An Inquiry into the Terms of ádáb, ádīb, ádábīyāt in the Preso-Arabic Languages

Shayan Afshar <> has served as Associate Faculty at Arizona State University. He earned his PhD in Iranian and Persian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Areas of specialization include Persian literature, literary criticism, poetry and linguistics. His major publication is A Lexicon of Persian Infinitives (bilingual), 2nd ed. (Tehran: Morvarid Pub., 2017).

Aspects of the Cultural and Linguistic Motifs of the ádáb Genre in the Transition from Old-Persia to the Early Islamic World and the Role of three Iranian kātebs (scribes) in the Process.


A foreword to the topic

A distinct characteristic of the gradual “Islamization” of Persia over the course of roughly one to two centuries and onward was that the Arabic language became the formal religious, historical and, to some degree, literary medium used by many Persian men of pen and scholars throughout the first centuries of the Islamic period in Iran.[1] Meanwhile, the Arabic language became a means of communication in the higher echelon of society, thus transference of aspects of culture in retrospect of (olden) Persian and the cultivation of Islamic ádáb culture,[2] and, for a period of time, even a vehicle for reviving a reaction to Arab dominance.[3] Simultaneous with the above process, Middle Persian (Pahlavi), which had been the formal language of the country in Sāsānian times (although to a limited degree among the populace[4]), gradually faded away, except among surviving Zoroastrian communities. In due course, with the rise of Persian dynasties in the Eastern lands of Persia proper, formal Arabic was replaced by Persian Darī, a language which enabled the Persian genres of ádáb, an epic of heritage and ethics to be transferred to the new society.  Thus, the themes of older Persian literature endured and had a marked influence on the course of Arabic and Islamic literature. Themes such as the heroic epic that reappeared in the poetic works of the tenth and eleventh centuries CE, as well as the themes of polite, urban, and courtly literature of the ádáb genre, inspired and shaped Arabic literature and Perso-Arabic mirrors of princes.[5]


A background of a debate

In the mid-1920s a Persian literary classical erudite, Moḥammad Moḥīṭ Ṭabāṭbāī, was closely following the debates among some Arab scholars for the possible root(s) and, from there, meaning(s) of the word adab (ádáb) in the Arabic language. He had some ideas that the root of this term might go back to Old or Middle-Persian. Eventually, in 1939, Moḥīṭ Ṭabāṭbāī, wrote a Persian article, reviewing and summing up the debates of those various Arab scholars and expressed his own somewhat speculative opinion about roots of the term adab (ádáb) and adabiyat (ádábīyāt) in Perso-Turko-Arabic languages and literature. One should mention that Moḥīṭ Ṭabāṭbāī, a well-known Persian erudite, had met some of the Arab learned –whose names and occupation will be mentioned in the context of this paper– in an international Oriental studies conference in Paris and had exchanged his opinions with a couple of them.  The now historical article of M. M. Ṭabāṭbāī has re-appeared in a now-ended famous publication A Persian Journal of Iranian Studies, Âyandeh (vol. 11, no. 1-3, 1985) with a new preface by the author. The “old” debate was rekindled following a publication of a presentation by a Japanese scholar of Perso-Arabic languages, Dyoi-Ji Nai, in the Twenty-Fifth Congress of Japanese Orientalists in Tokyo in 1984 (the original article was published first in the University of Tokyo’s annual report in 1983) titled “From Middle-Persian Awēk to Arabic Adab.”


View and course of this paper

Hence, in the twentieth century, the root of ádáb had to some degree been the subject of etymological debate and both literary and cultural conflict among Moslem and Christian Arab, European, and Persian scholars. After briefly considering various aspects of the debates, this essay will endeavor to reconcile the “problem.” Showing that that next to Arab and a few European scholars’ opinions, the beliefs of three Persian erudites, i.e., a classical literatus (M. M. Ṭabāṭbāī), a textual-linguistic historian of classical Persian and Arabic (Moḥammadī Malāyerī), and a literatus with linguistic background in old Persian languages (Ĵalāl Ḵhāleqī Moṭlaq), despite their somewhat different views for the etymological roots of the term ádáb, from the view of this pen, socio-culturally, one can obtain a common conclusion from rather varying views. Thus, after a short cultural-literary background, it will first present and discuss the etymological background of the expression ádáb in the context of transforming cultures, both Persian and Arabic; then show the determining role, however brief, of three Persian men of pen in the service of the late Umayyad rulers in the course of this cultural transmission, reflecting root of the transformation of ádáb into “literary” concept in the emerging eclectic culture and eventually, in modern times, to “literature.”


A socio-literary background of the term(s)

The writings which were translated, rendered or redacted in the early Islamic era, mainly from Persian into Arabic, were on the subjects of practical ethics, general andarz (counsel, wise wording), and a small number of philosophical themes. These writings were classified under headings such as mauʿiẕa (preaching), wasīyat (testament), ḥikmat (wise sayings and, roughly, philosophy, not necessarily Greek peripatetic) and ádáb, which came to mean good breeding, good manners, and politeness (and later, letters and literature). These expressions were often recorded in their plural form: mawāʿiẕ (مَواعظ), wasāyā (وَصایا), ḥikam (حِکم) and ādāb (آداب). The writings which were given these titles covered issues dealing with taḥḏīb al-nafs (cultivation or refinement of the self), tazkīyat al-rūḥ (purification of the spirit) and the education or upbringing of pupils in the category of ádáb. All of this may be summarized as the virtues that an individual must cultivate, and which were termed makārim al-aḵlāq (مَکارم الاخلاق). Mauʿiẕa and wasiyat closely corresponded to the Persian ándarz and pánd, categories used in Sāsānian didactic literature. It is for this reason that those often-short Persian compositions, in their Arabic redactions, were called the mawāʿiẕ of Āzarbād or Būzūrjmihr (NP: Bozorgmehr) and the wasāyā of Anōshīrvān.[6]  Accordingly, in the late first and second centuries of the Islamic era, transmission of ádáb, at least conceptually, from Sāsānian culture through the translation process of the motifs, could be attributed to two general categories: “high ethics,” or ideals and wisdom, and a discourse on issues including social ethics, good manners and behavior, speech and fine words. Later, from the second AH/ninth CE century the expression ádáb developed connotations, meaning, and gradually, branches.

Medieval dictionaries list a considerable variety of meanings for the term ádáb. Some examples include “discipline of mind,” “good qualities and attributes of mind and soul,” and of course “good breeding.” Of these types of definitions, the latter corresponds to Persian social culture, particularly the upbringing of children of nobility in the literary bureaucratic level, of the talented youth of dīvāniān (scribes who, in the Islamic period, came to be called kuttāb). In that manner, the later idea of “polite literature,” has its roots in the same background.  Pellat observes that in ‘post-classical’ Arabic texts, ádáb, in its broadest sense, appears in three different spheres which are nevertheless related: moral, social and intellectual. “We may assume ádáb to be of three basic types according to whether it aims to instill ethical precepts, to provide its readers with a general education, or to lay down guiding principles for members of the various professions.”[7] However, as Bonebakker noted, “though these are not always easily distinguishable, the question of how the same term came to find a place in all three remains to be answered.”[8]  The reason for such diverse definitions can be related to the philological and cultural roots of the idiom as it evolved from pre-Islamic civilizations such as Indians,[9] Old Persian[10] and Greeks.[11] They each had deeply rooted religious, social, and philosophical cultures, including personal and social ethics of manners, “upbringing” and education. At any rate, one fundamental debate goes back to the philological and thus cultural roots of the term.


Ádáb in context and philological debts

Ádáb was among the social, and literary terms that influenced the transfer of Old Persian cultural motifs into the Perso-Arabic genre of mirror of princes and “court literature.  The extended usage of this term was significant in carrying a qualitative aspect of pre-Islamic etiquette and didactic literature into the “translation movement” of late Umayyad by some scribes/men of pen and the early ʿAbbasid period in Baghdad (Bayt al-Ḥikma/The House of Wisdom) functioning as a “bureau of translation” by mixed Nestorian/Arab/Persians. Thus, another term, ḥikma[t] (roughly, “philosophy”) though not within the scope of this paper, was important for the formation of a “speculative” and “practical” philosophy which became both Persian and Arabic and from which primarily came the translation of Greek philosophy and science into Syriac and Arabic.[12]

Nonetheless, regarding the root of the term ádáb, Professor Moḥammadī Malāyerī states that there is “no reason for the usage” of the term ádáb and its derivatives in the pre-Islamic Jāhili Arabic literature, at least not within literature whose authenticity we can trust.[13] Nor does it appear in the Qur̉ān.[14]  However, on at least one occasion, a form of the term ádáb was apparently used by a pre-Islamic Jāhili poet. In al-Divān, Ṭurfa, a Jāhili poet, uses a derivative of ádáb from “taʾdib (to educate or teach [manners]) in the form of “addab walīdaka…” (Teach [manners to] your child…).[15] It appears that some Arabists post-Carlo A. Nallino,[16] not having found a root for the term in classical Arabic, have accepted that this term derives from ádáb, “the plural” of daʾb, which means habit, state, manner, or behavior –though originally it conveyed a sense of way, path or track, as the term sunna (and then, as Sunnah, tradition, and the sayings of prophet Muḥammad) also originally meant road or path. However, Sunnah came to be used for religious purposes, while daʾb retained its figurative sense of manner or conditions and ádáb was reserved for something similar to the meaning of sunna but in a secular context.[17]  Despite these assertions, Šahāb al-Dīn Aḥmad Ḵafāĵi, an Arab scholar and philologist from the eleventh century A.H., followed an earlier prominent Arab philologist, Imām Maṭrazī, in regarding the term as an “intruder” (dakhīla) in the Arabic language, meaning that it does not come from an Arabic root, and was adapted from another language.[18] A contemporary Arab scholar, Taha Ḥusayn, believes that the term has entered Arabic from another language finding no trace of this term in the confirmed Jāhilī Arabic or Semitic languages –including Hebrew– and suggest that there is a chance that the term existed in one of the ancient dialects of the Arabic language, leaving no trace today of its origin.[19]  Others assumed that the term was an adaptation from Greek[20] or, derived from Persian.[21] Among the Persian scholars who believed that the term ádáb evolved essentially from Old/Middle-Persian, the case made by the late M. Moḥīṭ Ṭabāṭabāī –to whom we referred earlier in this paper–seems most convincing, although not definite.

Moḥīṭ Ṭabāṭabāī’s article[22] is also noted by Professor M. Malāyerī,[23] in a succinct, but detailed discussion of his points. Here, we take on his assertion that ádáb most likely evolved from the [root db +OP dipa+] dip, conveying the meaning of “writing.” This word appears in King Dariuš inscription and in Sāsānīán times as dapira conveying the meaning of “writer.” If it is true that ádáb was derived from the root daʾb, it is also true that –as a firm analogy in Persian– from rām, ārām developed and from , āsā, thus, just as a prefixed >a< in the case of aviza was added to viza, an >a< was also affixed to the root db and dib, and ádáb and ádīb were derived. Hence, ádīb has evolved to mean a teacher or writer bearing literature and culture.

On the other hand, as the bureau of letters and correspondence in Persian was called dīvān, and also served to educate youth the profession of dápiri (NP: dábīrī), the place of education came to be called dábistān (dábestān) and dábīrestān which in turn are reminiscent of herbádestān, a place of education in ancient times – albeit mainly a religious one. Extending this to the fact that in the very early Islamic period, for a long time after the conquest of Iranian lands, the Muslim Arabs, not having had any state bureaucracy of finance or administration (except in Surestan/Hira –roughly present Iraq) let the old Persian dīvān function and run their affairs. Additionally, when later Persian Muslim scribes recreated the old offices, they would also have patterned the places of training and education of dábīr after dīvān. Similarly, though called maktab and kuttāb in Arabic, teacher came to be called ádib and mu ̉dáb, and the profession was called t̉adib.[24]

Somewhat apart from its etymological origin and cultural background as being synonymous to Sunnah, it is likely that the word ádáb was adapted as the equivalent of the Persian term ā’īn (/āyīn) (both Old and New Persian meanings: custom, manner, formality, rite). Thus, Djalāl Ḵāleqī Moṭlaq makes a different assertion regarding the cultural root of the term ádáb: “Adab is the equivalent of the Middle Persian fráháng and New Persian farhang.”[25] He continues that “it is also very close to another Pahlavī word ēwēn, [New-] Persian āyīn (ā’īn), meaning custom, rule, correct manner, and its plural ādāb, or rásm and its plural rosūm; but sometimes the original word, in its Persian form āyīn is retained.”[26] Despite the opinion of scholars such as A. Christensen,[27] ádáb cannot be considered exactly equivalent to ēwēn (/āyīn). According to the assertions of Ḵāleqi Moṭlaq, Â’īn-nāmá (-), (books of customs and protocols and ceremonies of the Sāsānian time,) which show ā’īn to correspond closely in meaning to ádáb as well as to the nearly synonymous Arabic term rásm. To prove the affinity in meaning, in an early classic Persian Darī dictionary of the fifth/eleventh century, Luḡat-e Furs[28] of Asadī-ye Tūsī, defines ā’īn as rásm, and in Modern Persian, the two words are used to form the expression rásm-o ā’īn, which implies that in meaning they are related terms.

In the belief of this pen and/or the view of this essay, regarding the “roots” or the background of the term/expression ádáb, the opinion of Ḵāleqi Moṭlaq -maybe more so culturally- compliments the analogical verbal assertion of M. Moḥīṭ Ṭabāṭabāī’s and the philological derivations of M. Malāyerī. Nevertheless, in the assessment of this pen, the social and the political grounds of the cultural transformation of the second half of first and the second centuries of the advent of Islam have had a determining role in the [re-]emergence and development of the multi-layered meaning and usage of ádáb. Furthermore, the usage of this expression itself was in debt to the “translation process” of the Persian cultural motifs and more indirectly from some selected Greek “philosophical” texts.


The emergence of the term ádáb literally by way of socially with translation process or “movement”

The source from which the term ádáb may have been derived or evolved, its expression and wide-ranging and far-reaching usage began mainly with translations made of Sāsānián ándárz literature, the “mirror for princes.” One important clarification to be made here is that the meaning of the word has changed considerably over time. Today, ádáb, together with its Arabic plural, ādāb, conveys the meaning of “literature,” which in Persian is called ádábiyāt (Turkish: edebiyāt). However, during the first phase of the translation process from the early second century A.H. (eighth century CE), it referred to what may be called “practical literature,” the aim of which was to promote elegance, learning, refinement, urbanity, and skill in the art (ā’īn) of speech; in short, everything associated with breeding and education. This reflected the elite culture of the Sāsānián as well as the aspects of the ideals of Greek philosophy.[29]

In time, Persian concepts of public behavior and private life style were introduced via scribes and escritoires and translated materials to sectors of society below the ruling class and elite.[30] By the third AH / ninth century CE, they had come to influence mainly the learned classes in the central and eastern parts of the Islamic world, people who had access to literature and education of any kind.[31]  All of this resulted in a synthesis, furnishing the background for the intellectual debates that took place, particularly at the court of al-Ma ̉mun. This “process” was due to the presence in Bağdād (MP: báğá-dátá) of a mixed population of Persian Muslims and Zoroastrians, Manicheans, Nestorian Christians from Syria, Nabateans from central-southern Iraq, and Muslim Arabs. A point that can be made here is that the term “high culture” comes close to what we consider the original meaning of ādāb, especially in Persian. This is suggested by the nature of the literature that Ebn-e Muqaffaʿ (Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ) was translating in the early second century A.H., which was designated as ādāb. This genre was not limited to Ebn-e Muqaffaʿ’s translations; there were other general titles such as Âdāb al-Furs, or specific ones such as Âdāb Būzurjmihr in Arabic or Ayādgār ī Wuzurgmihr in Middle Persian. The heritage of this genre is further reflected in a more mixed Arabo-Islamic literature under general titles such as Adab al-ʿArab wa’l Furs, Adab al-mulūk, or, specific ones such as Kitāb al-Tāj fī aḵlāq al-mulūk attributed to Jāhiz[32] And Sirāj al-mulūk of Ṭarṭūsī.[33] In this latter work, the author specifies in chapter sixty-three that he has utilized parts of the Persian book Ĵāvīdān Ḵerad (Eternal-Wisdom/ Inner-Wisdom) in his book. Of the original version form the redaction of the text from the Sāsānian times, like so many others, we do not have much knowledge, aside from some anecdotes from the period of caliph al-Ma ̉mun. However, since Moškōye Rāzī (Ibn al-Miskawayh/Ebn-e Meskavayh) (320-421 AH / 932 [/940]-1030 CE) titled one of his famous books by the name Kitāb al-ḥekma al-ḵālida (Book of Eternal Wisdom) in Arabic – and provided information about its old content, it became well known. Regarding the parts and context of Moškōye’s version of Ĵāvīdān Ḵerad, Walter Bruno Henning (Middle Iranian languages scholar, 1908-1967) believed that the Persian parts were translations or derivations from the “original,” Middle-Persian. Unfortunately, Moškōye does not specify his source(s), except that he had obtained it from a Maubed-e Maubedān (/Mobed-e Mobedān, a chief Mazdaean/Zoroastrian Priest) in Fārs (one of the old strongholds of the Zoroastrian faith well into the 5/11 century and after, albeit gradually declining); therefore, it is not evident in what exact Persian language it was written.[34] Moškōye only explains that his redaction and composition is a collection similar to the ándárz literature. Moškōye also says, in addition to Persians, such different peoples as Arabs, Indians and Greeks yet, their ‘sayings’ did not precede [the ‘original’] Ĵāvīdān Ḵerad. The reason for this is that sources for his Ĵāvīdān Ḵerad included the words of Hošang (a legendary ancient Persian king) to his son or vice throne. Moškōye explains: “I was aiming to write these precious sayings of Hošang and to collect whatever I could find from the utterances and their didactic teachings of Persians, Indians, Arabs, and Greeks, then add the former ones to the latter. The primary intention of this endeavor was for youth to know how to act [/live] and for people of knowledge to become aware of the wise literature of the people who preceded them. Also, it is intended for the people who come after us, so they may benefit from ‘cultivation of ethics,’ ‘refinement of self’ and ‘strengthening of the personality.'” He continues: “Since I have established the principles and foundation of ethics in my book Taḥḏib al-Aḵlāq (The Cultivation or Refinement of Ethics), there is no need to repeat them here. Our intention in this book is to represent the expressions and principles of good deeds and sayings of wise persons of different people with different beliefs, and in this part, I follow the style of the authors of Ĵāvīdān Ḵerad, as I had promised.”[35]

As the nature of literature in general is humanistic, thus both profane and sacred (in our terms today), it appears that the pluralistic nature of ándárz and ádáb literature was also manifested from Sāsānian times to the first few centuries of the Islamic world. This was made possible when an “open-minded” ruler or whole dynasty such as [Âl-e] Būyed (Buwayhid) (320-454/932-1063) was in power and depended on its cultural background. Among the Būyed rulers, this was under ‘Ażdud Daulah (338/934), who had gathered one the most impressive libraries of its time in the city of Ray (‘Rayy’), from which a range of erudite individuals like Moškōye Rāzī (who for a time worked as chief librarian there) could benefit. Consequently, what was understood as ádáb in this genre came from texts inherited from a selective cultural background and thus reflected as mirrors of princes.


Three exemplars of transmitters of ádáb literature 

After the Arab conquest of Iranian lands and during the early times of the formation of Islamic culture, there came to be three pioneering personae for the establishment of the ádáb genre. The best known among them is Ebn-e Muqaffaʿ (originally named Rōzbeh Dādōye or Dādūyá, he inherited this epithet from his father’s soubriquet).  Before Ebn-e Muqaffaʿ, no books in the Arabic language were known under the title of ádáb or ādāb. However, he had a couple of forerunners, men of pen, who had worked as translators and adaptors of “ancient literature,” and who laid the ground for the ádáb genre.


Abūl-ʿAlā Sālim (Salim Abū’l-ʿAlā)

Although the establishment of fresh criteria and style for prose related to ádáb, was accomplished by ʿAbd al-Hamīd, the primers go back, to his forerunner Abū’l-ʿalā Sālim (“Ērānī”) who was mawlī and a Kātib of Hishām b.ʿAbd al-Malik the Umayyad Caliph (r. 724-743 CE). Abū’l-ʿAlā Sālim was not only a Kātib for the Caliph but also a translator of Sāsānīán Middle-Persian literature into Arabic; it is likely that he was the translator of the famous Sāsānīán book of pictures and biographies of Persian kings commissioned by Hishām b.ʿAbd al-Malik.[36] Besides Ebn-e Nadim’s (Ibn al-Nadim) mention in Al-Fihrist,[37] Masʿūdī in al-Tanbīh wa’l-Ashrāf also talks about this well-known chronological book of kings[38] In Al-Fihrist, it is reported that he as a “transmitter” (نقله), he had rendered some portion of the (apocryphal) epistles of Aristotle (on government) to Alexander[39] and had corrected some others that were translated for him.[40] Also, Al-Fihrist reports that he had writings (رَسائل) of his own roughly one hundred folios. Thus, it has been suggested that ‘Salim Abū’l-ʿAlā’ as the chancellery secretary of Hishām b.ʿAbd al-Malik, had some compositions in the genre of ádáb. But, although he did have a somewhat pioneering role in the infusion of this type of literature into the Arabic language and literature, it was more as transmitter than an innovator himself.


ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd b. Yahyā al-Kātib

Abū Halāl ʿAskarī mentions in his well-known classical tome al-Sanā‘atain (الصناعتین) the influence of Persian epistolary on the writings of the famous ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd al-Kātib (d.132 /750).[41] ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd was a great prose stylist, whose example was imitated by those who follow him. He was the first to be credited with elongating epistles in Arabic. However, Victor Danner observes that “on closer examination, there is more to his distinction than that.” He continues:

His epistolary style breathes the influence of Persian culture within an Islamic context. Some of his epistles, moreover, show Persian influence in their contents, as when he counsels rulers on how to govern, how to conduct themselves in court, which are old Persian themes…However, in no epistle, does this subtle influence of his Persian background stand forth with more evidence than in his epistle to the scribe, wherein the ancient dignity of the scribal profession is reaffirmed within an Islamic framework. It is no accident that this famous epistle was composed in the last days of the Umayyad regime, for the scribes, with their eminent positions of power and diversified culture, was then coming into real prominence, and were ready to influence the patterns and style of Islamic civilization on the basis of the essentially Semitic contents of the Qur’ān.[42]

It was toward the end of the Umayyad period that a new style of Arabic composition and style was developed. This technique was attributed to ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd al-Kātib. He was recognized as a master of balāğa (eloquence or rhetoric, which in Persian is called soḵanvarī), and fasāa (clear language or articulate) and the power of his utterance became a proverb: “Futihat (or: bada’at) al-rasā’il bi ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd wa ḵutimat bi ibn al-ʿAmīd[43] (The commencement of the epilstery was withʿAbd al-Ḥamīd and the ending (i.e., “the perfection”) with ibn al-ʿAmīd). Aḥmad Amīn, an Arab scholar and author in the 20th century, remarks that there is clear evidence of the influence of Persian belles-lettres on Arabic literature contained in Abū Halāl ʿAskarī’s statement in Dīvān al-Mʿaānī: (دیوان المَعانی) “Whoever has learned eloquence in one language and then learns another language, can utilize the same science in the new language.”[44]

ʿAbd al- Ḥamīd’s “new style,” the simplification of balāğat (eloquence), was characterized by the expression that he “untangled the knots” of balāğat. Despite the Arabs’ attachment to laconicism or brevity in expression and prose, the distinctive inimitability of the Qur’ān, iʿjāz (miracle) (عجاز), and its ījāz (succinctness) (ایجاز) on the other hand, ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd’s itnāb (amplification of discourse or prolixity) gradually gained the approval and admiration of Arab writers.[45] They started imitating his style.[46] It seems that its most important characteristic was the exposition and expression of meanings in an amplified discursive manner which did not previously exist in Arabic. This was the beginning of artistic writing, particularly in epistle and essay, genres of writing which tend to include a title, an “introduction,” and an exposition of the subject according to the content or intention, wrapped up with a “conclusion.” ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd also categorized epistles based upon the position of the Kuttāb and their responsibilities, as reflected in the Epistle to the scribes or secretaries. This type of knowledge existed in the Middle-Persian era, used by the Sāsānīán dīvān[47] as the knowledge of literate composition: dabīrī or scribeship. The importance of dabīrī and the high standing of dabīrs (secretaries) in the Sāsānīán period and their continuing elevated status through the Islamic period has been studied by Christensen.[48]

ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd represented the second generation of those divāniān who, after the advent of Islam, knew Pahlavī (MP) and were familiar with the prose writing of their bureaucracy.  Unfortunately, out of the large body of epistles credited to him (Ebn-e Nadīm in al-Fihrist –377/987-88- credited him with a tome of a “thousand folios”) merely a handful has survived which were regarded as worthy of inclusion in anthologies or citation in dictionaries. For this, our greatest debt is to Ibn al-Ṭayfūr (204-80/819-93), author of a Kitāb al-Manthūr wa-’l-Manzūm (The Book of Prose and Poetry), for it is in the extant parts of this anthology that we find the core of all that is known to survive of ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd’s work, the nucleus of which comprises his best-known compositions, the Risālah ilā ͐l-kuttāb (Epistles to the Secretaries)[49] and an epistolary manual of guidance addressed to Marwān’s son and heir. In addition, this same source has preserved for us epistles on friendship, the permissibility of chess, and a hunting scene[50] which were in the category of old Persian ádáb. Certainly, a perceptive reader cannot fail to detect a marked relationship to the Fürstenspiegel or Mirror for Princes type of literature.[51] ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd was from Anbār,[52] a previously Sāsānian town near Ctesiphon (Madā’in). His full name given by Ibn Ḵallikān was Abū Ghānib ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd b. Yaḥya b. Saʿd.[53]


Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ (Arabic: ʿAbd-Allāh Ibn al- Muqaffaʿ /Persian: Rōzbeh (Rūzbeh) pour-e Dādūyá)

The rightful disciple and comrade of ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd was Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ (139 AH /756757 AD). The term ádáb as used by Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ has the general sense of the cultivation and refinement of practical ethics, personal and social manners and etiquette. On a social level, it also reveals the intention of training rulers and high officials. He includes the word ádáb in the titles of two of his books al-Adabˊl-kabīr and al-Adabˊl-ṣaghīr; although, it is now largely accepted that the second one, al-Adabˊl-Ṣaghīr, is not his own composition.[54] Both books deal with personal and social ethics and “politics.” Any author dealing with such topics functions as a teacher of practical ethics and conduct of “correct” deeds, espousing (particular) criteria. The criteria and method followed by Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ are derived more from wisdom and intellect rather than from religion. For him, ádáb or ethics are a group of concerns which before anything else are related to the intellect, and the intellect normatively distinguishes -in classical binary – between “beauty” and “unsightliness.” His works contain essentially rules of conduct for an ordinary or outstanding man. He distinguishes three aspects of ádáb: (1) ethics turned either inward or outward; (2) vocational training limited to rulers and high officials; and (3) culture and education insofar as historical data, etiquette, good manners are concerned.[55]

Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ in al-Adabˊl-Kabīr [and the author(s) of al-Adabˊl-Ṣaghīr] is both translator and author. He is a translator because he insists on quoting and utilizing many Old Persian epigrams, bons mots, and maxims, introducing them in such way as: “listen to this saying of a sage…” or “I have heard from a wise-man who said…” or, “It has been said…”  He is an author for the reason that he scrutinizes other writers’ views and expresses his own opinion about them.  In the beginning of al-Adab al-kabīr, he states:  “I have never seen a subject matter missed by some ancient scholar concerning which there were not able writers or rhetoricians to add something new to what has already been said…I bequeath latā’if (fine points) of my own which include, [apparently] trivial points but have been nourished by the wise sayings and mottos of my predecessors. Therefore, parts of what I have expressed are useful for the people.” In the introductory lines to Adab al-ṣaḡīr, which has the same tone as that of al-Adab al-kabīr, (the author or compiler) remarks that: “… in these books I have related sayings of people that augment calmness of mind, enlighten hearts, and illumine the heart’s eye; they enliven thought, elevate intellect and prudence, and guide fairness of ethics.”[56]  Both books contain many different maxims and sayings collected from various sources, mainly Persian, then Greek and Indian with Islamic influence. Although they may not appear to be related to each other, they may be categorized together as dealing with practical ethics using a constant flavor of ádáb.



Considering the foregoing debates –reflected in the context if this paper, among Arab scholars and assertions by Persian literates that there is no trace of usage of the term or expression of ádáb in pre-Islamic Arabic literature, except maybe one derivative in a jâhli verse, a plausible, if not definite, possible root of ádáb that goes back to Old-Persian and from there to Akkadian and Sumerian languages. Thus, the early concept of the term and its usage emerges in the late first and early second centuries of the Islamic era via, mainly, the early or “first” phase of the “translation movement” or process of aspects of Middle-Persian “literature” particularly by Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ.  And it is from that “process” that the concept ádáb evolved and later conveyed literature. Hence, is manifest that Persian secular motifs of pre-Islamic, chiefly Middle-Persian literature, were transmitted into the Perso-Arabic mirror of princes and ádáb literature, although perhaps not as first-hand translations, and every so often in Islamic disguise. Also, it is evident that the term ádáb emerged as a social and literary expression toward the end of the Umayyad period but especially with early Abbasid rulers after the first one (al-Saffah), whose court protocols (as their bureaucracy) were derived in large part from Sāsānián practice. Models were provided through the translation and imitation of works of the mirror for princes type, manuals of statecraft which had formed an important genre of Sāsānián prose literature, by secretaries and scribes who were themselves often of Iranian/Persian origin.[57] ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd and Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ represent an early peak in the evolution of ádáb literature, and one does not find other salient representatives of the genre during the first half of the 2nd/8th century. These men played influential cultural roles in establishing ádáb and its derivatives in the high culture of a newly emerging society. In the process, the role of these terms and expressions in conveying the older concepts, and as a precept, their motifs and themes coming from primarily Persian sources, in time became as lively as the starring role of these men of pen themselves in a socio-cultural expansion of the era. All of these cultural interactions, from personal endeavors to social manifestations, become for us a means to trace, decipher, and perhaps intellectually dispute the heritage of cultural interaction themselves.[58] Nonetheless, it is as likely in our time as it was in that of ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd and Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ,[59] to become politically or intellectually critical of non-democratic rulership and risk one’s livelihood and/or means of expression by way of the “pen.”


[1]Âzartāš Âzarnoš, Čāloš-e Mīyān-e Fārsī va ʿArabī, Sadehā-ye Nakost (Tehran: Našr-e Nay 1385/2006), 90.

[2]Moḥammad Moḥammadī Malāyerī, Al-tarjuma wa’l-naql ʿan al-Fārsīya, vol. 1, Kutub Tāj wa’l Â͑͑͑in, (Beirut: n.p., 1967).

[3]Ḥosainʿalī Momtaḥen, “Ḥosainʿalī,” in Nehżat-e Šaʿūbīyye va natāyeĵ-e sīyāsī va ejtemāʿī-ye ān, (Tehran: n.p., 1354/1975).

[4]There are indications in ]New[-Persian classical literature that different dialects of Middle-Persian existed in some regions of Iran as early the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries.  On at least three occasions, Ḥāfez refers in his ğazals to “golbāng-e pahlavī” being sung in Fārs. Yet, in this view, the robāīyāt of Bābā Tāher-e ʿUryān are in an older western Persian dialect. Thus, Aḥmad Kasravī has shown that in the mid-twentieth century there were villages high in the mountains of Āẕarbāyĵān who were speaking as a Āẕarī dialect of Pahlavī, i.e., a dialect of Western Middle Persian.

[5]C.E. Bosworth, “The Heritage of Rulership in early Islamic Iran and the Search for Dynastic Connection with the Past,” IRAN 11 (1973): 51.

[6]Moḥammad Moḥammadī Malāyerī, Adab va Aḵlāq dar Ērān-e pīsh az Eslām – va čand Nemone az Âsār-e ān dar Adabīyāt-e ‘Arabī va Eslāmī, 1st ed. (Tehran: Entešārāt-e Yazdān 1372/1983); subsequent editions with different titles: Entešārāt-e Tus 1379/2010),  24-25.

[7]C. Pellat, “Al-Jāḥiẓ”, Abbasid Belles-Lettres, CHAL (1990):  83; see also S.A. Bonebakker, “Adab and the Concept of belles-lettres,” ‘Abbasid Belles-Letters, CHAL, 17.

[8]Bonebakker, “Adab and the Concept of belles-lettres,” ‘Abbasid Belles-Lettres, CHAL, 17.  Regarding the “the medieval dictionaries” and, the assertion that “all three remains to be answered,” the late Iranian literatus and philologist, ʿAliakbar Shahabi, has somewhat similar opinion of Bonebakker, particularly, concerning the possible roots of the “terminology” of adab; he states: “From the classical roots of the Arabic word adab (ádáb) three different meaning or concept are derived: one is ‘elegance’ and ‘cleanliness’, another one, ‘wonder’ and ‘surprise’, the other one, to call to festivity or get-together. The difficulty in tracing the Arabic vocabularies which have non-Arabic roots or background is that when those adapted to Arabic, their morphology changes thus sometimes drastically thus to decipher their roots are challenging at least. In the introduction type of some old Arabic lexicon/glossary it is stated that: هذا الغة اعجمیه فالعب بها ماشـئت  meaning: ‘this vocabulary is foreign play (deal) with it as you wish’; thus, only the classicist etymologist in the language could trace or speculate their origin of form(s) and meaning(s): شهابی، (دکتر) علی اکبر، فرهنگ اشتقاقی عربی به فارسی، مقدمه، رویه هایِ ص، ی، یا

(ʿAlīakbar Shahābī, The Etymological Lexicon of Arabic to Persian, Introduction ص، ی، یا).

[9]In old Indian language (Vedic), Indian writing (scripture) is called Daevangari (the writing or scripture of Daeva –Persian Dari: ‘dīv-négārī’). Daeva among old Indo-Iranian Aryans was a deity whom after ancestral separation, keeps a positive feature and in old Iranian mythology changes to a negative one as “un-Iranian” (اَنیرانی) and eventually dīv becomes equal to the devil (fiend) [In Sanskrit: dȇva, in Middle-Persian: dēv, in Greek dues (Zeus), in Latin: divus, in French: diev (God)]. According to Avesta and Shāh-nāmeh, those are daevas while they had become captive to be freed teach the Iranians scripture. Henceforth, “Iranians” learn scripture from “natives,“

i.e., Sumerians in the north and Acadians in the south. In this manner they borrow words from former civilizations, however they are mutually influential as there are remaining words in Sumerian which have “Aryan”/Iranian origin, such as ā(b) (water) in Per. āb, or sea āba from the same root; āmā (mother) in Per. mādar; gu (caw) in Per. gāv.

[10]The root of the Old Persian (OP) words of dip and dipi, meaning scribe/letter and scripture/writing, by all probability, goes back to Sumerian inscripture. The Sumerian dub which meant letter and inscripture and, scribed tablet, appears later in Aramaic as dup but in Acadian as duppu (/duppi) as preserving the same meanings.  Old Persian dipi in Middle Persian (MP) becomes dipirih; and in Sanskrit dipi, also meaning scribe/letter. Two derivatives of Sumerian dub are dupsar meaning “writer” and eduba as pupil/apprentice.

[11]“Apart from the decisive Iranian influence, at the same time or shortly afterward another mass of foreign books was translated and put at the disposal of a Muslim elite, namely Greek works which introduced the achievements of Hellenic thought, notably logic and methods of reasoning, but no literary texts.” Ch. Pellat, “Adab ii. Adab in Arabic Literature,” Encyclopædia Iranica 1, vol.4 :439-444; an updated version is available online at [See n. 29.]

[12]One indicative example in the category of “practical philosophy” (حِکمتِ عملی), which also reflected the influence of Persian motifs of ádáb and ándárz in its content, is Ādāb al-Falāsifa by Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq (Abū Zayd Ḥunayn ibn ͐Isḥāq al-͑Abādī, 809-837 CE), an Assyrian Nestorian scholar, physician, and scientist, known for his work in translating Greek scientific and medical and works of Plato (Timaeus) and Aristotle (Metaphysics) into Syriac and Arabic. Ḥunayn had mastered four languages: Arabic, Syriac, Greek, and Persian.

[13]Moḥammad Moḥammadī Malāyerī, Farhang-e Ērānī pīš az Eslām va Âsār-e ān dar Tamaddon-e Eslāmī va Adabīyāt-e ‘Arabī, n.p., 1374/1995), 304.

[14]A passage in Qur’an that conveys a context of behavior prescribed Islamic etiquette as good manner or decorum is expressed in the sura 3, ayat 134:  “When a (courteous) greeting is offered you, meet it with a greeting still more courteous, or (at least) of equal courtesy. Allah takes careful account of all things.” Professor Ḥāmid Algār, some years ago at UC Berkeley, in a conversation, stated that some of the derivatives of the term adab (ádáb) had entered the Ḥadis tradition, for example: “addabanī rabbī fa-aḥsana ta ͐dbī.” Thus, a Sunni Ḥadis: Abu ‘Amr ash-Shaybānī said, “The owner of this house (and he pointed at the house of ʿAbdullah ibn Masʿud) said, ‘I asked the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, which action Allah loves best.’ He replied, ‘Prayer at its proper time.’ ‘Then what?’ I asked. He said, ‘Then kindness to parents.’ I asked, ‘Then what?’ He replied, ‘Then jihad in the Way of Allah.'” He added, “He told me about these things. If I had asked him to tell me more, he would have told me more.

Kitab Al Adab Al Mufard , 29,

[15]ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Yūsif al-Sāyīʿ, Muʿĵ am luğat dawāwin šuʿarā̉ al-muʿallqāt al-ʿashar, Maktaba Lobnān Nāšarūn (Bayrut [Beirut]: n.p., n.d.), 92.

[16]Carlo A. Nallino, Tāriḵ al-adab al-Arabiyah min al-jāhilīyah hattā ʿaṣr banī Ummayah (nuss al-muḥaḏarāti alqaha bi-al-jāmaiah al-Misriyah sanat 1910-1911), Taqdim Taha Ḥusayn, al-Tabah 2, Misr, Dār al-Ma‘ārif, 1970; C.A. Nallino, La letteratura araba degli inizi all’epoca della dinasite umayyade (leçons professés en arabe a l’université du Caire), Rome: n.p., 1948; La Literature arabe des origins à l’époque de la dynastie Umayyad, trans. Charles Pellat d’après la version italienne de Maria Nallino, G. P. Maisonneuve, Paris, 1950; S. A. Bonebakker, “Adab and the Concept of Belles-Letters,” in Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: ʿAbbasid Belles-Letters, ed. Julia Ashtiany (Cambridge: Cambridge University of Press, 1990); F. Gabrieli, “Adab,” Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed.,

[17]Charles Pellat, “Adab in Arabic Literature,” EIr. I: 439.

[18]Regarding the latter’s statement, Malāyerī following Moḥīţ Ţabāţabāī [see n. 6.), states Ḵafāĵi’s opinion in the šafā̉ al-qalīl briefly. The full passage of Ḵafāji’s statement follows: “What in the beginning the Arab knew from the [term] adab was as [conveying] ‘good manners’ and ‘good behavior’, gradually after the advent of Islam, people began to use the [term] adīb in referring to the ‘poet’ and called the Arabic science adab. [Therefore,] the attribution of the [term] adab upon them (i.e., to the Arabs) is a created one.”

[19]M. Moḥammadī Malāyerī, Farhang, 304.

[20]Joel L. Kramer states: “In Arabic translation from Greek the word adab is often used to render the term Paideia,” The Culture Bearers of Humanism in Islam (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1984), 5. Malāyrī, regarding the opinion of the adaptation of the term adab from Greek, cites the belief of Anestās Karmali, “a Baḡdādian Arab philologist” who believe that adab has derived from Eduepes (meaning one with fine speech), which is comprised of two parts: edus meaning “pleasing” or “delicious”, and epos, “speech” or “utterance.” Malāyerī, Farhang,  304.

[21]Several prominent Persian literary historians/literatus such as Malek ul-Shoʿarā-ye Bahār and Ẕabīḥullāh-e Ṣafā have argued in favor of a Persian origin for adab, as has also been suggested by Richard Frye and Clifford E. Bosworth.  More recently, Ĵalāl Ḵāleqī Moṭlaq, in an article in Encyclopedia Iranica I, 431-439, which is discussed in part in the present paper, has stated his opinion that the term ádáb derived from the Middle-Persian word fárháng (فَرهَنگ), challenging the belief of the few others that adab was a derivation from the term ͗āīn (آئین/آیین).

[22]Moḥammad Moḥīṭ Ṭabāṭbāī, Āmozeš va Parvareš 9, no. 1.

[23]M. Moḥammadī Malāyerī, Farhang, 317-318.

[24]What is interesting, as professor Malāyerī brings to our attention, is that around the late Umayyad and early Abbasid periods, for the term “teacher” we find two different words conveying two different levels of social and cultural status. One is muʿalim and the other mū ͗dab. The former meant common teacher, educating “middle class” children and the latter the “elite.” The schools were also called maktab and kuttāb, the former as a common or “public school” and the latter more restricted and socially selective. The difference between muʿalim and mū ͗dab on the one hand and maktab and kuttāb on the other was mainly related to the content of discourse and education. In the first category, the instructor would teach the children primarily reading, writing and some religious matters, but in the second, the instructor would also educate the students in social manners, discourse, etiquette, and the diverse literature and skills of the scribeship for those brought up to be in the service of state and court. In another word, they were learning ádáb. One can trace the same criteria, without a definite model, in the Sāsānian time, which was well attested as a highly “class-oriented” society. Otherwise, the pre-Islamic, mainly Bedouin society and naturally relatively simple context of a single text in the first few decades of the Arab conquest were far from an elite type of education; yet, education in general, and thus reading and writing, was looked down upon, since the Arab life was mainly a tribal, protective, warrior one.

[25]T. Noldeke, “Geschichte des Artaschiri-I Pāpakān aus dem Pahlevi übersetzt mit Erluterungen und einer Einleitung versehen,” Bazzenberger’s Beitrge zur Kunde der indogermanischen Sprach 4, (1879): 38.  Note 3, H.S. Neyberg, Hilfsbuch des Pehlavi, Uppsala II (1931):  70, as cited by Professor Ḵāleqī Moṭlaq, EIr.1, 432.

[26]Ḵhāleqī Moṭlaq Ĵalāl, “ADAB IN IRAN,” EIr. 1, 432-439.

[27]Arthur Christensen, Les gestes des rois dans les traditions de l’Iran antique (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1936), 102; G. Richter, Studien zur Geschichte der alteren arabischen Fürstenspiegel (Leipzig: Heinrichs, 1932), Repr. 1968, 41, as cited by Ḵhāleqī Moṭlaq, EIr.1, 432. See alsoʿAbbās Eqbāl, al-Adab al-waĵīz, ed. Ğ. Ḥ. Āhanī (Iṣfahān (/Eṣfahān): n.p., 1340/1961).

[28]Abū Mansūr Aḥmad b. ‘Alī Asadī-ye Ṭūsī, Luğat-e Fūrs (Loğat-e Darī), ed. F. Mojtabāī (Tehrān: n.p., 1365/1976), 199.

[29]It was at the time of Abbasid caliph al-Ma ̉mun (r. 197-217 AH/813-833 CE), whose mother evidently was from Persian stock, where for a period of time his court affairs were run by the renowned family of Iranian Barmakids. The Bayt al-Hikma, “The Bureau of Knowledge [The House of Wisdom]” was established, as were  selective works of Greek philosophy (including Aristotelian), translated from Syriac by Christians scholars and others into Arabic.  For the report and assessment see for example, Dimiri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early `Abbasid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries) (London: Routledge, 1998), 20-60; also, the transmission of Greek knowledge into Arabic has been presented in some detail by Joel L. Kraemer, “Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam: A Preliminary Study,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 104 (1984): 135-64.  However, as we know now and as Johannes Pedersen, The Arabic Book, trans. Geoffrey French (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) also states that al-Ma ̉mun was not the first caliph to establish a center/library of translation; the son of an Umayyad caliph, Ḵālid b. Yazīd b. Mu’awiya, preceded al-Ma ̉mun in this endeavor. Ḵālid b. Yazīd b. Mu’awiya became famous for inviting Greek philosophers from Egypt and commissioning them to translate books from Greek and Coptic into Arabic. He was also a “scholar” who was interested in medicine and astronomy, as well as being a renowned poet. One must assert that, on the other hand, the early Persian influence on Umayyad court life became evident and increased sharply during the brief reign of Yazīd III (d. 720) whose mother was Persian.

[30]The emergence of new literate/elite with cultural roots in the Sāsānian period but cultivating a synthesis with Islam and using Arabic as its mode of expression/writing for a period, was and is an important occurrence that the effect of which could be traced culturally, literally, politically and even psychologically throughout the social history of Iran. Although, “Islamization” of “Iran proper” and change of majority Sunni to Shiʿa in the Safavid period was and is a historical and social fact, nevertheless, internalization of Islam and then majority becoming Shiʿa – with “Persian”
coloring – consciously and/or sub-consciously kept ‘Iranian-Islamic’ identity obdurately separate from “Arab-Islamic,” basically, Sunni identity.

[31]C.E. Bosworth, “The Persian Impact on Arabic Literature” in Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 490.

[32]ʿUmar b. al-Baḥr Ĵāḥiẓ [Abū ͑Uṯmān], (160-255 H.) in the introduction of Kitāb al-tāĵ fī aḵlāq al-mulūk (Cairo: n.p., 1980), states that the reason for the composition of his book was that although many of the commoners (ʿawām) and some of the elite (ḵawāṣ) behave according to the rule of obedience [to the caliphate], [they] are not aware of their duties (-manner) in relation to the rulers; thus, I have gathered the ādāb of  the kings in this book, for the people to have an example/model for [their] deeds of ádáb (p.2). Ĵāḥiẓ, foremost starts, from the “Kings of Persia, since they were the forerunners in the matter, thus, I have obtained their etiquettes, the rules of running the land (country), the order or places of commoners and elite, how to coddle the obedient and setting standards to rights of classes.” (p.23). ʿUmar b. al-Baḥr Ĵāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-tāĵ fi aḵlāq al-mulūk, (کتاب التاج فی اخلاق الملوک) (Qāhira (Cairo): n.p.,1980).

[33]Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. al-Walid al-Ṭarṭushī (Ṭarţūsī) (also, Abū Bakr Al-Ṭorṭuchi) (أبو بكر محمد بن الوليد الطرطوشی) from Maghrib /Andalusia, traveled for knowledge, seeking to educate himself on various scholars in different parts of the Muslim world and went as far east as Baghdad. On his way, he also stopped at Damascus, Aleppo, Cairo, and Alexandria. In Alexandria, Egypt, he taught at a school. His most famous work is Sirāj al-mulūk (سراج الملوك).

[34]Moškōye (Ibn Miskawayh) may have been a Mazdaean convert to Islam, but it seems more likely that it was one of his ancestors who converted; in either case, most probably, if he was not fluent in Middle Persian, was familiar with it, thus he, very much likely, had translated the text of Ĵāvīdān Ḵerad that he had obtained from a chief Zoroastrian priest in Fārs.

[35]Abū ʿAlī Moškōye Rāzī (ابوعلی مُشکویه رازی) (Arabic: Ibn Miskawayh ابن مُسکووِیه), Ĵāvīdān Ḵerad (Persian ed. Emām ‘Ali Šūštarī.), the “Introduction.” For information regarding Moškōye’s works and style of historiography, see Taĵārib al-Umam (Experiences of the Nations), Persian ed. A. Emāmī, vol. I, “Introduction.” For a recent edition of Taḥḏib al-Aḵlāq, see Ibn Miskawayh, Tahdhib al-akhlaq (Cultivation of Morals), ed. C. Zurayk (Beirut: American University of Beirut Centennial Publication), 1966; trans. C. Zurayk, The Refinement of Character (Beirut: American University of Beirut), 1968.

[36]Ḥosayn (Ḥousin) Ḵaṭībī, Tārīḵ-e Taṭṭavvor-e Nasr-e Fannī (Tehrān: n.p., 1345/1967)), 33.

[37]Abū’l-Faraj Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq al-Nadim, The Fihrist of al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist), ed. and trans. Bayard Dodge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970); Dehkhoda Dictionary Encyclopedia, vol. 9 (Loghat Nameh Dehkhoda) (Tehran: University of Tehran, 1958), 13346.

[38]Abu’l-Hasan Masʿūdī, Al-Tanbīh w’al-Ašrāf, (Persian version:) trans. A. PāyandeŠh, (Šerkat-e Entešārāt-e ‘Elmī va Farhangī  (Tehrān: n.p.,1986), 99-101.

[39]M. Grignaschi, “Les Rasa’il Aristatalisa ‘ala-l-Iskandar de Salim Abu-l-Ala” et l’activité culturelle à l’époque omayyade,” Bulletin d’Études Orientales 19 (1965–66): 7–83.

[40]This collection forms the nucleus of the most famous among the mirrors for princes, the Sirr al-asrar, known in the Latin Middle Ages and early modern times as the Secretum secretorum.  M. Grignaschi, “Le roman épistolaire classique conservé dans la version arabe de Salim Abu-l-ʿAla,’” Le Muséon 80 (1967): 211– 64.

[41]M. Moḥammadī Malāyerī, Adab va Aķlāq, 123.

[42]Victor Danner, “Arabic Literature in Iran”, C.H.I., vol.4, 576-77.

[43]Ĵalāl d.-Dīn Homāī, Tārīḵh-e Adabiyāt-e Ērān (Tehrān:n.p., 1366/1978), 317.

[44]Aḥmad Amīn, Faĵr al-Islam ,(فَجرالاسلام) 123, quoted by Ḥosainʿalī Momtaḥen in Nehżat-e Šaʿūbīyye va natāyeĵ-e sīyāsī va ejtemāʿī-ye ān, part 3, 30.  The above statement continues: “ʿAbd al-ḥamīd, [was] a famous writer who had established the science of composition [and] transmitted [that learning] to Arabic.”  Curiously enough, Abū Halāl ‘Askarī also states that: “There is another reason, which is that Persian utterance is similar to Arabic speech although Persian expression is more elegant than Arabic.”

[45]Among many, one could mention the poets Baḥtair Ibn Rūmī and Abū Ishāq Ṣābī.

[46]Ḥosayn (Ḥousain) Ḵaṭībī, Tārī ḵ-e Taṭṭavvor-e Nasr-e Fannī, 34.

[47]In addition to the references found in al-Bayān wa-‘l-Tabyin of Jāḥiẓ and indications of Páhlávī (Middle Persian) style contained in Arabic translations, we have a text in Páhlávī with the title of abar ewenag nābesisnīh (the customs or style of letter writing). This is a short text with examples of different kinds of letters, both social and personal.  The Páhlávī text of this work with transliteration and Persian translation is available in Motūn-e Pahlavī, Gozāresh-e Saʿid ‘Oryān (Tehran: n.p., 1371/1992). I am in debt to my colleague Dr. Siyāmak Adhamī, an erudite in Páhlávī (MP) language and texts, for making me aware of this text.

[48]A. Christensen, Sassanid Persia (Iran dar Zamān-e Sāssānīān, tr. Rashid Yasemi) in Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 12 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939), 132.

[49]“…resāla… which is a remarkable literary and socio-cultural document. The introduction to it attempts to blend Islamic teachings with Iranian traditions on court etiquette, which is a notable feature of early adab literature. As a rule, the substance of ʿAbd-al-Ḥamīd’s writings comes from Iranian sources, and it is aimed in general at molding the soul and mind of prominent people such as rulers, and powerful civil servants like kottāb.” Ch. Pellat, “Adab ii. Adab in Arabic Literature,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I, no. 4 (n.d.): 439-444; an updated version is available online at

[50]J. D. Latham, “The Beginning of Arabic Prose Literature: The Epistolary Genre,” Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 166.

[51]Ibid., 168.

[52]Anbār (meaning place of “storage” in Persian) –still a strategic town in western Iraq– was a frontier garrison town/region for the Sāsānian, with a large stock of armaments for defense or attack against the Byzantine Empire, which also had its own officialdom.

[53]It is said that he became a mawlā (a client) of the Qurashite clan of ʿMir b. Lu’ayy. At the beginning of his career he became a teacher of children and later, because of his erudition in belles-lettres, he became chief secretary to Marwān, the last Umayyad caliph, at whose order, according to one source, he was killed. Another report indicates that he died side by side with Marwān’s entourage at Būs`ir in 132/750. In addition, it is said that he escaped to Jázīrah where he went to Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ’s house, the latter giving him refuge. He stayed there until his whereabouts became known and when the deputies of al-Saffāh poured into the house and asked, “which one of you is ʿAbd al-ḥamīd”?; both the comrades responded: “I”!  According to Ibn Ḵallikān’s report, after the death of Marwān II, a certain ʿAbd al-Jabbār by order of al-Saffāh, kept a large jar of glowing charcoal on top of his head until he died, naturally with much suffering (d.132 H.).

[54]“Recent discoveries tend to confirm the opinion of scholars such as G. Richter, F. Gabrieli and ʿA. Eqbāl compared to  M. Ḡafrānī, ʿAbdallāh Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ (Cairo: n.p., n.d., 127). They held that the book of this name is not by Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ or, at least, that the extant form of it might not be the same book mentioned by Ebn al-Nadīm, because there are no citations in the sources to prove this attribution. Now it has been fully ascertained that the book we have is not an anthology of wise sayings selected at random by a certain compiler, as the introduction of the book tries to suggest, but is mainly based on the translation of two Persian texts, the arrangement of which is carefully preserved.” IʿAbbās, “Adab Al-Sagir,” Encyclopædia Iranica I, vol. 4: 446-447; an updated version is available online at

[55] Ch. Pellat, “Adab ii. Adam in Arabic Literature,” Encyclopædia Iranica I, vol. 4: 439-444; an updated version is available online at

[56]ʿAbd al-Hādī Hā’rī, Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ (Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ) (Tehrān: n.p., 1341/1962), 29-30.

[57]Julia Scott Meisami, Medieval Persian Court Poetry (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1987), 5.

[58]For a noteworthy caveat contrary to viewing such interactions either in terms of “influence” or of culturally background self–assertion, see M.G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vol.1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 40-45; but also 239-280-84 and Michael G. Morony, Iraq After the Muslim Conquest (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984),  27-89.

[59]At the beginning of “ʿAbbāsid revolution,” after the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty, unlike some of his other colleagues, Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ escaped persecutions at the hands of Al-Saffaḥ, the first ʿAbbāsid Caliph (d. 754). Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ divided the best years of his life between Basra and Kūfa, the misrāni of Irāk, before the founding of Baghdād, and frequented the society of men of letters and wits such as Mutiʿ b. ʿIyās, Wāliba b. Hubāb, Hammād ʿAdirad, Bashār b. Burd and still others, all persons of “loose morals” and suspected of zandaqa.  Later, Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ returned to Basra and served as a secretary under ʿIsā b.ʿAlī and Sulaymān b.ʿAlī, the uncles of the second ʿAbbāsid caliph Abū Jaʿfar Al-Mansur (r. 754–775 CE). After a third uncle, ʿAbdallāh b. ʿAli made an abortive bid for the caliphate, Ebn-e Moqaffaʿs chiefs asked him to write a letter to the Caliph begging him to not retaliate against his uncle and to pardon him. Evidently, he was executed, due to the caliph’s resentment of the terms and language that Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ used in drawing up a guarantee of safe passage for the Caliph’s rebellious uncle, ʿAbdallah b. ʿAli (who was defeated and imprisoned and was killed in 764). Ebn-e Moqaffaʿ was put to death in Basra by Sufyān b. Muʿawiyah, who took his revenge which was not already in terms with this daring kātib, nevertheless, already suspicious of “heresy.” See F. Gabrieli, IBN MUKAFFA, E.I. 2, vol. III,  883.  Also see, Mohammad Taqī Danešpažūh,  Introduction to Al-Mantiq li Ibn al-Muqaffa (Tehran: n.p., 1357/1978), 63.

“In Iran, we don’t have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you we have it.” Male Same-sex Sexuality in the Legislation and Jurisdictions of the IRI


Arash Guitoo <> obtained a BA in Political Sciences from the University of Tehran and a BA in Judicial Sciences from Azad University of Tehran. He pursued Islamic Studies and European Ethnology at Christian-Albrechts-University (Kiel/Germany) where he earned his BA and MA He is currently a PhD candidate and Research Fellow in the Department for Islamic Studies.  The subject of his PhD project is same-sex desire between tradition and modernity in Iran.


Hell on Earth

“If gay people really are going to hell, that hell will probably look something like Iran. In the dark backwaters of the country, gay people are flogged, tortured, abused, and even executed with shocking regularity. Thanks to a 1987 law that legalized sex changes, parents of gay children routinely force them to undergo unwanted hormone treatment, chemical castration, and sexual reassignment surgery to escape being murdered by the regime’s thugs. […] In short, it is possibly the bleakest place in the world to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.”[1]

I found this description of Iran in an article entitled “10 Countries That Completely Hate Gay People” published on a website which produces top-ten “mind-blowing” lists in various categories to entertain or inform its readers. This portrait of Iran as a dangerous place, in which sexual minorities are being oppressed and systematically prosecuted is by no mean an exceptional image but rather the predominant and widely narrated one in various contexts of western societies, be that in travel guides, media reports on LGBT situation or in the scholarly texts.

Of course, there is no question that this portrait is not a product of mere imagination, but the result of actions and legislation of the Islamic Republic. From early months after the revolution, the question of the revival of Islamic sexual morality became one of the signatures of the new elite in power. Islamic sexual morality was not only the characteristic which distinguished the newly installed regime from its predecessor and its “western masters,” but also as an instrument to oppress and to intimidate the political rivals as well as the pro-western urban middle class.[2] The agenda of the revival of Islamic sexual morality was demonstrated, for example, through the prosecution and public execution of committers of livāṭ and zinā, which were intentionally well-covered and highlighted by the national press. With the establishment of the regime in the late 1980s and normalization of the situation, the officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) started to pursue a less aggressive sexual policy and thus the rate of execution due to sexual crimes dropped visibly in the 1990s in comparison to the first years of the revolution. The election of the conservative Aḥmadīnizhād in 2005 let the western world once again remember the sexual politics of the early years of the Iranian Revolution. Besides the images of Aḥmadīnizhād’s victory in 2005, there were some other images, which were broadcasted from Iran and affected the debates on IRI in the western discourse, namely a series of photographs documenting the execution of two young men who were hanged in the days around the presidential election in Mashhad. According to the Farsi sources of the report namely Quds newspaper[3] and ISNA (Iranian Students’ News Agency),[4] both men were arrested around fourteen months before their execution and sentenced to death due to the charge of abduction and rape of a thirteen-year-old boy. Outrage!, an action group with an LGBT cause in Great Britain, seized this news and published the pictures of the execution on its website with the title “Iran Executes Gay Teenagers” a few days later.[5] In the narration of Outrage! it was no longer mentioned that both young men were convicted of sexual assault; the headline suggested instead that these men were executed because of homosexuality. Although a few days later other organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released their more accurate reports which pointed to the conviction on the basis of sexual assault, Outrage! kept on insisting on its narration that the men were executed just because of having consensual gay sex.[6] Outrage!’s version of the story, namely “Iran executing gays,” enjoyed somehow more popularity in the public debates of western societies. It fitted better in the understanding of Aḥmadīnizhād’s rise as a throwback to the early years of revolution, and the execution of sexual minorities was seen as the ramification of this change. Maḥmūd and ‘Ayyāz, the executed young men, became figures of a tragic love story of two gay men, who were prosecuted solely because of their forbidden love.[7]

The issue of oppression of sexual minorities returned once again to the list of questions  Iranian officials were asked about as soon as they were accessible to reporters, students or other politicians[8] and the situation of LGBT community in Iran was more frequently discussed in the western media.[9] Same as the Mashhad case, almost all of the executions monitored by western press as “execution of gays” in the following years, were according to the statements of the Iranian judicial officials as well as national press cases of rape or better said, “forced anal penetration” (livāṭ-i bih ‘unf). Same as to Outrage!’s version, the “rape” accusation was either not mentioned in the western reports or if mentioned was interpreted as a false accusation fabricated by Iranian judiciary to hide the real cause of prosecution, namely punishing those men having consensual sex with each other.[10]

The idea that the political changes in 2005 started a new wave of prosecution of homosexuals, which is practiced under the semblance of fabricated allegations such as rape, gets support in scholarly texts as well. Janet Afary, for instance, supports the view that the prosecution of the gay men and transgressive women increased in 2005 right after the election of “Basiji Ahmadinejad.” The case of Maḥmūd and ʿAyyāz serves her as an example of this claim. Relying on the reports of “independent gay sources inside Iran,” Afary asserts that the charge of sexual assault was fabricated by the Iranian authorities to cover up the execution of “two lovers who lived together” and were well-known in the city’s underground gay community.” She explains the compounding of the charges of homosexuality with others such as “rape and pedophilia” as the regime’s reaction to the international outrage prompted by execution of men on charges of homosexuality.[11]

These statements raise somehow some questions; principally, one may then ask, even if it might be a tasteless question, why is the rate of executions based on rape allegations so low if the IRI has started to crack down gays under this fabricated accusation? This question especially makes sense in the age of the Internet, in which the gay community has become, on the one hand more visible through the possibility of digital networking, and on the other hand more vulnerable because of its hardly erasable footprint and its traceability in virtual space.[12] There are indeed no signs of an attempt by the “digital army” of the IRI to systematically prosecute numerous individuals frequently using gay dating websites or Apps which are similar to many other filtered websites, however broadly accessed through anti-filtering softwares. Of course, it is very probable that a person using dating Apps or websites gets entrapped by undercover Basījīs and faces insult, intimidation, and harassment instead of having a pleasant date. Such incidents seem, however, to be either personally motivated or a part of the State’s tightening of moral restrictions, which has occurred time to time since the revolution up to now. These raids are, however, not a part of a determined agenda of gay prosecution since the entrapped persons are not facing more severe punishments than heterosexual persons who could also get arrested for transgressing public virtue. It is as well not convincing to claim that the low rate of executions could be the result of state’s successful hush-up of the real number of gay prosecutions, since it is unlikely that the officials could keep every case of disappearing gays away from the eyes of human rights organization as well as the gay community over several years, if they have indeed been doing it systematically.

The other allegation that the IRI is covering up the prosecution of consensual same-sex sexual activities under the fabricated accusation of rape or pedophilia is based on poorly documented claims or highly problematic subjective sources, which apparently undergo less critical examination, probably because of the general suspicious attitude towards the IRI. Furthermore, one could ask why the IRI would go through the risk of a public execution of gay men falsely accused of rape, although the officials are aware of the possible reaction of the international community. Why should the regime make an exception to its own supposed policy of hidden executions? What if the transgression being punished is the assault, and not the same-sexness of the sexual offence?

By asking these questions, I am neither suggesting here that those men were “properly” convicted of rape nor am I trying to trivialize the high risks the gay community are facing in Iran with respect to severe punishments decreed by law. The intention behind these questions is moreover to criticize the idea that the executions of convicts to livāṭ are a manifestation of the escalation of “the war against homosexuality and an openly gay lifestyle.”[13] I am somewhat suggesting that the IRI, despite its hostile attitude toward same-sex sexuality, is not considering the elimination of “deviant” subjects involved in same-sex sexual acts as an essential cause and not actively conducting a physical war against “homosexuality.” This reserved attitude is in my view inherent to the understanding of livāṭ in classical Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), to which the authorities of the IRI seem to be committed. The commitment to the Islamic jurisprudence results into a penal policy, which, I claim, has a behavioristic approach towards sexual offences and is not constructing recognizable types of subjects, which are socially visible and hence prosecutable.

The act-type dichotomy underlying this question goes back to Foucault’s perception of modern and premodern sexualities, in which homosexuality as a type of subject is understood as a modern product, while the premodern prosecutions of same-sex offences are considered to be behavioristically motivated. Foucault writes:

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden  acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology with an indiscreet anatomy and a possibly mysterious physiology.[14]

Although I agree with the arguments of those scholars who criticize the universalization of this categorization as the distinguishing feature between modern and premodern sexualities,[15] this dichotomy still implies the distinction between the pre-modern legal approach towards same-sex sexuality from the modern one. Of course, I am also not precluding the possibility of the emergence of a “type of subject” through competitive discourses, such as the medical discourse.[16] I claim, however, that those discourses are not playing a significant role changing the judicial attitude of the IRI towards same-sex sexual offences.

In the first part of this paper, we will discuss the characteristics of ḥadd offences in context of classical Islamic jurisprudence to illustrate the main features of a penal policy towards same-sex sexual crimes, which is based on fiqh. Subsequently, we will look at the legislation of the IRI concerning the punishment of same-sex sexual conduct and examine the Iranian penal policy concerning its continuities and discontinuities of Islamic jurisprudence. Of course, the theoretical continuity of the Islamic discourse in modern Iranian legislation still does not necessarily mean that these regulations are implemented by law-enforcement authorities as they are intended to be. Thus we will also take a look at some decisions of the Supreme Court concerning livāṭ to illustrate the understanding of the judges of this court of the situation. This insight into the legal and judicial approach towards same-sex sexual offences, lead me to conclude that the underlying motive of the actions of the Iranian authorities is the implementation of (their understanding of) Islamic law, which provides the prosecution of livāṭ as a particular act under certain circumstances. This study shall also demonstrate that the notion of homosexuality as a type of subject within the legal discourse of the IRI is absent. In the final part of the paper I shall use the findings of this paper to criticize the western narratives on the issue of LGBT rights and their possible impacts on the situation of LGBT subjects in Iran.


add Offences in fiqh

Livāṭ counts in the Islamic juridical tradition to ḥadd offences, which are primarily violations of a claim of God (ḥaqq al-lāh) and considered to be explicitly sanctioned by the Qur’an or Sunna. These offences have their specific characteristics: their punishment is fixed and unchangeable; the qualification of their fulfillment is strictly described; they have their own exclusionary rule of evidence and a repentance results in their exemption.[17] The hearing of a ḥadd offence is a careful examination of the question if some specific act has occurred under prescribed conditions and if it is proved through its exclusionary prescribed evidence. Any uncertainty (shubhah) in any of the constructing elements or any slight deviation from the prescriptions is a reason for hesitation in prosecuting ḥadd offences and leads to the acquaintance of the defender.[18] The fiqh itself is a source of uncertainty since it is not a uniform legal system but an assemblage of views and debates of the scholars on the divine law, who frequently have different opinions and understandings of the texts.[19] Conflicting rules on a specific subject are not exceptional at all, not only among the schools of law but also among the scholars of the same school. There is also no hierarchal order of these views, in which the position of the majority would automatically discredit the less popular opinions. This variety of views in fiqh result in doubt and uncertainty for any authority implementing them.

It is not only difficult to prosecute and punish ḥadd offences but also for many reasons it is not seen as a prioritized matter. Firstly, the prosecution of violations against a claim of God is not perceived as an urgent cause since the “damaged” party of this crime, namely God, is not only powerful enough to punish any wrongdoing but also free of needs (ghanī) and thus not damaged by the violence.[20] Secondly, the ḥadd punishment itself is not considered as a measure which expiates or purifies the committer from his sin and therefore not a necessity, since the perpetrator will still face a punishment in the hereafter regardless of the worldly punishment, although it is common (but uncertain) belief among Muslim jurists that God shall forgive a perpetrator sentenced to a worldly penalty.[21] Furthermore, the implementation of the punishment is not seen as a necessity for protecting the community from God’s rage, since the assumption that God would impose collective punishments on the whole community due to its indifference towards sins does not prevail among Muslim scholars. Thirdly, the punishment is not the only way to redeem the evil that occurred since all transgressions of claims of God could also be settled through repentance (taubah). The main reason for implementing the penalty, as the Islamic scholars declare themselves, is deterring the public from those wrongdoings considered harmful to society.[22] If the undesirable acts were not severely sanctioned, individuals would not effectively be prevented from committing them, and this would lead to social decay. The fear of the spread of the wrongdoing illustrates, in my opinion, the behavioristic character of ḥadd offences. The offence is seen here as a misdeed which could theoretically be imitated by any other member of the community and is not associated with any particular feature inherent to the wrongdoer.

What are the possible features of a penal system which is committed to the above understanding of ḥadd punishment? The judicial system would probably not take the initiative to prosecute ḥadd offences, as they are difficult to prove and furthermore their prosecution could get redundant in most cases through the possibility of the repentance of the sinner. The prosecution is however more likely if the public is affected by the crime or if the rights of a third party are violated through it, as the public deterrence is seen as the raison d’être of the offence. I believe this description applies to the penal policy of the IRI regarding sexual offences. To support this claim, we shall take a look at male same-sex offences in the legislation and jurisprudence of the IRI.


Male Same-sex Sexual Offences in the Legislation and Jurisdictions of the IRI

The Penal Code of 1996,[23] which is the prevailing law of most decisions we discuss later, defined livāṭ as anal intercourse as well as intercrural sex (tafkhīẕ) between two male persons.[24] The anal intercourse was sanctioned through death penalty, and the intercrural sex was punished by 100 lashes.[25] Whereas insanity and force/duress exempted the accused from punishment, immaturity[26] didn’t necessarily lead to an acquittal of the charge. Immature men who got consciously and willingly involved in the act of livāṭ could be sentenced to a discretionary punishment (ta‘zīr) up to 74 lashes. Other activities among men such as passionate kissing or lying nude under the same blanket were penalized through less severe ta‘zīr punishments.[27]

The new Penal Code, which entered into force in 2009,[28] brought a few changes regarding the definition of livāṭ and its punitive measures. According to this Code, livāṭ is the act of anal penetration among two men, once the glans is inserted into the anus. The new Code also distinguishes between the punishment of penetrator and penetratee of a livāṭ act: the active person in the same-sex anal penetration would only then be sentenced to death if he has forced the sexual act or fulfills the conditions of iḥṣān; otherwise, he gets sentenced to 100 lashes. The same paragraph defines iḥṣān as the status of being permanently married to a mature woman, with whom the offender has almost had a (vaginal) intercourse and who is “available” to him, as soon as he desires.[29] An adult penetratee is however exempted from the punishment only in the case of force or duress and thus not affected by the iḥṣān rule.[30] There are no differences between the active and passive one when it comes to other less severe offences like intercrural sex, which is punished by 100 lashes. Some other forms of sexually motivated activities such as passionate embrace and caresses are sanctioned under the term homosexuality of the male human (hamjinsgarā’ī-i insān-i muẕakkar) and punished with a maximum of 74 lashes.[31]

The act of livāṭ is proven to the court only either through the testimony of four mature men or a four-time confession of the accused. The new Penal Code removed the ambiguous evidence “knowledge of judge” (‘ilm-i qā), a controversial proof provided in the previous Code, from the rule of evidence for livāṭ.[32] The new Code prohibits as well any form of investigation of private matters concealed from the public eye.[33] This prohibition is also provided by the Penal Procedure Law of 2013, which allows the investigation and prosecution of crimes against Public Virtue (‘iffat-i ‘umūmī), which are sexual offences with ḥadd or ta‘zīr punishments,[34]  only if the crime was either visible to the public or committed through force or prosecuted under the account of a private complaint. This Law also rules that in the case of a voluntarily expressed self-denunciation (confession) the judges are recommended to invite the confessing person to keep silence so as not to denounce themselves.[35] The judges are also committed to informing the witnesses about the legal consequences of a false or invalid testimony in such cases,[36] namely the possibility of being charged with sexual defamation (qaẕf), a ḥadd offence punished by 80 lashes.[37]

Once accused to or found guilty for livāṭ, one could escape capital punishment through repentance (taubah), denial after confession (inkār-i ba‘d az iqrār) or pardon (‘afv). If the defendant repents before the offence is proven, he would be exempted from the capital punishment, provided the judge is convinced of his repentance and his rehabilitation/correction.[38] This regulation is also applicable for those who committed rape and would reduce their punishment to imprisonment or lashings. In a conviction which results from a confession, the convict can also deny the act and take his confession back, which results in the exposure to the death penalty and its reduction to 100 lashes. All convicts to livāṭ are entitled to access to pardon except those whose convictions are based on the testimony of four witnesses.[39]

As I mentioned before, under the traditional understanding of Islamic law there is a reluctance to convict a defendant for ḥadd offences. This attitude has been adopted in the Iranian Penal Code as seen in the rules of evidence and punishment prescribed. The reluctance to initiate a prosecution and to implement the punishment, which we find in the classic understanding of a ḥadd crime, is reflected in those provisions which order the judges to discourage a defendant from self-incrimination, and to deter the witnesses from testifying by reminding them of the severe punishment for false testimony. The death penalty could in most cases be avoided through measures such as repentance or denial, even if the “guilt” of the perpetrator is proved, which demonstrates somehow the secondary importance of the elimination of the perpetrator. If the law-enforcement bodies are committed to the existing laws, it would be quite unlikely that the prosecution of a same-sex sexual offence results in the execution of the perpetrator. Only the penetratee of a consensual sexual act and his married sex-partner, who have been found guilty on the basis of testimony and who have not repented before the hearing of the evidence, have theoretically no chance to escape capital punishment. The certainty of the death penalty in the case of witness testimony illustrates as well another feature of ḥadd, namely the decisive role of the public in implementing the penalty. As we observed, one of the primary objectives of the implementation of a add punishment in the Islamic law is to serve as a general deterrent. If an offence has been seen and reported by a member of the public, then it is necessary for the legal system to prosecute and punish the perpetrator. This concern explains to my view the rigorous approach of the Penal Code towards those offenders convicted on the basis of witness testimony in comparison to those whose conviction results from a confession.

If we look at the recent changes of the Penal Code, it is clear that there are no signs of the emergence of a modern notion of homosexuality through these new changes. On the contrary, the major changes regarding livāṭ are responses to concerns raised on the compatibility of the former laws with sharia’s regulations. All of the major changes of the law, such as the removal of knowledge of the judge (‘ilm-i qā) as a proof to livāṭ, the adoption of the possibility of denial after confession and the introduction of iḥṣān as a decisive factor for the degree of punishments are indeed matters which we find in the of classical fiqh scholarly discussions.

The only term found in the legislation, which may suggest a shift from a behaviorist understanding of the offence towards the perception of the wrongdoing as inherent to the wrongdoer is the modern term for homosexuality (hamjinsgarā’ī). This word is indeed used in the new Penal Code, which leads some activists and journalists to conclude that the IRI is taking a step towards criminalizing homosexuality as a way of life.[40] The new Penal Code is however not using this expression to refer to a “state of being” or a certain “type of subject.” The word is instead functioning as an umbrella term for some behaviors already sanctioned and treated as undesirable in classical works of Islamic legal tradition, such as passionate touching (mulāmisat az rū-yi shahwat).

The continuity of the Classical Islamic legal discourse in modern Iranian law does not allow us to claim that the authorities of the IRI are following the premodern behavioristic approach towards the offence, and are interpreting the provisions as they are intended to be. Of course, it is imaginable that the interpretation of the law-enforcement bodies deviates from those of the classical law or fiqh. As we saw, the scope of action of the judges is defined very broadly in the law. From one side they have measures at their disposal which could stop the trial at a very early stage. They can postpone the hearing of evidence, or accept the repentance of the defendant before the prosecution has begun. At the same time, if they insist on punishment, they have massive influence with respect to the penalty, since they can reject the repentance or refuse to pass the request for pardon to the higher instances. Thus, it is essential to ask whether the presiding judges are interpreting these rules in their classical context or are possibly  homophobic agents utilizing these laws to prosecute the accused.


Livāṭ in the Decisions of the Supreme Court

Since the hearings of the offences against public virtue are not held publicly, it is difficult to gain detailed insight into the judicial practice regarding the prosecution of sexual crimes. Still, we can obtain some information on the implementation of the legislation in the Iranian courts and the judicial interpretation of the situation, if we take a look at the decisions of the Supreme Court and its Chambers. The decisions of the Supreme Court in its function as the final arbiter of a trial are not a binding source of law. But the rulings still reflect the interpretation, understanding, and perceptions of one of the highest judicial authorities of the country which must approve any case of capital punishment before it is carried out.

The first case we discuss was referred to the Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court in 1997, where an eighteen-year-old man was accused of the rape (livāṭ-i bih ‘unf) of a ten-year-old boy and was sentenced to death. His guilt was proven through four confessions, all of which were obtained by the judge on the same day where the defendant was asked to leave the court after giving each confession and returning for the next one. The charge was also supported by a forensic medical report which verified injuries and the deformation of the rectum of the victim due to penetration of a “hard object.” The judge refused the repentance of the defendant and sentenced him to death. The appeal court objected to this decision and returned the case to another chamber with two arguments: first, the defendant should give four separate confessions, and second, there is no indication which would lead to the assumption that the repentance is not credible. In the new trial, the defendant confessed in three different hearings to livāṭ but argued at the same time that he was not aware of the death punishment and repented from his deeds in each hearing. In the fourth day, he confessed to intercrural sex and denied the penetration. The court rejected his repentance due to his criminal record (prior convictions for intercrural sex) and insisted on the decision of the first court and sentenced him to death proven by four confessions. Once again, the appeal court overturned this decision due to lack of required evidence, namely the four required confessions and sent the case to the penal chamber of the Supreme Court for a final decision. The majority of the judges of the court concluded that in this case the required evidence for a conviction to livāṭ is not present and acquitted the defendant of the charge. The judges argued that confessions passed in very first trial had lost their validity due to the overturning of the decision of the first instance by a higher court. Furthermore, the confessions in the second court were considered insufficient for a death penalty, as the defendant had admitted in the last confession only to intercrural sex. Some judges also contended that the repentance in the first court should be regarded as a repentance before confessions in the second court, which exposes the accused to the death penalty. In the discussions on the question whether the confessions are to be given in four hearings, while the judges tended to consider four confessions on the same day as valid, they recommended the distribution of confessions over four days, due to the principle of caution (iḥtiyā). The judges of the Supreme Court also objected the decisions of the lower courts for rejecting the repentance of the defendant without any justification and stated that it is to the courts to prove the dishonesty of the defendant.[41]

In another case which was heard by the General Assembly of the Supreme Court in 2010, three young men were sentenced to death for to the rape of a thirteen-year-old boy in 2005. In the first day of the hearing all three defendants had confessed four times to the assault yet on the second day denied their statements. The judge had found them guilty due to their confessions on the first day and sentenced them to death. The revision court had objected to this decision due to a procedural error since the legal representatives of the defendants were not present on the first day of the hearing and thus rendered the confessions invalid. The case was once again heard in another trial court, which insisted on the death penalty due to the confessions in the first instance, the forensic reports and the negative reputation of the defendants. Once again, the case was reviewed in the revision court, which subsequently overturned the decision. This court accepted the claim of the defendants that they confessed under pressure from the investigating officials and raised severe doubts about the validity of this evidence. The court also considered the forensic report not to be reliable enough to ascertain that this particular act of livāṭ happened since in the report it is only mentioned that the injury had occurred through penetration of a “hard object,” which could have been anything. The court stated as well that the negative reputation of the defendants did not count as evidence for this particular accusation. As the third trial court insisted on the death penalty, the matter was discussed in the General Assembly of the Supreme Court. The Court supported the arguments of the last Revision Court and approved it and acquitted the defendants of the charge.[42]

We also find cases of convictions based on consensual same-sex sexual conduct which were examined by the Supreme Court. A Chamber of Supreme Court heard in 1990 the case of two young men who were found guilty on the basis of their confession during the initial investigation. This decision was also supported by a report of forensic medicine which testified to the permanent deformation of the rectum of one of the defendants (the penetratee), which was seen as a result of repeated penetrations over an extended period of time. The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the first instance with the reasoning that there were doubts about the validity of evidence since the confessions were made in the investigative phase and not during the official hearing. Furthermore, they objected that the forensic medical report could not concretely confirm that this specific act of livāṭ between the defendants had happened and discharged both men.[43]

The role of the the judges in these cases is consistent with the expectation of Islamic law in dealing with a ḥadd offence. As we mentioned, the elements of these crimes, as well as the rules of evidence concerning the exclusion of certain confessions and their punishments are all prescribed in Islamic law and the judges had to carefully examine if all those provisions were fulfilled. The judges of the Supreme Court seemed to be committed to this maxim. They examined the validity of the decisions of the lower courts in respect to Islamic law and then the codified law. The fiqh texts served as a source for the interpretation of the codified law and for responding to the ambiguities which occurred during the hearing. The judges, who were mostly clergy, frequently crossed the boundaries of codified law and took into account scholarly debates on livāṭ which are not in codified law. We find in their discussions, for example, notions such as the role of iḥṣān or insufficiency of the knowledge of the judge as evidence to livāṭ long before they were adopted by the Penal Code of 2009. It is also notable that the forensic findings played an insignificant role in the decisions of the court, which indicated the adherence of the judges to the strict and non-negotiable evidence rule of this ḥadd offence.[44] Furthermore, the judges seemed to have the same behavioristic approach towards the offence, which we find in the classical understanding of livāṭ. The personality or the psyche of the wrongdoer appeared irrelevant to the Supreme Court judges in their decisions and discussions. As we observed, neither the criminal record of convictions to same-sex sexual offences nor the findings of forensic medicine, which attested to regular anal intercourse, served as indicators to the judges, which would let them find the defendant guilty in the case they were hearing. None of those circumstances led the judges to conclude that the behavior was an expression of some continuous quality inherent to the personality of the defendant, which would have made the judges more biased towards him.

We observe that the legal approach of the Islamic Republic towards same-sex sexual offences is a continuity of the Islamic legal tradition, not only on the point of the adoption of harsh measures but also in the conception, perception, interpretation of this offence. This tradition is characterized by the absence of active prosecution of wrongdoers and the reluctance of implementing capital punishment as long as the public is not affected by the crime. In this traditional understanding the crime is treated as a singular act of violation and thus the personality of the offender and his character traits do not play a role on the prosecution and the trial. The more committed the law-enforcing bodies remain to this traditional understanding of the offence, the more unlikely it is that this penal policy leads to a systematic prosecution of people conducting it and I believe this commitment to the tradition is by and large present in the penal policy of the IRI.


Some Final Remarks

It is difficult to imagine that the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran are unaware of the existence of Iranians who identify themselves as gay. Of course, they are well-equipped enough to be able to increase pressure on the gay community and intensify the prosecution of sexual offences. Nevertheless, they seem to lack the will to actively fight against same-sex sexual conduct or to eliminate this community altogether. The regulations regarding military service offer a perfect example for the awareness of the IRI about the existence of gay citizens and the absence of any intention to punish them. For more than a decade it is possible to be exempted from the military service for homosexuality.[45] “Disorders (kazhkhū’ī) which are against military or social norms (shu’ūnāt-e ijtimāʿi wa nizāmī) such as sexual deviances (inḥirāfāt-i jinsī) and homosexuality” may exempt one permanently from military service, as per  paragraph 7 of Chapter 5 of the current Regulation of Medical Exemption of Military Service.[46] One may be skeptical of this provision and assume it is designed to keep a register of gays for possible future prosecution. But this regulation seems to be ineffective as a register as not many gay Iranians are making use of this possibility to get exempted from military service, since the bureaucratic process they have to go through is not only utterly humiliating, but also often ends in an unwanted “coming-out” of the applicants in front of their parents. The regulation seems to be a response to the problem overt homosexuality in public spaces and is fueled by the fear of spreading the undesired behavior among the others in society. Apart from the intentions of the regulation, its existence per se shows that the IRI is aware of the presence of subjects who get involved in same-sex sexual conducts yet is still not showing any intention to prosecute them.

I am of course not claiming that there aren’t any risks of being prosecuted and punished for same-sex sexual conduct in Iran and that the gay Iranians or those having same-sex sex are having a life free from the fear of facing prosecution and harassment. I am, however, suggesting that the judicial authorities of the IRI seem to be committed to a traditional understanding of same-sex sexual offences, which is characterized by the reluctance to prosecute sexual offences. As long as this perception prevails among the judicial authorities, it is less likely that they will initiate a systematical prosecution of same-sex sexual offences. Once the view of the judicial officials is “modernized” and they start to conceive gays as a social group, which is more suspected for practicing livāṭ, then we need to be alert to potential worsening of the situation of gays in Iran.

