For centuries, Persian was the language of power and learning across Central, South, and West Asia, and Persians received a particular basic education through which they understood and engaged with the world. Not everyone who lived in the land of Iran was Persian, and Persians lived in many other lands as well. Thus to be Persian was to be embedded in a set of connections with people we today consider members of different groups. Persianate selfhood encompassed a broader range of possibilities than contemporary nationalist claims to place and origin allow. We cannot grasp these older connections without historicizing our conceptions of difference and affiliation.
Mana Kia sketches the contours of a larger Persianate world, historicizing place, origin, and selfhood through its tradition of proper form: adab. In this shared culture, proximities and similarities constituted a logic that distinguished between people while simultaneously accommodating plurality. Adab was the basis of cohesion for self and community over the turbulent eighteenth century, as populations dispersed and centers of power shifted, disrupting the circulations that linked Persianate regions. Challenging the bases of protonationalist community, Persianate Selves seeks to make sense of an earlier transregional Persianate culture outside the anachronistic shadow of nationalisms.
About the author
Mana Kia is Associate Professor of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University.
Reza Zia-Ebrahimi revisits the work of Fath?ali Akhundzadeh and Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, two Qajar-era intellectuals who founded modern Iranian nationalism. In their efforts to make sense of a difficult historical situation, these thinkers advanced an appealing ideology Zia-Ebrahimi calls “dislocative nationalism,” in which pre-Islamic Iran is cast as a golden age, Islam is reinterpreted as an alien religion, and Arabs become implacable others. Dislodging Iran from its empirical reality and tying it to Europe and the Aryan race, this ideology remains the most politically potent form of identity in Iran.
Akhundzadeh and Kermani’s nationalist reading of Iranian history has been drilled into the minds of Iranians since its adoption by the Pahlavi state in the early twentieth century. Spread through mass schooling, historical narratives, and official statements of support, their ideological perspective has come to define Iranian culture and domestic and foreign policy. Zia-Ebrahimi follows the development of dislocative nationalism through a range of cultural and historical materials, and he captures its incorporation of European ideas about Iranian history, the Aryan race, and a primordial nation. His work emphasizes the agency of Iranian intellectuals in translating European ideas for Iranian audiences, impressing Western conceptions of race onto Iranian identity.
The table of contents:
Note on Transliteration and Spelling
1. The Paleontology of Iranian Nationalism
2. Akhundzadeh and Kermani: The Emergence of Dislocative Nationalism
3. Pre-Islamic Iran and Archaistic Frenzy
4. Of Lizard Eaters and Invasions: The Import of European Racial Thought
5. Europe, That Feared Yet Admired Idol
6. Aryanism and Dislocation
7. The Road to Officialdom
Conclusion: The Failure of Dislocative Nationalism
Reza Zia-Ebrahimi is lecturer (assistant professor) in history at King’s College London.
In this article I examine the debate over the character of Cyrus the Great in Iran during the last four decades, using it as a prism to view the struggle over the desired balance between religious and ethnic components of Iranian identity. Heated polemics over the historical figure of Cyrus and his legacy reveal undercurrents of Iranian identity dilemmas as well as different and conflicting views of Iranian identity. Beyond a mere historical or religious controversy, the debate over the “right” memory of Cyrus presents an interesting case of shifting emphasis on identity and sources of political inspiration in Iranian society from the late 1960s to the present. Moreover, putting the debate over the ancient king in perspective, there emerges a wider picture of religious adaptation and embrace of what once seemed pagan or secular.