'More Than Just the Sounds of Traffic': The Petro-Sonics of Tehran

Updated: Mar 27, 2021

Iran’s first oil well, Masjed Soleyman


Oil and the Sounds of Mobility

A few years ago, I was chatting to a friend about the Sonic Tehran project, at that time still very much in thinking stage. Dismissing the idea with a wave of his hand, he said: ‘what is there to say about the sounds of Tehran other than traffic noise’? Somewhat taken aback, I responded that there is a great deal more to say about the sounds of Tehran beyond its well-known traffic. But he did, of course, have a point. Like any other major global capital, it’s hard to get away from the sounds of traffic in Tehran, and car use has increased significantly in recent decades - encouraged by relatively cheap petrol and a rather poor (but admittedly improving) public transport infrastructure, as well as a rapidly expanding metropolis that is most easily navigated by car; unless you’re stuck in gridlock traffic, that is. The resulting sound and air pollution has been exacerbated by a struggling economy, years of sanctions, poor regulation and access to new vehicle and parts, as a result of which old and highly pollutant vehicles dominate the roads. In his history of Tehran, Ali Madanipour describes how from the 1920s ‘Reza Shah [r.1925-1941] established a transportation network to unify and control the national territory’ (1998:39), promoting car use and cutting transport costs by abolishing road tolls and taxes, building 14,000 miles of new road by the late 1930s and importing vehicles in unprecedented numbers (14). Figures published in August 1926 in the newspaper Etelaa’aat give the following for registered vehicles across the entire country: 564 private cars, 432 rental vehicles, 108 cars belonging to ‘foreigners’ and 36 diplomatic cars. Fast-forward 60 years and there were ‘an estimated 425,000 private cars in Tehran, 80 percent more than other urban areas of the country’, rising to 750,000 in 1996, plus 300,000 motor cycles according to the Tehran municipality (Madanipour 1998:129). As Mayor of Tehran from 1988-1998, Gholamhossein Karbaschi – a former theology student turned urban planner - was responsible for widespread improvements to the city, including a restricted central traffic zone and a series of highways built ‘almost overnight’ in the words of some of my friends and family. The opening in 1999, and gradual expansion of Tehran’s metro system (a soundworld in itself) and improved bus services are having an impact and there have been recent initiatives to address the issue of sound pollution, including a recent report commissioned by the municipality of Tehran. But there’s still a long way to go. Hardly surprising, then, that my friend’s first reaction to thinking sound and Tehran = traffic. Indeed, the sounds of engines, vehicle horns, screeching tyres, and so on, are an ever-present soundtrack to the lives of Tehranis, and a regular backdrop in cinematic representations of the city. And like all sounds, they need to be understood first and foremost as vibrations that cause a visceral physical experience that bears on the whole body, not just the ears. The sound of traffic literally vibrates Tehran.

As well as the traffic itself are the many other sounds that circulate in and around vehicles: taxis drivers calling out destinations; taxis themselves – particularly the ubiquitous shared taxis - as important sites of verbal and other sonic exchange; the sounds of radio, cassettes, CDs. In a country where public sounds are tightly policed, cars have become liminal semi-public spaces where illicit music can be listened to, particularly certain kinds of popular music that were prohibited in public for many years following the 1979 Revolution, some of which remain restricted. In the 1980s, drivers were regularly stopped, cars searched, cassettes confiscated, fines served. Prior to the liberalisation of the public domain under President Mohammad Khatami in the late 1990s, the sounds of ‘underground’ rock music from a passing car would take on a wealth of meaning. Such sonic transgressions continue, for instance in the practice of maarbaazi (‘playing like a snake’), in which young people in more affluent areas drive ‘fast and recklessly along the city’s crowded vehicular arteries and veins, often accompanied by loud, illegal music’ (Braithwaite 2016). Another common practice is the exchange of telephone numbers between young people - on pieces of paper but also shouted out – through open windows between cars in standing traffic, a direct challenge to the official modesty laws which seek to restrict social interaction between unrelated men and women.

Beyond the sounds of movement is what that mobility makes possible in terms of human interaction, of people moving from one part of the city to another - particularly as the city has expanded - as well as from outside Tehran into the city; and the sonic implications, linguistically, musically, and so on.

It’s interesting to think about the extent to which traffic has literally shaped the city and its sonic character. From the 1930s, the increase in number and speed of vehicles led to the widening of Tehran’s streets and the destruction of historical structures such as the old city gates, the city walls and many traditional neighbourhoods with their narrow streets and blind alleys (Madanipour 1998:203). Much of the changing morphology of Tehran since this time has been driven by a steady rise in car ownership and traffic congestion. The building of new highways connecting different parts of the city aimed to alleviate the problem, but some of these have cut across old neighbourhoods that have been transformed as a result. I experienced this on a visit in 2015, after a 5-year absence, during which time a new highway had been built right through the quiet streets of Chizar in the north of the city, once a location of lush and peaceful gardens, of which some vestiges still remain. I found myself quite disoriented; and such disorientation was a regular theme in my conversations with Tehranis about their experiences of the rapidly changing city - including new buildings, roads, tunnels, and so on. Several described getting lost in previously familiar neighbourhoods; others talked about the city as an organic being, continually growing and metamorphosing, almost like a character with its own will. Given the impact of all this on the sonic environment, one of the questions of this project is how more stable and familiar sounds mediate the experience of rapid urban change.

