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  • Iran in Motion: Mobility, Space, and the Trans-Iranian Railway by Mikiya Koyagi
  • Samin Rashidbeigi (bio)
Iran in Motion: Mobility, Space, and the Trans-Iranian Railway By Mikiya Koyagi. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2021. Pp. 279.

Iran in Motion is a welcome addition to our understanding of technological modernization in the Middle East. The book sits at the intersection of the modern history of Iran and mobility studies. Besides giving an account of how the trans-Iranian railway came into being, Koyagi tells us how the railway project impacted the nation's practices and imaginations of mobility. Koyagi is cautious not to frame the subject of his study solely as a state-sponsored modernization project. He thus broadens the scope of his attention from the political elites and state officials, and takes in a wide range of historical actors such as local and foreign laborers, engineers, migrants, and travelers. The book aims to unearth and explain how these actors contributed to the materiality of the railway, and also, how they related to the very idea of movement by and through a new technology. Koyagi especially commits to the category of mobility as an "embodied experience of movement," in addition to physical movement. Accordingly, he argues that the Iranian transnational railway, in myriad concrete and subtle ways, reconstituted Iranian mobilities.

The book is divided into seven chapters; whereas some deal more with the history of planning and constructing the railway, the others illustrate debates, aspirations, and anxieties around it. Iran in Motion starts by investigating the railway's pre-history, which includes contestations among the English and Soviet imperial officials, Iranian officials, and foreign investors, and their concerns and aspirations about making Iran a more connected transnational unit (ch. 1). While he elucidates the strategic and commercial objectives that the imperial powers hoped to accomplish through the Iranian railway, Koyagi offers his readers with fresh insight into the ways that a modern infrastructure was desired by Iranian elites. For the political elites, Koyagi argues, the railway constituted an essential component of the nation's progress and demarcated a new era that was detached from its slow-paced past (ch. 2). Further, Koyagi shows how the elites' dream was transformed into a national mission during the interwar period, and how the Iranian railway was destined to be a site of national [End Page 280] pride, and political and economic power (ch. 3). Even before the railway fully operated, Koyagi tells us, the process of building it created new forms of mobility that fit into a capitalist economy. Koyagi elaborates on this claim by masterfully tracking down local and foreign labor flows that concentrated around railway construction sites (ch. 4). The Allies' occupation of Iran in 1941 and their control over the rail routes bring about one of the book's most compelling focal points. Koyagi zooms in on railway accidents to examine how Allies and Iranian officials, each in their own way, interpreted and dealt with speed, danger and the fear of accident. He portrays the refashioning of technical knowledge and the rise of a new generation of technocrats who regulated the production of safe speed. Meanwhile, Koyagi delicately traces the streams of technical expertise at the bottom among the railway workers (ch. 5). Building on that, Koyagi studies railway workers' written correspondences with leading officials to assess their growing political agency and the ways they negotiated their rights to better pay and housing based on their claims to the railway's legacy (ch. 6). Iran in Motion ends by studying the attitudes of ordinary Iranians towards traveling on the train, and the role of the middle-class in fostering accepted modes of travel (ch. 7).

It is worth mentioning that while the book proposes to tackle both practices and imaginations of mobility, aiming to weave them together, Koyagi does not, in fact, elaborate on the relationship between the two. The reader does not gather whether the book's identification of "imaginations" is a methodological choice, and if so, how it serves the book's agenda, and finally, what gap in the history of mobility it fills. One way of clarifying this categorization would be to unpack at the...


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pp. 280-282
Launched on MUSE
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