Iran on Four Wheels

Politics through the Paykan’s Rear Window

Photograph Source: Unknown author – CC BY 2.0

Nostalgia is both temporal and geographical; like young Iranians’ sentimental contemplations of their parents’ era, mobility and migrations generate reevaluation from afar. Edward Said describes the formulation of his Palestinian identity at a New England boarding school: “The fact that I was never at home or at least at Mount Hermon, out of place in nearly every way, gave me the incentive to find my territory, not socially but intellectually” (Out of Place, 1999). Writing about Shahin Armin and Sohrab Daryabandari’s film, “Iran’s Arrow: the Rise and Fall of the Paykan” (2017), from my vantage point as an Iranian-American who has never been to Iran, elicits a similar experience of removal from the “original.” It also provokes self-recognition elsewhere. Absorbed with Iran’s iconic car, the Paykan, I am revisited by my mother’s experiences of working as a child in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a chapter of her life recounted in slivers so minute that I was never able to form a picture of the whole. Iranians’ attachment to the Paykan feeds my own cultural yearning.

A dozen men line up in front of identical automobiles in a parking lot with the mountains north of Tehran in the background. They have gathered to reflect on the significance of a car that, in the words of painter Hossein Soltani, “is part of the subconscious of any Iranian who has lived in Iran at any point in the last forty years.” Even Iran’s happy birthday song originates with a Paykan advertisement commissioned by its devoutly monarchist manufacturers, Ahmed and Mohammad Khayami, celebrating the automobile’s third anniversary.

The Paykan (1967-2005) was first manufactured in the aftermath of waves of migration to Tehran in the 1950s following a series of sweeping reforms during the White Revolution, including land reforms and the women’s right to vote, implemented by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Guided by the recommendation of John F. Kennedy and intended to quell resistance to the Shah’s authoritarian rule, one result of the reforms was that farmers abandoned the countryside and migrated to Tehran and other cities including Mashad and Isfahan, which quickly erupted into major metropolises. From 1965-1975 alone, Tehran’s population grew from 2.5 to 4.6 million, nearly doubling. It was at this moment that the Khayami brothers founded IranNational, acquiring the rights to produce a version of the British-owned Rootes Group Arrow platform, the Hillman Hunter, which they called the Paykan, meaning Arrow in Persian. The Paykan soon became Tehran’s ubiquitous mode of transport, both as private cars, official and, later, unofficial taxis. Its affordability meant that it was more accessible than the large United States cars that had previously dominated the market. It brought mobility to Iranians who could not previously have afforded a car and a dramatic increase in women drivers. Cheap and easy to repair, anyone who had a Paykan would learn how to fix it. If it broke down, you could tie a pair of pantyhose around the fan belt and drive for another fifty kilometers.

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Alice Aziz is a writer and educator.

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