On Revisiting Iranian History: Bahman Jalali’s Days of Blood, Days of Fire

“Revolutions are about people. It is people – thinking, believing, reading, listening, chanting, raising their fists, walking the streets, placing their bodies in the line of fire – that make a revolution.”

一 Naghmeh Sohrabi

In my experience, there is very little understanding in the West about the rise of the theocratic state in Iran. Yet despite this ignorance – or perhaps because it – Iran is typically vilified. Since the Jimmy Carter presidency and the hostage crisis in 1979, Iran has been the sworn enemy of the United States. A group of students loyal to the theocratic regime stormed the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held a group of American diplomats hostage for 444 days between the years 1979-1981. The United States then waged a proxy by using Saddam Hussein to fight their war in Iran, creating a bloody and tumultuous conflict that lasted from 1980-1989. After the events of 911, President George H.W. Bush declared Iran to be part of the infamous Axis of Evil, a designation that provided for an endless war on terror and attempts to undermine the Iranian regime. With such a complex history and contentious relationship, a clearer understanding of the events and motivations that led to the Islamic State could be incredibly beneficial and perhaps even help heal divides; people need to ask how the conservative Islamic front came to power, or what were the sources of unrest that led to their rise.

Most Iranians see the United States as the source for this conflict. In 1953 in the wake of World War II, Iran elected an extremely popular Prime Minister named Mohammad Mossadegh, in an open and democratic election. Mossadegh was from an aristocratic family and was extremely well educated. His time in office was short lived and his full political potential was underrealized; the United States used the CIA to wage a short coup to run him out of office. What generated the interest in the United States intervention in Iranian sovereignty? It was an initiative that first emanated from the British government, though carried about by Kermit Roosevelt and the CIA. Mossedegh wanted to socialize the oil industry, and make sure that Iran’s wealth would be equally distributed among its citizens. Needless to say, this was not a popular decision with the Western powers. He was replaced by an American puppet government when the Shah, an Iranian monarch named Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was put in power. For 25 years the Shah oversaw a corrupt dictatorship that pleased the American government and made his own circle of family and friends extremely wealthy.

In a series of events between December 1978 – February 1979, a popular revolt toppled the Shah’s regime, ultimately leading to the Islamic Republic of Iran. This revolt against the Shah, however, was not necessarily led by the theocratic conservatives. At the heart of it was a leftist student movement, advocating for progressive values that would benefit all Iranians. When the government fell the conservatives mobilized more quickly and were able to fill the power vacuum, thus creating the contemporary Iranian state.

Days of Blood, Days of Fire in an incredible photographic document of the 64-day revolt that toppled the Shah’s regime. Photographed primarily by Bahman Jalali – with help from his wife Rana Javadi and some other unnamed photographers – the book is divided into six chapters that chronicle the popular protests, uprising, and the emergence of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the new voice of the Islamic state. First published in June 1979, and because of its popularity again in September 1979. The Iranian Ministry of Culture then forbid further printings, revoking its license for publication. It was just recently released again in a 2021 reprint by a German publisher, Spector Books.

This new reissuing is a facsimile of the original, thus offering a faithful rendition. The photographic style is very simple but effective, attempting to provide an articulate and clear recording of the events described. Jalali – and all the other contributors – bravely enters the foray, as both a participant and documentarian, and offers an intimate perspective on the passion, energy, and urgency behind the events. Perhaps most striking about the reportage are how the protestors are represented not as the oppressive society we perceive today, but instead we see women and men as equals, students and clerics side-by-side, and an urgent sense of unity as all Iranians collectively advocated for a new and just society. True to the title, Days of Blood, Days of Fire also documents the incredible violence and destruction left in the wake of the protests, and offers deeply moving photographs of burning vehicles, blood spattered on the pavement, shrouded bodies lining a morgue, and the people of Tehran expressing tremendous grief, pain, and solidarity as they fought for a new society. Significantly, there are also photographs showing posters and pictures of Mossadegh on the streets, an iconic figure and hero in Iran who died before the revolution.

The design of the book is simple but extremely effective, based entirely on squares and grids, but with some evocative juxtapositions of images and interesting variations as the size of the pictures and the grids change as we leaf through from one spread to the next, ultimately giving the book a syncopated or pulsing rhythm and energy. Interspersed amongst the pictures are the titles and texts describing the events, all in Farsi. This Spector reprint includes a small insert that translates the text into English, thus making the content more universally understandable.

The book is divided into 6 chapters, each thematically developed. The opening chapter looks at the original wave of protests that instigated the events, emphasizing the diverse voices behind the protests. The second chapter shows the escalation to conflict, as tensions rise, and the protestors are confronted by the military. Next the book mourns the dead and documents a cemetery where many protestors were buried. The fourth and fifth chapters show news of the Shah’s departure and the return of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini, returning from 15 years of exile, banished from Iran by the Shah. The final chapter shows the military stepping down and the people claiming victory. The Spector reprint of Days of Blood, Days of Fire also includes an introduction by Naghmeh Sohrabi, and leading Middle Eastern scholar and historian at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, who acknowledges the significance of the book as a major document of modern Middle Eastern history.

In 2019, Spector Books released Enghelab Street, A Revolution Through Books: Iran 1979-1983, a remarkable photographic history that explores the radical changes and revolutions that shaped contemporary Iranian culture, starting with the fall of the Shah and going through the Iran-Iraq War. Compiled by artist Hannah Darabi, Enghelab Street not only provides an important glimpse into the shaping of Middle East and international diplomacy, but also shines light onto an innovative and important moment in photobook publication and history. Darabi starts her book with Days of Blood, Days of Fire, thus portraying it as an essential, pivotal publication in defining the political and photographic revolutions she describes. Most of the books discussed in Enghelab Street are extremely rare and difficult to find, making this reissue that much more important. As conveyed by Darabi, this was a remarkable time in Iranian visual culture, and with so much attention given to photobooks, I hope that Spector will continue to reprint more of these books. Not only do so many of us need a new, clearer understanding of Iranian history, but we can also benefit in looking back at the urgency and innovation driving the publications from this time.

Bahman Jalali with Rana Javadi
Spector Books, 2021