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Pure Persian fantasy
Roya Hakakian poses no challenge to the hegemonic narrations of nationalist Iranian history

January 4, 2007

The beginning of this year brought with it disturbing images for this cyber ethnographer. Perhaps the most disturbing imagery was the drama of hanging in what is deemed to have become a "democratic Iraq." The display of "global justice" circulating on the cyber-pages and cyber tubes that are made available to "you," the individual consumer "netizen," reminds us that despite the Internet enthusiasts' claims about the disembodiment of the cyber space, the punishment of bodies is televised electronically with little or no delay- thanks to the postmodern time-space compression- and felt painfully by those observing bodies that hold the memory of an 8-year war imposed by the executed "criminal" who was once an ally to the executor of "justice."

The video of hanging a "despotic" dictator juxtaposes the past and the primitive apparatus of punishment with the modern technology that transmits this image in a matter of seconds across space, thus reminding the "disembodied mind" that "their" present and democratic future is "our" past. After all, as a few scholars have pointed out, the Internet is not a democratic frontier, but is orientalized in narratives about the savagery and barbarism of places that are emptied of history in virtual spaces.

My grim account of the holidays was inspired by another narrative that ends with dreams of democracy in the Middle East and Iraq, but has a markedly different beginning than mine. Roya Hakakian's "Persian ... or Iranian?" (Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2006) begins with describing the heterosexual flirtation scene between the "Western" man and the sophisticated (read unveiled) Iranian woman. Although an unintended mistake at the bottom of the article introduces the author as "Mr. Hakakian," thus giving a fleeting hope to the reader that an account of a homoerotic encounter is about to unsettle the usual erasure of homoeroticism in the Iranian history, Ms. Hakakian's article poses no challenge to the hegemonic narrations of the nationalist Iranian history. Indeed, despite her attempts to challenge the "Westerner" to rethink his stereotypes (and the Westerner in Hakakian's narration is constructed as male), Hakakian repeats the usual historical narratives of the Iranian exilic subject, nostalgic for a pre-Islamic past and adamant about disavowing any relationship with Arabs and Islam.

Hakakian's challenge is admirable in so far as it critiques the erasure of history by what she interpelates as the "West." Indeed postcolonial scholars have written prolifically about the colonial fantasies and the fetishization of veil, and have challenged misrepresentations of the colonies as unpopulated places and people without history (For an analysis of the colonial characterizations of "Persians," see Minoo Moallem's excellent book, Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister). But for Hakakian historicizing Iran has its limits. "For the Anglophone," Hakakian writes, "Iran's history begins in 1979, and the model for an authentic Iranian male is bearded, preferably turbaned and robed, and the female is submissive and veiled."

Hakakian's disavowal of the veiled woman and the bearded man is followed by her sudden turn to divert the blame away from Orientalist discourses- which, we may want to clarify, are not new and particular to the post-1979 revolution- and places it squarely on the post-revolutionary Iranian state. It is Ahmadinejad's Holocaust conference and his "pan-Arabism" (Gamal Abdel Nasser will be shaking in his grave!), and Khomeini's disregard for the non-Muslim dimensions of the Iranian life, Hakakian tells us, that are responsible for the ignorance of the "Westerner" who mistakes the "Eyeranian" for the South Asian tandoori chef.

While this account seems to be comforting for the Iranian exile who insists on proximity to whiteness and distancing her/himself from America's racialized others, it is flawed to say the least. Indeed, Hakakian forgets that Ayatollah Khomeini's idea of the Islamic government and his exploitation of the mass discontent with the Shah relied not just on Islamic theology, but on the Iranian culture and history, as he invoked an anti-Western nationalism. Hakakian's representation of the Iranian public seems to be reflective of her exilic ideas and desires.

The reader does not know how Hakakian has come to claim that the "public support for the Palestinian cause has been consistently diminishing" in Iran (unless the mushrooming "human rights" organizations funded by international entities have conducted a survey just for this purpose!). Hakakian notes that since the Iran-Iraq war, patriotism has been on the rise. She sees the celebration of pre-Islamic holidays as a result of this rise in patriotism. Yet, she fails to mention that patriotism for many Iranians during the war translated into different forms of participation in the destructive war, despite the Iranian state's characterization of the war as utterly Islamic.

Ignoring the fact that identities are indeed modern phenomena, and notions of frontiers are fictions of the modern times (see Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet's book, Frontier Fictions), Hakakian claims that the battle to define the Iranian identity, Muslim vs. Persian, is an old one and goes back to the Arab conquest of the 7 th century. To be fair, one cannot ignore that the self-image of Iranians was constructed through the Shahnameh, or what Babayan (in her book, Mystics, Monarchs, and Messiahs) calls a "Persianate ethos." As Babayan argues, Shahnameh, the classical epic of kings and a mythohistorical account of Iranian history, authored by the 10th century poet, Ferdowsi, came to occupy the collective memory of a Persianate imagination through its recitals in bazaars, court assemblies, and the practice of story-telling in coffeehouses across towns and cities under the rule of Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal courts (and I would add, into the present, even in its Islamicized forms).

