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Hamid Dabashi The Rebirth of a Nation
Hamid Dabashi The Rebirth of a Nation
Hamid Dabashi
The Rebirth of a Nation
Hamid Dabashi The Rebirth of a Nation


Hamid Dabashi


The Rebirth of a Nation

Hamid Dabashi Iran The Rebirth of a Nation

Hamid Dabashi Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies, Institute for Comparative Literature and Society Columbia University New York, USA

ISBN 978-1-137-59240-8 DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-58775-6

Library of Congress Control Number: 2016950873

ISBN 978-1-137-58775-6


© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the pub- lisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, express or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made.

Cover illustration: © Parviz Kalantari, Vista, 2005, acrylic on straw-and-mud, 100x70cm

Printed on acid-free paper

This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by Springer Nature The registered company is Nature America Inc. New York

In Memory of Martyr Ahmad Ali Vahabzadeh (1965–1988) and for his mourning brother Peyman Vahabzadeh and for the mother of them all, my sister Mahfarid Mansourian who carries all their memories with grace


I proposed the idea of this book to my good friend and Palgrave publisher Farideh Koohi-Kamali over a delightful lunch in New York early in the Spring 2016. I am grateful for her enduring friendship and visionary leadership of a major publishing adventure with far-reaching consequences for state-of-the-art scholarship. I began writing this book in my home in New York, then during my multiple trips to Europe and then finally finished it while tucked away during a sabbatical leave from Columbia in an apartment overlooking the Persian Gulf from its southern shores in Doha, Qatar. I would look at the GPS on my iPhone and zoom out from my current location to see my hometown Ahvaz, and then Shiraz, Isfahan, Tehran, and Tabriz popping up. It was and it remains an uncanny feeling. I was there and not there. I am neither in exile nor in diaspora, concepts for which I have no use. I live wherever I am and I write about things I love and deeply care. Like everything else I have written, this is the product of a peripa- tetic thinker, a stateless person completely and confidently at home in the world. From Mexico to Argentina, then up North toward Canada, East toward Europe and then the Arab world, into India, Japan, and South Korea: These are the places I have felt most at home. Everywhere I go Iran goes with me. “Do you ever go back to Iran?” someone recently asked me on my Facebook. “No,” I responded, “Iran always comes back to me.” From this vantage point I have neither a privileged nor a disadvantaged position: Just one position and point of view, replete with its blindness and insights, precisely like any other book if written from my hometown Ahvaz or from Shiraz, Isfahan, Tehran, Tabriz, or Mashhad. A primary



function of this fact has been an attempt to stop fetishizing the location of the culture of writing, and recognize that you can write worldly books never leaving Ahvaz or write punishingly nativist books from New York and Paris.

I am grateful to all my friends, colleagues, comrades in four corners

of the world who have enabled me to write this way, beginning with my colleagues at my home institution at Columbia University to any other institution of higher learning in Latin America, North America, Europe,

Asia, or the Arab world that have over these years hosted me so kindly and generously.

I wish to single out Timothy Mitchell and Sheldon Pollock, successive

chairs of my department at Columbia, for facilitating my leave of absence to finish this book. I wish to thank Azmi Bishara, Yasir Suleiman, Rashid El Enany, Abderrahim Benhadda, and Elia Zureik for their kind and gracious hospitality while I was visiting the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies during my sabbatical leave from Columbia. While at Doha Institute I had the rare privilege of meeting and getting to know many brilliant Arab scholars and academics that warmly embraced

me in the heart of their hospitality. I wish to mention in particular my dear- est friends and colleagues in the Comparative Literature program: Ayman El Desouky, Eid Mohamed, Atef Botros, and Nijmah Hajjar—for the sheer plea- sure of their magnificent company while I was in Doha. I also wish to mention my other dear friends and colleagues at the Institute: Dana Olwan, Imed Ben Labidi, Ismail Nashaf, Suhad Nashaf, Mohamed Mesbahi, and Raja Bahlul for their gracious company. I wish to thank the staff of the Doha Institute for their hospitality: Nadine Ataya, Youssef Ghadban, Mohammad Almasri, Jad Kawtharani, Malik Habayeb, Inaam Charaf, Tania Hashem, and Dena Qaddumi. They all came together to make me feel at home not just in Doha but by virtue of their own national origin in fact at home from one end of the Arab world to another.

