The close relationship of portrait documentaries with oral history:

A Visual Reminiscence of Seyyed Mehdi Ghavams Lifestyle and Behaviors

Jafar Golshan Roghani
Translated by: Fazel Shirzad


Documentary films about the lives of famous, influential personalities in the contemporary era of Iran have flourished for several years; the films that revolve around the lives of the characters introduce them to the addressees by using all kinds of tools and equipment, and documents. Naturally, in this introduction, the manifestations of their reputation are given special attention from different aspects and angles. In this way, after watching the mentioned films, the addresses will get an overview of the lives of those people in their minds and understands the most important manifestations of their reputation that led to the making of such a documentary about them. Characters that were good living patterns and effective life for society and have left an effective record, positive, effective and energetic teachings of work, effort, ethics, religiosity, and good living habits are transmitted that all of them can influence in the minds and souls of the addressees and many cases cause spiritual, mental and intellectual development. Based on this fact, many of these "Portrait Documentaries" have been made in recent decades; it has been shown and many different models have been presented and introduced to the society through them, and then they received well by the addresses of various media, especially the Documentary channel of the Islamic Republic of Iran TV.

A noteworthy point in the production of portrait documentaries is their close relationship with oral history and its important tool, namely active dialogue and interview. Therefore, it can be boldly said that in the production of such documents, oral history cannot be used. Without taking advantage of the interview, it is not possible to make a remarkable, worthy, up-to-date, and full-fledged film with many details of the characters' behaviors. It can be argued that the production of portrait documentaries is certainly inextricably linked to oral history and interviews with individuals and characters.

Clerics, leading religious scholars, religious figures, preachers, and prominent eulogists are groups of characters who are considered by documentarians, making short and feature films of their lives and situations to be introduced as one of the model groups for the young Iranian society.

The documentary "Seyyed Mehdi" is one of the portrait documentaries that narrates about 50 minutes, the life of one of the famous clerics of Tehran, who did eulogy in the city in the 40s and 60s and had a reputation. Regardless of its weaknesses, in this portrait, the addresses become acquainted with the life of Seyyed Mehdi Tahansab, known as Ghavamzadeh and known as "Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam". Half a century after his death in 1963, this documentary was made by Babak Minaei in 2013 and was broadcast several times on the Sima Documentary channel. Naturally, the director is useless in the production of his film. This caused Minai to go to his family and then to his friends and acquaintances to get to know him and take advantage of what they said and heard about him. In this way, as it is common in the production of any portrait, he first went to find the family of Seyyed Mehdi but received nothing. His wife, who died decades ago, and one of his three sons died during his father's lifetime and the other as a pulmonologist, was the head of a hospital in Kentucky, USA, and living there. His third son, Hussein, who studied economics and worked for an oil company, declined to be interviewed.

His four daughters, Maryam, Kian, Ezzat, and Harmat, refused to say anything about their father through the director's phone calls with them and refused to appear in front of the camera and reminisce. They thought that, as their father did not like to be talked to and he was far from reputation and he was against having his voice recorded and their father did not like to pretend because of his special personality, so they do not want to say anything. After failed to obtain the most reliable data and information about Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam's behavior through conversations with his children, the director went to see Effat al-Sadat Ghavam, his only sister who was going through the last days of her life, passed away four months before producing and showing the final version of the film. During the interview, he recounted two memories of his brother and recounted details of this memory that could not be found elsewhere. He said of the family tree:" Our relationship is originally related to Imam Mohammad Taqi (PBUH)[1] on behalf of the father. My father is the grandson of Hazrat Musa Mobaraqa, the great Imamzadeh[2] in Qom, who is also the grandson of Imam Mohammad Taqi. Musa Mobaraqa was so bright that he used to cover his face with baraqa- it means, veil.  So the baraqai was my father's last name until the time of Reza Shah. When the birth certificate was provided for the first time, our last name became Ghavamzadeh. My mother's last name also goes back to Mullah Ali Kani - one of the religious authorities during the era of Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar (an Iranian king) in Tehran - whose last name was Al-Agha." His genealogy is shown completely in a part of the film.