Shahnameh sketches the Iranian history according to a Mazdean cosmology prior to Arab invasion, as a cyclical narrative of the battle between good (Iran) and evil (non-Iranian), which in Ferdowsi's time (three centuries after Arab invasion and contemporaneous with the rule of Turks) crystallizes a nostalgic return to an idealized Persian glory in the face of the threat of loss of memory of the past. It is this ethos that is deployed in many accounts of the Iranian historiography, including that of the Iranian exile. It is this mythohistory that constructs a lost Pre-Islamic greatness and blame Iran's "backwardness" on Arabs and Islam.

The 19th century nationalist discourses also deployed the pre-Islamic past glory to conjure up a memory and to fashion an enlightened Iranian identity prior to the advent of Islam in Iran. As Tavakoli-Targhi (in his book, Rafashioning Iran) has demonstrated, the rewriting of pre-Islamic past by the neo-Mazdean Azari movement of late 16th and 17th centuries in response to repressive religious policies of the Safavids (1501-1722), engendered a shift in the Iranian historical consciousness. The emergence of the modern Iranian identity was closely linked to the reconfiguration of national history that was informed by pre-Islamic mythical texts, and involved the purification of the language and geographical territorializations of an immemorial past.

The 19th century history texts which were influenced by dasatiri texts of the Azari movement, deployed a discourse that became pervasive in the 19th century history writing. The trope of Muslim conquest and Arab invasion was seen as the reason for the dispersion of Iranians from their homeland (vatan). In 1906 Mirza Aqa Khan Kirmani referred to the historical period after Islam as 'the reverse progress of Iran'. The modern national identity became rooted in reconfigurations of language and the linking of the homeland to a mythical past, often mapped in Shahnameh. As Tavakoli Targhi argues, nationalist historical discourses are often informed by Orientalist discourses, which assume continuity between contemporary and ancient Iran and the Iranian "character," and naturalize a taxonomic separation between the boundaries of Iran and those of Arabs, Indians, and Turks.

Just as the diasporic texts of the Neo-Mazdean movements of seventeen century took part in the formation of the Iranian historical consciousness, the Iranian exile's revival of references to Iran's pre-Islamic glory has traveled via communication technologies and has regained currency within the Iranian national borders. The idealized and romanticized ghorbat (exile) often connotes a painful separation from homeland, the loss of which more often than not is accompanied with the restoration of an original home, mourned and fetishized in nostalgic remembrances. The currency of the use of the modernist and gendered definitions of "exile" in describing the "Iranian community" often homogenizes the multiplicity of experiences of displacement. The numerous references of Iranians in exile to the glorious pre-Islamic past not only creates a selective narration of history, but also produces a particular form of racializied Iranian-ness; one that desires proximity to whiteness and denies any connection to Arabs and Islam.

Mythohistorical accounts of the pre-Islamic past construct us, the Iranians, as what "we used to be" as a nation. There is always mourning of that past and regret over what Arabs -- currently symbolized by the Islamic "regime" which is referred to by some as "Arab-parast" (Arab worshiper) -- have made us become. As such, the metaphor of ghorbat is doubly signified in historical narratives as being forced to leave one's homeland and "origin," and as being detached from a glorious past. Such narrativization of ghorbat seems to assume and imagine an essence and a core, an Iranian-ness that is un-changed, even though where we are now is far from where we used to be then. This exilic discourse tries to maintain "Iranian-ness" within an essence, through constructing difference (vis-à-vis the Arab Other) and homogeneity (of the Iranian nation).

One cannot help but to notice that Hakakian's article is as much about past history as it is about present and future; the future of a fantastic Iran, built in exilic imaginations and upon the narrations of a past, the "truth" of which becomes a point of contention in political contests over who is entitled to play a role in Iran's future (Hakakian seems to invite the "Westerner" to take part in this decision). In a sense, if as Hakakian contends, history starts for the Anglophone in 1979, it stops for Hakakian at that very moment.

To be fair, Hakakian mentions the emergence of the "civil society" in Iran at the end of her article. However, "turning to the civil society," she tells us, is not the result of political necessities, nor is it historically situated in the post-revolutionary struggles of the Iranian people, but is a way for Iranians "to define themselves as distinct" and "to pay tribute to a past that has, despite the centuries, remained a formative force in their present." The present for Hakakian relies on erasing segments of the Iranian history that are "contaminated" by Islam and Arab-ness: A Present that fixes Iran in an imaginary Pre-Islamic past and erases the historical and political events of the last 27 years in Iran. A present that takes us back to the Pahlavi era, which also relied on stories of a pure Persian distinctiveness.

While Hakakian's article appears as a benign critique of the common stereotypes about Iran and the Iranians, it attempts to produce a particular form of Iranian identity. Granted that Hakakian claims that the main task of every ideology is to create identity, one is compelled to ask, what kind of ideology drives Hakakian's project? Considering Hakakian's positionality, one can also ask, what if this emerging civil society, imagined as the defining element of Iranian distinctiveness, needs to be re-thought? What if one questions the vertical relation of the sate to society? What if (as James Ferguson and Akhil Gupta have pointed out) one questions the vertical relation of the sate to society?

More importantly, what happens if one rethinks civil society (which is often assumed as the mediator between the state and the citizen) and brings into consideration transnational forms of neo-liberal governmentality (in which diasporic elites may take significant roles) that destabilize notions of "local," "authentic," and "grassroots"? Perhaps then, one can see "democratization" in Iraq or Iran in a different light. Comment

Choob Dosar-Gohi



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