I wish to thank my Aljazeera friends and editors Tanya Goudsouzian,

Cagri Ozdemir, Azadeh Najafi, and their beautiful families for their con- tinued friendship. Both Tanya and Azadeh were exceptionally kind and generous in their hospitalities, offering me an Armenian and Iranian home, respectively. I wish to thank Elia Suleiman and Hany Abu-Assad, dearest friends and towering Palestinian filmmakers, who took me to the heart of the Doha Film Institute while in Doha to meet the exceptionally gifted critical thinkers and artistic directors who are running that fine institution.



It is my equal pleasure to acknowledge and thank the distinguished artists whose work grace this book and who have kindly and generously allowed me to use their work as illustrations of the points I have been trying to make. My dear friend and distinguished colleague, Hamid Keshmirshekan, the eminent historian of contemporary and modern art in Iran, has been instrumental in procuring high-resolution copies and

permissions for me to be able to feature these illustrations in my book. The artists who are my personal friends have also been kind, generous, and gracious for allowing me to reproduce their artwork in this book.

I wish to thank Parviz Kalantari, Mana Neyestani, Golrokh Nafisi,

Koorosh Shishehgaran, Esrafil Shirchi, Amir Naderi, Abbas Kiarostami, Nicky Nodjoumi, Sara Dolatabadi, the late Ardeshir Mohassess, Azadeh Akhlaghi, Bahram Beizai, Golnaz Fathi and their respective galleries for their very kind help in procuring these pictures. My exceptionally competent research assistant Hawa Ansary is a blessing to have had by my side over the last few years, to whom I remain always grateful. Thank you, friends: You are all the cause and condition of the rebirth

of any half-decent idea I may have offered in this book.


Introduction: The Rebirth of a Nation


Chapter One: Persian Empire?


Chapter Two: A Civil Rights Movement


Chapter Three: A Metamorphic Movement


Chapter Four: An Aesthetic Reason


Chapter Five: Shi’ism at Large


Chapter Six: Invisible Signs


Chapter Seven: A Transnational Public Sphere


Chapter Eight: Cosmopolitan Worldliness


Chapter Nine: Fragmented Signs


Chapter Ten: The End of the West


Chapter Eleven: Damnatio Memoriae




Chapter Twelve: Mythmaker, Mythmaker, Make me a Myth


Conclusion: What Time Is It?





Image 1

Parviz Kalantari, Vista, 2005


Image 1

Mana Neyestani, Untitled, 2009


Image 1

Golrokh Nafisi, The Sky is ours, 2010


Image 1

Koorosh Shishehgaran, Untitled, from the War series,

circa 1984


Image 1

Esrafil Shirchi, If you came to visit me, unknown date


Image 1

Hasan Ismailzadeh, The Campaign of Rustam and

Ashkbous, no date, circa mid-twentieth century


Image 1

Amir Naderi, The Runner, 1985


Image 1

Abbas Kiarostami, Untitled, from the Roads series, 1989


Image 1

Nicky Nodjoumi, The Accident, 2013


Image 1

Sara Dolatabadi, untitled, 2012


Image 1

Ardeshir Mohassess, Untitled (aka “Man with Tongue,”

or “Celebrating Teacher’s Day”), 1995


Image 1

Azadeh Akhlaghi, Assassination of Mirzadeh

Eshghi, 2012


Image 1

Bahram Beizai, Bashu: The Little Stranger (1989)


Image 1

Golnaz Fathi, 120 x 120cm—acrylic on



Introduction: The Rebirth of a Nation

The idea of this book dawned on me by a photograph. It was early in the evening of 1 May 2012, and Mahmoud Dolatabadi, the preeminent Iranian novelist, was visiting New York. He and I had just come out of

a reading of his most recent novel, The Colonel, from the City University

of New York (CUNY) and were sitting at a nearby café and having tea— with his daughter Sara. Soon we called Amir Naderi, one of the most widely celebrated Iranian filmmakers who had left Iran years ago and lives in New York; though he was flying to Japan the following day, within minutes after he realized that Dolatabadi was in New York, he rushed to this café to join us. We sat there, Mahmoud Dolatabadi, Amir Naderi, Sara Dolatabadi, and me. Here were two seminal figures in the history of Iranian film and fiction, connected together in a moment of history. They had met before in Iran when Naderi was working on one of his masterpieces, “Tangsir” (1974), and had solicited Dolatabadi’s help on

