For in and out, above, about, below,
’Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show
Played in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,
Round which we Phantom figures come and go.
[In charkh O’ falak keh ma dar an hayranim
Fanus-e Khial az an mesali danim
Khorshid cheraghdan o ‘alam fanus
Ma chon sovarim kandaru heiranim.]
—Omar Khayyam
introduction
National Cinema, Modernity,
and Iranian National Identity
V
ision, visuality, and theatricality have a long history in Iranian culture
and arts and in the works of visionary philosophers and poets, like the
great eleventh-century mathematician, astronomer, and poet Omar Khayyam.
His quatrain above uses a predecessor of the zoetrope, or magic lantern, as an
analogy for the ephemeral human presence on an earth that revolves around
the sun. Cinema, too, has a long history in Iran, one more political than philo-
sophical. The medium served as both a metaphor and an embodiment of mo-
dernity. From its introduction in 1900, the cinema favored nationalism, cul-
tural modernity, and Westernization (for the present study, modernity and
Westernization are treated as similar but not as identical, allowing for alter-
native, non-Western modernities to exist). Westernization intensified during
the nineteenth century and became part of Iranians’ political unconscious by
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