In this respect, the reports in the western medias regarding “Prosecution of Gays in Iran” could have a negative impact on the lives of the gay Iranians and increase their vulnerability. Those reports are not only objectively inaccurate and fail to provide their readers with differentiated information on the situation of gays in Iran, as I tried to demonstrate in this paper, but also exploit the LGBT issues for the “othering” of non-western (Muslim) societies and as a demarcation line between those societies and the liberal western world.[47] This process makes at the same time the anti-LGBT positions to serve as the marker of being Islamic or anti-western in the Muslim societies. As soon as taking an anti-Western course or showing dedication to Islam gets politically relevant for the actors in power, then the members of LGBT community are probably at the top of the list for suppression and harassment, as we have observed by the increase of anti-gay crack-downs in many parts of the Muslim world such as in Egypt, Chechnya, Azerbaijan or Indonesia in the last two decades.


[1]Morris, M., “10 Countries That Completely Hate Gay People,” Listverse, 30 December 2013,

[2]Concerning the sexual politics of the revolutionary Iran, see Janet Afary, Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 265-271.

[3]For the story of Quds newspaper, seeمحمود_عسگری_و_ایاز_مرهونی.

[4]“ḥukm-i i‘dām-i dū muttaham-i bih livāṭ-i bih ‛unf ijrā shud,” ISNA 19 July 2005,حكم-اعدام-دو-متهم-به-لواط-به-عنف-اجرا-شد.

[5]“Iran Hangings,”, Outrage!, 23 June 2006,

[6]For the controversies in this case, see Scott Long, “Unbearable Witness: How Western Activists (Mis)recognize Sexuality in Iran,” Contemporary Politics 15, no. 1 (2009): 119-136.

[7]For example, the play Haram! Iran! was brought in 2010 to stage and was based on a “true story of forbidden love” with the words of Huffington Post’s contributor Jed Ryan. Ryan saw in the story of Maḥmūd and ‘Ayyāz, “…an incident [that] opened many people’s eyes on the situation for those [LGBT people] who haven’t [made some modest gains regarding visibility and rights].” The play made its New York debut in March 2017. See Jed Ryan, “HARAM! IRAN! True Story of Forbidden Love in The Middle East Comes To New York Stage,” Huffpost, 11 March 2017,

[8]The reformist president Khātamī, who was more than any other Iranian official out and about on the international stage, did not face the question regarding the execution of gays until September 2006. During his speech at Harvard, as the former president, he defended the death penalty as a suitable measure for this “misdeed.” Aḥmadīnizhād, on the other hand, faced this question in almost every encounter with a western actor. His response to the student who asked him about penalizing homosexuality in Iran is perhaps one of his most memorable quotes as the President of IRI: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals. In Iran, we don’t have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you we have it.” His audience, the students and staff of Columbia University in 2007 laughed and booed after this remark. For Khātamī’s remark, see “Khatami Slams ‘Imperial’ U.S,” The Harvard Crimson, 11 September 2006,, and for Aḥmadīnizhād’s remark see Claudia Parsons, “Iranian President Spars with Academics in NY,” Reuters, 24 September 2007,

[9]See for example, “Iran Executes Three Men on Homosexuality Charges,” 7 September 2011,, or Shehab, Khan, “Iran Executes Gay Teenager for Crime Allegedly Committed as a Teenager,” 4 August 2016, or Benjamin Weinthal, “Iran Executes Gay Teenager in Violation of International Law,” 4 August 2016,

[10]I am not claiming at this point, that there is a single narration circulating in the western texts. As mentioned, human rights monitoring organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch are documenting the cases more carefully. They are of course condemning the death penalty and juvenile prosecution in general but remain cautious on categorizing the executions as actions against homosexuality. See for example, Human Rights Watch, We Are a Buried Generation: Discrimination and Violence against Sexual Minorities in Iran (New York: Human Rights Watch 2010), 27-32.

[11]Afary, Sexual Politics, 358-359.

[12]Concerning the emergence of an LGBT community and a “gay” identity, see Pardis Mahdavi, “Questioning the Global Gays(ze): Constructions of Sexual Identities in Post-revolution Iran,” Social Identities 18, no. 2 (2012): 223-237. See also Abouzar Nasirzadeh, “The Role of Social Media in the Lives of Gay Iranians,” in Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society After 2009, ed. David M. Faris and Babak Rahimi (Albany: Sunny Press 2015), 57-75.

[13]Afary, Sexual Politics, 398.

[14]Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: An Introduction (New York: Pantheon Books 1978), 43.

[15]Afsaneh Najmabadi, for instance, questions aptly the applicability of this dichotomy in context of sexualities in pre-modern Iran and argues that although the notion of “homosexual as a type” did not exist in this time, there are still identifications based on desire types, which did not go unnoted by their contemporaries. See Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press 2005), 19-23.

[16]In fact, the medicalizing of homosexuality is frequently discussed as a process in which the authorities of the IRI are constructing “types of deviant subjects” and at the same time stigmatizing them. A careful examination of the scholarly works on this issue goes far beyond the scope of this study. Briefly summed up, it is frequently argued that the discourse on transsexuality and the encouraging policy of the IRI towards surgical sex-change are at the same time reproducing and reinforcing a heteronormative order and hence constructing and marginalizing homosexuality as a pathological type. For a more comprehensive study on transsexuality in the IRI, see Afsaneh Najmabadi, Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2014) or see Susan Stryker, “Transsexuality and Biopolitics in Iran,” in Journal of Women’s History 28, vol. 4 (2016): 179-182.

[17]There are of course differences among and within Law Schools about the nature and scope of udūd, which can not be discussed here. See Rudolph Peters, Crime and Punishment in Islamic Law: Theory and Practice from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 53-55. See also Wael B. Hallaq, Sharīʿa, Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009), 311-312.

[18]This maxim is reflected in a prophetic adīth. See Hallaq, Sharīʿa, 311.

[19]Rudolph Peters, “From Jurists’ Law to Statue Law or What Happens When the Shari’a is Codified,” in Shaping the Current Islamic Reformation, ed. Barbara A. Roberson (London and Portland: Frank Cass, 2003), 84-85.

[20]Ibid., 55.

[21]Ibid., 54-55.

[22]Ibid., 55; also Hallaq, Sharīʿa, 311.

[23]The Law is available at

[24]Penal Code 1996, Paragraph 108.

[25]Ibid., Paragraph 121.

[26]Female maturity is reached at the age of nine, and male maturity is reached at the age of fifteen (lunar years).

[27]Penal Code 1996, Paragraph 123 and 124.

[28]The law was finally ratified 2014 after a test phase of five years. The law can be found at

[29]Penal Code 2009, Paragraph 234.

[30]Ibid., Paragraph 234.

[31]Ibid., Paragraph 237.

[32] Penal Code 1996, Paragraph 120.

[33] Penal Code 2009, Paragraph 241.

[34]Penal Procedure Law 2013, Paragraph 306. The law could be found atقانون-آیین-دادرسی-کیفری-با-اصلاحات-1394-سایت-حقوقی-اختبار1.pdf.

[35]Ibid., Paragraph 102-1.

[36]Ibid., Paragraph 102-2.

[37]Penal Code 2009, Paragraph 250.

[38]Penal Code 2009, Paragraph 114.

[39]The pardon of the convict is practiced in the IRI by the Supreme Leader and regulated through the Guideline of the Commission on Pardon and Reduction of Punishments, an organ of the Judiciary responsible for suggesting the possible candidates for pardon. For the Guideline see

[40]Ḥamīd Parnīyān, “Vaẓ‘īyat-i Hamjinsgarāyan dar Qānūn-i Jadīd-i Mujāzāt-i Islāmī,” Radiozamaneh, 22 December 2012,

[41]Daftar-i Muṭāli‘āt va Taḥqīqāt-i Dīvān-i ‘Ālī-i Kishvar, Muẕākirāt va Ārā-i Hay’at-i ‚umūmī-i Dīvān-i ‘Ālī-i Kishvar (Tehrān: Idārah-yi vaḥdat-i rayīyah va nashr-i muẕakirāat-i Dīvān-i ‘Ālī-i Kishvar, 1378sh), 471-490.

[42]Summary of the decision available on: Paygāh-i Iṭṭilā’-risānī-i Ḥuqūqī-i Iran, “Ra’y-i Iṣrārī-i Kayfarī-i Dīvān-i ‘Ālī-i Kishvar: Istinād bih Qā’idah-yi Dar’ Mawjib-i Muntafī Shudan-i Ḥukm-i I’dām Shud,” 25 September 2018,

[43]Yadullāh Bāzgīr, Qānūn-i Mujāzāt-i Islāmī dar A’īnah-i Arā’-i Dīvān-i ‘Ālī-i Kishvar: Ḥudūd, Jarā’im-i Khalāf-i Akhlāq-i Ḥasanah (Tehrān: Nashr-i Hastān, 1378sh.), 125.

[44]It is frequently said, that the IRI is using forensic medicine to intensify and optimize the prosecution of the male homosexuals. The influence of forensic reports in the discussed cases, however, qualifies this allegation. See Afary, Sexual Politics, 359 or or K. Korycki and A. Nasirzadeh, “Homophobia as a Tool of Statecraft: Iran and its Queers” in Global Homophobias: States, Movements, and the Politics of Oppression, ed. Meredith L. Weiss and Michael J. Bosia (Champaign, ILL: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 189.

[45]HRW wrongly claims that these regulations are prohibiting gay men from service and categories these measures as discriminatory, although these rules are optional and do not hinder gay men from the service. See Human Rights Watch, “We are Buried,” 23-27.

[46]The regulation could be downloaded from the website of Tabnak Professional News Site under:

[47]For the role of (homo)sexuality in self-identification of western societies, see Jasbir Puar,

Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007), 3-24.  For a critical view on the “othering” of muslim societies on the basis of their sexualities see Joseph A. Massad, Desiring Arabs (Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press 2007), 160-190.

Exilic, Diasporic, and Ethnic Media: Hamid Naficy’s Oeuvre from an International Communication Perspective

Mehdi Semati <> is Professor and Acting Chair in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. His writings on Iranian culture and media, and international communication have appeared in various scholarly journals. His books include Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with Globalization and the Islamic State (2008), and New Frontiers in International Communication Theory (2004). His Persian publications include a book titled, The Age of CNN and Hollywood: National Interests, Transnational Communication (2006). His latest book is a co-edited volume titled, ISIS Beyond the Spectacle: Communication Media, Networked Publics, and Terrorism (2018).

Hamid Naficy is justly recognized as the foremost authority on Iranian cinema and its social history. A prolific scholar, he has written on various topics and areas in film studies. Among these, and beyond expository and theoretical writings on Iranian cinema and its history, he has produced scholarship on the Middle Eastern cinema, Palestinian film letters, exilic cinema, ethnographic film, Third World spectatorship and modes of address, transnational cinema, independent transnational film genre, and Iranian Émigré Cinema, among others. My contention in this paper is that although this professional identity is accurate and well deserved, it is reductive for the work he has produced. Naficy’s oeuvre covers a wider range of scholarly preoccupations and theoretical and empirical domains. Although my discussion in this paper traverses these different domains, I write from a specific disciplinary location, that of International Communication. I argue that his work is trans/inter-disciplinary in character, operating at the intersection of three specific areas of Cultural Studies, “post-colonial” theory, and media theory. The connection between these three areas is tied to specific articulations and problematizations of borders, belonging, Otherness, (trans)national imaginary, states of liminality, and the broader question of culture’s relationship to power and geopolitics. I make my argument by indexing Naficy’s work to a range of topics, concepts and problematizations central to the field of International Communication. In this context, I hope to demonstrate that Naficy’s oeuvre is best explained beyond the confines of cinema studies precisely because it engages and inhabits borders and embodies the porosity of borders of various kind, be they intellectual, disciplinary, affective, geopolitical, or geographical.

In the Beginning…

I begin with some biographical information, not as evidence but as anecdotes, to suggest how scholarships, as abstraction as they might seem, produce specific effects and become organizing elements of other contexts. Anecdotes, as Meghan Morris observes, are “primarily referential. They are oriented futuristically towards the construction of a precise, local, and social discursive context, of which the anecdote then functions as a mise en abyme. That is to say, anecdotes are not expressions of personal experience but allegorical expositions of a model of the way the world can be said to be working.”[1] Two formative encounters are revealed in the anecdotes that frame my discussion in this paper. One of these anecdotes involves my first encounter with the work of Hamid Naficy. The other is about a teacher of mine in middle school in Iran that admonished me about my cinematic heroes.

I must have been 15 or 16 years old, if not younger, when I first saw Hamid Naficy’s name in print. I believe it was in Film (فیلم), a Persian-language magazine devoted to cinema I used to read in Iran as a teenager. Elsewhere I had seen his writings on film translated into Persian from English. I fancied myself as a film buff, and whenever I saw a text written by an author with an Iranian name that had been translated into Persian I would take interest in it. I would ask myself, what is it like to write in a language that was not one’s native language? What was it like to read the same writing after it was translated into one’s native language? It was fascinating to me. Moreover, I wondered, how does one write about cinema in a language that is not one’s own native language? It struck me as an impossible task. After all, I thought cinema as an art form, much like poetry, resisted “translation.” Could it be that it takes a particular talent to do that? At the same time, I asked myself: Could it be that there is something about cinema that makes it different, more susceptible to translation, something that is transnational in its essence? At the time, the word “international” was more meaningful to a young person in Iran than transnational.

The second anecdote is about a formative experience I had as a young person. Around the same time, I had been admonished in school by one of my teachers, a certain gentleman by the name of Mr. Attaran, for a drawing I had done in an art class. Having produced a drawing of a Hollywood star (Charles Bronson), he told me my art project reflected “cultural bankruptcy” on my part. I did not understand what that meant. I think I was only fourteen years old. Several years later, I moved to the United States to start my undergraduate education and the pursuit of higher education. I abandoned my desire to study chemistry, a subject I always enjoyed, partly because Mr. Attaran’s admonition had stayed with me. I was determined to study a field in which I could explore what it means to be “culturally bankrupt.” Against this background, I chose the topic of my first paper as an undergraduate student in the United States ambitiously. I had decided to write, in an International Communication class, which was now my major, a paper titled, “What is Cultural Imperialism?” Although the paper was not my best work in the eyes of my professor, it put me on a path that led me to International Communication as a professional preoccupation and a field of inquiry. At the intersection of these two contexts one could see the relationship of culture and territory, culture and place, culture and mobility (migration and exile), culture and geopolitics, all of which can be formalized as scholarly inquiries addressing the problem of border. Naficy’s work goes beyond cinema studies to cut across these domains and presents itself as resources for addressing Communication and the border.

The designation of International Communication as a “field” rather than a “discipline” is intentional in this context and it foretells a conceptual complication that I wish to exploit productively. As I have argued elsewhere, the heterogeneity of scholarly pursuits and their objects of study under the banner of International Communication does not accommodate any unmuddled disciplinary identity.[2] Moreover, attempts at defining what constitutes the field gets us entangled in arguments over definitions and disciplinary borders, though such arguments are sometimes heuristic. However, designating international communication studies as a “field” gets us closer to viewing international communication studies as a mode of “organizing inquiry.” As Peters has argued, ways of organizing knowledge is historically mutable. The impulse to organize knowledge into fields and disciplines is a vestige of a past: “Through the 19th century, the diverse inquiries thitherto done mainly by moral philosophers and historians became rationalized into the social sciences as we know them: history, economics, sociology, psychology, political science, and anthropology.”[3] Instead of fretting over not being one of those disciplines, he argues, “we might more usefully think of it as a prime example of a newer, nascent way of organizing inquiry.”[4] Inquiry tends to ignore the established disciplinary boundaries, and is driven by preoccupation with topics. As Peters observes, “We all study topics today; ‘studies’ can be attached to almost any area of inquiry.”[5] In this sense, much of the work in Communication Studies, International Communication included, cuts across traditional disciplinary borders. Moreover, in showing how Naficy’s work addresses various topics (“areas”) of interest to International Communication, I hope my presentation in this paper reveals the equally interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary character of Naficy’s work. His work might be characterized as, to use a concept he deploys in his writings, “interstitial,” for its basic character productively falls between the boundaries and not within them.

Indexing Naficy’s Work to International Communication  

The range of topics in International Communication encompassed in Naficy’s work is wide-ranging. Here I have limited space and will only address a few. I start with one of the most obvious connections to International Communication as a field, and that is the topic of “development,” as addressed from the theoretical perspective of “modernization.” His account of the social history of Iranian cinema outlines the modernization perspective while avoiding its apolitical tendencies.[6] Cinema in this context is not simply a cultural product that is exported. Rather, it has to be explicated as an element in a complex of transformations across Iranian society and history. In that regard, one of Naficy’s goals in this social history project is to “situate Iranian cinema at the intersection of state-driven authoritarian modernization, nationalist and Islamist politics, and geopolitics during its tumultuous century, charting the manner in which local, national, regional, and international powers competed for ascendancy in Iran, affecting what Iranians saw on screens, what they produced, and the technologies they adopted.”[7] As Naficy treats it, that complex includes “the emergence of mature capitalism, organized entrepreneurial investment, centralized and industrialized manufacturing, free market competition, and extensive import and export across national borders.”[8]

Naficy’s narrative takes account of modernization projects in relationship to both internal factors (state formation, local cultural dispositions and norms, etc.) and external factors (Iran’s integration into the neocolonial and capitalist Western economies). His discussion of “syncretic Westernization,” a mixture of identification and alienation, provides nuances of the cultural dimensions of “Occidentalization” of Iranians and all the ambivalence toward modernity and modernization they display. In this narrative of “modernization,” Naficy provides an expansive view of development and modernization in meticulous details.[9] In discussing the professional structure that came to govern the film industry, for example, he shows that the industry needed to undergo modernization and industrialization in both its production, distributional and exhibition infrastructures, and its professional structures: “Civil institutions were redesigned to recognize and protect the movie industry’s various professions, to preserve the industry’s products, and to promote the study, criticism, and propagation of the industry and its products.”[10] In short, the analyses he provides in his social history of Iranian cinema offers an extensive discussion of various dimensions of modernization and developments that is at once theoretically rich and empirically grounded.

The geopolitical encounter between Iran and the West in relationship to politics of culture is addressed in Naficy’s work in a manner that recalls the origins of International Communication in propaganda studies and its latter day variants of “strategic communication” and “public diplomacy.” In this context, Naficy’s discussion of instrumentalization of culture includes aspects of cultural imperialism arguments that have been a part of International Communication in various forms for decades.[11] Reflecting on the state’s responses to the unrest that followed the disputed presidential election of 2009 in Iran, Naficy “historicizes this most recent resurfacing of the cultural assault in the context of the mutual debate about political instrumentalization of culture and media in order to show its roots, variety of forms, and continual evolution.”[12] Here Naficy unpacks decades of Islamic Republic’s deployment of culture to vilify and intimidate its opponents and critics both internationally and domestically. Although the discourse of cultural imperialism, with its critical Marxist lineage, is usually an occasion to interrogate the presence (“dumping”) of Western (i.e., American) cultural products in the Global South, Naficy shows how it is used as a pretext in Iran to silence critics and justify repressive measures.

The instrumentalization of culture in Iran has included specific cultural productions and broader cultural policies that intended to implement ideological goals and visions of the state. Using state-run broadcasting system, for example, the state has routinely targeted intellectuals, writers, artists and other cultural forms it deems a threat to its hegemonic order. Television programs such as Hoviyat (“Identity”) reproduced the cultural assault thesis by claiming Iranian intellectuals, be they inside or outside Iran, were the agents of foreign powers who were the enemies of the Islamic Republic. Later on, other broadcasting programs would vilify cultural forms such as rap, rock or heavy metal music as “unIslamic,” pronouncing them as corrupting influences on the Iranian youth, going as far as claiming that such cultural activities would lead to devil-worshiping. This approach to culture was largely in line with the “cleansing” (“paksazi”) of cultural and intellectual life of the nation during the “cultural revolution” that had taken place immediately after the revolution of 1979. However, such policies have largely been unsuccessful in “Islamization” of popular culture. The opposition to hardline policies by political figures and entities associated with the reform movement has meant the struggle over the control of culture and cultural policies is a proxy wars between competing factions within the political system of the Islamic Republic, a struggle over what it means to be an Iranian and a citizen of the Islamic Republic.

It should be pointed out that Naficy addresses “mutual instrumentalization” of culture in this context, implicating both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States. The United States has long been active in “public diplomacy,” attempting to influence the public opinion of other nations, including Iran, through government-funded activities in terrestrial broadcasting (e.g., Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Voice of America) and later through satellite television. Those efforts by the United States have aggressively moved to online activities as well, targeting Iranian citizens in different venues, often in the form of attempts to “educate” them in issues related to civil society. When the United States publicly announces that it has allocated $75 million for public diplomacy to engage Iranian citizens, and additional millions of dollars “to fund U.S. and Iranian exile media to destabilize the Islamist regime and to encourage democratic efforts within the country,”[13] it is clear why such efforts would be a source of constant heartburn for the Islamic Republic. As an old saying amongst the researchers in this area would put it, just because the Iranian authorities are paranoid, it does mean some are not out to get them! Their discourse of “velvet revolution” and “soft war” based on American “soft power” and their paranoia about “foreign infiltration” is grounded in their recognition that their narrative of “enemy influence” (nofouz-e doshman) competes with other sources of information and other narratives.

One of the main sources of frustration for the Iranian authorities has been the popular culture and media of Iranian exile and diasporic communities, especially Iranian expats in the United States with a sizable concentration in “Irangeles,” California.[14] Here I do not wish to conflate or reduce the vibrant culture of Iranian expats and their (popular) culture around the world to the satellite television programing that is beamed to Iran, which is the source of frustration for the Islamic Republic. Naficy addresses such transmissions in the context of politics of culture directed at Iranians inside Iran.[15] More important, however, it is here that Naficy’s work addresses one of the most fascinating and compelling topics of interest to International Communication scholars, the media of diasporic populations.[16]

Naficy’s work here goes beyond explicating popular culture of Iranians living in exile. It is a conceptual reflection on “ethnic” and “minority media” and, more important, on the conditions of its emergence. Naficy points out the structural conditions for the emergence of “decentralized global narrowcasting” alongside the extant model of “centralized global broadcasting.” This is the era of population movements, migration, displaced communities and exile, at a time when “massive worldwide political, economic and social restructurings and displacements along with rapid technological advances have ushered in a new model of television that could be termed ‘decentralised global narrowcasting.’”[17] This model of narrowcasting, however, is not monolithic or homogeneous, even if they share a relationship to a homeland. Naficy divides this narrowcasting into three categories of ethnic, transnational and exilic. As he points out, even though these three categories are “flexible, permeable and at times simultaneous,” they have different characteristics.

Ethnic television is comprised of programming produced in a host country by indigenous minorities (e.g., BET in the United States), whose audiences are addressed within an intracultural relationship to the majoritarian culture of the host country. Transnational television covers mostly media imported into the host country from abroad (e.g., Korean or Chinese television in the United States). Because they are imported for audiences from their home countries, they tend to “minimize” what Naficy calls “the drama of acculturation and resistance.”[18] Lastly, diasporic television is produced in the host country by “liminars and exiles as a response to and in tandem with their own transitional and/or provisional status.” [19] Iranian, Arab or Armenian television programs produced in the United States for expats are examples of this type of television. To the extent that “ethnic” media try to and do reach mainstream audiences, as Naficy argues, they reach for “broadcasting.” In other words, it is only for transnational and diasporic media that narrowcasting is the operational logic, especially given that the content is in the foreign language of the motherland.

It is in this area of diasporic media that Naficy’s work on narrowcasting has been especially influential and engaging. As he demonstrates, diasporic media, as decentralized narrowcasting, crisscrosses time and space; it looks to the past and present concurrently, and is local and global all at once. Naficy delineates the specificity of this type of programming as a genre formation, that of exile or diasporic genre.[20] This is what he calls “ritual genre” because “it helps the displaced communities to negotiate between the two states of exile: the rule-bound structures of the home and host societies (societas) and the formlessness of exilic liminality in which many rules and structures are suspended (communitas).” As ritual communication, the genre provides “a sense of order in the life of its viewers by producing a series of systematic patterns of narration, signification and consumption that set up continually fulfilled or postponed expectations.”[21] At the same time, these programs reflect the complexity, the diversity and complex histories of Middle Eastern societies in ways that defy conventional binaries (e.g., East/West, Shi’i/Sunni, etc.).

Diasporic and exilic media add complications to our existing formulations of media in an international framework in terms of what is called media flows and “contra-flows.” An important aspect of media or cultural imperialism thesis has been the movement of cultural products, often couched in terms of a hegemonic relationship between American and Western culture to the Global South. There is no dispute that there has been an uneven distribution and movement of culture globally, as the disputes tend to be around the question of the meaning and the implications of such unevenness. The era of globalization or “the information age” is often said to involve “flow” of various kinds (capital, information, technology, images, sounds, etc.).[22] Although such discussions of flows have traditionally involved film, television and music of Hollywood (read “American”), the Internet and digital social media have altered or broadened the scope and understandings of “flow.” Thussu divides “flows” into three broad categories of global (e.g., Hollywood), transnational (e.g., Bollywood) and “geo-cultural” — catering to specific cultural-linguistic audiences, such as Middle East Broadcasting Center, which provides Arabic-language programming to the Middle East and North Africa.[23] Flows are conceptualized as either “dominant” flows, “largely emanating from the global North, with the United States at its core,” or as contra-flows, “originating from the erstwhile peripheries of global media industries—designated ‘subaltern flows.’”[24] This typology is a useful tool for the way it allows considerations of media flows in broad brushstrokes, and the way it points to the need for finer distinctions.

Naficy’s work on diasporic and exilic media, and “the interstitial mode of production” in exilic cinema provides a conceptual tool that enables us to account for such finer distinctions.[25] Diasporic media, as is the case with Iranian popular media in Los Angeles, might travel as examples of contra-flow, from within what we could call “internal global south in the Global North,” but on a path that is nonlinear, bouncing around on the nodal points of a distributed network that connects Iranians all over the world. More important, the diasporic media content in such a context might return to homeland where it affects or is affected by the “local” cultural dynamics, if we can still find a “local” that is untouched by the global, the transnational, or the regional. The diasporic media in the age of global networks will find or constitute its networked publics. This is our present media-saturated, highly mediated, networked and hyper-connected and mobile context. My experience of reading Naficy as a teenager, reading his writing translated into Persian from English, a writing about Hollywood, a quintessential home for immigrants in diaspora, a writing he penned in his second language, now recalling that experience to reflect on his writings as they have played a somewhat formative role in my studying of International Communication, … all of that might have been anticipated in my experience as a youngster enamored with “foreign films” and the writings by an Iranian scholar in English translated to Persian and read in Iran. Anecdotes, as stated previously, are allegorical expositions of models that tell us how the world is working. Going to the cinema, especially to see “original language film,” and then reading about it, for an Iranian teenager, was the experience of being cosmopolitan. And, as Naficy points out, “Cinema has always and everywhere been both a deeply local and a highly global industry and set of practices.”[26] This is so because “religious, ethnic, and national minorities, as well as émigrés, exiles, refugees, expatriates, and diasporic and transnational subjects, have contributed greatly to the rise of cinema and film industry in many countries and in the revival and redefinition of certain genres and national cinemas.” Hollywood itself “was from the start both ethnic and global, and it has been renewed and revived by contributions of waves of new émigré, refugee, and ethnic filmmakers.”[27] Reading Naficy’s work years later explains what I instinctively understood to be the experience of a global unicity, even if it is lived unevenly.

Naficy’s work on “accented cinema,” which he has described as “global cinema of displacement,” addresses the context and conditions of proliferation of displacements – which is the very context of interest to International Communication scholars.[28] This “accent” Naficy  speaks of “emanates not so much from the accented speech of the diegetic characters as from the displacement of the filmmakers and their artisanal production modes.”[29] This is not simply international or global, but filmmaking and filmmakers as index of re-territorialization of culture, home and/as dislocation, of journey, and of dis/placement as structural conditions. These are “accented” films in relationship to the dominant cinema. “Accented films,” Naficy argues, “are interstitial because they are created astride and in the interstices of social formations and cinematic practices. Consequently, they are simultaneously local and global, and they resonate against the prevailing cinematic production practices, at the same time that they benefit from them.”[30] In his analysis, “the best of the accented films signify and signify upon the conditions both of exile and diaspora and of cinema.”[31] These films critique “the home and host societies and cultures and the deterritorialized conditions of the filmmakers.”[32] All accented filmmakers, exilic, diasporic or postcolonial ethnic, share a “liminal subjectivity and interstitial location in society and film industry.”[33] Naficy’s work on “accented cinema” offers a wealth of conceptual reflections and resources that problematize various categories of International Communication.

Naficy’s examination of diasporic and exilic media has been influential because it offers a theoretical framework that is capable of addressing various operative spatial categories in International Communication: local, national, regional, transnational, and global. More important, this framework allows one to engage concepts that push these categories beyond mere scalar or spatial considerations: home, community, belonging, exile, dislocation, displacement, mobility, liminality, and interstitiality among others. Exile cultures are located in intersection of cultures. They are both local and global. They are lived experiences of displacement and belonging.[34]

Viewed from the perspective of those working in International Communication, the larger contexts for Naficy’s intervention in exilic discourse were the debates in post-modernism and post-structuralism, and the theoretical questions regarding “difference,” as they were addressed in the emerging literatures in Cultural Studies, and post-colonial and literary theories in the 1980s and the 1990s. The concept of “representation” was being reworked in the same context. Naficy’s writings on the “Other” (e.g. “mediating the Other” and “consuming the Other”) are a part of this context.[35] As Naficy and Gabriel explain, their collaboration on “media and otherness” was prompted by writings centered on questions of “diversity”, “multiculturalism,” “representation” and “postcolonial.” These writings, argue Naficy and Gabriel, have produced much “interest not only because such issues and discourses question existing canons of criticism, theory, and cultural practice but also because they suggest a new sense of direction in theorization of difference and representation.”[36] The graduate school experience of many in Communication, and many others in social sciences and humanities, in the 1980s and the1990s in seminar after seminar consisted of efforts to address the question of “difference” and how post-structuralism would help answer that question. Naficy’s work remains a valuable resource in that regard.

The aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of “authoritarian populism” (i.e., Thatcherism, Reaganism),[37] “culture wars” and the discourse of “diversity” in the United States, the discourse of “multiculturalism” in Europe and in the United States, and the movement of populations, peoples which Naficy and Gabriel call “othered populations – diasporic immigrants, exiles, emigrés, expatriates, evicted, homeless and the undocumented,” all have “reawakened [in]difference and enhanced dialog across cultures and geographies.”[38] In their view, these and formerly othered populations have opened a new cultural and discursive space “where all kinds of resistive hybridities, syncretism, and mongrelizations are possible.”[39] These critical discourses have made their way to the academic settings where established canons of culture and cultural theory, including the category of representation, have been challenged and renegotiated.[40]

In his study of the representation of Iranians in the Western (news) media and popular culture, Naficy once again takes on the issue of representation of “othered” populations, offering new theoretical and methodological insights.[41] He questions existing approaches for their shortcomings in taxonomic classification (plot, character stereotyping and portrayal of social situations) and for insisting on “realism” (when media themselves are constructs). If media representations provide a framework in which we make decisions individually and as a nation, he argues, we need to account for that which mediates between social realities and their representations. That is his objective in this study of othered people. Following the Marxist and Freudian “depth models” of interpretations, Naficy posits “mediawork” (not unlike Freud’s “dreamwork”) as a theoretical framework to explain the “combined operations” of “signifying institutions” (e.g., media) that “help obtain hegemonic consensus.”[42] Naficy is interested in showing how these institutions manifest in their representations the “deep structures” of ideologies and beliefs, which remain latent. Because they are infused at the level of everyday discursive practices, and are presented as “common sense,” they “cannot be bracketed off from everyday life as self-contained set of ‘political opinions’ or ‘biased views.’”[43] After this initial introduction to mediawork, Naficy shows how it produces consensus through a number of processes that involve not only media and popular culture but also financial, industrial, and marketing institutions and processes. To students of International Communication, Naficy productively outlines connections between sociology of news production, political economy of popular culture and media, and ideological analysis as practiced by Cultural Studies.

The central element of theorizing “Othered populations” is the self-Other relationship (be it individual or collective selves). It is this aspect of Naficy’s work that places it at the intersection of Cultural Studies, post-colonial criticism, and media theory, one that is clearly indexed to the range of problematiques central to International Communication as a field of inquiry. On the one hand, consider the following as the foci of analysis in Naficy’s work: analysis of exilic and diasporic media and cultures and relationship to “host” cultures and societies and to “homelands;” analysis of “Third World Spectatorship,” and “self-othering,” theorized as “a postcolonial discourse on cinematic first contacts” in media theory and Cultural Studies.[44] On the other hand, consider International Communication’s focus on the problem of culture at the international level in the context of uneven structural relationships of domination and subordination between the center and the peripheries or “the West and the rest” (e.g., dependency theories, dependent-development theories, cultural and media imperialism thesis).[45] What unites these perspectives and theories is their critical orientation, a left-leaning politics that sees “domination” or subjugation or some form of structural asymmetry, against which it seeks to intervene. Cultural Studies, media theories informed by the assumptions of Cultural Studies, and post-colonial theory and criticism share this critical orientation with the vast majority of International Communication literature that places culture at the center of its analysis.[46] Even when “cultural imperialism” as a concept is abandoned in International Communication in favor of “hybridity” or “critical transculturalism,”[47] a work clearly influenced by Naficy’s writings on exilic culture, that critical orientation remains the thrust of the analysis.

At the heart of the literature in International Communication on “cultural imperialism,” and all the issues this label signifies, is the question of the encounter between cross-cultural content (e.g., Hollywood products) and audiences in foreign markets. If the cultural imperialism thesis has enjoyed such longevity, even as it has faced criticism, it is because there has always been a need for a critical enterprise that could address enduring structural asymmetry in international communication. Some of the critics of this thesis have tended to ignore that imbalance and the asymmetry (production and distribution). Instead, they have provided evidence about “active audiences” and their reading strategies, and how audiences might use such content as a “forum” to discuss local values (reception).[48] However, these accounts have tended to be largely sociological or ahistorical. Naficy’s work on cinematic spectatorship in the Third World, and his examination of “postcolonial discourse on cinematic first contacts” provide a compelling response to this cross-cultural encounter, one that is historically informed media theory and anchored in the “post-colonial” literature with the critical orientation of Cultural Studies.[49]

To state it briefly, Naficy’s approach takes into account not just production and distribution, but also reception of cross-cultural content all within a historically grounded framework. Explaining Iran’s relationship to colonial powers, Naficy argues that “Westernization was not so much imposed or injected from the outside as it became structured in dominance.” In the aftermath of the constitutional revolution of Iran (1906-11), “much of the new constitution and many of the laws and legislative, judicial, and executive bodies for the parliamentary monarchy were adapted from European models.”[50] In his analysis, “Westernization won over the traditional systems of thought and became overdetermined, that is, dispersed throughout the emerging modern but oppressive apparatuses and ideological institutions.”[51] In this historical context of first contacts, Naficy proposes a self-othering theory that deploys Lacanian “alienating identification paradigm to speculate about the manner in which early Iranian audiences were hailed by and haggled with Western films.”[52] Naficy’s account of “hailing the spectators” and “haggling with the movie” uses Althusserian notion of hailing in the formation of the subject’s identity (the effect of viewing technology and context) in self-othering, and “haggling” to establish local appropriations of the content in different ways. As he puts it, those are strategies “by which Iranian audiences interrupted, talked back to, translated, dubbed, fetishized, objectified, and haggled with the movies and the movie stars, transformed the cinema’s ‘work’ from one of hailing to haggling.”[53] In short, by “thus engaging with the movies, the spectators were no longer just their consumers but also the producers of their meanings.”[54] In Naficy’s analysis, the notion of an “active audience,” prevalent in International Communication literature, is fully contextualized in historical, theoretical and empirical terms.

Concluding Remarks

I have to admit that the task I had set myself up at the outset, that of writing a paper in which I draw connections between different writings of Hamid Naficy in order to re-present or reimagine them written from an International Communication perspective, proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated. I believe there are many more connections to make than I have space to do in a single paper. That is largely a testament to the scholarship that is before us: his is prolific, complex, challenging, theoretically-rich, and historically-informed. He might start with culture or media of Iran as a question, but he explains Iran in the process in the most illuminating manner possible. He has produced scholarship on a wide range of topics, many of which cover the Middle Eastern and Iranian cinema. I have argued that viewing his professional identity as a “film scholar,” and even as the foremost authority on Iranian cinema, might be accurate but it is too parochial and restrictive. In order to do that, I have written from a specific disciplinary location to show how his work is interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, occupying a space at the intersection of Cultural Studies, “post-colonial” theory, and media theory, fields that have “interdisciplinary” status themselves. The connection between these areas is tied to specific articulations of borders, belonging, Otherness, (trans)national imaginary, states of liminality, movements of populations and the broader question of culture’s relationship to power and geopolitics. I made that argument by indexing Naficy’s work to a range of scholarly preoccupations (concepts, theories, topics) that have remained central to the field of International Communication in its history. That indexing works because the objects, institutions, and phenomena he writes about (e.g., cinema) are essentially and at once local and global (international). Another reason it works is that he writes about populations that are displaced, on the move or othered. Above all, Naficy’s oeuvre is best explained beyond the confines of cinema studies precisely because it engages and inhabits borders, and embodies the porosity of borders of various kind. His work, perhaps like his self, the kid from Isfahan roaming the city with his father’s Kodak Brownie box camera, is not “homeless” as much as he is at “home” everywhere.

[1]Meghan Morris, “Banality in Cultural Studies” in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. P. Mellencamp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 15.

[2]M. Semati, “Introduction” in New Frontiers in International Communication Theory, ed. M. Semati (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield). 1-16.

[3]J. Peters, “Genealogical Notes on “The Field,” Journal of Communication 43, no. 4 (1993): 132.

[4]Ibid., 132.

[5]Ibid., 133.

[6]Although he had presented elements of this social history in other works, the four volumes of A Social History of Iranian Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011, 2012) present the most comprehensive account.

[7]H. Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 3, The Artisanal Era, 1897-1941 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), xxi-xxii.

[8]Ibid., 10.

[9]H. Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol.3, The Islamicate Period, 1977-1984 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

[10]Ibid., 138.

[11]See H. Naficy, “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet, More Powerful Than a Locomotive: Mutual Instrumentalization of Culture, Cinema, and Media by Iran and the United States,” in Media, Power and Politics in the Digital Age: The 2009 Presidential Election Uprising in Iran, ed. Y. Kamalipour (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 2010), 205-220.

[12]Ibid., 206.

[13]Ibid., 213.

[14]The term “Irangeles” was memorialized as the title of a book of essays about this community, published in 1993. See R. Kelley and J. Friedlander, eds., Irangeles: Iranians in Los Angeles (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993). Naficy’s contribution to this volume (325-364) is a concise introduction to the “popular culture of Iranian exiles in Los Angeles”, covering a wide range range of genres, artists and practices. See also H. Naficy, “The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press).

[15]Naficy, “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet,” 205-220.

[16]See H. Naficy, “Narrowcasting and Diaspora: Middle Eastern Television in Los Angeles,” in The Media of Diaspora ed. K. Karim (London: Routledge, 2003), 51-62; see also H. Naficy, “Theorizing ‘Third World’ Film Spectatorship: The Case of Iran and Iranian Cinema,” in Rethinking Third Cinema, ed. A. R. Guneratne and W. Dissanayake (New York: Routledge, 2003), 181-201.

[17]Naficy, “Narrowcasting and Diaspora,” 51.

[18]Ibid., 52.

[19]Ibid., 52.

[20]For a comprehensive treatment of this genre, see Naficy’s book, The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles. [See n. 15.]

[21]Ibid., 53.

[22]For a discussion of flows, see M. Castells, The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, vol. 1 (2nd ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010). Readers might be familiar with the equally influential idea of “scapes” (ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes and ideoscapes) in A. Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).  For a discussion of flows and contra-flows, see D. Thussu, “Mapping Global Media Flow and Contra-Flow,” in D. Thussu, ed., Media on the Move: Global Flow and Contra-Flow (London: Routledge, 2007), 10-29.

[23]Thussu, “Mapping Global Media Flow and Contra-Flow.”

[24]Ibid., 10.

[25]H. Naficy, “Between Rocks and Hard Places: The Interstitial Mode of Production in Exilic Cinema,” in Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media, and the Politics of Place, ed. H. Naficy (New York: Routledge, 1999), 125-147.

[26]H. Naficy, “Teaching Accented Cinema as a Global Cinema,” in Teaching Film, ed. L. Fischer and P. Petro (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2012),  112-118.

[27]Ibid., 112.

[28]See H. Naficy, “Exile Discourse and Televisual Fetishization,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 13, nos. 1-3 (1991): 85-116; H. Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001; H. Naficy, “Teaching Accented Cinema as a Global Cinema,” in Teaching Film, ed. L. Fischer & P. Petro (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2012), 112–118; H. Naficy, “Iranian Émigré Cinema as a Component of Iranian National Cinema,” in Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with Globalization and the Islamic State, ed. M. Semati (New York: Routledge, 2008), 167–192.

[29]Naficy, An Accented Cinema, 4.

[30]Ibid., 4.

[31]Ibid., 4.

[32]Ibid., 4.

[33]Ibid., 10.

[34]H. Naficy, “Identity Politics and Iranian Exile Music Videos,” Iranian Studies 31, no.1 (1998): 51-64.

   [35]I highlight two major interventions here: H. Naficy, “Mediating the Other: American Pop Culture Representation of Post-revolutionary Iran”, in The US Media and the Middle East: Image and Perception, ed. Y. Kamalipour (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995), and H. Naficy and T. Gabriel, Otherness and the Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged (Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Press, 1993). Naficy and Gabriel edited a special issue of Quarterly Review of Film and Video 13, nos. 1-3 (1990). The issue sold out quickly and it was revised, expanded and published as an edited volume in 1993, titled, “Otherness and the Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged.”

[36]Ibid., ix.

[37]It should be pointed out that in the United States, Communication departments became the institutional home for British Cultural Studies as it crossed the Atlantic. Here Stuart Hall’s work on culture and “authoritarian populism” (among other topics) was one connection between Communication and post-structuralist theory, albeit theory as “detour.” See Stuart Hall, “Popular-democratic Versus Authoritarian Populism,” in Marxism and Democracy, ed. A. Hunt (London: Laurence and Wishart, 1980), 157–187 and S. Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso, 1988).


[39]Ibid., x.

[40]In his anthology titled, Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media, and the Politics of Place, Naficy collects into one volume important contributions from established scholars across disciplinary borders.

[41]Naficy, “Mediating the Other.”

[42]Ibid., 74.

[43]Ibid., 74.

[44]H. Naficy, “Self-Othering: A Postcolonial Discourse on Cinematic First Contact,” in The Pre-occupation of Post-colonial Studies, ed. F. Afzal-Khan and K. Seshadri-Crooks (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 292-310; H. Naficy, “Theorizing ‘Third World’ Film Spectatorship: The Case of Iran and Iranian Cinema,” in Rethinking Third Cinema, ed. A. R. Guneratne and W. Dissanayake, 181-201.

[45]Naficy has produced more recent scholarship in media theory that is of interest to International Communication, although limitations of space prevent me from discussing them here. Here are two examples: see H. Naficy, “From Accented Cinema to Multiplex Cinema,” in Convergence Media History (New York: Routledge, 2009), 3-13 for a discussion of “multiplex cinema”, the “emergence of a new mainstream cinema in the USA and Europe in our current moment of post-diasporic, post-internet, postmodern neoliberal globalization” (3); see also H. Naficy, Early Popular Visual Culture 6 , no. 2 (2008): 97-102 for the introduction of a theory of regional cinemas.

[46]Given the uneven “flow” of culture at the global level, it is inevitable that any literature addressing it will have to address this critical orientation. For an appraisal of this argument and a comprehensive treatment of the discourse of cultural imperialism, see J. Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction (New York: Continuum, 1991). For an alternative to media imperialism or to hybridity perspective, see M. Semati and P. Sotirin, “Hollywood’s Trans-national Appeal: Hegemony and Democratic Potential?,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 26, no. 4 (1997): 176-188.

[47]M. Kraidy, Hybridity, or the Cultural Logic of Globalization (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2005).

[48]For two classic and influential examples of this evidence and research, see E. Katz and T. Liebes, “Mutual Aid in the Decoding of Dallas: Preliminary Notes from a Cross-cultural Study,” in Television in Transition, ed. P. Drummond and R. Paterson (London: BFI, 1986), 187-198, and I. Ang, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination (London: Methuen, 1985).

[49]See Naficy, “Theorizing ‘Third World’ Film Spectatorship,” and “Self-Othering.”

[50]Naficy, “Self-Othering,” 294.

[51]Ibid., 295.

[52]Ibid., 296.

[53]Naficy, “Theorizing ‘Third World’ Film Spectatorship,”190-191.

[54]Ibid., 191.

An Iranian Female Vampire Walks Home Alone and Disturbs Freud’s Oedipal Masculinity



A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Dokhtari dar shab tanhā be khāne miravad, 2014)[1] is tagged as the first Iranian vampire feminist romance. This debut feature by Anna Lily Amirpour is set in a fictional Iranian town, called Shahr-e Bad, The Bad City. The opening scene introduces the viewer to Arash, a James Dean look-alike in blue jeans and white T-shirt driving a vintage 1950’s Ford Thunderbird. Arash works as a gardener in rich neighborhoods while taking care of his addicted father. His father owes money to a violent tattooed drug dealer/pimp who takes Arash’s car as payment. The unnamed vampire is a young girl who wears a black flowing chador resembling classic vampire capes. She skateboards the streets of the Bad City at night, targeting “bad” men who are abusive to women and viciously attacks them with her fangs. It is interesting that her fangs grow as she becomes angry and aggressive, or when she is sexually aroused. She meets the pimp Saeed, who is abusive towards a sex worker named Atti. Saeed notices the lonely (vampire) girl and invites her to his house, but while he is trying to seduce her she bites his finger off and brutally kills him. One night the unnamed vampire comes across Arash, dressed as Dracula and high on drugs, stumbling home on his way back from a costume party. The lonesome vampire falls in love with Arash. Later we see Arash, who, fed up with his addicted father, throws him out of their house, who then takes refuge with Atti, the sex worker. He forces Atti to use drugs, which prompts the vampire to kill him. When Arash finds out about the death of his father, he decides to leave the Bad City with the female vampire. The film ends with Arash choosing to leave with the vampire even though he realizes she is his father’s killer.


The movie has had mixed reviews. Some have argued that it is an innovative art film for mixing several genres. Despite its entire Iranian cast of characters, Persian dialogue and sound track, and Persian iconography, it has received little or no attention among Iranians. It appears that being a highly stylized film in a genre that is virtually unknown to Iranians has made it rather indecipherable both inside Iran and in the diasporic community outside Iran. Perhaps a black and white vampire flick is expected to have a niche audience outside the confines of Iranian cultural influence. In that case, the exclusively Persian iconography of the film—which cannot be fully appreciated without familiarity with Iran’s political history, its religious, musical, literary and cultural traditions, the intricacies of Persian language, as well as the hybrid culture of the Iranian community of Los Angeles—leaves it open to the charge of self-orientalization. The charge of self-exoticization for the purpose of gaining a foothold in an already established genre may be supported on a few tenuous grounds; for example, Amirpour has candidly expressed her distaste for Iran as “a mess. Medieval. Suffocating.”[2] However, I take a poststructuralist stance and bypass discussions about the significance of the “author”, and speculations about her motives.


It could be argued that this is a feminist film for staging a lead female actor as the dominant subject with independent agency, identity and desire.[3] She is not a “projection of male values,” or a “vehicle of male fantasies,” or a “scapegoat of male fears.”[4] The film surely passes the Bechdel test, a test that despite its humorous roots (it started as a joke) can be used as a serious critical tool. The Bechdel test measures the mere presence of women in a film. To pass this test, a film must meet two of these three simple conditions: (1) there be at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other (3) about anything other than men.[5] However, I will argue that the significance of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night exceeds limited categorization as a vampire movie or a feminist art film. Perhaps reading a feminist agenda into this film has more to do with certain reviewers’ inclinations than the intention of its director.[6] In any event, the goal of this paper is not to settle this debate. It is to examine the ways in which masculinities are deconstructed and reconstituted as spectacle in this film, and in the process the patriarchal boundaries of pleasure are remapped and circulation of desire is destabilized. I will use feminist psychoanalytic film theory as an analytical tool to guide my inquiry. Theoretical efficacy of this perspective remains in its deconstructive trajectory. As Laura Mulvey states, it is “a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society” structures cinematic representations.[7] However, this theory leaves the specific contours of an alternative feminist counter-cinema unarticulated. Should a feminist counter-cinema embrace patriarchal techniques of representation or develop its own cinematic language? Can a feminist counter-cinema dismantle the visual regimes of patriarchal power relation and still remain faithful to aesthetics of visual pleasure? I will argue that by engaging these questions this film enhances our understanding of feminist film theory by instantiating an example of a feminist counter-cinema. It is also significant that exclusively Persian iconography of this film broadens debates within feminist film theory to include subjects (such as Muslim women, Iranian art and culture) whose epistemological roots extend beyond the horizons of Europe and the Americas. This film unsettles constructed boundaries that separate European from non-European subjects. As will be discussed below, this film does not offer a new model of masculinity outside the heterosexual patriarchal regime of representation and sexual identification. Rather, it uses patriarchal representational tools and tactics to produce a rupture in the purportedly homogeneous edifice of Oedipal masculinity, an opening towards yet obscure alternatives, the contours of which cannot be known in advance.


Feminist Psychoanalytic Film Theory and the Magic of Cinema

The mainstream cinema positions women as spectacles, objects of the male gaze, fantasies and pleasures and secondary or incidental to the narrative. When they speak to other women—if they ever do—it is hardly about anything other than men. The male gaze often positions the spectator to identify with the male protagonist. It reduces the female spectator to either enjoy adopting the male point of view or be reduced to the passive, often erotic, object of the spectacle. This is what Mulvey in her influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” calls “castration.”[8] The “pleasure” referred to in the title of Mulvey’s influential essay is a reference to the “scopophilic” pleasure that is controlled by the male and directed at the female, a concept Mulvey borrows from Freud.[9] Scopophilia operates either as sexually charged voyeuristic or narcissistic pleasure produced through spectator’s identification with the male point of view or the male protagonist. Just as an uncoordinated, helpless, speechless infant whose ego boundaries are yet to be formed recognizes his own image in the mirror as an “ideal ego,” a more complete image of himself, perfect and in control, the spectator too identifies with the male image and male point of view projected on the screen.[10] The results are fantasies of power, mastery and control, which hold a deep appeal for the human psyche. Freudian psychoanalysis explains that as humans we are haunted by a “lack” in the core of our being, a state of radical dependency and disempowerment at birth. This original lack of control, fragmentation and vulnerability in infancy on an individual level parallels the original lack and chaos on a cultural level. We are compelled to cover that originary lack through creative processes that create desires, religions, stories, myths, arts, fantasies, images and power structures such as patriarchy—none of which are pre-given. In the process we become subjects in what Jacques Lacan terms the “symbolic order.”[11] Theoretically this is articulated as a process of “suturing,” that is literally cutting and editing of the film which results in a desired and coherent narrative. Whether it is on a personal or a cultural level, the goal is to structure ego formation, but because the recognition of the self in the mirror (of whatever creative medium is employed: film, culture, etc.) is a misrecognition, the result is the fixation of the ego, closure of creative process and alienation of the subject. It is with reference to this split or alienation within the subject that the ego is held to be founded upon “imaginary, narcissistic, specular identification.”[12]


The signifier of the lack and desire to overcome it is the phallus, a symbolic configuration that represents an unattainable wholeness. No one can have the phallus, which means the universal lack is no other than symbolic “castration,” the condition that characterizes both male and female subjectivities. Therefore, as the privileged signifier which has no signified, the phallus should theoretically lead to an open process of creativity.[13] But in a self-serving patriarchal context, where the aim is to give order and fixed meaning, the open-ended process of meaning production is brought to a closure by binding the operations of the phallus entirely to the image of the castrated female. Mulvey writes: “An idea of woman stands as linchpin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.”[14] Thus, in mainstream cinema woman is a mirror for the male’s sense of lack and loss. The projection of lack and fragmentation on woman has deep roots for example in the Bible and Islamic tradition.[15] It is upon the woman that the sense of alienation resulting from the misrecognition of the self in the “mirror” is projected. Hence, in order to successfully enter the patriarchal symbolic order, requisite acknowledgement of the female as a castrated subject is followed by distancing oneself from the female and all that is considered to be feminine. Cinematically this is rehearsed in every “buddy” movie in which the celebration of male bonding and comradery is contingent upon severing the bond with significant women in men’s lives (like mothers or wives). Michael Kimmel observes, “The male bonding celebrated in these films is a defensive reaction to patriarchal masculine failure; the men turn to each other because the world (and women) has failed them.”[16] However, male bonding is always through acts of power, domination and control and never translates into relationships of nurturing, caring and intimacy. Ostentatious homophobia, sexism, racism, and willingness to do violence are ways to ward off fears that male homosocial bonding may lead to homosexuality. The narcissistically male-centered “bromance” of modern pop culture, “an emotionally intense bond between presumably straight males who demonstrate openness to intimacy that they neither regard, acknowledge, avow, nor express sexually,”[17] is matched by its premodern institutionalized version of it, for example in Sufi brotherhoods of Perso-Islamic world.[18]


Against this background we can ask, what does a feminist counter-cinema look like? Earlier theorists like Mulvey dogmatically advocated for disregarding the classical techniques of cinema. They argued for the development of specific aesthetics of feminist experimental film and counter cinema. Their goal was to de-couple the look of the camera from the male gaze and develop specific aesthetics of feminist experimental film even if this meant doing away with visual pleasure.[19] Later on, feminist theorists like E. Ann Kaplan highlighted the heterogeneity and complexity of the narrative mainstream cinema, and argued that feminist cinema should use traditional filmic means, the master’s tool, so to speak, to dismantle the master’s house.[20] Teresa de Lauretis famously argued that instead of destroying narrative and visual pleasure, feminist cinema should exploit the manipulative power of cinema, to be “narrative and oedipal with a vengeance.”[21] In other words, instead of discarding narrative and conventional forms of pleasure in favor of the feminist content of a radical avant-garde cinema, feminist cinema should embrace female desire as well as contradictions of Oedipal scenario. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does precisely that.




Enter the Vampire

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a highly stylized and visually pleasing film to the point that many reviewers perceive an over-emphasis on visual pleasure at the expense of “substance”.[22] The film locates itself along the continuum of the horror genre depicting monsters lurking in the shadows or symbolically within our own beings—the graffiti word vahshat, meaning “horror” in Persian, is clearly visible in several scenes. Susan Hayward writes that after its heyday in the 1930’s, vampires disappeared after World War Two, but briefly came back during the 70’s in a more romantic light deserving love and affection. The AIDS epidemic of the 80’s caused vampire films to disappear, only to reappear in the 90’s.[23] Interestingly the early twentieth century Count Dracula movies used a female vampire as the first prototype of this genre. In these movies women were the predatory beasts with lesbian inclinations instead of bloodsucking killers of men.[24] However, female vampires were exceptions not the norm; vampire films centered on the male. The last literary female vampire was noted in a novel written in 1871.[25] A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does not easily fit into the categories that compose post-war horror films. It is not a psychological horror (like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960), and it is not a massacre movie (like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974). More importantly, she does not stand for maternal plenitude, relegating lack to a distant memory. She is not the mother who satisfies the infant’s every desire and serves the sadistic aesthetics of his desire. The question of her position in the existing relations of patriarchal spectatorship is posed by Atti, the sex worker surrogating as the mother, when she asks the vampire: “What are you?” What is significant about horror films is that they are better reflections of the ideological positions of their time. Because they “are linked to the unconscious they can represent that which other genres repress.”[26] For example, Hitchcock’s horror films of the 50’s had Cold War resonances where the “red-scare” mentality led Americans to seriously doubt believing who people claimed to be. The Massacre/slasher movies of 70’s were a backlash against the feminist movement of the time.[27] In the post 9/11 era, in addition to popular films (on zombies, epidemic infections, etc.), a whole range of media exploited fear as a political and marketing tool. For example, “fear permeate[ed] television ads running the gamut from antibacterial soap to SUVs, [and] institutional emergency notification systems.”[28] Real or imaginary Muslims have a special place among post-9/11 monsters and apocalyptic films. Sophia Arjana writes: “Movies provided a vehicle for Muslim monsters to be displayed, and, I would argue, they continue to serve as the most dominant cultural force in the modern American milieu—a space in which Muslim monsters continue to be generated.”[29] Muslims as feared monsters infecting European bodies and borders, corrupting bloodlines has deep roots in the medieval Europe and earlier, providing “an important tool,” as Arjana notes, “for understanding the history of Christian-Muslim relations.”[30] In rare cases when a Muslim female appears as a villain, she is often under the control of malevolent men—Nazis, Arabs, or other irredeemable types.[31]


To be sure, there are no explicit references to Islam or Muslims in the film, but as Megan Goodwin observes, “Given the marked Iranian influences throughout the film, Islam is conspicuous in its absence.”[32] In light of the “pervasiveness of Islamic influence in contemporary Iranian culture” that Goodwin speaks of, we can take the chador-wearing character of the vampire in this film as a departure from the Orientalist trope of submissive Muslim women in need of saving from brown men’s tyranny. Yet, she is not a violent feminist bent on the retributive violence. Her brutal killings, as in the cases of the pimp and Arash’s father, takes place with a moral clarity. She does pose a potential threat to all men. For example, in a significant scene she confronts a young boy, asking him if he is a “good boy.” When he answers that he is indeed a good boy, she threatens him and warns him that she will be watching him until the end of his life. Then she steals his skateboard.


If there is one prominent theme in this film, it would be the gaze. The gaze is a relation to power, leading Mulvey to conclude that the gaze of the camera is a “male gaze.”[33] Goodwin perceptively points out the disruption of the male gaze in this film “reflects neither heterosexual male desire nor Western fantasies of ‘good Muslims.’”[34] The vampire with her prominent black eyes accentuated by the lighting and her chador is not a passive object of the gaze. She is author of the gaze, returning the male gaze and making men uncomfortable. She is seen literally watching men of the city, keeping them under her own surveillance and punishing them when necessary. Her gaze and her character are the primary subject of the film, controlling the other characters and carrying the narrative to the extent that invites the spectator’s identification with her point of view. At one point, Arash’s father, while walking across the street parallel to the vampire, becomes very uncomfortable when he notices he is being followed. He stops and asks her: “What are you looking at?” When the vampire is the object of the pimp’s sexualized gaze and follows him to his apartment, the return of the gaze takes a violent turn. In this elongated pivotal scene, the pimp snorts cocaine to the sound of soft music as the vampire watches. Then he starts to dance slowly as he approaches the vampire. The vampire still in her chador stands motionless as the pimp run his fingers over her face while gyrating to the sound of music. In a sexually charged gesture she gently opens her mouth and the pimp slowly puts his finger in her mouth (no doubt his finger metonymically stands in for his penis). This is when his half open eyes gazing into the vampire’s eyes change to express horror and pain as she bites his finger off. She then proceeds to retributively violate him by shoving the severed finger into his mouth and kill him as he screams in agonizing pain. The male gaze is “disciplined” in another scene as well. When Arash’s father forces Atti to dance for him, sexually objectifying her body, he is murdered by the vampire.




The vampire locates herself within the patriarchal cinematic order where all subjectivities are arranged according to the male point of view. However, by carrying the narrative and authoring the gaze, that is to say, by being the protagonist of the story, she subverts the male-centred conventions of cinema. More importantly, having the instrument of power and violence, that is, her vampire fangs that grow at the moment of her anger and arousal, she claims the power of the phallus. Of course, no one can have the phallus, which is precisely the meaning of lack and castration. The symbolic castration marks both sexes. The concealed phallus symbolizes an always absent guarantee of universality. It is precisely in its absence that the phallus in the Lacanian model can fulfill its potential function of freeing the signifying process and subject formation from the closed confines of cultural formations.[35] Yet it comes as no surprise that through obfuscated epistemic fault lines that separate the biological organ, the penis, from its unpresentable symbolic correlate, the phallus, male subjects deny their own castration. The result of this imaginary equation between the penis and the phallus is the spectacle which comprises the stuff of “dominant fiction” in a patriarchal society: “the images and stories through which a society configures consensus, images which films draw upon and help to shape … an imaginary equation between the penis and the phallus, which cements the male subject’s identification with power and privilege.”[36]


The vampire does not contest the phallocentric regime of signification, but works within its limits. She decouples the epistemological dependence of the phallus on the penis. As if the script was written à la Judith Butler, the film demonstrates that the penis does not have to always be the one and only privileged referent of the phallus and its signifying function, even though this privilege is always pre-emptively negated.[37] The phallus could symbolize other body parts, such as the vampire’s fangs, a functional metonymy for the penis. This is evident when her fangs are “erected” in what can only be interpreted as sexual arousal. In a sexually charged scene, Arash pierces the vampire’s earlobes with the pin of earrings at her own request. The vampire’s retractable fangs instantiate the same capacity for “turgidity,” which makes the penis uniquely favored to be a phallic organ.[38] The power of her fangs establishes her as the “phallic woman.” This is a departure from mainstream horror films in which penile instruments (such as knives and chainsaws) are used as “phallus replacement or substitute” for re-castrating the female in order to establish an independent/self-sufficient male subject.[39] Therefore, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night recuperates that lost “radical political edge of gore cinema.”[40] The power of signification (meaning production as well as frightening, killing, and establishing her difference as vampire) rests on the vampire’s phallic power, signified by her fangs. She is therefore the “other” fully invested with the power of otherness, unravelling the self-referential narcissistic fiction of male subjectivity.



Displacing the penis from its privileged position as the primary referent of the phallus would have been enough to make this film a “feminist flick.” The narrative could have followed Butler’s theoretical insight that the displacement of the penis underscores the viability of the “lesbian phallus,” a potentially castrating formulation that Butler admits is contradictory in itself. The lesbian phallus parodies the dependency of the phallus on the penis as its one and only anatomical occasion, showing that the stabilizing effect of the phallus is entirely based on a reified phallus-penis relationship.[41] Butler writes: “In a sense, the simultaneous acts of deprivileging the phallus and removing it from the normative heterosexual form of exchange, and recirculating and reprivileging it between women deploys the phallus to break the signifying chain in which it conventionally operates.”[42] However, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes a different route. Remaining phallocentric and decidedly heterosexual in its staging of desire and visual pleasures makes this particularly relevant to constructions of masculinity.


One of the male characters in this film, the pimp, is the first to be killed by the vampire, and in the most brutal manner. The pimp’s genealogy may be traced back to the popular “tough-guy” character of pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema who remains one of the two Iranian mimic figures that have been successfully transplanted into the exilic cultural sphere (the other is the perennial racist blackface figure of Haji Firuz).[43] But unlike the tough-guy type (whose historical roots go back to the premodern tradition of altruistic chivalry)[44], the pimp is more comparable to its counterpart in American pop culture, particularly in Blaxploitation films and Gangsta rap. The uncanny similarities between the pimp’s personal style in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and the stereotypical pimp of American cinema who is fond of “theatricality” is worth noting here.[45] Like a more grotesque hence darker imitation of his African American prototype, the pimp in this film could be a signifier of young Iranian men’s struggle to come to terms with their masculinity. The pimp’s carefully trimmed facial hair and tattoos, especially his prominent tattoo of jaakesh (“pimp”) in Farsi on the side of his head, and the huge Farvahar across his chest (a symbol borrowed from the Zoroastrian faith implying nationalistic-racial supremacy) could be an expression of displaced masculinity yearning for recognition. Or perhaps he is “a ghettocentric icon of upward mobility” for diasporic masculinities.[46] This is particularly significant in the United States’ body politics that render Iranian men’s diasporic masculinities “overexposed,” to borrow from Shahram Khosravi, to the racialized and securitized gaze of the normative white American culture.[47] Like the young black men in the United States, the pimp may be acting from a position of race and class marginality to acquire some measure of power and control in a subculture that is overinvested in the sexual economy of pimp-whore complex. This is similar to the experience of most black men in the United States, who, according to Cornel West, acquire power “by stylizing their bodies over space and time in such a way that their bodies reflect their uniqueness and provoke fear in others.”[48] West is quick to conclude that even though these acts of “resistance” in a hostile culture impose their own kind of order to chaos, in a society that exalts a “machismo identity” such forms of self-identification are self-defeating because they ultimately support the violent patriarchal status quo.[49] Without a vigilant consciousness of the intersectionality of structures of power, privilege and domination, the risk of reproducing violence and inequality through the very acts of resistance will always remain a possibility. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does not glorify the pimp as the prototype of the “bad boy” who is simultaneously feared and desired, but eliminates him as the worst expression of masculinity found in the Bad City.


Understanding the pimp’s function in a patriarchal society is important for the significance of the pimp’s violent death in this film. Pimps and patriarchs are different sides of the same coin: “The role pimps expected women to play is merely an imitation of the role patriarchs expect their wives and daughters to play. The passive subordinate demeanor expected of the prostitute is not unlike that demanded of all women in patriarchal society.”[50] The raw violence, charm and dependency of the pimp on “his” women is a brutal reminder of patriarchy’s suppressed underbelly. In psychoanalytical terms the pimp is a symptom of patriarchy, the mirror image of the patriarch. The appearance of the symptom “disturbs the surface of false appearances,” to use Slavoj Zizek’s description.[51] In clinical terms, eliminating the symptom is not good enough because unlike the medical model that views a symptom as an “index” of disease, psychoanalysis takes symptoms as “signifiers” of disease; if one signifier is removed it will simply be replaced by another.[52] The goal of intervention is thus to address the “structures” that give rise to symptoms. The killing of the pimp removes the immediate threat, but he would be easily replaced by another without any threat or disturbance to the structural power of patriarchy that brings about the conditions for his existence in the first place. The vampire’s murder of the pimp and “saving” Arash could lend support to Hamid Dabashi’s creative hypothesis that Iranian culture is essentially a communal Freudian Oedipal complex in reverse. He writes that instead of the son killing the father, in the Iranian cultural context it is the father’s killing of his son that produces the communal guilt and repression and subsequently takes on cosmic and metaphysical proportions. As examples, Dabashi notes the tragic deaths of Hussain, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson’s death, and its parallel in the mythical deaths of Siavush, the son of King Kavus, as well as Sohrab, son of Rostam, the legendary pre-Islamic folk heroes of Iran.[53] He concludes that to the extent that Iranian culture is imbued with Shi‘ism it is a “son-religion,” which is “subconsciously aware of the guilt of infanticide (a religion of fathers afflicted by the guilt of having killed their son).”[54] By sparing the son killing or being killed by the father and removing the threat of the pimp, the vampire annuls both patricide and infanticide and the subsequent foundational guilt.


The structural power of patriarchy is best displayed by the character of the father, who has the most important function of imposing the fundamental principles of all social relations, which Lacan formulates as “the law.”[55] In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it is the father who holds his son Arash in the grips of his power, despite being an addict, sick and begging his son for money (all indications of the intrinsic sickness of patriarchy). Yet his weaknesses would not diminish the key symbolic position of the “father” in what is theoretically articulated as the Oedipal scenario. The Oedipal scenario is “an almost universal principle of the operation of the film in the American cinema.”[56] The father may be a real person, but more significantly this is the paternal function that regulates pleasure, desire, activation of sexual identification, and differentiation.[57] It would not have made a difference if the father in this film was healthy and strong. Even in his sickness, addiction, and desperation, the father exerts his power. The killing of the father by the female vampire in this film is a step towards breaking out of the Oedipal structure of father-child-mother. Contrary to the Oedipal movement of mainstream cinema, which is towards the son entering the patriarchal structure through a direct relation to the father (accepting him, rejecting him, killing him, ignoring or rebelling against him, etc.), the narrative in this film moves the son away from the father of Oedipal scenario towards the female vampire. Instead of shifting the male’s experience of lack onto the figure of a woman who is then punished, possessed or discarded so the son could claim the paternal power, in this film it is the Girl who is the hero with power to terrify, to castrate and control desire and pleasure in the narrative. It is she who is accorded the prohibitive and legislative role, which is reserved for the father in the Oedipal scenario. For example, she violently intervenes in the sexual objectification of the street worker’s body by Arash’s father and Arash is castigated for sexually objectifying a female dancer in a party.


Herein lies the significance of the vampire. By stripping the enduring Oedipal scenario of its paternal agency, the vampire shows that desire is not a pre-existing given subsequently moulded and manipulated in film. Desire is a product of the created filmic experience. What and how to desire is created by imposing prohibitions that while confining desire and restricting its parameters, construct it as essentially the desire to transgress. Evan’s explanation of dialectical relationship between the law and desire explains this well: “Desire is essentially the desire to transgress, and for there to be transgression it is first necessary for there to be prohibition.”[58] It follows that if desire is not pre-given; the subject’s relation to desire is not “fixed” either. Therefore, subjective positions conditioned by film, such as the male gaze of the camera, the phallocentric nature of desire, and constructed masculinities do not have to be discarded. Hence, the vampire does not transgress the phallic economy of representation. It is good to be reminded here that transgression is produced by and supports what it purports to subvert. To paraphrase Lacan, transgression is the reverse of the law.[59] The same normative subjective positions that are used in mainstream cinema to narcissistically cover over the split of the subject (and result in the closure of the creative process and the narcissistic identification with the specular image on the screen) could be used to unravel the seamless suturing of Oedipal masculinity into the patriarchal symbolic order. Put differently, the transformative possibilities offered by the vampire are not invented outside of the phallocentric system of signification, but within in. As Mulvey reminds us: “There is no ‘way’ in which we can produce an alternative out of the blue, but we can begin to make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides, of which psychoanalysis is not the only but an important one.”[60] This is demonstrated in the vampire’s killing of the most negative character of the film, the pimp by biting him and violating him with his own severed finger.


Considering the vampire as the phallic woman who defies the Oedipal trajectory of the mainstream cinema and the reifying male gaze is particularly significant in relation to the constructed masculinities in this film. She stands alone as the author of her own story, not in relation to any man. As indicated in the film, we do not know what exactly she is, but it is instructive to keep in mind what she is not. She is not Hollywood’s conventional strong female character, “the devouring vamp, origin of a dangerous enjoyment in which every man risks annihilation and against which he has to defend himself by establishing an ever more intimate brotherhood.”[61] Neither is she the “white male fantasy” of “bad girl” who is compelled to confront evil because of the trauma of her killed father; nor is she the “tough daughter” who successfully negotiates “deadly masculinist social scripts, restoring order to the father-son relationships by killing bad fathers and replacing weak sons.”[62] As the phallic woman, the vampire neither represents lack nor the illusory plenitude of fullness where the male spectator can return in order to experience a sense of completion. Neither is she impersonating a man nor “appropriating the penis in fantastical or plastic form.”[63] She remains a heterosexual woman, indicated in the film by her attraction to Arash. We can argue she is a source of visual pleasure for the (heterosexual) female spectator.[64] The source of her strength is precisely her being a fantasy which does not easily fit in the neatly organized Oedipal structure of patriarchy. Being a fantasy does not mean the vampire is an illusion opposing a correct perception of reality, as if reality could be perceived in a singular way or unmediated access to it were even possible.[65] Being a fantasy means the vampire is discursively constructed, demonstrating that reality too is produced through signifying processes, which means this film is about reality of reflection not a reflection of reality. She deconstructs the operations of the always already male gaze of the camera through which the male spectator in his Oedipal journey identifies with the specular image of the male hero of the mainstream cinema. She exposes the intrinsic flaws of such a journey, its gaps, dissonances, fragilities and lack in the process of image production that must be sutured in order to reflect back a spectacular image of the consolidated male ego. The female vampire with her phallic power is a fantasy, but a fantasy that tells the truth about the fantastic construction of Oedipal masculinity. This is perfectly captured in her meeting Arash, wearing a Dracula costume at night, a scene which could have been written according to Lacan’s insight that reality is accessible only through fiction, because reality “is structured like fiction.”[66] Behind the mask of Dracula worn by Arash is not his true self, but his location in the symbolic structure organized around the foundational Oedipal fantasy.




Concluding Scene

The killing of the father by the vampire is not an intrinsically radical gesture—after all, the guilt of killing the father in the Oedipus myth makes his memory even stronger. However, it is the killing of the father that presents the opportunity for breaking out of the Oedipal impasse. In the concluding scenes of the film Arash is leaving the Bad City on a dark night with the vampire in his fancy car. When he notices that his dead father’s cat is among the vampire’s belongings, he realizes that his father was killed by the vampire. He is faced with a choice of either claiming a righteous rage and revenging his father’s death, or accepting the vampire as his liberator. The former option is a scripted reaction expected of him if he is to take his father’s position in the symbolic order and thus perpetuate Oedipal masculinity. It necessitates possessing or punishing the female, projecting lack and disempowerment unto her, and distancing himself from all that is feminine in order to secure a space for himself in the patriarchal power structure. But Arash chooses the vampire, gets in the car, and together they leave the Bad City. They disappear into the darkness, like the heroes of a Western movie, riding into the sunset. Whereas the hero of a Western film leaves the town folks and “the woman” behind, in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night the female vampire, the primary agent of the story, rides into the darkness with the only good man of the city. The lone gunman of the Western film continues his journey alone after killing the villains, but the vampire drives away with Arash to where we can imagine it to be a better place, but the coordinates of which cannot be known in advance. Just as the gunman of a Western film riding into the sunset signifies the unfinished conquest of the West, the vampire and Arash disappearing into the darkness allude to the defeat and displacement of patriarchy as yet an unfinished project.


The solution offered by the vampire, therefore, is a modest one. She offers the young man a way out of the constraints of Oedipal deadlock (symbolic prohibitions of desire resulting from the father’s intervention, which become even stronger in the event of patricide). This “way out” is not a roadmap to a pre-Oedipal mother-child-phallus location where the son joins with the inaccessible object of his desire represented by the mother, who then satisfies his every need. That would have infantilized the son and required him to be the phallus for the mother, who presumably would be envious of men’s power (represented by the penis). Nor does the vampire in herself represent plenitude. She too is marked by lack; otherwise, she would not desire. She is both a phallic woman capable of castrating men, and vulnerable and flawed in her desire for Arash. The way out is simply an opening towards the unknown, a transformative open-ended possibility afforded by the phallus but foreclosed by the Oedipal deadlock.

[1]A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Vice Media, All images in this article are the property of Vice Media.

[2]Quoted in Megan Goodwin, “When the Vampire Looks: Gender and Surveillance in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” Mizan, 18 April 2016, available at

[3]Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, “Watch the Trailer For the First-Ever Iranian Feminist Vampire Western,” Jezebel, 27 October 2014, available at; Laura Barcella, “The Feminist Vampire Movie That Teaches ‘Bad Men’ a Gory Lesson,” Jezebel, 25 November  2014, available at; Holly L. Derr, “A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, Part 7: New Beginnings,” Ms. Blog, 27 October 2015, available at

[4]Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 39, in Christa van Raalte, “No Small-Talk in Paradise: Why Elysium Fails the Bechdel Test, and Why We Should Care,” in Media, Margins and Pop Culture, ed. Einar Thorsen, Heather Savigny, Jenny Alexander and Daniel Jackson (New York: Palgrave, 2015), 15-27.

[5]Raalte, “No Small-Talk in Paradise,” 16-17.

[6]See Goodwin, “When the Vampire Looks.”

[7]Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (New York: Palgrave, 1989), 14.

[8]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 14.

[9]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 16.

[10]Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton and Company, 1977), 2.

[11]Synonymous with language, the symbolic order for Lacan is the most important register of the unconscious that governs all manners of exchange. See Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1996), 203-223.

[12]James J. DiCenso, The Other Freud: Religion, Culture and Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1999), 45, fn. 60.

[13]Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 140.

[14]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 14.

[15]Regina M. Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 113-114; for a discussion of the projection of lack and fragmentation on woman in Islamic tradition, see Mahdi Tourage, “Towards the Retrieval of the Feminine from the Archives of Islam,” International Journal of Zizek Studies 6, no. 2 (2012): 1-25.

[16]Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 207.

[17]Michael DeAngelis, Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014), 1.

[18]Amanullah De Sondy, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 162.

[19]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 25.

[20]Anneke Smelik, “What Meets the Eye: Feminist Film Studies,” in Women’s Studies and Culture: A Feminist Introduction, ed. Rosemarie Buikema and Anneke Smelik (London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1993), 71.

[21]Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 108.

[22]For example see Emma Myers, “ND/NF Interview: Ana Lily Amirpour, ” Film Comment, March 19, 2014, available at; and Keiron Tyler, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Style over Substance in the Supposed ‘Frist Iranian Vampire Western,’” in The Arts Desk, 21 May 2015, available at

[23]Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 208.

[24]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 204.

[25]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 208.

[26]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 211.

[27]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 209-210.

[28]Jennifer Skinnon, “Redemptive Motherhood and a Discourse of Fear in Contemporary Apocalyptic Film,” available at

[29]Sophia Rose Arjana, Muslims in the Western Imagination (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 6.

[30]Arjana, Muslims in the Western Imagination, 5.

[31]Arjana, Muslims in the Western Imagination, 149.

[32]Goodwin, “When the Vampire Looks.”

[33]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 19.

[34]Goodwin, “When the Vampire Looks.”

[35]Lacan explains that the phallus can perform its signifying function only when veiled, “as itself a sign of the latency with which any signifiable is struck, once it is raised (aufgehoben) to the function of signifier.” Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, 288.

[36]Shohini Chaudhuri, Fem Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed (London, New York: Routledge, 2006), 107.

[37]Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), 84.

[38]Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, 287.

[39]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 210.

[40]Hayward, Cinema Studies, 210.

[41]Butler, Bodies that Matter, 57-92.

[42]Butler, Bodies that Matter, 88.

[43]Hamid Naficy, The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 183.

[44]Parviz Jahed, “Film Farsi as Mainstream Cinema,” in Directory of World Cinema: Iran, vol. 10, ed. Parviz Jahed (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2012), 74.

[45]Christian and Richard Milner, Black Players: The Secret World of Black Pimps (London: King Flex, 1973), 112.

[46]Ronald L. Jackson II, Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media (Albany: SUNY, 2006), 118; Eithne Quinn, Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gansta Rap (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 122.

[47]Shahram Khosravai¸ “Displaced Masculinity: Gender and Ethnicity among Iranian Men in Sweden,” Iranian Studies 42, no. 4 (2009): 591-609.

[48]Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 128.

[49]West, Race Matters, 128.

[50]bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (New York and London: Routledge, 2015), 109.

[51]Slavoj Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York: Routledge, 2008), x.

[52]Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 86.

[53]Hamid Dabashi, Shiism: A Religion of Protest (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2011), 16.

[54]Dabashi, Shiism, 14.

[55]Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 101.

[56]Mathew Tinkcom and Amy Villarejo, eds., Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies (London, New York: Routledge, 2001), 13.

[57]Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 62.

[58]Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 102.

[59]In Lacan’s formulation, it is desire that is “the reverse of the law.” See Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 99.

[60]Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 15.

[61]Paul Verhaeghe, “The Collapse of the Function of the Father and Its Effects on Gender Roles,” in Sexuation, ed. Renata Salecl (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2000), 140.

[62]A. Susan Owen, Sarah R. Stein, and Leah R. Vande Berg, Bad Girls: Cultural Politics and Media Representations of Transgressive Women (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 23-24.

[63]Carellin Brooks, Every Inch a Woman: Phallic Possession, Femininity, and the Text (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006), ix.

[64]The disappearance of the female vampire in cinema is pointed out as “a great loss of possible identifications and visual pleasure of female audience.” See Anneke Smelik, “Feminist Film Theory,” The Feminist eZine, available at

[65]See Freud’s explanation of “fantasy” in Evans, An Introductory Dictionary, 60-61.

[66]Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1992), 18.

Waves of Stasis: Photographic Tendency and a Cinema of Kindness in Kiarostami’s Five (Dedicated to Ozu)

Abbas Kiarostami has often been described as a ciné-poet, an artist who moves between the visual and the lyrical to create a cinematic experience that moves away from “understanding” and dwells in the abstracted space of poetic reflection. His visual poetry is very much linked to a slowness, and often a stillness, that gives time to images rather than stories. While many of Kiarostami’s films feature the qualities of slow cinema, minimalist mise en scènes, long takes, and little to no narrativity, none have been quite as slow as his 2003 documentary, Five Long Takes: Dedicated to Ozu (hereafter Five). [2] The film consists of five long takes, four of which are set on the shores of the Caspian Sea, and one on a beach in Spain. For the most part, Kiarostami’s camera remains still, with periodic movement steered by surrounding winds. The film’s actors include passersby on a boardwalk, a piece of driftwood, a swarm of ducks, a herd of dogs, and several croaking frogs under the moonlight. If seen in its entirety, Five can be experienced as a time compression of a full day, with each take passing from sunrise, morning, afternoon, twilight and nightfall. Each take can be experienced as an extended or moving version of a series of photographic landscapes, each prolonged by the stasis of the camera, allowing the spectator to become attuned to moments that might otherwise be passed over in narrative cinema. Together, these takes compose a poetic reflection that yields no conclusive message or interpretation; instead, sound and images flow with time, some lost to memory, and others more enduring in our frame of consciousness. In this respect, Kiarostami’s spectators are not bound to the director’s intentions, but can link what they have seen or heard to their own dreams, and to creations of their own imagination. This is made possible through the power of Kiarostami’s filmic style, which incorporates sophisticated editing techniques while also remaining open to the contingencies of natural elemental forces. As rightly articulated by Alain Bergala, Five should be seen as “the very essence of the power, of all the powers, of cinema, of those which are used in pursuit of the revelation of reality and equality of those which seek to manipulate it.”[3] The boundaries of illusion and reality are further complicated by Kiarostami’s own receptiveness to the world’s chance opportunities. In Five, Kiarostami is particularly attuned to the temporal motions of the sea, as it poses an alternative temporal arrangement from the experience of narrative forms. By embodying the chance-driven temporality in the making of this film, Kiarostami’s final product is anything but final. Five offers viewers an open-ended temporality that invites reflections on the continuities of life and death, as well as those other vital patterns, unpredictable and hidden. 

Five takes a hybrid form that hovers between experimental art cinema and media installation. Kiarostami intended the film be viewed both as single projection as well as a media installation in five distinct parts.[4] Experiencing the film in both of these registers offers distinct spectator experiences, and yet the fundamental sense that narrative events do not dictate the film’s enduring affective presence remains true to both forms. With no dialogue or human characters, the film instead offers a set of images. How one appreciates these images, at what pace, and in what order, is wholly left to the spectator. What is more, Kiarostami himself rescinds totalizing power from his role as director and opens the film’s making to the unpredictable, the chance-like, and elements that are outside of our anthropocentric dominions of control. The resonances of these five long takes, still and in motion, make up the progression of the film. What is more, the non-diegetic music that emerges between each take stresses the passage of time and expresses the impermanence of the temporal moment that preceded.

Furthermore, the dialectical play between motion and stasis invites a probing of the fixed frame and the representation of photography within the moving image. The movement between the photographic and filmic blurs the boundaries between the two and reflects the porosity of both media, particularly as they relate to the passage of time. The aesthetic of Kiarostami’s moving landscape shots both participate in the temporality of the photographic and subvert readings of these images as purely past tense, even while maintaining traces of loss. This gesture defies narrative structure and allows the film to affect the viewer beyond the temporal constraints of both film and photograph. The experience of watching Five creates a dialectical movement between the conscious and the unconscious, and thus, extends the temporality of the filmic image, beyond the film itself. Moreover, the film posits a contemplative gaze towards the sea, a space whose movement carries its own cyclicality, yet smooth temporalization via flowing movements. The sea offers its own flow of temporality and allows for a counter-spectator experience from conventional narrative structures. By approaching this space as an image of its own making, Five’s photographic attunement allows the spectator to evade normative experiences of representative cinematic time, and enter a space of meditation open to change, as well as the ebbs and flow of life, and of death.


  1. Non-narrativity and a Kind Cinema

Kiarostami’s narrative slowness follows a lineage of filmmakers before him, most notably Yasujirō Ozu, to whom he dedicated Five. With a sense of reverence, Kiarostami once remarked on Ozu’s cinematic style, “Ozu’s cinema is a kindly cinema. He values interactions, natural relationships, and the natural human in all his films. His long shots are everlasting and respectful.” Embodying the kindness he cherished in Ozu’s films, Kiarostami’s films are at once poetically layered and still porous to the world. Therefore, they are amenable to a multitude of spectator interpretations. As such, Kiarostami’s filmic grammar does not believe in narrative structures that seek to manipulate or provoke his spectator’s vulnerable and receptive sensorium, instead he offers images imbued with profound kindness. The “kind” cinema Kiarostami espouses is one that trusts his spectators with gaps, and even moments of empty time within the unfolding of the film.