Tajrish Square, north Tehran, 1946 Tajrish Square, 2015

The sounds of traffic are intimately tied up with the broader sonics of Iran’s new modernities as they arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, modernities that were powered and largely paid for by new energy sources, and particularly by crude oil after its discovery in Iran in 1908. The car was an important site of individuated and accelerating mobility, and the transition from carts, horses and donkeys to motorised vehicles both symbolic of and driven by the growing oil economy, which has shaped Iranian society and culture since that time. And so, following this train of thought, my friend’s comment set me thinking about the socio-sonics of petroleum: the broader impact of oil on the sounds of Tehran beyond the obvious case of traffic. Below, I explore a few examples of the impact - both direct and indirect – of oil on the sounds of Tehran, through its energy, of course, but also through its material by-products, the modern institutions and infrastructural projects that it made possible, and the sonics of social and political unrest and violence unleashed in attempts to assert ownership over this precious commodity.

Oil was first discovered in Iran in Masjed Soleyman in the southwestern province of Khuzestan in 1908, 7 years after British businessman and speculator William Knox D’Arcy acquired a 60-year concession for the right to explore for oil, natural gas and minerals in an area that covered almost three-quarters of the country. The concession was signed by Mozzafar al-Din Shah on 28th May 1901 at what is now the Niavaran Palace in north Tehran. In return, the Shah received £20,000 plus an equivalent value in shares and 16% of annual profits. A number of such concession had been granted in the course of the 19th century, with much rivalry between Britain and Russia for access to resources. It was to be almost 20 years before oil was discovered elsewhere in the region. The ‘D’Arcy Concession’ consolidated British influence in the south of Iran and allowed it to extend this influence in the years that followed, particularly through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which was formed in 1909. In 1914, the British Government bought a majority share of the company, allowing it control over the Iranian oil industry, a state of affairs that remained in place until 1951. Anglo-Persian was renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1935, became British Petroleum from 1954, and BP from 1998. Needless to say, the resonances of the D’Arcy Concession and other unequal concessions and treaties continue to reverberate to the present day. And so I suggest that listening to the sounds of oil includes listening to neo-colonial imbalances of power and exploitative relationships in which Britain is heavily implicated.

Tehran is almost 1,000 kilometres away from the major sites of oil extraction and refinement and their associated sounds (of interest in their own right), both industrial sounds and those of the large expatriate (mainly) British community that lived and worked there. Some of these can be gleaned from documentary films that were made about the oil refinery at Abadan (at that time the largest in the world) such as AIOC’s propagandist Persian Story, filmed just before operations at Abadan were suspended in 1951 (following the oil nationalisation that I discuss below) and widely screened outside Iran, as well through exhibits at the Abadan Oil Museum (see also video below). But in fact, the sounds of oil extended far beyond these sites. As I describe below, oil – and the quest for oil - shaped Sonic Tehran, not least as a lubricant of modernity, and seeped into and shaped every area of Iranian life.

Public Life and Materiality

Alongside the sounds of mobility, oil enabled the emergence of a new kind of public life in the first half of the 20th century. Early electricity generators were powered by coal and wood, but by the 1920s oil and gas had become the primary fuels (hydro-electric power was also developed quite early on). The petro-economy of oil (and gas) thus played a central role in the electrification of Tehran and facilitated the kind of urban transformation that opened up new spaces of sociality and public entertainment such as cinemas, theatres and nightclubs, as well as European-style shops, restaurants and chic hotels. As Asef Bayat notes, ‘oil became central to the social, economic and spatial life of Tehran’ (2010:102). By the 1920s, electric street lighting was well established and Tehran’s Lalehzar (lit: ‘tulip fields’) district had become the epicentre of a growing nightlife largely made possible by oil.

Theatre Saadi, on Baherestan Street in the Lalehzar district


As well as the sounds of such spaces, oil is also the sound of emerging sound recording industries, of film production and of broadcasting technologies; oil is the sound of an increasingly mediated society. In cinemas, oil powered the projectors, the lights, the sound; oil enabled people to travel to the venues. As Negar Mottahedeh observes, oil ‘is the founding resource of the Iranian film industry’ (2017:1), and she goes on to observe that ‘it was inevitable that the domination of Iranian screens by nations such as Britain, Russia and the United States, whose main interest in Iran was oil, would leave its mark on the products of a film industry constituted in Iran in the wake of a long, stubborn and viscous battle for territory, resources, and citizenry’ (3). More broadly, cinema played a crucial role in the emergence of ‘a new kind of metropolitan, cosmopolitan, urban modern Iranian subjectivity’ at this time (Rekabtalai 2016). It’s interesting also to think about the sounds of those involved in early cinema production, distribution and screening, which included a significant number of individuals from religious minorities such as Armenians, Jews and Zoroastrians, as well as Russian and Arab émigrés, Catholic missionaries, and so on, each with their own accents, languages, musics ...

