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  • Iran and the Middle East: Transnational Encounters and Social History ed. by H. E. Chehabi, Peyman Jafari, and Maral Jefroudi
  • Rudi Matthee
Iran and the Middle East: Transnational Encounters and Social History, edited by H. E. Chehabi, Peyman Jafari, and Maral Jefroudi. London: I.B. Tauris, 2015. 336 pages. $110.

This Festschrift for Touraj Atabaki, a prominent social historian of Iran who has helped build an impressive Iran archive at the Institute for Social History in Amsterdam, evinces the habitual lack of coherence typical of such volumes. It also contains a number of interesting and valuable contributions on various aspects of Iran’s 20th century history.

Following an introduction by coeditor Peyman Jafari that focuses on Atabaki’s contribution to Iranian historiography, most notably his current project on labor history, Ali Ansari opens with a chapter in Part I on “The Constitutional Revolution and Nationalism” that contains a thoughtful summary of the intellectual biography of Mohammad ‘Ali Forughi, the least well-known of the intellectuals of the Constitutional Era who went on to become one of the main architects of Reza Shah’s project of a new, modernist, secular Iran. Forughi’s self-effacement as a “quiet bureaucrat” helped him survive the Reza Shah period but did little to guard him against posthumous aspersions on his character (p. 12), most notably the accusation that he was less than patriotic for being an admirer of Western ideas and, worse, a Freemason. Ansari sensibly seeks to rectify the resulting distortion by arguing that Forughi was a modernist but not a mindless one, and that he married the European Enlightenment to the humanist tradition of Persia as epitomized by its timeless literature and philosophy.

Manoutchehr Eskandar-Qajar follows with a detailed investigation of the so-called Bagh-e Shah 22, the twenty-two prisoners held in the the Bagh-e Shah (literally “the emperor’s garden”) military prison following the Russian-supported coup of 1908 that dealt a setback to Iran’s constitutional experiment. The author discusses the individual members as far as can be reconstructed from the famous photograph of the men in chains that appeared in E. G. Browne’s The Persian Revolution (1910) and devotes particular attention to Yahya Mirza Eskandari, a member of the liberal faction of the Constitutionalists and father of Iraj Eskandari, cofounder of Iran’s Communist party.

Janet Afary’s essay discusses the role of the Iranian ‘ulama in the creation of the country’s first constitution. She convincingly argues that even those clerics who supported a constitution in principle balked at the idea of granting equal rights to non-Shi‘a. Ultimately, therefore, the constitution that came into being enshrined Twelver Shi‘ism as Iran’s state religion and granted the ‘ulama veto power over the parliament that was created.

Mansour Bonakdarian opens Part II, “Transnational Connections,” with a wide-ranging discussion of the transnational links between the struggle of the social and political movement in Iran and similar, mostly leftist, anti-imperialist networks around the world and in particular in Western cities like London, Paris, and Berlin in the early 1900s. Bonakdarian shows how “nationalist cosmopolitans” from a multitude of colonial and semicolonial states — Indian, Egyptian, and Irish, among others — communicated with their Iranian counterparts, until the nationalist fervor of World War I shattered the solidarity and the (shaky) connectedness between the various movements.

H. E. Chehabi offers a brief essay about the Iranian connection with Beirut from the 1830s onward, arguing that what the cultured Iranian elite drew to the “Paris of the Middle East” was its educational and cultural opportunities but above all the type of cosmopolitan modernity that their own country lacked.

Part III of the book addresses social issues and opens with an essay by Sehran Afacan on the nationalist reaction to the foreign economic domination of Iran in the early 1920s, the beginning of Reza Shah’s reign. This came predominantly in the form of calls by merchants for the boycott of foreign goods. Afacan is right to argue that this impulse was emotional rather than [End Page 679] rational for being based on the (erroneous) assumption that a halt to foreign imports would automatically lead...


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