To think further about the landscape images Kiarostami offers his viewers and the ways in which they relate to perception, it will be helpful to explore the narrative compositions Kiarostami is working against. In a discussion regarding the dialectical structure of film, Walter Benjamin evokes the structure of cinema as a dialectic between production and consumption.[5] The consumption of film is a part of the industrial process to the extent that the viewer is operating on a conveyor belt to process a succession of images. In this mode of film spectatorship, the viewer is hitched to the mechanical apparatus of cinema. This mode of filmic experience binds the spectator to character movement and plot development (these gestures are themselves tethered to the apparatus) and likely unfolds in the same way other films of its kind have before, thus producing a shock experience that is both predictable and totalizing. For Benjamin, this relationship to the image on the screen is experienced simultaneously as comfort and as anxiety, comforting because it affirms our normative experience of film viewing and relies on the predictable unfolding of action, as well as anxiety ridden because our heightened sense of impending action relies on a relationship to temporality that constantly anticipates what is next before even fully digesting what preceded it. This mode of narrative storytelling entails staccato movements that leave the viewer anxiously anticipating the next move, bound to the screen, and wholly unaware of, yet manipulated by the film’s temporality. Kiarostami’s films, and Five in particular, free the viewer from such an oversaturation of images and movements of the cinematic event.[6] The concept of the Event carries a multitude of meanings in narrative discourse. For the purpose of this paper, Event is to be understood as a structure of time that captures the viewer and binds them to the narrative unfolding. Namely, the Event constitutes what ends and begins a series of sequencing connected to the temporality of reception. The Event itself evokes grand tropes condensed in time in order to elicit shock and fantasy. Often, linear narrative structures rely on Events to determine what happened in a text or a film. This understanding foregrounds the Event both within the narrative as well as in the reception, thus affecting and homogenizing the phenomenological experience of film viewing. Mary Ann Doane complicates the concept of the event by suggesting; “the event is on the cusp between contingency and structure, history and theory.”[7] Within the structure of cinema (the indexical recording of time), Doane identifies a destabilizing potential imbued with the contingent and the inassimilable.[8] This background is useful to further understand Kiarostami’s defiance of narrative logic and his gravitation towards images, poetic, and static in their form. In turn, Kiarostami’s shift from narrative emplotment offers a sense of respite from the screen and gives significance to the collective experiential participation of his spectators.

Shifting focus from narrative to image permits the spectator to encounter images without preconceived frames of narration. Images become approachable on one’s own affective terrain and sensory experience. By thinning narrative distance, film has at its disposal the capacity to give images a quality of eternal presence, and therefore center spectator experiences. Theodor Adorno takes a hopeful tone in articulating the potentiality of film in his essay “On the Transparencies of Film,”[9] where he explores film as the coalescing of technology and technique. Here, Adorno investigates the use of the photographic in the filmic and more interestingly, the movement of objects through the provocatively static character of certain films such as Antonioni’s La Notte. Kiarostami, like Antonioni, is a filmmaker who makes room for and further invites a spatial and temporal distancing from the continuous flow of images on the screen. This opening of temporality, however, is not as heavily reliant on the Event or pseudo-realism[10] as Adorno has described it. Instead, by creating a “real” realism in making time more salient, the pace of the film allows the audience to doze off for a moment and not feel completely alienated upon return. In a reflection on his aversion to the logic of narrative structure, Kiarostami stated:

I don’t like to engage in telling stories. I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice. I don’t like to belittle him or burden him with a sense of guilt. Those are the things I don’t like in the movies. I think a good film is one that has a lasting power and you start to reconstruct it right after you leave the theater. There are a lot of films that seem to be boring, but they are decent films. On the other hand, there are films that nail you to the seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later. These are the films that take you hostage. I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.[11]

Here, Kiarostami’s declarative statements aspire to a vision of cinema committed to the spectator’s power to veer off course, precisely because no experiential course has been prescribed. As Kiarostami has himself characterized them, these are the films that allow for deeper and more active contemplation, perhaps throughout the actual viewing of the film, or even days later. In accord with Adorno, such filmic experiences might resemble more precisely the experiences of listening to music or looking at a painting, where the spectator is made conscious of temporal structure, but is not conscripted to mirroring it. Looking back at Five, Kiarostami echoed a similar sensibility in regards to a cinematic experience that “can in some ways form a relationship with poetry or with painting, and thereby free itself from the narrative obligation and the servitude of the director.”[12] It appears that Kiarostami and Adorno share a vision of cinema that simulates and prioritizes a phenomenological experience between spectator and image, rather than merely a relaying of stories (though as Alain Bergala has underlined, stories may very well surface in this type of cinema).

By prioritizing the experience of cinema, Kiarostami’s careful depiction of a day at sea does not determine how the viewer should experience the film. In an interview on the making of Five Kiarostami declared: “I can confidently say that you would not miss anything if you had a short nap. The important thing for me is how you feel once the film is finished, the relaxing feeling that you carry with you after the film ends.”[13] Thus, in experiencing Five— as in the experience of a short nap— the spectator is invited to give into its soothing tranquility. Kiarostami’s emphasis on feeling foregrounds the phenomenological aspects of cinema rather than features of narrative structure or storytelling. As such, the viewer’s ability to seek respite does not suggest the films passivity, but rather a generosity attuned to the world’s contingent and mediated patterns. Alberto Elena has called Kiarostami’s filmmaking “a radical call for a contemplative cinema.”[14] I would agree with this sentiment and also add that while Kiarostami invites contemplation in relation to his films, he also emphasizes the temporal duration of feeling that exceeds the cinematic frame. This is a feeling that you may take with you as you approach and attune yourself to the world outside of the film.

Contemplative cinema offers a relationship to temporality unbound from narrative events, therefore images are not limited to the confines of the film screen but are opened to the outside world. Adorno suggests that the power of film lay in its “uncinematic” capacity to “express, as if with hollow eyes, the emptiness of time.”[15]  In order to go against its technological origins and to channel the “uncinematic,” film must go outside and against its own medium through a consciousness of other mediums, and an opening of the unconscious, as advocated by the surrealists. The image of hollow eyes to which Adorno refers is found both in the artistic expression of filmmaking and its subjective mode of spectator experience. Such a surreal image brings to mind darkness, emptiness, and a seeing without sight. This is the image of dreams and the world of the unconscious. It is such a state of perception that pushes the limits of film’s technique and technology, carries a filmic quality that is interdisciplinary at its core (with a sensibility towards the photographic, the literary, the painterly and the musical), while also expanding the realm of realism from consciousness to the realm of the unconscious.

For film to become a liberated work of art, it should “wrest its a priori collectivity from the mechanisms of unconscious,”[16] and in doing so it will better attune itself to a subjective mode of experience. This type of perceptive experience, untethered to a constraining narrative structure, can be compared to one’s personal experience of the sublime in nature. Reflecting on the dream-like images that surface from this experience, Adorno imagines:

“A person who, after a year in the city, spends a few weeks in the mountains abstaining from all work, may unexpectedly experience colorful images of landscapes consolingly coming over him or her in dreams or daydreams. These images do not merge into one another in a continuous flow, but are rather set off against each other in the course of their appearance, much like the magic lantern slides of our childhood.”[17]

Adorno, like Kiarostami, approaches the image of landscape as a consolatory space of refuge that escapes the continuous flow of narrativity. But the landscapes that turn into dreams for Adorno are not unmediated by the technological qualities of the filmic. Rather, through a meditation of experiences that resist representation, Adorno envisions a radical contemporary cinema that can expand its own technique and relieve its spectator, or even propel her into the realm of the unconscious. In interlacing the literary, the cinematic, and the musical, the experience of viewing a film can open spatio-temporal conceptions of realism.[18] As a result, in becoming an interdisciplinary medium, film can bring to light its various movements and fragmentary images. Adorno’s ideal filmic experience seeks to escape the conventional mimetic impulse and instead enter the collective unconscious, making greater use of formalistic techniques to revivify the discontinuous flow of movements as is intimately tied to the experience of nature.


  1. Between Reality and Mediation

Kiarostami has reflected that Five is a film that performs a real realism. In his book on slow cinema, Ira Jaffe writes that in the making of Five, “Kiarostami rehearses his own death as auteur by going to sleep after setting his camera on an empty seashore.”[19] While this is true for one of Kiarostami’s takes, it is important to remember that although Five gives the illusion of being untouched by the filmmaker, it is in fact, deeply and intricately labored upon. Even as Kiarostami’s filmmaking process is entangled in chance elements, the final production is no mere depiction of naturalism or mimetic transparency. In fact, the film is rather elaborately edited. In a documentary about the making of Five, Kiarostami mentioned that this might have been one of the most difficult films he has ever made— but it doesn’t show on the surface.[20]

While each of the film’s long takes gives the illusion that Kiarostami himself pressed play and then went to sleep, as he allegedly did in the third take (Dogs, which features a pack of dogs sitting on the beach), the reality is far more complex. The pure and pristine depiction of nature we believe to be consuming is in fact carefully mediated by the filmmaker himself. For instance, in the first take (Wood) the camera undulates with the waves (this is the only take where the camera is not in complete stasis) and as spectators we are led to follow the continuous motions of the waves hitting a piece of driftwood, back and forth. The motions of winds that surround the wood magnificently possess the camera. This plasticity leads spectators to embody these very same winds and waves, and thus gives the false perception that the push of waves is what breaks the driftwood apart. It was in fact Kiarostami who manipulated this seemingly natural phenomenon by placing a small explosive in the driftwood to have it break apart by the end of the long take. Perhaps this “event” is so uneventful that it does not affect our perception of the movement to discover its mediation, though nonetheless it shows us that through film, even a non-event can be mediated. In take four, which is comparatively lively compared to the other takes, the camera returns to a midrange frontal angle of the shore, and we are bombarded by noisy ducks who cross the frame from left to right, and then from right to left across the screen. Kiarostami artfully manipulates the scene beyond the frame, and guides the ducks to move back and forth, as though unprovoked. In take five (Moon and Swamp); the final image appears as a single long take that depicts the reflection of the moon. This 28-minute sequence was in fact filmed more than 20 times over the course of several months, and each take was superimposed onto the others with invisible cuts. Interestingly, the final night sequence, which underwent the most amount of technological mediation, obscures the image and privileges the soundtrack. This sequence is by far the least reliant on visual change. The temporality is thus most felt through the rhythms and cadences of sound. The take carries the unbearable sound of frogs, or toads croaking, so harrowing, it suggests an indifference to human presence; what is more, it suggest that perhaps the film is not made for us.[21]

Akin to the detailed mediation of that which we do not see on the surface of the film, Five also contains a carefully crafted soundtrack. The use of music is noteworthy for a filmmaker like Kiarostami, who like Adorno, has often commented on music’s ability to distract from the filmic image. The film juxtaposes amplified diegetic sounds from various takes during a four-month mixing process. Music is used at the end of each long take, which itself signifies a sense of conclusion and transition to the next take. Overlaying the seemingly tranquil and self-contained visual images of the film, the soundtrack creates a hyper-sentient abundance that unsettles the natural backdrop. Thus, while Kiarostami’s active role in artfully configuring each take might seem to undermine the film’s non-anthropocentric nature, both the rich composition of sounds and the cloaked darkness of the final sequence exposes the growing impenetrability and esoteric quality of the vivid locality that Kiarostami conjures. Thus, while the film gives the impression that it expresses the emptiness of time through five uninterrupted long takes, it is in fact only a semblance of such an experience, since each take is heavily edited. The seemingly uninterrupted flow of images is in fact heavily fragmented in that it includes layers of images filmed at various points in time. Thus, it is through arduous labor that Kiarostami crafts the “realist” patterns of sound and movement in the shores of the Caspian Sea. It is upon reflection of these formal and perceptive qualities that the film puts forth its ultimate capacity to reveal clarity and abstraction and new relationships between nature and technology in the digital age.

Benjamin reflects on the possibilities within technology in his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility,” where he focuses on the potentiality of film outside of the limited structure of the studio film. He writes:

In the studio the mechanical equipment has penetrated so deeply into reality that its pure aspect freed from the foreign substance of equipment is the result of a special procedure, namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted camera and the mounting of the shot together with other similar ones. The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology (my emphasis).[22]

Five’s use of digital film allows Kiarostami to give the illusion of reality and of the natural world as a space untouched by technology. Yet it is ironically through the technological apparatus, “the height of artifice,” that he brings to light an “orchid” in immediate reality, in the real world of the technological. For this reason, while Kiarostami’s films do approach nature as a space of reflection, they do not intend to portray this space as one that is dialectically unimpeded by the effects of the modern urban space or its inhabitants, and of course, they cannot. His cinematic signature of mediation followed by an act of self-reflexivity, gestures to the encounter between these two worlds.


  1. Kiarostami’s Photographic Tendency and Cinema of Stasis

Those who are familiar with Kiarostami’s photographic oeuvre know that most of his photographs are composed of landscapes devoid of human presence. Equally, many of his earlier films include moments of repose to meditate on the vast landscapes that carry and envelop life’s minutiae. Kiarostami has attributed his fascination with rural spaces and natural landscapes as refuge from the day-to-day patterns and shock experiences of the city. As a culminating artistic creation in Kiarostami’s career of minimalist aesthetics, Five presents the boundary between his photographic and cinematic oeuvre.  The film is attuned to the temporality of both mediums, and blends them to fluidly move between the antinomies of stasis and motion. In Five, time is measured by the flow of waves reaching the shore, constant yet ephemeral. Objects are both centered in their disruption of the constant flow of water, yet recede as the waves take precedence, visually and audibly, through each take. Amidst the empty time of the film, the breaking of a piece of driftwood can feel cathartic. In the following take, passersby and birds are only fleeting objects amidst constant sound of waves, arriving at shore, like an actress emerging center-stage. In the third take, a pack of dogs is abstracted as distant specks. Instead, the object of our gaze becomes the ripple of waves that move swiftly from the left of the frame to the right. As time passes, the image fades, like an old photograph might throughout time, culminating in total whiteness. All that remains are the wave’s sonic cadences.

In Five, each long take inherits integral qualities of the photographic, including stillness as well as the meditation that comes with it. This is in part because each passing moment does not make up a progressive succession in a narrative arc; instead it carries the continuous temporal flow of waves hitting the shore, a movement that is as eventful as it is mundane. Each passing moment is similar in its rhythm, perhaps even unidentifiable with what proceeds or follows. Thus, even with the composition of a singular long take that does account for changes and temporal flow, Kiarostami’s photographic landscapes preserve traces of the photographic to sensitively illuminate the mysterious patterns of the everyday. Five unfolds through the temporality of the earth’s everyday movements, predictable and yet, all the while, unpredictable.

Kiarostami’s work escapes the dichotomy of stasis and moving-image; instead they are presented as two interrelated poles, between which a complex pictorial process can unfold. Five is not the only film that exposes Kiarostami’s investment in uniting still and moving images. Many of the shots he has taken in his films are reminiscent of stills from a road movie. For instance, in Like Someone in Love (2012), one long take looks out at the protagonist during a car ride from the outside. The glass of the car window that covers her face appears as a picture frame and separates the external world, dividing the moving image from a windscreen that makes visible the image of the cityscape through the glass. This image brings to the fore both Kiarostami’s compositional interest in stasis and motion, as well as his acute and thoughtful treatment of landscapes and human action. This has allowed him to take a step back from the scene he is shooting, snap a shot, and reflect on the space that engulfs him. This cinematic gesture permits his films from fluidly moving between the photographic and the moving image. Other films in Kiarostami’s cinematic oeuvre such as Close-up (1990), Taste of Cherry (1997), and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), to name a few, incorporate the long take to follow the movements of small objects as they traverse the earth’s windy landscapes. In these instances, our perception is oriented towards objects that would otherwise occupy the narrative’s background. Furthermore, Kiarostami’s camera is intimately bound up with the flow of nature and gravitates towards meditations of landscape shots, or close-ups, as moments of repose from the already slow narrative style. Unlike this style of moving long shots (commonly used in neo-realist cinema) that impress upon the viewer a sense of distance and empty expanses from place to place, Kiarostami’s long takes in Five are in stasis. The world of Five invites us to meditate in the harmonious cacophony of the sea, to enter its rhythm, with all its hidden creatures and chance patterns.


  1. The Spectator and the Sea

While I previously discussed Kiarostami’s ability to create a visual space of serenity oscillating between the still and moving image, I would now like to discuss the specific temporal configuration of the sea as it presents a counter-narrative to Evental cinema. By reflecting on the phenomenological experiences of this space, we will be able to better consider how the particular temporal structure of the sea opens itself up to new modes of spectator experience. Kiarostami makes the sea visually and audibly prominent, all other actors (including passersby, dogs, ducks, etc.) are only extras in the continuous and chance operated patterns of the waves. Waves themselves become central characters, like sea creatures, with each emerging and pushing into the other. By creating a film that has little to no external action, the ceaseless murmur of the sea as it ebbs and flows seemingly replaces any linear narrative flow, and introduces its own mode of temporal experience. In particular, the sea in Five produces a radically non-anthropocentric experience, not only because only one of five of the long takes includes people, but also because its temporal pattern and rhythmic assemblage do not privilege the linear logic of human perception. As such, the film bears witness to moments of a day from which an anthropocentric gaze might turn away. Though still mediated by the presence of both auteur and spectator, the film’s non-evental rhythm invites us to move in and out of it. Such a motion affirms its ability to go on without us (while, of course still being mediated by the filmic gaze). And at times, it does, just as the flow of the world’s oceans continues day after day, night after night, whether we are there to bear witness, or not.

In reflecting on the phenomenological experience of watching waves, Sean Cubitt interestingly notes: “The experience of watching water is of a now that extends indefinitely. The precise configuration of light in the frames that pass by is irreplaceable, but another, infinity or infinitesimally different, will always supersede it so that its timelessness is not of the philosophical absolute, but of an endlessly differentiating repetition.”[23] Five’s non-narrativity unfolds within the endlessly undifferentiated repetition of the sea’s waves. The experience of watching Five, emphasized by the slow and static nature of its images, submerges the viewer into a cinematic experience that does not progress towards an ending or narrative arc, rather its progression is felt as a loss of time passed and at once a recognition of its salience. Still, Five is not a film that seeks continuous or unchanging repetition. Rather, each take signifies the motion of time, with light as the index that time has in fact passed. No scene carries the weight of light as much as the final scene, which would remain invisible to the human eye if it were not for the radiant force of the moonlight reflected unto the water. Here, Kiarostami lends a nod to another worldly pattern. Nonetheless, Kiarostami’s vital meditation of both audible and rhythmic forces of nature, allows the natural flow of the sea to take the place of narrativity.

As each long take from Five is filmed at the boundary between land and sea, we are positioned to embody the gaze of our auteur as he shares his refuge in the open expanse of the sea. In a thoughtful reflection on ‘Water and Dreams,’ Gaston Bachelard writes that matter can disassociate itself from form and can be given value either through deepening (with mysterious, unknowable layers) or elevating (appearing as an inexhaustible force). In each case, he writes, meditation on matter cultivates an open imagination. The sea thus symbolizes a liquid materiality that can incite our imagination.[24] Certainly, this was true of Kiarostami’s own experience. Kiarostami viewed the landscapes he captured as oneiric experiences. In a 2000 interview conducted in Tehran about his photographic impetus, Kiarostami remarked, “my photographs are made of the same substance as my dreams.”[25] What are these substances, material and dream-like? This remark is perhaps attuned to the open flow of photographic landscapes, both vast and ephemeral. Through the stilled images of the sea, and the glaring light impressed upon the pond at nightfall, moments of beauty are experienced, reactivated, and at times they enter the unconscious, to emerge again, in a delayed state, outside of the temporality of the film itself. The illumination of these images through dream contributes to the spectator’s non-linear experience of the narrative, but further illuminates the importance and the recurrence of the fixed image in our perception of the moving-image. Furthermore, each long take points to the calm flow of another worldly pattern and gives the spectator the agentive power to construct his or her own subjective spectatorial experience.

Kiarostami is not the first to push the limits of slow cinema by meditating deeply on continuous and repetitive actions or space. Some might be prone to draw comparisons between Kiarostami’s cinematic style and other slow films such as Andy Warhol’s exhaustive anti-film in Sleep or Chantal Akerman’s tedious use of a kitchen in Jeanne Dielman. And while these films do embody a temporal slowness, I’m inclined to suggest that these films are not as sympathetic to their viewer, particularly in the experience of empty time, as in a Kiarostami film. His overall sensitivity to human action and even his deep meditation on the non-anthropocentric space of the sea offers his spectator a redemptive, versus a punitive, experience. Kiarostami’s filmic style does not seek to exhaust his viewer with excesses either in length or impenetrable visuals. Even while inviting his viewers to take a short nap, his film is meticulously designed to include only that which is absolutely necessary. For this reason, Five is successful in presenting each part of the day, sunrise, morning, afternoon, twilight, and dusk; all the while, each of Five’s long takes only last about 12 minutes, thus condensing a whole day to a little over an hour. Thus, it is important to reiterate that while Five certainly shares the company of others forms of slow cinema, its singularity lies in Kiarostami’s kindness that shares images made of dreams and invites an endless and bountiful imagination. His is a type of cinematic intimacy that stays with you.


  1. Cooperating with the Earth: Auteur as Spectator

In a reflection on the making of Five, Kiarostami articulated the operative force of chance in his work, “There are moments in my film that I must confess are not of my own making.” Kiarostami humbly rescinds his authorial power (including the technical logic of cinematic design) to allow his films to be propelled by contingent elements beyond his control. As such, Kiarostami himself shares his own spectatorial experiences with life’s accidental and hidden course. In the process of creating Five, Kiarostami cooperated with the hidden powers of the earth including the rhythms, vibrations, and cadences of the earth, wind, and water. The cooperative nature of Kiarostami’s filmmaking comes from a consciousness and curiosity for factors out of his control[26]. This refers both to the creative force of spectator experiences as well as life’s unpredictable chance formation. Kiarostami guides us to watch Five with an awareness to the power of the accidental and to contemplate what we cannot know. To see the assemblage of images in Five as both creations of chance and mediation illuminates and intertwines the chance patterns of the mundane with that of the mediating apparatus.  As auteur, Kiarostami cooperates with the earth and embodies the notion of participatory cinema even prior to the relationship of auteur and spectator through the operative powers of chance within the earth itself.

Kiarostami’s films call for a collision of worlds; in a first gesture, they share his own imagined experience. And like the flow of water, his films are receptive to elements outside of it. He invites his spectators to add to the depth of the world he has created, and to see beyond it, to take it with them. To see Kiarostami’s images is not to acquire knowledge, or even a story (even though many times, we do) but to affect one’s way of looking at the material world. Kiarostami’s slow and often-static shots compel us to be attentive to objects, elements, and other worldly patterns. His filmmaking is generous with its gaze and kind in its style, a filmmaking whose current will continue to leave its traces. Like the image of ripples in each of Five’s long takes, it constantly expands our way of seeing, transforms our gaze from the linear, or logically causal, and opens ourselves and our dreams to the felt rhythms of the earth.

[1]Donna Honarpisheh is a PhD student at UC-Berkeley’s department of Comparative Literature. She holds an MA from UC-Berkeley in Near Eastern studies and is a member of the designated emphasis program in Critical Theory. Her work focuses on the aesthetics and politics of Modernist Persian Film and Fiction, Francophone literature, and Postcoloniality.

[2]Five Long Takes: Dedicated to Ozu directed by Abbas Kiarostami (New York: The Kimstim Collection, 2003), DVD.

[3]Alberto Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami (London: Saqi, 2005), 183. Elena also cites Alain Bergala, “Abbas Kiarostami: Les pleins pouvoirs du cinema,” 45.

[4]While I will not be exploring the experience of Five in its museum form, it is worth noting that viewing the film as an installation piece might prompt a different reading of the film. Specifically, focusing on the piece as an installation might provide an alternative experience for the relationship between material and viewer. MoMA acquired Five in 2004 after its world premiere at Cannes Film Festival and showed it as a part of a Kiarostami retrospective entitled: “Abbas Kiarostami: Image-Maker.” At MoMa, it was screened as a single theatrical projection as well as a media installation. As a media installation, the film was divided into five segments and projected in a continuous and synchronized loop onto five separate walls, with the audio of each take blending slightly together. MoMA describes this work as: “beautifully min[ing] the potential of digital imagery and sound while playfully investigating the fluid limits of documentary art practice.” It can be argued that as video installation, Five elicits what Alain Bergala calls the “re-education of the gaze,” with the spatiality of the museum adding its own way of looking for the spectator and his/her mobility within the space. See Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, 153.

[5]Walter Benjamin, “The Formula in Which Dialectical Structure of Film Finds Expression,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings and Brigid Doherty trans. Thomas Y. Levin and Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 340-341.

[6]Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, and the Archive (Harvard University Press, 2002).

[7]Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time, 140.

[8]Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time, 141.

[9]Theodor W. Adorno, “Transparencies on Film,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J.M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), 3.

[10]By pseudo-realist, Adorno refers to films that claim to be realist in their heightened and exaggerated interpretation of human action through an uncritical use of technology. These are films that reify commodity culture and fetishize their means. They do not truly represent reality because they debase our sense of time and capture the spectator through shock-like effects and images, as though they are coming through a conveyor belt. Instead, Adorno calls for a meaningful relationship between technique, material, and content. See “Transparencies on Film,” 184.

[11]Abbas Kiarostami, The Taste of Cherry, video interview,

[12]Here, Alberto Elena cites Kiarostami’s statement in Alberto Barbara and Elisa Resegotti. See Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, 174.

[13]Abbas Kiarostami, Around Five: Abbas Kiarostami’s Reflections on Film and the Making of Five, directed by Abbas Kiarostami (2003; New York: Kimstim, 2005), DVD.

[14] Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, 183.

[15]Adorno, “Transparencies on Film,” 180.

[16]Adorno, “Transparencies on Film,” 183-184.

[17]Adorno, “Transparencies on Film,” 201.

[18]Adorno, “Transparencies on Film,”183. For Adorno, the interdisciplinary constellation of film is expressed most powerfully in Mauricio Kagel’s television film, Antithese.

[19] Ira Jaffe, Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action (New York: Wallflower Press:  2014), 13.

[20]Kiarostami, Around Five.

[21]For more on Five’s non-anthropocentric nature and its object-oriented ontology, see Selmin Kara’s essay, “The Sonic Summons: Meditations on Nature and Anempathetic Sound in Digital Documentaries” in The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media, ed. C. Vernalis, A. Herzog, and J. Richardson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 582–97. There, Kara argues that Five’s aesthetics provide an alternative to “human centered vision.” Instead, Kara writes, “Kiarostami’s sound and image editing in Five sets duration as a relative, matter- or object-oriented (instead of subject-oriented) term, deflating assumptions about continuity. His long-take night is a rhythmic assemblage, one that takes into account the temporal patterns, superimpositions, and cadences that might be observable among various nights on the Caspian shore, without privileging the linear logic of human perception.”

[22]Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art,” 35.

[23]Sean Cubitt, “Watching Waves” in Eco Media (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2005), 49.

[24]Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, ed. Edith R. Farrell (Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 2006), 1-2.

[25]Interview with Abbas Kiarostami, published in Abbas Kiarostami, Photo Collection (Tehran: Hunar-i Īrān, 2000), not paginated.

[26]In his documentary film, “Around Five,” Kiarostami beautifully recounts an old story to tell the difference between chess and backgammon, or logic and chance. He says: “It is said that in old times, a philosopher in India invented chess after much pondering, and presented it as a gift to the Maharajah of India. The Maharajah was so impressed with this logical and mental game of war, that he presented it to the Iranian emperor as a symbol of Indian intelligence. In doing this, the Indian Maharajah was delivering a philosophical challenge. Bozorgmehr, the wise vizier of the Iranian king, Anowshirvan, deciphered the secrets of this complicated game and the logical warlike thought behind it. He decided to respond to the Indian philosopher in the same way. Therefore, in return for chess, he invented backgammon, with two small cubes called dice. This game takes full control from the player and show him that there are other factors contributing to one’s destiny than skill, intelligence and experience, factors that many of us are unaware of…These factors may strike our life at any point and a wise person is one who allows for these accidents in the game.”

Interiority and the City Center: Locating the Gulistan Harem During Nasser al-Din Shah’s Reign

A whole history remains to be written of spaces – which would at the same time be the history of powers… from the great strategies of geopolitics to the little tactics of the habitat. -Michel Foucault[1]

In “Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias”, one of Michel Foucault’s later works, he argued for the importance of the spatiality of social life: the place in which the actually lived and socially produced sites and the relations between them are negotiated.[2] Foucault offered great insight into how we can interpret and produce knowledge based on human geographies, or as Edward Soja has noted, “how to see the ‘other spaces’ hidden in the more obvious and diverting multiplicity of real-world sights and situations.”[3] This paper takes the Gulistan harem (andarūn) and its surrounding areas as a complex set of spaces, whose architectural and material configuration structured the gendered, domestic, and social lives of its inhabitants in a myriad of complementary and contradictory ways. Focusing on the spatial dimensions, as well as human geography of Nasser al-Din Shah’s harem, and its location at the heart of late-19th century Tehran, the paper will examine the historical development and expanding physical structure of Gulistan, and the intricate relationship between urban space, architecture, and practices of inhabitation that informed it.

I hope to disrupt the monolithic and narrow interpretations of Middle Eastern harems as deeply private spheres of forced and uncontested gender segregation, and instead, examine the ways in which the Gulistan harem along with the multiplicity of its residents, resisted the dichotomy between private/public domains – a modernist European dichotomy which has often been imposed onto this institution in its historiography, and instead forged unique communal practices of co-habitation (Figure 1).

Fig. 1. Group of harem women and servant. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran. (210-6-1)

Fig. 1. Group of harem women and servant. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran. (210-6-1)


Furthermore, the Gulistan harem was not only a space of domesticity, and distinctive familial formation, but also, a place where various kinds of social contact and collective cultural practices were realized alongside equally significant geopolitical and diplomatic affairs, as well as various registers of engagement with Persian modernity.

This paper begins with looking at the historical evolution and expanding physical structure of the Gulistan Palace, and situates it in the simultaneous history of the emergence of Tehran as an urban metropolis. I then move on to explore the physical and material organization of the Gulistan harem, and the ways in which it was controlled, lived in, and subverted. The final section interrogates the question of what constituted private, interior, and domestic spaces respectively, when speaking of the royal Qajar harem – a space composed of multiple homes, within a larger palace, which was the administrative center of Qajar rule.


The Simultaneous Development of Tehran and Gulistan Palace:

The Gulistan Palace, like Tehran, the city which houses it, was built over the course of three centuries beginning in the 16th century, and continuing into the early 20th century. During this period, the palace went through a number of renovations, expanding to cover a huge area of land within the urban core of Tehran by the second half of 19th century, and later, in the 20th century under the Pahlavis, contracting to a smaller complex.[4] The historical formation and evolution of the palace was from the beginning intricately connected to the development of the urban metropolis that it was located within. Most notably, under Nasir al-Dīn’s reign, the Gulistan harem, placed within the larger boundaries of the royal citadel (arg), grew both physically and in terms of the number of its residents to its largest scale as compared to the harem of his predecessors. When Nasser al-Din Shah began his reign in 1848, Gulistan was a much smaller, though still remarkable court, mostly built by his grandfather Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah, who reigned between 1797-1834, and who developed Tehran into the true capital of Qajar rule.

While the establishment of both Tehran and Gulistan date back to the Safavid dynasty, the expansion of the arg and the growth of city into one of the largest urban metropolis in the region, both took proper form during the Qajar dynasty. Under the Safavids, Tehran emerged as a modest fortified town with four gates. Tehran’s importance to the Safavids was mainly due to its location on the route from Esfehan, the Safavid capital, to Mashhad, the site of the shrine of the eighth imam, which is a significant destination for Shi‘a people. [5]  Later, during the brief Zand period, Karim Khan further developed the town through building a palace and the government headquarters within the gates of the city, and promoted it to the status of a military base. It was not until 1786 that Tehran was established as a capital city by Agha Muhammad, the first Qajar ruler who went on to dispose the last Zand ruler Luft-Ali Khan, and claimed the throne in 1796. Agha Muhammad, the founder of the Qajar dynasty, began the establishment of full-scale royal court in Tehran upon claiming the throne, and in order to legitimate and expand the newly found capital city. He was responsible for setting up much of the initial infrastructure for what later became the elaborate Gulistan royal court (Figure 2).[6]

Fig. 2. Oldest Map of Tehran by Russian military officer Naskov, 1826. The square on the top left- hand corner depicts the borders of the developing Gulistan Palace. Source:

Fig. 2. Oldest Map of Tehran by Russian military officer Naskov, 1826. The square on the top left- hand corner depicts the borders of the developing Gulistan Palace. Source:


The full realization of Gulistan into a grand palace, however, was accomplished only after Agha Muhammad’s death and during the thirty-five-year reign of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah (1797-1834).  Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah was notorious for having one of the largest harems in Iranian history, with the number of wives estimated to reach over one thousand.[7]  Unlike his uncle, Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah embraced a taste for luxury, reflected not only in the large number of wives and concubines in his harem, but also his love of extravagant ceremonies, which were a primary engine for the development of Gulistan Palace, beginning in 1806, less than a decade into his reign. This expansion phase included both the completion of structures which had been started by his uncle, and the initiation of new building projects, as well as the addition of large gardens, new barracks, and an extensive harem (andarūn) area to the north of the palace, which served as the residential quarter of the shah and his many wives. The most significant buildings constructed under his rule include the crystal building (imārat-i bulūr) on the north side of the court, the diamond hall (tālār-i almās) on the south, the wind tower (imārat-i bādgīr) as well as the marble throne (takht-i marmar) which was placed on the porch (tālār) of the iconic audience chamber (divān khānah), which remains to this day. The architecture of Gulistan during this period incorporated many traditional Persian design elements as a means of legitimizing Qajar rule over Persian territory. Jennifer Scarce, in her study of the architectural details of the some of the buildings inside the arg from this period, notes:

The plan and decoration of the dīvankhaneh and the marble throne is a direct visual reference to Fath ‘Ali Shah’s royal status. The plan of a spacious open reception hall supported on columns stresses both the antiquity and continuity of Iranian monarchy as it is found in pre-Islamic Achaemenid and Sasanid architecture as well as in palaces of Safavid Isfahan and Zand Shiraz.[8]

Within Iranian historiography, Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah is considered the ruler who not only built the great arg which housed Gulistan Palace, but also developed Tehran as an urban center, and made it the core Qajar rule.[9] Most notably, during his reign, the bazaar, located to the south of the arg, was greatly expanded and the central square adjacent to arg, which connected the court to the bazaar, also witnessed considerable development.[10]

Perhaps the most significant addition was the building of the Masjid Soltanī – the first large-scale and substantial architectural structure, as well as public building, outside of the arg. Built between 1808 and 1813, it was the largest and most important mosque built under Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s reign, and was located near the northern entrance of the bazaar (Figure 3).

Fig. 3. Illustration of Masjid Soltanī by French Orientalist painter Eugène Flandin made during his travels to Persia between 1839-1841.  Eugène Flandin, Voyage en Perse, avec Flandin, éd. Gide et Baudry, 1851, Vol. 2.

Fig. 3. Illustration of Masjid Soltanī by French Orientalist painter Eugène Flandin made during his travels to Persia between 1839-1841.  Eugène Flandin, Voyage en Perse, avec Flandin, éd. Gide et Baudry, 1851, Vol. 2.



This showcasing of the royal family’s close relationship to both the merchant class and the ulama, through physical and structural proximity, were simultaneous endeavors undertaken and accomplished during Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s thirty-seven year reign.[11] As Ali Madanipour explains in his historiography of the development of Tehran, the structure of the city from the beginning had “a clear functional organization: a political authority (royal compound), an economic center (bazaar), a religious focus (Friday Mosque), and the living places of the towns people.”[12]

While Gulistan was developed to serve as the administrative center of the state and an assertion of its political authority, it was simultaneously the place of residence of the royal family and their large entourage, as well as the site of multiple forms of ceremonial gatherings and royal patronage (through the employment of various artists, craftsmen, tile workers, performers, servants and so on). While the walls and gates built around the citadel protected the court from outside intruders, the extensive structures on the inside of the court served as a gathering place for large audiences hosted by the royal family. In this sense, as I will discuss later, from the beginning, the boundaries between deeply private and hidden, and proudly public and social were constantly negotiated both inside and outside the arg, as well as its andarūn. This multi-functional dimension of Gulistan Palace, and the various political, social, cultural and familial affairs which took place within its boundaries, continued to define the development of the physical geography of the space in its various manifestations throughout the Qajar period.

However, despite the large scale development projects and new infrastructure that were set up in the city during the nearly four decades of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s rule, Tehran’s shape and size, number of gates, and border-defining walls remained essentially the same as when they had been built three centuries earlier.[13] During his short reign (1834-1848), Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah’s successor, Muhhamad Shah’s modest contribution to urban development mostly focused on improving the Royal Square (miydan-i shāh) which connected the bazar and the arg. He also added large gardens to the interior of both the eastern and western quarters inside the arg.[14] It was, however, not until Nasser al-Din Shah’s reign that Tehran truly transformed into a 19th century cosmopolitan metropole, incorporating local, regional and Western ideas and aesthetics into a cityscape that was increasingly a destination point for both regional and international stake holders.

Nasser al-Din Shah officially took the throne in October of 1848, appearing on the takht-i marmar in the tālār of the divān khānah built by his grandfather inside Gulistan Palace (Figure 4).[15]

Fig. 4. Illustration of divān khānah and marble throne by French Orientalist painter Eugène Flandin made during his travels to Persia between 1839-1841.  Eugène Flandin, Voyage en Perse, avec Flandin, éd. Gide et Baudry, 1851, Vol 2.

Fig. 4. Illustration of divān khānah and marble throne by French Orientalist painter Eugène Flandin made during his travels to Persia between 1839-1841.  Eugène Flandin, Voyage en Perse, avec Flandin, éd. Gide et Baudry, 1851, Vol 2.

He continued the tradition of using the divān khānah for court ceremonies, receptions and festivities, though the number of such events, as well as the size of their audience increased steadily throughout his reign, as did the number of his wives and their entourage, leading to a number of different and significant phases of expansion of the Gulistan Palace.

The first phase of urban development under Nasser al-Din Shah began soon after he took the throne.  Amīr Kabīr Mīrzā Taghī Khān (1807-52), the shah’s reformist chief minister, during his short-lived three years appointment (1848-1851), made significant improvements to the urban infrastructure of Tehran. This included further expansion of the bazaar, the building of water canals throughout the city, and perhaps most significantly, in 1851, the construction of the dār al-­fanūn, the first modern education institution in Tehran located on the most north-east corner of the arg, just above the harem (Figure 5).


Fig. 5. dār al-­fanūn University, Tehran.

Fig. 5. dār al-­fanūn University, Tehran.


The building of the school marked a new era of development in the core zone of the city with Gulistan Palace at its epicenter. The school was primarily aimed at teaching modern sciences and its inauguration was the engine for bringing in a host of international scholars over the next few decades. In fact, much of Iranian historiography argues that dār al-­fanūn was the primary engine for modernization project in Iran. And yet, it is interesting to note that virtually no scholarship on either Gulistan or dār al-­fanūn has made note of the proximity between this focal point of modernization, and the royal Qajar harem, which was literally steps away to its south.

During this same period, directly to the south of the Gulistan Palace, and outside the main entrance of the arg, a bustling public square was expanded and renamed sabzi maydān. The square became a crucial nodal point connecting the palace to the developing metropolis (Figure 6).[16]

Fig. 6. Ilya Nikolaevich Berezin, Map of Tehran, 1952. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran.

Fig. 6. Ilya Nikolaevich Berezin, Map of Tehran, 1952. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran.


Concurrently, a substantial rebuilding and revitalization of the bazar quarter began and continued for over a decade, and in 1862, a major renovation project replaced the old bazaar structures with new modern buildings.[17]

A second phase of development began in 1867 and included the destruction of the old mud brick walls which made up the city border, and the enclosure of a much larger area with a wall designed by the French polytechnic engineer and teacher at dār al-­fanūn, General Alexandre Buhler.[18] Tehran expanded to four times its original size, as the area of the city grew from 3 square miles to 7.5 square miles, and the length of the border wall surrounding the city increased from 4 to 11 miles (Figures 7-9).[19]

Fig. 7. Map of Tehran prepared by dār al-­fanūn students in 1859 under supervision of Aligholi Mirza Etezadossaltaneh and technical guidance of Monsieur Kershish. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran.

Fig. 7. Map of Tehran prepared by dār al-­fanūn students in 1859 under supervision of Aligholi Mirza Etezadossaltaneh and technical guidance of Monsieur Kershish. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran.


Fig. 8. Map of Tehran in 1857,

Fig. 8. Map of Tehran in 1857,


Fig. 9. Map of Tehran in 1890,

Fig. 9. Map of Tehran in 1890,


This newly expanded octagonal shaped city parameter included significantly more space to the north, which was developed into an affluent residential area, and a total of twelve elaborately decorated gates.[20]

Much like other major cities in the Middle East, the development of Tehran during this period coincided with accelerated global flows, which included increase contact with both regional neighbors and Europe. Many have read this period as the birth of modernization in Iran, arguing that modernity came through contact with Europe, and meant the application and adaptation of Western civilization to a traditional Persian Islamic culture.[21] This is of course in line with how many European orientalists encountered Tehran in the second half of 19th century. British member of Parliament, George Curzon, for example, during his 1889-1890 trip to Tehran, describes Tehran as a new and modern city. Yet for him, the city has certain deficiencies rooted in its Eastern elements. He states:

At every turn we meet in juxtaposition, sometimes in audacious harmony, at others in comical contrast, the influence and features of the East and the West… European Tehran has certainly become, or is becoming; but yet, if the distinction can be made intelligible, it is being Europeanized upon Asiatic lines. No one could mistake it for anything but an Eastern capital.”[22]

This reading of Tehran takes it as a deficient emulation of a West model, with the inferiority squarely placed on the “Asiatic” elements of the city.

In the historiography of both Tehran and Gulistan, the 1867 International Exhibition, which took place in Paris, has been read as amongst the most important vehicle for the intensification of European influenced urban development throughout the Middle East. Persian officials, along with representatives from other regional centers like Cairo and Istanbul, visited the exhibition and were profoundly moved by what they encountered. In particular, the Ottoman section of the exhibition featured a blended style of traditional Islamic and Western design motifs, and became a major inspiration for emerging architectural trends in the region. It is important to note however that the trend was in fact based in part on the European rediscovery of the medieval Spanish Islamic style of Alhambra, and thus showcased the transnational and reciprocal flow of design influences between the regions, which also predated the era of modernity.[23] It is precisely this reciprocal nature of global flows and influences that Eurocentric and orientalist depictions of modernization in the region fail to account for.

The 1867 exhibition’s impact on municipal improvement plans in Tehran was also only one of several factors that influenced the ambitious expansion plan that were carried out in the city in the second half of the 19th century.[24] Other circumstances that contributed to the major development projects undertaken during this period were the accelerated rate of population growth and a catastrophic flood in May of 1867 which caused a great deal of damage in the north of the city and required a major rebuilding effort.[25] As such, European influence was one amongst the many factors that contributed to the intensified expansion and development of the city that took shape during his period.

The Gulistan Palace also went through a series of simultaneous and elaborate transformations. During his time as Prime Minister, Amīr Kabīr had ordered the purchasing of a major area of land to the east of the palace – though the development and incorporation of this land into Gulistan only took place later, after his death.[26] From 1867 to 1892, the arg, located now in the central part of the newly expanded city borders, grew to cover an enormous area of land, surrounded by its own new high walls and secured gates which closed it off from its surrounding exterior. Inside Gulistan, the first phase of expansion concentrated on building a large scale residential building, named Shams al-‘imārat , in the east side of the arg.

Designed by Dust ‘Ali Khan Nizam al-Dawla, and completed in 1868, the five-story building, the tallest of its kind in Tehran at the time, looked over the city and served as the royal family’s residence. The building was the first recreational tower in Tehran, as well as the first royal building which was clearly exposed to the outside public through its height (Figure 10).[27]

Fig. 10. Shams al-'imārah. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran. (209-4).

Fig. 10. Shams al-‘imārah. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran. (209-4).


Shams al-imārah was built with the intention of giving its inhabitants a unique view of the ever-developing city, while maintaining the royal family’s privacy. Significantly, the building also housed the first photo studio which was established by Nasser al-Din Shah in Iran.

European influence permeated the façade and architectural design of the building with features such as a large clock mounted on the central tower and a projected staircase that lead up to the multi-story building which was visible from outside of the arg.[28] At the same time, the interior architecture, which incorporated ceramic and tile-works with geometric Persian design and imagery, insured that residents were hidden from public view, thus maintaining Islamic tradition of andarūn privacy.[29] It is important to note that at the time, this was the most substantial building within the arg, and along with an expanded andarūn, located behind the divān khānah, it was the primary space in the arg occupied by the shah’s many wives and children.[30] This point highlights the significance of space occupied by women, familial life and domestic culture within the Qajar court. Shams al-imārah allowed its occupants to have a unique view from within the arg of the hustling urban center beyond its walls, while still remaining unseen. Significantly, it was also the first building to have direct access to the exterior with a gate which opened onto the bazaar. Combined, these features point to the ways in which residents within Gulistan Palace, including harem women, had multiple forms of access to the developing cosmopolitan life which was taking shape both inside and directly outside the arg, while still maintaining the Islamic principles of gender segregation.[31]

Another substantial building project during this period was the construction of Takkiya Dawlat to the south east of the palace – a permanent theatre erected between 1868-1873; the structure was built in the style of large amphitheaters, and could accommodate up to four thousand spectators (Figure 11).

Fig. 11. Takkiya Dawlat. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (209-6).

Fig. 11. Takkiya Dawlat. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (209-6).


Takkiya Dawlat was used primarily for the performance of ta’zīyi (passion plays) and ruzih khūnī (mourning rituals), and again, despite some European influence on its architectural shape, the building functioned to highlight the royal family’s strong link to Shia’ Islamic history, marking Gulistan as a public venue for the display of piety.[32] In her description of Takkiya Dawlat, where she was invited to attend a  ta’zīyi play, Lady Mary Sheil, wife of British Lieutenant Colonel Justin Sheil who served in Iran from 1844-1853, notes that the large audience of “several thousands” housed in the structure which “fulfilled all the purposes of a theatre”,  not only included the shah himself, his many ministers, wives and mother, as well as important foreign officials, but also “women of humble condition, who were great in numbers”.[33] She gives a detailed account of the collective mourning ritual that took place amongst this motely crew of audience members, highlighting women’s participation in public spectacles (Figure 12).


Fig. 12. Ta’zīyi play at Takkiya Dawlat, oil painting Kamāl-al-Molk. Gulistan Palace Museum, Tehran, Iran.

Fig. 12. Ta’zīyi play at Takkiya Dawlat, oil painting Kamāl-al-Molk. Gulistan Palace Museum, Tehran, Iran.


Both Shams al-‘imārat and Takkiya Dawlat are noteworthy structures within the arg because they present us with architectural examples that illuminate the intermingling of Islamic and European influences, and as I will argue in the second half of this paper, they also show the complex ways in which gender was negotiated both within the boundaries of arg, and beyond it through the spatial design, and the social and cultural practices which occupied them.

Gulistan harem’s physical proximity to the neighboring buildings and spaces both inside the arg, and outside in the ever-developing city of Tehran, cannot be underestimated. Far from being secluded, the residents of the Nasser al-Din’s harem were situated at the very heart of one of the largest metropoles in 19th century Middle East. There are many examples of the relationship between harem and bazaar. For example, in his diaries, Muīr al-Mamlik, the shah’s grandson, makes reference to music played inside the harem announcing the different parts of the day for both court residents and those in the bazaar. He states:

At 2 in the afternoon, a drum roll would announce that it was time to start packing up the bazar and at 3pm, a different sound would announce the bazaar closure. There was a curfew at night, so dinner would be served early inside the harem so that cooks and servants who did not reside inside could leave before the curfew.[34]

These tangible connections between the bazar and the harem illustrates that physical proximity had clear material implications. It also functions to demystify the understanding of the Qajar harem as a deeply private and isolated interior space and shows its intrinsic connection to the busy commercial quarter it neighbored.

The final and most drastic development phase of Gulistan under Nasser al-Din Shah reign took place after his first visits to Europe in 1873. The expansion of the court after this period was deeply influenced by the Shah’s desire to assert Tehran’s place within the increasingly global cosmopolitan culture. This is evident in the newly built divān khānah (built between 1873 and 1882) whose façade boasted tall European-style windows and semi-engaged classical columns, as well as an expanded Museum Hall which housed the courts mounting collection of local, regional and European art. Most interestingly, this phase also included the building of an extensive new andarūn (Figure 13).

Fig. 13. Map of the arg by Jean-Baptiste Feuvrier in Trois ans à la cour de Perse, Paris, 1900; 2nd ed., Paris, 1906.

Fig. 13. Map of the arg by Jean-Baptiste Feuvrier in Trois ans à la cour de Perse, Paris, 1900; 2nd ed., Paris, 1906.


The newly developed living quarter covered approximately one third of the palace grounds and was located on the north side of the court, to the east of the new divān khānah, and south of dār al-­fanūnI (Figure 14).

Fig. 14. New andarūn under construction. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (343-4).

Fig. 14. New andarūn under construction. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (343-4).


Its expansion was a bold statement by Nasser al-Din Shah that the Islamic domestic tradition of harems was not antithetical to Persian modernization efforts and could in fact, develop and evolve simultaneously with other large scale urban modernization efforts.

The newly built harem was accessible through two entrances, both of which were secured and guarded in order to shield harem women from the intrusion and gaze of non-relative males. They opened onto separate vestibules with long corridors which linked the andarūn to the court and the outside, respectively.[35] The first entrance was to narinjistān, an orangery located in the north-east quarter of the palace. This was the entrance most commonly used by both harem residents, as well as the shah himself, for entering and leaving the andarūn. According to Muīr al-Mamlik, about 20 elder eunuchs guarded this corridor.[36] The other entrance to the harem was the diamond door (dar-i almas) which opened onto the street, and was generally kept locked with a court eunuch also in charge of the keys.[37]

Built around a massive courtyard, the new andarūn featured a series of smaller structures around a rectangular enclosure. The courtyard served as the heart of the harem, connecting all the buildings, and giving every house a clear view to the andarūn entrance, as well as all other houses. Each of the buildings was assigned to one of the shah’s wives or sighes, though eventually, many of them were occupied by multiple wives and children as the number of residents in the harem steadily increased during this period (Figure 15).[38]


Fig. 15. View of harem women posing in tālārs of andarūn buildings. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (682-16).

Fig. 15. View of harem women posing in tālārs of andarūn buildings. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (682-16).


The buildings inside the new andarūn featured deep columned porches (tālārs) which had openings on one or three sides and served multiple functions. The variously sized tālārs were used as an entrance, a small audience hall, a sleeping area in hot weather, or a balcony used for sitting and eating.[39]  These versatile spaces could offer accommodation and hospitality to all members and relations of extended family, as well as royal guests, or be used for the everyday domestic and leisure activities of their residence. Their placement at the outer limit of each building also meant that they were both a part of the interior of their respective homes, and accessible and visible to the exterior courtyard – a design feature particular to the Qajar court that again complicates the assumed notion of a clear separation between interiority and exteriority.

The most architecturally significant building in the andarūn, situated in the middle of the enormous courtyard, was the Shah’s sleep quarters (khāb gāh) – an elaborate two- story building, whose design borrowed from Ottoman palaces (Figure 16).

Fig. 16. The khāb gāh. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (209-2).

Fig. 16. The khāb gāh. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (209-2).


The majestic building was quarantined from the surrounding area by a large fence with an iron door.[40] While the placing of the khāb gāh in the middle of the andarūn can be read as an assertion of the centrality of patriarchal rule within this space, it is important to note that this space was most often an empty signifier since Nasser al-Din was frequently not physically present within the harem. The shah was notorious for going on long vacations and spent most summer months, with some, but not all of his wives and children, outside of Gulistan. As such, despite its location, and architectural weight, it would be a mistake to see the khāb gāh as the heart of the harem. In fact, as numerous sources attest, social life of the harem revolved most often around its female residence and eunuchs, and the power negotiations between them, and took place within various women’s homes, tālārs, and gardens with the gated khāb gāh merely serving as a place holder for harem hierarchy.

For example, a note-worthy buildings in the new andarūn, which, unlike the khāb gāh, was frequently occupied by multiple residents and visitors, was the home belonging to the shah’s favored wife, Anis al-Dowleh. The building looked out onto a private garden, bāgh-i tabāni, from the back, and housed a large reception hall on its upper level, which was the location of the many gatherings, often featuring visiting foreign women, hosted by the de-facto queen (Figure 17).

Fig. 17. Social gathering at Anis al-Dowleh’s home. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (2010-2-3).

Fig. 17. Social gathering at Anis al-Dowleh’s home. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (2010-2-3).


Her house was amongst the few notable ones which also had a bathing room, though she still continued to frequent public baths with other harem women as a collective activity.[41]

Directly outside the bed chamber and facing its entrance was the residence of Amin Aghdas, another of the Shah’s significant sighehs. This house was noteworthy both because of its larger size in comparison to most other harem buildings, and the fact that it served as the residence of important figures in Nasser al-Din’s court including at different points, his beloved cat Bībī Khānūm, the young boy Malijak, who was the object of his obsession after the death of his cat, and Khānūm Bāshī who was a beautiful young recruit to the shah’s harem in his final years, and one of his last sighes.[42]

As we’ve seen, at every step of development and expansion, both the arg and its harem paralleled shifts, advances and progress that Tehran was going through as it transformed into a modern metropolitan city. In fact, throughout Nasser al-Din Shah’s reign, Gulistan, much like the city that surrounded it, was almost perpetually in a state of renovation and expansion. Far from being designated as a space which preserved and maintained tradition, Gulistan was in fact usually the first place of transformation and development in the city center. As such, both Tehran and Gulistan, in very material ways, were the epicenters of the Qajar’s engagements with Persian modernity (recall the first photo studio appearing in shams al emarat).


Inside Out: Biruni, Andaroon and Movements within Gulistan

Throughout its history, and the various phases of renovation and expansion under Qajar rule, Gulistan Palace maintained the basic Islamic domestic principle of a division between an administrative and presumably male dominated exterior part (bīrūnī) and the private, familial and predominately woman dominated interior (andarūn). This form of gender segregation was of course a normative practice of Islamic social and moral order and, as such, served as a source of legitimation for political authority of the Qajar rulers. The distinction between male and female space is more generally one of the most important defining characteristics of Islamic cities.[43]

Within European accounts, gender segregated space in general, and the domestic space of the harem in particular, carried a particularly heavy symbolic burden, as a bordered space which was impenetrable by European male gaze, and represented Eastern patriarchy and imprisonment of Muslim women’s bodies in its most material form.[44] While such orientalist assumptions about the Muslim world have by now been adequately critiqued, most notably by scholars such as Meyda Yegenoglu and Inderpal Grewal,[45] the basic premise that the harem, in its material form, represented an extreme form of private space occupied by women, and segregated from the male dominated public sphere, has continued to hold sway in the historiography of 19th century Iran.[46]

Gender-segregated spaces within Islamic cultures however, do not correspond to the modern European divide between public and private spheres as easily or as neatly as many historiographers of the Islamic world have assumed. From the outset, for example, the notion of interior (andarūn) and exterior (bīrūnī), both refer to areas that constitute the domestic sphere of the home. That is to say, in the context of a traditional Iranian home, and in particular, one belonging to an elite member of Persian society, the house itself was divided into two sections: the andarūn (‘inside’ or ‘innards,’) was the space designated for women, religiously permitted men (maḥram), and in the case of very elite households, their servants and eunuchs, and the bīrunī (‘outside’ or ‘public,’) was reserved for the male head of the household, and the visitors he would receive.[47] This is in stark contrast to European understandings of private and public spheres where the former refers to the home and the latter to the social world outside of the home.

Habermas has famously argued that in Europe, the division between the private and public spheres began to emerge towards the end of the 18th century with the rise of bourgeois culture, and was a central feature of the modern European state. According to him, there was a set of historically specific and unprecedented circumstances that allowed for the emergence of this liberal bourgeois phenomenon in Europe which in turn changed the principles and nature of state power.[48] For Habermas, this notion of public sphere grew at the same time as ideas about the intimate and private sphere of the conjugal family. The private sphere was constituted as the necessary counterpoint to the public sphere, and in the industrial era, the divide became highly gendered as men dominated the public arenas of politics and work, while women were closely associated with family and home. The European bourgeois social order relied on this gendered separation of these spheres and lead to the emergence of the nuclear family as the ideal social unit. [49] This form of conjugality is what in fact allowed citizens (read: male citizens) to have economic autonomy, play an active role in the market, and develop a liberal understanding of their rights which they could foster within the public sphere.  Love and intimacy were relegated to the private realm of the home and were to play a central role in the formation of the conjugal family and as the premise of marriage, though notions of a union between two people from different parts of the social-ladder was still highly frowned upon. [50]

By now, many feminist scholars, most notably, Nancy Fraser, have pointed out the gender blind bias of Habermas’s understating of the different spheres, arguing that “public” and “private” are themselves categories that once subjected to historically rigorous scrutiny, don’t adequately account for the nuanced ways that people divide up their intimate, social and political lives.[51] Similarly, the notion of domestic interior and social exterior spaces as oppositional and gendered has its own complex legacy in the European context. In The Emergence of the Interior, Charles Rice argues that understandings of domestic space as interior and private space began to take shape in Europe beginning in the 19th century.  According to Rice, “the interior emerged historically as the context for newly articulated desires for privacy and comfort, the consolidation of gendered and familial roles in life, and domestic practices of consumption and self-representation”.[52] Both as concept, and as material manifestation, the notion of a separate domestic space was a modernist European phenomenon which reflected the newly articulated and increasingly widespread desires for privacy and comfort, the consolidation of specific gendered and familial roles in life, as well as a newly emerging consumer culture which set specific rules for domestic arrangements. Rice argues that discourses about domesticity as a naturalized, stable and timeless aspect of living, is a misconception, albeit a powerful one, which in fact only emerged in 19th century Europe.[53]

Such understandings of family, conjugality, and civic life, and the rigid binaries that structured European societies in their idealized form, were not always present in other societies. In fact, family and conjugal relations in the royal Qajar harem were distinctly different than their European counterpart. The harem constituted a familial formation composed of multiple wives, with both permanent and various levels of temporary status, their relatives, as well as a large constellation of nannies, eunuchs and servants all co-habiting and collectively raising children in a communal setting. Multiple family portraits of harem women from the period attest to the complex nature of conjugality within this context (Figure 18).

Fig 18. Harem women, children and servants. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (210-5-3).

Fig 18. Harem women, children and servants. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran (210-5-3).



Despite these glaring differences however, the Islamic architectural tendencies of royal courts and elite families, which were structured around the division between a bīrūnī and an andarūn, have generally been the site of cultural comparisons that regard such practices as material evidence for the severe gendered division between public and private life within Islamicate societies. Both European accounts of the Gulistan court, and more contemporary analysis of this space found in the English language, tend to rely heavily on such presuppositions in their spatial accounts of the palace and its harem.

For example, Jennifer Scarce, a notable architectural historian of the Qajar period, has argued that despite the modernization plans for Tehran in mid to late 19th century, a central component of Nasser al-Din’s expansion plans of Gulistan was the maintenance of the “traditional segregation of public and private areas” through the clear and gendered distinction between bīrūnī and andarūn of Gulīstan, and the walls surrounding the complex which protected these elements from public.[54] Throughout her body of work on Qajar architecture, she argues that such division is in accordance with Islamic tradition, where “[p]ublic life takes place in the streets, the service and commercial sectors, while private life looks inwards to courtyard and rooms within wall”.[55]  She notes that while there was a visible attempt by the Qajars to modernize Gulistan, (and visibility for her is apparent through the gesture of incorporating European architectural details such as clock towers and columns), the presence of traditional Islamic social order continued to foil full-scale modernization efforts. She thus makes a clear distinction between modern forms and structures, and traditional practices which occupy them. However, Scarce fails to account for the fact that the notion of a clear division between public and private space, and in particular, domestic interiority and public civic life, was a decidedly 19th century European phenomenon associated with European modernity, which was quite distinct from the traditions and practices which defined the Qajar court – a space that was arguably the very focal point of 19th century Iranian modernity. In fact, most objects and practices associated with modernity, from fashion and technology, to arts and literature made their first appearance in Iran within the walls of Gulistan.

In reality, in the context of late Qajar elite culture, this form of gender segregation was not informed by a distinction between private and public realm, but was instead the product of Islamic ordering and enforcement of gender segregation in both public and private life, and one which was not deemed by many to be incompatible with modernization. Furthermore, far from being “secluded” in the andarūn of Gulistan, there is no shortage of references to harem women from the period moving through the bazaar and the streets of Tehran, visiting public shrines, or traveling throughout the country, within the archives of the period – spaces which clearly fall outside the harem or domestic sphere of the arg (Figure 19).

Fig. 19. Harem women traveling with court eunuchs. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran.

Fig. 19. Harem women traveling with court eunuchs. Gulistan Palace Visual Document Center, Tehran, Iran.


Within such accounts, the basic rules of gender segregation apply either through women covering themselves, or the various ways in which men were forbidden from public areas that harem women were passing through.

A noteworthy incident, which illustrates this point well, took place in the summer of 1883, when Samuel Benjamin, the first American ambassador to Iran, was traveling with his daughter from Tehran to Shimīrān to escape the heat of the city. On route, his caravan reached a coffee house where a number of horses and carriages were parked. They decided to stop and take a break, but almost immediately upon arrival, they were attacked by a group of court eunuchs and severely beaten. The reason for this attack, which caused some diplomatic tensions at the time, was that the coffee house was at the time occupied by harem women who were also on route from Tehran to their summer destination. In such instances, it was not permissible for men to enter public spaces occupied by harem women.  The beating in fact only stopped when one of the shah’s wives recognized Benjamin and his daughter, and ordered the guards to stop.[56]

This is one of several examples of harem women occupying space outside the confines of the harem gates. In fact, these women spent most of their time socializing in various public gatherings, attending weekly public baths, and going on trips and pilgrimages collectively. During such outings, men were to stay clear of their paths and if they were to get a glimpse of harem women, it was men who would be punished. [57]

Moonis al-Dowleh, one of Anis al-Dowleh’s servants, in her memoirs, for example, gives a detailed account of harem women visiting kūhi bībī shahrbānū, a shrine located in the south east of Tehran. She states:

Men and women often visited shrines together with set rituals which they would follow. There was however, one shrine that no men and not even boys were allowed to visit – the kūhi bībī shahrbānū shrine. Legend had it that bībī shahrbānū was still alive and roaming the mountains and as such, no male visitors were allowed there. Because of this, women loved to visit this shrine where they did not have to cover themselves and could frolic freely.[58]

She describes how differing classes of harem women made the journey with their eunuchs and would partake in collective leisure activities such as singing, eating meals and reading omens (fāl khūndan) for the duration of the trip.[59]

Visits to the bath house is another example of public outings that harem women partook in, generally on a weekly basis. Shireen Mahdavi gives the following account of women’s public bathing rituals:

For the women, the public baths (apart from their original purpose of a location for being cleansed) were a form of amusement and distraction from daily life. It was a social meeting place where the women would go with their extended family and arrange to meet their friends. They would usually spend a whole day there, having their hair and nails dyed with henna, eating sweetmeats and meals, telling stories and anecdotes, and smoking hookahs. There were also baths for special occasions, such as on the tenth day after giving birth to a son or prenuptial baths which would be preceded and proceeded by female musicians and dancers.[60]

While such collective homosocial activities have been well documented in the historiography of Qajar women, most notably by Afsaneh Najmabadi, few scholars have paid adequate attention to the spatial manifestation of such activities –namely that they often took place in outdoor or public spaces throughout the city which the traditional historiography has deemed inaccessible to harem women.

Even within the arg, there was no shortage of large scale gatherings and social affairs in which women took part. Muīr al-Mamlik, for example reports in his memoirs that on a few nights each month, the entire arg (so not just its andarūn, but also its bīruni) would be closed off to visitors so that the shah and the residents of the harem could tour the grounds. They would spend time in the dīvan khanih and the garden, and musicians and entertainers would perform for large audiences. Harem women would often end the evening by sharing a collective dinner with the shah in the diamond hall building (tālār-i bilirīān). [61]  Thus, even the bīruni section of the arg was regularly accessible to harem women and their servants.

Furthermore, the characterization of the royal andarūn as a private space in and of itself requires further interrogation. Understandings of the harem as a “private” sphere of domesticity ignore both the spatial configuration of it, as well as the ways in which the women living within it constituted a public in their own right, which was in constant contact with both the court and the many bodies and identities which surrounded and passed through it. In her description of harem life, Taj Saltaneh, the one of the shah’s daughter’s notes:

His Imperial Majesty, my father, had about eighty wives and concubines, each of whom had about ten or twenty maidservants and domestics. The number of women in the harem thus reached some five or six hundred. Moreover, every day the wives, concubines, or domestics received numerous relative and visitors, so that there was a constant flood of about eight or nine hundred women in the harem.[62]

It would be hard to argue that a space occupied by 800 to 900 bodies should be considered a private domain. In fact, looking at accounts of the Qajar harem from the late 19th century, one is struck by the amount of sociality and communal practices that made up the day-to-day life of the resident even within the andarūn. Many of the architectural details which were explained in the last section, were developed specifically for this purpose – let’s recall for example the large tālārs that were built into certain buildings, or Anis al-Dowleh’s guest room on the second floor of her home which is referenced in the many accounts from the period.



In a letter written to Nasser al-Din Shah, the writer informs the shah of a physical altercation which has taken place between harem servants and workers outside of the harem. Āghā Bāshī, the Shah’s loyal eunuch is mentioned as the arbitrator of the fight. According to the letter, Āghā Bāshī makes the harem servants promise not to “loiter on the street and pick fights”.[63] This letter is interesting in that it shows that while, in some sense, there was in fact a desire to keep a separation between the harem and its exterior, the boundaries between the interior and exterior were regularly crossed, in this case, by harem eunuchs who were perhaps the most mobile figures between these two realms.

Thinking through the material space of late 19th century Gulistan, its immediate surroundings, and its location in the heart of a fast-developing urban center, allows us to move beyond fetishizing the harem as a token of idealized Eastern patriarchal sexuality or denouncing it as a prison house of Muslim women, and instead, interrogate certain social relations in late Qajar Iran through their spatial manifestation at the very heart of the empire.

Both textual and photographic evidence point to the fact that the Gulistan andarūn was at once a space of domesticity within which, for example, children were raised in a collective environment, a space of sociality wherein a constant barrage of guests, both familial, local and transnational, were entertained, a host of rituals both secular and religious were performed, as well as a series of politics, both local, national and international interrogated and negotiated. This folding in of deeply private and extremely public activities within the same space is perhaps the most unique and interesting feature of the royal court, and one which has been severely understudied. What was particularly unique about this space was that for the most part, the day-to-day affairs of the harem occurred outside of male control. Seen in this light, the Gulistan harem was a kind of heterotopic liminal zone where gender, ethnic and class differences intersected, and where the successive development of the space both formed and was informed by the domestic, leisure, cultural, and political practices that took shape with

[1]Michel Foucault, “The Eye of Power” in Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 149.

[2]Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias,” Diacritics 16, (Spring 1986): 22-27.

[3]Edward Soja, “History: Geography: Modernity” in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon Duing (New York, London: Routledge, 1999), 113-125.


[4]While the Pahlavis still maintained Gulistan as a royal palace which they used for formal receptions during their reign, they moved their place of residence into the newly built Niavara House to the north of the city.

[5]Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian, “Politics and Patronage: The Evolution of the Sara-ye Amir in the Bazaar of Tehran” in The Bazaar in the Islamic City: Design, Culture, and History, ed. Mohammad Gharipour (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2012), 205.

[6]For a complete discussion of the different phases of development of Gulistan and Tehran prior to and during the early Qajar period, refer to Sadiqeh Golshan’s “Gulistan-i Bagh Gulistan: arg dar tarikh-i Tehran,” Soffeh Architectural Science and Research: The Journal of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, nos. 21-22 (1996).

[7]Abbas Amanat, Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din and the Iranian Monarchy (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 19.

[8]Jennifer Scarce, “The Architecture and Decoration of the Gulistan Palace: The Aims and Achievements of Fath ‘Ali Shah (1797-1834) and Nasir al-Din Shah (1848-1896),” Iranian Studies, vol. 34  (2001): 110.

[9]Amanat, Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din and the Iranian Monarchy, 12.

[10]For a complete discussion of the development of the Tehran Bazaar, which expanded to include many more structures, and its architectural details, refer to Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian’s “Politics and Patronage” in The Bazaar in the Islamic City.

[11]In her study of the bazaar, Farmanfarmanian argues that the grand scale of the mosque served as a source of legitimacy for the new dynasty (206). Masoud Kamali, in his book Revolutionary Iran, Civil Society and State in the Modernization Process (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998), also argues that the Qajar’s desire to legitimate themselves as a faithful Shi‘a dynasty was realized in this way

[12]Ali Madanipour, Tehran, the Making of a Metropolis (Chichester: John Wiley, 1998), 30.

[13]John Gurney, “The Transformation of Tehran in the Later Nineteenth Century” in Téhéran, Capitale Bicentenaire, ed. B. Hourcade, S. Adle (Paris: Téhéran: Institut Français de Recherche en Iran, 1992), 51.

[14]Edmund Bosworth, Historic Cities of The Islamic World (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007), 508.

[15]Abbas Amanat offers a detailed account of the ceremony in his section “Ascending the Throne” in Pivot of the Universe: Nasser al-Din Shah and the Iranian Monarchy, 89-108.

[16]Gurney, “The Transformation of Tehran in the Late Nineteenth Century,” 52.

[17]Bosworth, Historic Cities of The Islamic World, 509.

[18]The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 7, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 892.

[19]Gurney, “The Transformation of Tehran in the Late Nineteenth Century,” 53.

[20]Reza Shirazi, “The Orient veneered in the Occident” in The City in the Muslim World: Depictions by Western Travel Writers, ed. Mohammad Gharipour and Nilay Özlü (Abington and New York: Routledge, 2015).

[21]Many historians of Iran have applied this simplistic definition of modernization as mimicry of the west, in particular in relation to the development of Tehran. For examples, refer to Hafez Farman Farmanian’s “The Forces of Modernization in Nineteenth Century Iran: A Historical Survey” in Beginnings of Modernization in the Middle East, The Nineteenth Century, ed. W.R. Polk and R. L. Chambers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); and Ervant Abrahamian, Iran between Two Revolutions (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982).

[22]George Nathaniel Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question (London and New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1892), 306.

[23]Ernest Tucker, The Middle East in Modern World History (New York: Routledge, 2013), 83.

[24]Jennifer Scarce, Domestic Culture in the Middle East: An Exploration of the Household Interior (Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland in association with Curzon Press, 1996), 21.

[25]At the turn of the 19th century, during the summer months, the population of Tehran was estimated at 15 000. By 1867, during the same months, the population had increased to 100 000 (Bosworth, Historic Cities of The Islamic World, 510).

[26]Sadiqeh Golshan, “Gulistan-i Bagh Gulistan: arg dar tarikh-i Tehran”, Soffeh Architectural Science and Research: The Journal of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, nos. 21-22, (Spring and Summer 1996): 45.

[27]Iranian Culural Heritage, Handcrafts, and Tourism Organization, “Nomination of Golestan Palace for Inscription on the World Heritage List Report (Tehran: UNESCO World Heritage Convention, 2012), 3.

[28]Sadiqeh Golshan, “The Influence of European Design on Bagh-e-Golestan: The Qajarid Garden,” The International Journal of the Arts in Society, no. 5 (2010): 393.

[29]For a discussion of European influence on the Palace structure during this phase, refer to Gurney, “The Transformation of Tehran in the Late Nineteenth Century,” 64-65.

[30]Scarce, The Architecture and Decoration, 114.

[31]Hassan Azad, Posht-e Pardeh-ha-ye Haram-sara  (Oromiyeh: Anzali, 1985), 398.

[32]Scarce, The Architecture and Decoration, 115.

[33]Lady Mary Sheil, Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia (London: John Murray, 1856), 127.

[34]Muīr al-Mamlik, Dūst-Alī-Khān, Notes of Private Life of Nasserad-Din-Shah (Tehran: Nashr-e-

Tarikh-e-Iran, 1983), 21.

[35]Scarce, The Architecture and Decoration, 116.

[36]Muīr al-Mamlik, Dūst-Alī-Khān, Notes of Private Life of Nasserad-Din-Shah, 18.

[37]Joannes Fauvrier, Three Years in Persia’s Royal Court, trans. Abass  Eghbal (Tehran: Elm, 2006), 399.

[38]Gholām Ali Aziz al-Sultān Malījak, Ruz-nāma-ye ḵāṭerāt Gholām Ali Khān Aziz al-Sultān, ed. Moḥsen Mirzāʾi, vol. 1, Tehran, 1997, 373.

[39]Scarce, Domestic Culture in the Middle East, 34.

[40]Muīr al-Mamlik, Dūst-Alī-Khān, Notes of Private Life of Nasserad-Din-Shah, 15-16.

[41]Cyrus Sadvandian, Khāterat-i Mūnis al-Dowlih: Nadīmih’ haramsarāy-i Nasser al-Din Shah (Tehran:  Zarrin Books, 2010), 237.

[42]Azad, Posht-e Pardeh-ha-ye Haram-sara, 373.

[43]For a discussion of the significance of spatial gender divisions in Islamic cities, refer to Janet Abu-Lughod’s “The Islamic City: Historic Myths, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance, International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol.19 (May 1987): 155-176.

[44]For a discussion of European attitudes towards Middle Eastern harems, refer to Marilyn Booth’s introduction to the 2011 edited book Harem Histories: Envisioning Places and Living Spaces (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010).

[45]Meyda Yegenoglu, Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Inderpal Grewal, Home and Harem: Nation, Gender, Empire, and the Cultures of Travel (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996).

[46]This is both true in European accounts of the city from the period (James Bailey Fraser, Mary Shiel, Lord Curzon, Carl Serena, Ferrier…) as well as historical scholarship (Amanat, Scarce…).

[47]A. A. Bakhtiar and R. Hillenbrand, “Domestic Architecture in Nineteenth Century Iran: the Manzil-i Sartip Siddihi near Isfahan,” in Qajar Iran Political, Social and Cultural Change 1800-1925, ed. E. Bosworth and C. Hillenbrand (Edinburgh: Mazda Publishers,1982), 383-402.

[48]Jürgen Habermas, “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964),” trans. Sara Lennox and Frank Lennox, New German Critique, 3 (1974): 49-50.

[49]Joan Scott, “Sexularism”, Ursula Hirschmann Annual Lecture on Gender and Europe, European University Institute, Florence Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies Distinguished Lecture, 3 April 2009, 12.

[50]Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991).

[51]Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (Cambridge: MIT press, 1992).

[52]Charles Rice, The Emergence of the Interior: Architecture, Modernity, Domesticity (Abington and New York: Routledge, 2007), 1.

[53] Rice, The Emergence of the Interior: Architecture, Modernity, Domesticity, 4.

[54]Jennifer Scarce, “The Royal Palaces of the Qajar Dynasty; a Survey” in Qajar Iran: Political, Social, and Cultural Change 1800-1925, ed. Edmond Bosworth and Carole Hillenbrand (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1992), 339.

[55]Scarce, Domestic Culture in the Middle East: An Exploration of the Household Interior,13.

[56]S.G. W. Benjamin, The Life and Adventures of a Freelance, being the observations of S.G.W. Benjamin (Burlington: Free Press Company, 1914), 384-391.

[57]Azad, Posht-e Pardeh-ha-ye Haram-sara, 233.

[58]Sadvandian, Khāterat-i Mūnis al-Dowlih: Nadīmih’ haramsarāy-i Nasser al-Din Shah, 137.

[59]Sadvandian, Khāterat-i Mūnis al-Dowlih: Nadīmih’ haramsarāy-i Nasser al-Din Shah, 138.

[60]Shireen Mahdavi, “Amusements in Qajar Iran”, Iranian Studies, vol.40 (September 2007): 494.

[61]Muīr al-Mamlik, Dūst-Alī-Khān, Notes of Private life of Nasserad-Din-Shah, 25.

[62]Taj al-Saltanan, Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity, ed. Abbas Amanat, trans. Anna Vanzan and Amin Neshati (Washington DC: Mage Publishers, 2003), 88.

[63]The National Archives and Library in Tehran, document 295-2592.

The Untold Stories of the Wolf: A Comparative Study of “The Wolf” and The Call of the Wild


با نگاهی به ادبیات تاریخ طبیعی، درمی‌یابیم که گرگ، چنان که امروزه آن را می‌شناسیم، طی اعصار اولیه به سبب رقابت بر سر شکار مشترک همواره با نوع انسان در نزاع بوده است. انسان و گرگ همیشه رقیب و گاهی اوقات دشمن یکدیگر بوده‌اند، چون احتمالاً همیشه در مجاورت یکدیگر زیسته‌اند.[1] گرگ‌ها غالباً موجوداتی اجتماعی‌اند، با این همه، گرگِ تنها نری جوان است که معمولاً در جستجوی قلمرو و جفت خویش است و در حاشیۀ قلمرو دیگران می‌چرخد، بی‌آنکه زوزه‌ای سر دهد.[2]

شاید به علت همین قرابت انسان و گرگ بوده است که افسانه‌ها و داستان‌های محلی بسیاری راجع به این حیوان نقل شده و در ادبیات آمده است. کلاریسا پینکولا اِستِس با مرور این داستان‌ها در زنانی که با گرگها میدوند: افسانهها و قصههایی دربارۀ کهنالگوی زن وحشی (Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype) به نزدیکی زنان و گرگ‌ها اشاره می‌کند و بیان می‌دارد که گرگ‌ها و زنان سالم در خصوصیات روحی و روانی ویژه‌ای مشترک‌اند که از آن جمله‌اند احساسات قوی، سرزندگی و بازیگوشی و توانایی عظیم برای ایثار.[3] به گفتۀ او، گرگ‌ها و زنان ذاتاً اجتماعی و کنجکاوند و از ظرفیت تحمل و قدرت بالایی برخوردارند، قوۀ درک و شمی قوی دارند و به شدت به فرزند، همسر، و خانواده‌شان علاقه‌مندند.

در تحقیقات دیگر به اهمیت کهن‌الگویی گرگ اشاره شده است که از قرابت این جاندار با انسان ناشی می‌شود. اهمیت کهن‌الگویی گرگ هم دلالت بر جنبۀ شرّ دارد و هم بر جنبۀ مثبت و معنوی. گرگ همچنین در ادبیات و فرهنگ نشان‌دهند‌ۀ جمع تضادها بوده است.[4] اسطوره‌ها و داستان‌های نقاط متفاوت جهان دربارۀ گرگ تناقض‌هایی دارند: در بعضی از آنها تصویر گرگ به حیوانی وحشی و ترسناک دلالت دارد که ممکن است نشانۀ مرگ و شیطان باشد. در عین حال، گرگ همراه الاهۀ آرتمیس (Artemis) و خدای اسکاندیناوی،‌ اودین (Odin)، است. تناقض در تصویر گرگ در تقابل بین ماهیت زنانه و مردانه هم نهفته است. ماهیت مردانۀ گرگ در بسیاری فرهنگ‌ها به صورت رفتار ستیزه‌جویانه نشان داده شده است. ماهیت زنانۀ آن هم به شکل الاهه‌ای در قالب ماده گرگی که روموس (Remus) و رومولوسِ (Romulus) دوقلو را بزرگ می‌کند و نژاد رومی‌ها را پدید می‌آورد یا در اسطورۀ کورمک (Cormac)، شاه ایرلند که گرگ‌ها به او شیر دادند و همواره همراه آنها بود، به تصویر کشیده شده است. حتی در منابع اولیۀ کتاب مقدس تقابل بین گرگ وحشی، که نماد ویرانگری است،[5] با نماد گرگ و بره‌ای که با هم خوابیده‌اند، که نشان صلح و آمدن قانون مسیحایی است،[6] به تصویر کشیده شده است. قرآن هم سه بار در سورۀ یوسف به گرگ اشاره کرده و فقط تصویری درنده‌خو و وحشی از آن ارائه داده است که خطری برای انسان محسوب می‌شود.[7] در قرون وسطا هم تقابل بین تصویر گرگ به منزلۀ شیطان و چونان نمادی از قدیس فرانسیس آسیسی (Saint Francis of Assisi) مشهود است که گرگ را رام کرد.[8]

در منظومه‌های حماسی ایران هم نه فقط مردمان، که موجودات و عناصر طبیعت هم نقش مهمی ایفا می‌کنند. از میان جانوران، گرگ یکی از بازیگران حماسه‌های ایرانی، از جمله شاهنامه فردوسی، است که مضامین و بن‌مایه‌های متفاوتی را به خود اختصاص داده است. رضایی اوّل و شامیان ساروکلائی در تحقیقی تحت عنوان ”گرگ در منظومه‌های حماسی ایران“ مضامین و اشارات مرتبط با با گرگ را در شاهنامه و ده منظومۀ حماسی پس از آن (بانوگشپنامه،‌ برزونامه، بهمننامه، جهانگیرنامه، سامنامه، شهریارنامه، فرامرزنامه، کک کوهزاد، کوشنامه، و گرشاسپنامه) بررسی کرده‌ و مهم‌ترین بن‌مایه‌های عرضه‌شده دربارۀ این جانور را استخراج کرده‌اند که از آن میان می‌توان به موارد زیر اشاره کرد: ”اهریمنی بودن، سکونت در غار (جهان زیرین)، مردارخواري، سخندانی، تیرگی پوست، سرو داشتن، سوار شدن پهلوان بر گرگ، توتم گرگ، پرورش کودك با شیر گرگ، گرگ‌کشیِ یلان، پیکرگردانی به سیماي گرگ، گرگ و گرگساران، و گرگ و انجمن مردان.“[9]

از این خصوصیات هم جنبه‌های مثبت و هم منفی دریافت می‌شود. برای مثال، یک جنبۀ منفی اهریمنی بودن این جانور است که در متون دوران باستان و از جمله اوستا و متون پهلوی چون بندهش و ارداویرافنامه به آن اشاره شده است.[10] در منابع پهلوی و پازند همۀ موجودات، چون گیاهان و جانوران، یا به دست هرمزد آفریده می‌شوند یا اهریمن و گرگ و گرگ‌سردگان (گونه‌های گرگ) از جمله آفریده‌های اهریمن‌اند.[11] مثالی از جنبۀ مثبت بن‌مایۀ اسطوره‌ای-حماسی ”کودک و گرگ“ است که طبق آن، گاه کودکی در کنار گرگ و گاهی با شیر او پرورش می‌یابد. هر چند در شاهنامه و منظومه‌های حماسی پس از آن به این مورد اشارۀ دقیقی نشده است –جز تک‌بیتی در بهمننامه که در آن، بهمن شاه‌لؤلؤ را چنین خطاب قرار می‌کند که با بچۀ گرگ پرورش یافته است: همانا که تو شیر سگ خورده‌ای / چو با بچّة گرگ پرورده‌ای–[12] ولی چنین مضمونی در تعدادی از روایات ملی به چشم می‌خورد.[13] برای نمونه در این روایات دربارۀ تولد زرتشت چنین آمده است که دیوان تلاش می‌کردند تا نشان دهند فرّه نشانه‌ای اهریمنی است. بنابراین، پدر زرتشت تلاش می‌کند که نخست با سوزاندن او و سپس با نهادنش جلوی گاوان و اسبان رمنده به زندگی او پایان بخشد. اما هر بار کودک نجات می‌یابد. حتی پدر زرتشت را در بیابان رها می‌کند، ولی ماده گرگی او را نجات می‌دهد.[14]

به علاوه، مردمان بسیاری از فرهنگ‌ها گرگ را مثل اعلای حیوانی غریزی می‌دانند. بیشتر افراد در مرحله‌ای از رشد روانی‌شان برای ادغام جنبه‌های روانی و فیزیکی وجودشان تلاش می‌کنند. تصویر گرگ در این فرهنگ‌ها برای نشان دادن هر دو جنبه به کار برده شده است.[15] چینی‌ها گرگ را نگهبان کاخ آسمانی می‌دانند و در ژاپن، گرگ به سبب درنده‌خویی، سرسختی و حملۀ سریعش ستایش شده است.

