Once Upon a Time in Tehran

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When Westerners think of Iran today, images of women wearing chadors, American flags burning, and militant crowds shouting nationalistic slogans often come to mind. But those who have memories of Tehran
in the 1960s and 1970s paint a very different portrait of Iranian life.

Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the country's capital was a cultural vanguard. The New York Times notes, "Until the revolution, Iran was among the most cultured, cosmopolitan countries in the region. It had a progressive movement in art and literature and a sophisticated film and television industry." Its education system welcomed both women and men, and jet-setting Tehrani urbanites headed to midcentury modern ski chalets in the Alborz Mountains. Kaveh Farrokh, now an author living in Canada, remembers summers as a young man spent in the city watching American movies at high-end cinemas and lounging at the cutting-edge airport.

Life was not an idyll for all Iranians, however. Social and economic inequalities under the Shah of Iran created incredible want for some and a world of plenty for others. These tensions contributed to the 1979 overthrow of the shah's government and the Islamic revolution that shapes the country to this day.

Above, an aerial view of Valiasr Square in 1971.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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Tehran University students lounge in 1971. Tehran University was opened to women in 1934, when the college was founded, which was well before most universities in the United States were integrating women
into the classroom. After the revolution, women were still allowed to attend
the university -- but they now sit in segregated areas. Needless to say, they don't wear miniskirts. Despite the openness of the era however, in 1977, only 35
percent of women
in Tehran were literate.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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Above, the entrance gates of Tehran University, photographed in 1971. Since the revolution, the main campus -- considered the symbol of higher education in the country -- is frequently the site of mass Friday prayers.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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Iranian university students in the 1970s. Although religious studies was a popular area of research, courses in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and literature were also well-attended fields. Today, roughly 35,000 full- and part-time students are enrolled at the university.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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Medical students at Tehran University. Today, the university's manuscript collection includes more than 17,000 volumes of documents in Farsi, Arabic, and Turkish.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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A Tehran hospital operating room in 1971. By the end of the shah's rule, the 34 million people then living in Iran were served by fewer than 15,000 doctors, causing huge inequalities in care, especially outside urban centers like Tehran.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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Above, Valiasr Street, once called Pahlavi Avenue after the former ruling family of Iran, is pictured in the 1960s. The tree-lined street, one of Tehran's main thoroughfares, was once thronged by people frequenting hip coffee shops and restaurants.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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Above, Tehran's Hilton hotel in 1961. Now called the Esteghlal International Hotel, the building stands in Tehran to this day. In the 1960s, Farrokh remembers it as a place to congregate with friends. When he visited the city in 2001, he found the building surrounded by various industrial structures, crowded by people. When it was built, the building sat alongside a nearly deserted highway on the outskirts of Tehran.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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Mehrabad International Airport in 1971. Mehrabad was to become one of the busiest and most modern airports in western Asia by the late 1970s, but the revolution understandably disrupted the hub of international tourism. In the 1960s, when jet travel was still a novelty to most people and airports captivated the public imagination, the airport was home to popular jazz lounges, according to Farrokh. Imam Khomeini International Airport now handles most international flights to and from Iran.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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A shot of Istanbul Avenue in 1965. Fashionable American cars weren't uncommon in Tehran's streets. Visiting the Iranian capital, which Farrokh often did in the summer while living in Germany with his parents, was considered as cosmopolitan as a trip to New York or Paris.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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The Shahyad landmark of Tehran (renamed Azadi in 1979) under construction in 1966. The monument has since become closely identified with the city, becoming what Farrokh calls "the Eiffel Tower of Tehran."

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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Miss Iran 1967, Shahla Vahabzadeh. The Tehran Hilton hotel hosted beauty pageants, in which contestants competed in hopes of being crowned the country's most beautiful woman.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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The Shemshak ski resort in 1971.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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The Abali ski resort in 1966.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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An Iranian Pepsi-Cola cap from the 1970s. According to Farrokh, Tehranis often claimed that their version of Pepsi tasted better than the American original. The soda wars in Tehran continue to this day. In February 2007, Coke and Pepsi battled for market share with the local flavor, Zam Zam Cola, in Tehran despite increasing U.S. sanctions.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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An Iranian rock and jazz
band known as the Black Cats. 

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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The Golden City Cinema in 1971. The sign on the marquee advertises "Arabesque," a film starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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The Tehran Twist? The jet set kicked off their shoes and danced to rock-and-roll music in the early 1960s.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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A mother shops for her young son in the children's section of a Tehran department store in 1971. The Kourosh department store, a chic clothing destination for men and women, also featured a popular restaurant on its top floor.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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An Iranian radio station circa the early 1970s. The public broadcasting company, National Iranian Radio and Television, commonly called NIRT, was inaugurated in 1971 by Reza Ghotbi, a close relative of the former queen of Iran. Ghotbi currently resides in the United States.

Courtesy of Kaveh Farrokh
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