Mr. Seyed Mehdi Ghavam was born in 1900 in the Pamanar neighborhood[3] of Tehran. His father, Seyyed Ismail, son of Seyyed Mirza Ali Mohammad from the nomadic tribes of Kermanshah, had immigrated to Tehran and was called a baraqai; He was known as Haj Ghavam Waez. He used to go to the pulpit in the Grand Mosque and had a special skill in reciting Rumi's poems. Seyyed Mehdi, who was the only son of the family, went to Arak to study religious sciences at a young age on his father's advice and studied with Sheikh Abdul Karim Haeri Yazdi. When his teacher went to Qom and founded the seminary of Qom, he attended there and stayed with them until he obtained the degree of ijtihad (theological rank). It was at this time that one day he arrived at his father's house in Tehran from Qom without a cloak, turban, shirt, shoes, and trousers.

He entered the house, and while his father was sitting in the pool doing ablutions; he took money from his father and paid the fare to the driver who had taken him home. The father who was worried that his son might go insane. After a few days, he asked Seyyed Mehdi what was happened to him. Seyyed Mehdi replied that one of his schoolmates in the seminary, who was a young Turkish person, had given him all his clothes and shoes because he did not have proper clothes and wanted to return to his hometown.

Mr. Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam also used the presence of Abolhassan Isfahani in Najaf for some time, so much so that he also received permission for ijtihad from him. He also studied for many years in Tehran with professors such as Mirza Mehdi Ashtiani, Sheikh Ebrahim Imamzadeh Zaidi, and Mirza Aghabzorg Shajoji at the Marvi School of Religious Sciences. Along with Sheikh Ali Asghar Karbaschian and Reza Darbandi, he was considered one of the special students of Shajoji. Among the special teachings of the master to his students was the avoidance of selfness and pride, which strongly influenced Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam; So much so that it was not confined to titles at all.

Mohsen Golmohammadi, the niece of Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam (son of Effat Sadat Ghavam) and Seyed Jafar Firoozabadi, the brother-in-law of Seyyed Mehdi, were two other immediate families whom the director got to interview and record interesting information and memories of them. It should be noted that Mehdi Ghavam was married to Reza Firoozabadi's daughter. Seyyed Reza Firoozabadi was one of the famous clerics of Tehran who, in addition to his political activities and representation in several periods of the National Assembly and his association with Seyyed Hassan Modarres, was one of the prominent benefactors of Tehran and founded Firoozabadi Hospital. Among the clerics of Seyyed Mehdi's contemporaries, the director was able to have a conversation with Hujjat al-Islam[4] Seyyed Abolghasem Shojaei and, while receiving interesting and fine memories of him, draw his knowledge from the words of another cleric. Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Javadan, one of the prominent professors of ethics in Tehran today, is another cleric who appeared in this documentary and while expressing his memories and what he heard from others, he recounted the scientific rank and mystical condition of Seyyed Mehdi. In addition to the above-mentioned persons, Ali Giahi (a businessman), Seyyed Qasem Afjaei, Mohammad Shah Hosseini (muezzin of the Bazaar Grand Mosque), Javad Habibidoust (friend and caretaker of Ghavam) and Ali Panbehchi (son of Morteza Panbehchi, a close friend of Ghavam), are other people recounted their memoirs in this documentary.

Using the excerpts of each interview and what people said, the director draws a appearance, personality, and ethics of consistency, and in the same way, shares all their memories of Seyyed Mehdi with the addresses. According to these narrations, Seyyed Mahdi had such a short beard that some criticized its shortness. Traveled in his spiritual world, he was one of the simplest clerics of the time, as he had a reputation among the clergy and students for having a simple life. He wore a cloak that was sometimes torn on the back. Instead of wooden shoes, he put on his shoes and, and according to Afjehi, he always wore his cloak, kept it with hand and put his head down, and while he was smoking, cigarette smoke rose from his sides, and whenever someone greeted him, he would respond."

