Perceptions of Iran: History, Myths and Nationalism from Medieval Persia to the Islamic Republic ed. by Ali M. Ansari (review)
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Perceptions of Iran: History, Myths and Nationalism from Medieval Persia to the Islamic Republic, edited by Ali M. Ansari. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014. 256 pages. $96.

This volume of essays fully lives up to the cliché according to which edited works tend to be thematically unfocused and qualitatively uneven. In his brief introduction, the editor tellingly makes no effort to infuse the work with direction and consistency. While most of the contributions fall within the broad category of “Perceptions of Iran,” either by Iranians or by foreigner, they span a wide range in subject matter — from historiography in ancient Iran to reactions to the West in the Islamic Republic, from early-modern European travel to the Safavid realm to drama under the Pahlavis. Their quality and relevance, too, cover the spectrum, from the banal to the excellent-cum informative.

Excellent is the contribution of Ali Ansari, the editor, who takes issue with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s insistence that while history as progress originated with the Persians, it passed the latter by, depriving them of an “authentic identity.” In a discussion filled with fascinating insight, he argues that throughout premodern Iranian history writing one finds elements of acute self-awareness and identity formation, much of it expressed as nostalgia by historians driven by a desire to “explain the loss of their civilization, and to protect and perhaps nurture its heritage for the future.” Not historical amnesia à la Hegel, but a suffocating surfeit of myth-inspired historical awareness has been the hallmark of Iran’s self-image. The narrative displacement that followed the confrontation of the Iranian tradition with the newly developed, more rigorous European methodology in the 19th century was cruel, Ansari observes, yet in the figure of Cyrus the Great modern Iranian historians managed to find an avatar of the emancipatory optimism inherent in modern, Western-influenced historiography.

Several essays address questions involving ancient Iran. A lack of expertise prevents this reviewer from commenting on the contributions by Lynette Mitchell [End Page 475] on Herodotus’s Cyrus and political freedom, and by Touraj Daryaee on Sasanian historiography, except to say that the latter essay does not conform to standard rules of English grammar. Robert Bartlett offers an insightful discussion of the way the medieval West, as yet largely unaware of ancient Greek writings, imagined ancient Iran on the basis of extremely fragmented information.

Easily the most superficial essay is that by Farhang Jahanpour, which is based on Edward Said’s questionable argument about the origins of Orientalism and traces this to the Church Council of Vienna (sic) in 1312. Jahanpour subsequently breezes through Iranian history — from the Mongols to the Islamic Republic — in search of “reverse” orientalism, without even mentioning Sadiq al-‘Azm’s foundational article on the subject, “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse.” Instead, the reader is treated to an overview of the thinking of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Dariush Shayegan, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Mohammad Khatami that is as rapid as it is banal — all on the basis of a few scattered Persian- and English-language sources.

Stephen Blake’s chapter — a synopsis of his recent book on the concept of time in the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal states, about the various calendars that were used in Safavid Iran, and the attendant inconsistencies and the difficulties this creates for modern scholars — is informative. His main argument is that the Iranians, having inherited the solar calendar from their pre-Islamic forebears, had far fewer problems reconciling their dating system with the natural year than the Ottomans and the Mughals.

Some of the best essays are by the German contributors, with that of David Motadel (currently, a Research Fellow in History at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge) on the origins and the development of the Aryan myth in connection with Iran almost worth the book’s $96 price tag. Motadel traces the evolution of the Aryan myth from a linguistic concept in the eighteenth century to a cultural one at the turn of the 19th, and then examines its further transformation to a biological and eventually narrowly defined racially centered notion. The second part of his well-documented essay...