نکتۀ دیگر اینکه در فرهنگ‌ها و اساطیر گوناگون، تصویر گرگ بیشتر با زنان پیوند خورده است. برای نمونه، ارتباط گرگ با الاهه‌ها در آیین دینی لوپا (Lupa‌) یا فرونیا (Feronia) مربوط به روم باستان دیده می‌شود که از شه‌مادری سابین (Sabine matriarchy) به ارث رسیده است.[16] این الاهه، که بعضی اوقات با عنوان ”مادر گرگ‌ها“ شناخته می‌شود، قابله‌ای یزدانی و مادر ارواح نیایی هم بوده است.[17] بعدها به تندیس باستانی غار لوپرکال (Lupercal grotto، وابسته به پَن (Pan) خدای شبان‌ها و گله‌ها) تصاویری از نوزادان، روموس و رومولوس افزوده شد که احتمالاً الاهۀ پَن از آنها نگهداری کرده است. این مادهْ‌گرگ در جشنوارۀ پانزدهم فوریه پاس داشته می‌شد، جشنواره‌ای که هر سال در روم باستان بر پا بود. در این جشنواره، جوانانی که پوست گرگ بر سر می‌کردند در آیینی عبادی قصبه‌های مجاور کوه پالاتین (Palatine Hill) در رم را تقدیس و پاک می‌کردند. این مادهْ‌گرگ افسانه‌ای و دوقلوهای رهاشده کم‌کم به نماد روم تبدیل شدند. ارتباط مکرر بین پیکرۀ الاهه‌ها و توتم‌های گرگ ممکن است نشانه‌ی دیگری از این مسئله در نظر گرفته شود که از ابتدا زنان بودند که ارتباطاتی با گرگ‌ها برقرار و در نهایت آنها را اهلی کردند.[18]

گرگ امروزه هم نشانۀ ماهیت غریزی وحشی و طبیعی ماست.[19] پینکولا اِستِس معتقد است که درون هر زنی موجودی وحشی و طبیعی وجود دارد که سرشار از غرایز خوب،‌ شور و خلاقیت، و دانش بی‌زمان است.[20] این ”زن وحشیِ“ درونْ به مثابه کهن‌الگویی در نظر گرفته می‌شود که دربرگیرندۀ تصاویر، ایده‌ها و رفتارهای خاص بشر است. اِستِس عقیده دارد که هدیۀ طبیعت وحشی هم‌زمان با تولد در زنان به وجود می‌آید، ولی جامعه در بسیاری موارد سعی دارد این خصیصه را رام و متمدن کند و آن را به شکل نقش‌هایی ثابت درآورد که در جامعۀ مردسالار از زنان انتظار می‌رود. این سرکوب از طرف جامعه باعث نابودی این گنج درون شده و پیام‌های عمیق و حیات‌بخش روح را خفه می‌کند. در نتیجه، زنان به دام می‌افتند، زیاده از حد رام می‌شوند،‌ غیرخلاق شده و احساساتشان پر از بیم می‌شود. به منظور پیدا کردن روح واقعی‌ خود، زنان باید با طبیعت غریزی و وحشی‌شان مواجه شوند تا به موجوداتی آزاد، خلاق و بامحبت تبدیل شوند. اِستِس ایده‌های خود را با بیان داستان لالوبا (La Loba)، گرگْ‌زن، توضیح می‌دهد. کار لالوبا جمع کردن استخوان‌های گرگ و خواندن آوازِ زندگی در آنها بود. این داستان سمبلی از صدای روح است و راستی قدرت زن و نیاز به دمیدن روح در چیزی را می‌رساند که بیمار است یا نیاز به احیا دارد. زنان می‌توانند این امر را با کنکاش در عمیق‌ترین حالت عشق و احساس صورت دهند تا زمانی که احساس‌ آنها برای رابطه با خود وحشی‌شان سرریز شود و بعد در آن چارچوب روحشان را بیان کنند. زن وحشی کهن‌الگویی است که تصاویر‌، انگاره‌ها و رفتارهای خاص بشری را در خود دارد و به افراد کمک می‌کند تا روحشان را پیدا کنند.

در روان‌شناسی هم گرگ نماد درون‌روانی (intrapsychic) برای تفرّد (individuation ) در نظر گرفته می‌شود.[21] در این حالت، صدای منحصر به فرد نفس بر هنجارهای جمعی جامعه غالب است. تفرّد الزام به رشد و بلوغ درونی را می‌رساند. اِستِس مراحل تفرّد را حین توصیف سفر زن برای یافتن روحش نگاشته است.[22] او بر این باور است که نوزاد با ماهیتی وحشی، غریزی و خلاق به دنیا می‌آید. حینِ رشد، مادر و جامعه به او می‌آموزند که خود را با هنجارهای جامعه وفق دهد. از این رو، نفسِ خلاق و غریزی به خاک سپرده می‌شود و مشکلات به‌تدریج نمایان می‌شوند. از نظر گریفیث، مراحل این فرایند (تفرّد)، که برای زنان در سندپلی (Sandplay) تبلور می‌یابد، به شکل زیر است:

  1. خودِ شناختی (cognitive ego): طی این مرحله، شاهد نتیجۀ متمدن کردن ماهیت وحشی و غریزی بچه به دست جامعه و مادر به شکل نقشی انعطاف‌ناپذیر هستیم که بچه باید در آینده درون جامعه به خود بگیرد. در این حالت که بچه ارتباطش را با روح وحشی از دست داده است، ترسو و غیرخلاق و گرفتار و زیاد از حد رام می‌شود.
  2. آشفتگی و بازیابی شهود (intuition) در قالب پاگشایی (initiation): این مرحله شامل آگاهی از بقا، سوال از رشد اولیه و تشخیص قفس‌هاست. در این مرحله، افکار و احساس گم‌گشتگی و در دام بودن دیده می‌شود که با سرگردانی، سرسام، قفس پرندگان یا حیوانات،‌ گرگ تنها یا نمادهایی از تضادها به تصویر درمی‌آید.
  3. پرده‌برداری بیشتر از احساسات: در این مرحله، شخص به شکارچی تنها تبدیل می‌شود، با ماهیت زندگی/مرگ/زندگیِ عشق مواجه شده و روابطی را پدید می‌آورد که احساسات مرده‌ای را احیا می‌کند که غرایز را زنده می‌کنند.
  4. خودمحوری و بازگشت به خود: شخص آب پاک و روان را پیدا می‌کند، تغذیۀ زندگی خلاق را شروع و تمایلات جنسی مقدسی را بازیابی می‌کند.
  5. یافتن دستۀ خود و بازگشت به خانه: شخص،‌ مانند گرگ تنها، جفت و خانواده‌اش را دوباره پیدا می‌کند و زندگی خلاق خود را در محیط و جهان خود از سر می‌گیرد.[23]

در ادامه‌ این مسئله را بررسی می‌کنیم که مراحل فوق در دو داستان چه جلوه‌ای پیدا می‌کنند.

گرگ به شکل نمادین نشان‌دهندۀ نهاد غریزی ماست که ماهیتی وحشی و طبیعی دارد. گرگ همچنین ممکن است نشانۀ تجمیعی از تناقض‌ها و تضادها باشد. گرگ تنها ممکن است نمادی از قبول غرایز طبیعی باشد که در فرایند رشد و تفرّد به دست خانواده و جامعه از فرد جدا شده‌اند و گرگِ در حالِ زوزه کشیدن نشانۀ صدای درونی روح است که دوباره بازیابی می‌شود.[24]

هدف و روش تحقیق

مطالعۀ حاضر بر آن است که با بررسی تطبیقی آوای وحش جک لندن و ”گرگ“ هوشنگ گلشیری نشان دهد که به چه جنبه‌های مثبت یا منفی‌ از گرگ در دو داستان اشاره شده است و اهمیت نمادین و کهن‌الگویی گرگ،‌ مطابق آنچه بدان اشاره شد، چگونه در دو داستان تصویر شده است. همچنین، با توجه به اینکه گرگ در ادبیات کلاسیک فارسی بیشتر در نقش موجودی درنده‌خو و اهریمنی به تصویر کشیده شده است – برخلاف ادبیات غربی که در آن هم بر جنبه‌های مثبت و هم منفی گرگ اشاره شده است – مطالعۀ حاضر به دنبال کشف این موضوع است که آیا هوشنگ گلشیری در مقام نویسنده‌ای ایرانی در تصویر گرگ و برداشت‌ها و تلویحات او از این موجود از ادبیات بومی و کهن خویش بهره ‌برده است یا در حکم نویسنده‌ای نوگرا از خصوصیات گرگ چنان استفاده کرده که در ادبیات غربی به آن پرداخته شده است. به همین منظور،‌ این تحقیق کتابخانه‌ای، به شیوه‌ای کیفی و توصیفی داستان گلشیری را با رمان لندن مطابقت داده تا در صورت پیروی گلشیری از تصویر گرگ در ادبیات غرب، جنبه‌های مشترک این دو اثر را کشف کند.

بحث و بررسی

”گرگ“ هوشنگ گلشیری و آوای وحش جک لندن جنبه‌های مشترک بسیاری دارند. کمترین آنها شاید اشاره به کتاب‌های جک لندن در داستان گلشیری باشد، آنجا که راوی با گمان اینکه اختر،‌ زن دکتر، کتاب‌های جک لندن را خوانده است از قول او نقل می‌کند که ”من حالا دیگر گرگ‌ها را خوب می‌شناسم.“ در واقع، فصل‌ مشترک بارز این دو داستان وجود گرگ و سگ به منزلۀ محورهای اصلی این داستان‌هاست. در داستان گلشیری، گرگ و سگ نقش‌هایی محوری دارند، به قسمی که اختر جذب گرگی درشت‌اندام می‌شود، گرگی که در نقاشی‌هایش به صورت سگ، ”آن هم سگ‌های معمولی،“ ترسیم شده است. روایت لندن هم تماماً دربارۀ ”باک،“ سگ-گرگ قوی و عظیم‌الجثه‌ای‌ است که در ابتدا بین صاحبان متفاوت دست به دست می‌چرخد، ولی در نهایت به خاستگاه اصلی خود در میان دستۀ گرگ‌ها برمی‌گردد.

در واقع، اختر از باک یاد می‌گیرد که به دنبال طبیعت وحشی و من غریزی خویش بگردد. نقطۀ شروع این بازگشت هم در دو داستان مشابه است. باک اولین قدم در راه بازگشت به خاستگاه خود را زمانی برمی‌دارد که کشتی ناروال که از سیاتل در نواحی گرمسیر جنوبی راه افتاده است در نواحی شمالی متوقف می‌شود و فرانسوا سگ‌ها را از بند رها می‌کند و به عرشه می‌برد. توصیف مواجه شدن باک با برف برای اولین‌بار نشان می‌دهد که او چقدر با ماهیت غریزی و محیط طبیعی خود فاصله گرفته است، محیطی که در پایان با آن الفت می‌گیرد:

پای باک در نخستین قدمی که بر سطح سرد نهاد به چیزی سفید که بسیار به گِل شبیه بود فرو رفت. باک غرشی کرد و به عقب جست. از این چیز سفید باز هم از آسمان می‌آمد،‌ باک تمام بدن خود را لرزاند تا آن چیز بریزد، اما باز هم از بالا آمد و روی او نشست. با تعجب آن را بو کشید، سپس اندکی از آن را با زبان لیسید. مانند آتش زبانش را گزید و لحظه‌ای بعد، اثری از آن بر روی زبانش نبود. این نکته باک را مبهوت کرد. باز آن را آزمود و همان نتیجه را گرفت. تماشاچیان این صحنه به صدای بلند می‌خندیدند و باک شرمسار شده بود، اما نمی‌دانست چرا چنان شده است، زیرا که اول‌بار بود که برف می‌دید.[25]

رویارویی با برف نخستین قدم باک در راه بازگشت به خود است. در داستان دیگر هم برف نخستین محرک اختر برای بازگشت به طبیعت وحشی و خویشتن غریزی است. او که زنی لاغراندام و رنگ‌پریده است ”گاه‌گداری دم در بهداری پیداش می‌شد“ و ”وقتی هوا آفتابی بود، از کنار قبرستان می‌آمد ده و گشتی می‌زد.“ شوهر اختر برای اینکه سر زنش گرم شود پیشنهاد می‌کند که درسی به عهده‌اش بگذارند و او هم، با اینکه قبول نمی‌کند، گاهی اوقات مدرسه می‌رود و ”گاهی هم می‌رفت لب قنات، پهلوی زنها.“ با این همه، وقتی که برف اول می‌افتد، دیگر پیدایش نمی‌شود. زن‌ها او را می‌بینند که کنار بخاری می‌نشیند و چیزی می‌خواند. در همین زمان است که صدیقه، یکی از زن‌های ده، او را می‌بیند که کنار پنجره می‌ایستد و به صحرای سفید و روشن نگاه می‌کند. از قول او، ”صدای زوزۀ گرگ که بلند می‌شود، [اختر] می‌رود کنار پنجره.» برف دوم و سوم که می‌افتد، دکتر پیشنهاد می‌کند که زنش به دورۀ هامان برود. هر چند که این دوره زنانه نبود، اما ”اگر زن دکتر می‌آمد، می‌توانست پهلوی زن‌ها برود.“ اختر پیشنهاد شوهرش را رد می‌کند و اصرار دارد که ”من توی خانه می‌مانم.“ علت در خانه ماندن اختر این است که او محو گرگی ”بزرگ و تنها“ شده، چرا که ”صدیقه دو چشم براق گرگ را دیده بود و دیده بود که زن دکتر چطور خیره به چشم‌های براق گرگ نگاه می‌کند. وقتی هم که صدیقه صداش زده نشنیده است.“

دیدن برف اول زمستانی و رویارویی با گرگ خویشتنِ غریزی و وحشی اختر را بیدار می‌کند.[26] برای او زوزۀ گرگ ندایی غریزی و درونی است، چنان که با شنیدنش کنار پنجره می‌رود و صحرای پربرف و روشن را می‌نگرد. چنان که اشاره شد، زوزۀ گرگ نشان‌دهندۀ صدای درونی روح است که بازیابی شده.[27] زوزه کشیدن به سبک گرگ غرایز خفتۀ باک را هم بیدار می‌کند: ”و آن‌گاه که در شب‌های سرد و آرام بینی را رو به ستاره‌ها می‌گرفت و زوزه‌ای بلند و گرگ‌مانند می‌کشید، همان نیاکان او بودند که گرد و غبار شده بودند و اکنون به واسطۀ او از فاصلۀ قرون سر برمی‌داشتند و زوزه می‌کشیدند.“[28] برای باک که از هم‌آوازی با سگ-گرگ‌های اسکیمو لذت می‌برد، زوزه کشیدن ”سرودی کهن بود، در قدمت هم‌زمان نژادی . . . که آن را می‌سرود . . . این شکوا که آن‌قدر برای باک هیجان‌آور بود، مملو از غم و اندوه نسل‌های بی‌شمار بود.“[29]

نکتۀ دیگری که از خواندن داستان به ذهن می‌رسد ماهیت گرگی است که اختر جذب او شده است. در نهایت معلوم نمی‌شود که این موجود گرگ است یا سگ. دکتر گرگی بزرگ و تنها را پشت نرده‌ها می‌بیند که رو به ماه زوزه می‌کشد، ولی وقتی زنش آن را توصیف می‌کند، آن را ”درست مثل یک سگ گله [که] به دو دستش تکیه می‌دهد“ می‌بیند. طرح‌های اختر هم از این موجود،‌ به قول راوی، هم شبیه گرگ است و هم سگ: ”نقاشی‌های خانم تعریفی ندارد. فقط همان گرگ را کشیده بود. دو چشم سرخ درخشان توی یک صفحۀ سیاه، یک طرح سیاه‌قلم از گرگ نشسته و یکی هم وقتی گرگ دارد رو به ماه زوزه می‌کشد . . . یکی دو تا هم طرح پوزۀ گرگ است که بیشتر شبیه پوزۀ سگ‌هاست، دندان‌هاش به‌خصوص.“

علاوه بر این، زمانی که اختر و همسرش در برف شدید وسطِ تنگ گیر می‌کنند، دکتر گرگ را کنار جاده می‌بیند، ولی اختر اشاره می‌کند که او خیلی بی‌آزار است و ”شاید هم اصلا گرگ نباشد، سگ گله باشد یا یک سگ دیگر.“ این گرگ، که شبیه سگ‌هاست، می‌تواند همان باک در داستان لندن باشد. البته شباهت این گرگ با باک به همین‌جا ختم نمی‌شود. گرگِ داستان گلشیری بسیار ”باهوش“ است: وقتی که توی قبرستان تله می‌گذارند و یک شقۀ گوشت هم تویش قرار می‌دهند، از جای پاها می‌فهمند که گرگ ”تا پهلوی تله آمده، ‌حتی کنار تله نشسته،“ اما شقۀ گوشت دست‌نخورده باقی می‌ماند. در داستان لندن هم قبیلۀ ”یی‌هت“ از ”شبح سگی می‌گوید که پیشاپیش دستۀ گرگ‌ها می‌دود. اهل قبیله از این شبح در هراس‌اند، زیرا که حیلۀ این شبح از حیلۀ ایشان بیشتر است، در زمستان‌های سخت از اردوگاه ایشان دزدی می‌کند، از تله‌ای که می‌گذارند حیوان تله‌افتاده را می‌دزدد،‌ سگهایشان را می‌کشد و دلدارترین شکارچیانشان را ریشخند می‌کند.“[30]

گرگی که اختر را به خود جذب کرده بسیار شبیه چیزی است که باک بعدها در قالب آن به درۀ قبیلۀ یی‌هت سر می‌زند. این جانور در واقع ”یک گرگ عظیم است که پوششی باشکوه دارد و در ضمن که شبیه گرگ‌های دیگر است، شبیه ایشان نیست. این گرگ دشت پربیشه را تنها طی می‌کند و به فضای خلوتی میان درخت‌ها می‌رود“ و ”چون شب‌های بلند زمستان فرا می‌رسد . . . این گرگ دیده می‌شود که زیر مهتاب رنگ‌پریده . . . می‌دود.“[31]

حال این سوال پیش می‌آید که این سگ-گرگ از چه جنبه‌های دیگری در داستان گلشیری اهمیت دارد. اِستِس معتقد است که سگ نماد خویشتن غریزی است و گرگ‌های سالم و زنان سالم ویژگی‌های روحی مشابهی دارند.[32] او در جای دیگر با بیان داستان ”ماناوی“ به طبیعت دوگانۀ زنان اشاره می‌کند و معتقد است که در درون هر زنی دو نیروی قدرتمند زنانه سخن می‌گوید. از مجموع گفته‌های او می‌شود نتیجه گرفت که هر زنی به لحاظ نمادین یک سگ-گرگ است. اِستِس اعتقاد دارد که ”هر چند هر وجه طبیعت زن معرف ذاتیْ جداگانه همراه با کارکرد متفاوت و معرفت متمایز می‌باشد، هر دو طرف باید همچون دو نیمۀ مغز از یکدیگر شناخت داشته یا ترجمان یکدیگر باشند‌ و لذا، به مثابه یک کل عمل کنند.“[33] زنی که وجهی از طبیعت زنانه‌اش را پنهان کند یا بیش از اندازه به طرف دیگر متمایل شود، زندگی‌اش بسیار نامتعادل شده و دسترسی به قدرت کامل خویش از او سلب می‌شود. زنان باید هر دو وجه وجود خویش را با هم پرورش دهند. پس، زن باید برای رسیدن به تفرّد این دو نیروی درونی خود را بشناسد.

دسته‌ای از این نیروها با سگ ارتباط دارد و از آن جمله می‌توان مفاهیم وفاداری، مساعدت، حمایت و ارتباط را نام برد.[34] باک در داستان لندن، خودش مظهر این دوگانگی طبیعت است، به علت علاقۀ شدید نسبت به ”جان ثورنتون“ که جانِ باک را نجات می‌دهد و او را از شارل و هال و مرسده، یعنی صاحبان قبلی‌اش، می‌گیرد، اثر تمدن را از خود نشان می‌دهد، در کنار آتش او می‌نشیند، ثورنتون را هنگامی که در رودخانۀ خروشان رها می‌شود و در خطر سقوط از آبشار است از مرگ نجات می‌دهد و با از جا کندن و کشیدن سورتمۀ پانصد کیلویی باعث می‌شود که ثورنتون شرط هزار دلاری را ببرد.

دستۀ دیگری از این نیروها با گرگ ارتباط دارد که از آن جمله می‌توان به هوش،‌ حیله‌گری،[35] هشیاری، سرزندگی، بازیگوشی، و توانایی عظیم برای ایثار اشاره کرد.[36] در آوای وحش، باک که خصوصیات گرگ را هم دارد بسیار باهوش است. او به سرعت یاد می‌گیرد ”مردی که چماق در دست داشته باشد می‌تواند قانون وضع کند،‌ سروری است که اطاعتش واجب است، ‌هرچند اطاعت از او لزوماً در حکم آشتی با او نیست،“[37] حیله‌گر است و آشکار دزدی نمی‌کند، بلکه در نهان و با خدعه می‌دزدد تا رعایت چماق و دندان را کرده باشد،[38] همیشه مراقب اوضاع و جایگاه خود در گروه سگ‌های سورتمه‌کش است و برای نجات ثورنتون با پریدن در رودخانه جان خود را به خطر می‌اندازد. لندن هم به ویژگی سگ-گرگ بودن باک اشاره می‌کند و می‌نویسد که ”حیلۀ او حیلۀ گرگی بود و حیلۀ وحش: هوش او هوش سنت برنارد و سگ چوپان.“[39]

باک در نهایت با کشف همۀ استعدادهای نهفته‌اش و با آگاهی از قانون طبیعت به جایگاه اصلی خود، یعنی همان طبیعت وحشی میان دستۀ گرگ‌ها، برمی‌گردد. او فرایند تفرّد، یعنی مراحل رسیدن به خود غریزی را، که گریفیث به آن اشاره کرده،[40] یکی‌یکی طی می‌کند. در مرحلۀ اول، یعنی ”خودِ شناختی،“ ماهیت وحشی و غریزی باک در سرزمین‌های جنوبی رام شده است. مرحلۀ بعدی، یعنی ”آشفتگی و بازیابی شهود در قالب پاگشایی،“ با سوار شدن باک بر عرشۀ کشتی ناروال شروع می‌شود که با دیدن اولین برف زندگی‌اش، که نشانه‌ای از محیط زندگی طبیعی اوست، احساس سردرگمی می‌کند و در همان حال، اولین قدم را برای شناخت غرایزش برمی‌دارد. در مرحلۀ سوم، که ”پرده‌برداری بیشتر از احساسات“ است، باک به جستجو در سرزمین‌های شمالی می‌پردازد و احساسات مرده‌ای در وجود او دوباره احیا می‌شود که غرایزش را زنده می‌کنند. مرحلۀ ”خودمحوری و بازگشت به خود“ در طول داستان همواره در جریان است، ولی اوج آن زمانی است که باک در کنار آتش می‌نشیند و خواب می‌بیند که در مجاورت آتش دیگری دراز کشیده است که از آنِ مردِ پاکوتاه و پرمویی است که گویی از دنیایی دیگر آمده.[41] بعدها مرآی این مرد پرمو با آواز دعوتی که در دل جنگل‌ها همواره در حال پیچیدن است عجین می‌شود، آوازی که ”باک را دچار ناآسودگی شدید و آوازهای عجیب می‌کرد، موجب می‌شد که احساس شادی خوشی در باک راه یابد و باک توجه داشت که اشتیاق و التهابی شدید دارد، اما نمی دانست نسبت به چه.“[42] مرحلۀ آخر، یعنی ”یافتن دستۀ خود و بازگشت به خانه،“ زمانی روی می‌دهد که باک عاقبت این ندا را اجابت می‌کند، برادر جنگلی خود را می‌بیند و کنار او به سوی محلی که بی‌گمان آواز از آن برمی‌خاست (یعنی به سمت دستۀ گرگ‌ها) می‌دود. در این هنگام،

خاطرات کهن به سرعت به ذهنش باز می‌آمد و او چنان در برابر آنها برانگیخته می‌شد که در قدیم نسبت به واقعیاتی که این خاطرات سایۀ آنها بود برانگیخته شده بود. این کار را قبلاً نیز کرده بود، جایی در آن دنیای دیگر که مبهم با یاد می‌آورد این کار را کرده بود‌ و اکنون از نو می‌کرد، آسوده و آزاد، ‌بر برف‌های نافشرده و زیر آسمان باز می‌دوید.[43]

اختر نیز که دنباله‌رو باک است باید نیروهای درونی خود را بازیابد و همانند باک این مراحل را طی کند تا خود واقعی‌اش را پیدا کند که از نظر اِستِس همان ”زن وحشی“ است. اختر که روح واقعی و طبیعت غریزی‌اش بر اثر سرکوب‌ها و آموزش‌های جامعه و خانواده رام شده است از خویشتن غریزی خود دور افتاده و تا زمانی که آن را پیدا نکند نگران و آشفته است. این آشفتگی در اوایل داستان خود را نشان می‌دهد. برای مثال، قید می‌شود که اختر ”بچه‌ها را خیلی دوست داشت. برای همین هم بیشتر می‌آمد سراغ مدرسه.“ اما وقتی که به او پیشنهاد می‌شود که اگر بخواهد می‌توانند درسی به عهده‌اش بگذارند، می‌گوید که ”حوصلۀ سروکله زدن با بچه‌ها را ندارد.“ با آمدن برف اول و دوم، بعضی غرایز در او بیدار شده و بیشتر دنبال خود غریزی‌اش می‌گردد. برای او صدای زوزه‌ی گرگ، که با شنیدنش کنار پنجره می‌رود، در حکم همان آوایی است که باک از دل جنگل می‌شنود. وقتی که باک دنبال آن آوا می‌رود، گرگی می‌بیند ”بلند و لاغر که بینی را رو به آسمان گرفته و راست بر روی کپل نشسته“ است.[44] به همین شیوه، وقتی هم که اختر به دنبال زوزه کنار پنجره می‌رود، گرگی می‌بیند که ”درست آن طرف نرده‌ها نشسته، توی تاریک روشن ماه و گاه‌گداری رو به ماه زوزه می‌کشد.“ گرگی که به قول اختر ”درست مثل یک سگ گله به دو دستش تکیه می‌دهد“ و به پنجرۀ اتاق آنها خیره می‌ماند.

این دو گرگ (گرگ‌هایی که اختر و باک می‌بینند) در واقع نمادی از خویشتن غریزی اختر و باک‌اند و برای پیدا کردن خود واقعی‌شان این دو باید روزی به آنها ملحق شوند. باک در نهایت به دنبال آن گرگ به دستۀ خود برمی‌گردد و آخرین مرحلۀ تفرّد را طی می‌کند. اختر هم که جذب خود نمادین یعنی سگ-گرگ شده است دست آخر وسطِ تنگِ برف‌گرفته دکتر را رها می‌کند و می‌رود.


بررسی‌های فوق نشان می‌دهد که هوشنگ گلشیری بر جنبه‌هایی از گرگ تأکید کرده که در ادبیات فارسی کمتر سابقه داشته است. در مقام نویسنده‌ای نوگرا، گرگ را به منزلۀ نمادی از خویشتن غریزی به کار برده که با تبعیت از آن شخصیت اصلی داستان به تفرّد می‌رسد. جایگاه او از این لحاظ مشابه جایگاه جک لندن در آوای وحش است، چراکه لندن نیز گرگ و آوای آن را چونان ندایی درونی و ماورایی برای باک در نظر می‌گیرد که او را به خاستگاه اصلی خود می‌خواند؛ خاستگاهی که باک را به ریشۀ اصلی خود نزدیک کرده و او را به تفرّد می‌رساند.

گلشیری در داستان خود گرگ را نمادی از منِ وحشی و آزاد اختر و در کل زنان در نظر گرفته و از این طریق به کهن‌الگویی اشاره می‌کند که بعدها اِستِس آن را ”زن وحشی“ می‌خواند. او به این طریق سنت حاکم بر جامعه را به چالش کشیده و خواستار رویارویی زنان با این سنت می‌شود؛ رویارویی‌ای که شاید آن‌گونه که از پایان داستان برمی‌آید به نابودیِ زنان بیانجامد. اما در آوای وحش چنین اتفاقی روی نمی‌دهد. آوایی که باک را به بازگشت به خویشتن فرا می‌خواند در پایان باعث می‌شود که او به خاستگاه اصلی خود میان دستۀ گرگ‌ها بر‌گردد و پیشاپیش آنها مسیر زندگی خود را پی ‌گیرد.

[1] J. Brandenburg, Brother Wolf: A Forgotten Promise (Minocqua: Northword Press Inc., 1983); L. E. Mech, The Way of the Wolf (Stillwater: Voyageur Press, 1991).

[2] J. P. Resnick, Wolves and Coyotes: Eyes on Nature (Chicago: Kidsbooks, Inc., 1995); M. W. Fox, The Soul of the Wolf: A Meditation on Wolves and Man (New York: Lyons & Burford, Publishers, 1980).

[3] کلاریسا پینکولا اِستِس، زنانی که با گرگها میدوند: افسانهها و قصههایی دربارۀ کهنالگوی زن وحشی، ترجمۀ سیمین موحد (تهران: نشر پیکان، 1389).

[4] M. Griffith, “The wolf in Sandplay,” Journal of Sandplay Therapy, 2 (1996), 113-129.

[5] Bible, Ezekiel, 22:27; Jeremiah, 5:6.

[6] Bible, Isaiah, 65:25.

[7] قرآن، سورۀ یوسف، آیات 13، 14 و 17: [یعقوب] گفت: اينكه او را ببريد سخت مرا اندوهگين مى‏كند و مى‏ترسم از او غافل شويد و گرگ او را بخورد (13). [پسران] گفتند: اگر گرگ او را بخورد با اينكه ما گروهى نيرومند هستيم، در آن صورت ما قطعاً [مردمى] بى‏مقدار خواهيم بود (14). . . گفتند: اى پدر، ما رفتيم مسابقه دهيم و يوسف را پيش كالاى خود نهاديم، آن‌گاه گرگ او را خورد، ولى تو ما را هر چند راستگو باشيم باور نمى‏دارى (17).

[8] J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1978).

[9] مریم رضایی اوّل و اکبر شامیان ساروکلائی، ”گرگ در منظومه‌های حماسی ایران،“ نشریۀ دانشکدۀ ادبیات و علوم انسانی دانشگاه تبریز، سال 52، شمارۀ 211 (1388)، 105-134.

[10] منیژه عبداللهی، فرهنگنامۀ جانوران در ادب پارسی (تهران: انتشارات پژوهنده، 1381)، 909 و 911.

[11] هاشم رضی، تاریخ آیین رازآمیز میترایی (تهران: انتشارات بهجت، 1381)، 130.

[12] ایرانشاه ابن ‌ابی‌الخیر، بهمننامه، ویراستۀ رحیم عفیفی (تهران: انتشارات علمی و فرهنگی، 1370)، 170، بیت 141/2172.

[13] رضایی اوّل و شامیان ساروکلائی، ”گرگ در منظومه‌های حماسی ایران،“ 120.

[14] وستا سرخوش کرتیس، اسطورههای ملل (1): اسطورههای ایرانی، ترجمۀ عباس مخبر (چاپ 2؛ تهران: انتشارات مرکز، 1384)، 66.

[15] Griffith, “The wolf in Sandplay.”

[16] B. G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myth and Secrets (San Franscisco: Harper San Francisco, 1983).

[17] O. Rank, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (New York: Vintage Books, 1959).

[18] E. Neumann, The Great Mother (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1955).

[19] A. De Vries, Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1984).

[20] اِستِس، زنانی که با گرگها میدوند.

[21] Griffith, “The wolf in Sandplay.”

[22] اِستِس، زنانی که با گرگها میدوند.

[23] Griffith, “The wolf in Sandplay.”

[24] اِستِس، زنانی که با گرگها میدوند.

[25] جک لندن، آوای وحش، ترجمۀ پرویز داریوش (تهران: انتشارات اساطیر، 1368)، 22-23.

[26] وحشی به معنای طبیعی و غریزی، نه به معنای منفی امروزی آن.

[27] اِستِس، زنانی که با گرگها میدوند.

[28] لندن، آوای وحش، 39.

[29] لندن، آوای وحش، 54.

[30] هوشنگ گلشیری، ”گرگ،“ در نمازخانۀ کوچک من (تهران: انتشارات زمان، 1354)، 147.

[31] گلشیری، ”گرگ،“ 147-148.

[32] اِستِس، زنانی که با گرگها میدوند، 157 و 4.

[33] اِستِس، زنانی که با گرگها میدوند، 158.

[34] A. Venefica, “Dog Meaning and Symbolism,” at

[35] A. Venefica, “Wolf Meaning and Totem Symbolism of the Wolf,” at

[36] اِستِس، زنانی که با گرگها میدوند.

[37] لندن، آوای وحش، 19.

[38] لندن، آوای وحش، 37.

[39] لندن، آوای وحش، 134.

[40] Griffith, “The wolf in Sandplay.”

[41] لندن، آوای وحش، 70-71.

[42] لندن، آوای وحش، 128.

[43] لندن، آوای وحش، 131-132.

[44] لندن، آوای وحش، 130.

The Complete Persepolis: Visualizing Exile in a Transnational Narrative

Leila Sadegh Beigi received her PhD in English literature from the University of Arkansas, where she is an instructor of literature. Her writing focuses on the intersection of gender, exile, and translation in contemporary Iranian women’s literature. Her recent publications include “Simin Daneshvar and Shahrnush Parsipur in Translation: The Risk of Erasure of Domestic Violence in Iranian Women’s Fiction” in the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies (Duke University Press, 2020) and “Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Embroideries: A Graphic Novelization of Sexual Revolution across Three Generations of Iranian Women” in the International Journal of Comic Art (John Lent, 2019).

Contemporary Iranian women writers create a voice of resistance in fiction by questioning and redefining gender roles, which are defined by culture, tradition, and state law in Iran. They narrate their stories of resistance in a state of exile, a condition rooted in marginalization independent of geographical location. In this article, I will examine and analyze The Complete Persepolis, written by Iranian writer, artist, and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi, as a transnational narrative written in exile. A transnational perspective challenges the binary division between the Eurocentric “First World/Third World” framework of modern global feminist analyses.[1] Satrapi’s narrative in The Complete Persepolis focuses on a gendered and discursive manifestation of women, culture, and identity, problematizing “a purely locational politics of global-local or core-periphery in favor of viewing the lines cutting across these locations.”[2] I argue that The Complete Persepolis expands the notion of exile through the visual representations of the author’s concerns about the status of women in exile at home and abroad. The portrayal of internal exile, or exile at home, relies on images of women struggling with gender discrimination, sexism, and censorship, all of which limit and marginalize them as female citizens. In the portrayal of external exile, or exile abroad, Satrapi offers images of women experiencing racism, stereotyping, and marginalization in the West.

The graphic representation of human emotions through the perspective of a young girl experiencing gender discrimination at home and racial discrimination abroad creates a space of empathy and understanding for readers. As Scott McCloud argues, “The wall of ignorance that prevents so many human beings from seeing each other clearly [can] only be breached by communication.”[3] Satrapi breaks the “wall of ignorance” through strong visual imagery unveiling the identity of Iranian women. As a transnational hero, the protagonist, Marji, breaks cultural, ideological, and geographical barriers, and calls for global solidarity, understanding, and equality for immigrants in exile. Of course, not all immigrants are exiled subjects. What lies at the heart of exile is the lack of choice. Edward Said writes: “Exile is not, after all, a matter of choice: you are born into it, or it happens to you.”[4] Exile, banishment, and stigmatization are described by Said as distinguishing factors and specific characteristics of exile.[5]

My argument is in line with two critical debates on the neccessity of reshaping transnationl feminism. The first is Chandra Mohanty’s model of transnational feminism in her articles “‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles” (2003) and “Transnational Feminist Crossings: On Neoliberalism and Radical Critique” (2013). In “Under Western Eyes Revisited,” Mohanty suggests that “a transnational feminist practice depends on building feminist solidarities across the divisions of place, identity, class, work, belief, and so on.”[6] Mohanty calls for individual and conscious effort to use these differences to connect; “Under Western Eyes Revisited” focuses on “decolonizing feminism, a politics of difference and commonality, and specifying, historicizing, and connecting feminist struggles.”[7] A decade later, in “Transnational Feminist Crossings,” Mohanty emphasizes the importance of “re-commit[ting] to insurgent knowledges and the complex politics of antiracist, anti-imperialist feminisms.”[8] Mohanty writes: “I believe we need to return to the radical feminist politics of the contextual as both local and structural and to the collectivity that is being defined out of existence by privatization projects.”[9] She emphasizes the significance of a systematic analysis of power which depoliticizes the resistance and the social movements by the privatization of organizations and feminist antiracism in the neoliberal academic landscape. This is not about the risk of homogenization and stereotyping of differences of women in the Global South, which Mohanty discusses in an earlier article, “Under Western Eyes” (1986); this is a critique of the institutionalization of radical feminist antiracism, which aims to erase the race and class divisions which unite the voices of women locally and globally to preserve power.

The second critical debate, Nima Naghibi’s articulation of transnational feminism, discusses cross-cultural feminist misunderstandings in her book Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran. Naghibi writes: “The problem of sisterhood remains, however, the inherent inequality between ‘sisters.’ Often using the veil as a marker of Persian women’s backwardness, Western and (unveiled) elite Iranian women represented themselves as enlightened and advanced.”[10] Like Mohanty, Naghibi calls for destabilizing and reinterrogating transnational feminism’s elimination of race and class divisions between “the civilized nations” and “rogue nations.”[11]

Satrapi’s Persepolis contributes to these debates on transnational feminism by portraying Iranian women’s struggle to manifest the powerful and thriving feminist voices of the nation. Satrapi’s discursive approach to diversity, oppression, and resistance is interwoven with culture and politics of local and global feminist discourse calling for unity and solidarity. The narrative criticizes gender discrimination in Iran, but it also questions racial discrimination in the West. Persepolis examines the visual representation of discrimination against women and gender-based violence in Iran, and it problematizes the demonized representation of Iran and Iranians in the West resulting in global marginalization of Iranian women. While the visual medium influences the writer’s ability and effort to push the boundaries of Iran’s traditional society in the narrative’s demands for a democratic space to include women, the medium also offers an antiracist reading of women from the Global South in the West.

The concept of exile is significant in understanding Persepolis as a transnational narrative because exile encapsulates the space for a transnational exchange of culture. Exiled subjects leave their homeland, and they build a diaspora community in their new country, operating as transnational identities to represent their homeland, culture, and literature. While both Iranian women and men in diaspora have contributed to the Iranian literary tradition, “women writers have been largely responsible for making Iran and the postrevolutionary immigrant experience visible in literature. Women writers of the Iranian diaspora especially appear to have comfortably left behind any concerns about adhering to the tradition of Iranian letters and have instead made writing one of the most important media for representing their particular experiences of exile, immigration, and identity.”[12] Although both diaspora and exiled writers inform transnational and intellectual identities, the exiles are particularly grounded in the notion of punishment due to their radical political views. Drawing on Said’s discussion of exile, I prefer to use the term exile in this article because exile is not always defined as the state of being away from home; rather, in the case of contemporary Iranian women writers, exile could also be defined as the state of being marginalized and alienated from the public in their own country due to their capabilities of writing about women’s limitations.

In the case of Satrapi, exile has provided a condition for her to visualize her memories, practicing her radical criticism of the political landscape locally and globally, which resonates with Said’s definition of intellectuals in exile who have obtained a “sharpened vision.”[13] For example, Satrapi problematizes Western media as representing Muslims as “terrorist[s],” and Iran’s media as “making anti-Western propaganda.”[14] This is an example of her fairness in criticizing both governments in their policies. Satrapi’s laser sharp focus on cultural and political representation in Persepolis perfectly illustrates that her narrative, as Said puts it, “provides a different set of lenses” to read her homeland.[15] Persepolis not only represents her sharp critical vision in exile, but it also provides an alternative lens through which to view Iranian women. Analyzing Persepolis as the first graphic novel in the Middle East written by an Iranian intellectual woman in exile offers a feminist version of exile challenging the conventional understanding of intellectual exile discussed by Said.

The subversive potential of female heroes in Iranian culture and literature is not censored or erased in Persepolis. Nevertheless, Satrapi’s commentary on the lack of freedom of artistic expression in Iran draws attention to one of the most important aspects of exile at home: artistic productions being subject to censorship under Islamic law. Despite her success in obtaining an art degree at the graphic school in Tehran, Satrapi suffers from a lack of freedom, this time as an artist in Iran. Censorship in art makes Satrapi ask herself, “where is my freedom of thought? Where is my freedom of speech? My life, is it livable?”[16] There are limitations for presenting women’s bodies not only in painting, but also in any other art form. To do so, an artist is required to obtain consent from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Marji resists these oppressive conditions in her brave objection to the female students’ dress code at the university. In a scene where the university has organized a lecture on the theme of “moral and religious conduct,” Marji opposes the lecturer’s views on the female dress code, saying that “you don’t hesitate to comment on us, but our brothers present here have all shapes and sizes of haircuts and clothes. Sometimes, they wear clothes so tight that we can see everything.”[17] She also questions the lack of freedom in drawing faces and bodies in the art studios (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 299. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Figure 1. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 299. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

She finally faces her double exile by leaving Iran for France to build her identity as a successful writer and artist in a country where she does not face restrictions or censorship in producing art and publishing her stories. Inspired by Satrapi’s living in exile, her performance in The Complete Persepolis is the embodiment of a discursive manifestation of women and culture.

Crossing the borders and breaking the barriers of thoughts and ideas enables writers in exile to see with a “different set of lenses” using “exile’s situation to practice criticism.”[18] While Satrapi’s graphic novel fits Said’s definition of being able to see problems in the West as well as in her own country, it also uses a gendered lens to show women intellectuals in exile. Satrapi is critical of the Eurocentric behavior she witnesses in Vienna at several points in the novel. For example, in a scene in the religious school she attends, Marji is punished for eating in the TV room. A nun tells her, “it’s true what they say about Iranians. They have no education.”[19]

Satrapi rediscovers her new Iranian identity in the West by acknowledging Third World–women’s struggle to survive, and she depicts women’s resistance, subversion, and rebellion to confront the restrictions on their appearance and behavior in public (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 302. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Figure 2. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 302. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Persepolis captures the nuances of Iranian society by depicting Iran as a dynamic nation and underscoring the significance of women’s resistance. While Satrapi’s approach to depicting women in Iran celebrates the vibrancy and power of Iranian women, her storytelling in Persepolis is inclusive, with its multi-perspective lens on culture, class, politics, faith, and gender in Iran.

The distance from home poses challenges for exiled writers, who risk creating “single story” narratives about their home country;[20] however, Satrapi’s inclusive narrative does not reflect a “single story” narrative about Iran. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie discusses how culture is composed of multiple stories and the authenticity of depictions of culture depends on the representation of the multiple stories about it.[21] It is not possible to know in totality a culture without engaging with all possible stories about those people or places. Adichie observes that “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are not true, but that they are incomplete.”[22] Although it is not the job of one writer to represent a culture in its totality, it is the responsibility of a writer not to distort or misrepresent the culture. In this article, I discuss the multilayered representation of culture and women in Persepolis, highlighting its subversive narrative, which circulates to transnational audiences multiple representations of women’s resistance.

Satrapi responds to the political tensions between Iran and the West by creating Marji, her transnational hero. Marji narrates her observations of Iran, which has been less known to the West and Western audiences since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Diego Maggi argues that Satrapi’s Persepolis “complicate[s] and challenge[s] binary divisions commonly related to the tensions amid the Occident and the Orient, such as East-West, Self-Other, civilized-barbarian and feminism-antifeminism.”[23] My argument in this article builds on Maggi’s argument about how Satrapi pushes the boundaries to bridge the gap between worlds. For example, Satrapi depicts the political turbulence through her childhood memories by opening the novel when she is only ten, and as a result of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, she is wearing the hijab while sitting in a sex-segregated school (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 3. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS: THE STORY OF A CHILDHOOD by Marjane Satrapi, translation copyright © 2003 by L’Association, Paris, France. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Figure 3. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 3. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS: THE STORY OF A CHILDHOOD by Marjane Satrapi, translation copyright © 2003 by L’Association, Paris, France. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

In another scene, she reveals the ordinary life of people trying to survive under the strict Islamic regime, a difficulty which has become compounded by the country’s new restrictions on ordinary activities like dancing and throwing parties (Figure 4). She writes: “In spite of all the dangers, the parties went on. ‘Without them it wouldn’t be psychologically bearable,’ some said.”[24] Revealing a new version of reality through the portrayal of the private and public in her narrative, Satrapi tells the story of ordinary people, reminding Western readers that people are people, with common interests and ideas despite the cross-border differences in cultures.

Figure 4. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 106. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS: THE STORY OF A CHILDHOOD by Marjane Satrapi, translation copyright © 2003 by L’Association, Paris, France. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Figure 4. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 106. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS: THE STORY OF A CHILDHOOD by Marjane Satrapi, translation copyright © 2003 by L’Association, Paris, France. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Satrapi offers an understanding of the cultural and political complexities of Iranian society, and as an intellectual in exile, she consciously uses these differences to connect to the struggle of women globally. In her book, Women, Art, and Literature in the Iranian Diaspora, Mehraneh Ebrahimi discusses the creation of visual arts as well as graphic novels by diaspora writers and artists in the humanities as an essential factor to inform a global community and to combat xenophobia. By showing women’s struggle for freedom and peace in a local and global context, Persepolis decolonizes the narrative about Iran as evil Other and Iranian women as victims. Marji’s experience traveling across borders accounts for her hybrid identity and resists projecting a stereotypical representation of Iran and Iranian women as “Other.” For example, Marji draws attention to cross-cultural behaviors and attitudes when it comes to religious extremists, who exist in all societies. As mentioned earlier, there is a scene where Marji carries her food to the TV room to enjoy while watching a show in the religious school in Vienna (Figure 5). When she is told to watch her behavior by “the mother superior,” Marji says, “but here, everyone eats while watching TV.” The mother gets angry and says, “it’s true what they say about Iranians. They have no education.”[25] After this confrontation, the nuns decide to expel Marji from school, and Marji thinks, “in every religion, you find the same extremists.”[26]

Figure 5. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 177. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Figure 5. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 177. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Race, class, and gender differences rooted in sociocultural and political aspects are historicized in Persepolis for a Western audience. The narrative combats the West’s binary understanding of Iran and the West as black and white and instead offers an alternative image. The visual imagery in Persepolis unveils the culture and history of Iran and the identity of Iranian women for the Western audience. As an intellectual Iranian woman writer, Satrapi captures the key events from pre-revolution, post-revolution, and wartime, and their social problems to perfectly communicate with the audience through her privileged position as an elite. Although she tells the audience what life was like for a girl of her generation, class, and family background, her narrative does not suggest the life story of “all” Iranian girls during the years the book is set. For example, the stories of the girls who were terrified and traumatized by war and were forced to come to Tehran because their houses were destroyed are not included in Persepolis. These girls were misplaced in the schools in Tehran. While they had already faced the trauma of war in their hometowns, the atmosphere of the metropolitan capital intensified their repression. They faced struggles because of their accent, different skin color, and different appearance, but they still had to obey the strict rules for hijab at schools and in public.

A full and accurate representation of Iranian women requires a multilayered narrative that gives equal voice to women with different experiences and backgrounds. Many scholars discuss Satrapi’s narrative as being close to the facts in its portrayal of Iran and Iranian women. For example, Farzaneh Milani writes: “Marjane Satrapi celebrates the Iranian people’s history of resistance, subversion, and rebellion as much as she bears witness to the miseries and injustices caused by political and religious dogmatism.”[27] Women’s struggle of resistance is not lost in Persepolis; instead, the traumatic experience of the years after the Iranian Revolution and the Iran–Iraq War is part of the focus. Indeed, Satrapi responds to Iranian women’s literary tradition as a contributor to that tradition. Persepolis depicts three generations of female characters: Marji, her mother, and her grandmother are portrayed as women conscious of their rights and their identity in fighting back against oppression. These characters bring their unique perspectives on the sociocultural issues that affect women’s everyday life in Iran. For example, Marji’s mom joins the demonstration against compulsory veiling, Marji shouts at the two guardians of the revolution who stop her in the street and warn her not to run, and the grandma removes the stigma around divorce when Marji is full of fear and hesitation after her divorce.[28]

By expressing their sexual experiences, adventures, and concerns through the portrayal of their personal lives, these characters represent strong women with activist perspectives as active agents during the years the novel is set. The narrative provides the Western audience with a glimpse into the joy and pleasure in the lives of women amidst their constant struggle for peace and equality, creating empathy and understanding that transcends borders.

Satrapi’s Persepolis attempts to reflect the voices of Iranian women as being in resistance to oppression rather than as being submissive. The high rate of readership of this graphic novel among Western readers is due to Satrapi’s success in showing a compelling and alternative image of Iranian women. Women writers exiled abroad risk telling a “single story” narrative about Iran, but they may take a similar risk in representing their homeland by catering to Western preconceptions about it. Hamid Dabashi discusses this risk in his book Brown Skin, White Masks, demonstrating “how intellectuals who migrate to the Western side of their colonized imagination are prone to employment by the imperial power to inform on their home countries in a manner that confirms conclusions already drawn.”[29] Because Satrapi’s narrative is critical of both Iran and the places she lived in the West, I don’t find it problematic that Persepolis is written for a Western audience. Indeed, the dual nature of women’s resistance to the oppression is portrayed through the author’s double critique of Iranian fundamentalism and Western imperialism. While Persepolis depicts the conflict between democracy and dictatorship in the shah’s regime, it simultaneously problematizes democracy and fundamentalism under the Islamic Republic. In fact, by criticizing the pro-American shah, Satrapi criticizes imperialism and American and British interference in Iran.[30]

As a very popular form of storytelling in the West, the graphic novel integrates text with imagery. While the use of visuals helps to interpret the author’s imagination, those images are also open to readers’ interpretation. In Persepolis, Satrapi remembers her past through a “process of visualization,” which indicates the multiplicity of ways her culture can be interpreted.[31] It also speaks about her exilic perspective, providing her with a hybrid identity with multitudes of lenses. Satrapi’s combination of dialogue, interior monologue, and image promotes myriad ways to understand Iranian culture. Satrapi presents Iranian culture as complex and filled with strong female figures, including the protagonist herself.

Women’s common struggle connects Satrapi to the struggle of other Iranian women writers, her foremothers despite their differences in time, language, and genre. Iranian women writers have depicted women’s struggles against the patriarchal system, traditional gender roles, and limitations for women under the Pahlavi regime and Islamic Republic. The struggle of women through different historical periods in Iran reflects the type of struggle the female protagonists face in novels written by Iranian women. Marji’s radical thoughts and her criticism of the sociopolitical discourse of Iran, particularly in the 1990s, represents the evolving generation of women performing an alternative role as the symbol of change and innovation.

Satrapi contextualizes sisterhood in her narrative and brings migrant women to visibility by showing her observation of discrimination and marginalization as an immigrant woman in Vienna. In Persepolis, Satrapi fairly represents the disciplinary nature of fundamentalism and oppression for women both in Iran and in the West. For example, she represents two “Guardians of the Revolution” in the streets of Tehran, whose jobs were “to arrest women who were improperly veiled,” such as herself (Figure 6). Later, the nuns in the Viennese religious school try to control the girls’ behavior in public (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 133, 177. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS: THE STORY OF A CHILDHOOD by Marjane Satrapi, translation copyright © 2003 by L’Association, Paris, France. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Figure 6. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 133, 177. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS: THE STORY OF A CHILDHOOD by Marjane Satrapi, translation copyright © 2003 by L’Association, Paris, France. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

By juxtaposing the visual imagery of Iranian and Austrian fundamentalists who are dressed in similar fashion, with head coverings and concealing clothing, Satrapi points out the similarities of religious fundamentalism, which oppresses women cross-culturally. This juxtaposition highlights the fact that while religious-based oppression occurs in Iran, similar oppression occurs in the West, though those living in the West often overlook the latter. This resonates with what Mohanty believes to be the importance of “cross-border feminist solidarities,” which are based on women’s struggles for emancipation in various parts of the world.[32] Though the religions are different, their power to oppress and subordinate women is grounds for alliance.

Satrapi’s struggle as a woman living in exile is portrayed through the moments that Marji faces racial discrimination in Vienna based on the stereotypes of women from the Global South. For example, Satrapi depicts her bitter experience when her Austrian boyfriend’s mom accuses Marji of “taking advantage” of her son; in Marji’s words, “She was saying that I was taking advantage of Markus and his situation to obtain an Austrian passport, that I was a witch” (Figure 7). When Marji is forced to leave her boyfriend’s house, she goes home and surprisingly finds similar aggression at her own house when her landlady calls her a prostitute (Figure 7). Later, her landlady accuses Marji of stealing her jewelry, saying that “I lost my brooch. I’m sure that you’re the one who took it.”[33] The narrative criticizes the condition of women in exile abroad in the West and the West’s treatment of immigrant women.

Figure 7. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 220, 221. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Figure 7. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 220, 221. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Persepolis is not aimed at vengeance for the author’s traumatic experience in the West; it is aimed at questioning the very idea of sisterhood through the book’s critical approach to women’s oppression in exile. Satrapi’s portrayal of racism resonates with Naghibi’s call for destabilizing and reinterrogating transnational feminism to eliminate race and class divisions between “the civilized nations” and “rogue nations.”[34] Persepolis calls for reconsideration both of sisterhood and of race as the foundation of transnational feminism, and urges its audience to not overlook the significance of an antiracist feminism anchored around women’s common force of resistance across the globe. Satrapi’s diverse and discursive manifestation of racial and cultural diversity through the black-and-white panels in Persepolis is in itself commentary on the reductive Western division of the world into black and white.

Iranian women’s unequal status at home, rooted in gender discrimination, and their marginalization in the West, rooted in Islamophobia and racial discrimination, is central to Satrapi’s model for change and reformation. Her critique of the representation of Iran and Iranian women in the West underscores how these misrepresentations create inequality between women of different cultures, which in turn problematizes sisterhood. Female bonding and friendship, which is portrayed at multiple points in her narrative both in Iran and in Vienna, is a direct reference to the significance of solidarity. Satrapi’s demand for inclusion and equality in Persepolis resonates with Naghibi’s argument on the significance of an “alternative model to sisterhood.”[35]

The power and importance of sisterhood in making peace and sharing pains and sorrows to resist oppression is portrayed at several points in Persepolis. For example, during the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88), Marji’s family host and support Mali’s family after their house is bombed during Iraq’s attack on the south of Iran. When Mali, a family friend, with her husband and two kids, knocks on the door of Marji’s family home in the middle of the night to seek shelter, Marji’s mom hugs Mali and says, “hey, it’ll be OK, calm down…you did the right thing to come here.”[36] They laugh and cry together to get through the devastation of wartime and to get Mali’s family back on their feet.[37] Later in Vienna, Marji’s classmate Julie introduces Marji to new friends with whom Marji feels loved and gains a sense of belonging, making her life more bearable.[38] Marji’s roommate, Lucia, noticing Marji’s loneliness before Christmas break, takes Marji to stay with her family in Tyrol for Christmas. After this trip, Marji loves Lucia like a sister (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 172. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Figure 8. Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis, 172. Graphic Novel Excerpt from PERSEPOLIS 2: THE STORY OF A RETURN by Marjane Satrapi, translated by Anjali Singh, translation copyright © 2004 by Anjali Singh. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

My own perspective as an immigrant scholar who has experienced life and work in Iran and the United States has been shaped by Eurocentric behavior aimed at marginalizing me and people like me. With the presidency of Donald Trump and the growth of Islamophobia after he called Iran a “terrorist nation,” the situation grew worse. At that time, I was teaching Persepolis in my World Literature class at the University of Arkansas and observed firsthand the power of Persepolis to transcend borders. Persepolis was welcomed by the students, who were accustomed to hearing and thinking about Iran as a land of horror and evil. As my students experienced, Persepolis opens the audience’s eyes to the differences that are historically and politically constructed. Indeed, Satrapi problematizes both Western and Iranian media in using political frames to portray the enemy by demonizing and dehumanizing the whole nation.[39] This is an example of her fairness in criticizing both governments in their policies, a criticism that points to the politics of differences in a global context. Her narrative doesn’t promote Islamophobia and hatred; it questions the political framework between Iran and the West in representing the other side as evil.

The transnational circulation of people’s lives, ideas, events, and culture through the eyes of Marji plays a significant role in facilitating for the Western audience an understanding of Iran and what it means to be an Iranian woman. As Amy Malek argues, “Persepolis is an exemplary model of both memoir and Iranian exile culture in that it pushes the boundaries of both and that Satrapi’s position of liminality allows her to use a third space position from which to complete her cultural translation, in which she addresses issues of identity, exile and return.”[40] Mobilizing popular culture from the Middle East in the West for the first time, Persepolis draws attention to the relationship between the regions. This is in line with Mohanty’s argument on the necessity of uniting the voices of women in resistance around the world regardless of the divisions of race and class. Persepolis is a vivid picture of the Iranian sociocultural context concerning women’s issues during and after the Iranian Revolution.

The alternative representation of Iran that Satrapi provides without censorship invites the audience to rethink stereotypes of Muslim women as passive victims and of Iran as a backward and barbarian nation. The narrative is free from censorship and has not been co-opted to help the West to advance their agenda in the Middle East. Indeed, the transnational hero, Marji, breaks the barrier of ignorance and misunderstanding about the Middle East as Evil Other. By sharing her observation of events, women, and culture through images and words that communicate to the Western audience without the interference of governments, Marji enters the hearts and minds of readers around the globe. The oppression and struggle of Iranian women for equity and peace is a different struggle based on the specific sociopolitical atmosphere in Iran. However, what makes the narrative in Persepolis transnational and cross-border is its representation of women’s resistance and power during the political upheavals and wartime in Iran. Persepolis has great potential to shift the focus from understanding Iranian women as lacking agency, as they are presented in Western media or books like the bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran. Persepolis marks the first time that Iran has been represented through images in a graphic novel created by a woman from the Middle East, and signifies the need for renewal and reshaping cultural exchange.

In conclusion, Persepolis’s representation of contemporary Iran offers interdisciplinary ways to know Iran for the new generation. It opens the space for discussion on how gender, religion, and politics work in Iran. The narrative shows that to find solidarity in sisterhood, we need to understand our differences and appreciate our commonalities. The divisions between class, race, religion, culture, and ethnicity as shown in the narrative point to, as Mohanty discusses, the “politics of difference and commonality, and specifying, historicizing, and connecting feminist struggles.”[41] Persepolis educates the Western audience on Iran as a different civilization to explore. Satrapi stresses the significance of self-education at several points in the novel, saying that “one must educate oneself.”[42] In the transnational world we live in, education is the key to expanding our vision across geographical boarders. Persepolis offers hope that the progress of women’s rights can be made through mutual understanding and support in solidarity with sisters across the world.

What lies beyond the race, class, and culture divisions in my argument is the significance of storytelling that reflects resistance in exile. I believe that Satrapi’s experience of exile at home and abroad, the traumatic condition of marginalization, provides a sharp focus in the creation of her narratives that question the status quo and depict women’s nuanced resistance to oppression. The cost of Satrapi’s resistance appears in the author’s exile. While throughout history exiles share similar “cross-cultural and transnational visions,” as Said argues,[43] Satrapi’s Persepolis is a byproduct of the West’s imperialism and Islamophobia alongside religious fundamentalism in the twenty-first century, and stresses the common force of oppression. Persepolis represents the author’s observation of the disciplinary nature of fundamentalism and oppression against women both in Iran and in the West, contributing to Valentine Moghadam’s argument in her book Globalization and Social Movements: The Populist Challenge and Democratic Alternatives. Moghadam argues that the mobilizing forces of uniting women at the “macro level” and “micro level” create a “collective identity” to overcome the differences across the globe.[44]

The visualization of the estrangement, alienation, and homelessness through the exiled hero, Marji, cultivates the imagination to move beyond the self and differences. Drawing on cross-continental conversations amongst people and in particular women from around the world, Persepolis focuses on solidarity in exile. The contemporary themes of emigration, Otherness, exile, and identity connect Satrapi’s transnational narrative to the stories written by women from other cultures like The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by the acclaimed Mexican writer Reyna Grande and Americanah by Adichie. The global intersections and parallels in exile literature connect human experience cross-culturally, and manipulate transcultural visions in storytelling which connects women and culture to find solidarity and seek healing and collaboration. Persepolis is a provocative account of the Iranian people’s everyday life and concerns, much like those of many other people in the world, who struggle with their belief systems and those of their governments. Persepolis suggests that in order to maintain collective identity, we need to subscribe to women’s emancipation and gender equality in all cultures and nations. Persepolis provides a stellar example of the creativity and power of Iranian women writers’ storytelling abilities.

[1]Susan A. Mann, Doing Feminist Theory: From Modernity to Postmodernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 362.

[2]Mann, Doing Feminist Theory, 363.

[3]Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: William Morrow, 1994), 198.

[4]Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 184.

[5]On the differences between exile, refugees, expatriates, and émigrés, see Said’s discussion in Reflections on Exile, 181: “Although it is true that anyone prevented from returning home is an exile, some distinctions can be made among exiles, refugees, expatriates, and émigrés. Exile originated in the age-old practice of banishment. Once banished, the exile lives an anomalous and miserable life, with the stigma of being an outsider. Refugees, on the other hand, are a creation of the twentieth-century state. The word ‘refugee’ has become a political one, suggesting large herds of innocent and bewildered people requiring urgent international assistance, whereas ‘exile’ carries with it, I think, a touch of solitude and spirituality. Expatriates voluntarily live in an alien country, usually for personal or social reasons. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were not forced to live in France. Expatriates may share in the solitude and estrangement of exile, but they do not suffer under its rigid proscriptions. Émigrés enjoy an ambiguous status. Technically an émigré is anyone who emigrates to a new country. Choice in the matter is certainly a possibility. Colonial officials, missionaries, technical experts, mercenaries, and military advisers on loan may in a sense live in exile, but they have not been banished. White settlers in Africa, parts of Asia and Australia may have been exiles, but as pioneers and nation-builders, they lost the label ‘exile.’”

[6]Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles,” Signs 28 (2003): 499–535. Quote on p. 530.

[7]Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Transnational Feminist Crossings: On Neoliberalism and Radical Critique,” Signs 38 (2013): 967–91. Quote on p. 977.

[8]Mohanty, “Transnational Feminist,” 987.

[9]Mohanty, “Transnational Feminist,” 987.

[10]Nima Naghibi, Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), xvii.

[11]Naghibi, Rethinking Global, 141–46.

[12]Persis M. Karim, “Reflections on Literature after the 1979 Revolution in Iran and in the Diaspora,” Radical History Review 105 (2009): 151–55. Quote on p. 152.

[13]Said, Reflections on Exile, xxxv.

[14]Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis (New York: Pantheon, 2004), 322.

[15]Said, Reflections on Exile, xxxv.

[16]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 302.

[17]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 297.

[18]Said, Reflections on Exile, xxxv.

[19]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 177.

[20]Chimamanda N. Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” July 2009, Oxford, UK, TED, transcript, 18:33,

[21]Adichie, “Danger of.”

[22]Adichie, “Danger of.”

[23]Diego Maggi, “Orientalism, Gender, and Nation Defied by an Iranian Woman: Feminist Orientalism and National Identity in Satrapi’s Persepolis and Persepolis 2,” Journal of International Women’s Studies, no. 1 (2020): 89–105. Quote on p. 89.

[24]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 106.

[25]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 177.

[26]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 178.

[27]Farzaneh Milani, Words Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2011), 231.

[28]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 5, 301, 333.

[29]Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto, 2011), 23.

[30]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 19, 20.

[31]Nima Naghibi, Women Write Iran: Nostalgia and Human Rights from the Diaspora (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 107.

[32]Mohanty, “Transnational Feminist,” 987.

[33]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 233.

[34]Naghibi, Rethinking Global, 141–46.

[35]Naghibi, Rethinking Global, 109.

[36]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 90.

[37]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 91, 92.

[38]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 166, 167.

[39]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 322.

[40]Amy Malek, “Memoir as Iranian Exile Cultural Production: A Case Study of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis Series,” Iranian Studies 39 (2006): 353–80. Quote on p. 369.

[41]Mohanty, “Transnational Feminist,” 977.

[42]Satrapi, Complete Persepolis, 327.

[43]Said, Reflections, 174.

[44]Valentine M. Moghadam, Globalization and Social Movements: The Populist Challenge and Democratic Alternatives (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020), 164.

Sovereignty and Statehood in Early Qajar Rule: An Exercise in Conceptualization

Behrooz Moazami is Patrick G. O’Keefe Distinguished Professor of History at Loyola University New Orleans, and founder and director of the Middle East Peace Studies program. For more than two decades before joining academia, Moazami was a professional political activist and contributed to a number of Iranian dissident publications. While living in Paris in exile (1983–92), he co-founded and coedited Andisheye Rahai, a Persian review of politics, theory, and society. Moazami is a trustee of the Ardeshir Mohassess Trust, formed to preserve the legacy of the artist and to help gravely ill artists in need.

  • How was sovereignty understood and practiced in the early Qajar period, both as a concept and as a social contract? Why did the Qajars, similar to the established Safavid rulers before them, call the territory they ruled mamalek mahruse Iran, the “Guarded Kingdoms/Domains of Iran”? What does the epithet mamalek mahruse imply? Is it a substitute for the term empire? What are the implications of identification on the nature of sovereignty, rule, and the state when this term is used? What implications did it have for the future of Qajar statehood? How were Iran’s interactions with the larger world influenced by the early Qajar statehood? How did sovereignty and state rule in Iran differ from a hypothetical Westphalian state where centralized states allegedly have hegemony over the means of coercion, the states exercise their power over a defined territorial domain, and their right to exercise power in their domains is recognized or tolerated by others? What do these differences tell us about the limits of a Eurocentric theory of state and state formation, and how can a more nuanced and historically informed theory of sovereignty and state be developed?
  • This study—still in its primitive stage—focuses on these questions by concentrating on border wars in Iran, Russia, and to a lesser extent the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly over Caucasia. Yet this is not a study of borderlands and frontiers (like the works of Sabri Ates, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, and Alfred J. Rieber)[2] despite its references to the frontier wars. Rather, this study focuses on the interactions among these three powers and the impact of their wars on the early Qajars’ sovereignty and state formation in Iran. The number, length, and intensity of the wars these Euro-Asian military forces engaged in during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are indeed staggering: Persian–Russian wars of 1722–23, 1795–96, 1804–13, and 1826–28; Persian–Ottoman wars of 1722–27, 1730–36, 1743–46, and 1821–23; and Russian–Ottoman wars of 1710–12 (part of the Great Northern War), 1735–39, 1768–74, 1787–91, 1806–12, 1828–29, 1853–56 (part of the Crimean War), and 1877–78.

I have two goals here. The first is to provide a framework for understanding Iran’s interactions with its powerful neighbors beyond the more accepted analytical frameworks of “the Persian question,” “the Eastern question,” “the Great Game,” and their derivatives, such as “defensive developmentalism,” which look upon the political development of Iran and the Ottoman Empire as responses to the pressures of Western imperialism. The second is to look afresh at the process of state formation in non-European settings.

No doubt forces of Western imperialism were deeply involved in shaping the course of history in Iran and in the broader region, particularly by the end of the eighteenth century, but I am considering a more complicated framework by focusing on the long interactions among Iran, Russia, and the Ottomans and how they interacted with the Western forces as a system. The Western imperial forces intervened on a global scale, but they needed to interact with an existing system. It is the interactions of these two systems (Western and Euro-Asian) and their long-term impacts, rather than the international machinations, or responses of these individual powers to the changing global order, that interest me here.

Others have also implicitly or explicitly taken steps in a revisionist direction and treated the interaction of Iran with other forces not as a “one-way street.”[3] Yet I am articulating this interaction as a theoretical concept for the transformation in regional reconfiguration of power through the lens of what—using Janet Abu-Lughod’s idea[4]—could be called “systematic change.” By comparing the formative phase of a tribal dynasty in an agrarian society, its concept of sovereignty, and its practice of statehood with that of a hypothetical nation–state in an industrial setting, I am continuing my efforts at developing a state theory that is more appropriate in explaining political structures in non-European settings. Here, also, I am not alone. Others have done this for different non-European settings.

The historical, political, and social environments that gave rise to the Iranian, Russian, and Ottoman states, along with their frequent wars and interactions with Western powers, gradually transformed the extent of these states’ territories, power structures, and physiognomies. By absorbing or losing territories and people, these states redefined their scope of operation and resources and, to a certain extent, their religious orientations, and attempted to homogenize their subjects. In this process, the local and regional powers lost their relatively autonomous powers and became more dependent on the central rulers, or changed their loyalty before being absorbed by larger political entities.

As it is difficult to discuss the impact of this process under one rubric, I describe this transformation as gradual changes in a state’s capacity and strategy to rule, partly deliberate and partly as a result of the system’s evolution. In doing so, I treat the state as a political community that is exercising rule over a certain territory. While formation of a modern and centralized army became the main strategy of these powers, and they ended up developing traits similar to those of European nation–states, their evolution followed a different trajectory and outcome. Iran used the Ottoman and Russian models as the blueprint for its state-making strategy, rather than the European model. Ultimately, I argue that the geographical proximity of these Euro-Asian powers, their long history of interactions, and the lasting impact of the khanate system—a legacy of the Mongols—converged and transformed the structure and physiognomy of these states, despite differences in their political appearance and their own self-identification. They formed the basis of what could be called the Euro-Asian state system.[5]

Analytically, what I am discussing here could be viewed as the short-term impact of the restructuring of Euro-Asia in its regional and global interactions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In her seminal work, Before European Hegemony, Janet Abu-Lughod discusses the existence of a “world system” in the thirteenth century composed of “sub-systems,” none hegemonic over the others. The interaction among the units that later formed this world system stretches back to the time of the formation of the classical empires. The developments I discuss here are another restructuring of world history in longue durée, what Abu-Lughod calls “a systematic change.” This systematic change, she argues, “should be viewed as shifts in the direction and configuration of central trends.” In any systematic change, she argues further, “successive systems reorganize in a somewhat cumulative fashion, the lines and connections laid down in prior epochs tending to persist even though their significance and roles in the new system may be altered.”[6] Perhaps the chaotic world that we are witnessing now in Euro-Asia is another moment of this “restructuring.”

Historically, the process of the transformation of political structure that concerns me could be described as the incorporation of the khanate system of rules, as well as rules of fragmented tribal khans, beys, and local patriarchs, into a larger state ruling an extensive territory with diverse ethno-entities but similar religious affiliations. The Mongolian tradition of statehood based on the power of khanates reproduced itself and formed a different constellation of power than the ideal form in the Westphalian state system. In this process, the Euro-Asian states of the post-Mongolian period transformed, disintegrated, and evolved into a new system of states that were centralized and constitutionalized but still based on fragmented authorities. The Euro-Asian state evolved and restructured itself in several “systematic changes” in contrast to the ideal of a Westphalian state system, where centralized states have hegemony over means of coercion and freely exercise their power over a defined territorial domain.

State and Sovereignty  

In this context, I am defining state as follows: a political community with formal and informal mechanisms of rule consisting of juridical traditions or institutions and loosely yet institutionally organized religious authorities ruling over a large inhabitable territory and a sizable population with a sustainable history of socioeconomic and cultural interactions. The degree of this political community’s inclusiveness and the extent of formality or informality of institutional and organizational development of its judiciary and religious apparatus and type of socioeconomic and cultural interaction defines “the stateness”[7]—its character and physiognomy—and its strategy of rule. However, it does not change the essence of a state’s rule, which is a mechanism and strategy of rule. This definition of state could also apply to a contested state or a colonial state. My theoretical articulation on the relationship of state and sovereignty is based on this definition of state and its implied logic.

While a state has physical manifestations with tangible organizational and institutional capacities, sovereignty is imaginary and ideal. “In the state,” Marx argues, “man is the imaginary member of an imaginary sovereignty, divested of his real, individual life, and infused with an unreal universality.”[8] Yet “this unreal universality” has its own power. Rationalization of state power means providing conditions for its acceptance by its subjects. Its internalization, though imaginative and subjective, implies certain retroactive interactions between the state and its subjects. Hence, sovereignty is a conceptual abstract and a social contract. The ambiguity inherent in the ideal of sovereignty is, indeed, its source of power.

Sovereignty, as a formal and informal social contract, oversees the expectations and interactions of different parts of a society toward the political authority. How this social contract is constructed, understood, and practiced is altered by various factors: the state’s geographic position; cultural boundaries and characteristics; the shape and size of the population; and changes in the nature of the social composition of society, the nature and extent of power, and the origin of its ruling elite.

Sovereignty in micropolitical entities such as tribal chiefdoms is limited to their internal domains, and sovereignty in a vassal state is defined by the nature of the relationship of the vassal with the larger state—most often, changing loyalty is an act of survival or a calculation for further empowerment of the ruling elite. Sovereignty in large centralized states that are based on fragmented authorities is the sum total of sovereignties of related but autonomous domains defined through long-term historical and geographical relations, and is negotiated with the central power through local power holders. Suzerainty in this case is articulated through the degree of loyalty of the local magnate to the central power. In short, the structure of state power and its strategy of rule determine the type of sovereignty and vice versa, yet their interaction takes place in a regional and global environment and is affected by that environment. While in theory state power is based on the state’s available internal resources, the power of sovereignty, its mobilizing capacity, changes throughout time and takes different forms.

To narrate the trajectory of the development of sovereignty and state in the early Qajar period, I start with the Persian–Russian wars of 1795–96, 1804–13, and 1826–28, and make some brief remarks about the Russian–Ottoman wars of 1806–12 and 1828–29. I analyze the meaning of territories lost and gained, discuss some of the major treaties, and sketch a rough portrait of their consequences in the development of the Qajar state. The Persian–Russian wars were essentially frontier wars over Caucasia and helped to define the extent of the Iranian and Russian states, their sovereignties, and the sovereignties of the Caucasian khanates. The same logic is applicable to the Persian–Ottoman war of 1821–23, and the Russian–Ottoman wars of 1806–12 and 1828–29.

The Qajar state (1796–1925) was formed after seventy years of anarchy, coinciding with a major offensive of Western powers globally and regionally. I am using the example of the Qajar state to develop ideas about the interaction of Euro-Asia with the larger world through war and state formation.


The Persian–Russian War of 1795–96  

The formation of the Safavid Empire, which planned to revive the historic Iranian Empire, occurred at roughly the same time as the Ottomans’ Ghazi state transformed into an empire during the rule of Mehmed the Conqueror and Muscovite territory expanded during the rule of Ivan III, who proclaimed himself czar and “Ruler of all Rus” in 1503. These developments set the tone for the next three hundred years.

The Mongol invasion had already made different parts of Euro-Asia more connected, leading to a pattern of cooperation and conflict, and a synthesis of different cultural and political traditions and similar modes of operation. A system was already in place, and its transformation can be traced. These developments in Euro-Asia, coinciding with the European Age of Discovery, were the beginning of the restructuring of the regional and global order. The evolving empires of Euro-Asia all started the processes of forming a standing army, centralizing bureaucracy, and expanding territory before they had significant interactions with European powers.

The Safavid Dynasty emerged when followers of a small Sunni–Sufi order that had turned Shi’a operating in a predominantly Sunni region of northwestern Iran formed a coalition with the fighting forces of Qizilbash, an alliance of the Turkoman Shi‘a tribes of Anatolia, and declared themselves the first Iranian state since the Sassanids. Like the Sassanids, the Safavids adopted an official religion. While the Safavids were not originally Shi‘a and by all accounts Shi‘ism was not the religion of the majority of Iranians, it seems that adopting Shi‘ism as the official religion was one of the most efficient ways that the Safavids could establish a distinct identity and resist possible onslaught by the Ottomans. The state grew, and by 1576, Tahmasp I had secured almost the same borders as in the Sassanid period. At the height of Safavid power, Shah Abbas I officially ruled the territory called mamalek mahruse Iran, the Guarded Kingdoms/Domains of Iran. He transformed the state’s military, administrative, and fiscal structures by dismantling the Qizilbash tribal army and introducing an army based on Georgian and Circassian slaves and converting large tracts of land traditionally granted to tribal chiefs into crown lands that he taxed directly. The new state gradually mixed the Persian, Arabic–Islamic, and Mongol traditions of statehood, fusing them with Byzantine and Ottoman traditions.

By the mid-fifteenth century, the Ottomans had already started forming a centralized state and a standing army and were transforming themselves into an empire following the conquest of the Byzantine Empire. By the end of his reign, Mehmed the Conqueror had transformed from warrior sultan to emperor and was controlling two lands (Europe, Asia) and two seas (Black, Mediterranean). His death in 1481 brought instability, but soon Selim the Grim subdued revolts in Anatolia, fought with Safavid rivals at Chaldiran in 1514, and finally ended the Mamluks’ rule in Egypt, Syria, and Hijaz. In Cairo, Selim firmly established himself as the conqueror of the Arab lands and champion of the Islamic cause. The sharif of Mecca gave him the keys to the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and bestowed on him the title of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Historians debate whether Selim or others after him assumed the title of caliph, though most agree that the first recent international recognition of the title appeared in the Treaty of Peace (Küçük Kaynarca) in 1774 following the Russian–Ottoman War of 1768–74, which recognized the sultan’s capacity as “Grand Caliph of Mahometanism, according to the precepts prescribed to them by their law.”[9]

After Ivan III became czar in 1503, he claimed that Russia was the successor state of the Roman Empire, a claim that was acknowledged if not invented by the Orthodox Church. Czar was in fact the Russian version of the title caesar. The formation of the Romanov Dynasty and Russia’s aggressive expansion further reinforced the idea that the czar also held some religious authority. Under Peter the Great, the state centralized, and bureaucracy and education were reformed. These transformations were sometimes hailed as the Europeanization and secularization of Russia, but they did not stop the trends of expansion, identification with the Orthodox Church, and Russification of the conquered territory. Peter the Great began calling himself the emperor in 1721.

In the midst of these three emerging powers lay Caucasia, which had diverse ethnic and religious groups dispersed over a vast territory with military and commercial strategic importance. Caucasia was the natural battlefield of these emerging powers, each claiming to defend a specific religious group and each administered by a number of small and medium-sized kingdoms, tribal chiefdoms, and khanates acting autonomously or as vassals of the bigger states. The Iranian and the Muscovite (later Russian) states were concerned with South Caucasia (the Russians call it Transcaucasia) and North Caucasia. Russia had already become Iran’s neighbor when it annexed the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan on the shores of the Caspian Sea during the reign of Ivan IV.

The strategy of state building in the region that began in the sixteenth century included a number of wars that led to the formation of buffer states and vassal states, and the annexation of khanates into larger states. Expanding and securing the frontiers was symbolic of the power of these states, each identifying with a religion. Armenia and Georgia, being overwhelmingly Christian, were important to Russia, and Iran’s disintegration after the fall of the Safavids made Russian advances more possible.

The Qajars, possibly a blend of Tatar and Turkish tribes, traced their own descent to the Tatar Tamerlane, and through him to the Mongols. A relatively small tribe that constituted part of the Qizilbash forces that fought to establish the Safavid Dynasty, the Qajars hoped to revive the Iranian Empire. The formation of mamalek mahruse was their aim. Perhaps nothing more than timing and the manner of the coronation of Agha Mohammad Khan, the founder of the dynasty, can explain his continuation of the policy of securing contested borders as his state-building strategy. He set out to establish the Guarded Kingdoms/Domains of Iran before controlling the whole of Iran and crowning himself king using the ceremonial sword of the Safavid shahs.

Agha Mohammad Khan fought for ten years to gain control of northern, northeastern, central, and southern Iran. In 1783, Erekle II of Georgia, a former tributary state of the Safavids (and long before that a vassal state of the Sassanids), had shifted Georgia’s allegiance to Russia and was formally under the protection of the Russian empire. Noting that Catherine the Great was more focused on her European neighbors than on Iran, Agha Mohammad Khan mobilized a huge army and sacked Tiflis in 1795, reportedly massacring 100,000 Georgians and taking at least 15,000 men and women as slaves. It was only after securing the frontier that Agha Mohammad Khan crowned himself monarch in 1796. He opted to take the eastern part of Iran, still in the hands of his rivals, and planned to reclaim Herat in Afghanistan. As Avery suggests, “Iranian history may in fact be seen as alternating between attempts by a single paramount power to suppress Iran’s fragmentation and once again realize the dream of Empire.”[10]

Catherine II sent forces to avenge the sack of Tiflis and to consolidate Russian power in Caucasia, compelling Agha Mohammad Khan to abandon the plan of retaking Herat. The death of Catherine II in 1796 and the later assassination of Agha Mohammad Khan postponed the wars for the time being, but a large disputed region remained: “The disputed borderland extended from Georgia and Yerevan east to the Caspian Sea and from the southern slopes of the Caucasus to the Aras (Araxes) and Kura rivers, although along the coast the zone exceeded these limits in both directions, from Derbent in the north to Talesh in the south.”[11]

Before the narration of these wars over Caucasia continues, the meaning of mamalek mahruse needs to be considered. Why was it used—and it was used frequently—and what does that imply? The term consists of mamalek, the Arabic plural of molk (domain, estate, city, province, or country) and the Arabic mahruse (guarded, protected). When used together, the words denote an aggregation of different domains or kingdoms, highlighting the importance of a central power protecting the entire territory. Protection by a political authority is certainly suggested. The term can have a religious connotation as well, as in protection against certain evil. While the word domain can indicate the territory within borders, it can also have a more flexible meaning related to the extent of a political authority’s power. The term domain is used in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian with the same pronunciation and meaning. The Qajars and the Ottomans used it as the official title of their empires until their demise. Is mamalek mahruse, in fact, an epithet for an empire and its domain?

It should be noted that there is no Persian, Arabic, or Turkish word for emperor, though sometimes Ottoman sultans used the term to express their power. The term emperor was not used by the Achaemenids (550–330 BC), who created the world’s first empire 2,500 years ago, or the Sassanids, who coincided with the Roman and, later, Byzantine Empires. In Persian, the term shahanshah or shah shahan (king of kings) was used to indicate the centrality and empowerment of one ruler over less powerful rulers. In Arabic, the term used was malake al-muluk, meaning “king of kings,” and in Turkish, padishah (with a similar meaning), which was originally Persian. The point is not semantic here; it is political. These terms had similar connotations as emperor but denoted a different type of rule.

An empire’s domain in Persian has not always been called mamalek mahruse. According to Abbas Amanat, “For at least two and half millennia Iranians called their land Iran.” Further, he continues: “At least since the third century CE there was a well-defined political concept, an imperial entity with a centralized authority, called Iranshahr (Kingdom of Iran) and located it [sic] in Iranzamin (the land of Iran).”[12] The term mamalek mahruse was rarely used in Iran before the Mongolian period, and its usage developed only gradually in the post-Mongolian period. Mamalek mahruse should be read as a particular form of statehood based on a coalition of a small but armed and powerful tribal minority within the existing ruling bodies, a fusion of Mongolian–Turkish military power and previous forms of statehood. Mamalek mahruse Iran was the gradual reincarnation of the Iranian spirit and Iranian history in the form of political rule.

Despite the importance of the term mamalek mahruse and its frequent use, particularly during the Qajar period (it was also the official name of the Ottoman Empire[13]), I have not found much literature on the term’s origins, use, or implications. The only comprehensive study I have found is a short article in Persian by Bagher Sadri-Nia from 1995.[14] According to Sadri-Nia, the term first appeared during the Ilkhanid (1256–1335) period and then again during the reign of Tamerlane (1370–1405). First used in reference to cities and provinces, it gradually came to mean the larger territory under Mongol control, including Persia and a majority of khanates. The fusion of the term with the name of Iran seems to have occurred during the reign of Shah Abbas I (1587–1629). The Qajars adopted it as the official name of Iran and used it until their demise.

The PersianRussian Wars of 1804–13 and 1826–28: Further Restructuring

The Persian–Russian wars of 1804–13 and 1826–28 were a continuation of the 1795–­96 war, yet they unfolded in a different regional and international environment. The eighteenth century ended with Napoleon invading Egypt and Syria, and the nineteenth century started with the British and the Ottomans together defeating France. Russia was expanding and at war with France and Sweden and officially at war with Britain, though actually not fighting. The Ottomans were in retreat, and the Qajars were busy setting up a tribal state. The Persian–Russian War of 1804–13 became a part of the Napoleonic Wars, as did the Russian–Ottoman War of 1806–12. Iran officially entered the wars on the side of France before growing closer to Britain. The restructuring of Euro-Asia was the order of the day, and the wars fought among Iran, Russia, and the Ottomans were part of a larger transformation.

