Farzin Vejdani on “Making History in Iran: Education, Nationalism, and Print Culture”

Emerging Scholarship is a series showcasing the research and interests of new voices emerging from academia that focus on the social worlds, histories, and traveling cultures of Central and West Asia.

Farzin Vejdani received his BA from McGill University (2001) and his PhD from Yale University (2009). He is currently Assistant Professor of History at Ryerson University. His book-length manuscript on Iranian nationalist historiography, Making History in Iran: Education, Nationalism, and Print Culture, was published by Stanford University Press in 2014. He is the co-editor of Iran Facing Others: Identity Boundaries in a Historical Perspective (2012). In addition to being the author of two book chapters, he has published articles in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, the Journal of Religious History, the Journal of Persianate Studies, and the International Journal of Turkish Studies. His research interests include Iranian nationalism and historiography, transnational Persian print networks, connected histories of the Ottoman Empire and Iran, and everyday urban crime in late Qajar Iran. At Ryerson University, he teaches courses on the history of everyday life in Middle Eastern and North African cities, the history of the modern Middle East, and the history of Islamic civilization.

We spoke with Farzin Vejdani at the Middle Eastern Studies Association conference in Washington, D.C., in November 2014. Our interview with Dr. Vejdani focuses on history and history-making in Iran during the late Qajar and early Pahlavi periods, as presented in his book Making History in Iran: Education, Nationalism, and Print Culture, published by Stanford University Press in 2014.

1) AjamMC: Hello everyone, we have another installment in Ajam’s Emerging Scholarship series today—we’re here with Dr. Farzin Vejdani, Assistant Professor at Ryerson University. We’ll be talking to him about his new book Making History in Iran.

It’s great to be here with you today. Just for those who are unfamiliar, if you could tell us about your work, what is the history of history in Iran? Who worked as historians? How did this change over time? These are classic questions in history–you know, it’s very meta.

FV: Thank you, Beeta. The best way to think about the history of history is how people’s understanding of the past changed over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, I was interested in the emergence of modern history writing as a discipline in Iran, and how individuals from a wide cross-section of Iranian society engaged in this practice.

One of the things that I noticed is that you don’t have professional historians writing modern histories from the get-go. It starts off with people at the imperial court who translate histories from European languages into Persian. You also begin to have individuals starting up new schools who write history textbooks for children and for young adults. You also have journalists writing history as part of serialized series in newspapers or journals. So this is all to show that history writing is not contained to just a small segment of Iran’s society, but that there is a broader segment of society that is involved in this.

Dr. Vejdani’s latest book

2) AjamMC: That’s really interesting. You mentioned a few different types of historians or people who are writing history, but aren’t professional historians. Can we talk a little bit about the priorities of these historians and how the priorities of historians changed from the late nineteenth to twentieth century? This was for some, a very exciting period–assassinations, revolutions, things were happening–for others, very chaotic. How was this reflected in the history-writing?

FV: That’s a great question. I think what I would say is that, initially, modern history-writing in Iran had to do with top-down authoritarian reforms. This idea of “enlightened despotism” manifested itself in the types of histories that were translated from European languages into Persian. The way I understand this is that it has an earlier precedent in the “Mirror for Princes” literature that you see in both Persian and Islamicate contexts. The idea was to find an exemplary model for the king to bring about reforms in Iran. Then what you see in the early twentieth century is a new emphasis on the idea of the nation. As you begin to have modern schools set up in Iran, history is understood through the frame of the nation.

It’s no longer about the kings, and it’s not a Shahnameh-style narrative. It’s more about the Iranian nation and the Iranian people.

Once you get to the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), this has political connotations as well. What you see in that era is that there is a constitutional endpoint for history. You read back into previous periods of Iranian history the idea of constitutionalism, even when it’s not really there. But, it tells you something about how that frame changes.

Then finally, with the emergence of Reza Shah and the Pahlavis, there is a new emphasis on, once again, a centralized state and the importance of the centralized state in shaping the nation. That, too, is projected into earlier periods. There is projection in all of these periods of what individual historians want to see in the Iranian past.

3) AjamMC:  I like how you mentioned the different dynasties and the different eras they represented, because, popularly, there seems to be a sense that the Qajars represented a huge downfall — that they were a dynasty of decline — and that the Pahlavis represented an emergence into the modern period, and this was a clear rupture. But in your book, you show that there was a bit of continuity between historians, between the people who were doing the history-making, between these two dynasties. I was wondering if you could elaborate on the continuities.

