First introduction to Tehran, from a girl’s perspective

Tehran is an enormous city. And we’ve only been here for a short week. So I’m not sure what I can say already. But as a prequel to the orientation trip next week, it might be interesting to share my first experiences, which are still quite personal and undoubtedly biased by my Dutch perspective.

Eelco van der Lingen, director at Nest in The Hague (NL), and I were invited to lead a workshop at the Tehran Art Management Program organized by ‘dars platform’, an initiative that aims to stimulate the local art world. We discussed the topics with the organizers of the program, and together with them we decided to dedicate our workshop to the topic of Self Development. It was the last day before their final presentations and it would be nice to go back to the origins of our motivation to work as art professionals, and thus inspire and refresh the participants with the question: why are we working in the arts?

Personal backgrounds were the starting point. For example, I talked about my family of dancers, singers and musicians and my childhood fascinations for female historical leaders, European political revolutions, sci-fi tv series and American pop culture (which all somehow comes back now I’m a director at a 19th century fortress / art space). I also talked about my friends in Amsterdam, a colourful crew openly living their non-conformist lives: street life entrepeneurs, diy cinematographers, experimental musicians and extravagant stage performers. I talked about my love for exploring cities and networks on my own, and for dancing as much as I can, how the passions of ex-boyfriends influenced me too, and I praised my dear friends actively taking part in LGBTQ communities (which I couldn’t show on pictures because of Google censorship).

I realized that my life in Amsterdam is free and rich, in many senses. The day before my flight, I decided to go to the opening night of Amsterdam Dance Event. One of the venues was the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, where I bumped into a couple of friends. We danced and laughed and drank beers, we ran into a guy I dated some time ago and we had nightly fries at the snackbar. There my friend Sofie talked about her time in Iran, where she studied for a while, and casually started to check my coat. ‘What’s wrong with my coat?’ ‘It’s not long enough.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You have to cover yourself until your knees. Just bring a long coat and don’t take it off inside. And do you have a headscarf?’ ‘Yeah I have a pretty scarf that an artist designed for me awhile ago.’ ‘So that’s silk I guess. Won’t work, you need cotton so that it won’t come off easily.’ Slightly confused I went to the last show at alternative music space OT 301, alone. But left earlier to reconsider my luggage. At home it turned out I didn’t have coats or tunics that cover my knees, nor long scarfs made of cotton, and the following day I went to Schiphol with a weird and nervous feeling.

Now I’m here, I’m wearing this cotton scarf, have to cover my arms, legs and bottom, not supposed to look men into the eyes, no dance, not so much music. The first days, it struck me how consumed I was by all this. It was a distraction from my work schedule and at the same I was ashamed that I seemed to make a fuzz out of it. In the mornings Eelco was ready way before I was. I realized that Amsterdam is so unrestricted that I didn’t have any standard to relate to and I honestly couldn’t calculate what is possible here and what isn’t. You don’t want to be ignorant or offensive and Tehran’s society is vibrant as well: everyone knows that parties indoors involve fashionable dress and haircuts, alcohol and dancing too, and in the streets, men and women seem to operate more or less equally. At a certain point I got it and chose my own way to dress: loose scarfs, I bought some nice vests, and pushed the edges somewhat with wearing a short parka and cap. But what was left is discomfort: the scarf is bothering my sight, my dinner, my outfit, my hairdo, my temperature, my head– it is as if something is literally holding me down, all the time.

Most of all, I can’t get used to the fact that men are allowed to wear whatever they want, except for short pants. Sexual attraction goes both ways but that’s rarely acknowledged. Here I find myself sitting in a subway train full of men, listening to hiphop music while hiding the album covers popping up on my phone’s screen, constantly correcting myself when I start to move to the rhytm of the music, or when I feel the urge to look back when a handsome guy is staring at me, or when I feel my scarf sliding from my hair. The first days I got nervous of the idea of not being able to dance and experience local parties for one month, and anxiously started to think about how to meet people who could introduce me to underground places. Most of all I feel the oblivious Western tourist, which is rather new for me because I’m quite used to feeling an outsider, not looking originally Dutch myself.

The young women in the workshop were so fascinated by my life. Afterwards they enthusiastically told me how they listened to the same music and watched the same movies, had boyfriends and liked parties too, but always in secret. At home they were told to never talk about their indoor lives with anyone unfamiliar, until they knew for certain if they could trust someone. ‘Our identities are hidden. We all live two-sided lives.’ The girls experienced many troubles in developing themselves, especially during adolescense, with so much restrictions. And as grown up single women it is difficult to make your own money, live unmarried on your own, find a partner after divorce. At the same time, they are proud of their culture, and don’t want me to feel sorry for them or think about Tehran’s society as conservative; which is evident because it isn’t – the city has a warm, open-minded atmosphere with people visibly enjoying life and friendships.

But there’s an uncanny tension between what’s happening in the public and what’s happening behind closed doors. It’s full of paradoxes that I’ll probably never really get, and it makes me wonder what it does to the development of your own identity and your personal relations to pursue a double life.

Conversely, I started to reflect on what it means to be able to do and be whatever you want to be, to pursue your individual, pragmatic goals in secular society, to consume whatever – and perhaps even whomever – you want, and to make your choices in a capitalist context ruled by images and media. Because what is freedom, anyway? I often think about the fact that Iran is literally surrounded by regions in war and that my peers experience a constant gap between the pre-revolution generation of their parents and their own: it’s all quite overwhelming and hard to grasp.