In December 1800, Czar Paul I annexed Georgia to Russia as competitors of Fath Ali Shah were challenging the rule of the new king in Iran. In 1804, Czar Alexander I continued this policy of Russian expansion by capturing Ganja and advancing toward Armenia in South and East Caucasia, beginning the Persian–Russian War of 1804–13. Russia had several advantages in its war against Iran. They included a mechanized professional army, Georgian forces providing continuous reinforcements, and the ability to capitalize on Christian–Muslim enmity. The Iranian army, mostly a seasonal army organized along tribal lines and that recruited soldiers through the buniche system—taxing villages in men, horses, and food—were no match for a European army in a long-term war. Although the French and British had assisted in training the Iranian army, almost all the existing accounts suggest that it remained inadequate because of a lack of infrastructure and organizational skills. According to Muriel Atkin, “By 1812 ‘Abbas had a European-trained army of about 13,000 infantry, cavalry, and artillery (of which most were infantry).”[15]

By the end of the nine-year war, Fath Ali Shah and his crown prince, Abbas Mirza, recognized the czar’s sovereignty over the contested territories of Georgia, Mingrelia, Abkhazia, Ganja, Qarabaq, Qobba, Darband, Baku, Dagestan, and Sakki under Article 3 of the Treaty of Golestan. The treaty reflected the changing power equation. It was dictated by the Russians and, in fact, written in Russian. Sir Gore Ouseley, the British ambassador to Iran, was heavily involved in drafting the text, and it was negotiated by Mirza Abolhassan Khan Shirazi, an Anglophile Iranian politician and the shah’s representative for the peace talks, at a time when Britain was an ally of Russia against France. Article 4 of the treaty gave Russia permission to intervene in the succession to Iran’s throne as “help and support” to maintain security. This article, which was a blueprint for Russian intervention in Iran, was similar to what the Russians were demanding in other victories. The basis of the Treaty of Golestan was status quo ad presentem, meaning that each side essentially kept the territory then under its control. This satisfied neither side. The Iranians had lost territory, and the Russians wanted more. This was a recipe for further war.

The Persian–Russian War of 1826–28 also arose from internal court conflict in Iran, British intrigue, and the activities of the usuli ulama,[16] who, representing the proto-orthodoxy of Shi‘ism, were drawing attention to Russian atrocities toward the Muslims of Caucasia as a pretext for jihad. (Most likely, the British had a hand in the ulamas’ agitation.) Abbas Mirza started the war in September 1826 by advancing toward Ganja and Sosa. The Russians fought back, and after some early Iranian victories, marched all the way to Tabriz, capturing the city in October 1827. By January 1828, they had taken over Ardabil, the first Safavid capital. This unprecedented defeat forced the Iranians to sign the Treaty of Turkmenchay.

The new treaty replaced the Treaty of Golestan. Iran recognized the sovereignty of Russia over the Erivan and Nakhchivan khanates (East Armenia) and the remainder of the Talesh khanate (northern Iran). The treaty also set Iranian frontiers, determining the Aras River and part of the Caspian Sea to be the natural border and giving Russia full rights to navigate all of the Caspian Sea. In addition, the treaty further expanded Russian interference in Iranian succession disputes and recognized Abbas Mirza as the crown prince, guaranteeing the continuation of his line of succession. Russian merchants were given the right to trade freely throughout Iran, and imports of Russian and Iranian goods were subject to a single 5 percent tax. As a result, Russia became Iran’s main economic partner until 1935.

The Persian–Russian War of 1826–28 and the Russian–Ottoman War of 1828–29 that followed further strengthened the Russian position in the Balkans and Caucasia. These wars changed the nature of war making and state making, and gradually transformed the regional and international political order, intensifying the ongoing restructuring. The new political configuration that was evolving after the Conference of Vienna has been characterized as the restoration of the ancient regimes. However, it was more than that. It was a prelude to further Russian expansion in Asia and Europe and, more importantly, to the ascendency of British hegemony in the new evolving world system based on industrial capitalism. In political terms, the Eastern question became a part of the Great Game that paved the way for British hegemony. Aggressive British trade policies that immediately followed these wars, such as the Anglo-Ottoman Treaty of 1838, which abolished all Ottoman trade monopolies, perhaps were a sign of this global transformation.



The internationalization of these regional conflicts did not homogenize the political transformation of the Euro-Asian states, casting them in the European model. Rather, it further shaped the Euro-Asian states as a distinct state system. Centralization of state power as an aggregate of a fragmented power structure continued. Many of the khanates and territories that were absorbed by Russia or the Ottomans maintained some of their power, which later became a basis for a claim of statehood or actual statehood.

Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, Russia continued to expand, and the Ottomans maintained their power. Until the end of the Qajar period, Iran called itself mamalek mahruse Iran. It built up its standing army on the model of the Russian Cossacks, and in fact, Russia led and paid for Iran’s army for much of the Qajar period. Iran’s state reforms were based on the Russian reforms and Tanzimat reforms (1839–76) of the Ottomans. In all three societies, a central power ruled over its periphery by negotiating and making alliances with the existing fragmented authorities. As the bureaucracy and laws of Iran, Russia, and Turkey developed, they incorporated many common features. All three states had a religious dogma as the basis of their governance. Even as Iran, Turkey, and Russia moved in different ideological directions under different political leadership following the disintegration of their empires, a similarity in their state structures remains apparent. None reproduced what has been seen as the ideal form of the Westphalian state system.

[1]This paper was first presented at the workshop “Dissections: New Approaches in Middle East and North African Studies,” The Graduate Center, City University of New York, on February 20, 2015. The aim of publishing the present version is to start a fresh debate on state theory and state formation in Iran as a part of Euro-Asia.

[2]Sabri Ates, Ottoman-Iranian Borderlands (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Frontier Fictions: Shaping the Iranian Nation, 1804-1946 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Alfred J. Rieber, Struggle for the Eurasian Borderlands: From the Rise of Early Modern Empires to the End of the First World War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[3]Stephanie Cronin, ed., Iranian Studies: Iranian-Russian Encounters: Empires and Revolutions Since 1800 (Florence, KY: Routledge, 2012).

[4]Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–­1350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[5]Ariel Salzmann, Tocqueville in the Ottoman Empire: Rival Paths to the Modern State (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003); Behrooz Moazami, “The Making of the State, Religion and the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1796–1979)” (PhD diss., The New School for Social Research, 2004); Behrooz Moazami, State, Religion and Revolution in Iran, 1796 to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[6]Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony, 368.

[7]J. P. Nettl, “The State as a Conceptual Variable,” World Politics 20 (1968): 559–92.

[8]Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (1844), ed. Andy Blunden, Matthew Grant, and Matthew Carmody (2008–9),

[9]Treaty of Peace (Küçük Kaynarca) (1774), Article 3,

[10]P. W. Avery, “Dream of Empire,” in War and Peace in Qajar Persia: Implications Past and Present, ed. Roxane Farmanfarmaian (Florence, KY: Routledge, 2008), 13–16. Quote on p. 16.

[11]Muriel Atkin, Russia and Iran, 1780–1828 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980), 10.

[12]Abbas Amanat, “Iranian Identity Boundaries: A Historical Overview,” in Iran Facing Others: Identity Boundaries in a Historical Perspective, ed. Abbas Amanat and Farzin Vejdani (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 1–33. Quotation on p. 4.

[13]Selim Deringil, Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876–1909 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998).

[14]Bagher Sadri-Nia, “Pejoheshi dar bareh estelah mamaleke mahruse Iran” (“A Research on the Term of Protected Kingdom/Domain of Iran”), Iran Shenakht 1 (1995): 65–85,

[15]Atkin, Russia and Iran, 145.

[16]The religious scholars of the Usuli school of Shiʿite jurisprudence, developed in contrast to the Akhbari (traditionalist) school. They argue for the primacy of the ulama as interpreters of Islamic law and prophetic and Imami traditions.

The Chamber of Commerce and Internal Conflicts among Merchants of Bushehr in the Early 1950s


Soheila Torabi Farsani is an associate professor of history at Islamic Azad University, Najafabad Branch. Her research interests are the economic history at the time of the Constitutional Revolution, historical sociology, the social history of Iran, and women’s studies. Her publications include From Merchants Representatives Council to Iran Chamber of Commerce (Entesharat Majlis Shoraye Eslami, 2013) and Women in Transition from the Tradition to Modernity (Nashre Niloofar, 2018). Her Persian translation of a collection of essays by Ahmad Ashraf and Ali Banuazizi was published under the title Social Classes, State and Revolution in Iran (Nashre Niloofar, 2008).



Up until the Constitutional Revolution, the presence of foreign competitors, who were strengthened in the so-called “concessions era,” was more and more evident due to political and economic shifts that changed the traditional fabric of commerce in Iran: social upheavals and a lack of social security, on one hand; and a lack of positive action on the part of the state to protect the interests of Iranian merchants against the intrusion of foreign capital, on the other. In the immediate decades prior to the Constitutional Revolution, these factors resulted in a shift in the process of commercial activities conducted by merchants. Thus, on top of engagement in diversified economic activities, merchants also tried to attain an independent social identity.

At the time, state bodies such as the Ministry of Trade had become a financial resource for the minister of trade, rather than a resource that would see to merchants’ pleas.[1] The Ministry of Trade charged every merchant a sum of money for every plea.[2] Because the position of minister of trade was attained by giving a large sum of money to the shah and his courtiers, that position was more like a resource to make money than a position designed to help merchants.[3] The minister, too, assigned the affairs of merchants in the provinces to minor officials in return for a sum of money as a “gift.”[4] Ultimately, when extortions on the part of the minister of trade became intolerable, merchants protested and sent a plea to Naseroldin Shah himself, demanding establishment of an independent body named Majlis-i Vokkalay-i Tojjar (Merchants’ Representatives Council), which was proclaimed by a royal decree in 1883.[5] This council was the first-ever merchants’ independent body in the Qajar era, and it was active in upholding the merchants’ mutual interests, preventing state officials from interfering in merchants’ internal affairs, and seeing to their pleas.

The idea behind such a council—composed of merchants’ representatives who would make decisions on merchants’ behalf and issue verdicts accepted by them—was to set up an institution that would act for the mutual benefit of merchants. This differed from the prevalent traditional ways of pleading to state bodies or the person of Reisoltojjar (head of the merchants’ guild). The council’s constitution clearly stated that one task of the council was to see to merchants’ pleas and arbitrate in the cases of their claims.[6] At this time, merchants had gained such social maturity that they had managed to set up an independent institution to solve their problems—a civil institution that would in due time help them not only to form their collective identity and thus solve their own problems, but also to organize a collective course of action in the face of state officials who would try to encroach on merchants’ interests.

This course of action was also followed after the constitutional movement began. Merchants had high hopes of the new political order and expected that the arbitration of the trade court would be in their favor and provide them with financial security. Therefore, the merchants’ association, one among many associations which had sprung up after the Constitutional Revolution, maintained relations with Majlis (parliament) deputies.[7] The merchants’ association had branches in provinces and also at overseas centers of commerce, and was actively engaged in protecting merchants’ interests. At the first Majlis, merchants participated actively and pursued their interests there, and the law pertaining to trade associations was discussed. However, that was the one and only occasion on which merchants’ demands were addressed at the Majlis.[8]

Many factors combined to provide a basis for the merchants to strengthen their internal class structure: the increase in violence in Iranian society, the culmination of anarchy and insecurity immediately after the victory of the Constitutional Revolution, and the bombardment of the Majlis and destruction of constitutional institutions; a decrease of merchants’ political influence in the second Majlis; the occurrence of World War I; and a culmination of political, social, and economic crises, widespread insecurity and strengthening of divergent social forces, and the weakness of the central government and incompetence of the Majlis. After the end of World War I, on the 12 Rabiolavval AH 1338/1920, the constitution of ‘Heiat-i Ettahadiye-i Tojjar (Merchants’ Union) was ratified, and the union was formally founded under Chair Haj Mohammad Hossein Aminolzarb. On top of its commercial and industrial goals, the Merchants’ Union aimed to solve commercial issues arising between merchants, and this was enshrined in its constitution.[9]

The union had a solid organizational structure with contacts all over Iran, and had its own internal regulatory mandates. Its solid organization and importance were particularly evident in the commercial skirmishes with the Soviet government over its trade restrictions on Iranian merchants, skirmishes that became known as Nahazat-i Eqtesad (Economic Movement). The collection of letters and announcements of the Economic Movement in protest to the Soviet government showed a similar and collective position on the part of merchants within a civil institution called the merchants’ union, which was separate from ‘Heiat-i Ettahadiye-i Tojjar.[10]

In the Pahlavi era, too, merchants were totally aware of the necessity for having and upholding trade associations. But as the centralizing Pahlavi state pursued initiatives to bring every sphere of social activity under its control, the Ministry of Public Works was called upon to found the Tehran Chamber of Commerce, according to a law ratified by the cabinet. In May 1926, the Tehran Chamber of Commerce was officially founded on the basis of an internal merchants’ election, and thus, the ‘Heiat-i Ettahadiye-i Tojjar was transformed from a non-governmental organization into a pseudo–state body which acted as the functioning arm of the Ministry of Public Works, and in effect as liaison to establish relations between the ministry and merchants. For this same reason, the Tehran Chamber of Commerce was financed by the government, and this financial setup may have caused the delay in founding other chambers of commerce.[11] After a while, the government announced that it could not afford to finance the Tehran Chamber of Commerce, and merchants themselves had to come up with financial resources for that purpose.[12] From then on, the chamber of commerce increasingly functioned as an executive agent and tended to pursue regulations made by the ministry.[13]


Prelude to the Foundation of the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce

In 1929, there were attempts to found chambers of commerce in large and middle-sized cities and Iran’s major commercial centers. On 2 October 1930, the law pertaining to founding chambers of commerce was passed; up to this time, merchants in every city and commercial center were organized in their respective unions and were totally out of the reach of state executive bodies, seeing to their own affairs in an autonomous manner and according to guild solidarity norms. The first article of this law stated that in order to found a chamber of commerce in a major commercial center, merchants first had to send an application letter to the Ministry of National Economy. But seemingly, merchants already organized in their unions did not show any real inclination to that effect. Thus, nearly a month after the ratification of the law, the Ministry of National Economy, in an October 1930 letter to the Ministry of the Interior, asked for assistance: “With all due respect, please ask provincial governors in every city and commercial center to invite the more established merchants and to inform them of regulations pertaining to chambers of commerce law [. . .] and persuade the gentlemen [. . .] to apply for foundation of the chamber of commerce in their respective cities [. . .] and ask the governors to send on the application letters, as soon as possible, through the interior ministry, or directly to this ministry.”[14]

Even so, it seemed that merchants were reluctant to disband their civil organizations and gather in a state-controlled or pseudo-governmental institution. Two months after the passing of the law and one month after the dispatch of the letter to the Ministry of the Interior, the fact that merchants would still not send up application letters to found chambers of commerce left the Ministry of National Economy no choice but to send yet another letter in November 1930 to the Ministry of the Interior. This second letter, while mentioning the previous letter, stated: “As up to this moment there is no clear sign of what steps respected governors have taken [. . .] please ask them to expedite their actions as to the effect, and get the application letters prepared immediately and dispatch them to the central offices.”[15]

In spite of reluctance and disregard on the part of merchants, ultimately chambers of commerce were founded in every city and major commercial center. Bushehr, a major port city and an important commercial center, saw its chamber of commerce founded as early as 1929. In a document dated September 1933 and listing cities where chambers of commerce had already been founded, Bushehr is listed as item number ten of thirty-six cities.[16]


Bushehr Chamber of Commerce and Its Various Functions

After the capitulation and occupation of Iran by the allies during World War II, which resulted in Reza Shah Pahlavi abdicating the throne, there commenced a twelve-year period beginning in September 1941 and ending in August 1953. This period entailed a process of increasing weakness on the part of the central government, and a proportionate prevalence of relative liberties in the country.

The more governmental executive bodies lost their power and centralizing function, the more autonomous agency in political, social, and economic spheres increased on the part of various social classes and layers. One group among these who tried hard to engage in autonomous action was the merchants. One example of this is an attempt by Bushehr merchants to supply wheat for the daily consumption of the Bushehr populace through the chamber of commerce. Beginning in February 1931, all commodities exported from or imported into Iran were required to have due government permits according to the act passed by the Majlis which effectively nationalized foreign trade. Prior to the arrival of the allied forces in Iran, the country saw a bad harvest in 1940 due to drought. After the occupation of the country, the need to feed foreign troops, the fact that Soviet forces tended to export Iranian wheat to their country, and the continuation of the drought, feeding the Iranian populace and supplying its main staple food—that is, bread—became a grave problem.

Bushehr, like all other cities in Iran, faced a bread shortage. Through the chamber of commerce and in an autonomous course of action without state officials’ involvement, Bushehr merchants got into direct negotiations with the British consulate general in Bushehr, to import wheat from India, then a British colony, to provide the populace with bread. According to a letter from the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce to the British consulate general,

the volume of wheat supplied by the Finance Economy Office to the bakers is not enough at all; thus, according to negotiations in an extraordinary session of the chamber of commerce on the subject of feeding the populace [. . .] it has been decided that merchants with the help of the consulate general import wheat from India to the effect of 1,500 tons. Thus referring to negotiations with the consul and his endorsement, please provide the permit to Bushehr merchants to import the said wheat from Karachi.[17]

In the meantime, as war and occupation had caused a sharp increase in the prices of staples and the expenses of haulage, the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the Bushehr Office of the Finance Department stating that

as the populace finds it hard to provide themselves with staple bread due to a lack of wheat and are in great despair and face starvation, the chamber of commerce in an emergency session has decided to seek help from your office in order to make merchants able to import 1,500 tons of wheat [. . .] from India. To gain permission to that effect, there are already negotiations with the British consulate general in Bushehr underway and they too have agreed to the plan [. . .] please ask the Ministry of Finance to exempt the said wheat from customs tariffs.[18]

This shows that autonomous agency on the part of merchants allowed for the intervention of state bodies only where merchants asked for exemption from customs tariffs. Even so, state bodies, too, welcomed the move on the part of the chamber of commerce. The governor-general of Bushehr announced: “This move is totally according to my hearty blessings and hopefully the government will agree with the exemption of customs tariffs.” But he also signaled his unhappiness that merchants attempted to interact with the government on their own: “Now, for your information a copy of the decree number [. . .] issued by the Ministry of the Interior is enclosed [. . .] that from now on whatever demands and actions must be processed through the governor-general.”[19]

On the other hand, a year after the August 1953 coup, a totally different approach was taken by the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce when facing a commercial issue. After the coup, the state had once again maintained centralization in all spheres and had the final say in all matters. At this time, the new Shahpoor port was boosting with business, and as a result, older ports, including Bushehr, were facing a downturn in business. Thus, to boost business in Bushehr port, the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce decided to encourage shipping lines to more often frequent the port. But this time, contrary to the twelve-year period of 1941 to 1953, the chamber of commerce had to contact state bodies and refrain from any independent action.

Thus, the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce asked the governor-general to provide facilities for at least two ships to frequent Bushehr port on a monthly basis, to carry goods intended for exportation. In a letter to Bushehr’s governor-general, the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce stated:

Considering the enthusiasm on the part of merchants engaged in export trade to send their goods through Bushehr port, and as exportation from Bushehr is totally in their best interests, and to enhance trade and provide jobs in the Bushehr area, we thereby ask to have an order from the governor-general to oblige the [. . .] shipping lines to send at least two ships on a monthly basis to Bushehr in order to carry exporting goods. At this moment, a substantial amount of goods is already in depot in Bushehr and a substantial amount is also ready to be sent to Bushehr.[20]

Bushehr’s governor-general, in turn, informed the officials in the provincial government who, in a subsequent letter to the Ministry of the Interior, stated: “The copy of the letter sent by the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce is enclosed, whereby they have asked to have two ships to monthly frequent Bushehr port in order to carry exporting goods. Please inform us of your decision.”[21]

The Ministry of the Interior, in turn, referred the subject to yet another state body. A letter to the Ports and Shipping Department stated: “The copy of the letter by the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce concerning two ships frequenting Bushehr port in order to carry exporting goods has been received through the seventh province officials [. . .] Please inform the Ministry of the Interior of your decision.”[22]

The subject raised by the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce would have been resolved at once had it not been referred to multiple state bodies as a result of state centralization. This red tape was an excuse for state bodies to write and receive letters; and the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce, in the meantime, refrained from any autonomous action.


Internal Conflict in the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce

In the aftermath of the August 1953 coup and downfall of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, the new government attempted to, once again, establish its unrivalled authority, and to centralize all executive affairs in all spheres of social life. First in a series of actions to achieve this was to annul all laws passed during Mossadeq’s time in office. Furthermore, on 28 December 1954, a new law concerning the establishment of chambers of commerce was passed. Articles of this law were as follows:

  1. Chambers of commerce to be founded by the Ministry of National Economy,
  2. The right of the minister or his representative to preside over sessions of chambers of commerce and to participate in discussions and decision-making, and
  3. Establishment of an association on the orders of the Ministry of National Economy and monitored by the governor-general and representatives of the Ministry of National Economy and Bank Melli [the national bank] in every city in order to pick out members of chamber of commerce three months prior to expiration of previous members’ term of office.[23]

After a few years, the Bureau of Chambers of Commerce was ceded from the Ministry of National Economy and put under the auspices of the Ministry of Trade.[24] The bureau’s duties were as follows:

  1. Providing bookkeeping for chambers of commerce to control their earnings and expenditures,
  2. Keeping track of properties and office facilities of chambers of commerce,
  3. Controlling statements concerning earnings and expenditures,
  4. Announcing the time on which elections to chambers of commerce were held, and
  5. Controlling chambers of commerce to report on their agendas in their sessions.[25]

As the aforementioned demonstrates, laws ratified by the government after the coup increasingly made chambers of commerce act like offices subordinate to government ministries. At this very moment in the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce, a conflict occurred between some merchants, on one hand, and the presidium of the chamber, on the other. Contrary to what normally would have been the case—that is, to let the aged and well-established members issue a verdict on the matter (Kadkhoda maneshi)—the course of the conflict took the shape of writing letters to the Ministry of National Economy, thereby getting a government body involved in the matter.

The conflict, at least on the surface, centered on the question of the continuation of the presidium’s term of office. Even after their term of office expired, the presidium—in particular, its head, a person called Zareii—did not hold a new round of elections and continued to hold office. In a letter to the Ministry of National Economy, a merchant called Poostchi stated:

At the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce, the term of office of the presidium has come to the end of its lawful term of office a year ago, and normally, and like all other chambers of commerce, has to abstain from all its activities, and its internal affairs should be governed under the auspices of the representative of the Ministry of National Economy [. . .] or under the auspices of the Bushehr governor-general, or under the auspices of a committee including the governor-general, attorney general, and head of the Finance Department. But, in defiance of the law, the present presidium [. . .] governs the chamber [. . .] the disbanded presidium which is the legacy of the imposed third round of elections does not have the right to sign documents and letters of the chamber [. . .] what reason and what cause is there to have the affairs of the chamber in the hands of the disbanded presidium [. . .] to do, arbitrarily, whatever they wish.[26]

Poostchi mentioned two issues: first, the fact that the presidium’s term of office had already expired, and second, that this presidium was running affairs in a way to profit from it and causing loss for the other merchants. In another letter to the Ministry of National Economy, two more merchants who were also protesting the issue stated:

The Bushehr Chamber of Commerce term of office has ended one and half a years ago, and the unlawful election of the previous round has finished, the one that imposed a number of unrighteous people as the presidium, and even so, those particular people are still holding office [. . .] the head of the chamber, Zareii, who in fact is really the previous head, says that he has spent bribe money at the National Economy Department of the Seventh Province, and also at the Ministry of National Economy itself, and thus has influence and connections there who would not allow his dismissal, and even if it takes thousands of years to hold new elections, he would still occupy his position. And it really seems to be the case.[27]

These two merchants repeated Poostchi’s claims and also added that the present head of the chamber had gained office not through free consensus of the merchants themselves, but rather through personal influence in state bodies. If true, this shows the high extent of involvement on the part of state bodies in the affairs of the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce, which seemingly was a civil institution. Naturally, when the influence and involvement of state bodies in the affairs of chambers of commerce is so pervasive, civil institutions cannot be expected to take any autonomous course of action.

In a letter to the Bureau of Chambers of Commerce, another merchant called Jamali spoke of “conflict and differences” among Bushehr merchants, and stated that the cause of the issue is that “Zareii, after nearly two years have passed since expiration of his term of office, and thus with no legality, still regards himself the head of the chamber.” Jamali added that Zareii says “he would not care about what orders may be issued in Tehran or Shiraz; his connections in those two cities would not let his dismissal occur.”[28]

Yet another merchant, Faghih Beladi, wrote a letter repeating the previously mentioned claims and calling Zareii a “smuggler.” He continued: “Zareii, in order to influence the head of Bank Melli by his position in the chamber and to get loans and impose promissory notes issued by Gulf Textile factory, where he is the chief executive officer,” would not leave office. On top of that, Beladi claimed that Zareii, “in compliance with the governor-general, head of Bank Melli, and the mayor, has received 200,000 tomans as a loan for Gulf Textile factory and thereby has taken advantage of his position at the chamber.” This merchant, too, stated that Zareii had said that “he has connections in the Ministry of National Economy, and thus he will be the head of the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce for life, whether it be lawful or otherwise.”[29]

In response to the protests by Bushehr merchants, Abdolrahim Jafari, director of the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce, stated in a letter to the head of the Office of Internal Trade at the Ministry of National Economy:

As a result of conflicts among merchants that have divided them into a few opposing groups, the situation at the chamber is unclear [. . .] as feuds are culminating, the merchants are willing to get the chamber itself involved too [. . .] please specify that at this period of recess of the chamber, who is the rightful person to take care of affairs at the chamber [. . .] in Bushehr, we are witnessing a strange and pitiful situation [. . .] and merchants are constantly writing conflicting letters and petitions to the Bushehr office, and even to offices in Shiraz.[30]

The director, in his letter, tried to show that the conflicts were among the merchants themselves, without mentioning any reasons, to imply that the presidium of the chamber was not involved in the feuds. Jafari also asked for a formal order to be issued by the authorities at the Ministry of National Economy to install a “caretaker” for the chamber of commerce during “the period of recess,” which is in itself a sign of the extent to which chambers of commerce were obliged to follow and obey the ministry’s orders. Following that, the National Economy Office of the Seventh Province, too, in a letter to the Office of Internal Trade at the Ministry of National Economy, implied that the whole affair was nothing but a conspiracy:

Lately, there have been many petitions against Mr. Zareii, head of the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce, with different signatures, but almost the same handwriting; it was understood that these petitions have to be groundless and based on the malicious self-interest of one particular person. Thus, the petitions were sent to the Bushehr branch of the Office of Internal Trade, who were asked to investigate the affair and to identify the petitioners. At present, we have received a copy of a letter from the Bushehr police department which confirms the viewpoint of this office.[31]

This formal letter implied that the petitioners were unknown, but that every letter had been signed by one of the protesting merchants, and that the police department had succeeded in solving a grave crime by “identifying” the petitioners. Seemingly, the affair had now grown from a case of pseudo-legal obeying by the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce toward state bodies, to ultra-legal actions taken by the Bushehr police department.

At last, in March 1955 new elections were held at the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce. The head of the Bushehr branch of Bank Melli was “elected” as the head of the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce. Zareii, too, was “elected” as the first assistant to the head of the chamber,[32] which was obviously a formality and actually a way to let him continue to govern the chamber’s affairs.

The internal conflicts in the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce in the 1950s are a clear sign of the fact that the more state centralization increases, the less merchants find the opportunity or the will to take autonomous actions, the more group solidarity decreases, and the more merchants as a social grouping are swept aside to the margins of the arena where political and social agency is played out.



The endeavors of merchants as a social class in their conflicts with the state in Iran fluctuated between autonomous agency, on one hand, and dependence and apathy, on the other. The different courses of action adopted by Bushehr merchants are a clear sign that whenever the state’s centralizing efforts decreased, merchants embraced autonomous agency and demonstrated their class and group independence in many different ways. And whenever the state succeeded in the process of centralization, merchants and other social classes alike became dependent on executive bodies of the state and deprived of any possibility of autonomous agency. In the aftermath of the August 1953 coup, when the state, after a twelve-year interval, once again gained a high degree of centralization, at the Bushehr Chamber of Commerce a conflict occurred among merchants on the matter of holding new elections. This time, state centralization and the increasing dependence of chambers of commerce on state bodies made protesting merchants pursue their petitions not in an internal manner, as they were used to, but through correspondence with state bodies. This particular affair and its ultimate conclusion was a clear sign of an end to any autonomous course of action on the part of Bushehr merchants and the chamber of commerce.


[1]Abbas Mirza Molkara, Biography, ed. Abdolhossein Navaei (Tehran: Babak, 1958), 168.

[2]Abdolah Mostofi, My Autobiography or Social and Administrative History of Qajar Era, vol. II (Tehran: Zavvar, 1991), 139.

[3]Mohammad Hassan Khan Etemadolsaltaneh, Diaries, ed. Iraj Afshar (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1971), 308, 377.

[4]Molkara, Biography, 168–69.

[5]Mohammad Hasan Aminolzarb to Naseroldin Shah, AH 12 Shavval 1301/5 August 1884, Aminolzarb petitions to the shah files, private library of Dr. Hossein Mahdavi. The letter is mentioned in Ferydoon Adamiyat and Homa Nategh, Social and Political and Economic Ideas in Unpublished Texts from Qajar Era (Tehran: Aghah, 1977), 308–9.

[6]Adamiyat and Nategh, Social and Political and Economic Ideas, 335, 336–40.

[7]Habl al-Matin, Number 145, 19 Jumadi II AH 1325/30 July 1907, 3.

[8]Muzakirat-i Majlis, Dawrah 1, 5 Rabiolavval AH 1326/7 April 1908, 9 Rabiolavval AH 1326/11 April 1908, 16 Rabiolavval AH 1326/18 April 1908, 4 Rabialsani AH 1326/6 May 1908 (Tehran: Majlis Publications, 1946), particularly on 499, 505, 512, 537.

[9]“Constitution of Tehran Merchants’ Union,” 12 Rabiolavval AH 1338/14 April 1908, pp. 1–2, Merchants’ Union documents, private library of Dr. Hossein Mahdavi.

[10]For more information about the Economic Movement, see Soheila Torabi Farsani, “Iran–Soviet Trade Relations and the Organization of Economic Movement in Early Years of Pahlavi Era,” Isfahan University Literature and Humanities Faculty Magazine, no. 30–31 (2002): 143–72.

[11]“Mutafariqat,” Habl al-Matin, Sal 35, Number 14–15 (24 Ramadan AH 1345/29 March 1927), 30–32, particularly 30.

[12]Ministry of Finance to Ministry of Public Works, 30 Azar AH 1305/22 December 1926, Ministry of Finance, [240]/288/42(42), National Library and Archives of Iran, Tehran; Majlis to Chamber of Commerce, n.d., gh-115515, Bonyad Mostazafan Archives, Tehran.

[13]Premier office’s to Ministry of Public Works and Ministry of Trade, 4 Bahman AH 1307/24 January 1929, 9/104001, National Library and Archives of Iran; Premier’s office to Ministry of Trade and Ministry of Public Works, 8 Mehr AH 1308/17 September 1929, [240]/9/104001, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[14]Ministry of National Economy to Ministry of the Interior, 6 Aban AH 1309/28 October 1930, 8720/5468, National Library and Archives of Iran. All translations are mine.

[15]Ministry of National Economy to Ministry of the Interior, 8 Azar AH 1309/29 November 1930, 9890/11033, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[16]Ministry of Finance, “List of Cities Where There Are Chambers of Commerce,” 9 Shahrivar AH 1312/18 August 1933, 4618, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[17]Bushehr Chamber of Commerce to British consulate general at Bushehr, 16 Farvardin AH 1321/5 April 1942, 345, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[18]Bushehr Chamber of Commerce to Bushehr Office of the Finance Department, 16 Farvardin AH 1321/5 April 1942, 35, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[19]Governor-general of Bushehr to Bushehr Chamber of Commerce, 18 Farvardin AH 1321/7 April 1942, 441, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[20]Bushehr Chamber of Commerce to governor-general of Bushehr, 17 Azar AH 1335/8 December 1956, 516, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[21]Provincial government of the seventh province to Ministry of the Interior, 10 Bahman AH 1335/30 January 1957, 22270, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[22]Ministry of the Interior to the Ports and Shipping Department, 29 Bahman AH 1335/5 February 1957, 10371/89189, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[23]Ministry of Trade, law pertaining to founding of chambers of commerce passed on 7 Dey AH 1333/28 December 1954, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[24]Ministry of Trade, legal bill pertaining to founding of chambers of commerce, 16 Shahrivar AH 1338/8 September 1959, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[25]Ministry of National Economy, 23 Esfand AH 1333/14 March 1955, 39897, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[26]Abdolah Poostchi to Ministry of National Economy, 18 Aban AH 1333/9 November 1954, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[27]Seyed Mostafa Asghari and Foroozan Najafi to Ministry of National Economy, 20 Aban AH 1333/11 November 1954, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[28]Haj Abbas Jamali to Bureau of Chambers of Commerce, Ministry of National Economy, 9 Aban AH 1333/31 October 1954, 20580, Prime minister’s office documents, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[29]Faghih Beladi to Ministry of National Economy, 20 Azar AH 1333/11 December 1954, Prime minister’s office documents, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[30]Bushehr Chamber of Commerce to Office of Internal Trade at the Ministry of National Economy, 23 Azar AH 1333/14 December 1954, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[31]National Economy Office of the Seventh Province to Office of Internal Trade at the Ministry of National Economy, 27 Dey AH 1333/17 January 1955, 2803, Prime minister’s office documents, National Library and Archives of Iran.

[32]Bushehr Chamber of Commerce, 23 Farvardin AH 1334/13 April 1955, Prime minister’s office documents, National Library and Archives of Iran.

Translating Race: Simin Daneshvar’s Negotiation of Blackness


Amy Motlagh is the Bita Daryabari Presidential Chair in Persian Language and Literature, and an associate professor of comparative literature and Middle East/South Asia studies, at UC Davis. She is the author of Burying the Beloved: Gender, Fiction and Reform in Modern Iran (Stanford University Press, 2012) and articles on topics including Iranian cinema, literature, and gender and race in the Iranian diaspora. She is currently at work on a manuscript called “Translating Race: A Cultural History of Racial Thinking in Modern Iran and the Diaspora.”

Born in 1921 in Shiraz, eight years before the formal abolition of slavery by Reza Shah in 1929, writer, intellectual, and translator Simin Daneshvar later acknowledged that many of her stories came out of her childhood. An important “clearing center” for the Persian Gulf slave trade, the Shiraz of Daneshvar’s childhood is most extensively memorialized in her first major novel, Savushun (1969), which is set in World War II–era Shiraz.[2] Daneshvar attended a British missionary school in Shiraz that enabled her to learn English at a very high level of competency at a time when it was not common, even for affluent Iranians, to do so. She published her first collection of short stories, Atash-e khamush (Extinguished Fire) in 1948, but later insisted that it not be reissued; she was embarrassed by this early effort. She started work as a translator and writer of occasional pieces for newspapers and radio to earn money while she was a university student, and she would continue to be a prolific translator for the duration of her life: her translations include not only literary works such as The Scarlet Letter; Cry, the Beloved Country; and The Human Comedy, but also bestselling self-help works like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. She remained interested in the implications of translation as a profession and a practice in Iran throughout her life, but perhaps her most complicated negotiation with translation was her engagement with ideas of race between an American context and an Iranian one.

Daneshvar’s first self-conscious intellectual encounters with the concept of “race” seem to have occurred during the Fulbright year she spent at Stanford University in the United States in 1952–53. Daneshvar always acknowledged the important impact the Fulbright year had on her writing, and she indeed credited one of her teachers at Stanford, Wallace Stegner (1909–93), with changing the way she wrote entirely.[3] We can see the legacy of this fellowship period and Stegner’s influence in her fiction, not just in the explicit ways she attributed to Stegner, but also in her deployment of Blackness and whiteness in the first story collection she published after her Fulbright, A City like Paradise  (Shahri chawn behesht, 1961).[4]

In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison suggests the ways in which Blackness functions as a foil for white masculinity in American fiction of the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.[5] For Daneshvar, the practice of racial thinking and interpretation of race in her writing may have been mediated not only through Stegner’s mentorship but also through her work as a translator. One of the first books she translated after her Fulbright year was William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy (Komedi-ye ensani, 1954).[6] Although she did not translate any of Stegner’s work, she was clearly influenced by his worldview and style, and continued to seek his patronage long after her Fulbright year ended.[7] Aside from her adoption of the by-now hackneyed phrase associated with the American “program year,” “show, don’t tell,” Daneshvar continued to correspond with Stegner for many years beyond the Fulbright and clearly regarded him as an important mentor.[8] Stegner’s most famous novel of the West (Angle of Repose, 1971) was yet to come, but he was already acknowledged by this time for a multitude of writings on the American West, including Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943). Among these were One Nation (1948), which generated an associated film focused on the “American Negro” section of that book and called by the same name. Shortly after Daneshvar’s Fulbright period, Stegner also contracted to work as a propagandist for what was then the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO).[9]

Daneshvar would also go on to translate other American works, with Stegner’s encouragement, including The Scarlet Letter (Dagh-e nang, 1955). For Daneshvar, American literature’s predilection for the “power of blackness” that Morrison critiques in Playing in the Dark may have come to her in part through education during the Fulbright year, and in part through translation. Stegner and Saroyan were both important architects in the development of a masculine mythology of the New West, and Stegner’s work has been both celebrated and critiqued for its depiction of the American West and of white masculinity.[10]

Daneshvar’s observations in her letters to her husband, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, complicate some of the accepted views about this remarkable writer, and shed a different light on her political affiliations and impressions of coeval political movements.[11] Her engagement with race is of particular interest, not just because of contemporary debates and attention to race globally as a consequence of police brutality in the United States, but also because it has been so much overlooked in her work. The way that she saw (or didn’t see) race is notable—not because, as many Iranian scholars and scholars of Iran erroneously suggest, Iranians are effectively color blind, but because Daneshvar’s understanding of and engagement with race reflects an attempt to grapple with a different racial paradigm in the United States. There, she witnessed some of the aspects of life that gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement, and later witnessed some of the major protests involved with that movement. Also, Daneshvar herself dealt in her own writing with race in ways that are at times profoundly troubling.

Unfortunately, scholars of Iran to date have also not been able to fully face the complicated ways in which Iranian intellectuals have negotiated race and the legacy of slavery in Iran, either in terms of its connections to race or in terms of the way that they viewed racial thinking and slavery in other contexts, especially in the United States. In her dissertation, Seeing Race (2018), Beeta Baghoolizadeh suggests that the move to preemptively distance and separate Iran’s history of slavery from any association with other histories of slavery was in effect an attempt to whitewash Iran’s past.[12] As Baghoolizadeh shows, this was a self-conscious national effort during the Pahlavi period, but one which continues into the present, and with which Iranian scholars have to some extent collaborated.

This discomfort with the legacy of slavery in Iran’s past is evident in Behnaz Mirzai’s A History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran 1800-1929 (2017).[13] The result of extensive archival research by Mirzai, this monograph nonetheless teleologically reads the story of slavery and its abolition as the inevitable triumph of the secular nation–state in Iran. Consequently, Mirzai spends little time considering the painful and enduring effects or consequences of the enslavement of Africans on their descendants. Moreover, Mirzai declines to engage the issue of racism, selectively citing the work of other scholars to insist on a distinction between the American history and experience of slavery and the history of slavery in the Islamic world.[14] Regrettably, this denial is a trope of the genre of Iranian writing on the history of slavery.

In a similar vein to Mirzai’s approach, Haleh Afshar’s uncomfortable essay “Age, Gender and Slavery in and out of the Persian Harem: A Different Story” (2000) remembers the “freed slave” who lived in the Afshar home, a woman who had originally been bought for the harem of Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar.[15] When she was “freed” (i.e., the harem could no longer support so many slaves), this woman, called only Sonbol Baji (Sister Hyacinth), became Afshar’s nanny.[16] Afshar uses what she says is a framework drawn from Audre Lorde’s notion of “bio-mythography,” and describes the impulse for this article as the desire to give voice to someone who never acquired the necessary literacy to write her own story. Yet Afshar struggles to reconcile this personal history of her family’s slaveholding with the liberal racial politics required of her in her adopted country (the United Kingdom). Instead, she relies on odd assertions that suggest Sonbol Baji found her time as a slave “empowering,”[17] and that “for Sonbol Baji her colour had been one of her major attractions. The king had wished for a beautiful ‘black’ girl in his entourage and had acquired Sonbol when she was a small child.”[18] Throughout the essay, Afshar deploys the words slave and black in quotation marks, and indicates that she finds these terms insufficient and possibly foreign to the context of Iran, even though the word commonly used in Persian to describe Afro-Iranians is siah (Black).[19]

An unintended visual critique of the history that Afshar offers comes in Pedram Khosronejad’s collection of Qajar photographs, Qajar African Nannies (2017), in which a photograph of Afshar and her brother Kamran with Sonbol Baji is published.[20] Although we cannot extrapolate too much from a single photograph, I believe we can see the photograph as a critique of Afshar’s characterization. The photo shows an Afro-Iranian woman holding a large Iranian boy, perhaps two years old; a plump little Iranian girl wearing a European dress and bow in her hair is posed in front of the woman, and a (white) doll is posed at the girl’s feet. The woman’s face is shadowed, but it is weary and expresses sadness, possibly even fear. As Khosronejad observes in his introduction to the volume, “The faces of all the Africans in the photographs of this collection confirm their deep sadness and the horror that encapsulated their entire lives.”[21]

The introduction aside, this volume does not attempt to interpret the photographs deeply. Khosronejad has indeed largely eschewed critical engagement with these photographs, saying that he sees his role largely as an archivist gathering material for others to interpret.[22] His discomfort with some aspects of this process is evident, and he has commented on the fact that these photographs of enslaved persons were taken without the consent of the subjects, but would theoretically belong to the descendants of the subjects, who, in his view, are impossible to locate owing to the destruction of documents related to their ancestors’ enslavement. Instead, the photographs have become the subject of dispute between different “owners”—the Qajar families, who claim them by right of inheritance, and the Iranian government, which confiscated them during the revolution.[23]

Other evidence also points to a discomfort with a critical scrutiny of the legacy of slavery, particularly enslavement of Africans, in Iran. Even a book ostensibly dedicated to the study of race, Reza Zia-Ebrahimi’s 2017 The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation,[24] which focuses on the development of an Aryanist-inflected Iranian nationalism, elides the way in which Aryanism was not simply staged at the expense of other “white” minorities in Iran, but also and in ironic ways, at the cost of effacing the history of slavery and its aftermath.[25] Anthony A. Lee, in a preface to his work recovering the history of the enslaved individual Fezzeh Khanom in nineteenth-century Shiraz, notes the results of the 1868 census, which showed that in Tehran, the population of Afro-Iranians was then 12%, a fact that has been ignored or glossed over in the historiography of the period.[26] In his portrait of Fezzeh Khanom, Lee draws on Bahai historiography, which constitutes one of the few sources to record even obliquely the lives of these slaves, but notes, “while it is commendable that the presence of these African slaves is acknowledged, their significance to history is ignored.”[27]

On the evidence presented by Daneshvar herself, her family likely enslaved people. Daneshvar never (to my knowledge) discussed this fact directly or put it in any explicit comparative framework with the legacy of slavery she saw in the United States. Yet she acknowledged that a character from the story “A City like Paradise” (“Shahri chawn behesht,” from the collection by the same name), Mehrangiz, was based on her own dadeh siah (Black nanny), an Afro-Iranian slave-cum-servant, who lived with her own family.[28] Elsewhere, I have argued that this figure of the freed-slave-cum-female-domestic functions in Daneshvar’s work, and in the imaginary of Iranian modernity, as a sign of a disjuncture, an irreconcilability.[29] In particular, I have focused on the way in which even as women’s rights and status came to the fore of public attention as important aspects of Iran’s modernization, neither reformist Iranians, including feminists like Daneshvar, nor the law itself could acknowledge female domestic servants (including former enslaved persons like Mehrangiz or Sonbol Baji) as women. Mehrangiz is perhaps the closest Daneshvar comes to showing real sympathy for a female domestic, and this attitude is clearly derived from Mehrangiz’s helpless abjection in the household.

Even for feminists, the personhood of servants existed outside the law, and the status of manumitted slaves who had become, perforce, domestic servants was particularly precarious. Yet in spite (or perhaps because) of this denial of their personhood, the figure of the servant persists in important ways in modern Iranian fiction. In my book, I argue that this trace in the literature is as important as any legal document. In literary texts as well as in political discourse, female domestic workers would increasingly become the Other to the imagination of a central, dominant Iranian womanhood, which defined itself not only in contrast to the traditional wife, but also to the household servants.

Many of Daneshvar’s short stories and novels prominently feature domestic servants, especially women, and Daneshvar often thematizes their position in the household in her stories. Only the eponymous story in A City like Paradise, however, thematizes the status of a former female Afro-Iranian slave. As alluded to above, this story follows the life and finally the death of Mehrangiz, who is now serving as a nanny, maid-of-all-work, and de facto concubine in the middle-class home of her former master’s daughter, to whom she was given as a wedding gift.[30] With the onset of modernity and Reza Shah’s reforms, which included land reforms and the Manumission Law of 1929, elite slaveholders saw a rearrangement of their fortunes. Here, we see that dramatized in the case of this married daughter, who cannot afford another person in her household, resents Mehrangiz’s sanctioned intimacy with her children (and unsanctioned intimacy with her husband), and treats her as subhuman and with immense cruelty. Although the story clearly evinces sympathy for Mehrangiz, the character portrayed as the true victim is Ali, the son of Mehrangiz’s mistress, who loves Mehrangiz more than he does his mother, and whose inability to achieve the signposts of manhood (e.g., employment, marriage) is obviously signaled as the true tragedy of the story, even though it concludes with Mehrangiz’s abject death.

If Daneshvar and other leftist and feminist intellectuals had difficulty seeing domestic servants as having souls—in other words, as “real” people[31]—we might also say that she had difficulty seeing the problems with the deployment of Blackness as abasement.[32] In the two additional stories in A City Like Paradise that also foreground race, “The Iranians’ New Year” (“‘Ayd-e iraniha”) and “The Playhouse” (“Suratkhaneh”), Daneshvar deploys the use of blackface in two Iranian cultural traditions to comment on the situation of the (non-Black) Iranian. “The Iranians’ New Year” tells the story of an American expatriate family living in Iran and their two young sons’ naïve fascination with a young man whose occupation is playing the Hajji Firuz character associated with the Persian New Year, Nowruz, while “The Playhouse” revolves around an actor playing the siah in a traditional theater.

In “The Iranians’ New Year,” the mediating sensibility is that of two American expatriate children in Iran in the 1950s, when Americans were beginning to be present in Iran in larger numbers, but the site of sympathy is the Iranian young man they patronize. The two children, Ted and John Michaelson, are fascinated by the blackface Hajji Firuz character, which is an important ritual aspect of the Nowruz holiday, and they become by extension fascinated by the young man living on the margins of their neighborhood who plays this character professionally. The boys adopt a charitable attitude toward the young man and his father, who is a shoeshiner, and build, unbidden, a kiosk shack for the men, decorating it with American symbols, such as the American flag and Mickey Mouse. When one day they find the shack abandoned and open to the rain and wind, which has destroyed their decorations, the younger boy first imagines that “red Indians” have attacked the place; then, when his brother pooh-poohs this idea, insists that it must have been “black men with masks” and that they must be “lynched.”[33] The story is very obviously a critique of American expatriates in Iran in the 1950s, when they had begun to look like representatives of a colonial presence, especially after the 1953 coup engineered by the CIA and MI6. The evocation of Blackness here comes in the form of the Hajji Firuz character, as well as in the comments made by the two boys in their mistaken understanding of what has happened in the kiosk. The young man’s father has died, and the boys do not understand the reasons for the poverty in which the young man and his father lived, or that their “help” does not in fact save a man who has spent his life shining shoes by the side of the road.

As in “A City like Paradise,” here it is not the plight of any Black person that is dramatized (or a critique of the strangeness of the Hajji Firuz blackface tradition), but rather, the abased condition of non-Black male Iranians. The boys are foolish (if naïve) white Americans, but in the story, they take on sinister qualities nonetheless: their innocence, which is protected by their whiteness and their privilege as Americans, enables them to feel self-satisfied at the pathetic help they offer impoverished members of a society whose language they don’t speak and whose customs they don’t understand. Yet Daneshvar does not attempt to unpack the Hajji Firuz tradition at all. Here, as in “The Playhouse,” she deploys blackface but does not interrogate it as a problematic or dehumanizing practice. Hajji Firuz, like Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, is a historically mysterious and contested aspect of the Nowruz celebration. Explaining the origins of this figure has become part of an apologia related to contemporary Iranian negotiations of race.[34]

“The Playhouse” follows a few days in the life of Mehdi Siah (whose name essentially translates to “Mehdi the Black”), a blackface performer in the “low” dramatic tradition that was still popular at the time of the story’s creation. In this tradition, as the story confirms, the siah is the central character in the drama—the mediating character with whom audiences are invited to identify.[35] Mehdi Siah gets caught up in the tragedy of one of the other players, a young woman who has become pregnant out of wedlock and plans to ensnare the rich amateur who has recently joined the troop, wanting to “study” Mehdi Siah. Here, Mehdi Siah reluctantly chooses class solidarity by allowing the subterfuge and entrapment of the young man to progress without intervening. Here, too, as in “The Iranians’ New Year,” the reader’s sympathy is directed toward a disenfranchised Iranian male, whose condition of abasement is made manifest in both stories by wearing blackface.

Taken together, these stories suggest a significant change in Daneshvar’s sensibilities regarding race. Her previous writings show no such attention to race at all, suggesting that her time in the United States during the Fulbright fellowship radically changed her perspective on race (as well as on class). For this reason, I am suggesting the paradigm of translation to discuss Daneshvar’s negotiation of race. While translation has become so capacious a concept in contemporary scholarship that it risks the loss of any meaning at all, I believe it can be a useful metaphor here for thinking about the negotiation of “race” because it is so clearly a concept or idea that does not fully translate between languages.

Although Iranians began to go to the United States and Europe for education in large numbers in the 1960s and 1970s, Daneshvar was not part of that wave, by virtue of her age.[36]  However, she was one of the first, if not the only, Iranians to record experiences of racial encounters during the height of the civil rights movement, and the language she uses is tentative and does not conform to any preconceived or prescribed vocabulary for discussing race.[37] Her letters suggest her fascination with race as an operative concept in the United States that structures relations between Black and white Americans. She struggles to see how she herself is understood within this paradigm, and refers to herself as “just a shade lighter” than the African Americans she meets. Against this uncertainty about where she falls in the American color continuum, we must also acknowledge the fact that Daneshvar and Al-e Ahmad, whose family was from northern Iran, clearly had a running private joke regarding her color. He sometimes refers to her in their letters as his “black girl from Shiraz” (dokhtar-e siah-e Shiraz) or “my black one” (siah sukhteh-ye man), and she frequently signs herself in the same way, or as “your black Simin” (Simin-e siah-e to).[38] On the other hand, Daneshvar is at times patronizing toward the Black Americans she meets: she seems confused and, at times, horrified or bemused at some of the situations racism in the United States engenders. She tells Al-e Ahmad the story of Dorothy, a young Black woman who lives in Daneshvar’s dormitory at Stanford and figures in the letters as someone who is remarkable for her beauty.[39] She answers a phone call intended for another girl, and when that girl is not available, the caller asks if he can take Dorothy out for a date. She accepts and waits for the caller in the dormitory’s lobby. When he arrives and discovers that she is Black, he berates her and says he won’t take her out. A female custodian for the dormitory, who is also Black and unnamed but frequently referred to, yells at the man and threatens him. Daneshvar ends the story by relating how she and another (white) friend intervene by coming home from the cinema and telling the custodian to stop, or she might be fired. Daneshvar sees herself as having helpfully intervened.[40]

Neda Maghbouleh’s important work on Iranian American racialization and racial thinking suggests some critical framework for Daneshvar’s difficulty placing herself on the color spectrum, and her ambivalent (dis)identification with Black Americans: “The specter of Iran was a racial hinge between white Europe and non-white Asia: a face, a body, a culture, and a concept that could open or close the door to whiteness as needed.”[41] Daneshvar’s descriptions of her interactions with Americans, as in the account above, show that her “blackness” is something she elects to participate in, but can step back from when she wants to do so, and take the position of whiteness.

Two comparatist Americanist scholars, Ebony Coletu and Ira Dworkin, have investigated some of the important but often overlooked moments of identification between contemporary Egyptian intellectuals, who selectively courted and rejected the idea of Egypt’s status as an African nation, and Black activism in the United States. In the article “A Complicated Embrace,” Coletu examines the reception and translation of Alex Haley’s novel Roots in the Arab world in the 1970s and 1980s, where it was enormously popular.[42] The plight of protagonist Kunta Kinte became a metaphor for the condition of Egyptians, especially Egyptians working in the Gulf, at the same time that Egypt was practicing racist policies directed at Sudanese refugees and Nubian Egyptians.[43] Coletu compares this use of Roots to Eve Troutt Powell’s powerful investigation of racial politics in Egypt during the period of the Sudanese condominium (1899–1956). Coletu comments that while the use of blackface in Egypt at that time was a way to “visualize stubborn resistance to the ‘civilizing mission’ of the British colonial project while reifying support for Egyptian cultural transformation under European influence [. . .] [t]he rhetorical plasticity of Kunta Kinte as a resistant figure and a slave marked by blackness resonates with this local history even as it conveys a distinct story about Atlantic slavery and diasporic survival in the United States.”[44] Coletu goes on to note that the use of Roots by Egyptian intellectuals such as Sonallah Ibrahim tended to exploit the metaphor of slavery elsewhere to explain the plight of intellectuals such as himself, rather than to shed light on contemporary practices of racism. She also points out that “legacies of slavery are also reworked over time and in Egypt, reference to slavery as debasement has been visually coded to blackness in the last century,”[45] a point echoed by Baghoolizadeh’s examination of racial artifacts and discourse in Iran in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Dworkin is concerned with the personal history and writings of Radwa Ashour (1946–2014).[46] Ashour, an Egyptian intellectual and writer married to prominent Palestinian poet, writer, and activist Mourid Barghouti, had long been interested in Black political movements before she began work on a doctoral degree in 1973 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dworkin argues that it was her long association with Shirley Graham Du Bois, who lived in Cairo for many years, that led her to choose UM Amherst’s Department of English, where she specialized in African American literature and was closely associated with the Department of Afro-American Studies. Ashour’s dissertation discussed in depth the First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in September 1956, and specifically, the “applicability” of the “colonial thesis,” as put forward by writers like Aimé Césaire, to the situation in the United States. Dworkin uses Ashour’s 1983 autobiography and the later quasi-historical novel Siraaj: An Arab Tale (1992), which relates the tale of a slave rebellion on a fictional east African island, to argue that Ashour’s engagement of African American cultural politics influenced her fictional and autobiographical writing in Arabic in ways that had broader (but largely unexamined) consequences for the modern Arabic novel. Her profound interest in African American politics notwithstanding, Dworkin notes that Ashour was unable to endorse the critique made by her mentor and friend Du Bois of racism in contemporary Egypt. Dworkin also argues that—similar to Coletu’s findings regarding Roots in Egypt—“the particular appeal of African American culture [for Ashour] lies more in its broad-based engagement with colonial histories of oppression than with the particular contours of racism within the modern state.”[47]

Something similar is at work in Daneshvar’s engagement with the politics of race in the United States, and her attempt to translate what she sees for Al-e Ahmad. Daneshvar was not interested in opening a referendum on race in Iran, but she clearly did see the condition of Black intellectuals in the United States as having some parallel to the situation of intellectuals and artists in Pahlavi Iran, where any critique of the shah was censored and the author blacklisted or flagged for surveillance. However, insofar as Daneshvar did see the condition of Black Americans as a metaphor for some Iranian experiences, clearly Blackness for her meant degradation or abjection. While her writerly sympathies remained with the politically downtrodden, they did not always embrace those who were class or racially suppressed. Her representations of non-Persians (and specifically, Indians and Azeri Turks) in Savushun can be charitably described as “Othering,” and her treatment of lower-class woman, especially, was often contemptuous and deployed for satire.

In the summer of 1963, Daneshvar returned to the United States for a second extended stay, to participate in the Harvard International Seminar, and she would again record her impressions in letters to Al-e Ahmad. (The collection A City like Paradise had been published two years earlier, and while on her trip, she writes irritably to Al-e Ahmad of an unfavorable review of the book by a young man she doesn’t know.)[48] Notably, she writes on several occasions, and at length, about the civil rights movement in the United States, which was foregrounded in the seminar. The filmmaker Richard Leacock screened and discussed his documentary The Chair (1962), which follows the attempt to commute the death sentence for Paul Crump, who was convicted for his participation in the killing of a security guard during an armed robbery in Chicago. The participants were taken to a Boston “slum” (Daneshvar’s word) to see conditions of life there, and were offered social experiences in self-consciously integrated settings.[49] Daneshvar also records Ralph Ellison’s visit and presentation to the seminar, which was clearly an important part of her experience that summer.

Ellison, author of Invisible Man, made a profound impression on Daneshvar, and she speaks of his work with great respect and interest, recording quotations from his speech to the seminar, and observes that he is someone who has used literature to overcome the enormous obstacle of race, which “might otherwise have defined him.”[50] She describes to Al-e Ahmad how she has begun reading Ellison’s novel and is so impressed by it that she has ordered it for Al-e Ahmad in French (he could not read fluently in English).[51] She also discusses how Ellison, in spite of being made financially comfortable by the success of Invisible Man, continues to teach. She clearly sees him as a kind of comrade, viewing him as a model for herself and for Al-e Ahmad; later in the letters, having finished Invisible Man in its entirety, she indeed compares Ellison’s style to Al-e Ahmad’s.[52] In Ellison, the avowed engagé writer, Daneshvar recognizes a commonality.[53] She tries to explain how the struggle to deal with racism and the legacy of slavery in the United States is mirrored in their own struggle for greater freedoms in Iran, but falters.[54]

Daneshvar also comments on James Baldwin, whose work she had already come into contact with during her Fulbright year. On this later occasion, Jack Ludwig, whom she calls “our professor” at the Harvard Seminar, has given her a copy of The Atlantic. While Daneshvar doesn’t really care for Ludwig’s story, she admires a story by Baldwin in the issue (she doesn’t name it, but from her description and the date, it must be “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” 1960), calling it a “masterpiece” (shahkar).[55] Later, however, she compares him unfavorably to Ellison.[56] Again, both Daneshvar and Al-e Ahmad seem to admire what they see as Ellison’s desire to transcend race: Al-e Ahmad comments that while he will always be Black, he doesn’t have to always be a Black writer like Baldwin; he can just be a writer.[57] Both are snide and superior about Baldwin’s open homosexuality, and refer to Ellison as mardak (little man, a derogatory term in Persian), which can simply be a highly colloquial expression, but feels unusual in Daneshvar’s language (if not in Al-e Ahmad’s).[58]

Daneshvar’s comments also suggest a sense of being above, and separate from, what she saw as an American problem. Since a large part of the program at the Harvard Seminar was about racial conflict in the United States, Daneshvar reflects: “In summary, right now the most difficult political issue in America is the solution of the case between whites and blacks, and the Don Juans of the [American] universities and colleges are thick-necked blacks, and the white and blonde girls who don’t have a black friend have lost their chance. But my dear, I’m sure you’re weary of hearing my explanations. . .”[59] The casual racism in this comment is profoundly disturbing. Yet at the same time, and in spite of making light of the situation as she does above, Daneshvar cared enough about what was happening in the United States to attend (without Al-e Ahmad’s permission!) the March on Washington. As she records it in the letters, she wanted to “be part of history, be a witness to history.”[60] She goes on to say that it had a profound effect on her: the march was organized and peaceful, and the police, both Black and white, were helpful. She observes that “the Black race is truly a beautiful one,” and that the Black and white people participating in the march, to her surprise, “were kissing each other.”[61]

Daneshvar was a self-stated critic of the injustice she saw in the world around her, and her engagement with race, both in these letters and in her post-Fulbright collection of stories, presents some uncomfortable truths about the contradictions of the politics espoused by Daneshvar and the Iranian left in the Cold War period.[62] She did not attempt to connect or critique her own contact with practices of enslavement, or the practice of enslavement and its legacy in Iran more broadly, with what she witnessed in the United States. Rather, Daneshvar’s (and Al-e Ahmad’s) representations of Blackness in Iran and the United States were deployed as metaphors for the victimization of suppressed classes, including the suppression of Iranian intellectuals, at the hands of the Pahlavi state. However, their deployment of Blackness in their writing did not enable them to see or critique their own racial thinking. For Daneshvar, in both her letters and her fiction, Afro-Iranians, Africans, and Black Americans remain an Other that cannot be remediated through narration. Instead, they become a way of “playing in the dark,” deploying Blackness to clarify and critique the position of non-Black Iranians in the Pahlavi era.


[1]I wish to thank Fatemeh Shams and Ira Dworkin for their helpful comments on this essay. This essay is offered in honor of Dr. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, whose erudition and mentorship have guided so many of us. 

[2]I am using Willem Floor’s expression “clearing center” from his Encyclopaedia Iranica article “BARDA and BARDA-DARI: From the Mongols to the Abolition of Slavery,” 2000,

[3]This is on page 33 of Honar va adabiyat-e emruz:  goft o shenudi ba doktor Simin Daneshvar va Parviz Natel Khanlari (Contemporary Art and Literature: Interviews with Dr. Simin Daneshvar and Dr. Parviz Natel Khanlari), ed. Nasser Hariri (Babul, IR: Ketabsara-ye Babul, AH 1366/AD 1987).

[4]Simin Daneshvar, Shahri chawn behesht (Tehran: Kharzmi, AH 1381/AD 2002).

[5]Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1993).

[6]William Saroyan, Payk-e marg va zendigi ya komedi-ye ensani (The Messenger of Life and Death, or, The Human Comedy), trans. Simin Daneshvar (Tehran: Ibn Sina, 1954).

[7]Daneshvar’s letters to Stegner are housed in the Stanford University Library. Daneshvar writes to Stegner while she is at the Harvard Seminar in 1963 to ask for his help in finding work in the United States. She also invites Stegner to visit Iran (which he does), and generally praises the positive influence he has had on her writing.

[8]See her letters in English to Stegner, which are part of the collection “Wallace Earle Stegner Creative Writing Program : correspondence and manuscripts, 1949-1992,” and which are held at the Department of Special Collections, Green Library, Stanford University.

[9]The story of Stegner’s association with ARAMCO is itself a fascinating story, as told by Robert Vitalis in “Wallace Stegner’s Arabian Discovery: Imperial Blind Spots in a Continental Vision,” Pacific Historical Review, no. 3 (August 2007):  405–38.

[10]Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays: A Tribal Voice (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996) by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is one such work.

[11]Simin Daneshvar, Nameh-ha-ye Simin Daneshvar va Jalal Al-e Ahmad (The Letters of Simin Daneshvar and Jalal Al-e Ahmad), vols. 1 and 3, ed. Mas‘ud Ja‘fari Jazi (Tehran: Nilufar, AH 1385/AD 2006).

[12]Beeta Baghoolizadeh, “Seeing Race and Erasing Slavery: Media and the Construction of Blackness in Iran, 1830–1960” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2018).

[13]Behnaz Mirzai, A History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran 1800-1929 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017).

[14]Mirzai, History of Slavery, 19–25.

[15]Haleh Afshar, “Age, Gender and Slavery in and out of the Persian Harem: A Different Story,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, no. 5 (2000): 905–16.

[16]African slaves in Iran were often given the names of flowers or gems, possibly to connote value or beauty; these were not their birth names, which are most frequently erased from history. For a historical attestation to this practice, see Bahman Katiraˈi, “Yaddasht-hayi darbareh-ye Emsal o hekam (taˈlif ‘Ali Akbar Dehkhoda)” (“Some Notes on the Proverbs and Wise Sayings [Written by ‘Ali Akbar Dekhoda]),” in Miyan-e reshteh-ha: daneshkadeh-ye adabiyat va ‘olum-e ensani-ye daneshgah-e Tehran (Between Fields: The Faculty of Literature and Humanities of the University of Tehran), nos. 5–6 (AH 1347/AD 1968): 505–32.

[17]Afshar, “Age, Gender and Slavery,” 905.

[18]Afshar, “Age, Gender and Slavery,” 909. For a fuller discussion of how liberalism in the United States and Europe has been practiced as “racial liberalism,” see Charles Mills’s Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[19]Many words are used in Persian for slave, but not all of them have the same historical connotation relating to enslavement of Africans. Some terms used to denote African slaves include bardeh, dadeh siah, kaka siah, gholam, and khvajeh. As in English, “I am your servant [slave]” (bandeh-ye shoma hastam) is a common polite expression, and bandeh is used as a polite personal pronoun in certain types of discourse. For one discussion in English of this form of discourse, see William O. Beeman’s useful (if now dated) Politics of Language and Status in Iran (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

[20]Pedram Khosronejad,  Qajar African Nannies  (Stillwater: Dr. Ali Fazel Visual Archive, Media Collection and Digital Resources, University of Oklahoma, 2018). Exhibition catalog.

[21]Khosronejad, Qajar African Nannies, vi.

[22]Pedram Khosronejad (lecture associated with photo exhibition “Qajar African Nannies” at UC Davis Alumni Center, Davis, CA, 10 May 2018).

[23]Khosronejad, lecture.

[24]Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

[25]Akhundzadeh, a major focus of Zia-Ebrahimi’s study, was himself a person of partially African descent through his mother (H. Algar, “AKUNDZADA,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2011,

[26]Anthony A. Lee, “Enslaved African Women in Nineteenth-Century Iran: The Life of Fezzeh Khanom of Shiraz,” Iranian Studies, no. 3 (2012): 417–37.

[27]Lee, “Enslaved African Women,” 429.

[28]Honar va adabiyat-e emruz, 11.

[29]Amy Motlagh, Burying the Beloved: Gender, Fiction and Reform in Modern Iran (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).

[30]Daneshvar acknowledged in several interviews that Mehrangiz was based on her own nanny.  See, for example, p. 11 of her interview with Hariri.

[31]Manijeh Nasrabadi deploys the terminology of affect, as articulated by Deborah Gould, to discuss the complicated engagement of Iranian feminists in the pre-revolutionary educational diaspora with leftist politics. Of woman members of the Iranian Student Association (ISA) in the United States, she notes, “women in the ISA were deeply invested in human liberation, including their own” (131). Some of what she attributes to these activists in that movement can also be said of Daneshvar, who, by virtue of her age, was not part of the wave of student mobilization abroad but may have anticipated some of their experiences. Manijeh Nasrabadi, “‘Women Can Do Anything Men Can Do:’ Gender and the Affects of Solidarity in the U.S. Iranian Student Movement, 1961–1979,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, nos. 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2014): 127–45.

[32]For an important reading of the notion of “abjection” in Black diaspora discourse, see Darieck Scott, Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

[33]Simin Daneshvar, “The Iranians’ New Year” (“‘Ayd-e iraniha”), in Shahri chawn behesht (Tehran: Kharzmi, AH 1381/AD 2002): 37–44. Quote on p. 42. All translations are my own.

[34]Several scholars have insisted that Hajji Firuz’s blackened face has nothing to do with racial signaling, but is about the fading blackness of winter, since the Iranian New Year is the vernal equinox and many of its rituals have to do with banishing winter and welcoming spring (e.g., Chaharshanbeh suri, or “Burning Wednesday,” when celebrants jump over bonfires and shout “My yellowness for your redness,” meaning my jaundiced [yellow] color for your ruddy [red] color). Scholarship on this topic continues to attempt to distance its racial aspects from the history of enslavement of Africans in Iran; some scholars, indeed, make no note of this possible connection. See, for example, Niayesh Purhassan’s “Hajji Firuz: performans: barrassi va mo’arefi-ye ‘Hajji Firuz’ va negahiye- tatbighi beh namayeshgaran az manzar va didgah-e performans” (“Hajji Firuz: Performance: Research and Introduction to “Hajji Firuz” and a Comparative Look at the Performers/Actors from a Performance Perspective”), in Me’mari va honar (Architecture and Art): Namayesh, nos. 125–26 (AH 1388/AD 2009): 42–47. In contrast, and for an interesting discussion of the contemporary controversy in the Netherlands over Zwarte Piet and a comparison to the Hajji Nowruz tradition, see Angelita D. Reyes, “Performativity and Representation in Transnational Blackface: Mammy (USA), Zwarte Piet (Netherlands), and Haji Firuz (Iran),” Atlantic Studies, no. 4 (2018): 521–50.

[35]For discussion of this theatrical tradition, see Bahram Beyzai, Namayesh dar Iran (Drama in Iran) (Tehran: Chap-e Kaviyan, 1965); Baghoolizadeh, “Seeing Race”; and Maryam Khakipour’s 2010 film Siah Bazi: The Joymakers (New York: Icarus Films, 2010).

[36]See, in particular, Chapter 3 of Matthew K. Shannon, Losing Hearts and Minds: Iranian-American Relations and International Education during the Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017) for a fuller discussion of the Iranian student movement in the United States.

[37]The words historically used to discuss the practice of enslavement in Iran, bardegi; the people who were enslaved, bardeh, kaniz, gholam; and Afro-Iranians, siah, differ from the translations of terms used in the Iranian press to describe race, racism, or Black people when they occur elsewhere (nezhad, nezhad parasti/garayi, siah pustan). The latter terms have the quality of neologisms—they are not deployed in this way in historical documents (including literature) dealing with the trade in enslaved Africans or other peoples in Iran.

[38]See, for example, Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 3, 284, 286, 291, 318. See also Judith Butler’s reading of Nella Larsen’s Passing for an interesting comparison: the protagonist of Passing, Clare, is married to a racist white man who ostensibly does not know her ancestry, but calls her by the nickname “Nig” (Butler, Bodies That Matter [London: Routledge, 1993], 167–86).  When I presented an early version of this work at UC Irvine in 2017, a participant in the seminar took me aside and told me that he had heard that Daneshvar herself had African ancestry, and that this would explain “the way she looked.” When I asked for evidence of this, the person promised to send it to me but did not. I mention this to suggest how Daneshvar has herself been racialized in ways that do not always make it into print.

[39]Black students did not matriculate at Stanford until ten years later, in 1962. Although there was not the violent hostility to Black matriculation that occurred at southern US universities, one student in this cohort, Sandra Drake, remembers, “Once a girl came up to me and said: ‘I’ve never talked to a Negro.’ We were ‘Negroes’ back then.” See Roy Johnson, “What It Was Like to Be an African-American Freshman in 1962,” Stanford Magazine, September 2017,

[40]Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 1, 384–85.

[41]Neda Maghbouleh, The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017).

[42]Ebony Coletu, “A Complicated Embrace,” Transition, no. 122 (2017): 138–49.

[43]Roots was published in a Persian translation by Alireza Farahmand in AH 1357/AD 1978 and has never been out of print. Recently, on the occasion of the publication of a new edition of the translation by Amir Kabir Press, Farahmand was interviewed by the newspaper Hamshahri. He mentions his own interest in the history of slavery in the United States, and how he had the opportunity to meet Alex Haley on two occasions; according to Farahmand, Haley was interested in him as a Muslim, since Haley had written The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “Farahmand: Risheh-ha yeki az hezaran ast,” interview with Alireza Farahmand, Hamshahri, AH Azar 1392/December 2013,

[44]Coletu, “Complicated Embrace,” 143.

[45]Coletu, “Complicated Embrace,” 144.

[46]Ira Dworkin, “Radwa Ashour, African American Criticism, and the Production of Modern Arabic Literature,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, no. 1 (2018): 1–19.

[47]Dworkin, “Radwa Ashour,” 6.

[48]Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 3, 257.

[49]Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 3, 396.

[50]Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 3, 381.

[51]Interestingly, Daneshvar never mentions the possibility of translating Invisible Man herself, though she did translate several other American novels, and Ellison’s novel has still not been translated into Persian, in spite of a flourishing translation industry in Iran that is not regulated by international copyright laws since Iran is not a signatory to the Berne Convention.

[52]Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 3, 395.

[53]An odd footnote to Daneshvar’s and Al-e Ahmad’s encounters with Ellison at the Harvard International Seminar is the fact that Ellison later dined with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi at the White House at the invitation of President Johnson. Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography (New York: Vintage, 2008), 447.

[54]On p. 395 of vol. 3 of their letters, Daneshvar tells Al-e Ahmad that she sees Ellison as a “serious” writer. She goes on to characterize Invisible Man as a work that is focused on the hopelessness and exhaustion of (American) intellectuals, who are worn down by the petty battles of right and left politics, implicitly reading their own situation onto that of the protagonist in Invisible Man, and eliding the racial component central to the novel. Al-e Ahmad later wrote a treatise on this theme, On the Service and Treachery of the Intellectuals (Tehran: Ravagh, AH 1343/AD 1964).

[55]Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 3, 366. Baldwin’s “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” first appeared in The Atlantic in the September 1960 issue (pp. 37–44).

[56]Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 3, 374. Both Daneshvar and Al-e Ahmad refer to Baldwin as Jimmy at times rather than James—an informality which, like their use of mardak to describe Ellison, may be a linguistic marker of friendly familiarity or an affectation meant to mirror American slang, but in context, reads as a kind of belittling. When I presented this work at the seminar “Roads Not Taken: Literary Translation in Iran” at UC Irvine in December 2018, it was pointed out to me that mardak is not always a sign of disregard, and that Al-e Ahmad often used this term much as contemporary American parlance uses dude. While I take the point, this is a usage unusual for Daneshvar and remarkable in her letters.

[57]Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 3, 543–44. Al-e Ahmad would later write “The American Husband” (1966), the only short story of his to actively engage an American setting. In this story, much of the plot revolves around an Iranian woman’s discovery of her American husband’s actual profession as a gravedigger, which is depicted as shameful not only because of its contact with the dead—a taboo—but also because his fellow diggers are Black (p. 77).  “The American Husband” (“Showhar-e amrikayi”), in Panj dastan (Tehran: Ravaaq, 1977), 67–82.

He would also write a series of ethnographies that included recording of racial aspects of the people of Kharg, an island in the Persian Gulf that was a major slave trading post. Dorr-e yatim-e khalij, jazireh-ye Khark (The Pearl of the Gulf, the Island of Khark) (Tehran: Majid, AH 1339/AD 1960).

[58]Al-e Ahmad would later meet Ellison when he himself participated in the Harvard International Seminar in 1965. Although Roy Mottahedeh mentions this meeting in passing (and more generally attributes Al-e Ahmad’s being chosen to his being one of the obvious intellectual leaders of Iran, rather than through his wife’s advocacy, which is clear to anyone who reads their correspondence), he does not, in my view, read Al-e Ahmad’s participation correctly and generally uses this to fit into his own view of Al-e Ahmad. Historical or biographical views of any individual may (indeed must) change over time, but I see Mottahedeh’s work as feeding into the hagiographical view of Al-e Ahmad, which sees him as a prefiguring martyr of the revolution. More recent research has sought to revise these views somewhat. Golnar Nikpour’s comparison of Al-e Ahmad’s hajj memoir Khasi dar miqat (published in English under the title Lost in the Crowd) with the account of Malcolm X’s hajj experience in The Autobiography of Malcolm X is an important comparative attempt, but misses out on Al-e Ahmad’s explicit engagement of Malcolm X’s ideas in his letters to Daneshvar and elsewhere. Golnar Nikpour,  “Revolutionary Journeys, Revolutionary Practice: The Hajj Writings of Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Malcolm X,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, no. 1 (2014): 67–85.

[59]Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 3, 385.

[60]Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 3, 428–29.

[61]Daneshvar, Nameh-ha, vol. 3, 428–29.

[62]One of the most interesting implications of observing these changes in Daneshvar’s work and tracing their possible sources is that it makes us look in different ways at the nativism that Al-e Ahmad came to espouse in his late work. Even before Gharbzadegi, it is clear that Daneshvar’s accounts of the United States and race had an impact on Al-e Ahmad.

Voluntary Conversions of Iranian Jews in the Nineteenth Century

Nahid Pirnazar <> earned her Ph.D. from UCLA in Iranian Studies, teaching the Habib Levy Visiting Professorship of Judeo-Persian Literature and The History of Iranian Jews at UCLA. Dr. Nahid Pirnazar is the founder and president of the academic research organization, “House of Judeo-Persian Manuscripts.” Dr. Pirnazar’s works have been featured in English and Persian in Academic publications including, Irano-Judaica, Irānshenāsi, Iran Nameh and Iran Namag. She is also a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World as well as Encyclopedia Iranica and the guest editor of the quarterly of Iran Namag (Summer, 2016).

Prior to the nineteenth century, with few exceptions, voluntary conversion was an unknown phenomenon in Iranian Jewish history. In Islamic Iran, infrequent voluntary

conversions were mainly for socio-economic or cultural reasons. According to the Shi’ite interpretation of Koranic Sura IX, verse 28,  Jews were characterized as “impure and non-beleivers.”[1] In this respect, Ephraim Neumark, a visitor from the Holy Land  in late 19th century, reported: “In Iran, they do not purchase bread or other food stuffs from Jews, and should a Jewish to purchase from a Muslim, he must point to the product he wishes to purchase from a distance.[2]

Furthermore, dominated as “ahl al-Dhimma” meaning “under the protection of Islam,” Jews were prohibited from celebrating their identity. Thus, at the threshold of the nineteenth century, the deprived, humiliated, and hopeless members of the Iranian Jewish community—with the exception of a few educated and elite members—were left without self-esteem, dignity and pride, almost fading away from the consciousness of Western Jewry. Iranian Judaic traditions were outdated, as religious laws had remained untouched since Joseph Caro’s fifteenth century halakhic book, Shulhan Arukh, a guideline for Judaic traditions and laws.[3]

History has demonstrated that, while disasters and hardships may strengthen one’s religious ties, they may also draw an individual either to denial of faith or the search for a spiritual alternative. Mohammad Saeed Sarmad Kashani, a seventeenth century poet of Jewish descent, is an example of the latter, as he sought a spiritual alternative to voluntary conversion. He turned from Judaism to Islam, Hinduism, and mysticism, respectively, before ultimately being beheaded as an agnostic on the steps of Jame Mosque in Delhi around 1661. Similar cases are noted the discourse of “Jewish Sooffees of Meshed and Bokhara in 1831,” as reported by Joseph Wolff, a Christian missionary, and the experience of the Jews of Kurdestan, who celebrated the Jewish festival of Simchat Torahwith Soofi type mystic dances of samā‘.[4] Upon review of the motives above, one can infer that the urge for religious conversion, as a solution, often speaks of a profound need for social change.

Image of Iranian Jews in the Nineteenth Century

Unlike some of the governing bodies in neighboring countries, the Qajar rulers (1779-1924) denied the Jews important economic roles. In addition to occupying low-income professions, Jews were nonetheless able to participate in businesses prohibited to Muslims.

Only in a few major cities did Jews have the opportunity to occupy higher social positions outside of the Jewish community, mainly as physicians for the royalty or for the public.[5] Reports from travelers and Christian missionaries such as Joseph Wolff, Henry Stern and other travelers including Benjamin II, who had visited Iran at the time, talk about the friendly attitude of royalty to such doctors; otherwise, the inferior social conditions of Iranian Jewry remained largely unnoticed through the first half of the nineteenth century. It was not until the famine in 1871 and the two visits of Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar ( 1848-1896) to Europe, in the years 1873 and 1889, that the attention of European Jews was drawn toward the Jews of Persia.[6]

At the time, the insecure social environment and weak legal system of the Qajars had allowed an alternative protective measure, the Capitulation Law, to be used by some affluent families including elite Jewish ones.[7] Those holding dual nationality were sheltered under the protection of their respective new countries’ jurisdiction.[8] While some Jews sent petitions pleading their legal and social cases to European Jewish organizations such as the Anglo-Jewish Association or the Alliance Israélite Universelle, most Jews did not have such access.[9] Under such circumstances, for unprivileged and unprotected Jews, change of faith offered an alternative, or even a remedy to improve or gain legal and social respect. Persian Jews waited for the arrival of Alliance schools as an expected liberator who would offer them education, protection, and self-esteem. Mr. Bassan, the Alliance representative to Kermanshah in 1904, described his arrival in the city by reporting that, “For the Muslims, I was a strange creature; for my fellow Jews, a person to be treated with the greatest respect and who had come to bring security and tranquility.” The memoirs and documents reflected in the bulletin of Alliance give testament to the community’s lack of self-esteem, pride, and security. Albert Confino, the first educator sent to Iran, reports the enthusiasm, emotions and the tears he received upon his arrival to Kashan and later Isfahan, “as if they were welcoming not the teachers or founders of school, but liberators in person”.[10]


Alliance Israélite Universelle, faculty and students,15th year anniversary of the boys school in Tehran          Courtesty of

Alliance Israélite Universelle, faculty and students,15th year anniversary of the boys school in Tehran          Courtesty of



Alliance Israélite Universelle, girls’ school Kermanshah, 1950.

Alliance Israélite Universelle, girls’ school Kermanshah, 1950.

Iranian Jewish emancipation was facilitated as a result of the education provided by Alliance, the first school established in 1898, the limited civil rights provided by the constitution for all minorities in 1906, and the revival of the dream of Zionism, thanks to the Balfour Declaration, signed in 1917. Such privileges not only established a “national identity” for Jews, but also  transformed the means for the fulfillment of respected social status and a gradual change to their social reputation and the rate of religious conversions of Iranian Jews.[11]

At this point, unlike the Sephardic Moranos of Spain, a number of the forced converts of Jews of Mashhad, named as Allah Dad (God Given) or Jadid al-Islam (New Muslims) returned to their original faith.

Conversion to Islam

In the unstable atmosphere of the nineteenth century, Jewish voluntary conversion to Islam, for the most affluent families, was stimulated by socio-economic or professional reasons. Prestigious positions such as private physician to the royal family—individuals like Hakim Haq Nazar and Hakim Nurmahmood, servicing the Qajars—or instances of intermarriage between prominent members of the two communities were the causes behind some conversions.[12] As for common people, the stigma of “impurity,” as well as mandatory observation of Jewish religious and legal restrictions were strong motives.[13]  In that period of instability, financial and social issues were serious impetuses for conversion to Islam. Among the motivations for conversion to Islam were financial issues depriving Jews of legal and business rights for making transactions with Muslims. The Law of Apostasy allowed Muslim members of the family be the sole recipients of the family inheritance; among other incentives for conversion were exclusion from the larger Muslim community, obligation to wear certain attire and identification patches, and lack of protection by the authorities even toward physicians serving the royalty or the public in case of malpractice.[14]

A number of prosperous families adopted Islamic identities, at least by pretense, mainly duetothe restrictions imposed by laws of impurity which helped Jewish individuals avoid segregation, and to be allowed to establish social ties with Muslim neighbors and business partners. Aside from the very few cases of Capitulation Law, nominal conversions to Islam were employed as a legal strategy to protect the economic interests of privileged families. This practice was tolerated by both the Shi’a ‘ulama and the Jewish community, without incurring the usual demands from converts to publicly observe Islamic edicts such as mosque attendance.[15] Despite these alleged nominal, or covert conversions, such families, like that of Hakim Nurmahmood maintained their prominence in the Jewish community. In later years, some of their descendants such as Dr. Loghman Nehoray even served as Jewish representatives in the National Assembly without the potential stigma of covert conversion.[16]

Hakim Nurmahmood received patients at his home in 1880s Courtesy Amnon Netzer, Padyavand III, 1999.

Hakim Nurmahmood received patients at his home in 1880s
Courtesy Amnon Netzer, Padyavand III, 1999.