FV: I think that part of the problem in how things like history-writing have been written about in the past in the Iranian context is that there is an assumption that it follows neatly with the political history. But, in some ways, the impetus for some of these new forms of history-writing came from the public, came from non-state realms and so, the case of education is a good one. Yes, you did have the Dar ul Funun set up in the mid-19th century as a state project, but by the closing years of the 19th century, you have a whole series of private initiatives to set up what were called national schools. These were modern schools that received money from private sources. In those cases, the history writing is done by individuals who are not bound by the state in the same way they would be if you were writing as part of a state school. The history of this modern form of education started prior to the Pahlavi state and prior to the Constitutional Revolution.

Once you do have the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, many of these educational reformers who are operating in this public sphere are very supportive of the Constitutional Revolution. And so, there is not this rupture, there is not this rejection of what came before the Constitutional Revolution. If anything, they see the Constitutional Revolution as an extension of what they had already been doing in the Muzaffari period (1896-1907). They find a way to integrate what they were doing with what happens after the Constitutional Revolution, and likewise, I see an element of integration of previous historical periods into how they talk about history.

Even for the historians themselves, they don’t see sharp ruptures, and that has to do with nationalism. Nationalism is more about creating a sense of continuity with the past rather than stressing these major ruptures. At least that seems to have been the Iranian experience in the 20th century.

4) AjamMC:  That makes a lot of sense. You brought up the issue of education, and I want to move onto the issue of standardizing an Iranian history, which was largely done through education. So, how did school instruction, textbooks, and other outreach methods—how did these contribute to standardization, and was standardization ever successful?

FV: The idea of standardization predates slightly the rise of the Pahlavis, which is when it got into full-swing through the Ministry of Education. But, definitely Reza Khan and the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty gave more support for standardization, and this had to do with the idea of a strong central state.

Iran, from the Constitutional Revolution onwards experienced a period of decentralization and gained a lot of autonomy for various elements within civil society and within the public sphere to express themselves in a number of educational means and opportunities. By the mid-1920s, you have this idea that what’s really lacking or what Iran really needs is standardized education and new opportunities for people to go through a school system. As part of that, you have manuals for teachers about how to teach history in the classroom. You have developmentalist ideas about how history should be taught for students of a particular age and how that changes.

And the question of its success is an interesting one. It’s very difficult to get at. On the surface, it was a success insofar as you see more professionalization of teaching. Now you have to have some sort of diploma by the 1930s, for the most part, to be a teacher in a school. In previous periods, you could have a purely religious education, but just an interest in modern historical topics, and still be a teacher. There is a level of professionalization that occurs there.

And, with the establishment of the University of Tehran in the 1930s, you also begin to see the emergence of professional historians. You have the new category of a professional historian emerging, who is engaged in research. This, too, is part of a broader process of standardization.

More in the realm of ideology, you also begin to have propaganda institutions being set up. The state is using that as a way to reach out to the public and enforce a standardized notion of what it means to be Iranian and what the Iranian past should mean to them.

5) AjamMC: What the Iranian past should mean to them is really interesting, because my own research on slavery and race in Iran deals with an erasure of certain histories to accommodate a modern, progressive–or at least, progressive-sounding–history. And in standardization, you have to erase something. What sorts of erasures did you find in your research?

FV: There were many erasures, especially the standardized textbooks of Iran from the early twentieth century to about the mid-20th century. And this is on many different levels — often times religious minorities are not mentioned at all. You have very little discussion of Iranian Jews or Iranian Christians.

Zoroastrians, of course, are a bit of a special case. They were sometimes brought in for nationalist purposes. But even how that’s done is significant, because the type of Zoroastrianism that is promoted is an orthodox Zoroastrianism. That’s the Zoroastrianism that is talked about, not the heterodox forms. For example, when Mazdakites [a short-lived movement known as a religious and political upheaval against the Zoroastrian establishment in sixth century Persia] are discussed in a lot of these textbooks, they are disparaged and looked down upon as a source of disunity in Iranian history. That is one example of the ambiguity in the case of the Zoroastrians.

Babis and Baha’is are similarly erased in some of these narratives, or talked about in terms of heterodoxy and as a challenge to the unity of the Iranian nation.

And moreover, there are many erasures in terms of gender. One thing that really stands out is that women are almost completely absent from the standardized historical narratives. It is a very male-centered history.

Image of Mani from an early twentieth century textbook. Ashraf al-Din Gilani Nasim-i Shumal, Tarikh-i Muqaddamati-yi Iran Manzumah-i Ashraf (Tihran, 1914).
Image of Mani from an early twentieth century textbook

6) AjamMC: You have a chapter on women’s press, which was a lively press especially during the early twentieth century. Can you talk about the internationalism of women’s citizenship? How would they look outward to people like Halide Edib, or their American or British counterparts, or whoever else. What was that like?

