Iran in Black & White | A pictorial exploration

Continuing with the Friday theme of Iranian centric photo posts, let’s look at some B&W photographs.

This first one is of the students and teachers of the Bersabé Kindergarten ( کودکستان برسابه، اولین کودکستان ایرانی), the first modern kindergarten in Tehran, Iran. Taken on Sunday, March 19, 1939. (Great background info re the provenance of this kindergarden at the source.)

The traditional Persian martial arts (pahlavani) is a combination of weight-lifting, weight-maneouvering, weight-juggling and wrestling. The location (the gym, so to speak) where men went to practice the art and sport of phalvani were/are called “zoorkhaneh” which literally means “power houses” or “houses of power.” Traditionally, the Persian martial arts practices are accompanied with a live, very rhythmic music played on Persian drums called donbak (also called tombak, donbak, dombak, or zarb — a goblet drum hailing from ancient Iran.)

The happy athlete in the photograph is a champion pahlavan posing with a pair of light-weight meels (traditional tools used in pahlavani) resting on his shoulder. He has the title of “jahan pahlavan” which literally means “Pahlavan of the World.”  (In Iran, if someone acted more aggressively than his circumstances might dictate, one would say: Who does he think he is? A pahlavan?)

This is a photo of one Mirza Ali Gholi Khan (Qajar Persian embassador to the U.S.) and his American hailing from the Boston high society wife, Florence Breed, in Washington D.C.  From the looks of the photo, this is Edith Wharton era. The age of innocence! Mirza Ali Gholikhan was among the very first Iranian ambassadors to the United States – circa 1910 – and his official title was Charge d’affair of Persia.  Here’s another photo of the Mirza Gholikhan and his spouse.

There are a number of fun photos of Elizabeth Taylor’s trip to Iran — circa sometime in the 60s — floating around the Internet. This one shows her in what I’m judging to be a tourist type of “Persian” coffee house.  My main thought bubble is: Posture Liz! Posture!

Here’s a priceless shot of a group of Qajar era (remember the Qajar dyansty and quince kookoo?) female musicians. I detect two donbaks, one santoor, and what seems to be a mini organ. Kindly, do check out the brows and unibrows action. (The gentleman is a eunuch – I’m afraid and sadly suspect.)

Let’s end with a shot of  lovely fresh-faced Iranian schoolgirls circa 1959. And not just any random group of girls. This is a snapshot of my mom and her best friends – circa 1959 – in 10th grade, Iran. Of the 6 friends: all got college degrees. 4 became medical doctors. 5 became mothers. 4 still live in Iran. 2 I called aunts. All 6 still remain good friends. My mom is the one second from the left. She and the one friend all the way to the right and the other friend all the way to the left were BFFs and known as the 3 musketeers. This is one of my favorite pix of all time.

Wait! What’s the sound?  Oh, it looks like the school bell is ringing! Perfect for tanbal students like me to take off for recess.

So until  next time: Happy Weekend!


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Comments (42)

  • polianthus 6 years ago Reply

    Hello there – I love your Iran stories and the photographs of your mum and her friends, thank you for sharing and for opening a window to all the different “lives” representing a country and making it more than a place on the map where everyone wears black.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    That’s New York where everyone wears black! ha ha

    polianthus 6 years ago

    giggle 🙂 really – so true, as well as Sweden and Switzerland in the winter :)!

