A utopian vision of Iran based on personal stories and dreams of the upper middle class youth.
In the summer of 1971, my late uncle Christian, then 22 and a civil engineering student, bought a Volkswagen van with two friends and drove 6,000 kilometers from Namur, Belgium to Persepolis, Iran, the jewel of the Achaemenid civilization. This was the year of the 2,500th anniversary of the great Persian Empire, and the ruins of Persepolis were at the heart of the costly celebrations hosted in October of the same year by the Iranian Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. My uncle wrote a travel journal that he then typed and distributed to family and friends. The last chapter is entitled: Iran, Paradise Lost.
The sheer concept of paradise is inherently Iranian. The word “paradise” comes from old Persian paridaida – literally “walled garden.” When the Greeks invaded Persia, their encounter of the Persian royal gardens so impressed them that they adapted the word as paradeisos in Greek – a slice of heaven in the form of a garden. Many years later, Abrahamic faiths have associated paradise to a garden, such as the Garden of Eden in Christianity.
In 1979, eight years after my uncle’s trip, a revolution overthrew the Shah and quickly turned Iran into a country fantasized as an Islamic paradise. The Iranian youth born after the revolution know nothing else than this existing version of Iran. More than half of the current population is under 30, well educated and full of dreams.
In 1987, the American band Guns’n’Roses released a song called “Paradise City”, an ode to a utopian place, an escape. Axl Rose, then 25, sang: “Take me down to the paradise city / Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.” In Iran today, a Paradise City is under construction, just outside of Tehran, isolated in a moonlike landscape against a dramatic mountainous backdrop. Its function is to absorb Tehran’s urban population growth. Its name, Pardis Town, translates in modern Persian into Paradise City, yet it looks nothing like a paradise.
So where is Paradise City? For half of the world long ago, it used to be Persepolis, just like a young history-savvy Belgian student thought while traveling there by van in the Summer of 1971. Today, the youth of Iran have their own notion of paradise. For some, it is a small village in Northern Iran, where they can escape Tehran’s notorious smog. For a few artists and neo-hippies, it is a secluded beach on a small island in the Persian Gulf, away from religious and political constraints. For others, it is somewhere in Europe or North America, where a new life is possible. But for most, it is hope – in the form of nostalgia, quest for change, new beginnings or reconstruction.
Whether or not they know who Guns’n’Roses are, many Iranian middle-class, educated young women and men are dreaming of a Paradise City, whatever or wherever that may be. I joined them in their quest.