his script. But the fate had separated them—with Dolatabadi working and living mostly in Iran, and Naderi doing so mostly in New York. As Naderi, Dolatabadi, and I were chatting, Sara Dolatabadi took my iPad and took

a few snapshots of us. Captured in those snapshots was a moment when

the fictive frontiers of Iran meant nothing, exposed their forced politi- cal power, and revealed their porous disposition in understanding Iranian cultural history. The timing of that photograph marked the untiming of a history that had long since run along ahead of itself. The untiming of that photograph marks the moment when I began asking myself, what time is it? Where in the world are we? Upon what



phase in the history of nations, peoples, regions, cultures, and the fragile earth do we dwell? Are we all on a Christian calendar, a Muslim, a Jewish, Hindu, agnostic, atheist—how do we count our days? On a global scale, where would we locate ourselves, morally, temporally, spatially? The thing Europeans call “modernity” has failed, even and through its postmodern renditions. For the rest of the world, colonial modernity brought nothing spectacular either. Enlightenment ended up in Auschwitz and sent leading German Jewish philosophers (Adorno and Horkheimer) to California to ponder the plight of our humanity, if they were not more determined in their terrified recognitions and committed suicide (Walter Benjamin) before they crossed one European border to another. Not just European modernity and Enlightenment but fake traditions that fanatical (Muslim or Hindu, etc.) metaphysicians had fabricated exposed themselves for being the banality that they were. So no tradition, no modernity, no Enlightenment—with any enduring legacy to protect and safeguard the most basic tenets of our humanity. Now what? Not just socialist promises

of paradise, but the capitalist hell, and the Islamist lunacy it has engendered

is now murdering and causing mayhem in the heart of Muslim lands. Now

what? Where in the world are we, and what time of our history is it exactly? Europeans have asked these sorts of questions after many critical points in their history, after their fin de siècle, between what they call their two “World Wars,” after the Jewish Holocaust, and after the collapse of the

Berlin Wall. 1 But what about the world at large—do we too think and reflect upon the eras and epochs that we have lived through? Take the occasions of Arab revolutions of 2011, or before it the Green Movement in Iran in 2009, or after it the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the USA, concomitant with the Gezi Park uprising of 2013, the Indignado revolt, the student uprising in Quebec, and the labor unrest from Greece to Spain that resulted in major uprisings against the austerity measures imposed by the European Union (EU). No part of the world is exempt from such indignant uprisings. Just before the World Cup 2014 in Brazil, there were

massive revolts in reaction to it. When the Israelis invaded and destroyed Gaza there was global uproar against Zionist warmongering resulting in

a major turn to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.

The world at large is also poised to ask the question: where in the world are we, what time of history is it—have we not run out of “posts” to mark our predicament: postmodern, postcolonial, poststructuralist, and so on. We are not too late, or too early, to ask these seminal questions. Iranians were asking, “Where is my Vote?” just a few years ago. Arabs were demanding



the “Overthrow of the Regime.” Turks were declaring: “Government must resign!” Americans were ready to tear their financial system to pieces. Europeans were revolting against the tyranny of European banks. Under similar, if not identical, circumstances, Europeans of a couple of generations earlier were marking “the Collapse of German Idealism,” “the Decline of the West,” as Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is Dead” echoed from one end of Europe to another, and Kierkegaard was busy with his critique of Hegel and speculative idealism. It is also at this time, as Gadamer recollects, “among the forces that gave philosophical expres- sion to the general critique of liberal culture-piety and the prevailing aca- demic philosophy was the revolutionary genius of the young Heidegger.” 2 Gadamer further reports: “The common theme that captured the imagi- nation of the time was called existential philosophy.” 3 The only difference between the time Gadamer reports and ours is that we can no longer localize our questions to Europe or non-Europe as provincial questions and think them universal. The crisis is, as it has always been, global and planetary, and at this point in history, we ought to be cured of European or non-European provincialism of one sort or another. Any question we ask about any particular point on the globe must resonate with the rest of the fragile planet we share. What would that mean today, and how would we rephrase Gadamer’s question beyond any particular European domesticity? What sorts of (existential) questions do we need to raise today to meet the challenges of our own time? “What is being?” This is how radically European philosophers of this period took their epochal task seriously. “In order to learn how to ask this question,” Gadamer reports, “Heidegger proceeded to define the Being of human Dasein in an ontologically positive way, instead of understanding it as ‘merely finite’,” that is, in terms of an infinite and always existing Being, as previous metaphysicians had done. The ontological priority that the Being of human Dasein acquired for Heidegger defines his philosophy as “fundamental ontology.” Can we ask similar, if not identical, questions from our varied locations around the world now: philosophers and thinkers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as those from contemporary Europe, from Greece to Spain, no longer thinking themselves outside the fold of our humanity? If so, what sort of questions would those be? For Europeans who thought themselves the center of the universe, these were questions of a particular sort. Gadamer clarifies what they were: “When Heidegger raised once again the ancient question of the meaning of Being, he did not want to



