To Be Iranian Is to Be in a State of Perpetual Motion and Discovery

by Shyam K. Sriram

31 January 2017

Hamid Dabashi's Iran Without Borders is a paean to the alternate ways in which the “real” Iran has been depicted since the 19th century.
 
cover art

Iran Without Borders: Towards a Critique of the Postcolonial Nation

Hamid Dabashi

(Verso)
US: Sep 2016

Is there another country that is more shrouded in false information, lack of knowledge, and downright fantasy than Iran? In my lifetime, Iran has consistently populated the news, but the country was never framed positively. On occasion, when a human interest or political story does emerge that actually sheds light on something positive, it’s almost always presented as a victory by secularists amidst a religiously fecund backdrop. Even the recent Iranian films that become very popular outside of Iran—A Separation (2011), Circumstance (2011), No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009), Persepolis (2007), and Offside (2006)—are also those that allow critics to frame them as exciting and innovative because they “succeed” despite the religious restrictions placed on the filmmakers and actors.

Iran, in essence, is always presented in the West as the product of an Islamic versus secular binary, which seems to be rarely, if ever, challenged. But what if there’s more to the country than just that binary? What if the actual stumbling block to this popular and ill-manufactured perception is the product of several binaries or “fetishized borders and frontier fictions”, all seeking to stifle productive understanding of Iranian identity? This is the backdrop of Iran Without Borders: Towards a Critique of the Postcolonial Nation, the latest work from Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University.

The book begins as a memoir of Dabashi’s childhood growing up in Ahvaz and includes a humorous depiction of his father, whose political ideologies switched from nationalism to socialism according to the amount of his alcohol rations remaining at the end of each month: “But on the first day of the fourth week of the month when he ran out of his vodka and cigarette supply, signs of his ardent Nasserite socialism began to appear, building to a crescendo before his next paycheck and stipend about a week later, when once again Mossadegh would resurface and Nasser subside.”

This story is merely a gateway into Dabashi’s intentions for this book: exploring the three ideologies whose parallel and intersecting existence are the source of most of the conflict in Iran. They are, in his opinion, socialism, anti-colonial nationalism, and Islamic fundamentalism, and taken together, have prevented the creation of what he dubs Homo Islamicus. In the words of the author,

My task in this book is to bring to life that world beyond identity politics, so different from the simplistic depiction presented in the daily news, in which Iranian society consists of the tyrannical Islamic ruling regime against the secular, liberal, urban elites. In fact, no ruling regime could ever make an exclusive claim over the idea of ‘Iran’ as a nation, a people, a public sphere, a cultural effervescence still awaiting its political fulfillment.

Dabashi’s rage is directed primarily at secularists and postcolonials, whom he ridicules as a “whitewashed, Eurocentric generation of Iranian intellectuals.” Their secularism is hardly that, but rather, “A banal, bourgeois fanaticism characterized by an artificial and skin-deep encounter with the Champs-Élysées and Fifth Avenues of their imaginations drafted the contours of what it meant to be ‘modern.’” His problem with postcoloniality is that it’s merely an extension of colonial thinking; in other words, “the idea of the ‘nation’ in Iran is today trapped within its manufactured postcolonial borders, and this thinking has also harmed the development of a group of nations he makes constant reference to including Turkey, India, and Egypt who “are trapped within such manufactured ethnic identity politics and sectarian hatred.”

Iran Without Borders is as much an intensely academic work as it is a paean to the alternate ways in which the “real” Iran has been depicted since the 19th century. Drawing on a detailed understanding of not only history, but also the evolution of Iranian poetry, film, and the alternative press, Dabashi systematically takes down one binary after another: Islamic versus secular, “tradition versus modernity”, “Persian versus Arab”, and “Iran versus the West”. The result of his methodology is a real awakening for the reader; according to Dabashi, Iran’s identity has constantly been constructed in the “transnational public sphere”.

“The Young and the Liberated” chapter provides an insightful discussion on the Iranian alternative press movement of the early 20th century that primarily existed outside of Iran. Through periodicals such as Qanun in London, Kaveh in Berlin, Habl al-Matin in Calcutta, and Hekmat in Cairo, transnationals were given the freedom to comment on Iran, but from afar, and use newspapers as vehicles for Diaspora politics, all of which helped develop what Dabashi refers to as the “manufactured public sphere”.

The chapters are laid out chronologically, but even then, Iran Without Borders is poorly organized. Chapters four to seven are a run-on collection of Dabashi’s reflections and commentary on the influence of foreign poets on their Iranian peers; the effect that moving abroad had on Iranian poets and artists in exile; protest art before, during, and after the 1979 revolution; and other themes. All in all, more than half of this book comes across as a kind of wild elegy.

Of all the poets and poems that make an appearance in Iran Without Borders, Sohrab Sepehri’s 1966 poem “Mosafer” resonates the most. Its intrinsic appeal for Dabashi, as I understood its use, is that it presents the Iranian traveler as being confined, and yet always on the move. This is far from just a commentary on the beauty of travel; it’s the chief metaphor of this book. To be Iranian is to be in a state of perpetual motion and discovery. Perhaps most importantly, borders have never mattered. In the words of Hamid Dabashi, “Where is homeland? It is the epicenter of any and all emerging worlds that recasts the current geography of domination of one people over others.”

“Mosafer” (“Traveler”)

It’s a vacant clean room
It has such simple proportions in which to sit down and think
I feel so sad-
I have no intentions to go to sleep …
I still am traveling
I imagine a boat
Sailing upon the waters round the globe and in it I –
The traveler of this boat –
Have been singing for thousands of years
The living hymn of ancient mariners.

Iran Without Borders: Towards a Critique of the Postcolonial Nation

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