogy, 8(1): 6-27.