lose sight of the fact that, human Dasein does not have its real Being in determinable presence-at-hand, but rather in the motility of the care with which it is concerned about its own future and its own Being.” 4 If we were now to look at such questions with the curious eyes of anthropologists and wonder: What sort of “ancient questions” can we now ask anew? Do we humans around the world need to be concerned with and wonder about our “motility of the care” too? Does our future require any such, perhaps equally fundamental questions? What is most striking in Gadamer’s recollections is this: “It is finite, historical Dasein that ‘is’ in the real sense. Then the ready-to-hand has its place within Dasein’s projection of a world, and only subsequently does the merely present-at-hand receives its place.” 5 Does the Dasein of the world at large too require a projection of its own worldliness, worldliness beyond its provincial Heideggarian articulation, perhaps yes, no, maybe—but precisely in what terms?


In this book, I wish to propose that what countries like Iran need is consis- tent theorization into the wider and deeper regional and historical param- eters of their origin and destination, far beyond their persistent nativist nationalism that from the early nineteenth century forward—through two monarchies and now an Islamic Republic—has laid fast rhetorical hold over the self-consciousness of the nation. That consciousness is false, to put it bluntly, a product of dominant hegemonies of power and politics— once monarchic not mullarchic. Academic scholars and public intellectuals alike, old-fashioned Orientalists, area studies experts, think tank employ- ees, and vast encyclopedic projects dedicated in Persian and English to a grand narrative of “Persia,” have all come together fashioning a jaundiced, rather banal, reading of the nation oscillating bewilderedly between its imperial past and its postcolonial possibilities, categorically cut off from its living organism as a nation, long before it was a state. Much to the chagrin of nativist Iranian jingoists, who swing between a pathological iso- lationism and a phony pride in a fictive past, the frontier fiction of “Iran” must be positively disenchanted, its postcolonial borders flung open for a much richer, much more enabling, reading of the nation for it to reveal and expose its regional and global (and thereupon national) significance. The theoretical poverty afflicting both the nativist reading of the nation and, even worse, its area specialists have come together to pile up tomes upon tomes of detailed historiography, or else strategic philandering to the benefit of the think tank sponsors, having left the nation bereft of



any meaningful and enabling reading. The road ahead is both wide open and yet invisible from these blinded alleys. This book, and the body of scholarship I have produced before to prepare for it, points beyond such dead ends and toward those open highways. Let us assume, can we, that our poets are like their philosophers. Let us ask our poets what the world at large has been forced to learn from European philosophers—for better or worse. Let us approximate their philosophers and our poets. It would be a happy marriage. One such poet, Forough Farrokhzad, has a poem, now legendary in its significance: It is called “Tavallodi Digar/Another Birth,” somewhere in which she says:

Safar-e hajmi dar khat-e zaman

The journey Of a volume upon the line of time— And with a volume Thus to impregnate The dry line of time:

A volume Made of a conscious image Returning from a feast in a mirror. 6

Imagine the narrated history of Iran that dry line of time, and the implosion of poets like Farrokhzad and their poetry that impregnating volume, enabling that line to mean more than it looks, signify beyond its dried borderlines. Now what exactly is the nature of that volume that this poetic implosion has enabled? It is made of a self-conscious image (tasviri agah), returning from a feast in a mirror. Without this image and the imaginal feast from which it has just returned, the straight line of positivist historiography means very little more than it does to the employees of a warmongering think tank in Washington DC, or London or Paris. Theorizing Iranian history means to be conscious of such poetic implosions, aware of the manner in which it informs, enables, and enriches the line of history people ordinarily read and habitually nod their head after reading. We have had a false bifurcation between a “Literary History of Persia,” as say E.G. Browne would say, and a political history of Iran as much of the postcolonial historiography has rendered it. The task at hand is to fuse these two histories, go upstream from their forced bifurcation, and imagine the moment when the two were not separated artificially, violently, and forcefully, by the force of one disciplinary formation of colonial modernity or another.




