In the summer of 1978, anthropologist Mary Elaine Hegland returned to Iran where she had been a Peace Corps volunteer a decade earlier. Her intention was to study agricultural credit, but when she arrived at the site of her fieldwork — the village of ‘Aliabad near Shiraz—the revolution that would depose Mohammad Reza Shah was already well underway. Hegland shifted gears and instead focused on the effect the revolution was having on Aliabad’s three thousand inhabitants.
In this fascinating study, written with the hindsight of 34 years, Hegland shows that in Iran, no less than in America, the late Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill’s adage that “all politics is local” applies. During the 16 months or so that Hegland lived in Aliabad — the end of her research grant coincided with the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran — local disputes over the distribution of land and who wielded power rather than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary Shi‘i ideology were the primary motivations for the villagers’ political protest.
Hegland analyzes the course of the village revolution through the lens of tayefeh-kashi, the competition for local dominance between extended kinship groups. The leader of the winning group, who commanded loyalty based on family ties or economic dependence, then became the kadkhoda or village headman. With a monopoly on power, the kadkhoda and his tayefeh (kinship group) exacted retribution on their foes. But tayefeh alliances could suddenly shift and individuals could abruptly change sides. The reigning kadkhoda, who mediated the interests of the feudal landlord and the villagers, would then be replaced by another candidate. While far from being a democratic process, tayefeh-kashi nonetheless gave villagers the means of choosing their own leaders. As Hegland explains, in the absence of a strong central government, landlords found it convenient to ratify the peasants’ choice.
In an introductory historical overview, Hegland shows how tayefeh-kashi was put to the test during the Mohammad Mosaddeq era when various village factions were drawn to the Tudeh (Iranian Communist) Party. A decade later, the land reform of the Shah’s White Revolution again challenged the process. Rather than distribute land to a large number of peasants, land reform in ‘Aliabad effectively transferred most village land to a new local owner, Seyyed ben ‘Ali ‘Askari. Becoming the village’s richest landowner and most influential person, ‘Askari cemented his political authority through ties to the centralizing Pahlavi regime and by relying on the gendarmerie.
As a consequence of ‘Askari’s power grab, tayefeh-kashi was dead from 1964 to 1978. Then, during the period of uncertainty that accompanied the revolution, ‘Aliabadi peasants again turned to tayefeh-kashi. Newly [End Page 474] formed tayefehs asserted themselves, ultimately with success, against ‘Askari. Meanwhile, local incidents of violence — among them the stabbing of a popular village opposition leader and a vicious ‘Askari-sponsored attack on a caravan of anti-shah demonstrators — led the previously hesitant villagers to commit to the pro-Khomeini opposition.
As Hegland notes, “Until the resistance movement made sense — when it became meaningful, relevant and imperative because of the violent incidents in ‘Aliabad involving villagers — the majority of ‘Aliabadis had felt no compulsion to act, [or] to participate in the revolutionary movement” (p. 145). Many ordinary ‘Aliabadis used the phrase az khwod gozashteh, “outraged to the point of no longer caring about one’s welfare” (p. 261) to explain their newfound sense of solidarity with the national struggle against the perceived injustices of Pahlavi rule.
Hegland’s final chapter, written following visits to Iran in 2003 and 2008, recounts the changes that ‘Aliabad has undergone in her absence. Over the past quarter of a century, the population of ‘Aliabad has more than doubled and the one-time village is now a suburb of Shiraz. Thanks to real estate speculation, former sharecroppers and peasant farmers have become relatively affluent members of the middle class. With few incentives to farm, villagers have again relegated tayefeh-kashi to the past; its...