  • Hi! Wonderful photos. I actually wanted to add a slight correction regarding Ali-Kuli Khan, the Ambassador. I’ve read a number of books about him and his family, his daughter Marzieh Gail was an author and wrote fantastic books about their life. His wife was actually Florence Breed, she was American and a Boston society girl. She actually went against a lot of Victorian society at the time by marrying a Persian man, and they traveled together around the world, they were both quite adventurous. I would really hesitate to describe either of them as having “spaced-out melancholy”. 😉 Another little known fact is that Ali-Kuli Khan was a member of the Baha’i Faith, a persecuted minority in Iran (at that time and currently), so it was astounding that he managed to be an Ambassador. Florence was given a Persian State Title as Muravvihu’s-Saltanih (Who Gives the Kingdom Life), in recognition of her services to Persia, a distinction never before been conferred on a foreign woman.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Dear Sholeh, thank you for pointing out the identity and correct provenance of the spouse of Ali Kuli Khan (his name is spelled so many different ways.) I now understand where I was getting the Edith Wharton vibe from – since Florence Breed was part of the Boston high society!
    Their life certainly sounds quite interesting. And I was most interested to read the tidbits you shared. How fascinating! I will edit and correct the info re Florence accordingly. Re the spaced-out air of melancholy : that’s just my impression, solely judging from the photos and without any scholarly or otherwise research – and I certainly don’t give it the credence of fact, nor do I think it will be taken as such by anyone who reads here. I would normally not edit what is simply my take on a matter, but since I get the feeling that it is something of importance to you, and I would like to fully respect that, I will delete it.
    I appreciate the feedback, history and info!

    oh I am sorry, I didn’t want to give you the impression that I felt that you should delete it! 🙂 Thank you for your thoughtful response. Love your blog.

    polianthus 6 years ago

    dear both – love the discussion, really fascinating, I actually looked at the photograph a good while trying to see anything germanic – as if one could from a photo – I loved the description spaced-out melancholy – solely from looking at the photo with absolutely no knowledge of anything relevant historically 🙂

  • apuginthekitchen 6 years ago Reply

    Very cool photo’s it’s all so interesting. I LOVE the photo of your Mum and her friends, such lovelies they are. Is Liz smoking a Hookah, great photo!! Love the glimpse into Iran’s history.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    She surely is, that Liz! If you see other photos of her during this trip, it certainly seems like she was having a high old time. Ahem! Pun … intended

    apuginthekitchen 6 years ago

    She and Richard were certainly swingers!

  • Amanda 6 years ago Reply

    Aw I love this series Azita! Thanks so much for sharing the pic of your mom and friends. She’s so beautiful and they are a very accomplished bunch. Thanks also for educating me about Persian wrestling. Very cool. Your pride in your culture and history is contagious. Have a wonderful weekend.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Thank you dear Amanda! I’m fascinated by the Pahlavans. Wish I could one day visit a Power House!

  • Bizou 6 years ago Reply

    Wow. It all resonates from within when you know where you’re connected no matter whether you had experience it or not. Love the chronology, wish it could continue more maybe even as far as present??
    Thank you for sharing the treasures we all like to cherish.
    Have an awesome & warm weekend.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    For sure. I do hope to make the theme apply to current and contemporary Iran as well. Lots of cool things to share! Sorry for belated response by now too late to wish you a happy weekend but hope it was good! 🙂

  • ladyredspecs 6 years ago Reply

    Thanks Azita for this continuous mystery tour of Iran from times past. It’s fascinating, I’m learning a lot!

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Oh you made me laugh. I swear. Love the term “mystery tour of Iran”! I do hope to continue it with some minor detours here and there. Thank you! 🙂

  • Gather and Graze 6 years ago Reply

    I love coming here Azita! I get my dose of Persian history and culture all made so much more interesting (and personal) than any other history teacher I’ve known! Thanks. 🙂

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Awww! Praise that I cherish. Thank you!

  • Sophie33 6 years ago Reply

    Thank you for these lovely old black & white pics from Iran in the old days. 😀 Have a great & fun weekend. X

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Thank you dear Sophie! Hope you had a great weekend. xo

  • What a rich and beautiful history shown in gorgeous photos. So kind of you to share, Azita.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Totally my pleasure!

  • Thank you Azita for sharing those pictures and interesting history. Great post!!!

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    thank you!

  • The Novice Gardener 6 years ago Reply

    Cool pics, Azita, very fascinating. Your mom is beautiful. I see you take after her. Does the word pahlavan mean hero in Iranian?

