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  • Ethnicity, Identity, and the Development of Nationalism in Iran by David Yaghoubian
  • Farzin Vejdani
Ethnicity, Identity, and the Development of Nationalism in Iran, by David Yaghoubian. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014. 440 pages. $49.95.

David Yaghoubian has produced an impressive study of Armenian Iranians by employing a social biography approach. Yaghoubian and Terry Burke pioneered the application of social-biographical to the study of the Middle East in their classic edited volume Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East. In his own book, Yaghoubian has amassed a substantial body of primary sources especially from family archives, which allow him to delve into the neglected life narratives of figures at the margins of the grand narratives of Iranian history. Yaghoubian skillfully alternates between theoretical and socially grounded analysis: He starts and ends with thematic chapters that serve as bookends for five social biographies.

Yaghoubian begins with the biography of Iskandar Khan Setkhanian, a man whose career in the Cossack Brigade spanned the lives of the last four Qajar shahs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The chapter is rich with details of how Setkhanian navigated the complex world of Qajar court circles and European military advisors and diplomats in order to distinguish himself as a member of this elite force. The advent of the 1906 Iranian Constitutional Revolution made the position of the Cossack Brigade more tenuous as did the period of political wrangling leading up to and immediately following the rise of Reza Khan in 1921. Given the increasing prominence of nationalism in Iran, Setkhanian managed to survive these tumultuous years by drawing on multiple networks and strategically shifting his identity to fit new political realities.

In Chapter 2, Yaghoubian shifts from a study of an elite Armenian in the military to a man of more modest means, the truck driver Hagob Hagobian. Orphaned at an early age as a result of the harrowing violence of World War I, Hagobian was raised in the Near Eastern Relief Orphanage in Tabriz. At an early age, he became an apprentice driver for the growing transportation [End Page 146] guild made up primarily of Armenian and Assyrian Christians. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, Hagobian and his fellow truckers would help fortify the growing economic and commercial infrastructure of Iran as it underwent a significant period of modernization. As pioneers in the transportation revolution, Hagobian’s life story illustrates the economic and technological transformations necessary for the rise of nationalism, although the connection between his life story and Iranian nationalism would have benefited from further elaboration.

In Chapter 3, the author explores the life of Sevak Saginian, an Armenian raised in Tehran who would go on to play a prominent role in the Armenian scouting organization known as Ararat. Ararat had the unique distinction of being an organization through which Armenians could solidify their own sense of Armenian identity while simultaneously asserting their commitment to Iranian nationalism. They did so through physical feats of prowess and nationalist parades. Saginian also expressed his nationalism by showing his devotion to Mohammad Reza Shah during street brawls against Iranian Communists and supporters of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in the runup to the 1953 coup. Just three years after the coup, Saginian became a parliamentary representative for Armenians and Assyrians in the north of the country until 1960, and later, for Armenians of the south until 1979. By virtue of his government position, he advocated for the Ararat organization, the restoration of Armenian churches and schools, and the preservation of Armenians’ legal rights, showing once again the intersection of his ethnic and national identities.

In Chapter 4, Yaghoubian provides a biography of an Armenian woman, Lucik Mo-radiance. Growing up in an Armenian neighborhood of Tabriz in the 1930s and 1940s, Moradiance benefited greatly from the opportunities afforded to women in the growing national educational system. In the Farokhi Girls’ School, she learned Persian and came to think of herself as Iranian for the first time. The young woman excelled at mathematics and decided to pursue higher studies in engineering, a rare educational path for women in the early 1950s. Moradiance distinguished herself in her studies...


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