Artists are able to push boundaries, shed their refreshing light on current situations, crictically observe or reflect on society. That’s why I feel priviliged to work with art, always and everywhere. But thinking out-of-the-box becomes even more a challenge when that box is forced upon you. I feel it is a valuable experience for us, visitors from Western Europe, to get in touch with other realities and be confronted with other possibilities and limitations, other systems of society, other frames of reference. When this relates to your physical appearance and gender identity, it becomes even more interesting – albeit annoying sometimes. But really, who am I to complain. Being here makes me modest and I truly admire the people working in the arts and in other ways pushing boundaries, women and others not being the norm, especially. All together I am very thankful for the confidence and generosity of the people here inviting me to their professional and private lives. And I am much looking forward to the upcoming weeks.

Zippora Elders

Prelude to the trip; The DARS Platform workshop program


Whilst I was preparing for the orientation trip to Iran and Armenia, a request came from the Dutch embassy asking whether I would be willing to come earlier to present as a workshop leader for DARS Platform, an independent cultural organisation in Tehran, led by platform director Ehsan Rasoulof.

A trip such as this with the Mondriaan Foundation, has the advantage of helping one to get in touch with how art worlds function in other countries, in context and culture, and is more efficient than when visiting privately, but being part of a project within the other context is maybe even a better way to get an understanding of a different situation.


In this case it involved presenting to a crowd of young art managers and helping them to get a grip with the issues they come across within the cultural world of Iran.


I did not have to do it by myself. Zippora Elders, the director of Kunstfort Vijfhuizen would join me and before traveling to Iran we sat down to discuss what we could offer the young art managers of Tehran, understanding full well that we hardly knew what was going on there.

The organisation of DARS Platform had listed some subjects we could tackle. Stress management was originally suggested as a topic I could shed some light on, a suggestion that my colleagues at Nest thought to be hilarious. Although I was somewhat offended by the chuckles that filled the office space for a while, I did agree that there would maybe be another more suitable subject to deal with.

The platform manager Faezeh Aarabi and program coördinator Elmira Hamidi suggested that we could maybe focus on self development as our presentation would be near the end of the ten day workshop program. Our workshop could help the participants to refocus on what it was they were doing it for in the end.


We decided to present the different steps we had taken in our own careers and thus helping the participants to understand that ideas have to grow, goals have to be reset at times and strategies need to fit a clear personal drive and motivation. At the same time it would give them an understanding about the Dutch situation. We would explain the different setups of the art organisations we have encountered, ranging from low budget art run spaces to museums with large teams and many different responsibilities. These presentations would be followed by a series of discussions during which the participants would present to us their original motivation to work in the arts, their experiences and the barriers they were coming across. Finally we would try to define their renewed goals and the strategies they could develop towards those goals.


In advance we we were worried we were too direct (too Dutch) in our questioning and that we might be expecting too much if we were going to discuss personal backgrounds and motivations with young people growing up in a context full of restrictions, but Faezeh and Elmira convinced us that would be no problem.


They were right. In Tehran we discovered that the participants were eager to learn and listen, but just as happy to share their backgrounds, dreams and desires. We had split the group of about twenty participants in four separate ones. When discussing their backgrounds, the first group soon realised that they all had lost their fathers and that for all four that formed an important part of their personal motivation towards the arts. Others mentioned the status of the educational system in Iran and several participants had chosen their path towards the arts in reaction to parental guidance which had led to other educational choices first. And some were able to declare with great passion that was simply no other way for them. I even recall a poem to be recited.


It was interesting that the brainstorm focusing on the past lead quickly to clear ideas, yet the future was much more difficult to grasp. Although there was great optimism on the basis of the political changes of the last two years, at the same time it was hard for them to see a possible goal or a clear strategy. Every ambition was held back by a total lack of funds, causing some to declare their goal was simply ‘to make money’. Although it was clear that they did not mean they were in it for the money (which would have meant they had chosen a quite unrealistic career path), at the same time the total lack of funds and sponsors in Iran made it difficult for them to look beyond that barrier.


It was difficult for us to conclude with a clear solution for such great challenges in one session only, but we hope we were able to motivate them to refocus beyond the money issue. No sponsor would become enthusiastic for a project simply on the basis of the statement: ‘we need money’. So it would still be worthwhile to delve into the personal motivation and into the development of projects that would be able to communicate a level of urgency. At the same time we also reminded them they were not alone, they had all subscribed for the course and therefore as a group they had a common goal. They should look at each other and see how they could help each other further on a pro bono basis. While we said this we realised that wasn’t so different as to how we had originally started of. In the art world solidarity and lending each other time and effort is maybe just as much an ingredient for a successful endeavor as funding is.


It was wonderful how open the group discussed their situation and how they were willing to share their experience, enriching us as much as we were hoping to enrich them. Although the situation in Iran is obviously different due to the political situation we quickly learned that the dreams of the young Iranian art managers are not that different to the young artists, designers, organisers and curators we know from Holland. What was surprising was the sheer enthusiasm they presented in a context so much more difficult than the one offered to the average Dutch art professional. Something maybe we in Holland may take as an example sometimes.



DARS Platform:

Ehsan Rasoulof, Platform Director
Faezeh Aarabi, Platform Manager
Elmira Hamidi, Program Coördinator

Check also the affiliated organisations Mohsen Gallery, Kooshk residency, Taedex and Deegar Platform.