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    It can mean hero in a way I suppose but there is similar word “gahraman” which actually means hero. Why do you ask? Does it ring a bell or have you encountered it somewhere?
    And my mom gets her looks from me! 😉 xo

    The Novice Gardener 6 years ago

    Yes, I know of a Malay word “pahlawan” (with W) which means hero. It’s interesting to find it could have originated from an Iranian word. Goes to tell you, how inter-connected different cultures are. I find that comforting. XOXO
    PS. You and your mom got them from your grand mom, how’s that? Lol.

  • fermentfusion 6 years ago Reply

    Fascinating pictures! About the pahlavan fighters, my husband, who is from india, says that in hindi a “pahlavan” is a way of calling a strong guy. The persian culture is definitely present in many other ways in india: among them the “irani cafes” which are reputed in many cities, like Mumbay, he says.
    We look forward to learn more about irani traditions through your posts!

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Yes! That’s how we use the word “pahlavan” as well. to refer to a strong guy. But sometimes used sarcastically. Like if someone can’t lift something or whatnot, someone might say : what a pahlavan!
    I do so wish to one day make a good long trip to India and now will have to add visiting “irani cafes” to the list of things to visit.
    thank you so much for sharing this with me. I loved it!

  • Wonderfully interesting post….great pictures.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply


  • Petit World Citizen 6 years ago Reply

    Beautiful and so informative. Reading your posts gives me a wonderful sense of nostalgia for an era long gone. Thanks so much for a lovely and refreshing post.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    Oh, truly my pleasure! Thank you for reading and commenting!

  • Francesca 6 years ago Reply

    Love the ambassador’s photo. His coat and his tunic look fabulous of course! The photo of Liz is a gem. I feel for the poor eunuch although I find that figure fascinating and inhuman at the same time. What a nice group of lovely ladies! Five BFFs? Your mother is very lucky!

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    I know, it’s heartbreaking thinking about the fate of the eunuchs. I don’t think this was ever a tradition in the Western world, was it? But on to a much nicer less castrating topic: yes my mom really lucked out with her friends! 🙂

    Candace Hill 6 years ago

    Oh yes there was! There is a whole range of church music written for the castratri, boys who had been snipped in order to keep their high voices. There were men performing opera roles and in church choirs up to the 20th Century:

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago

    Oh, of course! Thank you for pointing this out, Candace! Looks like the practice has a deep and eclectic history.

  • Candace Hill 6 years ago Reply

    What a delight to see “The Khan” and his wife Florence Breed in your post. Both of them much beloved by the Baha’i community, and I think you would really enjoy the writings of their daughter Marzieh Gail who was a scholar, world traveller, writer, biographer, and a translator of impeccable quality. She broke barriers her whole life long. Her stories of growing up in a Persian American family are wonderful. In my own little history project, I recently found Florence’s grave and put up a memorial to her, Marzieh and Ali Kuli Khan on Find a Grave:
    Here is Marzieh:
    Here is Florence:
    And here is the Khan:
    I have not yet been able to get a photo of the gravesite of Ali Kuli Khan and when I do, if his name if different on the grave, I’ll change it on the memorial.
    There are bulging files of letters in our Archives from Abdu’l-Baha in Palestine to the early American Baha’is that were translated by Ali Kuli Khan. He was, throughout his long life, invaluable.

    Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    This is very interesting. Thank you for sharing!

  • Fae's Twist & Tango 6 years ago Reply

    Magnificent series, Azita jan! It is wonderful that these photos are archived for us to view and marvel. The photo of your Mom’s schooldays are priceless. Nostalgia we live with for always. 😀

  • Fig & Quince 6 years ago Reply

    It is priceless. That’s the perfect word. Thank you dear Fae!

  • Aneela Mirchandani 6 years ago Reply

    I would so love to hear the music from the danbok and santoor, my favorite instrument. Lovely pictures.

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