He did not care what people thought of him. He didn’t forget Seyyed Abolghasem Shojaei when, at the beginning of Pamanar, he had one of his children on his shoulders. He was walking from Pamanar to his house. "Sir, this is not good," told I. What are you talking about?" said he, "before people left me, I left myself." He also admits that he was not one of those people who did not use of hypocrisy, pretense, and special words that are common today, inasmuch as if a title is removed from in front of the name of someone. As if was living in another world. If someone called "Hajj Seyyed Mehdi" and the like, he would feel injured by this title (Hajji); he used to reply frankly not to use it.." According to these words, Shojaei recounted memory:" I was at the top of the pulpit at the Shapour crossroads. He also sits at the foot of the pulpit, waiting for my lecture to be finished. He had a smoke in his lip. He was smoking. "My words are over, I give the pulpit to the great scientist." Said I. As I said "the great scientist", he raised his head from the pulpit and said: "Oh no!" Everyone laughed and I stayed there. He did not believe in accepting the title "scientist" for his name at all. The respect of a scholar is necessary for a speaker, but he did not accept it."

According to Ayatollah Javadan, if he remained in Najaf or continued to teach in the religious sciences in Tehran, he would have had the highest level in ijtihad and would become the first scholar in the city. Javad Habibi-Dost also says with a laugh:"He would be a first-class Sufi[5]. He would be a first-class ascetic. He was first class carefree, and first-class mujtahid[6]." Confirming that he even went to the monastery and gave advice to clerics, he added: "Because these words are said for sake of God; therefore, I can say everything. If have the right words to say, we should say them. What's wrong? Go to the liquor store. What's wrong when the liquor seller says something against you?" Seyyed Abolghasem Shojaei also admits that: "We saw many people who had mystical authority, but we did not see them as the late Ghavam." Adjei, who had been friends with Ghavam for many years, agrees that Ghavam manner was mystical, not like those who had no such special mystical manner."

One of the salient features of Seyyed Mahdi's lifestyle, on which everyone agrees and stems from his view of religiosity and life in the world and the promotion of Islam and Muslims, is spending the money received from his pulpits and eulogy for giving advise women to perpetuate debauchery in different areas of Tehran, especially in Lalehzar neighborhood. Considering his inappropriate financial position, he would put the money received from the sermons in his pocket and without counting that money, and then go to see the itinerant women of the city and give the money to one of them. Instead, he asked them not to prostitute in the city as long as they receive the money from him. Especially in the days of mourning and martyrdom of the Ahl al-Bayt[7] and the infallible Imams (PBUH), Egypt did a lot of this. Many have said that many women repented in this way and never returned to sin.

Ali Panbechi believes: "Seyyed Mehdi did not have a professional view of clothes, profession and pulpit to be a professional pulpit man. They were looking for humanization. They wanted to guide one person or two people. It was enough for them to build ten people. That is why those who had seen Seyyed Mahdi and the talked to him changed themselves. Each one was changed differently. And all these words quoted about Seyyed Mahdi are true. They are mentioned in Seyyed Mehdi's humanizing manner. "

Among the ten memories shared by the interviewees in this film, three of them are common; some still remember these memoirs especially merchants.

The first memory is related to guide a thief who had gone to a Ghavam’s house to steal. His attitude led him to stop stealing and start a legal business. Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam's sister recounts:

"One day I went to Naser Khosrow Street and Marvi Bazaar. I walked around and saw a salesperson. "How much are these?" said I. "Three tomans"[8] said he. I asked him to give me two kilos. He weighed two kilos and give me but did not take the money from me. I told him why he didn't take the money. "Do you buy them for Mr. Seyyed Mahdi?" replied he. "Yes," said I. "well, I don’t receive money!" said he. He brought me from hell and made me a salesperson because I was a thief. Everyone knew me. "Everywhere something was lost; people suspected me and supposed that I steal it."