Cinematically precocious and groundbreaking and yet paradoxically considered as a hallmark of post-Civil War racism in American culture, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) occupies a strangely uncanny place in world cinema. 7 One is both drawn to and yet instantly repelled by it. A historic document of the Civil War in the USA and then Reconstruction in the South, this seminal event in world cinema is nar- ratively predicated on the assumption that “the bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” Is this a confession of the orig- inal sin, or is it the camouflaging of a foundational myth? Be that as it may, that “seed of disunion” was coterminous with the very foundation of the USA as a normatively racist and constitutionally white supremacist nation- state to which a sustained history of African slavery, as well as the geno- cidal destruction of native Americans, was and has ever since remained definitive. It is in the explosion of the Civil War as the logical conclusion of that defining moment, when the logic of capitalism was breaking the Southern shackles of its own superseding reasons in the North, that the confessional drama of “The Birth of a Nation” ought to be understood. The film was widely banned in many parts of the USA, while vastly cel- ebrated by others, especially by the members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) who saw it as an affirmation of their racist cause. Exemplified and nar- rated around the two families of the Stonemans in the North and the Camerons in the South, living on the two physical and symbolic sides of Mason-Dixon line, “The Birth of a Nation” narrows in on Carpetbaggers descending upon the South as the principle culprit of the post-Civil War trauma. In Griffith’s version of this formative period in the US history, the South appears as the beacon of aristocratic morality, while the North, as best represented by his representation of the Carpetbaggers, as uncouth, fanatical, rude, opportunist, and vulgar. It is in that sharply emotive context that Griffith’s portrayal of the KKK as the normative measure of Southern righteousness will have to be assayed, for as he understands it, the KKK is reacting to the heavy-handed treatment of the South by the North and the collapse of a universal code of moral authority. What Griffith’s title, “Birth of a Nation,” suggests is the delivery of the USA as a nation predicated on the trauma of com- ing to terms with its racist foundation. The USA is thus born, as Griffith suggests, not in the inaugural moment of 4 July 1776 when its initial 13 colonies declared independence from Great Britain, nor on the fact of the



pre-Civil War racial segregation, nor indeed in the post-Civil War attempt

at overcoming of that racist heritage, but in fact in the enduring trauma of coming to terms with that racism and its bloody consequences. The USA was born on the enduring fact of subjugation, slavery, and the racialized codification of power that has ever since sustained its ethos of conquest. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” summons the making of a national trauma—the trauma of racism and racial segregation at the heart of the US historical experience. For Griffith, the trauma of racism and racial segregation coming to a bloody end is one particular way of coming to terms with a colonial experience, whereby African slavery was definitive to

a national history and the bloody overcoming of it becomes the bloody

birth of a nation. In that paradoxical sense, “The Birth of a Nation” is a “postcolonial” narrative of a fragmented society emerging from its own colonial and colonizing past, as it becomes an empire.


The post-Civil War era was the traumatic birth pangs of the USA when an entire history of slavery came to a crescendo to create the most enduring experience of a modern nation-state. The conquest of the New World, the shedding of the shackles of old British colonialism, the destruction of the native American culture, and the sustained slave trade were the successive stages that ultimately came to a crescendo in the course of the Civil Wars when the logic of capitalism necessitated a historic battle between the industrial North and the feudal South. The South lost and the North transformed the emerging nation-state into a bastion of capitalist conquest. In that sense, Griffith’s “Birth of the Nation” is in fact emblematic of all postcolonial nation-states and their traumatic birth onto the scene of a globalized circulation of labor and capital. The American Civil War between the industrialized North and the feudal South was illustrative of

a more global triumph of industrialized capitalism and its need for cheap

labor and even cheaper raw material around the globe. On that global scale, equally traumatic moments have defined the postcolonial character

of other nations and nationalisms—nations born out of specific traumas caused by the systematizing force of capital in need of regulated labor and expanded market. While in the USA, colonialism was internal and predicated on a long and nasty history of slavery, around the world, it was via an encounter with the globalized European colonialism. Nations