But such new spaces were not without their contestations, and one might imagine the sounds of such opposition, starting with the first cinema hall in Tehran, which was closed a year after opening in 1905 due to religious objections and political sensitivities in the period leading up to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. Naficy (2011) describes some of the ambivalences associated with the early years of cinema in Iran, including the new kinds of spectatorship that it engendered and the new public spaces it opened up, particularly for women. Despite this, film gradually became established, and by the early 1930s there were 15 cinemas in Tehran showing a mix of imported and locally-made newsreels, documentaries, silent films and the newly arrived medium of sound film. In fact, as Naficy observes for ‘silent’ cinema, ‘The movies were silent – but not the movie houses’; they were accompanied by gramophone recordings or by musicians (playing traditional instruments, and later piano) who would sometimes also play outside the cinema before the show (Kashefi 1994). Screen translators were hired to provide a running commentary and Naficy quotes from an eye-witness account from the early 1930s:

‘When the pictures were showing, the spectators were very noisy. But when the intertitles came on and he [the translator] began reading them, everyone was absolutely quiet. As soon as he finished, the spectators returned to their loud clamour, talking to the characters on the screen, whistling, catcalling, belittling each other about the plot outcome, and sometimes even arguing and fighting with each other. Every film-goer brought with him [sic] a paper bag of nuts and seeds, which he broke and ate noisily throughout the movie’ (2011:226)

Throughout the 20th century, religious opposition to cinema continued, leading to a number of arson attacks, particularly at the time of the 1979 Revolution, the most tragic being the fire at the Rex Cinema in the southern oil city of Abadan in August 1978, in which 420 people died. The distressing sonic dimensions of such tragedies can all too easily be imagined.

In relation to sound recording, it’s also interesting to think about the material sonics of oil and oil-derived products, particularly from the 1950s, with the development of plastics-based vinyl long-playing discs and polyester-based reel tapes and later cassette tapes. In this sense, once can understand oil’s role in the changing soundscape of Tehran as both energy source and providing for the very materiality of sound recording itself.

Oily Economies, the Expanding City and State Power

Since the beginning of the 20th century, then, oil - and the sounds of oil - have shaped every aspect of Iranian social, cultural and political life. Oil is the sound of construction, of roads, bridges, tunnels, buildings, and of the growing industrial sector, which by 1945 numbered around 378 large industrial units, mainly located in the south of Tehran, including factories making textiles, matches, cement and agricultural products, as well as glassworks, brickworks, and so on (Madanipour 1998:14). Oil both powered and paid for the growing urban fabric of Tehran. In a passage saturated with implicit sound, Asef Bayat describes how the city became,

… the spatial embodiment of this surging accumulation process. In and around the city, industry, commerce, services and foreign enterprises mushroomed. More than a place of production, Tehran became a site of ever-increasing consumption, as new spending patterns and Western lifestyles were adopted; restaurants, cafes and exclusive uptown neighbourhoods appeared. (Bayat 2010: 103)

Madanipour discusses the circular process by which Tehran’s expansion led to a greater concentration of wealth and resources, which in turn attracted more people for work and other opportunities (1998:111). This concentration of power, capital and people is largely due to Tehran’s ‘unique role in the national [oil] economy … as the largest economic agglomeration in Iran. Its economy is to a large extent based on managing the national economy, a fact shown in that almost half the working population in the capital is employed by the public sector. The national economy is in turn largely dependent on oil production and export, as Iran holds huge reserves of oil and gas.’ (Madanipour 1998:62). Further, the ever-expanding ‘urban landscape of Tehran is clearly a product of the periods of upturn in economic cycles of boom and bust’ (ibid.:188-9): with the rise in oil prices in the 1970s, resources were directed into building and the construction industry flourished; later in the property boom of the 2000s, much construction work was undertaken by Afghan refugees – with their own sonics of accent and music - working in poor conditions and often living on building sites.

More generally, oil was responsible for an increasingly fast-paced and noisier sonic environment, something that was of course not unique to Iran. James G. Mansell describes how sound transformed British life between 1914 and 1945, during what he calls the ‘age of noise’, citing an article published in the Manchester Guardian in 1928:

When the complete history of the present period comes to be written, it should surely be described as the age of noise. (W. S. Tucker, “The Age of Noise,” a lecture to the Royal Aeronautical Society, quoted in the Manchester Guardian. Jan 20 1928)