- Iran: A People Interrupted
If a good book is one that overcomes its own contradictions, then Hamid Dabashi’s Iran: A People Interrupted is one of the best books written on Iran since 2001 and the heightening U.S. military venture in the Middle East. Weaving a narrative based on his personal memories alongside Iranian intellectual, literary, and political histories, Dabashi’s book is at once an example of the contradictions in Iran’s intellectual life that led to the 1979 revolution and a rigorous attempt to overcome those contradictions. In the process, the book opens an indispensable space to imagine Iran outside of the ever-tightening confines of the political and ideological polarization between the Islamic Republic and the American project to redefine the Middle East in its own image. Dabashi is equally damning of the various nationalist readings of Iranian history as he is of the paradigms of Westernization and modernization. Iran: A People Interrupted is a must read for anyone looking for alternatives to the well-worn clichés of Iran as a society stuck between modernity and tradition, or a people torn between their “Persian” and “Islamic” roots.
For Dabashi, Iran’s experience of modernity is a paradox generated by the fact that “the European Enlightenment modernity that was meant to liberate Iranians from darkness . . . denied them that very agency by bringing the Enlightenment message to them through the gun barrel of colonialism” (45–46). This definition of Iranian modernity has wide-ranging applications that Dabashi further expands by generating the idea of an “anticolonial modernity.” In this perspective, modernity is not a European-led march of progress; rather, it is a “self-raising/other lowering project . . . to benefit the small fraction of the world’s population code-named Europe” (250). What this dynamic has produced is a modernity shared by perpetually rich nations, perpetually poor nations, and, in the case of Iran, perpetually resisting nations: “We are a nation by virtue of our collective will to resist power, and we are a modern nation by virtue of an anticolonial modernity that locates us in the defiant disposition of our current history” (25).
Defining Iranian modernity as primarily anticolonial, Dabashi also argues against a reactive nationalism. In fact, in his introduction, Dabashi questions the very basis of the nationalist narrative when he claims that “Iran is a fusion of ‘facts’ stuffed under the artificial and meaningless construct called a nation’” (19). He goes on to dismiss the traditional milestones of Iranian nationalist myths from the ancient Persians to the various post-Islamic dynasties right up to the Pahlavis. For Dabashi—and this is one of the most important contributions of this book—“what holds Iranians together is a literary humanism that by its very nature is diffused, disperse, disparate and itinerant” (20). It is in the fertile soil of humanism developed in medieval Persian poetry (throughout the Eastern Muslim nations) that modern Iranians began to imagine themselves as subjects and actors in the contemporary world. Eventually, this humanist ethos developed into what Dabashi calls the anticolonial modernity, which led Iranians to resist imperialism and its various cultural manifestations. The major thrust of Dabashi’s book is the outlining of this literary and intellectual development.
So for Dabashi, the people who imagined modern anticolonial Iran through medieval Persian literary humanism were Iran’s artists and writers. This forms the main thrust of Iran: A People Interrupted, and in the process of describing this intellectual history, Dabashi generates the concept of cosmopolitanism. On one hand, cosmopolitanism in this book signifies the pluralism of the modern Iranian political culture irreducible to any single one of its Islamist, nationalist, or socialist components (125). More generally, Dabashi uses the word to describe the intellectual life that nurtured him in the 1960s and 1970s: “There was a cosmopolitan worldliness in the air when I was growing up in the Pahlavi period, a deeply cultivated sense of our global whereabouts—a catholicity of learning that knew not where ‘the West’ was or where ‘the East’ began on the bipolar axis of power” (133...