were thus born out of national traumas, and people made into a nation by virtue of their colonial encounters and postcolonial struggles. Anticolonial nationalism is the birth channel of nations and nation-states. In Iran, like much of the rest of the colonial world, a succession of colonial encounters has been its birth certificate as a nation-state. Formation of the nation is the fateful encounter between the active memories of an imperial past and the unfolding drama of a postcolonial future. From the Russian impe- rial conquest of northern Qajar territories early in the nineteenth cen- tury, to the simultaneous French and British colonial interests in Iran, which continued apace into the preparatory stages of the Tobacco Revolt and Constitutional revolution (1906–1911), well into the British insti- gated coup d’état of Reza Shah (1926) and finally the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) coup of 1953, are the hallmarks of this passage of the nation into traumatic self-consciousness. It is in the aftermath of the 1953 coup that its trauma is retroactively cast backward to define and characterize the history of Iranian encounter with colonial modernity. What led to the coup of 1953 was the nationalization of Iranian oil industry in the late 1940s and early 1950s during the height of the “Cold War,” The military coup of Reza Shah in the late 1920s and his dictatorial modernization in the 1930s. The Constitutional revolution of 1906–1911, the court-based modernization of the late 1900, the Babi Movement of the mid-nineteenth century and the Perso-Russian wars of the early nineteenth century were now all strung together into a chronicle of colonial encounters. From this side after the coup of 1953, the June 1963 uprising led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Siahkal uprising of 1970, and the rev- olutionary mobilization of 1977–1979, all unfolded toward a liberatory nar- rative. From the success of the violently Islamized revolution of 1979 to the June 2009 presidential election, the three decades of crisis management by the Islamic Republic, until its implosion, brought this drama to a crescendo. The accelerated implosion of the Islamic Republic in the aftermath of the contested June 2009 presidential election soon assumed the iconic epithet of “the Green Movement”—a massive social uprising that had no name, only a color, a random color, where even its leading advocates doubted that it actually exists, compared with the leading ideologues of the Islamic revolution who were dead sure about everything. But the Green Movement had declared itself, however dialectically, amorphously, by its being denied, by being called a Fetneh/Sedition by its state-sponsor detractors, and through its works of art, that had remained decidedly open-ended and inconclusive.



The Islamic Republic was now imploding, as its ideological foreground- ing had gone completely off kilter. The implosion of the state apparatus and the corresponding explosion of its ideological foregrounding had loudly announced the end of Islamism as a potent political force. The state was imploding and thus marking the final transition of the nation- state into a parting phase. Iran as a nation, a people, a public sphere, and a destiny was now parting ways with the Islamic ideology as the modus operandi of a state that had rendered itself obsolete. The split came to a crescendo and then a crashing conclusion. We were now witness to the rebirth of the nation beyond its entanglement with any state, in the sense that the Islamic Republic was the aftertaste of prolonged colonial and postcolonial periods in Iran that began early in the nineteenth century and ended early in the twenty-first century. What we were witnessing was the active transmutation of the Islamic Republic into a garrison state seeking (unsuccessfully) to strip its citizens of their social life, or spoon-feeding it if it could manage, meaning the colonial production of convincing and mobilizing ideologies (Islamism or otherwise) had come to a crashing political end, so that in that state of postcoloniality, Iran was exposed to the global condition of capital, directly, nakedly, stripped of all fabricated nativism. At this point, the state was functioning like a besieged garrison against the nation, while seek- ing to strip the citizens naked of their rights, while the system was being actively incorporated into a visual regime of globality (the public death of Neda Agha Soltan was the prime example), where the place of phantasm, paranoia, apocalypse, public frenzy, and manufactured mysticism had all come together in the final upholding of this or any other Islamic Republic. The state was calling itself “Islamic Republic,” but there had remained no “republic” under its feet over which to be Islamic or anything else. The state had ideologically, structurally, and organically collapsed. It had pulled the republic from under its own feet. Islamic revolution was the final call and cry and then the death of the colonial reasoning of revolt to end tyranny by another tyranny. The Islamic Republic is the last tyranny that could fool the nation into believing it to be a moment of liberation it could never be. The Green Movement was the announcement of the moment when the postcolonial reason can no longer deliver the emancipation of the postcolonial nation. For world at large, “postcolonial” means “postcolonial reason” beyond the reach of any “native informant” replacing the mark of Man. Postcolonial reason means postcolonial nation in the retrieved cosmopolitan disposition of its



character and thus postcoloniality is the condition of an Enlightenment to which the emancipated postcolonial can lay a legitimate claim. The dissolution of the Islamic Republic means the fragmentation of the Islamic ideology, and the dissolution of Islamic ideology is the sign of the final collapse of the postcolonial reason. The nation had now finally declared itself, as it had always been—an entirely different reality than all the ruling states that had laid false and falsifying claims on it. The postcolonial nation was no suzerainty of the postcolonial state.


