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Iran's Underground Trade of U.S. Army Gear

By Cleo Abramian

A worn pair of desert mountain combat boots, tan, with a deeply serrated heel kicker to break and arrest a soldier’s slide. Made in the U.S., the boots are still flecked with dust from Iraqi or Afghani soil. They were purchased for $60 in Tehran by Sina, a young freelance marketer, face blurred in the photograph upon request. The boots embody but one experience of how a U.S. soldier’s experience is linked to an individual living in Iran.

For Iranian artist Farideh Sakhaeifar, the idea of exchanges has always been central to her work. Her recent project tracks the illegal trade of U.S. military supplies in Gomrok, an old neighborhood in the south of Tehran. The gear is sold in several unassuming stores, owned and operated by two families who import the gear from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The sale of U.S. army supplies, which has been happening clandestinely since the U.S. became involved in the region in the early 80s, has become increasingly prevalent in Tehran over the past few years. The Gomrok stores are now drawing a wide-ranging clientele. Sakhaeifar first heard about these stores from her nephew and was immediately interested in their appeal. What, she asked before beginning her project, is motivating people in Tehran to buy used American military gear?

Sakhaeifar’s installation—a minimalist display of drawers filled with purchased army items and portraits of Gomrok customers—explores this question. She features seven customers photographed in their homes and wearing the gear they purchased. They each give a short testimonial, an intimate glimpse of their connection to these items. Sina, a 25-year-old man, uses the boots to hike and admires their high quality and sturdiness. “When I wear an American army outfit, it somehow gives me a sense of power.” Tina, a 20-year-old theater student with ombre hair, is attracted to the clothes’ aesthetic and complex histories. “These are not just clothes. They’re made and used in a different context. They have stories.” Ashi, a 45-year-old artist, has a brother-in-law who collects U.S. army apparel. “I have a pair of gloves and a scarf. They’re both gifts. I have no attachment to either of them. I think the scarf is cool, but I like to mix it with other stuff to make it look less like an army outfit.”

To some extent, the appeal of U.S. army supplies in Tehran is generational—these items are cool and illicit, and under their camouflage exteriors, they wear the glossy insignias of power, westernization, and protection. Sakhaeifar documents a woman who purchased a knife rimmed with rusty blood. “It’s very weird, and I like it,” she says, “I like the fact that these objects belong to someone else; they are not supposed to be here and are not made for my consumption.” The gear speaks to young people in Tehran invested in fashion trends and the stories behind their clothing. For other customers, their interest is purely practical, as these items serve the gaping void of Iranian sanctions. Brands like Nike and Adidas cannot be legally imported and leave people in search of high quality athletic gear.

Despite Iran’s highly regulated market, the controversial Gomrok stores remain open. Sakhaeifar says, “I think the government knows about them. Perhaps they’re getting paid under the table, or maybe they don’t care because it’s such a small business.” She tried to speak to the Gomrok storeowners directly, but they denied her and refused any documentation or recording.

These furtive trades in Gomrok tap into the contemporary notion of exchange—an international circuit where politics, consumerism, and individual identities are convoluted and intertwined. It defies the far too often black-and-white, good-and-bad characterization of Middle Eastern power politics. For Sakhaeifar, the Iranian consumption and reappropriation of these items is fascinating.

The development of her project involved Sakhaeifar in this exchange. Born and raised in Tehran, she has lived in New York since 2011, after receiving her MFA in Studio Art from Cornell. She, thus, carried out the project remotely, tracking down and documenting the customers’ stories via her sister, who still lives in Tehran. Her sister bought a piece of army supplies from each customer and sent them to New York, where Sakhaeifar placed them in the installation’s shallow wooden drawers, along with stacks of archived photographs, and white gloves inviting the viewer to examine them.

Sakhaeifar’s unique installation challenges the idea of possession. “If you own something,” she explains, “You put it in a drawer, you keep it safe, you contain it.” She recognizes that, in some ways, she has fetishized these objects by making them into art. However, doing so exposes the mere nature of exchanges: whether repurposed for hiking, fashion, or an art installation, the item’s meaning is inevitably altered as it’s passed from person to person.

On one hand, these objects become common the minute they leave the soldiers’ possession. Canvas field bags, elbow pads, medical trauma kits are, yet again, just ordinary items. But as pieces change ownership—from U.S. soldier to Gomrok tradesman to young Iranian customer to artist—they acquire different stories prescribed with new significance, layered atop one another like stratified ash. The histories of these objects, though altered and ever-changing, live on through individual exchanges. 

Sakhaeifar’s installation was recently exhibited at the William Holman Gallery in New York, as well as the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), where she completed a residency program in 2013. Her work was also recently featured at the Center for Photography at Woodstock.

In a region too often defined by political and violent conflict, Sakhaeifar’s restoration of military gear highlights the object’s journey through individuals and assigns personalized meaning to these objects. The project parallels the contemporary situation, whereby individuals define themselves not in spite of international tensions, but within their tangled framework.

In the words of philosopher Marshall Burman, modernism is defined as “any attempt by modern men and women to become subjects as well as objects of modernization….To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction, a life characterized by the uninterrupted disturbances of all social relations.” And what is more contradictory than individuals from Iran, part of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” reappropriating, refashioning, and making art from the military equipment of the supposed imperial menace, the United States?

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Cleo Abramian is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Farideh Sakhaeifar]

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