In other cases, however, publicly known conversions were mandatory. One such case occurred in the western city of Kermanshah in the late nineteenth century, when the daughter of a Muslim cleric fell in love with Ismail, the son of a prominent Jewish physician, Hakim Nassir. In in order to save the family’s honor, not only did the young man have to marry the daughter of the cleric, but also seventy of his family members were obligated to publicly convert to Islam. Later, in the post-constitution era, the newly converted groom, who was given the title of Moazed al-Molk, (deputy administration) became the vice president of National Assembly in Tehran, and eventually the deputy Finance Minister in the national cabinet. Many descendants of the family, following the will of the Hakim Nassir, returned to Judaism once the political conditions allowed or when they migrated abroad.[17]



Hakim Nasir family from Kermanshah and his son Mo‘azed al-Molk years after conversion into Islam Courtesy of Nina Harouni Springer (2017)

Hakim Nasir family from Kermanshah and his son Mo‘azed al-Molk years after conversion into Islam
Courtesy of Nina Harouni Springer (2017). See: Avraham Cohen, “The Jewish Community of Kermanshah (Iran) from the early 19th century to the Second World War,” Jerusalem 1992 (Heb) rights & permission: Noam Publishing, Jerusalem.



Courtesy of Mo‘azed family reporting about the Jewish heritage of Nasir al-atebba’ and Mo‘azed al-Molk  (2017)

Courtesy of Mo‘azed family reporting about the Jewish heritage of
Nasir al-atebba’ and Mo‘azed al-Molk  (2017)

For commoners, voluntary conversion had a dual cost. They had to cut ties with the Jewish community, while in the Muslim community, they still continued to bear the stigma of outsiders, carrying the name Jadid al–Islam (new convert). Such derogatory connotations haunted following generations as well, whereas conversion to other minority faiths did not carry any later tag.


Conversion to Christianity

Historically the Jews have lived in Iran about 900 years longer than Christians.[18]  Nevertheless, all religious minorities in Iran, including Christians, Assyrians, Nestorians and Armenians, had not much conflict with the Jews, as all more or less shared the same experience in Islamic Iran.[19] However, beginning with the 19th century, various Christian outreach societies such as the London Missionary Society from England and the American Presbyterian Missionary from America undertook a vast policy of spreading Christianity among not only the Nestorian Assyrians in Northern Iran, but also among the Jewish communities throughout Iran and Central Asia.  Although missionary activities were permitted for the purposes of attracting non-Muslims, the protocol was not always observed by the missionaries in their effort to convert  some Muslims.[20]

For the Jews of Iran, conversion to Christianity was another means of escaping their living conditions. Though they were not very successful at first, the seeds of their work blossomed among the Jews through the latter part of the century. Ironically while leaders of European Jewry were negotiating with Nasser al-Din Shah regarding the establishment of Alliance schools, during his two trips to Europe, Western Christian missionaries had acted more swiftly and were already trying to promote their faith by offering hygiene, medical, and financial facilities in Iran. [21]

Among the many British evangelical missionaries to Iran in the early nineteenth century, Joseph Wolff and Henry Stern are particularly valuable historical resources thanks to their descriptions of Persian Jewish society.[22] Joseph Wolff (1795-1862), throughout his life made three missionary journeys to Iran.[23] His first journey (1821-1824) described in Missionary Journal and Memoirs of Revered Joseph Wolff; his second journey (1831-1834) was recorded in Researches and Missionary Labours Among the Jews, Mohammedans, and other Sects; and his third trip was reported in Narrative of a Mission to Bukhara to Ascertain the Fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly.[24]

Joseph Wolff, on his three different trips to Iran reports on his numerous visits with the crown prince  Abbass Mirza,[25] and speaks about the religious identity of the Jews of Mashhad even before the massacre of 1839. According to Wolff, by 1831 and before the Massacre of Mashhad, some Jews of Mashhad had dual religious identity, mainly for business and social reasons. Wolff describes “Mullah Levi Ben Meshiakh, a Mohammedan at Meshad, and a Jew whenever he goes to Sarakhs, while his wife and children still professing Jewish religion.”[26] He also describes the level of cultural assimilation of the Jews, finding them writing Hafez in Judeo-Persian, while not having many religious books such as the Talmud available.[27]  He even writes about Jewish Suffees studying the Quran, led by a Muslim Morshed named Mohammad Ali, with the aim of finding confirmation of the validity of their Suffee systems.[28] As an evangelist, Wolff expresses his regret for seeing that “no attempt has ever been made in the way of converting these Jews,…who are ignorant on the subject of Christianity.”[29] Furthermore, it is in his book, Narrative on a Mission, that he speaks of the converts of Mashhad of 1839, referring to them as “Islam Jadeeda.[30]

Henry Stern was another evangelical missionary who visited Iran twice in 1844 and 1852.[31] On his first trip in 1844, he traveled through Damascus and Baghdad. In Iran he first visited Kermanshah, and Hamadan, both in western Iran and later Shiraz in the south then going north towards Isfahan, with Tehran as his final destination. It is during this visit in Tehran that he most likely met with the Physicians of the Court of Mohammad Shah (1834-1848), including Ḥakim Ḥaqnaẓar and Ḥakim Moshe and their sons, the latter converts to Christianity. Stern indicated that the main outcome of this period was the creation of interest in the study of the books of the Christian Society and the eagerness to enter into discussion on the subject of Christianity.[32] One possible result of this connection is the later conversion of Mirza Nurollah, the son of Hakim Moshe.

On his second trip in 1852, which Stern reports in Dawnings of Light In the East, Stern considered traveling in Iran as perilous.  On both trips Stern portrayed the misery and poverty of Jewish communities, blaming the Church for being so late and “unmindful of her duty and indifferent to the call of thousands of Jews, calling for help.”[33] He reported that, during his visit to Kermanshah, on a Shabbat morning dated Febuary 27, 1852, upon his entrance to a local synagogue in “an unhealthy part of the town, and amidst a few wretched hovels, which [were] striking proof of the misery of their occupants,” he is kindly received by a mulla [rabbi].  On his entrance, he is offered “an unoccupied seat on a mat,” and a talis, the prayer shall, which he politely refuses to wear, responding “ I did not require such implements in pouring out my feeling in prayer to God.”  Upon the conclusion of the service which he finds “neither solemn nor devotional,” he is invited to the oratory, preaching to them of “the very Savior whom they ignorantly have so long despised and rejected,” attributing all the misery and suffering of the community to the sin of not having yet accepted Christ as the Savior. He further adds that:

One of the Rabbis, Mullah Aron, was evidently afraid of the effect discourse might have, and politely requested me to speak Hebrew, and not Persian; but I told him that since all were sinners, and stood in need of a Savior, it was my duty to declare the saving message in a language understood: ‘Why are we in the prison-bonds of the Ishmaelites, and treated as the dust under their feet? Why do the spoilers seize our property, and kidnap our daughters under their defiled roofs? Surely our sins and unbelief are the cause of this misery!’[34]

In general by the second half of the century, the misery and deprivation suffered by the Persian Jewish community had left it devoid of self-esteem and pride. The famine of 1871, poor hygiene due to squalid living conditons and various diseases, made the Jews desperate for any help that was offered to them.

However, during the twenty-five years of delay since the first approach of European Jews to Naser al-din Shah in 1873, until the establishment of the first Alliance Schools in 1898 , the first Christian missionary schools were established as early as 1876  in the ghetto of Tehran. Other schools that were established  included those in Hamadan 1881, Isfahan in 1889 in and and Kermanshah in 1894. Having twenty to thirty Jewish children converted in the year 1891-2,  the year  was considered by the missionaries  as the “year of spiritual harvest.”[35] To best connect with the Persians, the American missionaries provided evangelical, medical, and educational activities.[36] At stations in various cities, they offered hygiene and medical care, and, in the final quarter of the nineteenth century, opened separate schools for boys and girls. The key vehicle for their missionary activities, schools, were first established in Hamadan, and later in all major cities.[37]

Among the many different missionary societies mentioned that were involved in religious conversions were the Church Missionary Society of London, the London Society for the Jews and the American Presbyterian Missionary, all of whom worked in Iran on a cooperative basis.[38]  The Reverend Robert Bruce from the Church Missionary Society of London was sent to Iran in 1869. He went to Jolfa, the Armenian suburb of Isfahan, with the intention of revising a Persian Bible which was accomplished by 1871. He also persuaded his Society to establish a mission in Iran named the Church Missionary Society. A number of Armenians of Jolfa became Protestants, and after 1900, medical and other work had begun in Isfahan. By 1935, missionaries were primarily in the four cities of Isfahan, Kerman, Yazd and Shiraz, with a commitment to cooperate and coordinate with each other.[39] 

After having sent three missionaries in 1852 in response to the request of several converts from the leading Jews in Hamadan, the London Society of the Jews sent a missionary to that city in 1881 and another one in 1883 who remained in Iran only until 1884.[40]  Among the first and most dramatic conversions influenced by this missionary are those of Mirza Nurollah, the son of the prominent Jewish physician of the royal court, Hakim Moshe. He was sent to England for training in 1884. Upon his return in 1888, in addition to his missionary work, Mirza Nurollah opened a school in  Jubareh, the Jewish Ghetto of Isfahan which the Reverend J.L. Garland took charge of in 1897.[41]

London Society for Promotion of Christianity amongst Jewish Youth                                       Courtesy of

London Society for Promotion of Christianity amongst Jewish Youth Courtesy of


By 1900, Mirza Jalinus, son of Hakim Shokrollah and the nephew of Mirza Nurollah, on his sister’s side, converted to Christianity.[42] Mirza Jalinus, being a physician as well, had a different impact on the Jewish community. Upon his death, another Jewish convert, the Reverend Iraj Mottahedeh, took over his mission.[43] The loyal services as native missionaries and educators of these new converts had a great impact on the life and education of the Iranian Jewish community.

Mirza Nurollah  was later on appointed by the London Society to conduct two schools for Jewish children in Tehran, which were later taken over from the American Presbyterian Missionary.[44]  The two schools were named Sedagat for boys in 1897 and Nur school for girls in 1898. Mirza Nurollah passed away in 1925 and his mission was continued by his daughter Gertrude, known as Miss Nurollah, and his nephew Mirza Jalinus, who had both been sent to England for education.[45]  The school with two sections of boys and girls expanded with financial support from some Jewish community members, including a banker, Haj Eshagh Fahimian and a tailor, Yossef Darvish. The school gradually moved to different locations with larger space. By 1925, 200 boys and 150 girls were enrolled at the school with a faculty consisting of almost all new converts of Jewish descent.[46] The school was closed in 1937, but after WWII Miss Nurollah opened a new professional day school for girls .[47]


Graduation ceremony of Girls’ Nur school, 1962 Right to left: Mr. Soleyman Haim, Miss Nurollah the principal, unknown, Mirza Jalinus principal of boys Nur Sedaghat school, Hossein ‘Ala past prime minister and incombant minister of the royal court. Courtesy of

Graduation ceremony of Girls’ Nur school, 1962
Right to left: Mr. Soleyman Haim, Miss Nurollah the principal, unknown, Mirza Jalinus principal of boys Nur Sedaghat school, Hossein ‘Ala past prime minister and incombant minister of the royal court.
Courtesy of

As for Hamadan, the Station of London Society of the Jews was relinquished in 1904 and its work was transferred and continued by the American missionaries in that city.[48]  Garland was put in charge of Isfahan in 1897 by the Anglican church  [The London Society for Jews] to set up two schools, one [for boys] in Jubareh,  the Jewish Ghetto, and  one [for girls] in Jolfa, theArmenian section of the city.[49] Having Isfahan as his base, Garland sometimes visited the surrounding cities of Khonsar, Golpayegan, and Borujerd for his missionary purposes throughout his life.[50]  In 1904, the boys’ school was transferred to Isfahan while the girls’ school continued in Jolfa until 1912.  The boys’ school was later expanded and renamed  Stuart Memorial College in memory of Bishop Stuart, the first missionary Bishop in Iran. In 1939 Stuart Memorial College was encorporated into the Iranian secondary educational system and was renamed Adab High School,  from which many Jewish youth graduated.[51]  

As Amnon Netzer reports,  the school in Jubarheh  was financially supported for years by Ishaq Sasson, a new Jewish convert. In spite of the existance of Alliance Israélite schools the Jubareh school  survived, although with fewer and fewer students, until 1928. Reverend Garland passed away in Isfahan in 1932.[52]

The American Presbyterian Missionary, which had originally started its limited missionary work in  Iran in 1834/35,  was transferred to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in 1872.  Under the new leadership, it followed the Church Missionary Society of London and the London Society for the Jews.  The American group, under this new leadership, tried to reach the Iranians through the gates of evangelical, medical, and educational activities in the eastern and western parts of the country while the British focused on the southern regions.[53]

In 1887 an American school based on the US educational system was founded in Tehran by James Basset, who was later joined by Samuel Ward, another Presbyterian missionary. Mirza Nurroallah became the principal of this school in 1897.[54] However, probably the most appreciated educational activity of the American Presbyterian missionaries in Iran was the founding of two prominent schools for girls and boys which educated many Jewish and non-Jewish students. Their first girls’ school in Tehran, later named Iran Bethel School, was founded in 1874, with only 12 students.  The school was located near the American Church, providing board and clothing, and was tuition-free. At the end of the first ten years, the school moved into a new location inside the mission premises. Jewish and Zoroastrian girls applied for admission since 1888, but no Moslem girl attended the school until much later. By 1898, the school turned into a day school with no further free tuition.[55] Miss Jane Doolittle took over as principal of the girl’s school in 1921. The name of the school was first changed to Nurbakhsh and by 1935 to Reza Shah Kabir.[56] Nevertheless, Miss Doolittle continued with another girls’ school which carried the name of Iran Bethel until the late 1960s, when the school was transferred to the Girls’ College of Damvand, headed by Dr. Francis Gray.[57] Many Iranian Jewish or non-Jewish girls attended that school to enhance their education.

The American College for boys, changed into Alborz College in 1935, was the most renowned achievement of the educational activities of Christian missionaries in Iran. It was founded in in 1873, almost two decades before Alliance Israélite, for the purpose of converting Iranian Jewish and Armenian boys. The school was directed later on by Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Jordan from 1898. The missionary couple carried out an extensive promotion campaign for the expansion of the school with the addition of full college-level work. By 1935, the school requested to be identified by the  Persian name, Alborz College, yet still maintain the initials of  the American College of Tehran (A.C.T.). Both schools, the American College and Nurbakhsh, preserved the highest standard of education, and, played a tremendous role in the education of Iranian youth of all faiths until they were taken over by the Iranian government in 1939.[58]

Another area of full cooperation  between the  British and American parties were the Church-synagogues named “Penial Churches” which were established by the London Society and Presbyterian Church in 1894, much to the resentment of the people of Hamadan. Such combined church-synagogues and assemblies were also held in Isfahan and Tehran. However, the station in Hamadan was relinquished in 1904 and the work was continued by the American missionaries.[59] In the case of Isfahan, the church was composed entirely of Jews, and was a part of the Church of England under the auspices of the Anglican Bishop in Isfahan, with close connection  to the church in Tehran. This effort allowed Jews to pray with the translated Old and New Testaments by 1900, in both Judeo-Persian and Persian scripts, provided by the London Society for the Jews.[60]

In the areas of hygiene and health services, the establishment of hospitals by the British, American, Russian and French missionaries brought modern medicine into both major and small cities, places where otherwise no form of modern medicine was practiced.[61] It is through  these missionary medical establishments such as the Church Missionary Society that  some Iranian Jews were introduced to Western modern medicine and Western physicians, which in most cases resulted in the voluntary conversion of the students or their families to Christanity as well in order to access these services. The establishment of a British hospital in Isfahan, in 1914, known as the Morsalin Hospital taught Western medicine to many Jewish and non- Jewish students.[62] Subsequently a women’s hospital was founded,[63] where, in addition to offering medical services, women were trained as nurses. Among students of Jewish descent, Dr. Shokrollah Hakhamimi trained as a physician and Mrs. Iran Hakhamimi as a nurse.[64]   Eventually the mission sponsored new maternity hospitals in cities of  Yazd (1898), Kerman (1901), and Shiraz (1924). It was in these cities where doctors pioneered surgery for the carpet weavers.[65] Medical services of the Presbyterian missionary were also offered in the city of Rasht since 1905, where a hospital was later established. After WWI, hospitals’ financial aid attracted many needy patients among the Jews, Assyrians and Armenians. However, the hospital was taken over by the Soviet Government, but later controlled by American missionaries again.[66]

Although Protestant missionaries were of great service to Iran in the fields of medicine and education and opened many doors to future progress, the Christian message was not widely accepted among Muslims. Nevertheless, their evangelic causes offered through medical and hygienic services brought Jewish patients, for the most part, closer to the physicians and nuns who helped heal their bodies and souls, resulting in many conversions in almost all the cities where they rendered their services.[67]                                                                                      

One of the main tasks of Christian missionary activities was the distribution of pamphlets and stories infused with Christian doctrine, translated into Judeo-Persian to be read by Jews. For this undertaking, they required Christian Jews who understood Hebrew.[68] In the first half of the century, except for some missionary publications in Assyrian for distribution in Urumiah and Azarbayjan, basically not much Persian language material had been published. Reportedly an effort was made to publish some books by a missionary representative named C.G. Pfander  from the Basle Mission in Caucasus, without much success.

As early as 1840, the British missionaries attempted to translate and transliterate  the books of the New Testament into Persian and Judeo-Persian for the Jews in the northeast and southwest of Iran.  In 1847, the first translation of the Gospels, transliterated into Judeo-Persian was printed in London to be distributed amongst the Jews of Persia.[69] The fierce resistance of Persian Jews towards these efforts was not only expressed by the majority of Jews in those communities where the mission tried to get a foothold, but also by the unique literary product which very clearly encouraged their conversion.[70] The translation of the well-known  medieval polemical treatise on the life of Jesus, Toldoth Jeshu, into Judeo- Persian in 1844 was no doubt motivated by the desire to resist the activities of the Christian missionaries of that time, giving the Jews a defensive weapon in their discussions with the missionaries.[71]                                                                                                                  

The London Society also initiated to translate the Old Testament, specifically the five Books of the Torah (Pentateuch) into Judeo-Persian. Upon the request of the British Bible Society, Mirza Nurollah took upon himself the task; if not for his efforts, “the Christian missionary  might have failed all together.”[72] The book was published in London in 1895 and then distributed among the Jewish population in Iran. Mirza Nurollah’s effort was continued by two other Persian Jewish converts, his cousin Mirza Khodadad, and  his nephew and cousin Mirza Jalinous,  both the descendants of Hakim Eshagh who helped  translate and transliterate the entire Old Testament into Judeo-Persian, which later on found its way into every Jewish household.[73]

One can  assume that the choice of some Iranian Jews to convert to Christianity, moving from one marginalized minority group to another, involved different elements than those for conversion to Islam. The direct access of the missionaries to the very heart of Jewish families could have been a crucial point, such as the case of Henry Stern’s acquaintance with the family and sons of Hakim Moshe on his first trip (1844) and his visit to a synagogue in Kermanshah during his second trip (1852). These contacts were provided by the submissive attitude of the Jewish leaders, inviting the missionaries into their homes and synagogues and the persistence of the Hebrew-speaking missionaries using their biblical and Persian knowledge in their interactions.

The desperate need for schools and the thirst for education sent many Jewish children to missionary schools, especially when free board and clothing were initially provided.[74] Lack of knowledge about Judaism, in particular its philosophical and ethical values made the missionary arguments convincing and impressive. The novelty of the church-synagogue assemblies held in Persian, a language which they could understand and relate to, brought more people to the prayer chapel, and finally the conviction of the Messianic Arrival, the concepts of redemption (salvation and deliverance), absolution (forgiveness of one’s sin) as well as ascendance to heaven by accepting Christ seemed attractive to some.[75]

As an example of their efforts, a missionary report of 1891-1892, refers to the year as the “year of the spiritual harvest,”[76] averaging about 20-30 Jewish student conversions per year. Nevertheless, with the opening of Alliance Israélite, Iranian Jews became less accessible to the influence of the missionaries. A historian of the Protestant Missionary writes: “Among the Jews the fond hopes of the early days have not been fulfilled…The close connection of the Jews with the Jewish world outside Persia and the munificent donations of the French Alliance Israélite make the Jews less accessible to missionary influence.”[77]

Altogether the percentage of Jewish conversion to Christanity dropped after the establishment of the Alliance in Iran and the Jewish pride created after the Balfour Declaration of 1917. During the reign of the Pahlavis and the departure of most missionaries the rate of conversion further decreased. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, in spite of all the covert conversion of Iranian Moslems to Christianity, we hardly hear of a Jewish conversion to that faith. The new Jewish converts abroad were basically divided into two groups, those who joined Presbyterian churches or reverted back to Judaism.

Conversion to the Bahā’ī Faith

The Bahā’ī  faith began in 1844 with Seyyed Ali Mohammad-e Bab (1820-1850), who proclaimed himself to be the “Gate of God” through which man “can pass into the chamber of beatitude and true faith.”[78] In 1863, he was followed by the prophetic proclamation of Mirza Hossien Ali Nuri (1817-1892), later named as Bahā’ullāh.  His son and successor Abdul-Bahā (1844-1921), expanded the social ideas of the faith; his grandson and successor, Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957) envisioned a global  perspective to the faith.[79]

The rise of the Bahā’ī faith came in the midst of Persian socio-political and economic stagnation. This progressive and tolerant movement with its high level of morality was enough to be seen by some Persian Jews as their salvation.[80] For the first time, the Jews found  Persian-speaking friends within another religious minority.The Bahā’ī Faith, with its initial flexibility and ability to redefine itself during its formative period, achieved global success and expansion.[81] In contrast to Islam, the adoption of Bahā’ī faith did not necessitate abandonment of deep-rooted social, family, marital, and business relationships. It was possible for most Jewish converts to continue with their observance of Jewish rituals and holidays, thus making the transition less culturally and socially dramatic. By the same token, intermarriage with families of non-Jewish backgrounds did not occur in Kashan until 1929. For a short while, Jewish Bahā’īs had their own kosher butchery and separate Spiritual Assemblies. However, by the 1930s, the flexible religious identity and loose associations that had been one of the key elements in the growth of the movement were challenged by an institutionalized form of religious confirmation.[82] The process of consolidation under the leadership of Shoghi Effendi made it more difficult to sustain multiple religious identities, producing a more tightly-knit Bahā’ī community in which memberships to any other religious community were no longer acceptable. Such developments were partly the cause of the declining rate of growth of the Iranian Bahā’ī community by the 1950s. The reversed openness that once enhanced dialogue and exchange is a key to understanding the drastic decline in the number of Bahā’í conversions.[83]

For both the middle-aged converts and inquisitive youths, change seemed to be the answer. The Bahā’ī Faith’s departure from certain Islamic and Jewish principles raised special interest in Iranian Jews. These points of departure include, among others: the abolition of the concept of impurity freed Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians from the old Shi’a stigma; the inheritance law based on equality, preferable over both Jewish and Islamic Shi>a laws of apostasy; the emancipation of women and the forbiddance of holy war.[84] This attitude was even reported by Leon Loria, a teacher of Alliance in Hamadan (1903-1909) as he reports on 30 August 1908 that:

…. It can be stated without exaggeration that nine-tenths of the Jewish population of Hamadan are affiliated with the Bahā’ī sect…They [Bahā’īs] are extremely tolerant….will not accept any differences in treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims, reject all directives concerning the nedjes and allow their wives to walk in the street freely and without veils, They also reject Polygamy.[85]

The strong Iranian and mystical cultural commonality that the Bahā’ī Faith shared with the other religions of the area was missing in the Western cultural novelties imported by Christian missionaries. It was easier to accept Bahā’ullāh’s messianic claim than to accept Christian concepts like the Holy Trinity and the Original Sin.[86] Furthermore, lack of rooted philosophical and cultural education on Judaism left many unprepared for religious debate specially to some biblical references.[87]   Mirza Abul-Faza’el Golpaygani of Golpaygan was a disciple of Bahā’ullāh. In his “Evidence and Proof of the Truth of the Bahā’ī Religion,” he tried to give genuine biblical prophecies to prove the validity of Bahā’ullāh’s messianic claim in support of one of the first books, the Book of Iqan (The Book of Certitude), written in 1862.[88]  Some of the biblical references by Golpaygani and others include the entire chapter eleven of the Book of Isaiah (Isa: 11) starting with “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his root……” which speaks about the arrival of a new Messaiah;[89] furthermore, William Sears, in his Thief in the Night, particularly elaborates on the same  book (Isa 62:2 ) “…..and thou shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give…” reasoning the “new messiah” is Bahā’ullāh and his followers are the  Bahā’īs.[90] The number 2300 mentioned in the Book of Daniel in his dream, regarding the time needed for the restoration of the Sanctuary, (Dan. VIII:14) “ ……For two thousand three hundred evenings and mornings…….”, he interprets the days and night as years, to have ended in 1844 when the founder of the Bahā’ī faith proclaimed himself as the Bab.[91]  The accidental exile of Bahā’ullāh to Palestine (Holy Land, in Acre and Haifa) enhanced the effect of the Jewish connection (Hosea II:15) with their faith,  and a strong impact on Iranian Jews who were looking for a savior.[92]

At this point, with the aid of sophisticated Jewish converts, some parts of Bahā’ī writings were translated into Hebrew, first distributed in Hamadan.[93]  In addition, resentment towards strict Jewish clerical authority, in terms of religious observations like those pertaining to the Sabbath, often pushed Jews to Bahā’ī gatherings for spiritual support and fulfillment. In general, the Bahā’ī attachment and its base in Israel, as well as the efforts of its promoters to find biblical indications as the proof of the Bahā’ullāh’s messianic role, created a feeling of familiarity and continuity for Jews.

The center of Jewish Bahā’ī converts was formerly in Hamadan but due to the efforts of the Alliance Israélite teachers the number of converts decreased considerably and the movement went to the Jews of Kashan and Tehran.[94] According to Ehpraim Neumark, the Pole who visited Hamadan in 1883/4, there were about eight hundred Jewish families in Hamadan, approximately one hundred and fifty of whom were Jews who had converted to the Bahā’ī religion.[95] We also hear from Rabbi Yeuda Kopelioviz who visited Iran in 1928 and remarked upon the fast spread of the Bahā’ī religion affecting Jewish communities of Isfahan and Shriaz. The extent of the impact was so significant that it was even mentioned in the charter of the Hadassah Society of Jewish Women in Iran-Hamadan. In their charter, paragraph #12 stated that “the Society endeavors to influence the Jewish women not to take part in Bahā’ī meetings.”[96] Kopelioviz noticed that despite the Alliance school in Hamadan, founded in 1900 in the Jewish quarter, many Jewish children attended the Bahā’ī school located in the same area.[97]

The geographer Dr. Abraham Jacob Brawer who visited Iran in 1935 raised the astonishing question: “After all, the Bahā’īs too are persecuted in Iran, so what in fact does the Jew gain when instead of a persecuted Jew, he becomes a persecuted Bahā’ī?.”[98] One reason he offers is that the Bahā’ī accepts all prior prophets, including Zoroaster and Buddha, but all of them are outdated and that the last messenger is Bahā’ullāh, as hinted in the Book of Daniel, the Evangelist texts and the Quran. His second reason is the “simplicity of Bahā’īsm, its universality and the relinquishing of many commandments put upon by other faiths.” Nevertheless, Brawer believed that the country’s modernization and the return to Zion “put an end to the Jew’s fascination with Bahā’īsm.[99]

Walter Fischel regarded the idea of messianism as the focal point, since Bahā’ullāh claims to be the long awaited Messiah, as Mahdi of the Muslims, the Messiah of the Jews, the savior of Christians and the Saoshyant of the Zoroastrians.[100] Habib Levy believes that the universal concepts of the unity of the family of man and moral values of the Bahā’ī religion attracted the Jews, especially the educated ones. However, he adds that these concepts had already been introduced and spread by the Jewish prophets, but the alienation from Jewish values and ignorance with regard to the essence of the Jewish religion, not only by the population at large, but also among educated Jews, allowed Bahā’īs to infiltrate different levels of Jewish people.[101]

Unlike conversion to Islam, conversion to the Bahā’ī faith was not to be an abrupt conversion. Neither did it necessitate abandoning deep-rooted social ties involving many kinship, marriage and business relationships. This transitional period would help a newcomer enter with the psychological assurance that one did not have to make a choice between one’s past and present, but rather gradually adopt the new faith. But once the new demand for formal enrollment (tasjil) were established, since the 1930s, laws related to marriage and prohibition against working on Bahā’ī  holidays were strictly enforced. These developments coincided with, and may in part explain the decline in the rate of growth of the Iranian Bahā’ī community by the 1950’s.[102]

Netzer observes that a considerable number of the “Baha’i Jews” in Iran, particularly in Hamadan and Kashan, reached the highest prestigious ranks in the organizations and leadership.  It is reasonable to assume that: those Bahai’s of Jewish origin,  who had received a modern education in the Alliance schools, where they acquired fluent French and also mastered the English language, spearheaded the spread of the new religion world wide.[103]



 The motives and authenticity of religious conversions of the nineteenth century regardless of what religion, can be understood in the socio-economic and cultural background of Persian Jewry in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The low number of voluntary conversions to Shi’ia Islam is understandable, considering the level of maltreatment and humiliation extended by the Muslim majority towards the Jews.  Conversion to Islam was primarily for financial gain or promotional purposes whereas, conversions to Christianity and the Bahā’ī faith were likely more genuine, especially seen in those new converts who so passionately dedicated their lives to be active leaders and promoters of their new beliefs. Whereas, a new convert in Islam, however, still bore, at least for one generation, the stigma of Jadid al-Islam, or “new convert.”

Fulfillment of spiritual and emotional needs as well as practical issues within Judaism such as Jewish inheritance and divorce laws which favored male members of the family provoked conversions to other faiths. Furthermore, the new religious affiliation would provide them a larger circle of socio-cultural, economic and political benefits. Overall, however, considering the level of commitment and observance of the new converts, Bahā’ī conversion, in spite of the great persecution that the young religion faced, seems to have been the more successful and lasting one among former Jews.

A study on the first generation of Iranian Jews, following their emancipation, which entitled them to national and limited civil rights, would probably be a true test of the authenticity of prior conversions. The scope of this evaluation should take into consideration those Iranian Jews who at the approach of modernity, in order to fulfill their intellectual and spiritual needs, instead of conversion chose either to go abroad for education or continued their studies at home at the limited facilities available in Iran at the time.  This evaluation can also look upon the time when the gates of Israel and other democratic countries were opened to Jews for migration, giving them the long awaited spiritual security.

Coming from a closed and traditional community, Iranian Jews were mostly taught midrashic accounts and strict halakhic and traditional rituals. As a traditionally orthodox community, unlike Western Jews, Persian Jews were never guided through religious channels to face issues of modernity or benefit from reformation. Rabbi Kopelioviz concerning Jewish education in Iran says:

General ignorance among the people also affected religious issues. There are no learned Torah Scholars in Iran. The rabbis are not scholars..…Needless to say that they are not capable of having educational impact on the Jewish community….they  do not  have the power to conquer the hearts of the young….[104]

The same observation was made by Dr. Brawer who noted that: “ …the lack of knowledge of the Torah and tradition made it easy for the Bahā’īs & Christians to capture Jewish souls.”[105]

Brawer also commented on the indifference of the Jews of Iran towards those who converted to Christianity and Bahā’īsm: Such indifferent attitude is most noticeable since the converts

live in one courtyard with their Jewish relatives, celebrate Passover and eat together in their homes [kosher food] and go to the synagogue on Yom Kippur and do not even forget to atone.[106] 

Brawer also observed that [some] Jews took advantage of financial help and other benefits of conversion, such as hospital care and the availability of suitable jobs.[107] With regard to the rate of conversion, Kopelioviz considered the Alliance as an active factor in the assimilation of Iranian Jews [due to their secular approach of education].[108] In this respect Amnon Netzer also believes that:

Although the Alliance and the Zionist movement were major factors in halting the wave of conversions, one may say nonetheless that, to a certain extent, they were also factors that pushed the intellectuals towards assimilation……[Not only] Alliance did not reinforce Judaism; on the contrary, it let to acculturation if not assimilation. [109]

With the glorification of nationalism during the period of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941) and the halt he put on political activities, Zionism could not have had an impact on the acculturated Iranian Jews who had the thirst for modernity.

Certainly in modern days, while middle-aged Jews can freely observe their faith in whichever level, from Orthodoxy to Reconstructionism in different Jewish communities, there are academic or non-academic centers available for inquisitive Jewish youth from any background.  In academic Jewish institutions or even temples for those who practice religion, there are debate opportunities for those interested in the issues of modernity, secularism, and intellectualism or any other issue challenging Judaism in particular, and religion in general.

Such opportunities provide a rational and modernized approach in questioning spirituality and elements of Judaism without having the need to change one’s faith. Unfortunately, this was an opportunity that the Jews of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century in Iran were  were not privileged to have.

[1]The Quranic verse 9:28, “Inama al-Mushrikun najs” meaning the “Idolaters are indeed unclean” has been interpreted differently throughout time. In early Islam non-believer meant “polytheist,”but later on the term implied to “non-Muslim.” As for Sunnis, “non-believer implies only to  the polytheists,  whereas, Shi>ites interpret and imply the term to followers of other monotheist faiths as well.

 [2]Habib Levi, Trkh-e Yahd-e Irn, 2nd ed., vol. 3 (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999), 422-423. Ephraim Neumark, born in 1860, moved to the Holy Land as a child with his parents. But at the age of 23, he traveled through Tiberias, Syria, Kurdistan, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. After his trip, he wrote his three-year travelogue which has been used by many leading researchers of Jewish society.

[3]Shulhan Arukh: (1488-1575 C.E. / 892-983 A.H.).

[4] סימחאה תור  (SimhaTorah, rejoicing the Torah) Jewish celebration at the end of Sukkot.

Joseph Wolff, Researches and Missionary Labours Among the Jews, Mohammedans and other Sects, 2nd edition (London: J. Nisbet, 1835), 128-129.

[5]Walter Fischel, “The Jews of Persia- 1795-1940” in Jewish Social Studies 8, no. 2 (April 1950): 122;  E.G. Browne, A Year Amongst the Persians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926), 241, 243, 320-21; Habib Levi, Trkh-e Yahd-e Irn,  2nd ed., vol. 3 (Beverly Hills: Iranian Jewish Cultural Organization of California, 1984), 635, 744-747.

[6]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 127.

[7]Encyclopedia Britannica, S.V. “Capitulation Law”: A treaty whereby one state permitted another to exercise extraterritorial jusrisdiction over its own nationals within the former state’s boundaries.

[8]Levi, Trkh-e Yahd-e Irn, vol. 3, 724-29,  as reported from the notes of Soleyman Cohan Sedgh.

[9]Alliance Israélite Universelle, hearafter refered to as the “Alliance.”

[10]Amnon Netzer, “Establishment of the Alliance School in Tehran,” in Pdyvand 3 (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1999), 98-99; Honoring the Founders of Alliance Israélite Universelle (New York: 1996), 46. The name of  Bassan,  as the first Alliance representative in Kermanshah is reported by both  Amnon Netzer in Padyavand and  the Honoring of the Founders book, as “M. Bassan -1904”  with no first name recorded..

[11]Mehrdad Amanat, Negotiating Identities, Iranian Jews, Muslims and Bahā’īs in the Memoirs of Rayhan Rayhani (1859-1939), Ph.D. Dissertation (Los Angeles: University of California, 2006), 107.

[12]Levi, Trkh-e Yahd-e Irn, vol. 3, 668-669, reporting from the memoirs of Rahim Misha’il.  In 1892, Zulaykha ,the wife of Zaghi, converted to Islam in order to get divorced. She married the Muslim clergyman who right away claimed all the property of Zaghi for Zulaykha according to the Law of Apostasy.

[13]For divorce of Zolaykha and Zaghi; also see Levi, Trkh-e Yahd-e Irn, vol. 3, 668-669.

[14]Levi, Trkh-e Yahd-e Irn, vol. 3, 635-36, 659-669.

[15]Amanat, Negotiating Identities, 146.

[16]Amanat, Negotiating Identities, 146-147.

[17]Heshmat Allah Kermanshahchi, Iranian Jewish Community: Social Developments in the Twentieth Century (Los Angeles, Ketab  Corporation, 2007), 347-350.  See also

[18]Circa  BCE700- 200 CE)

[19] Nestorian Church, also called the Assyrian Church of the East, views Jesus Christ as two different entities, one human and one divine, in one body.  Nestorians have lived in Iran since the pre-Islamic era, having fled from the areas under the control of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. See Massoume Price, Brief History of Christanity in Iran, 2002, 6;

[20]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 148.  

[21]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 148.

[22]Amnon Netzer, Shofar of New York, September 1998, vol. 209,  22-23.

[23]Joseph Wolff, the world traveler and Christian missionary to the Jews in the Orient was born in Bavaria (Germany) to the family of a Jewish Rabbi. He converted to Catholicism in 1812, but because of his Heretical views, he moved to England and joined the Anglican Church around 1818/1819. He then joined the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews (CMJ) which was set up in London about ten years earlier in order to help convert Jews.

[24]Joseph Wolff, Researches and Missionary Labours  Among the Jews, Mohammedans, and other Sects [see n. 5],138, 154-157. It is during this visit that the  Qajar prince, Abbas Mirza,  compared  his missionary activity as  “a wandering Dervish, who goes about as a man of God,” and he subsequently gave permission to establish a school at Tabreez, expressing his desire to see the nation civilized.

[25]Joseph Wolff, Researches and Missionary Labours, 138,154-157.

[26]Wolff, Researches and Missionary Labours, 136-137.

[27]Wolff, Researches and Missionary Labours, 148.

[28]Wolff, Researches and Missionary Labours,128-129.

[29]Wolff, Researches and Missionary Labours, 425.

[30]Joseph Wolff, Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara, in the Years 1843-1845, to Ascertain the Fate of Colonel     Stoddart and Captain Conoly vol.1, 2nd ed. (London, J.W. Parker, 1845), 176.

[31]Henry A. Stern, Dawnings of Light In The East (London: Charles H. Purday, 1854), 196.

[32]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 147.

[33]Stern, Dawnings of Light In the Eat, 272.

[34]Henry A. Stern, Dawnings of Light In the East, 236-237; also refer to the conclusion, 272-278.

[35]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 148.

[36]Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Iran Mission, A Century of Mission Work in Iran (Persia 1834-1934) (Beirut: The American Press, 1936), 14-15. Also see Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 146.

[37]Massoume Price, Brief History of Christianity in Iran, 2002,, 9.

[38] A Century of Mission Work, 112, 14-15.

[39]A Century of Mission Work, 14.

[40]A Century of Mission Work, 14.

[41]A Century of Mission Work, 14-15; see also Netzer, Shofar, vol. 213, article no. 11, 23.

[42]A Century of Mission Work, 14-15, 112; Netzer, Shofar, vol. 213, article no. 11, 23. .

[43]Netzer, Shofar, vol. 213,  article no. 11, 23.

[44]A Century of Mission Work, 15,

[45]A Century of Mission Work, 15, 88; Netzer, Shofar, vol. 213,  Article no. 11, 23; oral interview with Mrs. Agdas Sabi, a graduate of Nur school (20 July 2017).

[46]Netzer, Shofar, vol. 213, article no. 11, 23, 44.

[47]Netzer, Shofar, vol. 213, article no. 11, 44; Netzer, Shofar, vol. 172, 28, 29, 60, June 1995.

[48]A Century of Mission Work, 15.

[49]A Century of Mission Work, 14-15, 112.

[50]Netzer, Shofar, vol. 213,  article no. 11, 23.

[51]Ecyclopaedia Iranica, S.V. “ British Schools in Persia,”; Church Missionary Society Archive SV. “Iran (Persia),”; also, oral interview with Dr. Hushang Hakhamimi whose parents were educated at Morsalin Hospital (20 July 2017); oral interview with Dr. Shokrollah Baravarian who has attended Adab H.S. (22 July 2017).

[52]Netzer, Shofar, vol. 213,  article no. 11, 23.

[53]Walter Fischel, Jewish Social Studies, 146.

[54]Netzer, Shofar, vol. 212,  no. 9, 23.

[55]A Century of Mission Work, 86-88.

[56]A Century of Mission Work, 14-15,103; Oral interview with Mrs. Aghadas Sabi a graduate of Nurbakhsh H.S. (20 July 2017).

[57]For further information about Damavand College, see D. Ray Heisey, “Reflection on a Persian Jewel: Damavand College, Tehran,” Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (in Asia) 5, no. 1 (2011).

[58]A Century of Mission Work, 87; Netzer, Shofar 212,  article no. 10, 23.  For further information about Alborz College see:

[59]A Century of Mission Work, 14-15.

[60]The Five Books of Moses”/ אספאר כמסה מאוסי/ اسفار پنجگانه موسی, Judeo-Persic Pentateuch, trans. Amirza Noorollah b. Hakham Hakim Moshe and Amirza Khodada b. Hakham Eliyahoo (London: British Hebrew Persian Bible Society, 1900).

[61]Encyclopaedia Iranica, S.V. “BĪMĀRESTĀN,

[62]“Church Missionary Society Archive Iran (Persia), Journal of Research on History of Medicine 2, no. 2, 2013,; also oral interview with Dr. Hushang Hakhamimi (20 July 2017).

[63]The women’s hospital was founded and placed under the supervision of Dr. Emmelina Stewart.

[64]Oral interview with Dr. Hushang Hakhamimi, having both parents been trained in Morsalin Hospital(July 20, 1017).

[65]“Church Missionary Society Archive Iran (Persia),” Encyclopaedia Iranica, S.V. “BĪMĀRESTĀN,” The hospital in Shiraz was funded by Ḥājj Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Nāmāzī.

[66]Netzer, Shofar 209,  article no. 7, 45.

[67]Century of Mission Work, 56. Beyond the schools, hospitals were also “utilized as a center for evangelistic work,” bringing in similar results.

[68]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 149. Thus Garlan’s “A Christian Catechism  for Jewish Pupils” (Isfahan, 1899) was transliterated into Judeo-Persian by a Jewish convert, but all the copies were later burned by the same person who did the translations. See Alliance Israélite (1901), 57.  “Catechism” means religious questions and answers to be used to test some body’s religious knowledge in advance of Christian baptism or confirmation.

See also John Elser, The History of American Missionary in Iran, trans. Soheil Azari (Tehran:  Nour Jahan Publishers, 1333 AH/1954),101. Prior to that in 1877, another book, named The Christian Dialogue, Ketab-e So’al va javab-e Massihi,was prepared for publication.

[69]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 149. According to the ‘British and Foreign Bible Society, authority from Calcutta was given to issue an edition of Henry Martyn’s translation. (See H. Martyn, Controversial Tracts on Christianity and Mohammdedanism, ed. S. Lee (Cambridge: J. Smith, 1824).

[70]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 149.

[71]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,”  149; “The Book of the Life of Jesus(in Hebrew: Sefer Toledot Yeshu) presents a chronicle of Jesus from a negative and anti-Christian perspective. …..Perhaps for centuries, the story circulated orally until it  coalesced into various literary forms.”

[72]Fischel “The Jews of Persia,” 149.

[73]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 150.

[74]A Century of Mission Work, 87.

[75]Meriam-Webster Dictionary, S.V. “Absolution”:  “the act of forgiving someone for having done something wrong or sin”; “ a remission of sins pronounced by a priest (as in the sacrament of reconciliation).” “Redemption” means salvation; deliverance from sin.

[76]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,”148.

[77]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 151.

[78]Walter Fischel, “The Bahā’ī Movement and Persian Jewry,” Jewish Review (1984): 47-55. For the most updated conversion of Jews to the Bahai faith, see Amnon Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews to the  Bahā’ī Faith: Early Period,” Irano-Judaica VI (Jerusalem, 2008), 290-323.

[79]Amanat, Negotiating Identities, 104.

[80]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 154.

[81]Amanat, Negotiating Identities,103.

[82]Amanat, Negotiating Identities,125-126, 174.

[83]Amanat, Negotiating Identities, 125.

[84]Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,”153-54.

[85]Honoring the Founders of Alliance Israélite Universelle, 37.

[86]Merriam Webster, S.V. “Original Sin”: “The state of sin that according to Christian theology characterizes all human beings as a result of Adam’s fall”; Merriam Webster, S.V.”Holy Trinity”: “the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons in one Godhead according to Christian dogma.”

[87]Wolff, Researches and Missionary, 54-55. See also Deut. 18: 15, 18; Fischel, “The Jews of Persia,” 156.

[88]Fischel, “ Jews of Persia,” 155; Abul-Faza’el Golpaygani,  1978, Rasā’el va raqā’em [1886-1913].

[89]Fischel, “ Jews of Persia,” 155.

[90]William Sears, Thief in the Nigh: The Strange Case of the Missing Millennium (Oxford: George Ronald, 1961),

[91]Fischel, “ Jews of Persia,” 155. The  2300 years mentioned in Daniel VIII:14 were said to have come to an end in 1844 C.E. (period of Daniel’s prophecy  B.C.E. 456 + 1844 C.E.  rise of Bab= 2300 years). For further biblical (old and new) as well as books of other faiths regarding the validity of the year 1844 as the year for the arrival of the new messianic prophecy, see Thief in the Night: The Strange Case of the Missing Millennium.

[92]Fischel, “ Jews of Persia,” 155; Hosea II,15: “ I will make the valley of Achor, a door of hope.”

[93]Fischel, “ Jews of Persia,” 155; see also Amanat, Negotiating Identities, 5.

[94]Fischel, “Jews of Persia,” 156.

[95]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews,” 303; reports from Neumark,  81.

[96]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews,” 304.

[97]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews,” 304.

[98]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews ,” 304.

[99]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews,” 306.

[100]Fischel, “Jews of Persia.,” 154.

[101]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews,” 309.

[102]Amanat, Negotiating Identities, 24-126.

[103]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews ,” 318.

[104]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews ,” 304.

[105]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews ,” 305.

[106]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews ,” 305.

[107]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews ,” 305.

[108]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews ,” 304.

[109]Netzer, “Conversion of Iranian Jews ,” 316.

State Capacity and Democratization in Iran


Misagh Parsa <> is a professor of Sociology at Dartmouth College. His most recent book, Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed, was published in November 2016 by Harvard University Press.


Scholars and social thinkers have long analyzed and debated the nature of the democratic state. Most sociologists agree that the likelihood of democratization is directly affected by state capacity, i.e., the power of the political system or the government to control and regulate the activities of the population within its jurisdiction. Democratization can be defined as the process of empowering the civilian population vis-à-vis the state. Empowering the civilian population requires all of the democratic freedoms and civil liberties, including freedom of speech, association, assembly, and above all, political equality and accountability of the rulers. This minimalist definition is consistent with the institutions of liberal democracy, which do not address matters such as equity and social justice. Very high capacity states often undermine the likelihood of democratization and generate irreconcilable conflicts, as in the case of the Soviet Union. Similarly, states with low capacity may fall vulnerable to instability and collapse. Hence, only states possessing a moderate capacity to control the social activities of their public are likely to be able to function along the principles of a liberal democracy. Based on these criteria, Iran’s theocracy would fall into the category of a high capacity state whose institutions are incompatible with liberal democracy.

Iranian society failed to democratize and empower the civilian population vis-à-vis the state for more than a century. Despite repeated popular attempts, from the Constitutional Revolution, through the nationalist movement of the 1950s, to the 1979 revolution and the Green Movement in 2009, Iran’s political system has resisted democratization. During all these contentious periods, internal forces, sometimes in alliance with external powers, denied Iranians democratic rights, and succeeded in imposing highly authoritarian rule.

During the revolutionary struggles, Ayatollah Khomeini and other Islamic leaders promised democratic rights and institutions. Here are a few samples of Khomeini’s statements on freedom and democracy:

  • “In Islamic government, there is no dictatorship.”
  • “We think that force and repression are not the means to progress.”
  • “There is no repression in Islam. There is freedom in Islam for all classes—for women, for men, for whites, for blacks, for everyone.”
  • “We will not abandon our struggle until we have a real democratic government that replaces the dictatorship and bloodshed.”
  • “Never allow a small group to rule over you like in the bitter days of despotism of the past. Do not forget the principle of Islamic democracy.”
  • “Repression has been buried and will not return.”[1]

But, once in power, following the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters pursued policies that undermined democracy and democratic institutions. Khomeini rejected democracy on the grounds that it was based on the rule of humans who could fall into error. Democracy was deemed unacceptable because it had a Western dimension. Khomeini even rejected the suggestion of calling the country an Islamic democratic republic. In a large public gathering in Qom, he noted, “We accept Western civilization but do not accept their corruption.” He denounced those “aristocrats” who lived in the West and had no role in the movement but wanted to derail the revolution. Khomeini declared that those who weakened the government were traitors. He noted that it was the youth who created the revolution, not the lawyers. He stated, “Newspapers should correct themselves and not commit treason against Islam. . . . The thing we want is an Islamic republic, not just a republic, or a democratic republic, or even an Islamic democratic republic, just an Islamic republic.”

Khomeini and his allies pressed relentlessly for the formation of a high capacity state that would remain unaccountable. Once Iranians approved the formation of an Islamic Republic in March 1979, Khomeini called it “the government of God.” Within a short period of time, he and his allies created the most powerful state in Iran’s modern history. Khomeini declared that the preservation of the Islamic system was one of the most important obligations. He asserted that, in the service of Islam, one could spy, lie, and even drink alcohol. Khomeini’s declaration undermined accountability and the rule of law, which constitute critical dimensions of a democratic state.

As the undisputed leader of the revolution, Khomeini determined the Islamic Republic’s constitution, which empowered the clergy. According to the constitution’s Article 5, the Muslim nation’s highest leadership position during the occultation of the Twelfth Imam was the Supreme Leader, reserved for the clergy. In response to criticism that this position might pave the way for dictatorship, Khomeini asserted that the velayat- e faghieh and clerical rule would not establish dictatorship but prevent it. But, in actuality, Khomeini instituted one of the most authoritarian systems in Iran and in the modern world.

Today, the Supreme Leader controls all three branches of government through his position at the apex of an elaborate network of councils and assemblies that reinforce theocratic, authoritarian decision-making and leave no room for democratic checks and balances. The Supreme Leader determines the regime’s top leadership by directly appointing six of the twelve members of the Guardian Council and the head of the judiciary. The Guardian Council vets and approves all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, who must also pass a religious examination. Only approved candidates for the Assembly are presented to the public for a nationwide popular vote. By determining the Guardian Council’s membership, the Supreme Leader exercises additional influence over its role in certifying that all legislation is compatible with Islam. The Supreme Leader also appoints all members of the Expediency Council, which is constitutionally charged with resolving disputes between the Guardian Council and the Majles. The Supreme Leader is appointed for an indefinite term by the Assembly of Experts, which theoretically can dismiss him in case of moral transgression or incompetence. However, such an outcome is highly unlikely because of the Leader’s influence over the Assembly. In reality, the Supreme Leader is accountable to no one.

The Supreme Leader’s powers are not limited to political arena. He enjoys other economic and ideological privileges. In addition to receiving unspecified amount of resources from the state, the Supreme Leader and economic entities under his rule control an estimated fifty percent of Iran’s GDP. More importantly, the Supreme Leader claims unusual qualifications and ideological prerogatives. He and his clerical subordinates claim that he is infallible and does not make mistakes because he receives guidance and inspiration from the prophet and the Twelfth Imam. Some clergy claim that the Supreme Leader is appointed by the Imam of Age (Hidden Imam). Some even note that everyone must submit to the rule of the Supreme Leader and disobedience is tantamount to polytheism. And anyone who opposes the regime would be deemed as mohareb, or enemy of God, and could be executed.

According to the ruling clergy, the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader do not gain their legitimacy from the Iranian people because God and the prophet confer the legitimacy for the system and its ruler. It is important to note that such claims negate Article 56 of the country’s constitution, which declares that God “has made man the master of his own social destiny. No one can deprive man of this divine right, nor subordinate it to the vested interests of a particular individual or group.” Obviously, a regime that represents divine rule and whose legitimacy is not rooted in the consent of the people must have attained a high level of autonomy from the population and may not represent the will of the people.

In sum, the Islamic Republic is an example of a high capacity state headed by absolutist rule resembling divine rights, with no accountability. The Supreme Leader wields enormous powers over the social, economic, and political structures of Iranian society, violating the basic requirement of political equality. It has become an exclusive state fundamentally incompatible with liberal democracy. The state imposes numerous obligations on the population but grants it no political rights. According to the rulers of the Islamic Republic, it is the duty of Iranians to obey and submit to a system that is a divine trust.

The formation of such a high capacity state in Iran entails significant implications for the country’s democratization. Extensive state control in virtually every aspect of society violates people’s democratic rights to determine their own destiny. Moreover, such state intervention generates multiple, irreconcilable contradictions and conflicts. Maintaining the Islamic Republic requires widespread, endless repression to silence dissent. Given that Iran’s theocracy is based on absolutist principles that rejects popular sovereignty, the regime cannot be democratized through limited reforms. In combination, the denial of democratic rights, the prolonged exclusion of the populace from determining its own destiny in the social, cultural, economic, and political spheres, endless state repression, along with the inability to reform tend to radicalize the people and set the stage for revolutionary struggles.

To avoid authoritarian rule and establish democracy, democratic movements must refrain from forming high capacity states. Such states often become highly intrusive, have the ability to severely control the social, economic, and political activities of the population under their jurisdiction. Furthermore, high capacity states may also impose all kinds of obligations and restrict people’s rights, violating the basic premises of democracy.

Thus, Iranians interested in empowering the people vis-à-vis the state must attempt to establish a liberal democracy and avoid instituting high capacity states. To democratize, Iranians must realize that above all democracies are based on political equality.  Hence, they would have to revoke all political privileges and powerful institutions that have given rise to the theocracy and created economic and cultural advantages for a small portion of the population. All such powers and institutions are incompatible with modern definitions of democracy and democratic rights.

Iranians interested in empowering the people vis-à-vis the state and establish a liberal democracy would find little enlightenment from the Russian and Chinese experiences. A more fruitful path would be to learn what bourgeois revolutions accomplished in England, France, and the United States earlier in those countries’ histories. After all, those revolutions challenged divine rights and demanded people’s political rights, which enabled their citizens to obtain a say in the decision-making processes.

But liberal democracies, which usually rely on market forces to determine the distribution of wealth and income, often do not have an interest in issues of social justice and equity. Iranians interested in equity and social justice may want to study social democracies, which partially empower working and middle classes vis-à-vis the economically dominant class. Social democracies generally possess greater capacity than liberal states, exercise greater control over the economy and society, possess some state enterprises for certain services, and play an active role in the distribution of wealth and income, while still remaining vibrant democracies. When socialists in Great Britain nationalized a number of industries and services after World War II, the country did not become undemocratic. The British government continued for decades to be the major shareholder of British Petroleum, formerly the Anglo-Iranian oil company, the largest corporation in the empire. In spite of such state intervention in the economy, the British government remained democratic. States in Scandinavian countries also have had a greater role in their economies while remaining fully democratic. In Norway, an oil-rich country, the state owns and controls much of its oil, which constitutes about 25 percent of GDP. The country remains both democratic and one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. Norway would provide an appealing model for Iranians seeking social democracy.

In conclusion, this brief analysis demonstrates that state capacity directly affects the likelihood of democratization. High capacity states tend to regulate heavily, control their population’s social activities, and become unaccountable. Such states leave little room for the public to decide their own behavior freely. Although Ayatollah Khomeini promised political freedom and democracy to the Iranian people during the revolutionary struggles, after the 1979 revolution the Islamic regime built a very high capacity state. The Islamic state was empowered to control and regulate the cultural, social, economic, political, and religious activities of the people. Iran’s experience clearly reveals that a high capacity state is incompatible with liberal democracy. Iranians interested in greater political freedom would do better to avoid a high capacity state; those who are also interested in social justice may learn from the experiences of social democracies in Europe and other parts of the world.


[1]Misagh Parsa, Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 80.

What a Line (Drawing) Might Reveal: Hamid Naficy’s Caricatures

Michael Fischer <> trained in geography and philosophy at Johns Hopkins, social anthropology and philosophy at the London School of Economics, anthropology at the University of Chicago. Before joining the MIT faculty, he served as Director of the Center for Cultural Studies at Rice. He has conducted fieldwork in the Caribbean, Middle East, South and Southeast Asia; and works now on the anthropology of biosciences, media circuits, and emergent forms of life.

For Hamid, July 2018

An invitation to a Naficy game, a family tradition, a kind of reverse e’awase (a Japanese form in which one person writes an essay on a painting and the other produces a new transformed version of the painting): in this case 17 caricatures produced over the years by Hamid Naficy.  The invitation’s instruction was: Comment!  Seventeen is a traditional Iranian number, the number of neighborhoods in a town, each with its own character.  They are often rivals in ritual displays and processions.  Not unlike academics in debates and performances.

There are rules of the game.  Hamid’s self-imposed rules for the caricatures are: simple pencil or pen and paper, no erasing, focus on the face while an academic is addressing an audience.  His own self reflections about the drawings tend toward the Freudian, attributing the attachment to the face as mother love, attachment to the breast, late weaning.

My self-imposed rules of the game: (i) start with pure first-impressions and free associations; (ii) channel the character talking to the audience, and so write in the first person; (iii) re-order the caricatures, from the alphabetical order (by first name) in which they were supplied, intro a chronological order, mainly to underscore the dates of production and their contexts, but also to see if artistic gestures or narrative features might grow over time into signatures of style.  The first person address can also give the character, in a final separate short paragraph, a chance to comment on the caricature.  Thus, three or four turns of the line: free association, narrative “content,” historical context, character commenting on the caricature.

What does the line reveal that the natural eye does not see?  The line in the commentary is the boundary between artist and subject’s point of view.  It is a line that needs crossing.

Homa Katuzian, 1985

First impressions: sharp beaked angry bird, wattle a wagging, standing firm in Persian slippers, legs apart, under fitted Safavid robe with flared bell-shaped skirt, back to the audience, looking over his shoulder askance.

HK: What! You really think Reza Shah’s 1921 coup was engineered by the British?  And the Anglo-Persian agreement of 1919 was meant to turn Iran into a British protectorate?  Not so.  Of course Iran fell into the pit of the oil curse of all petroleum rentier economies: all revenue channeled through the state; perfect opening for corruption and repression — build up the secret police, stifle dissent.  No difference today.  A cancre eats the soul, as Sadegh Hedayat famously put it —  you saw my books about him?  I also edited Mohammad Mosaddiq’s memoirs: what a waste, all that effort towards restoring a constitutional republic and get some sovereignty over the oil, only to have Ayatullah Kashani and his goons ally with the royalists to bring the young shah back.  Oh well, I fit better in Sa’idi’s slippers, do you like them, elegant and pointed like his poems.  Yeah, so it’s 1985, you’d think we’d have gotten over all this Islamic craziness, but no, the Iran-Iraq disaster of a war continues with the Battle of the Marshes (Badr) and second war of the cities; the re-election of mid-level mullah Hojat ul-Islam Ali Khamenei as President (they only let three members of the IRP run, disqualifying Mehdi Bazargan who was protesting suppression of basic civil liberties and calling for an end to the war), the Iran-Contra affair (Israel ships weapons to Iran which gets Hezbollah to release U.S. hostages in Lebanon, and the proceeds of the weapons sales illegally aids the Contras in Nicaragua, all at the direction of President Reagan).  What a mess!

And you wonder why I’m looking over my shoulder askance?!   Make fun, if you like, of my turning my back on the present in favor of a more cultivated past, but I do not have a wattle! — it’s a goatee.

“Homa Katouzian,” 8 March 1985, drawn in a lecture at UCLA.

“Homa Katouzian,” 8 March 1985, drawn in a lecture at UCLA.

Julian Greimas, 1986

First impressions: stunned eyes, behind square spectacles, one eye strong and round, one eye squished elliptically and clouded, set above a very long, long, long nose and wonderfully thick upturned long-horn walrus mustache. A seal of a man.

AJG: Taip, oui, d’accord! You see, one eye is tracking what I call the semantic universe while the other is tracking the discourse universe; ja, it’s a bit complicated both neurally and structurally.  You see the neural system has to transpose actual language into a meta-language.   You know, there is this chiasmus between the right and left eye or rather the nerves largely go to the opposite brain hemisphere.  They were first mapped out by Santiago Ramon y Cajal in 1898.  So, I’m not really cross-eyed, nor is my right eye squinting or wandering, but it does have to do with Aristotle’s much too static 2×2 logic squares, which I’ve tried to turn into a dynamic generative and transformational square.  They call it the Greisemer or semiotic square.  Like two eyes, you have phonemic and morphemic binary oppositions to make meaning, but each binary creates a mediating third, and so on, and so there can be a directionality to the transformations.  And in any case, in a square that represents binaries as opposite corners, there are diagonal, as well as vertical and horizontal, contrasts between the corners: a big X in a box. Because, you see, to capture how we actually communicate, you have to combine three levels. There is the subject defined by his or her quest for objects; second, the quest follows a narrative schema, sort of the way Vlad Propp analyzed folktales as having characters on the vertical axis and plot sequences along the horizontal axis, or nouns and verbs, if you like.  Call these elements of narrative “actants.”  So, the subject has a mandate, an action and an evaluation — a narrative.  But different subjects deploy these narrative forms with different cognitive styles or grammatical competence.  And they, in turn, are modified by their passions into distinctive performances.  Taip, yeah, a bit complicated, surface levels and deep levels, transformations and such, all very nice, geometrically speaking, or maybe a kind of cat’s cradle, you know.

Anyway, this caricature of me makes fun of my big nose, but the curved Nietzschean walrus mustache I wish I could grow; mine is bushy but just droops around my mouth, less flamboyant, more like a seal.

“Cornelius Castoriadis, Heteronomous society!” UCLA.

“Cornelius Castoriadis, Heteronomous society!” UCLA.

Kaja Silverman, 1987

First impressions: Kwakiutl mask, speedy she-wolf, raptor or raven, angry, and chewing up Freud’s toy train, drooling out the last car.   The striking top of the head is what attracts the eye first.  The curvature of the nose with its line arching back under the eye is like a bullet train, or airplane cockpit window; and the nose is a 1950s idea of an aerodynamic automobile or airplane nose.  The eye shape is like a Kwakiutl raven mask.  Then there is the severe razor-straight mustache above the lip.  This Freudian condensation of anger’s speed, determination, and pointedness is so dominating, it almost takes effort to scan down and see the mouth ingesting or masticating the train.  Or is the train a tongue?  The tongue is for talking, working through.  In analytic sessions, one deconstructs rebus images, entrained, and needing decoupling, interpretation and transference to make sense to the dreamer, the analyst, and the feminist.  It is a tongue like that of Kali’s hanging out, bloody and destructive, ingestive, and indigestive.  For Freud, the train is a metaphor for free association (say what comes to mind as if sitting in a train and describing the things that come into view); for inner work (my moods change like the landscapes seen by a traveler from a train); for mirroring (seeing my reflection in the glass of the door or window); for analytic sessions of timed enclosures (huis clos, no exit); and for modern anxieties (staying on track, acceleration of time, always running to catch up, fear of missing the train or Reisefeber, neurasthenia or railway shock causing railway spine, railway brain).  Hamid’s caption is blunt: “phallic mother,” making one think of tunnels and penetration, vagina dentata, and maternal incorporation, not letting go of the penis, not allowing separation.  Hamid’s own self analysis speculates about over-identification with, over long weaning from, his mother’s face/breast.

KS: Now look, a bit of correction here: my work has changed over time, and I do get tired sometimes of this insistent reduction to narrow terms of the feminist opposition to the repetitive term patriarchy, and so want to turn in the future to the analysis of paintings, like those of Gerhardt Richter.  But you are right: at this moment, now in 1987, the book I’m working on, The Acoustic Mirror (1988), attempts to find within psychoanalysis ways to show how the psyche can be resistant or antipathetic to patriarchy.  Against Lacan, I want to find a non-phallic access to the symbolic order, showing how desire and identification are structured in relation to the mother rather than only the father, just as Hamid muses about himself.  My next book (Male Subjectivity at the Margins, 1992) is going to be about alternative forms of masculinity based on identification with the feminine, which is not to say that Hamid, father of two, with his grand beard is not fully masculine.  But look, already in my first book, The Subject of Semiotics (1983), I used the example, from Proust, of Swann and Odette to show how we invest our libido in a variety of associational fields that we attach to a love object.  Odette is not Swann’s type, but he is attracted because he hears a piece of music he loves when she is present.  Then he connects her to a Botticelli painting, and so on.  Our identity is constructed through a series of misrecognitions of ourselves beginning with the mirror stage, and then many other displacements which light up other objects of incorporation than ourselves, and integrate them as parts of ourselves.  A parent, the father or mother, is not a fixed entity but a heterogeneous host of memories, any one of which can be the starting point for displacement, and construction of self.

No comment on my caricature: it’s true I have gotten more severe and monotonic in my public readings as I’ve aged, so I kind of like the energy in the portrait and it is certainly very astute in identifying a number of the misrecognitions that have given form to my identity, my writings over time, and the ways in which others see me.  My work tries out several of those closed door (huis clos) train carriages (or analytic sessions) to work out how gender dynamics might work to explode the train’s phallicism.  Maybe Jacques (Derrida)’s deconstruction of phallic logocentrism could help here.


“Kaja Silverman on ‘Phallic Mother’” 20 May 1987, Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference

Martin Jay, 1987 (“Habermas and postmodernism”)

First Impressions: man in Russian or Hassidic fur cap, with twisted shark’s teeth, crossed nostrils and beady eyes, severed hind leg astride a tank with aerial up, and a squirrel tail.  A wide-eyed circle super-flat manga character peers over the tank from the crook of the man’s arm.  Hamid’s caption reads, “Habermas and postmodernism.”  Is the manga figure Habermas — that is, a figure of his communicative rationality as the condition of possibility for his ideal public sphere —looking in wonder at the real world’s performative contradictions?  Or is the main caricature Habermas, and Martin Jay is the little manga man, the blank commentator, observing, but keeping himself out of the way?  So now the head is topped by Habermas’ unruly shock of hair, and the twisted mouth is Habermas’ distinctive hare-lip which, despite corrective surgery, slurs his speech, but does not interfere with his incisors or incisiveness.  He preoccupies, overwhelming Martin Jay’s own figure, lecturing on “Habermas and postmodernism” in 1987.

MJ: So, why can’t Jürgen Habermas understand the theorists of the postmodern?  It’s really frustrating, because they are actually politically on the same side (eventually he and Jacques Derrida will become good friends), but Habermas today, in 1987, sees the shadows of resurgent Heideggerianism and nihilistic Nietzscheanism in recent French enthusiasms.  French intellectuals, after all, have taken the longest time to recognize the totalitarian evils of Stalin, and they seem, according to Habermas, to underestimate the dangers of a reunified Germany and its nationalist resurgence.  The shadows of war remain long, there are still amputees, damaged veterans, damaged physically but also psychically and morally.  The task of building and rebuilding robust deliberative democracies requires, as Derrida says, constant vigilance, no one more vigilant and outspoken than Habermas, hugging the tank with severed limb.  After all, from early on, Habermas analyzed the fall of spectacle politics, the theater state of the French monarchy, and the emergence of an open society of deliberation, newspapers, and debate, in turn threatened by the colonization of the public sphere by owners of the media.  Things have not gotten simpler or transparent, and Habermas’ own efforts to define a social theory of pure communicative rationality seems beset by the way the world works in reality.  No wonder he appears in the cartoon as a little bubble of purity dismayed by the sharks, cossacks, and crossed swords, waving their tails like flags of virtue.  As the rabbis say, if I am only for myself, who and what am I?  So too we need to foster plural lifeworlds and not allow their subversion by the formal rationalities that bureaucrats and totalitarian regimes use against us arbitrarily or at the whim of the market.

Aggh!  No, I can’t see any likeness between the cartoon and myself, unless I’m supposed to be the little round-eyed guy, and Jürgen’s the one with all the hair – maybe the ambiguity is supposed to be a sign of the postmodern?  But it sure is a striking visual, more dramatic than I’ll ever be.

“Martin Jay on ‘Habermas and Postmodernism,” 9 April 1987, UCLA.

“Martin Jay on ‘Habermas and Postmodernism,” 9 April 1987, UCLA.

Jean-François Lyotard, 1987

First impressions:  Sharp nose and searching eyes in a trim bird-like head seems right, but how do we parse the surrealist figuration of a pen — sharpened and protruding from an electric razor, pencil sharpener, or anus, resting atop an oversized buttoned-up shoe, or is it a judge’s gavel decorated with some academic trimming?  Either way, shoe or gavel, the foundations on which we balance our discursive rationalizations are at odds with our apperceptions, thanks to visual and libidinal forces.   Discourse [and] Figure (1971) interrupt each other (the tropes in language often redirect awry the speaker’s thoughts], as does the wiring and the anus extruding pen, or the libidinal inscriptions, below the neck (The Libidinal Economy, 1974).  The synaptic electricity seems to have caused the neural wiring to explode and go haywire all over the penguin-like tuxedo.  Justice (the gavel) or Just Gaming (1975, translated 1985) is a problem of interpretation of competing events, unresolvable because of The Differend (1983/1988), that is, the non-commensurable differences across language games.  Such perhaps is the libidinal economy and the computerized information system that constitutes the conditions of postmodern knowledge.  Minitel, the early French computerized information system, was the object in mind during the writing of The Postmodern Condition (1979/1984) — a false lead, but a productive one — raising the same questions that Habermas raises:  about the conditions of legitimation of knowledge, expertise, and governance; and about the challenges of the mercantilization of knowledge, judged by performativity, metrics of excellence and instrumentality.  Still, as in the caricature, the role of the avant-garde or postmodern art is that of pushing the boundaries of modernism, that only later will become recuperated as modernism.

JFL: Ok, now for the caricature to actually function in a postmodern way, it needs to be a little more like Barnett Newman’s work.  It needs to index that something profound and sublime is going on, without having to specify what that something is. And it needs to show an injustice, a result of a differend, a structural immemorial, that cannot be memorialized (encrypted, pushed away), but keeps irritating, keeping the critical senses alive.   So, actually, I kind of like the caricature.  The pen is irritating, beyond the body, and beyond the capacities of the electronic media which soon will be called the digital media.  All of us in the 1970s and 1980s expected information theory to be transformative, often in uncontrollable and dangerous ways.  In the new millennium, business managers will fetishize “disruption,” digital tools for disaggregating jobs into tasks, and further mercantilizing everything.  Life was easier in the days of Socialisme ou Barbarie, or rather it was imagined to be a simpler matter of revolutionary politics; the revolution didn’t happen in Algeria, and it didn’t happen in 1968 France.  Good luck, now.

“Lyotard,” 15 October 1987, UCLA.

“Lyotard,” 15 October 1987, UCLA.

Jacques Derrida, 1987

First Impressions:  almond eyes, Spock ears, hair on fire, large mouth, thick-necked and chubby, with narrow tie and jacket.  The eyes, drawn with dark, elongated upper eyelids/brows, are like statues of the Buddha or Mahavira before they are installed or enlivened, that is, with empty sockets, waiting for the awakening (democracy to come, justice to come).  Derrida is portrayed as a youthful Algerian Jewish exile, aspirant to French culture, insider-outsider, deconstructor of the Western philosophical tradition, using his Talmudic-semiotic skills as well as his French-German-and-English skills to show how languages, tropes and reason undo themselves, carry meanings other than those intended by their authors, doing work in their very framing beyond the frames.

JD: So, let’s “deconstruct” this caricature.  Given that for years I refused to allow any pictures of myself, and then, when I did allow a few, I posed in striking angles, always making sure my hair was waved just so, it’s odd to try to interpret features in this drawing that seem like Levi-Strauss’s challenge in interpreting the masks of the Northwest Coast Indians or First Nations as inversions of one another’s masks and myths.  So, for starters, there is no nose, no olfactory sensibility, no attunement to fragrance and odor, albeit its importance as a communicative channel.  Instead there is suggested logorrhea (“should I ask H for a break after this, 15 minutes”) and antenna-tuned aurality.  The pointy ear perhaps is a reference, a pointer, to my recently translated The Ear of the Other (1986), the effort to explore, in the manner of George Herbert Mead, the construction of the self through engagements with the other, not unlike what Kaja Silverman said a bit earlier in this colloquium.  The narrow, vestigial, tie refers to my efforts to eschew only masculinist imagery.

The caricaturist turns me into a chubby adolescent, ambitious to make his way (hair at attention), with Algerian (Oriental?) eyes vacant, unknowing as yet how to make my mark.  But it is already 1987, the year of English translations of The Truth in Painting, and The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, and the giving of my lectures at Rice University on “Psyche: The Invention of the Other,” which I had previously given at Cornell and Harvard.  Sorry, it put the President of the University to sleep in the front row.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, 1988 

First Impressions:  The manga man (wide eyes in circular face), this time with a burnt left index finger, is holding onto the inside of a bubble attached to the bottom of a floating bag of hot air, inside of which floats a blank white map of greater Iran from Baghdad to Samarkhand, outlined in the black of (Sunni?) rivals (Arabs, Turks and Turkomen, Baluchis).  At the very top is a mop of hair flapping as if the bag were perhaps a face.  There are two inscriptions.  One, attached to the map, reads, “Iran, the guilt culture: intellectuals either imitate the West or define their identity in opposition; to define this a return to nativism, indigenization.”  The other bubble near the manga man reads, “Mehrzad Boroujerdi on ‘The identity problematic of Iranian intellectuals.’”

MB: Yes, so I’m one of the many who fled Iran, got my fingers burnt as it were, and I do plan to write an account of the history of the past forty years through the story of my family.  But first I will write up the book that I’m talking about today in 1988, Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism (1996). But next I will do a more empirical study of 2,333 political figures that have staffed the Islamic Republic of Iran from 1979 to 2018.  This will allow “me to abandon grandiose theorizing, in favor of laborious data collection and fact-based biographical sketches.”[1]  So, in a way, the caricature is promissory, to fill in the bag with empirical data.

Elias Khouri, 1989

First impressions:  The otherwise placid caricature of the author of eleven novels, journal editor, public intellectual and academic (signified by three pairs of spectacles hanging from his jacket) has three disturbing features: doubled eyeballs, a light bulb or hearing aid as his left ear, and a bloody hand attached to a shoulder dripping two drops of blood.

EK: There’s nothing particularly odd or surreal about the drawing.  After all, although, I was born in a Greek Orthodox family, I’ve been involved with Palestinian issues in Lebanon since 1967 when, as a 19 year old, I travelled to Jordan, lived in a refugee camp, joined Fatah and the fedayeen, and experienced the expulsion of Palestinians after Black September in 1970.  After finishing my Ph.D. in Paris, I returned to work in the Palestine Research Center in Beirut.  During the Lebanese civil war in 1975 I was injured and temporarily lost my eyesight, so the double vision or reborn vision of the doubled eyeballs is quite apt.  I wrote novels as a way of catalyzing change.  But unlike one-eyed Palestinian writers, I was always concerned to treat the Palestinian experience as the mirror of Israeli experience, countering the stereotypes on both sides. So, again the doubled eyeballs are apt.  Again, I use interior monologue and some dialect, rather than only standard Arabic, so yes, I depend on listening, and the caricature’s focus on a hyper-ear is correct.  Nothing really need be said about the bloody hand in a situation where there is oppression on all sides including in Lebanese jails.  But my effort is to gather together all the partial stories that make up the rhythms of life, democratically retelling stories over and over, each time capturing the lifeworld a little differently.  In this, Jacques Derrida is correct: repetition generates difference, and in difference lies hope and the future.


Peter Chelkowski, 1990 

First impressions: clean cut, large, elongated eyes raised upwards, mouth with displaced lips (or a very large planted kiss by a female admirer); the head emerges from a Swiss cheese block, or drilled holes in an architectural element, with scalloped or squinch cutout at the bottom, set against a brick chimney from which two mushrooms emerge.  One cannot help but wonder about the ghastly brick chimneys of World War II in Poland, which this man had nothing to do with.  It is, like one of his adopted homes, Iran, a place of pain and tragedy.  Poland where he was born, and Iran where he got a Ph.D. in Persian literature were both places that remained deep in his affections and self-identity.  Perhaps the Swiss cheese is history drilled full of holes. Chelkowski became an expert on the taziyeh mourning rituals of Iran, particularly the shabih re-enactments of the Battle of Karbala, for which he delightedly played impresario, dramatically retelling the stories himself to classes, showing films and photographs, and helping host the Taziyeh conference at Trinity College, Connecticut.  Always with good humor, he kept his eyes raised towards the good things in life.

PC:  What an honor and delight to be represented in this collection, Hamid!  The caricature line drawing is itself a great Iranian tradition, used for satire, and good humor.  You show here yet another of your exquisite skills, that would make your storied literary forebears in Isfahan and Tehran proud.  Thank you, and congratulations.    


Douglas Crimp, 1993 (“it’s all displacement, cathexis, despair”)

First impressions:  The elegant arc of the body strikes first, then resolves into a lighting fixture.   The head emerges from the lighting fixture that tapers down into an arrow or shovel stuck into the ground.  The little puff of smoke that comes out from the seam between the ball and socket of the lighting fixture provides a small balance to the bubble comment from the figure’s mouth: “it’s all displacement, cathexis, despair.”  The triangle of the eyebrow and that of the sparse hair at the back of the head also geometrically balance one another.  The elegant arc of the figure is Crimp the dance critic, not so much the queer theorist or art critic.  He’s 49 in 1993, still very handsome but losing the hair along the sides that had framed his face as a younger man.

DC:  The spotlight metaphor is very kind.  I did earn my chops in New York setting up shows at the Guggenheim, and then the little show downtown in 1977 that made my name, “The Picture Show.”   While that balloon is a little reductive, October, the journal I managed and co-edited with Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michaelson from 1977 to 1990 was indeed full of the language of psychoanalytic “displacement, cathexis, and despair.”  “The Picture Show” was about what we eventually called postmodern art—photographers like Cindy Sherman and photorealist painters like Robert Longo —who reworked popular culture images.  I’ve written about that first decade of my life in New York in my hybrid memoir Before Pictures (Chicago University Press, 2016).  It opens with the metaphor “Front Room, Back Room,” for having to walk through the front room of the restaurant-club Max’s Kansas City in the late 1960s to get to the back room where all the gay action was.  I was always bending to different desires (you got that right, including presenting anally).  There was deep ambivalence negotiating the straight and academic art world with the queer world, and later negotiating the activist world of ACT UP during the AIDS emergency with my duties both at October and my day job as an academic.  It eventually caused my divorce from October.  I will collect my writings in ten years or so on the years of the 1980s in a volume I’ll call Melancholia and Moralism – Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (MIT Press, 2004).  I’m still very committed to the pleasures of promiscuity of that brief gay liberation moment between Stonewall (1969) and AIDS (1981 on).  I remain deeply disturbed both by American moralism around sexual matters, and by the increasing domination of the art world by the market.  Yes, I’d like to think that the graceful arc of the caricature also captures something of my work with dancers and choreographers.  But also, maybe my defense in public hearings of Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc,” a site-specific sculpture for Federal Plaza, before the government removed it.

Hayden White, 1993 (at Brazo’s bookstore) “unheimlich”

First impressions: the genial open face and hair are well caught. Maybe the striped clown arm and gloved hand are a reference to White’s Metahistory (1973) and likewise the bubble saying “unheimlich, oh my, unheimlich.”  It is clowning only in the serious sense of mucking about with settled convention. Similarly, the uncanny is a kind of unstable double vision of things that sometimes allows you to see and play with the mechanism behind the illusion.

HW:  I don’t know about the clowning metaphor, but true, I do not believe biography or history gets us to any direct truth.  In the case of master historians of the nineteenth century, there was always an unstable and unsatisfactory effort to get argument, narrative plot, and ideological preference to sync together, which provoked successors to try to do better.  And, so, history writing would cycle through more tragic, comic, and ironic forms reflecting the mood of the times.  How did I slip into metahistory? The answer is the typical socialist realist 1930s scenario.  Born to working class family in the south, moved to Detroit, the manufacturing center in the Depression to find work, where everything was more racialized than in my relatively integrated southern background, going to public schools where one was made aware of class differences, then to the city’s college, DeKalb, where I became interested in medieval history.  But I found most people who studied the Middle Ages believed in its ideologies, and I couldn’t comfortably do that.  So, through Max Weber, I discovered the role of ideology, the analysis of the construction of ideologies.  He was a historian of the ancient world who also did medieval history, and the question was how could beliefs sustain themselves for a thousand years.  So, with socialist convictions, and ideology critique, I got into how historical construction is used to construct ideology.  The discomfort and ambiguities that Douglas Crimp talked about is somewhat similar, in his case, across conventional and gay histories, or moralisms and freedom from those moralisms; in my case, market ideology and artistic critique.


Cornelius Castoriadis, 1995 (“heteronomous society”)

First impressions: bald head with pronounced triangular shape below the nose are realistic; the worker’s ax attached to a blood flushed hand (stop!) reflects Castoriadis’ shifting alliances from Athenian Communist youth and Communist Party of Greece (against the Metaxas dictatorship), to Trotskyist, to libertarian socialist (around the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, along with Lyotard and Claude Lefort), and later Lacanian psychoanalysis.  The outsized ear spurting a stream of blood across mouth and tongue, dripping with blood, perhaps signifies his work as an economist for the OECD (the destructiveness of market capitalist ideologies) as well as his debunking of Soviet claims to be a socialist mode of production with a mode of distribution that had as yet failed to keep up.  It was instead, he argued, a state capitalist formation.  The caption “heteronomous society,” is the term he used in contradistinction to autonomy.  Autonomous forms are self-organizing from Greek agora and democracy to the autonomia workers movement of Italy in the 1970s.  Heteronomous forms are those that allow control to rest in the hands of others.  So, the relation between revolution (ax), hand (stop!), tongue, and ear has to do with his sense of the (Lacan-derived) social imaginary: how a society names and institutes itself.  History consists of revolutionary, discontinuous events, which are given meaning by being named, by taking ownership. Born in Constantinople, and part of the Greek-Turkish exchange, followed by exile to Paris in 1945, his work became part of the non-Marxist left, reflecting his life’s experiences.

CC: I died in 1997, so it’s hard to comment, but kudos to the artist.

Ehsan Yarshater, 1995 (Talking about the Mazdakite Movement)

First impressions: puppy-like eagerness to please with warm eyes, floppy ears, nuzzle prone nose and gregarious mouth, looking around from a magician’s top hat, set next to a hexapede (six-footed) elongated turtle with head extended and shell or blanket ending in a heel and toe -like foot.  Actually, the cartoon captures Yarshater’s friendly face quite nicely, and no disrespect intended in the “puppy” label (I think of Emmanuel Levinas’ dog, Bobby, the only living being who always greeted the concentration camp inmates with warmth and recognition). The floppy ears are really side tufts of hair, and he really is friendly and gregarious, and an unusually well trained and fine scholar of Iran, long time editor in Iran of Bongaah-e Tarjomeh va Nashr-e Ketaab, and then in New York, editor of the Encyclopedia Iranica, as well as of the volume in the Cambridge History of Iran on the Seleucids, Parthians and Sassanians.  Trained by W.B. Henning in Old and Middle Iranian, a student of the northern Tati dialect as well as Jewish-Persian dialects, he was born in Hamadan of Baha’i (and I suspect Jewish) ancestry.  His take on the Mazdakites — an egalitarian and proto-socialist reform movement of Zoroastrians in the sixth century C.E., that had early success, was suppressed by the Sassanians, and reappeared as an influence in resistance movements after the Arab conquest of Iran— was that as they became disruptive to the control of the elites they were suppressed including a bloody massacre in Ctesiphon, the capital.  The friendly reptile at the bottom thus becomes legible as an “undercover” social movement with many feet (followers) over a long period of time (turtles live long lives), having a big foot (foothold) in the nationalism of Iran (Zoroastrian state religion), sticking their head out from time to time in favor of social justice, economic redistribution, and egalitarianism.

EY:  Good, good, I like it.  The good religion (beh din) of good words, good thoughts, good deeds is well grounded and survives today.

