chapter  4
29 Pages

The cabaret dancer in her quotidian life

The twentieth century was a period of rapid cultural transformations in Iran. Urban expansion, the proliferation of transportation and media technologies, and social and political reform of the country contributed to the creation of new modes of culture, cultural industries, categorizations, and artistic and moral evaluation. Among these new spheres, Tehran’s nightlife, which expanded especially in 1950s, was both an economic and a cultural venture. Linked (discursively) to the entertainment and sex industries it became the signifier of urban “immorality” in the social, political, and cultural discourse of the twentieth century. The cabaret dancer, as the most visible representative of this sphere, was perceived as the “contentious commodity” of this newly emerged culture. While a metonym of the “failure” of modern urban life, the cabaret dancer attracted multitudes to the nightlife venues. The multifaceted raqqas, or cabaret dancer, was in fact associated with and

participated in various milieus (particularly in Tehran), constituting various aspects of popular culture in twentieth-century pre-revolutionary Iran. These included the cafés (kafahs) and cabarets; and the pre-revolutionary commercial cinema, film-i farsi; as well as the multi-faceted mutribi performance spheres and the post-1950 Lalehzar theatrical scene (discussed in Chapter 3). The notion of “popular” was arguably not insinuated in these spheres, but

was a by-product of a network of power-knowledge that throughout the twentieth century sought to define the “elite,” the “modern,” and the “national” and/or “committed” culture. In fact, these spheres of “popular,” and the performances and performers associated with them, have acted as the “other” against whom the national and its artistic subjects have constructed themselves: at times they were labeled “old,” “traditional,” or “un-modern” to contrast and signify the “modern”; they were “marginalized” to highlight the mainstream; marked as “illiterate,” “degenerate,” and “low culture” to emphasize the “elite” and “high culture”; and measured as “vice” to mark the societal ideals of “virtue.” While this process of “othering” adds to the significance of studying these

performance spheres and the cabaret dancer as their liaison, it imposes its own historiographical challenges. Part of the problem arises from the fact that the press, practitioners, educators, and even historians, or those who deemed

cabaret “immoral” in contrast to the polite “national” cultures of twentiethcentury Iran, were the main producers and audience of the written discourse on the subject; an issue which was explored with regard to the theatrical scene of Lalehzar post-1950 in Chapter 3. Thus, based on their own perceptions, they have regarded the cultures that they considered “other” in their daily practice to be “un-modern” and “immoral,” unimportant, and even worthless to study. Meanwhile, the cabaret dancers-left with the dominant social position of the “other,” and with a lack of literacy or access to the public written discourse-are almost mute in the dominant social discourse. For this study, I consulted with several performers who were involved in the

mutribi scene, Lalehzar theaters, café and cabaret scenes, and pre-revolutionary commercial cinema. While their insights tremendously guided me and helped me connect the documents and better understand the spheres of performances, at times I found them reacting according to or echoing the same stereotypes ascribed to these spheres; it was as if their reality has been shaped by these discourses. Apart from some such instances, however, this study largely benefited from the presence of their voices for counterbalancing the dominant discourse. Focusing further on the female cabaret dancer as a multifaceted socio-

historical character who emerged in twentieth-century Iran, this chapter continues the discussion of Chapter 3 by exploring the dancers in the kafah and cabaret scenes of Tehran’s nightlife, which, with ties to the prostitution realm, were considered dissolute in the cultural discourse. It also examines the ways her commonly constructed “out-of-control” body and acts were subjected to a variety of disciplining mechanisms. Lastly, this chapter discusses the ways her dancing body was commodified along with her image and myth, upon which her male audiences’ fantasies were projected. While exploring the rhetoric surrounding her and the cabaret sphere, I also explore a chain of equivalence surrounding the dancer that included “nakedness” (lukhti), “eroticism” (shahvat), “prostitution” (fahsha), “degeneration” (ibtizal), as well as identification of her audience as “popular,” all of which formed her social narrative.