According to other interviewees, the story was as follows:

"Seyyed Mahdi was sleeping at home at night. He saw a thief came into the room and took the carpet. When the thief was going to go out, his foot hit the door and made a noise. "Brother, there is another rug in the room, better than this rug!" called Seyyed Mahdi. The thief came back and saw that the landlord was Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam. Seyyed Mehdi was very kind to him, and after he found that The thief was scared; He became more kind to him. "Why are you scared?" said Seyyed Mehdi, "What has happened?" said he.  "Well, I did something wrong. I came to steal your house," replied the thief. "You were wrong because t there is nothing to steal in my house," said Seyyed Mehdi. "Sir, I did not know that it is your house," said thief," I am a thief. I am sorry." Did you had lunch," said Seyyed Mehdi. "no!" said thief. "I did not have lunch too," said Seyyed Mehdi. In short, he gave lunch to him. The thief wanted to leave the house. "Where?" took Seyyed Mehdi his hand and said. "Sir, let me go!" said thief, "so, I ate my lunch." At that time, he was scared and shaking a lot. "No, I cannot let you go until you collect that carpet," Seyyed Mehdi said, "Go to the Bazar and buy a fruit carriage. And go to the fruit market." Anyway, when the thief went to sell the rug in the Bazar; the buyer realized that this rug belonged to Seyyed Mehdi. The buyer beat him and brought him to Seyyed Mehdi's house. As soon as Seyyed Mehdi saw them, he said to the buyer: "what are you doing? You are wrong! I gave the rug to him, he is not a thief. You made a mistake. Let's go inside the house!" He starts greeting with the thief warmly. "Sir, do you know this man?" said the buyer. "Yes," said Seyyed Mehdi, "he is one of my friends." Thus, Seyyed Mehdi enabled the thief to return to the community and legal business."

The second memory is known as the ice-seller memory, which contains so much moral, religious, and human advice that has been repeated many times by various eulogists and religious homilists. Haj Mansour Arzi, the most famous homilist of Tehran, said it many years ago in one of his crowded homily meetings. The narrator of this memory was present in that meeting and heard this memory as follows:

"Seyed Mehdi Ghavam was one of the hermits from Tehran. He told that one night he was going to leave the mosque after doing the eulogy, he saw someone crying. He said there must be a problem for with him. I came forward and saw there was only one businessman in Bazar, he was an ice-seller and crying: "Come and buy me ice! All my capital is melting." Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam came and sat next to him. "How much does it cost to take all these ices?" said Seyyed Mehdi. "It costs five tomans," the ice seller replied. "Why were you crying?" Seyyed Mehdi. "Because it was my all capital. The weather has been warm since morning, "said Ice-seller," and it has been melting; my capital was melting. I would be miserable if you did not buy." Seyed Mehdi I sat next to the ice seller and started crying. "Sir, why are you crying?" The ice seller said. "Oh, my life was melted in sin. Who can compensate for it? said Seyyed Mehdi, "your ices are melting and you cried so much; I spent my life in sin. My capital was my life spent in sin. Why should I not cry?"

The third memoir is related to the influential words of Mr. Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam on one of the villains of Tehran at that time named Mostafa Crazy (Mostafa Padegan). According to the interviewees:

"One of Seyyed Mehdi's friends named had a garden in Farahzad." Sir, let's go to my garden!" Said the friend. Tehran is in hot weather, you can use the garden for a few hours." He takes the late Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam there. Then he found that one of the villains, Mustafa Crazy was there with a hat on head. Because he said I am crazy about Imam Hussein; he was called Mustafa Crazy. "Mustafa, we want to be like you. What should we do?" looked the late Ghavam at Mustafa and said. "Seyyed, if you want to be a person like me, you must respect someone who gives something to you to eat," Mustafa said. "It's very good. Do you do the same? Seyyed Mehdi said. "Well, God has given you all these blessings to you," said Seyyed Mehdi, "See how many blind people are living in the world, but you have eyes. See how many deaf people are living in the world but you can listen. There are many paralyzed persons, but you have legs. God has given you these blessings, how can you not pray? You do not worship. You don't respect someone who gives these blessings. Do you want to respect God? So, respect God!" when Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam said these words, Mustafa's thoughts were changed. After that, Mustafa became a follower of Imam Hussein and set up a Hosayniya[9]. He went on a trip to Mecca and swore there and gave up every bad work. He also set up a Hosayniya in Pachenar and named it The Friends of al-Zahra(PBUM).

The late Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam, who prayed for many years at the Shahabadi Bazaar Grand Mosque in Tehran and went to the pulpit and gave sermons. He went to his last pulpit on 11 February (27 Ramadan) and was hospitalized in Mofarah  Hospital due to illness. A few days later, he died on Monday at the age of 63 on February 17, 1964. The next day, his body was buried in a glorious funeral. As it is said, he knew that he would die on such a day.

"The founder of Mofarah Hospital, Mr. Mofarah, was one of the disciples of the late Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam."I want to take him to this hospital." He Mofarah. He took him to his hospital. The doctor came there and said that he should be hospitalized here for forty-five days. Then he has to go home, rest at home for two or four months because his lungs are badly damaged. "Mr. Doctor!" calls Seyyed Ghavam the doctor," I apologize to you. We have been harassing you for some time, but we will be released on Monday. The doctor comes out of his room." what Seyyed Mehdi is saying," said he," we all doctors are here and say that Seyyed Mehdi should stay here for forty-five days, but Seyyed Mehdi believes that he will be released the hospital on Monday. How does he predict?" On the last day, when he was very ill and fainted and returned to consciousness several times, he opened his eyes, he saw that those around him were crying. "Why are you crying?" said Seyyed Mehdi. Everyone fell silent. "That is death, that is death," said Seyyed Mehdi. He repeated these words twice. "Do not cry for death!" said he. It was said that it was like he was not struggling with death in those days. He had neither anxiety nor worry at all. One of the nurses had seen him say something under his breath. She had his head close. "God, whatever we sinned, we did not want to fight with you," murmured Seyyed Mehdi, "I did it in ignorance." On Monday, the doctor was announced that the Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam has died. It turns out that he was aware of his death time.

Hujjat al-Islam Seyyed Abolghasem Shojaei describes the Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam as follows:" The late Seyyed Mehdi Ghavam was a pious, a well-groomed man with spiritual personality, in a high human stage. Therefore, the late Seyyed Ghavam was at the peak of humility in this high moral and spiritual journey and the position of speech and intellectual information. Sometimes he used to read this poem:


Humility is a mean to reach perfection

The rider will get off when get home. "


[1] He was the ninth of the Twelve Imams and a descendant of Muhammad. His role is celebrated by the largest branch of Shia Islam, the Twelver or Athnā‘ashariyyah branch.

[2] It refers to an immediate descendant of a Shi'i Imam in the Persian language. This Persian term is also used in Urdu and Azeri. Imamzadeh means "offspring" or descendant of an imam. There are many other different ways of spelling this term in the English language.

[3] It is one of the old neighborhoods of Tehran, the capital of Iran.

[4] Hujjat al-Islam is an honorific title meaning "authority on Islam" or "proof of Islam.

[5] It refers to Sufism that is a mystical and ascetic form of Islam practiced by tens of millions of Muslims.

[6] It means Juris consult 

[7] Within the Islamic tradition, it is a phrase that mainly refers to the family of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, and a lesser extent, his ancestor Ibrahim. In Shia Islam, the Ahl al-Bayt are central to Islam and interpreters of the Quran and Sunna.

[8] Iranian currency

[9] It is a congregation hall for Twelver Shia Muslim commemoration ceremonies, especially those associated with the Mourning of Muharram.

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