Paul Rabinow, 1995

First impressions: It’s a triple faced Daruma doll (or okiagari “roly-poly”) with a stabilizing tail.  One is a sun-shaped Paul, genial, smiling, with a tuft of wild professorial hair at the back of his head.  This Paul is being nestled at the chest, facing a Plato’s cavern of darkness, with indirect rays of light only on the cavern floor.  Above are two bespectacled faces in African or North African turban-cap, one face turned forward with small round mouth; the other in profile with jutting jaw, open mouth, and curved nose.  The triplet theme is right for 1995, when he was writing Making PCR. So, threes have to do with the triplets of nucleotides, the automated PCR device which replicates or amplifies DNA, and the genetic code, composed of “letters” of triplets of nucleotides. Cetus Corporation, the biotech company that commercialized the automated system is described by Rabinow as doing three things:  turning an idea (Cary Mullis gets the Nobel Prize for this) into an experimental system (the work horses of the invention in Rabinow’s evaluation) which in turn gets packaged into a sellable tool or kit (commercial value that allows Roche Pharmaceuticals to buy out a large part of Cetus with the PCR patents).  So, a third sense of the triplet in the caricature is Paul as DNA being incubated (experimental system), with up-top Paul as the idea, and turned to the side with open mouth for propagation (speech, marketing, exchange value, commerce) of the commercial kit.  The roly-poly is a metaphor for the ups and downs of scientific experimentation commercialization: lots of failures, getting knocked down, and having to bounce back up.  And the large bowl-like bottom, filled with squiggly worms, is both an incubator (of DNA, of ideas) and a government investment in research and development; the tail is the stabilizing tax revenues making it all possible.

PR:  Yes, that’s good.  I’d only add two things that did not make it into the representation.  First the quirk of fate that as an anthropologist I got access to Cetus Corporation through Tom White, its science-manager, because his wife had read Writing Culture and so had an inkling of what an ethnographic-anthropological project might be.  And second, that the conditions of possibility for the whole roly-poly were established by the Chakrabarty supreme court decision and the Bayh-Dole Act, both in 1980.  These incentivized the biotech boom of the 1980s and 1990s, by allowing the patenting of inventions and commercialization arising from government sponsored research.

As to the caricature itself, no comment yet: I’ll get to the visual arts in twenty years with my work on Gerhardt Richter.

Hamid Naficy, Self Portrait, 1996

First impressions:  A very fine Kwakiutl mask face, with big cheeks or mustache, round eyes (reels), chattering teeth (sprockets), on the side of a police whistle (film canister), with the curved mouthpiece (film strip) unwinding to a small horse tail tip.  Switching parallax point of view, one can also see the “horse tail” as a mustache; the handle of the whip forms a nose and eye (black pupil and white segments); the high forehead, curves back to the film canister brain.  The brain contains a hard disk spinning, with random access enabled, digital film archives.

HN: No comment because of confusion about whose breath is blowing through the sound system.

“[Hamid Naficy] Self Portrait!,” 1996, Rice University.

“[Hamid Naficy] Self Portrait!,” 1996, Rice University.

Tom Gunning, 1999 (“industrialization of simulacrum”)

First impressions: bust of a large eyed, droopy mustachioed, round shouldered, fellow with flowing hair parted center left (stage right).  The bust is held up by accordion-like lungs on a vertebrae-like stringed instrument neck, with tuning pegs. The contraption stands in a boat, or begging bowl.  It’s a wonderful image for a master of the cinema of attractions (many entertainment forms from vaudeville, sonic and visual gimmicks) and of the cinema of allegories of vision and modernity (follow the use of the telephone as an actant in Fritz Lang’s movies).

TG: I could use the occasion for another talk, but I’d rather just sit back and play upon Baudrillard’s notions that in the movies or the television news, things are repeated without any original experience or event being required.  Ever notice how footage from one war is substituted for another by a lazy or time-pressured newsroom.  Also notice how the program music tells you what to feel or expect without necessarily having any relation to what you are seeing.  As the channels of communication and sensation get pulled apart and remixed, new possibilities open up, new worlds, new kinds of experience.  Digitalization makes it all easier, more liquid.  The synthesizers and electronic orchestras are taking over the means of perception.

By the way, in the next few years I’ll let my hair grow even longer.

“Tom Gunning,” 1999; Talk bubble: “Industrialization of Simulacrum.”

“Tom Gunning,” 1999; Talk bubble: “Industrialization of Simulacrum.”

Goli Emami, 2000 (My story begins)

First impressions:  an intellectual middle-class woman’s head par excellence, elegant squared glasses, short combed hair, stem like long neck set on an angle like a lamp, serene, placed on a buttoned-up tunic, part of a three-layered pedestal.  The buttons could also be violin pegs, aligned with the xylophone carved into the bottom of the pedestal, i.e. not just a reading lamp, but a music system to read by.  Captures a translator, journalist, publisher, serial library and bookstore owner, woman of strength and valor, convener and facilitator of a generation of young strong women in Tehran.  Goli Emami (nee Golrokh Adib-Mohammadi), with her husband Karim, first founded Zamineh Publishing, which became Zamineh Bookstore, a gathering place.  She became general manager for three years of Farzan Publishing House.  She will later found Bayan Salis International Book Store, another gathering place with light butcher block shelves for local authors, and dark wooden ones for foreign authors.  1997 was when Khatami was re-elected for his second Presidential term; but in 2000 two prominent women activists, Mehrangiz Kar and Shahla Lahiji, were arrested after attending a conference in Berlin, celebrating the reformists’ victory.  And so it goes, back and forth, with, most recently, Emami telling us about a Women’s Center meeting she attended on what to do if arrested and interrogated.  Serene and persistent, these women of Iran who never give up.

GE:  No, I am not associated with the commercial site “My story begins.”  But do stop by the bookstore.  We will soon put up an art exhibit of caricatures drawn by the great historian of Iranian film, Hamid Naficy.  Do come by and see.


[1]Mehrzad Boroujerdi and Kourosh Rahimkhani, Postrevolutionary Iran: A Political Handbook (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2018). See the brief Jadaliyya interview with Boroujerdi,

On the Path to Manhood: Men and Masculinities in the Contemporary Kurdish Novel


Whereas gender studies in the West turned its attention to men and masculinity in 1970s, the topic has largely been absent in gender studies in the Middle East until recently.[1] As elsewhere in the Middle East, gender studies in different parts of Kurdistan has primarily focused on women.[2] Studies on the Kurds and Kurdish society have to take into consideration the specificities of each part of Kurdistan and their differences from each other as a result of decades of separation. A thorough understanding of socio-political dynamics of each part of Kurdistan would only be possible if any part is studied within broader socio-political framework of the states where that part resides. Therefore, this paper limits its focus on representation of masculinity in two Kurdish novels from Iranian Kurdistan: Zindexew (Nightmare) (2003) by Fatah Amiri (b. 1946) and Siweyla (Suheila in Persian, proper female name) (2004) by Sharam Qawami (b. 1974).[3]

Studying Nightmare and Siweyla within the broader Iranian context can result in a better understanding of nuances and complexities of Kurdish masculinities, while also challenging the official narrative of a national masculinity which is blind to ethnic and religious diversity in Iran. I suggest that whereas the above novels are progressive on certain formal and thematic levels, they are quite conservative when it comes to gender democracy, as I will illustrate below. Both novels present a “New Man” who is educated, socially and politically active, and relatively egalitarian in his attitude towards women. At the same time, they portray a “New Woman” who is educated, steps out of the domestic sphere and participates in social and political domains. Yet such positive changes in gender politics remain at the surface as both novels fail to move beyond hierarchical binary thinking.


The theoretical framework of the present paper is informed by R. W. Connell’s concept of “hegemonic masculinity and Judith Butler’s notion of gender as “performativity.” The former refers to the masculinity which occupies dominant position “in a given pattern of gender relations,”[4] and the latter suggests that gender is an effect constituted by “a regularized and constrained repetition of norms.”[5] At any given time in a society, certain discourses become dominant which idealize one form of masculinity and marginalize the others. The concept of “hegemonic masculinity,” first introduced in gender studies in the 1980s, was notably developed by Raewyn Connell and further elaborated by other masculinity studies scholars.[6] She argues that masculinity, as well as femininity, “is simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practice through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices in bodily experience, personality and culture.”[7] In the same vein, Butler views gender as a process, “a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.”[8] The above definitions denounce attribution of any fixed essence to men and women and instead set out to present these categories as relational, multiple, and contingent, prone to change under new conditions.


Drawing on Butler’s “performativity,” this paper sets out to put “masculine” man and “feminine” woman in the context of the discourses by which they are constituted, thus  revealing the  implications of naturalization of these categories for gender inequality. On the other hand, “hegemonic masculinity” provides a useful conceptual tool to examine patterns of hegemonic masculinity in the selected texts and how it adapts itself to new conditions to guarantee men’s dominant position.


Emotional women, rational men: ideal femininity and masculinity in Amiri’s Nightmare

Amiri was born in Bukan, a Kurdish city in West Azerbaijan province. He wrote his first novel entitled Hawarebere in 1990, which was also his first novel to be published in Iran.[9] Three years later, in 1993, his second novel, Mîrza, was also published in Iran.[10] Nightmare covers the final years of Pahlavi rein leading to the Iranian revolution of 1979. It tells the story of a teenaged boy, Azad, about sixteen or seventeen years old, who disobeys his family’s plan for his future career and life. His family wants him to follow his profession as a merchant and marry early, but he craves the opportunity to study. His resistance and diligence finally pays off and he enters university. His first year in university coincides with the political upheaval that led to the Iranian 1979 revolution. Azad has been suffering from a recurring nightmare for several years. In his nightmare, he is a SAVAK (Organization of National Security and Information) officer;[11] his name is Ḥusên (Kurdish pronunciation of Hussein), and he is Azari. He tortures political prisoners to extract information and forced confession from them. However, Ḥusên gets to a point where he can no longer continue torturing prisoners and, towards the end of the novel, he kills himself to put an end to his “disgraceful” life and unbearable sufferings.[12] Azad meets a girl named Elaheh at Urmia University whose father was a SAVAK officer who passed away when she was only a few years old. As the protests against Shah escalates, Elaheh and her mother no longer feel safe in Iran and leave the country. After a while, Elaheh posts a letter with his father’s photo to Azad, explaining her mother’s and her own special feelings for him. Surprisingly, Azad finds that he was born on exactly the same day that Elaheh’s father died and that his name was Ḥusên. The striking similarity between Azad and Ḥusên’s photo as well as his dreams all indicate that Ḥusên’s soul was incarnated in Azad’s body.


Nightmare is a realist text in terms of its narration, characterization, plot, and its attempt to mirror reality objectively. It is entirely narrated through one single character’s perspective and voice, that of Azad in the form of first person narration. Although Azad is not an omniscient narrator-protagonist, his perspective is a God-like one because what he tells us is presented as truth. He also enjoys a safe vantage point from where he observes the world. His perception of the other characters, of himself, and socio-political issues are rarely challenged, and when they are, he usually takes the upper hand in the arguments and discussions. Having said that, Nightmare is a progressive novel in the sense that it relativizes the ethnic and national identity. To do so, Amiri creates a simple, but successful strategy, that is, the incarnation of the oppressor in the oppressed. In this way he shows that national or ethnic identity is largely constructed and “imagined.” As such, he conveys his message, that no nation or ethnic group is inherently superior to others or has any natural right to suppress them. At the same time, the novel calls for the recognition of Kurdish and other minorities’ rights in a democratic Iran. However, while Nightmare presents progressive political ideals, it undertakes a conservative approach when dealing with cultural and patriarchal values in society. The novel invites the reader to comply with the traditional gender values and norms underlying the patriarchal structures of the Kurdish society, for example, a gender-unequal division of labour and a polarized notion of masculinity and femininity.


In Nightmare, Amiri presents a new generation of young Kurdish men who, in comparison with their forefathers, are more educated, progressive, and hold more egalitarian attitudes towards women. In the same way, the new generation of Kurdish women, as depicted in the novel, are educated and more actively involved in social and political causes. Azad and Meli, for example, are the primary characters who represent the new generation of men and women in Iranian Kurdistan respectively. They are about the same age, and they played as friends since they were children. As they grew up, Meli fell in love with Azad and towards the end of the novel Azad develops mutual feelings of love. Azad defies his family’s insistence to pursue his father’s work as a businessman and instead enters university.[13] Despite that he does not quite see Meli as an equal partner, he holds more respect for women than the previous generation did.[14] When he talks to Elaheh, his female classmate, about the unrests leading up to the 1979 revolution, the status of the Kurds and their demands, he acknowledges her intellectual capability.


Unlike Elaheh, Meli is represented as emotional and impulsive in her reactions; but she is also depicted as someone who reads books and actively participates in anti-shah protests.[15] However, the novel does not abandon the old essentialist and binary perception of gender and sexuality, so these positive changes in gender politics do not trigger fundamental changes in gender relations.


In the course of the novel an image of ideal Kurdish masculinity is forged. The characteristic features of an ideal man mainly relate to his deeds, actions, and thoughts. Throughout the novel the ideal man is demonstrated as brave, strong, wise, and authoritarian. This ideal masculinity is partly constructed and conveyed through Daye Xeyal (Azad’s nanny),[16] recounting to Azad the story of a number of great men in the history of Sabllagh.[17] Aqa Mirza Fatah Qazi is the one who had a deep effect on her.[18] She describes him as a “chivalrous (ciwançak),” educated (xwêndewar), brave (aza) and mighty (bekar)” man who “would stop the Russian army.”[19] Likewise, Azad’s father is described by one of his friends as an exceptional man and the kind of man one used to see in the olden days: “he was not like the men in our time; he was awe-inspiring (besam), everyone was in awe of him. Sabllagh has not seen a man like Haji Mirza since he passed away.”[20] Elsewhere, Azad’s father is complimented by his uncle as “great (gewre),” “wise (beşi‘ûr),” “social and communicative (bemişûr),” and “generous (bereket).”[21] However, they are only a few who are capable of rigorously practicing such hegemonic patterns of masculinity. They are “real” men who are considered as touchstone against whom the other men’s masculinity (piyawetî: mardānigī) is measured. At the core of the image of an ideal masculinity forged in the course of the novel is bravery, wisdom, and authority.


Having as its subject the development of its protagonist, Azad, in the passage from adolescence to adulthood through various ups and downs, Nightmare resembles bildungsroman novels.[22] The novel opens with two psychological crises with which Azad grapples: his father’s death and his recurrent nightmare in which he is a SAVAK officer and torturer. Under the influence of these two events, he becomes depressed and, consequently, lives as a recluse. His relatives and acquaintances are less concerned for his health than for his endangered manliness. Azad is frequently blamed for his unmanly behaviour and is encouraged by his family members to resume a normal life and face the problems like a man. After two years or so he came to terms with himself: “I must be strong, life is a fight, fight to overcome problems … I must be patient … from today on I have to be a man, a strong and courageous man.”[23] Thus, he conforms to the widely accepted attributes of hegemonic masculinity such as physical strength, bravery, and sexual performance in order to be accepted and respected as a man and entitled to its privileges. His involvement in anti-Shah activities and his arrestment for a couple of days during which he is tortured are extremely significant in his development into manhood marked by bravery and toughness.


The construction of the ideal masculinity, however, as Alan Petersen notes, involves “reference to its complementary opposite,” i.e., the ideal femininity.[24] In the novel, the ideal woman is portrayed as someone with some degree of physical beauty and attractiveness.[25] Further, unlike men, the sort of behaviours and traits considered as appropriate for a good woman has nothing to do with bravery or authority. On the contrary, ideal woman is portrayed as shy, obedient to her man, and sacrificing her life for her family. Being submissive and tacit, she is viewed, by both men and women, as a wise woman. Daye Xeyal, for example, compliments Daye Xanim (Azad’s mother) for being submissive and obedient to her husband to the extent that she “was always obedient to her husband’s wishes” (le ḥast Ḥacî roh’î nebû which literally means “she didn’t have a soul vis-à-vis Ḥacî”).[26]


Unlike the older generation, Meli has the opportunity to attend school and to be educated. She shows as much enthusiasm for reading and learning as Azad does, though she finds textbooks boring and does not do very well at school. The text reveals that under the influence of books other than those needed to study at school she becomes more liberal and progressive in her attitude and participates in the anti-shah protests to the end of the novel. Yet, she is expected to do the housework and cooking and to behave delicately and gently, like a woman. Daye Xeyal recommends Azad to marry Meli because “she is a perfect housewife, she is not loose (Sûk û çirûk) and a lazybones (qûn-lê-kewtû).”[27] Elsewhere in the novel Azad gets impressed by Meli’s skills in housekeeping: “in no time she sets the table like an experienced housewife. She is clean and agile (tond û toł).”[28] Physical beauty, coyness and chastity, and being a good housewife are of great significance that along with submissiveness makes a perfect ideal woman of both generations in the novel.


The female characters are also evaluated according to different parts of their body. Azad describes Meli, for example, as follows: “I look at her head to toe from a suitor’s view… Meli is slim and agile … her teeth are shining and she has plump lips.”[29] This sexual description is not only limited to his beloved Meli, but also, he fantasizes about other female characters in the novel. Ashraf, an Azari and married woman, loves Azad and tries to seduce him, but this ends in failure.[30] Yet, Azad’s characterization of her is sexual. He introduces her to the reader from a male’s sexual gaze: “she stretched her slender neck out of the door, and was wearing a tight sleeveless blouse which made her waist look thinner.”[31] Elsewhere in the novel, Ḥusên, praises Zari, his fiancé, for her physical beauty: “a tall, olive-skinned woman with round breasts … her white teeth look whiter in contrast with her olive skin … She is slim, sylphlike and a clean housewife.”[32] Nowhere in the novel is a male character reduced to his physical beauty, nor is his identity represented as fragmented, as a woman’s is through descriptions of her legs, arms, lips, breasts and other parts of the body. Female characters in Nightmare are represented as ideal women only if they enjoy a certain degree of physical attractiveness. That is, there are pieces of their body which, from a male character’s gaze, make a perfect woman of them. The male character on the contrary, is presented differently. His body is portrayed as a unified whole inseparable from his mind, with the concentration on his wisdom, bravery and virtue.


The novel relies on a dualistic view of the world in which every phenomenon, concept, or value gains its meaning against its opposite. In this binary system, Woman functions as “other” for the male character against whom he can shape his masculine subjectivity. Hélène Cixous lists a set of binary oppositions including “Activity/passivity, Sun/Moon … Father/Mother, Head/heart, Intelligible/sensitive, Logos/Pathos” and poses the question as to where the place of woman in this binary system might be.[33] These couples are not neutral; rather one opposition overweighs the other. Each couple “can be analyzed,” notes Moi “as a hierarchy where the ‘feminine’ side is always seen as the negative, powerless instance.”[34] These oppositions are, in one way or another, associated with femininity and masculinity. To put it another way, the opposition of “man/woman” has underlain the hierarchal binary system throughout the history.[35]


Most of these binary oppositions presented by Cixous could be found in Nightmare. Activity/passivity, as Cixous remarks, “traditionally” comes up when dealing with sexual difference.[36]The female characters in the novel are less active than their male counterparts in the political, intellectual, social, and economic realms. Amiri brings to the fore some social, cultural, and familial constraints which have led to the female characters’ suffering. Zohreh and Ashraf are two characters whose lives have been ruined by some socio-familial factors over which they have no control. Ashraf, as we come to know from Azad’s perspective and comments on her, is not happy with her married life. Azad notices a deep and hidden sadness and frustration in her eyes, her sighs, and the tears she sheds.[37] However, she has accepted her life as it is and passively puts up with it without doing anything to improve her situation. Also, Zohreh, Azad’s landlord’s daughter in Urmia, is ashamed of her mother who is a prostitute and suffers from loneliness as she spends the night at her customers’ places. She finds herself completely helpless and doomed to failure in her life. Her only hope is to wait for a prince to take her away with him and make her happy.[38]


In the novel, Azad is depicted as cool, wise, respectable, and logical while Meli is presented as emotional, mysterious, and irrational. Meli is head over heels in love with Azad. Perpetuating suffering and never-ending jealousy are the consequences of her lovesickness which has taken her to the edge of madness: “Jealousy has ruined Meli’s life … I’m worried that it makes her sick,” Azad says.[39] She is extremely suspicious and jealous of any woman, stranger or relative. Early in the novel when Azad returns from his uncle’s place to his home, Meli is waiting for him there. “She turned pale and looks angry,” as she is suspicious of Fewziye (Kurdish pronunciation of Fouzieh), Azad’s cousin, trying to steal his heart. Calmly, Azad teases her and makes her more furious with his response when she asks what he was doing in his uncle’s house for the whole afternoon. Azad says: “I was with Miss Fewziye; the cousins’ fates are entwined in the heavens. She blushes with anger and goes into attack mode; she is about to grapple with me.”[40] The novel abounds with such scenes in which Azad behaves wisely, calmly, and patiently, while Meli, controlled by her emotions, behaves irrationally and is easily irritated. Azad is concerned about her excessive love for him: “For the first time I have noticed that her love is different from mine, her love has crossed the line.”[41] However, this insanity is not perceived as a big surprise by the narrator, and probably Amiri himself, as he does not regard this behaviour very unusual for a woman.

Allocating the inferior place in the patriarchal binary system to women, however, is not questioned by the female characters in Nightmare. Rather, they have internalized a “female inferiority” which, as Lynne Pearce notes, “is held by both sexes in a set of shared, but mostly unspoken, ‘beliefs’ that women … are intellectually inferior, emotional rather than rational, primitive and childlike.”[42] At points in the novel Meli is treated like a child who needs some degrees of control by Azad. He punishes her for the scandal she caused at the wedding by ignoring and not speaking to her. Receiving no attention from Azad is unbearable for Meli; thus, she appeals to Daye Xeyal to intervene. Consequently, Azad agrees to talk to her: “[M]y feeling for you will not change, but only if you promise to be a bit wiser. Had it not been for Daye Xeyal’s sake, I wouldn’t have talked to you.”[43] This seems to be more like a parent-child relationship in which the former resorts to punishment for the latter’s sake. This parenting and protecting role is granted to Azad by the society, as presented and approved of in the novel. Meli’s mother and Daye Xeyal, are content when Azad slaps Meli on the back to exercise his power and control over her and to stop her attending demonstrations and doing activities against the Shah.[44]


All Meli wants is to have Azad, to possess him; her world is confined to him. Her extreme love for him has led her to teetering on the brink of paranoia, psychological imbalance, and behavioural disorders. However, it seems that in the novelistic world of Nightmare only female characters are susceptible to lovesickness. In this regards, Kurdish/Iranian perception of “masculinity” as a rational entity appears to be similar to Western perception of it, as the association of “masculinity” with rationality, and the opposition of “masculinity” with emotionality “are central themes in contemporary Western thought.”[45]


Yet, the New Man represented by Azad had to combine sensitivity with toughness to regenerate male authority. Hegemonic masculinity, as Connell notes, “embodies a ‘currently accepted’ strategy. When conditions for the defence of patriarchy change, the bases for the dominance of a particular masculinity are eroded.”[46] In the face of socio-political challenges and with the increasing pressure from women rights movements, Kurdish/Iranian men had to refashion their masculine identities and come up with new strategies to legitimize patriarchy. As such, Amiri had to renegotiate the old ideal masculinity to fashion a man which was tuned to the new conditions in the Iranian/Kurdish society, that is, a modern notion of being a man, one which is less marked by roughness, violence, and authority as was the case with older versions of masculinity.


In the same vein, Amiri has attempted to depict a modern woman in the novel as educated and as someone who is, to a certain degree, allowed to involve in social and political movements. Yet, she cannot transgress the social norms regarding femininity. She has to act and behave properly as a woman in order to fit into the patriarchal definition of womanhood, that is, in Afsaneh Najmabadi’s words, a “modern-yet-modest” image, and be accepted by others, both male and female characters.[47] In other words, while Amiri’s redefinition of the ideal woman requires her to have a minimum of literacy, education, valour, and intelligence, these characteristic features have a complementary role in the female characters’ subjectivities—unlike their male counterparts who are required, by both male and female characters in the novel, to enjoy a good deal of those characteristics. The primary characteristics a woman needs to have are still those of the previous generation, namely, self-sacrifice, submissiveness, patience, housekeeping, and, above all, physical attractiveness.


Whereas Amiri comes from a generation of Kurdish authors who followed literary and social realism in their writings, Qawami belongs to the younger generation of Kurdish writers who abandoned conventional realism and experimented with modernist and postmodernist modes of writing. Qawami’s first novel, Siweyla, is experimental in form and radical in content. It deploys a multi-focalized narrative, abundant with flashbacks and sharp shifts in perspectives and voices. It is radical for its political standpoint and for portraying sexually explicit scenes. However, the technically and politically progressive Siweyla is still, more or less, as conservative in dealing with sexuality and gender as is Amiri’s Nightmare.

Sexual act as a remedy for wounded masculinities in Siweyla

Qawami was born in Sanandaj in Iranian Kurdistan. In 2000, he started his career as a writer by publishing a collection of short stories entitled Mêjûyîtirîn Zamî Daykim (My Mother’s Most Historic Anguish). Since then, he has produced works ranging from poetry, translation, and literary criticism to novel. Bîrba (2006) and Palltaw Shorr (The Man with Long Coat, 2007) are his other two novels. In 2017, he published his first novel in German, entitled Brucke dez Tanzes. In this section, I examine masculinity and sexuality in Siweyla. At stake here is how sexuality serves to revive masculinity undermined by unfavourable socio-political circumstances. Whereas Nightmare is set in the last years of Pahlavi reign, Siweyla covers both pre- and post-revolutionary Iran. But it is mainly concerned with the social, economic, political, and psychological aftermath of the Kurdish movement’s failure in Iran after the revolution. It narrates the concerns, dilemmas, hopes, desires, and dreams of two generations in the pre- and post-revolutionary Iran. Both generations are affected by massive social, political, and environmental changes, of which the 1979 revolution in Iran is of utmost significance. Equally, the novel is about love and sex. Most of the characters presented in Siweyla are affected by a mystified notion of love as a disease. The protagonist, Aram, is a young man who used to be an energetic writer and social activist who spent most of his time reading and writing. This great enthusiasm, however, comes to an end when he falls in love with Siweyla, the eponymous character, though they had never met and had only spoken to each other through telephone.


Siweyla is politically progressive in the sense that it facilitates dialogues between different voices and points of view regarding Kurdish armed-struggle as a suitable means to obtain freedom and democracy. Like Amiri, Qawami does not dehumanize the Kurdish “other”, namely, those who sympathize with and work for the Iranian government. It seems that the Kurdish writers writing in the early years of the twenty first century, including Amiri and Qawami, have abandoned the simplistic representation of “us” against “them”. Siweyla and Nightmare both counter the general trend in some other Kurdish novels written during 1990s, especially the ones written in diaspora by the writers affiliated with the Kurdish opposition parties of Iranian Kurdistan, in which a strict line is drawn between the Kurds and the Iranian government, representing the former as the good and the latter as the devil. However, in terms of form, Siweyla is more progressive than Nightmare. It mostly employs the prototype modernist narrative techniques: a fragmented narrative, stream of consciousness, multi-focalizations, and sudden shifts in perspective and voice. That said, while Qawami’s experiment with prototype modernist techniques in Siweyla has led to a relativization of “truth” and a radical political viewpoint, it nevertheless fails to be progressive in terms of creating alternative masculine and feminine subjectivities or offering a new, non-hierarchical gender order.


As depicted in Siweyla, before the 1979 Revolution, at the core of hegemonic masculinity was chivalric (pahlavānī) values. One of the characters in the novel named ‘Eziz Khan is the embodiment of chivalric masculinity. Pałewan ‘Ezîz (pałewan/pahlavān means “knight” in Kurdish) is actually a real person from Sine (Sanandaj) in Iranian Kurdistan, who is well known to most of the Kurds in Iran for his chivalry and physical strength.[48] In the novel he is depicted as a knight who protects the poor and the oppressed.[49] ‘Ezîz Khan’s words and actions are prototypes of a knight. After the revolution, when his friends ask him to explain his case to the new government – that he was sacked in the Pahlavi regime from his job as a gendarme due to political activities – he refuses to do so. His resistance is especially heroic taking into account that “he was in a very bad condition. Being addicted and helpless, he became a recluse. We couldn’t convince him to get a pension from the new government. Whenever we asked him to do so, he replied, ‘God is Generous’. He was such a great man.”[50]


During the last years of the Pahlavi era and after the Revolution, however, the public sphere in Kurdish society where ideal masculinity could be performed, shifted from tea-houses and ZurKhaneh (house of strength) to streets and later to the mountains of Kurdistan. Along with unrest in the other parts of Iran during the final years of the Pahlavi era, the Kurdish people actively participated in protests against the Shah.[51] However the Kurds soon realized that the new Islamic government is strongly against any share of power with other minorities or granting autonomy to the Kurds or other ethnic minorities in Iran. Consequently, the clashes escalated between the Kurdish fighters and the Revolutionary Guards, or Sepah-e Pasdaran, “a formation which asserted the Shia values of the new government,” that soon turned into a full-scale war.[52]


This new social and political environment required recasting of the ideal masculinity, which shifted from chivalric (pahlavānī) masculinity to some sort of heroic masculinity which could be attained by self-sacrificing for the sake of homeland and demonstrating courage and valour in the battle to bring about justice, equality, and freedom. The protagonist, Aram, and his friends were exposed to Kurdish nationalism when the Kurdish Peshmerga forces were fighting against central government in Iran. They were highly idealized and respected by most Iranian Kurds and this made them heroes to be praised by Aram and the other boys in his group.[53]


Shahin Gerami, in her article on masculinity in post-revolutionary Iran, argues that the Islamic Revolution’s ideology “discredited some prerevolutionary masculinity types” and instead promoted new ones: the “mullahs” as the leaders of revolution, “martyrs” as its soul, and “men” as its beneficiaries.[54] With its centralized political structure, the Islamic Republic’s gender policies affected the whole country, including its Kurdish areas. The state’s forced hijab and harsh policies of segregation, for example, affected all Iranian women regardless of their class and ethnicity. Having said that, the peculiarities of Kurdish society should not be overlooked. As an example, while they share a good deal of history, religion, and mythology with Persians, they also have a history, culture, and literature of their own. Furthermore, they do not share the same national heroes, at least in their modern histories. As such, except for the “beneficiary men,” who enact what Connell calls “complicit” masculinities,[55] the first two masculinity types in Gerami’s classification of masculine prototypes in post-revolutionary Iran are not compatible to the Kurdish society. Having said that, there is indeed a Kurdish version of the martyr type of masculinity. Whereas in the official ideology of the Islamic Republic, martyrs have been glorified for fighting to protect Islam and their country, in Kurdistan the Peshmerga warriors are idealized for fighting for the rights of Kurdish people who live under the Islamic Republic in Iran.[56]


This dramatic shift from chivalric masculinity to heroic masculinity in the national imaginary underpins Connell’s theory that hegemonic masculinity is a social construct that varies socially and historically. Aram and his friends are the younger generation of men in the novel whose youth coincides with late 1990s in Iran when the Kurdish movement had been suppressed by the central government. Accordingly, as reflected in the novel, severe frustration, passivity, and a lack of action ensued.


Presenting the events, memories and experiences from almost entirely the male characters’ perspectives, either Aram or others, the novel obtains the reader’s sympathy and approval of them. Siweyla does not invite the reader to challenge sexual potency as the marker of masculinity; conversely, it actually reinforces such perception of masculinity. In order for male characters to impose their dominance over women, the narrator and other male characters in Siweyla emphasize male sexual virility and prowess on the one hand and female sexual weakness and passivity, on the other.


In Siweyla, in effect, whenever male characters’ masculinity is undermined in the face of political repression and economic hardship, their sexual virility is overemphasized in a desperate attempt to heal their wounded masculinity. They freely talk about their penises and proudly express their sexual needs and desires. Both generations in the novel, to put it in Andreas G. Philaretou’s words, “embark on various personal odysseys to conquest the much-prized female sexuality hoping that such sexual conquests would ultimately help them maintain their masculine status or attain it respectively.”[57] This is especially the case when they cannot enact their masculinity by becoming involved in social and political causes. Whereas in Amiri’s novel, the increasing political opposition to the Shah provided a great opportunity for the protagonist, Azad, to obtain a hegemonic position of masculinity through his involvement in the Anti-Shah protests, the male characters in Siweyla find themselves in the post-revolution era when Kurdish resistance and all forms of dissidence in Iran are suppressed. Under such circumstances, Aram and other male characters find themselves powerless to make any changes. Instead, they utilize sexual virility to construct an exaggerated masculinity as a compensation for their inability to take political actions.


In one scene, for example, Aram and his friends, when they were teenagers, compare their penises to see whose is the largest. Then, they compete in another game, that is, splitting the tomatoes with their penises, “the tomatoes were too hard for our penis to penetrate; they were bending like plastic when we tried to penetrate them; but, ‘Ebe[58] penetrated the tomatoes with his penis like a skewer, splitting them and laughing loudly while throwing them to one side.”[59] The young boys proudly participate in a competition to test their masculinity, the bigger and stronger the penis, the more powerful and masculine its owner is assumed to be. It is worth mentioning that Kêrzilî “having a big penis” in Kurdish language means, according to Hejar, “‘bullying, coercion,’”[60] that is, as Amir Hassanpour notes, “associated with the exercise of physical and political power.”[61] This coercion and consequently the physical power are well conveyed in the narrator’s tone when describing ‘Ebe splitting the tomatoes with his penis.

As with Nightmare, a hegemonic masculinity, an idealized manhood, takes shape in the course of the novel as virile, dominant, and physically and/or intellectually powerful. ‘Ebe, for example, is presented by the narrator as a hero who “as soon as sexually matured, he found [Feride] and screwed her” (her ke gonî pêşey kird, xoy pêgeyand û boy pêwe na).[62] This heroic action earns him honour and respect from his friends, and also invites the male reader to identify with and admire his virility as a significant marker of hegemonic masculinity. Also, another character, ‘Izet, since falling in love with a girl, became a recluse and drank alcohol day and night as he could not obtain her father’s consent to marry her. His friend blamed him for ruining his own life and showing weakness for a woman: “You should be ashamed of yourself. Why on earth do you behave like this? There isn’t a single woman in Iran and Iraq who you haven’t screwed (Jinî ‘Êraq û Êran nemawe netgabê).”[63] For him, a woman is just for sexual pleasure; she is not worth sacrificing one’s life for, especially by a promiscuous man who used to, in Connell’s words, rigorously practice the hegemonic masculinity “in its entirety.”[64]


Interestingly, at least in this regard, the same “phallic economy” in Western culture dominates the Kurdish/Iranian culture. In the western sexuality, as Luce Irigaray writes, erection has more or less, received an “exclusive—and highly anxious—attention.”[65] In this “male-rivalry” dominated sexuality, she continues, the “strongest” is “the one who has the best ‘hard-on,’ the longest, the biggest, the stiffest penis, or even the one who ‘pees the farthest’ (as in little boys’ contests).”[66] No doubt, then, in the fictional world of Siweyla the male characters would gain honour and respect for having sex with women, while women would be labelled as loose or as prostitutes for having sex with men. Not even once in this novel has a woman talked about her vagina, as if she is completely unaware of this organ or ashamed to talk about it as the male characters frequently do, and thus a woman does not have “a” sex to be identified or represented. That being the case, no “room” has been left for women in sexual relations. Conversely, the whole space is allocated, in Elizabeth Grosz’s words, to “men’s fantasies of a femininity that conforms to their (oedipal) needs.”[67] The male characters’ fantasy of femininity and womanhood not only leaves women with no space of their own, but it also deprives them of their very control over their body.


For Irigaray, as Grosz notes, isomorphism, the “correspondence of form or shape between phallocentric representational systems and phallic male sexuality,” is not a natural or objective one, but a “socio-linguistic construction.”[68] That is, the human body, whether female or male, is “already coded, placed in a social network, and given meaning in and by culture, the male being constituted as virile or phallic, the female as passive and castrated. These are not the result of biology, but of the social and psychological meaning of the body.”[69] The female body, is considered as weaker in the novel, and has been subordinated to its male counterpart and, accordingly, her life and fate would be in his hands. This attitude is especially true of the characters from the older generation most of whom are parents of the group of young boys.

On the other hand, in Siweyla, Qawami presents a new generation of women who are liberal and educated. Aram’s sister, Çinûr, for example, studies medicine at university. She and another girl named Parvin would hang out with the group of young boys. They would drink alcohol together and are relatively free to have romantic relationships with two of the boys in the group.[70] However, unlike the male characters, even one single female character cannot be found to talk about her sexual needs and desires to others or even to herself in the form of, for example, interior monologue. Women are mainly portrayed as “sexual objects” desired by men, not “desiring subjects” when it comes to sex.


In a scene from a wedding, for example, the narrator, Aram, expresses his desire for the female body: “I was stealing glances at women’s big butts. Their butts were swaying from one side to another, stretching their maxi dresses.”[71] Or, “a woman’s beautiful leg caught my eyes […] she was sitting half-naked, wearing a mini skirt. She had exposed thighs. When she bent I snuck a look and could see her cleavage.”[72] Furthermore, overemphasizing the male characters’ sexual virility has resulted in some pornographic descriptions in the novel. Aram, for example, overhears a couple making love while he passes an empty alley at midnight; he, then, peeps through the window into their house:


A light was lit in the Gendarmerie alley. I grabbed the window and lifted myself up. Inside the room a naked man and woman were making love. The woman was lying on her back and the man was touching her butt and breasts […] He grabbed her breasts and made a pillow of her arse. The woman’s mouth had drooped open […] He went over her body and rode with her butt, grabbed her hair, lifted her head and breast up and took her breasts into his mouth from the back. The woman was moaning. He turned her over, slid into her legs and screwed her.[73]


While the man is presented as active, virile and dominant, literally and symbolically, the woman remains passive and under his control. Nowhere in this scene is the woman demonstrated as actively participating in the sexual act.


Furthermore, the verbal expression used here is also sexist. The words, for example, “têy tepand” and “eynûzandewe” have a visible and invisible meaning. On the surface they mean “fucked her” and “she was moaning,” respectively. However, beneath the surface meaning there is an invisible patriarchal history. Coitus, as Millett rightly pointed out, does not simply indicate a biological activity between the two sexes; it rather “is set so deeply within the larger context of human affairs that it serves as a charged microcosm of the variety of attitudes and values to which culture subscribes.”[74]Têy tepand” has a more cultural meaning than a biological one. It belongs to men’s vocabulary which denotes an aggressive form of penetration, enabling them to impose authority over women. In “eynûzandewe” (she was moaning), the woman even loses her place as a human. It is a misogynistic term which dehumanizes her and derogates her status to that of a dog. This especially makes sense in the context of the Islamic/Kurdish culture in which it is an insult to call anyone a dog or to describe someone as behaving like a dog, i.e., barking, howling, or whining.


Siweyla’s treatment of sexual matters and gender relations reinforces the traditional conventions on masculinity and femininity, which presents the man as both socially and sexually active and desiring and the woman as a passive object of men’s sexual desires.  Presenting sexuality merely from a male gaze that objectifies women sexually, Siweyla reproduces the already existing definitions of masculinity and femininity in society, thus failing to create an alternative female subjectivity that indulges in, for example, “activity, satisfaction, and a corporeal self-sufficiency.”[75]


The male characters, on the other hand, attempt to obtain the hegemonic position of masculinity by overemphasizing their manliness through sexual potency and promiscuity. They resort to virility and sexual prowess, to borrow Philaretou’s words, “to attain, maintain, heal, and strengthen their fragile masculinity not only in the eyes of their significant others, but above all, in their own eyes. It is as if the intensity of their sexual experience with women acts as a booster of their damaged masculine male self-esteem.”[76] In other words, sexual relationship is more than simply a biological act; it is also a site  where men aspire to hegemonic masculinity by, in Samira Aghacy’s words, transforming sexual intercourse “into a kind of conquest conflated with rape where the penis is a symbol of power, an instrument of appropriation, and a weapon expressing simultaneously male misogyny and fear of female power.”[77]


This paper engaged in an exploration of the presentation of masculine subjectivity as opposed to feminine subjectivity in Nightmare and Siweyla, two Iranian Kurdish novels published in the early twenty-first century. The authors of both novels attempted to present a modern image of Kurdish men as more educated, liberal, and softer than their forefathers. They also opted to present a different image of woman, an educated New Woman involved in socio-political activities. However, both novels substantially reproduce essentialist gendered subjectivities, through reinscribing a binary opposition that defines woman as man’s “other”. In this hierarchical binary system, women are allocated the inferior status: they are described, for example, as caring, self-negating, emotional, and sexually passive as opposed to supportive, independent, rational, and sexually active men.


While Amiri’s Nightmare is set in the mid- to the late seventies, Qawami’s Siweyla is mainly set in the nineties and the beginning of the twenty-first century. The late seventies were a time of new hopes, high ideals, and belief in people’s agency and power to overthrow the tyranny of the Shah. Thus, the protagonist, Azad, was able to enact hegemonic masculinity through his involvement in the Anti-Shah protests. The nineties and the early twenty-first century in Iranian Kurdistan, however, is a period of lost hopes and shattered dreams. In stark contrast to Zindexew, thus, Siweyla portrays a Kurdish society in Iran which has lost its high values due to frustration ensuing the suppression of the Kurdish movement. Under such circumstances, Aram and other male characters utilized sexual virility to construct an exaggerated masculinity as a compensation for their inability to take political actions. Regardless of being modernist or realist, experimental or conventional, these contemporary Kurdish novels reproduce hierarchical binary oppositions essential for men’s dominance over women.

[1]Some representative works include Mai Ghoussoub and Emma Sinclair-Webb, eds., Imagined Masculinities Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East (London : Saqi, 2000); Hoda Elsadda, “Imaging the ‘New Man’: Gender and Nation in Arab Literary Narratives in Early Twentieth Century,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 3, no.2 (2007): 31-55; Paul Amar, “Middle East Masculinity Studies: Discourses of ‘Men in Crisis,’ Industries of Gender in Revolution,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 7, no.3 (2011): 36-70;  Marcia C. Inhorn, The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities, Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012); and Mostafa Abedinifard, “The Vices of Men and the Necessity of Studying Men and Masculinities in Iranian Women’s Studies,” Iran Nameh 30, no.3 (2015): 230-282.

[2]Of these works, one can name Women of a Non-State Nation: The Kurds, edited by Shahrzad Mojab, a collection of papers which deal with issues ranging from women and Kurdish nationalism and women and Sufism to sexism in language, covering all parts of Kurdistan (California, Mazda Publishers, 2001). Minoo Alinia in her book, Honor and Violence Against Women in Iraqi Kurdistan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), utilizes an intersectional approach to illuminate gender oppression and violence against women in the name of honour. She studies honour-based violence intersecting with ethnicity and class against the backdrop of broader socio-political context of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Of the few works dealing with Kurdish masculinity in one way or another, one can name Ahmet S. Aktürk, “Female Cousins and Wounded Masculinity: Kurdish Nationalist Discourse in the Post-Ottoman Middle East,” Middle Eastern Studies 52, no.1 (2016): 46-59. In his paper, Aktürk states that following repeated failure to liberate Kurdish territories under Turkish control in 1920s and 1930s, the Kurdish nationalist movement re-established itself in Syria and Lebanon in 1930s and 1940s. Unable to free Kurdistan through armed struggle, these Kurdish nationalists, instead, opted to revive Kurdish language and culture by, for example, publishing Kurdish periodicals. Despite all their efforts to revive Kurdish culture and awaken the Kurds of their national rights, Aktürk argues, their “male honour” was still injured because they were not able to fight for the independence of their country.

[3]“Shahram” is a Persian name which is pronounced “Sharam” by the Kurds. I chose the above two works because they represent two generations of Kurdish writers. While Amiri belongs to a generation whose works are more conservative in terms of their literary form and addressing sexual issues, Qawami comes from a new generation of Kurdish writers who experiment with innovative and radical literary forms and are more open to addressing sexual matters. It has to be said that Qawami’s naked description of sexual scenes is quite radical even among the new generation of Kurdish writers. These two writers, as examples of two generations of Kurdish writers, give an insight into different patterns of masculinities and femininities in Kurdish literature.

[4] R. W. Connell, Masculinities, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), 76.

[5]Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), 95.

[6]For critiques of the concept of hegemonic masculinity, for example, see Demetrakis Z. Demetriou, “Connell’s Concept of Hegemonic Masculinity: A Critique,” Theory and Society 30 (2001): 337-361; T. Jefferson, “Subordinating Hegemonic Masculinity,” Theoretical Criminology 6, no.1 (2002): 63-88. For a genealogy of the concept of “hegemonic masculinity,” its applications and critiques, see R. W. Connell and James Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Gender and Society 19, no. 6 (2005): 829–859.

[7]Connell, Masculinities, 71.

[8]Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1999) 43-44.

[9]“Hawarebere” is the name of a melody which is played by shimshal, a Kurdish musical instrument similar to flute.

[10]To transcribe Kurdish texts, I have used a modified version of Bedirxan’s Hawar alphabet to suit the Sorani dialect. Except for the names anglicized by the writers themselves, I have transliterated the names of other Kurdish writers and scholars and those appearing in the Kurdish texts.

[11]“Prior to the Islamic revolution of 1978–79 in Iran, SAVAK (Organization of National Security and Information), the Iranian secret police and intelligence service, protected the regime of the shah by arresting, torturing, and executing many dissidents.” Encyclopaedia Britanica, “National Intellegince Systems-Iran,”

[12]Fatah Amiri, Zindexew (Erbil: Aras, 2003), 257-58.

[13]Amiri, Zindexew, 152.

[14]Amiri, Zindexew, 177-190.

[15]Amiri, Zindexew, 2013.

[16]“Daye” means mother. It is also used to address grandmother or an old woman.

[17]Formerly known as Savoujbulagh (Sabllagh in Kurdish), Mahabd is a Kurdish city in West Azerbaijan province.

[18]Mirza Fatah Qazi was a member of the prominent Qazi family in Mahabad. Qader F. Qazi describes him as a “man of pen and man of sword … Despite being a cleric and wearing a gown and turban, he was an extremely brave warrior.” Mirza Fatah never compromised with other oppressive tribe chiefs or the Mahabad governors appointed by central government. Hence, there were a great deal of tension and conflict between him and other tribes which at times led to bloody wars (Qazi, 63). Qazi holds that “due to his freedom-loving, Mirza Fatah was always at war with local governors” and was hosting people who were taking refuge under his protection from the local government’s harassments and suppressions; see Qader F. Qazi, Kurte Mêjuy Bine Malley Qazî le Wilayeti Mukiryan [A Short History of Qazi’s Family in Mukiryan Province] (Hewlêr: Aras, 2009), 67–70.

[19]Amiri, Zindexew, 38.

[20]Amiri, Zindexew, 51.

[21]Amiri, Zindexew, 57.

[22]“Bildungsroman” and “Erziehungsroman,” Abrams and Harphams write, are German terms referring to the “novel of formation” or “novel of education.” M.H. Abrams and Jeoffrey Galt Harphams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 9th ed. (Boston: Michael Rosenberg, 2009), 229.

[23]Amiri, Zindexew, 44-45.

[24]Alan Petersen, Unmasking the Masculine: ‘Men’ and ‘Identity’ in a Sceptical Age (London: Sage Publishers, 1998), 43.

[25]For example, see Amiri, 12, 29, 57, and 88.

[26]Amiri, Zindexew, 77.

[27]Amiri, Zindexew, 74.

[28]Amiri, Zindexew, 88.

[29]Amiri, Zindexew, 29.

[30]Amiri, Zindexew, 42.

[31]Amiri, Zindexew, 57.

[32]Amiri, Zindexew, 12.

[33]Hélène Cixous, “Stories,” in David Lodge and N. Wood, eds., Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, (London: Longman, 1988), 262–70.

[34]Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2002), 102.

[35]Cixous, “Stories,” 287.

[36]Cixous, “Stories,” 288.

[37]Amiri, Zindexew, 64–65.

[38]Amiri, Zindexew, 192–93.

[39]Amiri, Zindexew, 58.

[40]Amiri, Zindexew, 26.

[41]Amiri, Zindexew, 159.

[42]Lynne Pearce, “Sexual Politics,” in S. Mills and L. Pearce. eds., Feminist Readings/Feminists Reading, 2nd ed. (London: Prentice Hall, 1996), 23–56.

[43]Amiri, Zindexew, 168.

[44]Amiri, Zindexew, 204–5.

[45]Petersen, Unmasking the Masculine, 72.

[46]Connell, Masculinities, 77.

[47]Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Women, State and Ideology in Contemporary Iran,” in Deniz Kandiyoti, ed., Women, Islam and the State (London: Macmillan, 1991), 22–47.

[48]Aziz Rahmani, known as ‘Ezîz Khan and Pałewan Aziz (Pahlavān Aziz), was born in 1921 in Sanandanj, Iran, and passed away at the age of 73. He is buried in the same city. For more information, see

[49]Sharam Qawami, Siweyla, (Sanandaj: Golbarg, 2004), 76.

[50]Qawami, 113.

[51]F. Koohi-Kamali, “The Development of Nationalism in Iranian Kurdistan,” in Philip G. Kreyenbroek and Stefan Sperl, eds., The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 135-52.

[52]David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004), 162.

[53]Qawami, Siweyla, 121-22.

[54]Shahin Gerami. “Mullahs, Martyrs, and Men: Conceptualizing Masculinity in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Men and Masculinities 5, no. 3 (2003): 257-274.

[55]Connell, Masculinities, 79. According to Connell, in a patriarchal system, while not all men benefit from the hegemonic masculine ideals, most men do become complicit with those ideals so they can benefit from a “patriarchal dividend,” that is, “the advantage men in general gain from the overall subordination of women.”

[56]Hemn Seyedi, in an article published by BBC Persian, provides a different reading of the unrest in Kurdistan in the first years of the Iranian Revolution. He counterposes two different discourses on two key figures back then: Mostafa Chamran and Foad Mostafa Soltani. Whereas the former is presented, by the Islamic Republic, as a hero in its war against the Kurdish Peshmerga, the latter is regarded as a hero by the Kurds themselves for defending the Kurds and their rights. See

[57]Andreas G. Philaretou, The Perils of Masculinity: An Analysis of Male Sexual Anxiety, Sexual Addiction, and Relational Abuse (Oxford: University Press of America, 2004), 13.

[58]‘Ebe is the short form of Abdullah in Kurdish.

[59]Qawami, Siweyla, 56.

[60]Cited in Amir Hassanpour, “The (Re)production of Patriarchy in the Kurdish Language,” in Shahrzad Mojab, ed., Women of a Non-state Nation: The Kurds (California: Mazda Publishers, 2001), 227–63.

[61]Hassanpour, “The (Re)production of Patriarchy in the Kurdish Language,” 240. The association between phallus and power is not limited to Kurdish culture. Examining the “sexual politics” in the works of D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet, Kate Millett shows that, with the exception of Genet’s works, the phallus is praised for its form and size and is granted an innate power and supremacy over the vagina. See Kate Millet, Sexual Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1969),  7–8. Analysing an excerpt from Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Millet writes “Connie and the author-narrator together inform us the penis is ‘overweening,’ towering’ and ‘terrible.’ Most material of all, an erection provides the female with irrefutable evidence that male supremacy is founded upon the most real and uncontrovertible grounds” (Sexual Politics, 239).

[62]Qawami, Siweyla, 56.

[63]Qawami, Siweyla, 81.

[64]Connell, Masculinities, 79.

[65]Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 24.

[66]Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 25.

[67]Elizabeth Grosz, Sexual Subversions (Sydney, Aus.: Allen & Unwin, 1989), 119.

[68]Grosz, Sexual Subversions, 111.

[69]Grosz, Sexual Subversions, 111(original emphasis).

[70]Qawami, Siweyla, 42.

[71]Qawami, Siweyla, 37.

[72]Qawami, Siweyla, 40–41.

[73]The original passage reads : “Le nêw kollanêkî Jandarmirîda çiray malêk helkira bû. Çingim kirde sawî sitadyeke u xom berz kirdewe. Lew dîwî hewdakanî baranda jin û piawêk be rûtî xerîkî eşiqbazî bûn. Piyaw jiney demewrû rimandibû u destî be simt û memkekaniya ehêna […] pencey kirde jêr sikya u memkekanî girte çing û simtî kirde serîn. Jine demi taq mabû […] Çiwe ser jestey û siwar simtî bû, çingî be qijya kird, ser û sîney helbirrî u le piştewe memkekanî girte dem. Jine eynûzandewe. Hellîgerandewe xoy be nêw qaçekaniya kird û têy tepand.” (Qawami, 139).

[74]Millett, Sexual Politics, 23.

[75]Grosz, Sexual Subversions, 116.

[76]Philaretou, The Perils of Masculinity, 13.

[77]Samira Aghacy, Masculine Identity in the Fiction of the Arab East Since 1967 (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2009), 20-21.


Kiarostami and Love on the Iranian Screen

“The thinking of love, so ancient, so abundant, and diverse in its forms and in its modulation, asks for an extreme reticence as soon as it is solicited.”

Jean-Luc Nancy, “Shattered Love,” The Inoperative Community


“For me the beauty of art resides in the reactions that it causes.”

Abbas Kiarostami, “Statement on Ten 10,” Abbas Kiarostami


Production and Censorship Codes are challenges that any Iranian filmmaker has to deal with. Naturally, cinematic representation of love within such limitations becomes more challenging. Some avoid it and some deal with it with less satisfactory outcomes. Kiarostami, however, turns it into an art by not only overcoming the limitations, but by creating a new aesthetic language that traverses borders, nations, and races to reach us all and effect us all fundamentally. It is a tall claim that he achieved, gradually but masterfully in ways that left his viewers at awe and in admiration for his Homework (1989), Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), and Through the Olive Trees (1994).

In his earlier works such as Homework and Where Is the Friend’s Home?, his perspective of love seems to be more embedded in a philosophical notion of love that Jean-Luc Nancy acknowledges as “shattered love”[2], which is more concerned with how love affects us at its societal level and then manifests itself in various ways within each of us individually.  That effect, however, as Nancy argues, and as Kiarostami’s screen validates, nuances our attitude towards one another differently. I argue that Kiarostami is deeply interested in those nuances, which inform our love at various levels, and not just between lovers. Kiarostami explores the ways in which love (or lack there of) functions in tangible terrains such as treatment of school children, the reaction of children, and the solution that the children find on their own. These solutions, on Kiarostami’s screens are all informed by that fundamentally philosophical notion of love.

Homework may be a philosophical apology on the absence of love where it’s most expected, either communal—in case of pastoral love towards primary school children—or within domestic sphere. The lack, the viewers will come to discover throughout the course of the film, is filled with beating or physical punishment for not being able to finish their homework properly. Yet parents and students both attest to the fact that the assignments are excessive and expectations are beyond reason. Often children fall short of giving any example of reward when Kiarostami asks them if they have ever been rewarded. But they all know punishment means beating, most often by means of a belt, and sometimes a slap on the face. And punishment is for the boy who has not finished his homework.

When putting his subjects in front of the camera, Kiarostami normalises the dire atmosphere by asking them various questions, which in their reticence reveal deeper emotions of fear, anxiety, and love, surprisingly! In such moments, there is no editing, hardly any movement of the camera, nor much of cinematic techniques to manipulate the shot. There is of course the perturbing gaze of the camera and the questions that come from Kiarostami. Towards the end of the documentary, when the viewer by now understands that the students are all overwhelmed by the sheer weight of their homework, and parents helpless and confused in supervising their children’s progress, one interview attracts attention more than the rest:

  • What do you want to be when you grow up?
  • A pilot!
  • Why?
  • To kill Saddam!
  • Why?
  • He is brutal, he ruins houses.[3]

When he is asked what he would do if by the time he grows up Saddam is dead, the child responds he would cure those who have heart problems and need heart surgery. Compassion and communal love are the only alternative in his imagination. At once, and at the presence of an alternative to war, he expresses the love that informs fraternity. The child testifies as a lover, yet who can also be a killer of the one who shatters love. Just by positioning the camera without any interruption in front of the boy, and by allowing him to project his wishes, Kiarostami peels away complex layers that stand as hindrance to the manifestation and flowering of love. There is a reticence here in thinking of love, of the possibilities of love. “To think love would thus demand a boundless generosity towards all these possibilities”[4] as Nancy argues and perhaps this reticence yet yielding towards exploration of it in Homework, becomes its informing drive.

Kiarostami seems to seek the generosity of the fraternal love that is absent in schools.

[I]t is this generosity that would command reticence: the generosity not to choose between loves, not to privilege, not to hierarchies, not to exclude. Because love is not their substance or their common concept, is not something one can extricate and contemplate at a distance. Love in its singularity, when it is grasped absolutely, is itself perhaps nothing but the indefinite abundance of all possible loves, and an abandonment to their dissemination, indeed to the disorder of these explosions.[5]

The testimonies of children one by one stand witness to the fact that love is missing from the very place it is prescribed, and remains absent from the heart of being. Conglomerated in the final testimony of a little boy who is visibly, painfully, and psychologically shattered, is the lack. The lack is ironically juxtaposed by the poem he recites.  He is a nervous 2nd grader who cannot bear to stand in front of the camera all by himself and breaks into hysteric reaction demanding the presence of his classmate, Mowlayie, for that is all he has to hold on to, to feel secure. Kiarostami edits the child’s testimony with an interview with the boy’s father, which reveals that he works with the child on his homework in a room with closed door. The father is critical of the care and protection of the mother shielding the child from what the father thinks as “educating his son”. Cutting to a brief interview with the classmate, Mowlayie, separately, he reveals to us by way of the camera that when they were in 1st grade, the teacher had broken a ruler while beating the frightened child. Since then he had shown anxiety when feeling insecure, hence he became dependant on the presence of his classmate. The editing and the interview with the father together seem to suggest that domestic and educational spheres both are devoid of the love that the investigating camera of Kiarostami is looking for. In the final sequence of the film and the last shot of the shattered boy, when feeling comfortable having his classmate present in the room, he volunteers to recite a poem:

Oh Lord of the beautiful stars/ Oh Lord of the colourful cosmos/ Oh Lord who created the Venus/ The Moon and the Sun/ All the mountains, hills and oceans/ The beautiful blooming trees/ Beautiful wings for the butterfly/ Nests for the birds/ Happiness, games and abilities/ Eyes for us to see/ The Snow, the Rain, the Heat and the Cold/ Were all created by you, Lord/ Grant me all that I asked from you/ Fill our heart, you Lord, with joy.

This is where Kiarostami ends his Homework and the boy recites gloriously, devoid of all love that he counts so masterfully in his recitation of aspects of God’s love. The film is the very representation of the lack, the absence, the absolute void of the communal love where it is expected most, and found least. This is the love, shattered.


Figure 1, from Homework

In an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kiarostami reminds us about why and how he made Homework:

That’s when I first thought about writing a different kind of documentary, where the audience put the pieces together on their own…The film should allow that to happen, make room for that interaction… [T]he audience invent their own close-ups without me providing any because of their own attentiveness to what’s happening. They furnish the meaning of the event.[6]

And he does allow that freedom in his other works too.

On Where Is the Friend’s Home?,

I believe that love is indeed what I call in my own philosophical jargon a ‘truth procedure’, that is, an experience whereby a certain kind of truth is constructed. This truth is quite simply the truth about Two: the truth that derives from differences as such.

Alain Badou [7]

Babak Ahmadpour and Mohammad-Reza Nematzadeh are primary school children who share the same desk. Nematzadeh has left his notebook at his cousin’s house, which is why he has written his homework on a piece of paper. An extreme close up shows the worried face of his classmate, Ahmadpour. There is a series of cut-reverse-cut from the close up of Nematzadeh’s tear-covered face to sick-worried face of Ahmadpour. The teacher tears the assignment and threatens to expel him if this happens for the third time. Later when leaving the school, we find them together again in an establishing shot. The camera moves with them in a long shot without any cut. The narration is simple, unsophisticated, and honest. Nematzadeh falls. The camera follows Ahmadpour who collects Mohammad-Reza’s belongings for him, takes him to the water fountain, and cleans up his trousers for him. The scene ends. The camera re-invents a friendship. The compassionate love is present. Its un-named presence is very similar to the silent support of the last two classmates in Homework. Here, in developing this unique aspect of love, Kiarostami seems to pick up in Where Is the Friend’s Home? where he left off in his documentary. The quest begins when Ahmadzadeh realises that he has, by mistake, put Mohammad-Reza’s notebook in his bag. That worried look is returned in a few medium close up shots. And that is when his quest to look for his friend’s house begins.


Figures 2, 3, 4 from Where Is the Friend’s Home?

Figures 2, 3, 4 from Where Is the Friend’s Home?

Kiarostami renders his films as quest for truth, but what kind of truth? He aims to find it in relation to something very precise. That is evident in his choice of location, the dialogue that the mise-en-scène immediately initiates with the viewer, in his selection of non-actors, and of course the way in which he treats the subject of his film. Where Is the Friend’s Home? in ways more than one, points to all the above-mentioned elements and how they illuminate his quest for the truth. As Badiou suggests, Kiarostami questions what the world is like when it is experienced and lived from the point of view of difference, of the two and not one. “That is what I believe love to be.”[8]  His camera challenges our lives from the perspective of the other. It follows the young boy in search of his classmate in more than one attempt. The quest of the boy is an experience in which he forgets himself—and by way of him, we do too—on behalf of the other. But he does not dissolve in the other. Kiarostami makes him go back to Poshteh (the neighbouring village where Nematzadeh lives) twice, and each time he either sends him to a wrong address or makes sure his protagonist arrives late, to delay the encounter of the two. Nonetheless, his camera follows Ahmadpour through the olive trees, over the hill with zigzag path, and the uneven back alleys of Poshteh every time. The gnarled branches constantly cut through our vision, creating a sense of speed editing while the camera dollies most of the time.

Figure 5, 6 from Through the Olive Trees

Figure 5, 6 from Through the Olive Trees


Kiarostami constructs a world from a decentered point of view which denies any reaffirmation. Ahmadpour runs through the olive trees. The pace of editing is slightly faster, cutting through alleys of Poshteh, then a cemetery, leading to the olive trees. These are the same trees that years later we get to see again in Through the Olive Trees, where the lovers, on a different quest, traverse at a slower pace. In a long shot, Kiarostami sends Ahmadpour uphill through a zigzag road. This has become one of the most famous scenes in film history. The long shot of the boy running down and up the hill twice is the very representation of the decentered point of view from which we access his narrative of love.

The camera values the experience over the construction of the plot. Perhaps that is the informing factor for the aesthetic choice Kiarostami makes to repeat the same location in his future film. The locations, which are constantly consisting of up and down narrow alleyways, uneven stairs, and asymmetrical windows that frame extremely meticulous geometrical shapes, all weave the mise-en-scène to reinforce the decentered quest to avoid the encounter. Yet the boy encounters many other characters who in their own turn display aspects of love, the love that is mainly informed by the community within which they live.

Those same people—his mother included—however, cannot see the driving force of love that feeds the boy’s worry for his classmate. He is misunderstood by his father who punishes him for arriving home late, for he thinks his son was out playing. Badiou observes that the “Lover, particularly over time, embraces all the positive aspects of friendship, but love relates to the totality of the being of the other,”[9] which explains why Ahmadpour is so obsessively focused on finding Nematzadeh. He cannot bear the possibility of his friend’s repeated pain. Witnessing him being punished for not having done his homework in his notebook is an unbearable responsibility on the beating heart of the child. “Love isn’t simply about two people meeting and their inward-looking relationship: it is a construction, a life that is being made, no longer from the perspective of One but from the perspective of Two.”[10] Perhaps for this reason he decides to write two homework assignments, one for himself and one in Nematzadeh’s notebook, for him.

The editing speed and techniques create tension in the construction of such dual perspective of Two. By doing that, Kiarostami distances himself from the melodramatic or even romantic conception of love and thus renders a liminal space where the quests become the very notion of love. He re-invents a quest. He creates the desire for an unknown duration and renders that duration the truth. It is this truth which is projected on Kiarostami’s screen in Where Is the Friend’s House?. “[L]ove is a re-invention of life. To re-invent love is to re-invent that re-invention.”[11] This explains why Kiarostami sends the boy to Poshteh more than once, why he misled his character to different addresses, why he creates two different households by the name of Nematzadeh, why he delays the boy with the chance encounter with the window-maker. He is an old man who can barely walk, and the only one who makes wooden windows; this is the last chance of connecting Ahmadpour to his friend, for he has made windows for their house. Alas, we still have to wait. He takes Ahmadpour to the wrong window of the wrong house.

Figure 7 from Where Is the Friend’s House?

Figure 7 from Where Is the Friend’s House?

The next day the teacher is about to check Nematzadeh’s homework, when Ahmadpour arrives rather late. When his teacher asks him to explain his tardiness, he says he is coming from Poshteh. The audience does not see his morning journey, but we know where and how he has gone. “[T]he viewer can imagine what’s beyond the reach of his eyes. And viewers do have creative minds… The viewer always has this curiosity to imagine what’s outside the field of vision; it’s used all the time in everyday life.”[12] We take the journey in our head, as Kiarostami wanted us: “[…] the audience put the pieces together on their own…The film should allow that to happen, make room for that interaction…”[13] Ahmadpour takes out both notebooks and hands them to the teacher while telling Nematzadeh that he has completed the homework for him. There is a flower dried between the pages of his friend’s notebook. We now are seeing from the perspective of the Two and not One. We are in love. We have experienced love. We have traversed alongside love. Badiou believes “in love, the other tries to approach ‘the being of the other.’ In love the individual goes beyond himself, beyond the narcissistic. … You go to take on the other, to make him or her exist with you, as he or she is. It is a much more profound conception of love than the entirely banal view that love is no more than an imaginary canvas painted over the reality of sex.”[14] Within a span of 24 hours, fraternity and communal love manifested in Ahmadpour’s quest tells the tale of a love that cannot be limited to one simple explanation. The search is for that house, the house of that friend, the lover who is not bound by gender, sex or mere desire.

Figure 8 from Where Is the Friend’s House?

Figure 8 from Where Is the Friend’s House?

On Through the Olive Trees

Figure 9 from Through the Olive Trees

Figure 9 from Through the Olive Trees

It is through meandering on such rocky roads that Kiarostami finds his way in Through the Olive Trees and celebrates the ever presence of love that brings young hearts together despite the shattering effect of a deadly earthquake. It is in the absolute depth of chaos where the master finds absolute love. His editing techniques and speed, his camera angles, his meticulous selection of location, and his sharp taste in finding that gem in non-actors together create the symphony of love that surpasses any blade of censorship and silence. Here, I endeavour to explore such techniques in revealing how Kiarostami becomes the master of Love in his masterful cinema that will continue to inspire generations of filmmakers to come. Kiarostami finds it imperative to go back to the scene of his former film, Where Is the Friend’s Home? after the devastating earthquake that apparently ruined Poshteh.  He finds the two brothers who played the roles of Ahmadpour and Nematzadeh. They are alive and provide flowerpots for the shooting. Having seen Where Is the Friend’s Home?, and knowing about the earthquake, one cannot help but being moved emotionally when the two brothers, now much older, appear in front of the camera. That is the moment when Kiarostami’s viewers realise that they have lived with the boys, they have carried their love within, and have anxiously waited to see if Kiarostami has found them alive. As Badiou reminds us, “in love, the other tries to approach ‘the being of the other.’ In love the individual goes beyond himself, beyond the narcissistic. … You go to take on the other, to make him or her exist with you, as he or she is.”[15] Kiarostami’s screen had made us, his viewers, philosophers of love. We have approached “the being of the other”.

Kiarostami is making Life and Nothing More when he notices that three days after the earthquake a young couple got married. That becomes the nucleus of the idea for Through the Olive Trees. It is the power of community that draws him to the subject. As Badiou argues, if you love each other deeply “the whole of this loving community will approach the ultimate fount of all love that is divine transcendence itself.”[16] It is here that the lovers accept the experience of the other, the lover, the gaze that is towards the other, and that is through the investigative lens of Kiarostami’s camera. He looks for the collective love that at once initiates and emanates from the community.

However, his film is not a testimony to any fixed definition of love. The notion that is crystallised in the last few sequences of Through the Olive Trees, where he leaves the conclusion to the audience: “When the woman stops walking in the last sequence of Through the Olive Trees, the audience invent their own close-ups without me providing any because of their own attentiveness to what’s happening. They furnish the meaning of the event.”[17] The Lovers are and are not a part of the community that is created around them at two levels simultaneously. They both belong to a village that is levelled by the devastating earthquake. They both are touched by death. In the case of the boy, 27 deaths in his family, and in the case of the girl, her parents. The other layer is the constructed community of the film (film crew and the film scripts that define them as an already married couple). Both are real as much as unreal; the film defines them as an already married couple while their actual community does not consent to the young man marrying the girl. Yet, our Lovers expose above all the “unworking” of both of these communities. “Unworking is what they show in their communal aspect and intimacy. But they expose it to the community, which already shares their intimacy[18], in this case through the camera that records them at both levels at once. “For the community, Lovers are on its limit, they are outside and inside, and at this limit they have no meaning without the community” yet, Kiarostami renders a layer to it that goes beyond the limitations of the community that concerns Nancy or Badiou.

Love does not complete community. There is a communion, a marriage. But even that is investigated through his lens. The actors who are acting for the camera, within the world of the film, are actually in love in real life. But the film they are shooting tells the story of them as a married couple. The young man takes advantage of every opportunity to criticise the character he is to play, if he finds that character not fair to his sujet of affection. Through him, Kiarostami observes the complexity of the notion of communal love. A love that although depends on the constitution of marriage, goes beyond it in the way the young lovers re-live it. “[L]ove, provided it is not itself conceived on the basis of the politico-subjective model of communion in one, exposes the unworking and therefore the incessant incompletion of community. It exposes community at its limit.”[19]

The last few sequences, which are the focus of this part of the present essay, begin  with the film crew prepping the scene. The two young lovers on the balcony are left alone. The boy starts talking to the girl, while serving her a cup of tea, picking two stems of flowers, placing them gently on the tray, and telling her that this is the meaning of life: sometimes I serve you tea, sometimes you serve me tea. They do not touch. He touches the flowers.

Figures 10 & 11 from Through the Olive Trees

Figures 10 & 11 from Through the Olive Trees


When “the ego roots itself in its divine source” as Nancy states in his reading of Kierkegaard’s notion of ultimate love, it moves beyond seduction and “through serious meditation of marriage, becomes a way to accede to the super-human”.[20] This super-human is the poetry of images that Kiarostami projects on his screen. The young man, the lover, becomes the vehicle of such a notion. After a few more takes of another sequence the film crew decides to wrap up. Later, when the filming session of that day is ended, the young man carries on clearing the empty cups. He picks up her half-empty cup of tea, pours it onto the flowerpot gently, yet empties the other cups onto the earth. Her lips, by way of her half-drank tea, touch the flowers. He places the two stems of flower previously picked by him, for her, in his pocket.

Figures 12 & 13 from Through the Olive Trees

Figures 12 & 13 from Through the Olive Trees


On the same balcony where the two lovers were located, we find the two brothers from Where Is the Friend’s Home? returning to retrieve the flowerpots they brought for the set. The two who manifested the love, now reappear at the place of love, where the young man has confessed his love. The continuation of Where Is the Friend’s Home? in Through the Olive Trees is not an accident. Kiarostami is reminding his viewers of the multitude of the possibilities to love on his screen.

Figure 14 from Through the Olive Trees

Figure 14 from Through the Olive Trees


The absence of touch on Kiarostami’s screen turns into a poetry of touches. Editing is minimal and the speed is gentle. Whenever possible, the camera simply follows the young lovers. This “unleashing of passions confronts lovers with community not because it would place them at a simple remove from community” as Nancy indicates.[21] Kiarostami exposes the Lovers “at the limit, the exposition of singular beings to one another and the pulse of this exposition: the compearance, the passage, and the divide of sharing” surpasses the limitation of a censored society.  “In them, or between them-this is exactly the same thing-ecstasy, joy touches its limit”[22] manifest itself in poetry of cinematography.

In this series of sequences, the girl does not reciprocate his love in front of the camera. We, the spectator, have to wait a bit longer, until they disappear as the boy is following her through the olive trees—the same olive trees through which Ahmadpour ran in search of his friend’s home—up the hill through the zigzag path—the same that we have seen in Where Is the Friend’s Home?, to see them re-emerge on the other side of the olive trees. Now they are just two distant figures engulfed by the enormity of a lush pastoral landscape. And it happens, suddenly. The two who are reduced to two white moving dots suddenly stop. The girl stops. There is a pause. It is a wide angle establishing shot. There is a contact; if you blink you may barely miss it. The music changes, the young man runs back the distance which he covered to follow her.  His joyous run can only indicate the positive answer of the girl. His dreams come true. She must have said yes! The girl, by way of Kiarostami’s direction, defied the communal limitations of both communities (the village and the film). Yet again, the absence of touch becomes the largest symbolic presence of the ecstasy, the jouissance which had already become the poetry of movements of tea, flower, and flowerpots.


Figures 15 & 16 & 17 from Through the Olive Trees

Figures 15 & 16 & 17 from Through the Olive Trees



None of the stories Kiarostami recounts in any of the films are new, yet he shows them as the very experience of love in its varieties and degrees, as universal and as unique they can get:

What is universal is that all love suggests a new experience of truth about what it is to be two and not one. That we can encounter and experience the world other than through a solitary consciousness: any love whatsoever gives us new evidence of this. And that is why we live to love; as St Augustine says, we like to love, but we also like others to love us: simply because we love truths. That is what gives philosophy its meaning: people like truths, even when they don’t know that they like them.”[23]

Kiarostami tells us those truths we long to know, truths that are at times impossible to recount on a Persian screen, truths of lovers who find life and continuum amidst destruction and devastation. Truths that young school children tell without knowing of their telling, the truth about the absence of love. The truth of the quest to find the friend, to protect the friend from the unbearable weight of a possible punishment. Kiarostami’s universe of truths renders the re-invention of love a re-lived experience anew.


[1]Proshot Kalami <> received her PhD in Comparative Literature with two designated emphasises in Critical Theory & Film & Performance Studies from UC Davis in 2007. Prior to that she was a lecturer, playwright & radio director. Her scholarly publications are in Theatre & Performance studies & World Cinema in form of books, book chapters & articles. Her creative works are in Documentary Filmmaking, Video Installation, Visual Arts & Creative Writing.

[2]Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Inoperative Community”, Theory and History of Literature, ed. Wald Godzich and Jochen Schulte-Sasse 76 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 76.

[3] Homework, directed by Abbas Kiarostami (1989), DVD, min. 56.

[4]Jean-Luc Nancy, “Shattered Love”, 83.

[5]Jean-Luc Nancy, “Shattered Love”, 83.

[6]Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, “Interview with Abbas Kiarostami”, in Abbas Kiarostami (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 107-8.

[7]Alain Badiou, “The Truth of Love” in In Praise of Love (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2012), 38.

[8]Badiou, “The Truth of Love,” 22.

[9]Badiou, “The Construction of Love,” 36.

[10]Badiou, “The Construction of Love,” 36.

[11]Badiou, “The Construction of Love,” 33.

[12]Rosenbaum and Saeed-Vafa, “Interview with Abbas Kiarostami”, 114.

[13]Rosenbaum and Saeed-Vafa, “Interview with Abbas Kiarostami”, 107.

[14]Badiou, “Philosophers and Love”, 19.

[15]Badiou, “Philosophers and Love”, 19.

[16]Badiou, “Philosophers and Love”, 65.

[17]Rosenbaum and Saeed-Vafa, “Interview with Abbas Kiarostami”, 108.

[18] Badiou, “Love and Politics”, 40.

[19]Nancy, “The Inoperative Community,” 38.

[20]Nancy, “The Inoperative Community,” 38.

[21]Nancy, “The Inoperative Community,” 38.

[22]Nancy, “The Inoperative Community,” 38.

[23]Badiou, “The Truth of Love,” 39-40.

Arānī, Kasravī and Demonic Irrationality: Discourses of Reason and Scientific Explanation


As part of a broader postsecular historical investigation into the role of demonological discourses in the formation of Iranian modernity, this article seeks to account for the presence of the demonic in the works of two interbellum thinkers, the Marxist theoretician and physicist Taqī Arānī (1903-40/1321-59 gh.) and Arānī’s defence attorney during the Group of 53 trials, a religious reformist who was a major proponent of the anti-mystical rational theology, Aḥmad Kasravī (1890-1946/1308-65 gh.). What is unique about these two thinkers is that their respective commitments to materialist inquiry and the conceptualisation of a God of Reason accommodated the residue of “traditionalist” demonism in different functional forms. Primarily through the use of idioms, embodied evil was delineated in a manner that radically contravened long-standing demonological trappings. As seen in works such as “Jabr va Ikhtiyār (Determinism and Free Will),” Pisīkūlūzhī: ʿIlm-i Rūḥ (Psychology: The Science of the Spirit), Ākharīn Difāʿ-i Duktur Taqī Arānī (Dr. Taqī Arānī’s Final Defence), Mātiriyālīsm-i Diyāliktīk (Dialectical Materialism), “ʿIrfān va Uṣūl-i Māddī (Mysticism and the Principles of Materialism),” and Bashar Az Naẓar-i Māddī (The Human from a Material Standpoint), Arānī allowed the satanic to serve an instrumental role in scientific explanation, the crystallisation of proletarian-state relations, and the framing of irrationality even though he was swift in his dismissal of occult existence. Arānī’s major demonological contribution, his assertion of demonic irrationality, is one that he shared with Kasravī. In Rāh-i Rastgārī (The Path of Salvation) and Āyīn (Creed), the Shīʿī reformist elaborated the idea of demonic irrationality in his attempt to promote a universalised rational order, and this was done through the use of exclusionary logic.



In his interbellum work, “Jabr va Ikhtiyār (Determinism and Free Will),”[1] the Iranian Marxist theoretician and physicist Taqī Arānī (1903-40/1321-59 gh.) was inadvertently participating in a transformative mode of demonographical inscription that gave prominence to demonic irrationality. This is of note in three direct respects. Firstly, notwithstanding his inveighed assaults against religion and dismissal of demonic existence,[2] Arānī’s process of thinking by means of the demonic—even if ultimately tongue in cheek—illustrates how secularity was complicit in religious conceptual formations, and how a secular ethos was in part established through religious imaginaries. This observation is, of course, indebted to the postsecular impulse with its historiographical denial of religion as containing a “transhistorical essence,”[3] and its assertion that religion is “attached to specific processes of power and knowledge”[4] and dependent upon “historically distinctive disciplines and forces.”[5] Secondly, in Iran the extrusion of demonic irrationality points to the contemporaneous circulation of rationalisation nomenclature and debates concerning the place of rationality in social discourse. As “irreducibly stochastic,”[6] the demonism being described here coincided with and even encouraged the most concerted Iranian attempt to establish a universal rational order. Thirdly, the attempt to establish a closed rational order by so-called “anti-traditionalists” allowed demonic irrationality to enter a stage of autonomy and exteriority beyond logos—an unprecedented development in Iran’s Islamic history. The modernist confrontation with the “ancient or vestigial” autonomy of “pure irregularity”[7] is precisely the matter under consideration here.

The purpose of this paper is to explore these statements, along with their implications, as they are found in a series of interbellum works by Arānī and Aḥmad Kasravī (1890-1946/1308-65 gh.), Arānī’s defence attorney during the Group of 53 trials and a religious reformist who was a major proponent of the anti-mystical “rational theology”[8] that jettisoned demonic figures from the scope of order. During the first Pahlavī period (1921-41/1300-20 sh.) these two thinkers contributed to the processual break with the longstanding alliance between the satanic and the rational in Islamic thought. After all, it was during the formative stage of the religion that Qur’an commentators unequivocally linked Iblīs—Satan in angelic/jinn form, the “fiery primogenitor”[9]—to qiyās, or analogical reasoning. This attribution gave the Ẓāhirī school of jurisprudence an opening to redouble its critique against the futility of human reason without scriptural guidance, but it did not entirely diminish the importance of reason among other branches of law—for instance, qiyās holds a prominent place in Shāfiʿī thought.[10] What many commentators ultimately agreed upon was how satanic pride, narcissism, spiritual vapidity and the inevitable downfall that accompanied these traits were neatly nestled within an excessive reliance upon intellection.[11] Even when—in the style of “the sibling rivalry motif”[12]—it is conceded that Iblīs’ view regarding his essential superiority over Adam retains integrity and is the expression of a faculty that was bestowed upon him by God Himself, Satan’s tragedy is that he is lambasted for his sound rational judgment.[13] It is in this light that Satan as the tempter should be explained. Rather than focusing on the irrationality of the passion-driven carnal soul, of which Satan is construed as the proprietor, and demonic possession as “destroy[ers] [of] the rational structure of the mind,”[14] the accent should be placed on Iblīs’ rejected offering of reasons[15] as the precipitating moment behind the machinations for which he is most reviled. To top it off, he is considered the first to have ever exercised reason.[16] In other words, satanic temptation is based in rational proposals.

Often ridiculed by Sufi scholars such as al-Hujwīrī (c. 990-1077/c. 380-469 gh.), the eighth-tenth century rationalist movement known as Muʿtazilism partially evaded the consequences of a rational evil by associating the development of the rational faculties with true spiritual commitment.[17] In fact, the Muʿtazilites went so far as to conclude that the human mind is capable of grasping the reason(s) behind God’s dismissal of Iblīs’ antagonism.[18] To this extent, evil itself can be comprehended, a position that was embraced by Ibn Sīnā (c. 980-1037/c. 369-428 gh.) even though he was a known critic of Muʿtazilism.[19] All of this is to say that evil, the first figural expression of which was simultaneously the first appearance of reason,[20] is construed by rationally inclined Islamic thinkers as intelligible.

While we can thus far conclude that the demonic has traditionally been construed as both rational and intelligible, it has also common practice to situate him within the divine cosmic scheme. As the cleric and constitutionalist Āqā Najafī Qūchānī (1878-1943/1295-1362 gh.) put it in Siyāḥat-i Sharq (Eastern Journey), “All existents (mawjūdāt) are created (makhlūq) by, are the shadows (ẓil) of, and are dependent (mansūb) upon” God. Even though the degree of divine attribution (andāzah-yi intisāb) in Satan may be limited, he is nevertheless enclosed within the Islamic cosmological order.[21] As the “necessary instrument in [God’s] Hands,”[22] the archfiend “possesses powers only by extension.”[23] It is against this background of a contained and instrumentalised Satan that Arānī’s commentary of the demonic becomes piercing in its distinctiveness. There is tension between the demonic as it is situated within recognisable and coherent limits and that to which Arānī is referring. If demonological discourse during the early twentieth century teetered away from Qūchānī’s traditional conception towards one that is more lawless and impervious to disciplining, then how was this received, compounded and guided by literate culture?


Arānī’s Demonology

Let us first detail what Arānī actually said in “Jabr va Ikhtiyār.” After a brief deterministic account of causation, he states that without the benefit of laws or principles (qānūn yā nāmūs) it would not be possible to predict (pīsh’bīnī) any occurrences.[24] This mechanistic conception of reality lent itself to a positivistic and materialist worldview that came to inform revolutionary leftist theory in Iran for decades.[25] However, it is the logic of the following statement that has gone under the radar: “Today, bread is baked in an oven but it is possible (mumkin ast) that if Satan so desires (agar Shayṭān bikhvāhad), tomorrow bread can grow (sabz shavad) on trees like fruit.”[26] Is this desire of which Arānī speaks not reminiscent of the originary “passionate desire” of Satan in Paradise Lost that is subverted and made to be forgotten by God and Christ in their capacities as “reason and restraint?”[27] By being juxtaposed to a form of causal reasoning that can be traced back to Aristotle, Satan’s desire here escapes logical comprehensibility and coherence. Again, this is rather odd considering how, in the Islamic tradition, the fallen angel is associated with analogical reasoning (qiyās) and thus the “limitations and ultimate unreliability of human intellection.”[28]

What is implicit in Arānī’s conception is how similar Satan is to the Ashʿarite understanding of God as an Absolute Will that is purely arbitrary. In this view, “no contingent being or event can be rationally accounted for.”[29] The instrumentalised Satan falls by the wayside in favour of a sovereign Satan who assumes “the truest and most complete manifestation of God and his omnipotent freedom.”[30] The appearance of the latter satanic form should not be simply construed as a stale extract from a millennia-old depository of edifying turns of phrase, but rather the expression of an intellectual debate over the merits of determinative causation. Compare Arānī’s approach to determinism with that of the well-known lawyer Maḥmūd Sarshār (1901-1964/1280-1343 sh.), whose thoughts on the matter were written just over a decade after Arānī’s death. In the case of Arānī, a prominent figure within the religious imagination is transformed into a carrier of the torch of chance. For Sarshār, the prospect of discovering laws (qavānīn) and relations between phenomena and theories (bāyad ḥavādis̱ va qaz̤āyā rā mū’shikāfī kardah va irtibāṭ-i ānhā  rā bā yik dīgar paydā nimāyad) is at the basis of a determinative science. With this telos in mind, the veils of ignorance (pardah’hā-yi jahl va nādānī) can be torn, and he tables a Qur’anic verse to seal his position.[31] While Sarshār helps to incorporate scientific determinism into an Islamic framework, Arānī’s commitment to dialectical materialism separates it off from religion, leaving the latter with only fortuitousness.