FV: One of the things to point out when discussing the women’s press is that the women’s movement in Iran of the 1920s presented women’s history not in standardized school textbooks of the state, but rather through the press. In a sense, it [the women’s movement] emerges out of the autonomy of their voluntary associations that exist in the public sphere. It’s there that they present women’s history. All history has a literary dimension to it, and here, it takes the form of the biography and the serialized biography. You see women’s histories being presented in serialized biographies in the women’s press, which again is not really talked about.

The space they found to present women’s history was not in the standardized school textbooks of the state, but it was through the press. In a sense, it’s coming out of the public sphere that exists and the autonomy that they had through their voluntary associations. It’s through there that they present women’s history and almost the literary form that it takes, because all history has this literary dimension to it, is the biography and serialized biography. You see women’s histories being presented as serialized biographies in the women’s press, which again is not really talked about. The assumption is that there was an erasure, and that no one was really writing about women, but in fact women were writing about themselves through the press.

The internationalism that we see in the women’s press is that they do talk about their counterparts in Europe and America and in developments that are occurring there, but what is also quite fascinating is that the majority of biographies that they decide to write are about “Eastern” women, and sometimes, Muslim women in particular. There is a more regional flare to the women’s press that suggests that unlike their male counterparts who were seeing history as being primarily a national discipline or approach to the past, they had a broader regional perspective.

Part of the reason why I think Muslim women were brought in so much in the press [through biographies] is that they, like historians writing in other periods, were seeking analogies. They were trying to understand how women in other contexts could be involved in politics. Halide Edib is a good example of a very prominent individual involved in politics, and so they drew inspiration from those types of stories, and thought about how telling these stories would inspire women in Iran to take on similar sorts of struggles.

7) AjamMC: So continuing with this internationalist framework, throughout different points of your book, you mention various foreigners, from the Arab/Ottoman Christian, Jurji Zaydan, to the British E. G. Browne [both individuals wrote about Iran and its history from a non-Iranian perspective]. How did these foreigners and their understanding of history influence, for lack of a better term, an indigenous approach in Iran?

FV: One thing we should say at the outset is that Iranians weren’t slavishly imitating foreigners when they were writing histories. They definitely were aware of these new developments, but they engaged with foreign authors on their own terms.

What is quite fascinating about both the examples you mentioned, Jurji Zaydan and E.G. Browne, is that the choice of these figures is quite strategic, because one of the things that comes through in Jurji Zaydan’s history of Islamic civilization is a very positive reading of the role of the Iranians or Persians in Abbasid history.

E.G. Browne, similarly, had a very positive view of Persian literature and more specifically, Iranian Persian literary history. The choice of appropriating these figures is not a blind imitation, but it is a way of reinforcing tendencies that already exist. And it is also a way of writing to a specific domestic audience.

In many ways, this parallels translations that you see occurring that I talked about, for example, the top-down modernizing reforms. So we really have to understand who is the audience for the writing of history, and how does this affect what is being written.

8) AjamMC: So, how does the autonomy of the historian affect what was being written? As a historian yourself — and I also identify as a historian — what does autonomy do for the history-writing in Iran?

FV: The issue of autonomy is really at the crux of the issues that historians face in the course of their careers. If your entire livelihood depends on a state that is enforcing a particular narrative, you will have very little wiggle room in terms of what you can and cannot say.

But there are periods of history in which there are new opportunities, whether it is to some extent under Muzaffar al-Din Shah, the opening of these new private schools, and the allowing of certain constitutional ideas to creep into Iranian history textbooks.

Or, later periods, during the Constitutional Revolution, when you have essentially new patrons of history that are not directly tied to the state, who commission historians to write history as they see fit — this allows the historian to experiment. Some of the most experimental forms of history that we see are from the Constitutional period. Some of them are written in verse in a didactic form. And they promote quite a wide range of pro-constitutionalist narratives. This suggests that in these periods of decentralization and of the weakening of the state, you also have an amazing opportunity for historians to be experimental and be creative, and to come up with new historical narratives.

But at the same time — and this is the flip side of this issue — is that if you do not have a way of making a sustained livelihood, then even during these periods of decentralization, you might not be able to continue writing histories. There is this paradox that emerges in the Pahlavi period, which is that you have more schools, and more state-funding for schools, which allows more historians to be writing, but they are writing in a context where their opportunities for expressing themselves are curtailed. This is one of the central paradoxes that we see in this period.

I talk a lot about Abbas Eqbal, a historian who came from a lower socio-economic status, and the pressures he felt in the Pahlavi period to write particular forms of history. Of course, this was not something I could talk about in the book, but by the 1940s, he was very critical of Reza Shah and of the Pahlavis. You see that even he was not naive in what he was writing. He was very aware of the types of pressures that he was under in these periods.


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