Theorists who emerged after Iran’s far-left transition from social democracy to orthodox Marxism[32] advocated a certain “unswerving”[33] dogmatism that had the world’s disenchantment[34] at its basis. It is within this context that the demonic strangely emerges, not as the theoretical intelligence of the early determinists that is “capable of ascertaining the complete set of initial conditions of the world system at any one instant of time,”[35] but as a stochastic force that helps to stabilise the theory of determination through the production of chains of indeterminacy.[36] While Arānī used a disenchanted and aseptic materiality to disprove manifestations of idealist and religious discourse, he nevertheless preserved these manifestations—usually in the form of familiar but “irreverent idioms”[37] or metaphors—as the face of incoherence and lawlessness in the determinism vs. anti-determinism debate.

Though at times invoked as a relatively abstract principle, Arānī’s lawlessness is also localised in phenomenal entities, as detailed in Pisīkūlūzhī (Psychology). In his discussion of the psychological notion of “suggestion (talqīn),” Arānī uses an image of a satanic child (bachchah-yi shayṭānī) who, by biting into a sour lemon (līmū-yi turshī) in front of a military band (shaypūrchī´hā-yi niẓāmī), is able to disrupt its performance by inducing salivation.[38] Here, we observe lawless demonic exteriority intruding upon the world of laws without any direct physical causes (bidūn-i vujūd-i ʿillat).[39] Similar to the notion of religiously grounded satanic whispering (vasvasah) as the subversion of human fortitude and fidelity, demonic suggestion is pivoted upon the absence of physical causes. However, the question implicitly asked is not how to safeguard oneself from temptation, but how the outside enters the inside without resistance.[40] How could pure rational discipline (military band) be violated by unrefined arbitrariness (demonic child) when no clear physiological connection is apparent?

Arānī’s resolution comes by way of the meta-will (māvarā-yi irādah). This concept when an individual presumes that due to the lack of direct and discernible internal causes (bidun-i ʿillat-imustaqīm), certain external experiences are actually instigations of foreign stimuli, such as magic (siḥr va jādū) or spirits (arvāḥ), when indeed it is the meta-will that is the source of these actualisations.[41] This is similar to the way in which in capitalist production “the activity of the worker is [perceived as] not [being] his own spontaneous activity.”[42] For Arānī, the truth of the reaction is completely internal to the actors involved.[43] In comparing this discussion to his description of suggestion, it is clear that in the first instance, the distance between subjectivity and an invasive demonic irrationality is affirmed, while in the second, both the occult and its foreignness disappear in favour of the “blind circuit”[44] of reason.

In some of Arānī’s arguments, the demonic is alluded to in order for persuasive scientific points to be made. He goes beyond occultist logic but he also allows his rhetorical “resources”[45] to be partially derived from this very location. This resort to “local knowledge”[46] allows him to appeal to an audience invested in the scientific debates of the time, and in doing so he borrows from, as well as tinkering with, a reconfigured demonological discourse. What is remarkable is that scientific persuasion provided an outlet for this new demonological configuration to be transmitted. Thus, instead of nullifying the role of the demonic in the conceptualisation of actuality, Arānī “rehabilitat[es]”[47] it in the service of a relatively new genre concerned with polemic and scientific popularisation.

The dearth of demonic references in Pisīkūlūzhī and related texts can indeed be raised as a rejoinder to my position, but attention should be directed to their mere presence and what this says about the genre of scientific popularisation in Iran. In Arānī’s contribution to this literature, key explanations of scientific facts were “garnished”[48] with the demonic because he was attuned to the way his audience was in the midst of rethinking the role of the occult in society. Nature for him was devoid of all religious meaning and significance, and yet the “obfuscatory” element remained textually embedded. Not exactly a form of “fetishistic disavowal of belief” where, in this case, the demonic “enables the subject to accept [the] knowledge [of the demonic] without paying the full price for it,”[49]Arānī’s use of the demonic was part of a “textual strategy” meant to capture his audience’s full attention.[50]

In Ākharīn Difāʿ-i Duktur Taqī Arānī (Dr. Taqī Arānī’s Final Defence), Arānī’s partially transcribed 1938/1317 sh. public trial, in which he “spoke vigorously in his own defense,”[51] the demonic occult emerges in the social conflicts that crash like waves against the state,[52] specifically those concerning workers. By this time, the notion of an identifiable working class had a very short history in the country. Initially and primarily deployed by social reformers and democrats in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries as a theoretical device, it was only in the 1920s/1300s sh. when the likes of Āvitīs Sulṭānzādah (1889-1938/1306-57 gh.) started speaking of workers (kārgarān) as an identifiable class.[53] This is not to say that there did not exist prior instances of proletarian organisation. During the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11/1323-29 gh.), workers (notably local tanners) coordinated strike actions and political parties championed the interests of workers. A boom in the Soviet oil sector during the 1910s/1330s gh. attracted many Iranian workers who became receptive to the didactic efforts of Russian Social Democrats.[54] The early 1920s/1300s sh. was also a time when a number of organisational efforts made headway, particularly by postal, telegraphic and educational workers.[55] The rise of Riz̤ā Shāh Pahlavī (1878-1944/1295-1363 gh./r. 1925-41/1304-20 sh.) and the shadow that his state casted[56] were obstacles for proletarian striving, and it was in this context that Arānī’s intellectual productions were nestled.

In Ākharīn Difāʿ, the physicist questions, rhetorically, how Iran’s toilers (ranjbarān), or workers, are able to provoke such great fear in the state.[57] He also expresses curiosity as to why the police (maʿmūrīn-i shahrbānī) violently tear apart any bulletin, leaflet or communiqué on which the word ‘toiler’ appears.[58] In Arānī’s discourse, the excessive sensitivity and supposed apprehension evident in the authorities was to be partially expected for they were dealing with the working class as the ‘universal redeemer of humanity.’[59] Though law enforcement during Riz̤ā Shāh’s reign had until that point been consistently and aggressively quelling union activities,[60] May Day festivities and strike actions, and maintaining networks of surveillance,[61] state authorities are said to be more frightened of workers than jinn confronted by the Qur’anic preamble ‘In the name of God’ (mis̱l-i jinn va bismillāh).[62]

While the notion of fear is paramount in this formulation, it should be viewed as part of an irreconcilable opposition. In his Kitāb-i Kūchah (Book of the Street), poet Aḥmad Shāmlū (1925-2000/1304-79 sh.) defines mis̱l-i jinn va bismillāh as “two things or individuals that will never come close to one another; mutual antipathy between two things.”[63] Through the use of this idiom, Arānī wishes to say that while the state is full of dread, a fully evolved proletariat is fearless, for the object of fear is always outside and ahead of the thing experiencing it: “The worker is not a proletarian by virtue of what-will-happen-to-him-tomorrow, but by virtue of what happens to him every minute of the day.”[64]Arānī’s declaration further revealed the Pahlavī state for what it was: an entity that never truly established the “legal-rational authority” proposed by the constitutionalist movement[65] and was thus fearful of its future. The facade of rationality that the largely traditional monarchy was able to erect through modern state institutions[66] was quickly turning to an irrational acting out (the destruction of every document on which the word ‘toiler’ appears), as per the dictum: “what the common human understanding finds irrational is in fact rational, and what it finds rational is irrational.”[67]

In fact, what was perhaps more disturbing for the state was the prospect of having the illusion of rational order exposed as an illusion. This is where the jinn in mis̱l-i jinn va bismillāh take precedence because like the state, their claim to being the harbingers and custodians of truth lose substance with the invocation of a single protective or apotropaic phrase.[68] The effect of bismillāh is instantaneous, and when combined with the Marxian eschewal of the criterion of existence from any theoretical discussion of the state,[69] the gaunt and even superfluous character of occult actuality becomes over-pronounced. To put it in a different way, the working class was capable of exposing the non-existence of the state and simply dispelling it with the slightest of gestures, before any self-reflection on the part of the state itself. After all, “[s]ince [its] strategy is […] often not known in advance within (and by) the State itself, it is not always susceptible to rational formulation.”[70] Thus, in this account, Arānī uses the jinn to describe the existential and rational limitations of the state and vice versa.

As such, the jinn became essentially homologous to the arguably defunct presuppositions of idealist philosophy in that they are “ideal figments of the brain.”[71] In Mātiriyālīsm-i Diyāliktīk (Dialectical Materialism), Arānī asks that if the idealist position of the internality of movement, time, and space to the mind (ḥālāt-i ẕihnī-yi mā hastand) is affirmed,[72] meaning the “pure forms of sensible intuition as principles of a priori cognition,”[73] then the sensuous effects of, for instance, telephone calls, must essentially be attributed to miraculous or magical sources (muʿjizah va siḥr va jādū).[74] Accordingly, dragons, demons, Rustam, Satan and the jinn are said to be in contradiction to internal logic (taz̤ādd-i bāṭinī-yi manṭiqī),[75] for there are no materially based reasons for the supposition that spirit is constitutive of reality (rūḥ hamah jā mawjūd ast)[76]—an unfortunate stance that more often than not leads to the claim that our pockets are brimming with tiny slippery devils (shayṭānak´hā-yi rīz va līz).[77] Rather than the beings themselves, it is the belief in such spirits that is derivative of the material environment (ʿavāmil-i māddī-yi muḥīṭ). According to this position, and as Arānī illustrates in “ʿIrfān va Uṣūl-i Māddī (Mysticism and the Principles of Materialism),” there were specific material preconditions that historically necessitated jinn-worship (jinn’parastī).[78]

Arānī is here thinking of “natural religion,” the early adherents of which were alienated from a world that had “hardly been altered by history.”[79] This being so, in Mātiriyālīsm-i Diyāliktīk Arānī is careful to remind his readers that they are living in a time during which causes (ʿillat) are no longer based on belief in the effects (iʿtiqād bi taʿs̱īr) of idols and the insidious Ahrīman,[80] meaning those “mental projections” that thwart a scientific theory of knowledge.[81] Indeed, it was his Marxian commitment to “objective law, causality and necessity in nature”[82] that allowed him to maintain this position. In another section of the text, he expands upon his approach to the occult through a discussion of contradiction, which is worth quoting in full:

It is usually said that any statement that does not engender a logical   contradiction is true, for contradiction is a sign of error. If we were to carefully study this definition of truth, we would find it to be false. For instance, it has until   recently been said that there exist only three dimensions in nature—length, width   and depth. In physics, we now know that time is another dimension, meaning that    the physical properties of nature consist of four dimensions. With this in mind, is  there a logical contradiction in the statement that nature consists of five dimensions?

If someone were to claim that nature must comprise of five dimensions in the same way that it has four, we would say that they are mistaken. Hence, though there is no internal logical contradiction in our thinking when we refer to dragons, demons, Rustam, Satan, jinn, etc., all of these imaginings are nevertheless false. Now, let us consider the other side of the coin: It is possible that, in reality, a contradiction can exist without the presence of an error—meaning that there is no logical contradiction—and that from an existing contradiction we can deem a certain position to be egregious. For instance, a three dimensional world apparently contradicts the notion of nature being comprised of four dimensions, but it cannot be said that the first case is false. If it were, none of the discoveries made on this spurious foundation could have been true and practical, meaning that the notion of three dimensional space has had a certain truth to it.

This being said, the fundamental sign in the recognition of truth is one’s connection to experience. We remarked that recognition is the relation between thought and nature, so if we want to pay attention to recognition then thought and nature must be related in actuality, and not simply have relations created between words in thought. We say that statements that affirm the existence of fantasies, jinn [and] dragons […] are erroneous because dragons, etc. cannot actually be shown. However, we say that Kepler’s statements regarding planetary orbit have truth to them because in every instance the orbit of the planets can be made subject to study as a way to assure the accuracy of Kepler’s law. The natural and material sciences of today have truth to them because according to theirown principles they are being actualised in factories where the necessities of life are being produced. It is enough for you to pay attention to the light of the electric bulb that surrounds you, the sound of the radio, and the automobile that gives you motion. You will then see that the principles of these sciences are in orderly relation to real events.[83]

To put it succinctly, though there is no logical contradiction in the assertion that demonic beings exist, the inability to empirically test this existence (or experience it in nature) compels Arānī to completely dismiss the possibility of occult existence. However, the crux of the matter is that although he relegated the belief in the demonic to the realm of non-existence, he nevertheless contributed to the movement that was positing the nature of the demonic as irrational. While early-modern Europe was witness to forms of experimentation that united witchcraft theory with scientific inquiry,[84] here Arānī derides the absence of experimentation in occult thought while simultaneously using the demonic in the service of scientific explanation. It can be argued that Arānī’s allusions to the demonic were intended to be purely tongue-in-cheek or that they semantically transcended their constituent meanings, but this detracts from the way that language “recommends” itself to the user, that it is possible to be “surprise[d]” by certain vernacular invocations.[85] Thus, in a moment of scientific explanation, a demonological expression, which is possibly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, is actually presented to the user by the prevailing lexicon. The demonological offering is arguably the once missing variable that makes the explanation finally work. The science that needed to be accounted for was beholden to a demonological framework that was being re-worked at the time, and by embracing the offering Arānī was also participating in its diachronic reformulation.

It is in light of Arānī’s demonology that his critical remarks against Shīʿī mujtahids should be examined. Clerics of his time are said to have ignored the precision of technical terms in the hard sciences. Instead, their loose and flexible handling of these terms emptied them of any empirical weight (magar īn ki mā kalamāt rā bi har maʿnī ki khvudimān khvāstah bāshīm). The example Arānī draws on in “ʿIrfān va Uṣūl-i Māddī” was the much discussed notion of how the European discovery of microbes (mīkrūb) was actually the disclosure of Satan’s deceptive spite (gharaz̤ az Shayṭān ki mīgūyand shumā rā gūl mīzanad).[86] Part of what Tavakoli-Targhi has called the “Pasteurization of Islam,” the microbial conception of the demonic emerged during a crisis in religious knowledge, particularly as it pertained to ritual purity. The identification and spread of contagious diseases allowed many skeptics to question pre-microbiological methods of maintaining cleanliness, but coupled with this were attempts to redeem the role of Islamic jurisprudence in governing hygiene. A few prominent medical professionals began reconciling microbiological facts with religious ordinances, and it is out of this that the identity of the jinn—the demonic more generally—and microorganisms began to take shape.[87]

Consistent with his criticism of the “spirit worship and Spiritism of America’s old women (rūḥ parastī va Spīrītīsm-i pīrzan´hā-yi Āmrīkā)” and the dictates of jinn-catchers (jin’gīr´hā) in Bashar Az Naẓar-i Māddī (The Human from a Material Standpoint),[88] the occultist narrativisation of microbiology represented another form of mystification for Arānī. However, based on what we have demonstrated, it can be argued that while in the case of the medical practitioners studied by Tavakoli-Targhi the demonic is explained by science, Arānī’s demonology deploys an irrational demonism in the service of scientific explanation even though it is simultaneously relegated to non-existence.

Besides his unique approach to scientific explanation, Arānī also contributed to the way the occult sciences developed an enduring “epistemological legacy”[89] at the heart of scientific discourse. This is seen in “Jabr va Ikhtiyār,” where Arānī differentiates the prognostications of the social sciences (ʿulūm-i ijtimāʿī) from the fallacious and flattering (durūgh va tamalluq) forecasts of occult practitioners,[90] or the so-called “men of faith” who set up shop (dukān) to deceive their customers.[91] However, he uses the same term, pīsh’bīnī (forecast), to account for the activity of each field of investigation. To paradoxically both deepen and rupture the association between the two, he then deploys the term ghayb’gūʿī (divination/prognostication) and allows for its double meaning to flourish. This case expresses how some elements of demonic and occult nomenclature were wrenched away from their traditional abode and integrated into scientific discourse while others were more deeply engrained into the fibre of lawlessness, as was the case with the satanic.

On account of these examples, one would be tempted to declare Arānī to have been devoutly idiosyncratic, but his uniqueness laid in the way his demonology, along with his contribution to the discursive structure of modern Iranian scientific discourse, were embedded in a deep commitment to materialist methodology and sensibility. Similar to the notion of over-identification where the “exaggeration of gestures” reveals a certain distance from the identity that those gestures embody,[92] Arānī’s intense fidelity to materialism betrays a certain distance from this mould insofar as he was beholden to the offerings of language, which made almost necessary the inclusion of the demonic in scientific explanation.

Thus, take note of the foregoing in light of the more orthodox and historical passages in Pisīkūlūzhī: According to the materialist critique, jinn, spirits and gods were engendered as personifications of human qualities and mediated by a distinct class of practitioners equipped with skills in fortune telling (fālgīrī), divination (az ghayb khabar dādan), magic (siḥr), and geomancy (raml). “However, slowly but surely, this profession (ḥirfat) came to serve as the basis of the group’s material life (zindagānī-yi māddī)” and was able in large part to structure popular opinion (ʿaqāʿid-i ʿumūmī).[93] Before dialectical materialism was said to be able to adequately explain the social function of devotion (fadākārī), it was once thought that an individual’s social powers (quvā-yi ijtimāʿī-yi yik fard) were rooted in the influence of beings like Ahrīman the Ignorant (jahl).[94] According to Arānī, during periods of religious reformation (maẕāhib-i iṣlāḥ) when the space for scientific inquiry was permitted (maydān rā barā-yi ʿaqāyid-i ‘ilmī āzād mīguẕārad), practices such as divination (ghaybgū’ī) become naturally inhibited.[95]

Because of this form of progress and man’s repudiation of his former incapacitation (dar ibtidā bashar ʿājiztar būdah),[96] he no longer needs to feel compelled to act based on the injunctions of jinn and devils (ḥukm-i ajinnah va shayāṭīn),[97] engage in apotropaic rituals—such as tribal tattooing (khāl’kūbī)—to distance himself from their insidiousness,[98] or submit to Mawlavī’s (Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, 1207-73/604-672 gh.) periodisation model that describes the progressive perfection of existents (takāmul-i mawjūdāt) in contradistinction to the findings of the natural sciences (ʿulūm-i ṭabīʿī), such as fossil-based paleontological mapping,[99] for he understands that to cleanse one’s heart through illusory mystical instructions (dastūrāt-i mawhūm) is equivalent to wanting to dominate the skies by means of a flying carpet (qālīchah) or Sīmurgh, the ancient mythical flying creature of Iranian lore. “Not only has materialist thinking and methodology (ṭarz-i tafakkur va uslūb-i māddī) in reality effaced (maḥvkard) such illusions,” it has also offered man the conditions and instruments to realise goals such as flight.[100] Above all, it is the dialectical materialist thinker (mutifakkir-i māddī-yi diyāliktīk) who, with the precise and absolute laws of physics and chemistry (qavānīn-i fīzīk va shīmī-yi daqīq va jabrī) in his possession, is capable of brushing aside (pusht-i pā bizanad) the fallacious power of the geomancer’s breath (nafas-i rammāl).[101]


Kasravī’s Demonology

Besides their equal disdain for mystical thought,[102]Arānī’s notion of an irrational demonism also corresponded with Shīʿī reformer Aḥmad Kasravī’s approach to the topic. To understand Kasravī’s demonological contribution, it must be recognised that late-nineteenth century Iran was a period of immense religious transformation that radically altered the structure of Shīʿī inquiry and the sect’s understanding of reason. In addition to the (debatably) crippled state of scholastic rationalism[103] and the Orientalist exhortation that Iranians replace “their myths with facts,”[104] the reformist writings of ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn Mīrzā Āqā Khān Kirmānī (1851-95/1270-1314 gh.) and Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn Afghānī (1838-97/1257-1316 gh.), which were rejuvenated a few decades later by the likes of Riz̤ā Qulī Sharīʿat Sangilajī (1890-1944/1309-63 gh.), ʿAlī Akbar Ḥakamī’zādah (d. 1988/1367 sh.) and Kasravī marked an attempt to reverse what they perceived to be a steep decline in thought (inḥiṭāṭ-i tafakur).[105] These thinkers and their supporters shared a desire for a rationally-inspired Islamic renaissance that would finally relinquish the dependency on the hadith-centrism of the Majlisī School.[106] The accompanying critique of fanaticism, superstition, and traditionalism was construed by the clerical establishment as a serious affront to its socio-political standing.[107] In spite of this, the reformers persisted in their efforts, and in so doing contributed to the complexity of the period’s demonological configuration.

In Kasravī’s Rāh-i Rastgārī (The Path of Salvation), not only is the necessity of religion declared (jahāniyān bī’dīn natavānand zīst), the central place of reason (āyīn-i khirad) in the endurance of dispensational unity is also underlined. By allowing rationality to be the internal guide of religion, every element that contradicts this precept becomes situated beyond the normative bounds of the creed (rāhnamā-yi dīn khirad ast va har ānchah bā khirad durust nabāshad az dīn bīrūn ast).[108] As Kasravī puts it, let the past be the past (guẕashtah’hā guẕashtah).[109] With reason at its helm, religion serves to inhibit dispersion (parākandagī) and the groundless thoughts (pindār’hā-yi bī’pāyah) that underpin this scattering. One of these thoughts is the hypostatic Ahrīman.[110]

What is ultimately betrayed in Kasravī’s line of thinking is his adherence to a crude and skeptical form of phenomenological bracketing[111] that jettisons the demonic from determined frontiers of reality for the purpose of focusing on the rational kernel of actuality. Kasravī says that if one accepts the reality of Ahrīman, there is a simultaneous misunderstanding (nimīshināsand) of religion.[112] In other words, like many ancient Greeks who “relapsed with a sigh of relief into the pleasures and comforts of the primitive” in the midst of great philosophical and medical advances,[113] Kasravī asserts that a regressive segment of Iranian society is attracted to Ahrīman’s fallacious advances during a time when rationalised religious discourse is most available for observance.

Like Arānī who renounced demonic existence but simultaneously used it for scientific explanation, Kasravī coerced the demonic into the realm of irrational non-existence, all the while allowing it to remain an integral part of his explanatory apparatus. To put it differently, for Kasravī the conceptualisation of a rational religion hinged upon the inclusive exclusion of the demonic. This is seen when Ahrīman is presented in a roundabout way as the product and producer of a multiplicity of polluted unknowings (ālūdah-yi ṣad nādānī),[114] forms of idleness (bīkārī),[115] as well as a renewed commitment to idol worship (but’parastī’hā-yi nuvīnī āghāz kardah’and) and the generational perversions (ān gumrāhī’hā-yi mardumān ast ki har zamān chīz-i dīgarī bāshad) that spring up unfailingly[116]—the consequence of such nescience being the scattered focus of obedience (dar barābar-i ānhā gardan kaj mīsākhtand).[117] He goes on to say that the idol worshippers (but’parastān) who pursue these avenues will end up in a shoreless field of thoughts and suppositions (maydān-i pindār va ingār-i bīkarān ast)[118] similar to the pre-Socratic Apeiron in that its limitlessness cannot be reduced to anything but itself.[119]

Kasravī’s realm of degenerative sliding (laghzishgāh) is said to be due to the abandonment of Islam’s simplicity (dīn-i sādah) in favour of Greek philosophical (falsafah-yi Yūnān) debates put forth by the likes of Plato (Aflāṭūn) and Aristotle (Arasṭū). Independent thoughts were appended to ancient Greek ideas (īnhā pindār’hā’ī nīz az khvud bi pindār’hā-yi kuhan-i Yūnānī afzūdand) and this led to the creation of Sufism (Ṣūfī’garī), esotericism (bāṭinī’garī), and kharābātī’garī (doctrine of frequenting taverns).[120] What resulted from all this activity of diluting truths with crookedness (rāstī’hā rā bā kajī’hā dar ham āmīkhtah’and)[121] was the production of empty and meaningless texts (nivishtah’hā-yi pūch-i bī’maʿnāʿī).[122] Though this meaninglessness has limitless potential, it is essentially based on a perceptual limitation (andāzah nigāh nadārand), particularly among those considered to be the most learned (dānishvarān).[123] They insist upon bringing forth self-circumscribed truths through the weaving of incantations (munājāt’bāfī), verse construction (āyah’sāzī), and sleight of hand (shu’badah’bāzī), while absolute certainties are left to languish.[124] This being so, there is a bestial (chahārpāyān va dadān)[125] quality to all these doctrinal constructions in that they are rooted in irrationality.

In his account of the bestial in Āyīn (Creed), Kasravī places stress on necessity (nāchār va nākhvāh)[126] and because the bestial is situated outside the bounds of the rationalistic religion he is advocating (kasānī ki dīn rā kinār mī’guzārand hamtā-yi chahārpāyān va dadān’and),[127] Natural necessity begins to intermingle with the demonic, since Ahrīman is also located in the beyond. Kasravī states that “most Europeans do not separate humans (ādamī) from other creatures (jānivarān),” and this leads to their support of human emulation of animal existence (bih gumān-i īshān ādamī mītavānad balkah mībāyad hamchūn dadān va chahārpāyān zindagī kunad).[128] By endorsing this crosspollination, scholars and philosophers (dānishmand va fīlsūf) are said to be enemies of humankind (gūyī dushman-i jins-i ādamī būdah’and) and envious (rashk) of animals,[129] even though (to Kasravī’s unbeknownst) the truth may be more ambivalent than this, for they also “refuse […] to be like […] animal[s].”[130]  All the same, the function of reason is to reject man’s integration with the bestial and to thus guide him away from irrationality (ādamī bāyad khirad rā rāhnamā-yi khvud sākhtah)[131] through the rise of prophets (payghambarān bi dushmanī-yi ānhā barkhvāstah’and).[132]

Running parallel to the wave of self-doubt that swept over segments of the Western intelligentsia just prior to and during the Second World War when “technical rationality” simply became synonymous with the “rationality of domination”[133] and “the Enlightenment […] eradicated the last remnant of its own self-awareness,”[134] was Kasravī’s assertion that modern European contributions to science—which, one could say, is of Ahrīmanic origin insofar as they are not rooted in a rational kernel—directly led to the creation of hellish instruments (abzār’hā-yi dūzakhī) of war. According to him, prior to the European takeover as the vanguard scientific civilisation, the sciences offered humanity more benefit than harm (sūdash bīshtar az zīyānash būdah), but that this has now reversed. Similar to the way Islamic philosophers and mystics supplement unalloyed truisms with self-circumscribed propositions, European scholars likewise pervert objective scientific findings with trifling ideational (pindār’hā) additives. This tendency is rooted in their insubstantial core (bīmāyah’and) and illusory claim to mastery (da’vī-yi ustādī mī´kunand). The connection between economic motive (vasīlah-yi tavāngarī)[135] and technology’s social ascendance[136] enters the demonological landscape when Kasravī equates profit maximisation with the increased production of hellish instruments (shumārah-yi abzār’hā-yi dūzakhī rūz’afzūn ast).[137] Though the Europeans have acquired a great wealth of knowledge (dānish-i bīkarān andūkhtah) and talent (hunarmandī zamīn rā bi āsimān dūkhtah), it is due to their irreligiosity (bī’dīnī) that the world has transformed into hell (dūzakh).[138]

Confused by the hypnotic grip the hellish instruments have on man (ākhar īn abzār-i dūzakhī chi arzishī dārad kih jahān īn hamah giriftār-i āsīb’hā-yi ū bāshad?!),[139] Kasravī leaves us off with the strong impression that it was not simply Riz̤ā Shāh who was “fascinated by technological aspects of modernisation.”[140] The wicked acts of the authorities (riẕālat’hā-yi ma’mūrīn)[141]—which he speaks of in Qānūn-i Dādgarī (The Just Law)—an almost obvious place to look for the demonic, is not the operative location of Iranian demonology during this time. It cannot even be said that his charge against the European scientific intervention is part of a critique of reason. For Kasravī, much of lived experience is rooted in demonic irrationality, to the point where bestial anti-humanism and modern instruments of war enter its orbit. In so doing, both the Shīʿī modernist and Arānī, the hardened dialectical materialist, contributed to the transformation of a discourse they are rarely—if ever—associated with, thus sending the demonic into a deeper state of lawlessness.

[1]Taqī Arānī, “Jabr va Ikhtiyār (Determinism and Free Will),” in Ās̱ār va Maqālāt (Œuvre) (Köln: Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag, 1977), 146-57.

[2]In this regard, my approach, which at times incorporates the views of thinkers who categorically denied the existence of demons but obliquely contributed to the evolving longevity of demonism through their demonographical inscriptions, departs from those studies that focus on the “convictions of those who believed in its very possibility.” For the latter position, see Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 28.

[3]Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 29.

[4]Asad, Genealogies of Religion, 42.

[5]Asad, Genealogies of Religion, 54.

[6]Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 2.

[7]Hacking, The Taming of Chance, 2.

[8]Lloyd Ridgeon, Sufi Castigator (New York: Routledge, 2006), 45.

[9]Whitney S. Bodman, The Poetics of Iblīs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 239.

[10]Peter J. Awn, Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1983), 35.

[11]Awn, Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption, 95.

[12]Bodman, The Poetics of Iblīs, 239.

[13]Bodman, The Poetics of Iblīs, 25-6.

[14]Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973) 1: 114.

[15]Bodman, The Poetics of Iblīs, 139.

[16]Bodman, The Poetics of Iblīs, 163.

[17] Awn, Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption, 95.

[18]Bodman, The Poetics of Iblīs, 264.

[19]Wilferd Madelung, “Al-Ghazali’s Changing Attitude to Philosophy,” in Islam and Rationality, vol. 1, ed. Georges Tamer (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 28.

[20]What gives credence to this statement is Satan’s association with the jinn, subtle beings thought to possess rational faculties. In the same way that Qur’an commentators link Iblīs’ rational follies to that of humans, the holy text reprimands humans and jinn in equal measure for their egregious use of reason and free will. See Amira El-Zein, Islam, Arabs, and the Intelligent World of the Jinn (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009), 13-5.

[21]Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥasan Āqā Najafī Qūchānī, Sīyāḥat-i Sharq (Eastern Journey) (Mashhad: Chāp-i Tūs, 1972/1351 sh.), 14.

[22]Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 194.

[23]Awn, Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption, 147.

[24]Arānī, “Jabr va Ikhtīiyār,” 147.

[25]FarzinVahdat, God and Juggernaut (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002), 97.

[26]Arānī, “Jabr va Ikhtiyār,” 147.

[27]Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” in Satan, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 2005), 8.

[28]Awn, Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption, 35-6.

[29]R.M. Frank, “Currents and Countercurrents,” in Islam: Essays on Scripture, Thought & Society, ed. Peter G. Riddell and Tony Street (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 133.

[30]Michael Allen Gillespie, Nihilism before Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 103.

[31]Maḥmūd Sarshār, “Ṭarīqah-yi Kashf-i Jaʿldar ʿAsr-i Ḥāz̤ir (The Path to Unveiling Forgeries in the Present Era),” Kānūn-i Vukalā 32 (1953/1332 sh.): 22.

[32]Zabih, The Communist Movement in Iran, 64-5.

[33]Zabih, The Communist Movement in Iran, 66.

[34]“… increasing intellectualization and rationalization does not mean increasing general knowledge of the conditions under which we live our lives. It means something else. It means the knowledge or belief that if we only wanted to we could learn at any time that there are, in principle, no mysterious unpredictable forces in play, but that all things–in principle–can be controlled through calculation. This, however, means the disenchantment of the world. No longer, like the savage, who believed that such forces existed, do we have to resort to magical means to gain control over or pray to the spirits. Technical means and calculation work for us instead. This, above all, is what intellectualization actually means.” See Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” in Max Weber’s Complete Writings on Academic and Political Vocations, ed. John Dreijmanis, trans. Gordon C. Wells (New York: Algora Publishing, 2008), 33.

[35]Karl Popper, The Open Universe (New York: Routledge, 2000), 30.

[36]This is my modification of Alfred Landé’s statement that the deterministic impulse “may have its roots in a feeling of being ourselves demons who can deliberately start deterministic chains.” See Alfred Landé, “The Case for Indeterminism,” in Determinism and Freedom in the Age of Modern Science, ed. Sidney Hook (New York: Collier, 1961), 85.

[37]Adam Weiner, By Authors Possessed (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 48.

[38]Taqī Arānī, Pisīkūlūzhī: ʿIlm-i Rūḥ (Psychology: The Science of the Spirit) (N.p.: Intishārāt-iĀbān, 1978/2537 sha.), 259.

[39]Arānī, Pisīkūlūzhī, 259.

[40]“[…] versagt sie sich zugleich jedem Eindringen in sie.” See Martin Heidegger, “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes (1935/36),” in Gesamtausgabe, I. Abteilung: Veröffentlichte Schriften 1914-1970, Band 5, Holzwege (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1977), 33.

[41]Arānī, Pisīkūlūzhī, 260-1.

[42]Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844),” in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 327.

[43]Arānī, Pisīkūlūzhī, 260.

[44]Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom! (New York: Routledge, 1992), 167.

[45]R.W. Serjeantson, “Proof and Persuasion,” in The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 3, ed. Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 133.

[46]Serjeantson, “Proof and Persuasion,” 145.

[47]Serjeantson, “Proof and Persuasion,” 160-1.

[48]Bernard Lightman, Victorian Popularizers of Science (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), vii.

[49]Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2009), 300.

[50]Lightman, Victorian Popularizers of Science, 16.

[51]Zabih, The Communist Movement in Iran, 67.

[52]Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 1.

[53]Asef Bayat, “Historiography, Class, and Iranian Workers,” in Workers and Working Classes in the Middle East: Struggles, Histories, Historiographies, ed. Zachary Lockman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 192-3.

[54]Habib Ladjevardi, Labor Unions and Autocracy in Iran (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985), 5-6.

[55]Ladjevardi, Labor Unions and Autocracy in Iran, 14.

[56]Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, 1.

[57]Taqī Arānī, Ākharīn Difāʿ-i Duktur Taqī Arānī (Dr. TaqīArānī’s Final Defence) (N.p.: Intishārāt-i Ḥizb-i Tūdah-yi Īrān, n.d.), 17.

[58]Arānī, Ākharīn Difāʿ-i Duktur Taqī Arānī, 17.

[59]In response to the question of whence German emancipation will arise, Marx says, “… in the formation of a class with radical chains, a class in civil society that is not a class of civil society, of a social group that is the dissolution of all social groups, of a sphere that has a universal character because of its universal sufferings and lays claim to no particular right, because it is the object of no particular injustice but of injustice in general. This class can no longer lay claim to a historical status, but only a human one.” See Karl Marx, “Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” in Selected Writings, ed. David McLellan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 81.

[60]Ladjevardi, Labor Unions and Autocracy in Iran, 17.

[61]Ladjevardi, Labor Unions and Autocracy in Iran, 20-2.

[62] Arānī, Ākharīn Difāʿ-i Duktur Taqī Arānī, 17.

[63]Aḥmad Shāmlū, in collab. with Āydā Sarkīsiyān, Kitāb-i Kūchah, B, Daftar-i Duvvum (Book of the Street) (Tehran: Maziyār, 1998/1377 sh.), 1318.

[64]Louis Althusser, “The International of Decent Feelings,” in The Spectre of Hegel, ed. François Matheron and trans. G.M. Goshgarian (London: Verso, 1997), 25.

[65]H.E. Chehabi, Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism (London: I.B. Tauris, 1990), 17.

[66]Ali M. Ansari, Modern Iran (New York: Routledge, 2007), 51.

[67]Karl Marx, Capital, 3 vols., trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1991) 3: 914.

[68]Alireza Mohammadi Doostdar, “Fantasies of Reason: Science, Superstition, and the Supernatural in Iran” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2012), 61.

[69]Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society, 49.

[70]Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 2000), 33.

[71]Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Critique, trans. R. Dixon (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956), 73.

[72]Taqī Arānī, Mātiriyālīsm-i Diyāliktīk (Dialectical Materialism) (Tehran: Mu’assisah-yi Intishārāt-i Ātash, 1946/1325 sh.), 16.

[73]Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 157.

[74]Arānī, Mātiriyālīsm-i Diyāliktīk, 16. If we are to suppose that Arānī is referring to Kant’s transcendental idealism by virtue of his quip against his distinctive theory of time and space, then the argument concerning the questionable sources of sensuous effects was raised by others as well. Like Jacobi, Arānī is suspicious of the place of matter and its determinacy in the idealist system, but their ultimate arguments are at variance. According to Jacobi, “what we realists call actual objects or things independent of our representations are for the transcendental idealist only internal beings which exhibit nothing at all of a thing that may perhaps be there outside us, or which the appearance may refer. Rather, these internal beings are merely subjective determinations of the mind, entirely void of anything truly objective.” See F.H. Jacobi, “On Transcendental Idealism,” in The Main Philosophical Writings and the Novel Allwill, trans. George di Giovanni (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994), 334. The problem is that Kant admits to the existence of matter and its permanence, and simply states that “outer sense” is tied to “inner sense” (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 122.). This connection makes the supposed idealist bewilderment of external incidents quite dubious. Furthermore, Kant had a specific understanding of miracles and their relationship with rational comprehension. As he puts it, ” [in] practical affairs, […] we cannot possibly count on miracles, or in any way take them into consideration in the employment of our reason (which is necessary in all circumstances of life).” See Immanuel Kant, “Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason,” in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings, trans and ed. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1998), 101.

Notice how remarkably similar Arānī’s critique of idealism in this one sentence is to the example of the satanic child used to explain the concept of suggestion. In both cases, an inexplicable evil bursts forth from the external world. In his critique of idealism, he rebukes what he had acceded to earlier, thus alienating himself from his true association with the demonic. For a homologous example concerning religion, see Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (New York: Verso, 1997), 99.

[75]Arānī, Mātirīyālīsm-iDīyāliktīk, 31.

[76]It can be argued that Arānī is here presenting another skewed interpretation of the idealist tradition. It is not simply that mind or spirit constitute what appears to be the material world. After all, Kant himself was careful to point out that matter is “something permanent, which must therefore be a thing distinct from all my representations and external” (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 122.). External objects, matter, or to put it in Kant’s term, “outer appearances,” are only grounded by the mind (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 158.). Certain “subjective condition[s]” need to be met before the intuition of these appearances (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 161.), which hold particular “shape[s] and position[s] (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 163.).

This being said, Arānī might as well be referring to Berkeley’s subjective idealism which, at times, staggered close to objective idealist territory, particularly in his argument that the world is “the product of a single supreme spiritual cause.” See V.I. Lenin, “Materialism and Empirio-criticism,” in Collected Works, 45 vols., trans. Abraham Fineberg and ed. Clemens Dutt (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977) 14:32.

[77]Arānī, Mātiriyālīsm-i Diyāliktīk, 51.

[78]Taqī Arānī, “ʿIrfān va Uṣūl-i Māddī (Mysticism and the Principles of Materialism),” in Ās̱ār va Maqālāt (Köln: Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag, 1977), 140.

[79]Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The German Ideology,” in Collected Works, 50 vols. (New York: International Publishers, 1976) 5: 44.

[80]Arānī, Mātiriyālīsm-i Diyāliktīk, 54.

[81]Lenin, “Materialism and Empirio-criticism,” 78.

[82]Lenin, “Materialism and Empirio-criticism,” 155.

[83]Arānī, Mātiriyālīsm-i Diyāliktīk, 30-1.

[84]Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 146.

[85]Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “On the Phenomenology of Language,” in Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 88.

[86]Taqī Arānī, “ʿIrfān va Uṣūl-i Māddī,” 119.

[87]Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, “From Jinns to Germs: A Genealogy of Pasteurian Islam,” Iran Nameh 30 (2015): iv-xix.

[88]Taqī Arānī, Bashar Az Naẓar-i Māddī (The Human from a Material Standpoint) (Tehran: Majallah-yi Dunyā, 1944/1323 sh.), 34.

[89]Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998), 236.

[90]Arānī, “Jabr va Ikhtiyār,” 156.

[91]Rahnema, Superstition as Ideology in Iranian Politics, 113.

[92]Slavoj Žižek, Less than Nothing (London: Verso, 2012), 355.

[93]Arānī, Pisīkūlūzhī, 270.

[94]Arānī, Bashar Az Naẓar-i Māddī, 30-1.

[95]Arānī, Pisīkūlūzhī, 272.

[96]Arānī, Pisīkūlūzhī, 275.

[97]Arānī, Pisīkūlūzhī, 275.

[98]Taqī Arānī, “Hunar va Mātiriyālīsm (Art and Materialism),” in Nivishtah´ha-yi ʿIlmī, Falsafī, va Ijtimāʿī (Scientific, Philosophical, and Social Writings) (Florence: Intishārāt-i Mazdak, 1975/1354 sh.), 32.

[99]Arānī, “ʿIrfān va Uṣūl-i Māddī,” 119.

[100]Arānī, Bashar Az Naẓar-i Māddī, 31.

[101]Arānī, Bashar Az Naẓar-i Māddī, 57.

[102]Ridgeon, Sufi Castigator, 191.

[103]John Walbridge, God and Logic in Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 169.

[104]Ali M. Ansari, The Politics of Nationalism in Modern Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 17.

[105]Ali Mirsepassi, Political Islam, Iran, and the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 29.

[106]Ali Rahnema, Shi’i Reformation in Iran (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), 112.

[107]Sohrab Behdad, “Utopia of Assassins: Navvab Safavi and the Fada’ian-e Eslam in Prerevolutionary Iran,” in Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity, ed. Ramin Jahanbegloo (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2004), 73-4.

[108]Aḥmad Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī (The Path of Salvation) (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Majīd, 1378 sh.), 26.

[109]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 117.

[110]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 26-7.

[111]Edmund Husserl, Ideas, First Book, trans. F. Kersten (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1983), 61.

[112]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 27.

[113]E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), 193.

[114]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 28.

[115]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 152.

[116]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 76.

[117]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 28.

[118]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 37.

[119]Adam Drozdek, Greek Philosophers as Theologians: The Divine Arche (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 9.

[120]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 37-8.

[121]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 76.

[122]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 39.

[123]Kasravī, Rāh-i Rastgārī, 41.

[124]Kasravī, Rāh-iRastgārī, 76-7.

[125]Kasravī, Rāh-iRastgārī, 51.

[126]Kasravī, Rāh-iRastgārī, 51.

[127]Aḥmad Kasravī, Āyīn (Creed) (N.p.: Chāp-i Rashdīyah, 1977/2536 sha.), (Part I) 52.

[128]Kasravī, Āyīn, (Part I) 56.

[129]Kasravī, Āyīn, (Part II) 5.

[130]In respect to historical memory, it is said, “Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see; for, though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness – what they have, a life neither bored nor painful, is precisely what he wants, yet he cannot have it because he refuses to be like an animal.” See Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” in Untimely Meditations, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, ed. Daniel Breazeale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 60.

[131]Kasravī, Āyīn, (Part I) 57.

[132]Kasravī, Āyīn, (Part II) 10.

[133]Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 95.

[134]Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 2.

[135]Kasravī, Āyīn, (Part I) 38.

[136]Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 95.

[137]Kasravī, Āyīn, (Part I) 38.

[138]Kasravī, Āyīn, (Part I) 52.

[139]Kasravī, Āyīn, (Part II) 18.

[140]Atabaki and Zürcher, “Introduction,” 11.

[141]Aḥmad Kasravī, Qānūn-i Dādgarī (The Just Law) (Tehran: N.p., 1340 sh.), 34.

Between Tehran and Paris: Terre de mirages and Shayegan’s Exilic Ambivalence

Ehsan Sheikholharam is a teaching fellow and a PhD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. Situated at the intersection of architecture and religion, his work examines the religiosity of non-religious architecture. Beyond his primary focus on the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, his research spans interrogations of ideologies of public space, spatial motifs in cinema, and theories of subjectivity. He has received recognition from institutions such as the University of Miami, Dumbarton Oaks’ Mellon Initiative, and the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute. His work has been published in the American Academy of Religion’s Reading Religion, Maydan, CLOG, and WIT Press.

Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love.[1]

—Sigmund Freud, Letter to Carl Jung


The etymology of the term exile is ambiguous. Although in its fourteenth-century French meaning, exile corresponds to contemporary usage, connoting a “forced removal from one’s country,” its Latin roots suggest a more nuanced understanding.[2] If taken as a derivative of the verb ex-sulere, an exsul refers to a person “who is taken out.” This hints at a forced uprooting that is not only unsettling but also agonizing. Yet its origin can also belong to the Latin ambulare, which connotes “to walk,” thus referring to one “who walks out.”[3] The connotations of “walking out” and “being taken out” are not the same. The former suggests a willed act, whereas the latter hints at an external imposition. Exile as a concept is therefore charged with ambiguity. It is not simply an externally imposed condition—a predicament with which one needs to reconcile. Exile can also be internal—a willed departure from what is intimate and familiar. Incidentally, this latter connotation resonates with the Persian mystical tradition, not because it evokes an original rupture with the divine, but rather because it is predicated upon an internal, willed rupture with the self.[4] The wayfarer abandons her abode not because she is forced to do so;[5] she departs from the angst of existence because through a journey away from the self, she returns to the Self, becoming one with the Divine—as epitomized by Hoseyn Mansur Hallaj’s (executed 922) “ana al-haqq.” Hallaj did not cry out “I am the Truth” to declare that he is literally God, but to say that through the “annihilation of the ego,” he had reunited with the Divine.[6] This ambiguity, nonetheless, does not alter the affective composition of exile. A willed exile is not exempt from those experiences integral to a forced exile: agony, a sense of loss, and estrangement.

Daryush Shayegan, a Franco-Persian writer, epitomizes an ambivalent relationship with internal exile. An itinerant who traversed the epistemic (and geographic) horizons of the Orient and the Occident,[7] Shayegan never inhabited a single universe with total infatuation and identitarian attachment.[8] Living in Paris, he was reflecting on the Iranian Revolution of 1979; living in Tehran, he was writing about the French struggle with national identity. Any attempt to pin him down in either the French intellectual milieu or among the Persian intelligentsia does injustice to Shayegan’s polyvalent work, for he wrote comparative work in both French and Persian, drawing on multiple registers of knowledge.

Feeling uneasy with being confined to a single horizon (whether intellectually, emotionally, or geographically), Shayegan simultaneously inhabited multiple worlds. While Ramin Jahanbegloo[9] and Laurent Testot[10] have called Shayegan’s twelve-year stay in France a “self-exile,” I argue that his roving did not begin when he left Tehran a year after the revolution, in 1980, nor did it end when he returned. His exilic subjectivity was already in the making in his multilingual and multicultural upbringing as well as his cosmopolitan education. Nonetheless, characterizing Shayegan as an exile seems rather strange for someone who lived a life of privilege.

Shayegan was born in Tabriz, Iran, to an affluent family. His father was an Azeri merchant and his mother a descendant of the Georgian aristocracy. The milieu in which he was raised was ethnically, religiously, and linguistically mixed. His father was Shi‘a and his mother Sunni. If Persian, Azeri, and Georgian were not enough, his nanny spoke Russian to him. As was the case for children of wealthy liberal families in that era, he was shipped off to a French Catholic school in Tehran. At Saint-Louis School, he was exposed to Iranian Jews, Armenians, and other minorities. At the age of fifteen—and having not yet finished high school—he embarked on a journey to Europe to visit Italy, Sweden, and France. Young Daryush finally landed at a boarding school in London. Later, he attended college in Geneva, studying “comparative philosophy, Sanskrit, and literature.”[11] When he returned to Tehran in the early 1960s, he was introduced to Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Henry Corbin as well as influential Shi‘a reformists and progressive thinkers. Under Corbin’s supervision, Shayegan received his doctorate from the University of Paris–Sorbonne in 1968.[12] Shayegan’s expertise in comparative religions (his dissertation brought together the Vedanta schools in Indian philosophy and the Persian Sufi tradition) enabled him to teach Indian Studies in the Department of Comparative Philosophy at the University of Tehran, having had already taught Sanskrit there while working on his dissertation. A year after the 1979 Revolution, Shayegan returned to Paris where, over the course of twelve years, he published several books that examined, among other themes, the encounter between tradition and modernity.

Shayegan’s oeuvre interrogates the effects of globalization on the modern subject. Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, Shayegan argues that the hyper-connected world fragments the psyche into a broken mirror. While he recognizes the problematic nature of this fragmentation, he maintains that “cultural schizophrenia” is the universal condition of the modern world. Exile, in-betweenness, and hybridity are not singular conditions of migrants and itinerants, but modes of being that are integral to the modern psyche.[13] Instead of attempting to cure this fragmented cultural psyche, Shayegan wants to tame it. Put differently, Shayegan does not wish to fight the condition of modern subjectivity; his project is to reconcile its antinomies. Rather than invoking the metaphor of the melting pot—where fragments combine in an unvariegated whole—he imagines a psyche constituted of difference.

Shayegan’s model of the psyche is intertwined with his life trajectory. His personal experience of interculturalism informs his understanding of cultural hybridity. Although Shayegan’s object of analysis appears to be the condition of the modern psyche, one cannot but realize that the subject analyzed is a cosmopolitan thinker like himself. How would one imagine a conversation Shayegan had with himself? It is perhaps only through a reflexive doubling of the self that he could contemplate his ambivalence. I argue that his only novel, Terre de mirages (Land of Mirages), narrativizes his thoughts on exilic subjectivity. The novel serves not only as a narrative device—it also serves as a talking cure.[14]

Terre de mirages is a story of two lovers, Marianne (a French woman) and Kaveh (an Iranian man), who, after having lived together for several years, exchange letters from Paris and Tehran. Over almost three years (from January 1997 to December 1999), the two itinerants use these letters to reflect on their incomplete journey. The novel, which is written in the form of an epistle with contributions from Maryam Askari, features eighty letters that tell the story of exilic love. Marianne, who had given up on the possibility of them being together, abandoned Kaveh and abruptly left Tehran. Yet it soon becomes clear that their desire for each other lingers on—although with a melancholic sense of loss. It is this quivering, undead desire that propels their continued conversations.

One could read the book as a diary of cultural psychotherapy.[15] The two lovers are not simply physically distanced; they have always been apart precisely because they have remained blocked in their cultural enclosures. Trying to live in each other’s respective worlds, the protagonists are strangers in their own homes.

I will begin by providing a glimpse into the narrative structure of the novel. I will then recount three phases of encounter: resistance, schizophrenic fragmentation, and the process of taming cultural schizophrenia. I will explain what role Terre de mirages plays in Shayegan’s thinking—especially regarding the phenomenon of “cultural schizophrenia.” In the next section, I will analyze a series of themes related to exilic subjectivity, including ambivalence, hybridity, and in-betweenness. Subsequently, I will situate the novel in Shayegan’s oeuvre, arguing that it is a pivotal work. Finally, I will posit a critique of the novel.

The Story

The story begins with a letter from Kaveh in Tehran, dated 24 January 1997. He was expecting a letter from Marianne, who had suddenly left Iran. By then, they had been living together for about ten years—in both France and Iran. Soon, one gathers that they had reached a point in their relationship where moving forward seemed impossible. Kaveh is disillusioned, Marianne irreparably hurt. The protagonists are in profound agony. Marianne, who has learned about Kaveh’s melancholic condition, writes:

He [their mutual friend] told me some very disturbing things about your state of mind, your depression, your voluntary isolation, in short, the signs of a deep unease for which I feel directly responsible. Without my hasty departure, you would probably not have suffered so much [. . .] I hurt you very badly and I am deeply sorry; I took you for a wise man, such was the image that you wanted to communicate to the world, and here I am discovering a delicate, fragile and very vulnerable being.[16]

The mutual distress with which the novel begins has little to do with the partners’ immediate relations. Despite apparent frustrations and hurtful misunderstandings, their love persists.[17] “We love each other,” Marianne writes, “but we can’t live together.”[18] Kaveh echoes Marianne’s ambiguity: “I miss you painfully,” yet we “are imbued with nostalgia” and crippled by “regret.”[19] The disconnect, nonetheless, goes beyond themselves.

As the story unfolds, one gathers that their relationship failed not due to irresolvable quibbles, but precisely because of cultural prejudices, atavistic attachment to identities, and withdrawal into nativism.[20] “It is difficult,” Marianne declares in despair, “to get out of the shackles of habits.” Molds of thoughts, subconsciously and gradually, turn into “a straitjacket that binds us to our atavisms.”[21]

In the novel, cultural differences are articulated through seemingly mundane conversations. The story builds up these overarching themes of civilizational discontent through flashbacks, recounting what happened between the two protagonists at different occasions when they were together. In trying to make sense of their failed love, Marianne poses poignant questions: “Are our respective worlds so incommensurable? Aren’t we living in the same world, speaking the same languages?”[22]

Their differences are manifold. While Marianne was engaging and personable, Kaveh was somehow aloof. Disinterested in the mundane, he often “refused to participate in collective life.” Since he was more invested in metaphysical thoughts and mystic poetry, his interest in politics and urban life remained feeble. Furthermore, Kaveh tended to think in binaries. He was quick to frame ordinary quibbles into irreconcilable antinomic themes. Marianne recalls how Kaveh complicated a simple disagreement into an inherent divide between the East and the West: “In Europe, one exchanges ideas as if they were going to the market, while ignoring the real sympathy that is the communion between people. One is intelligent, sometimes too intelligent, but it is wisdom that is missing. One is tolerant, but not compassionate enough.”[23]

Marianne astutely observes that Kaveh’s reproaches were civilizational rather than personal.[24] Throughout the novel, Marianne, too, poses a similar critique that, although it seems personal, addresses larger cultural themes.[25] Beyond cultural generalization, occasionally one can find more particular examples. Kaveh, for instance, remembers how Marianne was repelled by “the deplorable condition of women, the confusing relationship between genders, the hustle and bustle of ambiguous situations, and the ambivalence of generalizing judgments.”[26] Sometimes, these themes and sentiments, especially when it comes to essentialized cultural differences, are narrated through less sophisticated voices in the novel. Kaveh’s mother, for example, reiterates her unfading distrust about the possibility of their relationship. Voicing her motherly concern for Kaveh’s unrest, she says poignantly: “Don’t you know that East and West are two opposite poles that will never meet?”[27]

As Marianne and Kaveh try to mediate between seemingly incompatible worlds,[28] they enter a third space.[29] “I have the impression,” Marianne writes, “that we have now created a gaping space between us.”[30] Throughout the novel, Marianne and Kaveh refer to each other as “exile” (exilée), “foreigner” (l’étranger), “immigrant” (immigré), and “nomad” (nomade). Marianne suggests that the “ambivalence of migrants and the effects of exile” have become “the condition of humanity today.”[31] Marianne was caught in an ambiguous space between “flashes of joy” and “secret dismays.” By being “shaken up” out of their “torpor,”[32] the protagonists also enter a reflexive space of remaking the self. This self-discovery is nonetheless disquieting. Marianne writes in a despondent tone: “I had ceased to be a serious Frenchwoman, but that did not mean that I had become a carefree Persian. Here I go! I am no longer this or that.” As she seems suspended in an in-between space, she perceives her own consciousness as mesmerized and disoriented. She tries to morph into a shape that seems incompatible with her “natural” mold: “I have become a migrant in the agony of metamorphosis.”[33]

The lovers are in an emotional limbo from which one cannot be emancipated without the support and validation of the other. By trying to understand Kaveh’s world, Marianne begins to decipher her own mysteries. It is not merely that Marianne “had become fundamentally different.” What is remarkable about this retrospection is that she realizes she has always been different.[34] In trying to tear the veil of the Other, one confronts the hidden side (face cachée) of their own existence.[35] What was once familiar and intimate turns into something exotic and strange. Entering an “interworld” (d’intermonde), they discover that they need to remake their subjectivities as if nothing were fixed.[36] In this precise sense, the novel functions as a guide for dealing with the psychic effects of exilic love: “I don’t know if our letters are proof of our love,” Kaveh wonders, “or some cunning ruse closer to psychotherapy.”[37]

The inconsistencies exhibited by the characters are twofold. On the one hand, they are divided internally: they are struggling to assimilate into each other’s respective worlds. On the other, they are not yet equipped with the intellectual and emotional tools to recognize each other. Kaveh writes about a similar (internal) struggle: “It’s true that I have a conflicting soul—it looks like two antagonistic forces pulling me in opposite directions.”[38]

The novel is a journey of taming this ambivalence. Shayegan implies that what brought their relationship to a standstill was a kind of cultural egocentrism where their in-betweenness was turned into a centrifugal force. Each withdrew into their own closed universe. It is only when they are apart—that is, at those moments when the immediacy of each other’s presence is gone—that they can reflect on their encounter. Welcoming this space of disjointed retrospection is, indeed, the first step in the way of taming their fragmented subjectivity. It is through this disjunctive engagement that they gradually move away from blaming each other toward recognizing their own biases and idiosyncrasies. Although recognition of their egocentrism is the first and fundamental step, it takes them three years and eighty letters to move from recognition-as-diagnosis to recognition-as-reconciliation. Marianne writes: “At the time, I interpreted your thoughts as gibberish uttered by an agitated person in exile, to whom nothing was more satisfying than criticizing our way of life. With time and experience, nonetheless, I began to understand the relevance of these words. Now that I live alone in Paris, I gradually identify with what you must have felt when you were propelled towards us. Perhaps, dear Kaveh, I too have become, at my expense, an exile.”[39]

Yet because Marianne has the will and courage to be vulnerable, she goes through a metamorphosis; she embraces in-betweenness. Moving from a closed and fixed identity to an open and fluid one comes at a price. Marianne contemplates the “secret maladies” of this love: “[I] was so captivated by the world I was discovering that I had to deny a large part of myself. I came forward defenseless; it may have allowed me to explore areas otherwise inaccessible to a stranger. Nonetheless, I paid dearly for it: I came out bruised, broken, disfigured inside. Now I have taken a step back and am trying to analyze what really happened to me.”[40]

Meanwhile, as Marianne and Kaveh are navigating their mixed feelings and lingering desire, they also experiment with new romance. Marianne meets Sadegh, an Afghani painter who has a small gallery in Paris. As she shares with Kaveh her fascination with and libidinal desire toward her new flame, Marianne realizes that she is using her artist lover as a substitute for Kaveh’s absence.[41] Her Afghani lover is an empty signifier onto which Marianne projects the repressed object of her desire.[42] Her hesitation, she says, is rooted in her lingering love for Kaveh: “I carry the delicious stigmata in my soul.”[43] Likewise, Kaveh starts dating Afsaneh—a Persian woman who, after having lived on the US west coast and later in France, returned to Tehran.[44] They travel together to the United States. While Afsaneh feels as free as a fish who has been returned to the sea, Kaveh feels alienated.[45] Although he appreciates the country’s multiculturalism and diversity, his subconscious “anti-Americanism” functions as a barrier. Kaveh remains suspicious of profit-driven capitalism, all-too-confident positivism, and “euphoric and artificial happiness” that has ensued from the economic boom. Kaveh breaks up with Afsaneh not merely because she is happy in the American milieu and he is not, nor because they are not “on the same wavelength,” as Kaveh mentions.[46] He cannot continue, because, like Marianne, his struggles are internal.

By providing yet another space for introspection, these failed attempts at finding romance help the protagonists to reignite their passion for each other. Through a process reminiscent of a Hegelian double negation, they come to realize what is desirable by recognizing what is not. Toward the end of the novel—and after having sorted out their internal struggles—the two lovers notice how what was once a “great distance” has “narrowed.” Just as their fragmented psyche morphs into a harmonious tapestry of differences, so too their love for each other returns with fervor. Marianne marks this decisive moment with ardor: “No! I don’t want to be silent anymore; I want everyone to know the immensity of my love.”[47]

They finally decide to reunite. Marianne, who is getting ready to join Kaveh in Iran, receives a letter from a mutual friend. Kaveh has disappeared in the desert in the south of Iran with an archaeologist friend. The story ends in desperate suspense. The last paragraph, in which Marianne writes poignantly to her friend, is worth citing at length:

First of all, there was this desire to go elsewhere. It was this invitation to travel that spurred my thirst to leave, to tear myself away from my old habits, to venture into unknown worlds. I got to know Kaveh who was almost my alter ego. Then there were my extraordinary efforts to integrate myself into an unusual environment which, while welcoming, was no less hostile. I went through all these hardships with joy as I believed in my destiny. I was certain that at the end of the road, something awaited me—a big surprise. It is with this hope that I embarked on my Persian adventure. I had to disincarnate to reincarnate again [. . .] I had to re-capture those fragile moments when my being was shattered and my body began to spin madly around the axis of my soul. Finally, I had to endure my ordeal and despair only to learn that my life clung to a frail desire and that this desire was but a mirage in the desert.[48]

Hence, the novel partly confirms yet also contradicts Shayegan’s life experience and intellectual work. Shayegan, the embodiment of cultural hybridity and civilizational exchange, ends his book with hesitation, suggesting that the possibility of reconciliation is a mirage, an illusion.

Cultural Schizophrenia

The novel captures three phases of Marianne and Kaveh’s relationship. The first phase, which happened over the ten years immediately before their correspondence begins, has to do with the unsettling and disorienting encounter with the Other. The affective content of this encounter is twofold. On the one hand, the protagonists were drawn to the novelty and charm of the unknown; on the other, they were repelled by it. What was missing between them was a space for mediation—a third space equally open to both of them. The novel revels in expatiating on the first stage prior to the formation of this in-between zone. The protagonists recall how unintelligible sentiments and inexplicable behaviors often ended in frustrations.

In the second stage, they reflect on their encounter in dialectical form. The dialogical nature of the epistolary form affords an interplay between claims and counterclaims, between arguments and counterarguments, or thesis and antithesis. At times, a single letter includes both a thesis and an antithesis, showing how Marianne’s and Kaveh’s respective ways of seeing a given situation are opposed. Yet the following letter comes close to a synthesis, where they gesture toward a mediatory position. Instead of denunciations and hasty judgments, they try to understand each other’s worlds. In the final stage, Marianne and Kaveh have cultivated the third space of mediation where neither of them needs to assimilate into the world of the other. Their identities are now augmented by the presence of the other. What characterizes this emancipatory stage is its radical openness.[49] Their once-fragmented psyche has turned into a woven fabric of difference where different layers coexist. Rather than a forced assimilation of one’s identity into either space (Marianne “becoming” Persian, or Kaveh “becoming” French), the third space helps them to move beyond choosing one over and against the other.

What the two lovers are experiencing is what Shayegan has called “cultural schizophrenia.”[50] The encounter between heterogeneous worlds is by nature unsettling. The cultural psyche traced over and cut by zigzag lines is schizophrenic.[51] The psyche is left with “broken ontologies” when these traces and fragments have not morphed yet into a tangible composition: “The inter-epistemic situation shows that these blocks of knowledge can coexist, clash, and create a kind of cultural schizophrenia. In this specific case, the magical-mythical world can pass through the conceptual grid of the modern gaze. Moreover, both can act within the same person, paralyzing their critical faculties, causing mental blockages, identity tensions.”[52]

In speculating about a solution, Shayegan is not interested in flattening constitutive differences and cultural particularities. In his view, the Orient and the Occident are not homogeneous, and the difference between them cannot be glossed over. Nor is he advocating the infusion of “different registers of consciousness” into an unvariegated mélange. “As we live in the interstitial spaces of entangled worlds,” we become not only “multiple [and] plural,” but also “fractured.”[53] Manifold identities, hybridity, and borderline subjectivities are integral to the interconnected world, but these are ambivalent in and of themselves. In-betweenness can be augmentative or reductive. The novel depicts the process in which exilic subjectivity becomes augmentative.

Instead of pathologizing cultural schizophrenia or trying to eliminate its symptoms, Shayegan wants to tame it. This taming, nonetheless, requires conscious effort. It is a process that entails both “mental acrobatics” and emotional engagement. Shayegan writes: “One who combines these heterogeneous worlds must have a decoding keyboard—a toolbox for taming schizophrenia (apprivoiser sa schizophrénie) and its contradictions.” It is crucial, he continues, “to live simultaneously and serenely [these] antithetical worlds.” One needs to break free from their “cultural orbit,” while taking a distance from their “metaphysical coordinates.” Only through this self-exile can one “scrutinize these ludic crossroads” of distinct views.[54] Terre de mirages is a guide to “mental gymnastics” that enables the reader to “learn [the] acrobatic art of living in the middle.”[55] Shayegan wants to outline the progression from refusing, to embracing anguish and disorientation, and finally to arriving at clarity freed from ambiguity.[56] A passage in Shayegan’s foreword to Cultural Schizophrenia: Islamic Societies Confronting the West captures this phenomenon:

We who were born on the periphery are living through a time of conflict between different blocs of knowledge. We are trapped in a fault-line between incompatible worlds, worlds that mutually repel and deform one another. If accepted consciously, lucidly, without resentment, this ambivalent situation can be enriching; it can amplify the registers of our learning and broaden our sensibility. But the same ambivalence, when sheltered from the critical field of knowledge, causes mental blocks and lacunae, mutilates perceptions and (in the manner of a broken mirror) fragments realities and mental images alike.[57]

The taming of cultural schizophrenia is not about building connections between existing ontologies—that is, essentialized and mythologized notions of cultures. It has to do with mobilizing dynamic forces that are integral to cultural differences. If the heterogeneous and often opposing forces that pull the modern psyche in multiple directions are assimilated, the encounter augments the self. But if this ambivalence is left unresolved, it turns into a reductive and subtractive antagonism.[58] On an individual level, unresolved contradictions—or to use Shayegan’s term, ontological incompatibilities—grow into “epistemological schizophrenia,”[59] while on the level of political discourse, they translate into a form of “false consciousness.”[60] For example, in Qu’est-ce qu’une révolution religieuse? (What Is a Religious Revolution?), Shayegan reprimands Ali Shariati (1933–77) not only for “ideologization of tradition,” but also for contributing to false consciousness by identifying the repressed masses in Iran with the Marxist category of the proletariat.[61]

But what are the genealogies of cultural schizophrenia? The phrase schizophrénie culturelle is associated with Shayegan. Nonetheless, its genealogy is manifold. Its underpinnings can be traced back to the first half of the twentieth century, not only in psychology, but also in cultural studies on race and coloniality. In English, the concept “cultural schizophrenia” was already prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, not only in the context of anti-Semitism,[62] but also in art and architectural critiques.[63] In French, it first appeared in 1974 in an article by Isaac Yetiv on the theme of alienation in Maghrebian novels.[64] For Yetiv, “schizophrénie culturelle” was the effect of colonial alienation.[65] Although he drew on Albert Camus and Franz Kafka, his critique was aligned with the core critique of racial repression in Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and Frantz Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs (1957).[66]

In the sixties and seventies, Shayegan was immersed in the French poststructuralist milieu. Perhaps the most influential work among poststructuralists was Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972); they were the first to theorize schizophrenia beyond clinical pathology.[67] With Deleuze and Guattari, schizophrenia became a new form of cultural critique—a subversive model that through its rhizomatic ontology could destabilize hierarchical forms. This was the moment when schizophrenia was transformed from a pathology into a revolutionary force. “Schizophrenia is like love,” wrote Deleuze and Guattari, “schizophrenia is the universe of productive and reproductive desiring-machines, universal primary productions as ‘the essential reality of man and nature.’”[68] In alignment with this “glorification of schizophrenia,”[69] more complex subjectivities have been conceived, and it is in this very context that one should read Shayegan’s novel.

In contrast to postmodern cultural politics, Shayegan is firmly opposed to the notion of “grafting.” One cannot force realities that are constructed upon different historical trajectories and distinct regimes of knowledge to come together. He writes: “Grafting attempts to obscure the absence of isomorphism and reconcile epistemologically two different paradigms, old and new, which, owing to the caesuras separating them, have become incommensurable.”[70] What is necessary, rather, is a third space of translation. Shayegan finds Homi Bhabha’s formulation of this third space congenial to his own understanding. He cites a line from Bhabha’s The Location of Culture: “The interstitial passage between fixed identifications opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy.”[71] For Shayegan, fragmentation, interconnectivity, and in-betweenness are no longer the conditions for marginal identities, but a new way of being in the world.

It might seem that Shayegan is advocating a kind of postmodern multiculturalism or cultural relativism. Quite the contrary. For him, multiculturalism is predicated on reducing, or rather reifying, cultures (and by extension identities) into fixed entities. In articulating his critique, Shayegan writes, “multiculturalism tends to become a kind of identity politics where the concept of culture is inevitably confused with ethnic identity.”[72] In the long run, he argues, such an obsession with identities and fetishization of the minority moral rights proves not only “intellectually sterile” but, more dangerously, “politically suicidal.”[73] Shayegan condemns “die-hard multiculturalists” for essentializing cultures by valorizing their assumed singularity.[74]

In his thinking, identitarianism, either in the form of a naive confidence conferred by an imagined superiority, or in the form of withdrawal resulting from a sense of inferiority, must be overcome. He condemns identitarianism in a scathing critique: “In their excess of self-assertion, they produced opposite and aberrant effects. Rather than re-establishing the specific right to recognition, they led to delusional fantasies whereby myth merges with reality.”[75]

He is equally critical of cultural relativism. In a relativist world, each culture tries to claim its particular identity at the expense of others.[76] By overdetermining cultural distinctions, one risks essentializing cultures altogether.[77] Although each culture is constructed upon a particular historical trajectory, none has rigid boundaries. In order to repudiate the essentialization of cultures and to evade identitarian pitfalls, Shayegan proposes the concept of interculturalité (interculturalism). Interculturalism is predicated on the porosity of cultural boundaries. Instead of cultural antagonisms and resentments, Shayegan advocates a dialogical construction of new identities.[78]

He uses the French construct l’entre-deux (literally, between the two) to characterize in-betweenness.[79] Thus, he situates the following concepts in a metonymic relationship to demonstrate their structural resemblance: “I am interested,” he says in La conscience métisse, “in plural identities, zone of hybridization, virtualization, métis consciousness, in short in everything that characterizes our kaleidoscopic world.”[80]

Shayegan’s Ambivalent Relationship to Terre de mirages

Unlike what might be expected from a novel titled Terre de mirages, with its cover featuring the silhouette of a desolate woman sitting in a desert, the book is not a romance. It is true that the characters are fictional and the storyline is about their romantic relationship. But, at its core, the book is Shayegan’s attempt at expressing in a different genre his own fascination—namely, the encounter between dissimilar worlds. Although the book is written in the form of an epistolary novel, the publisher (Éditions de l’Aube) does not classify it under the category of novels. It is part of the collection Regards croisés, co-directed by Marion Hennebert and Manon Viard. This collection is primarily dedicated to the literary work of French-speaking authors who share their exilic experiences.[81]

The novel brings two trajectories into a single frame: Shayegan’s philosophical thought and his personal formation. The adventurous path traversed by the protagonists can be squarely mapped onto Shayegan’s odyssey into the comparative analysis of cultures. More importantly, the novel is a turning point in his oeuvre, functioning as a hinge upon which his thinking turns. Many of the conceptual propositions gestured toward here are later developed in his critical work.

I identify three stages in Shayegan’s oeuvre apropos the question of encounter: confluence of compatible horizons, confrontation of an incompatible episteme, and reconciliation of dissimilar ontologies.[82] In the first stage, Shayegan examines the encounter between compatible worlds. His doctoral work with Corbin examines the confluences of the Indian philosophical and religious traditions with Persian Sufism through their shared ontological, cosmological, and metaphysical horizons. For him, Dara Shokuh’s Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Confluence of the Two Seas) was the apotheosis of cultural hybridity. This period, in which he wrote primarily in Persian, spans from the end of his doctoral work, 1967–68, to the Iranian Revolution, 1978–79.[83]

In the second period, roughly between 1977–78 to 1992, he is fascinated with the question of meeting between heterogeneous worlds.[84] Shayegan uses his comparative skills to formulate a critique of reified identities, disenchanted modernity, and religious ideologies. He examines the encounter between the putatively incompatible worlds of the Orient and the Occident[85] in three volumes: Asiya dar barabar-i Gharb (Tehran, 1977); Les illusions de l’identité (Paris, 1992); and Le regard mutilé, schizophrénie culturelle : pays traditionnels face à la modernité (Paris, 1989). Disenchanted with the Iranian Revolution, he also formulates his critique of the “ideologization of religion” in Qu’est-ce qu’une révolution religieuse? (Paris, 1982).

In the third period, from 1992 to 2018, Shayegan moves from diagnosing cultural schizophrenia to taming it. After years of bouncing between dissimilar worlds, he accepts in-betweenness as a space to be cherished. He begins to not only appreciate hybridity, nomadism, and mixed consciousness, but to promote them as the appropriate subjective conditions for a “kaleidoscopic world.”[86] He no longer defends Oriental spirituality against the disenchantment of modernity, as he did in the first period; nor does he applaud the West for its technological progress without recognizing the malaise that comes with that progress. He wants to create a new hybrid identity by reappropriating the most illustrious aspects of both cultures.

Despite this critical gaze toward the West, Shayegan always admires the critical core of the Enlightenment, when the West reevaluated its own taken-for-granted concepts. Shayegan takes this critical core as a universal value.[87] Openness, charitable critique, and lucidity are principles that should be cultivated. In this third period, Shayegan talks about hope. Instead of pointing to cultural differences in order to reveal their flaws and unconscious biases, Shayegan is in search of reconciliation.[88] La conscience métisse (Paris, 2012), encapsulates this phase of his work. Furthermore, it is in this third period that Shayegan turns to poetry as yet another way of examining cultures.[89] Incidentally, Shayegan’s work on five pillars of Persian poetry, in Panj iqlīm-i ḥuẓūr, pays special attention to Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–73) and Sufi metaphysical thought more broadly. I suggest that Rumi’s three stages— I was raw (kham budam), I was cooked (pokhte shodam), and I was burned (sokhtam)—correspond to the three stages of transformation for Shayegan, as well as to the three stages of the novel. Perhaps the bitter ending of the novel should not be interpreted as a defeat of exilic love, but as its ultimate sublimation.

Shayegan Disguised as Kaveh

The exchange of letters between two distant lovers is not merely Shayegan’s thought process in developing his theory of cultural encounters; the story can be read as his personal struggle with identity. In an interview entitled “Terre de mirages,” Lila Azam Zanganeh challenges Shayegan about an evident conflict in his intellectual trajectory.[90] Reflecting on his forty years of writing, Shayegan identifies his work as a symptom.[91] “Without being aware of it, I was inhabited by two contradictory tendencies [referring to the ‘logic’ of a magico-mythical world and the mode of thinking integral to ‘modernity’],” he continues, “I was, in other words, ‘schizophrenic.’”[92] This is not merely a novel by Shayegan, reflecting on possibilities of overcoming a kind of bipolar cultural psyche, but a book for Shayegan—that is, a site for the reconfiguration of a hybrid identity. As a thinker of the periphery, he is well-aware of the temptation of “indomitable atavisms.” In La conscience métisse, he denounces the obsession with a closed identity by framing it as a “mental ghetto.”[93] Elsewhere, Shayegan welcomes the idea of a critical self-dialogue, where one comes to recognize their hybridity, the interconnectedness of their sense of the self to multiple, overlapping identities.[94] In Terre de Mirages, Shayegan tests his theory of cultural psychotherapy by recounting a story that constructs an image of cultural hybridity.

The novel goes beyond symbolizing cultural particularities, the differences between the Orient and the Occident, more broadly, and between Persian and French culture, more specifically. I suggest that one can read the novel as a story where Shayegan converses with his alter ego. As the story provides clues about the life trajectory and the genealogy of its protagonists, one gathers that the main character is none other than Shayegan himself.[95] The events and their chronology match those of Shayegan: his childhood in an ethnically mixed household and the hybrid cultural milieu of his parental home in the forties, his cosmopolitan education in the fifties and sixties, and his crisscrossed journeys in the seventies and eighties.[96]

But why would Shayegan use France (as a cultural and national counterpart) and a French woman (as an interlocutor) in dealing with his in-between identity? Isn’t the story that is the inverse of his own struggle a way of exploring the universality of the problem of cultural schizophrenia?

It seems that Shayegan develops the character Marianne as his feminine alter ego. She is a learned woman, with tremendous interest in the Persian culture. She has studied “oriental languages in Paris.”[97] More specifically, Marianne studied the Islamic art of the Mongols in India. Shayegan himself studied Sanskrit and comparative philosophy with a particular interest in the Mongol era. It was due to her research that Marianne traveled to Iran, where she met Kaveh. Not only is Shayegan weaving the intellectual genealogy of the heroine to his own trajectory, but by constructing the narrative within a Franco-Persian frame, he also shows the affinities between the two milieus.[98] Marianne’s father was an orientalist, “infatuated with Indo-Persian Mongolian art.” Her father, who was a descendent of nobility (noblesse de robe), had a “rare collection of Persian manuscripts.”[99] He was a disciple of the famous eighteenth-century French orientalist Anquetil-Duperron, who “discovered the Persian translation of Dara Shokuh’s Upanishads.”[100] It should not come as a surprise that Dara Shokuh was the central figure in Shayegan’s doctoral dissertation.[101] Hence, it is not only Kaveh (elite Persians like Shayegan himself) who is in love with Marianne (French culture); the fascination is mutual.[102]

A Critique

While the novel skillfully narrativizes the process in which one could come to terms with exilic and hybrid subjectivities, it suffers from certain shortcomings.

First, it reiterates stereotyped gender roles. It seems that Kaveh is the one who assumes the dominant position. He appears to be more confident—in his wisdom and his interpretations. The novel gives the impression that Marianne is the one who needs to come to terms with her in-betweenness.[103] “Despite my good will,” Marianne bemoans, “I did not learn this acrobatic art of living in the middle [. . .] I’m still too stiff for mental gymnastics.”[104] This is ironic. Toward the end of the novel, Marianne suggests that—although “both came out transformed,” and although they have arrived at the same conclusion but from different paths—she has been able to overcome her ambivalence. Kaveh admits that he has been stuck in a “mental ghetto” as he is still trapped in an ethnic enclosure. [105]

Metaphorically, Kaveh likens Marianne to Paris. One might find this association sexist, especially when he writes: “I have always identified your beauty, your whims, your mood swings as well as the ambiguity of your character, with the city where you were born.”[106] It seems as if Shayegan is reproducing the nineteenth-century notion of hysteria, where emotional excess was deemed feminine.

Second, the novel exhibits certain formal limitations. Although it is an attempt at writing in a different genre, it remains close to Shayegan’s analytical writing. Furthermore, the story is overwhelmed with cultural theory, philosophical speculations, and terminology borrowed from cultural studies. It seems that the two protagonists are present only to symbolize and represent. Shayegan seems more concerned with laying out the putative and contested cultural boundaries than with developing the characters themselves.[107] Marianne and Kaveh are allegories for two civilizations. Thus, everything remains allegorical. For example, there are a few scenes where Shayegan depicts intimate relations. Even these intimate episodes are more about the problematic status of sexuality in Iranian culture than they are about the characters’ personal rapport. Because Shayegan pays more attention to the analytical content than to its aesthetic form, it is difficult to appreciate the book as a literary novel with an engaging storyline.

Furthermore, by tracing a selective genealogy, Shayegan constructs an image of cultural hybridity in which the French and Persian cultures appear to be congruent. On the one hand, the cosmopolitan identities of Marianne and Kaveh suggest that the affection between the two elite intellectuals is the sublimation of a prior, genuine interest in the cultural and philosophical production of two civilizations. On the other, Shayegan highlights particular moments in the history of Iran and France to highlight their historical similarities.

Next, and most crucially to Shayegan’s critical project, the novel inevitably falls into the very traps that Shayegan aims to denounce—namely, essentialization, self-orientalization, and romanticization. Furthermore, although Shayegan is conscious of generalizing deductions, the novel, nevertheless, suffers from sweeping cultural generalizations.[108] To allegorize the two civilizations, he often begins with stereotypical accounts, depicting the Orient as sentimental and the Occident as rational.[109] The binary essentialization carries through. The Orient is associated with a penchant for poetry, obscurantism, and sexual modesty, not to mention lazy and carefree attitudes. The Occident is linked to disenchanted modernity, clarity of thought, sexual promiscuity, determinism, and so forth.[110]

This brings me to another crucial point. Shayegan is a defender of “universal” values, which take the predictable form of Eurocentrism. Furthermore, he refers to the “cultural exception” of France with much admiration: “the French,” he writes, “are the people of culture par excellence.”[111] Shayegan seems to have internalized and replicated European biases in his own scholarly work. While Persian poetry was at the summit of cultural production in the Orient, Shayegan was disenchanted by the intellectual lethargy and a kind of withdrawal from reality which plagued Iran after the sixteenth century.

Although Shayegan positions his notion of cultural schizophrenia and métissage in relation to other iterations of similar concepts, there are a few connections that remain absent. One finds traces of the work of Peter McLaren (cultural imaginaries),[112] François Laplantine and Alexis Nouss (Le métissages),[113] Homi Bhabha (third space),[114] Serge Gruzinski (La pensée métisse),[115] and Charles Taylor (multiculturalism)[116] in Shayegan’s oeuvre. Although these references are crucial, I cannot but think of the relevance of Alain Badiou’s ontology of the event for Shayegan’s thinking on the taming of cultural schizophrenia.[117] Furthermore, for Badiou, the construction of love is a subjective process similar to what we see in Shayegan’s novel.[118]

Lastly, Shayegan’s romanticized remedy for cultural clashes is thoroughly individualist and remains constrained to the privileged realm of philosophical and literary speculations. Not only is there no reference to social class in the novel, but the question of class struggle remains marginal in his oeuvre. It is no surprise that, like Shayegan, Kaveh is a wealthy member of the elite surrounded by other privileged fellows.[119] In dissociating cultural problems from political or economic failures, Shayegan remains complicit with neoliberal politics.[120]


Terre de mirages is an odyssey into the unsettling twilight zone of exilic love. Through poignant letters, the distant lovers contemplate their forsaken journey. The book is Shayegan’s singular attempt at writing in a different genre about his central theme of inquiry: the construction of a third space for the taming of hybrid cultural psyches. Through recounting a story of a failed relationship, Shayegan puts to the test his theory of cultural psychotherapy. Shayegan shows that hybrid identities, mixed consciousness, and cultural interbreeding are not particular states of migrants and exiles, but the universal condition of a kaleidoscopic world. The story is a site for the construction of a new subjectivity that goes beyond the suspense and liminality of in-betweenness.

The book marks a pivotal point in Shayegan’s work by disavowing his prior characterization of cultural schizophrenia as a pathology. The fragmented psyche is not something to be fought; it needs to be tamed. Modern identity is not one that flattens its inner struggles, but one that patches together its fragments to form a complex tapestry. Not only does cultural schizophrenia name the universal condition of modern subjectivity as such, but it also offers a more expansive and creative way of being in the world.

The exilic journey depicted in Terre de mirages mirrors the author’s personal struggle with his hybrid identity. As the story unfolds, one realizes that Kaveh’s trajectory maps onto the life of Shayegan himself. Furthermore, Shayegan symbolizes his ambivalent love for French culture in a feminine figure: Marianne can be read as his alter ego. The novel serves not only as a narrative device but also as a talking cure. The topography signified by the title of the novel is suggestive. Terre de mirages is a reflective surface, and its story makes clear how writing and self-fashioning are interwoven. Just as a mirage is an ambiguous redoubling whose perception depends on a perpetual subjective engagement with its becoming, so too exilic love can be sustained only in a space of constant remaking.

[1]For Freud, therapy requires the emotional engagement of both the analyst and the analysant (the person who is being analyzed). Central to Freud’s theory is this emotional charge in analyst–analysant relationship. Letter to Jung, December 6, 1906, in The Freud/Jung Letters: The Correspondence between Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung, ed. William McGuire, trans. Ralph Manheim and R. F. C. Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 12–13.

[2]Michiel Arnoud Cor de Vaan, “exile,” Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 196.

[3]Vaan, Etymological Dictionary, 196.

[4]Reflecting on Sufi tradition, Shayegan writes: “Mais sous quelque forme que l’Ange veuille bien se manifester, sa fonction pédagogique est la même : éveiller l’âme en tant qu’Étrangère en ce monde et susciter la conjonction de la bi-unité de l’âme avec son Alter-Ego céleste.” (“But, in whatever form the Angel manifests itself, his pedagogical function is the same: to awaken the soul as a Foreigner in this world and to bring about the conjunction of the bi-unity of the soul with its celestial Alter-Ego.”) All translations are mine unless otherwise stated. Daryush Shayegan, Henry Corbin : penseur de l’islam spirituel (Paris: Albin Michel, 2011), 100.

[5]I am using she to follow those (including Bhabha) who argue that for a long time, the masculine pronouns have been used. It is a gesture to raise the question of why he seems to be so natural, but she invites a pause.

[6]Al-Ḥusayn ibn Manṣur Ḥallaj, Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr, trans. Carl W. Ernst (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018), 167.

[7]While essentialized notions of the Orient or the Occident ar