If indeed postcolonial reason is no longer reasonable, and the state appara- tus has collapsed upon its own claim to legitimacy, what then? What time of the history is it now—when nations and states might have exhausted their short-lived marriage? The birth of the nation and the birth of the state have not been coterminous, I contend. Upon the shores of its colo- nial continents, the nation was born poetically, the state violently. If the state was now morally, structurally, and politically reduced to pure vio- lence, how was the nation faring: Did it have any reason to remain married to the state? I have already argued in my previous work that the idea of vatan/homeland stood for the public space into which the Persian poet moved once the royal court was no longer hospitable to him. This is in the course of the Constitutional revolution (1906–1911) when the Qajar dynasty was collapsing and the Pahlavi dynasty was nowhere in sight. Let us consider, figuratively at least, the time span between 1906 when the Constitutional revolution began and 1926 when Reza Shah dismantled the Qajar dynasty and declared himself a king and formed what would soon become his own dynasty, the period when Persian poets (poets who composed poetry in Persian) invented the idea of vatan/homeland poeti- cally. During a hiatus between the demise of one dynastic state and the rise of the next, the idea of the nation/vatan was born from the poetic dispen- sation of creative minds released from one dynastic court never to return to any other. The idea of vatan/homeland was born poetically, by poets like Aref Qazvini and many others, while the subsequent substitution of the Pahlavi dynasty for the Qajar was by a military coup. With the same token, the expansion of the layered societal frontiers of the nation in the course of successive events from the nationalization of Iranian oil in the 1950s to the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty in the late 1970s was marked entirely by rich and diversified poetic turns in the course of Nimaic revolution, while the



first Pahlavi abdicated after the allied occupation of Iran during World War

II (1939–1944), the second returned after a CIA-sponsored coup (1953),

and the Islamic Republic took over the Pahlavi and declared itself by the

summary execution of the Pahlavi officials (1979), the militant takeover of the US embassy (1979–1981), and the bloody eight-year war it sustained with Iraq (1980–1988). If that were the case, then what does “freedom”—political or other- wise—mean on a national domain? Is freedom really defined and delimited

by political oppression? When political oppression is lifted (suppose it was)

are we not back to square one, without having cultivated any democratic intuition that defines, sustains, and nourishes freedom? What happens when habits of democratic intuition are not formed at such a potent politi- cal level that the ruling state acknowledges it, or what do we do the day after our political emancipation is granted or denied by the ruling state? If indeed on the remnant domains of former empires like the Mughals, the Safavids/the Qajars, or the Ottomans, postcolonial nations are born poetically (narratively, aesthetically, literary) before any state apparatus lays any claim on them, then we might consider art in general the site where the unimagined is imagined and the unthought is intuited. Here is the conceptual core of how I develop the notion of the aesthetic intuition of transcendence as the poetic manner through which we overcome (have overcome) the postcolonial reason. The “open-ended” aesthetics of the work of art is where our intuition of transcendence discovers, declares, and

announces itself. “Open-ended” (aperta) is Umberto Eco’s hermeneutic twist on a text, as an opera aperta, which he then seeks to control via his triangulated conception of intentions (of the author, the reader, and the text). I combine Eco’s hermeneutics with Gianni Vattimo’s notion of il pensiero debole/weak thought as the modus operandi of the work of art. From here, I propose aesthetic in the domain of its sovereignty, and not merely autonomy, to shift the operation of the political into an underlying poetic of resistance and final triumph. 8 The work of art, not just in the sense of its mechanical reproduction (that Walter Benjamin anticipated) or electronic metastasis (which he could not), leaves a residue, some debris, a trace, which I wish to propose as the site of an aesthetic intuition of transcendence where the logic of the postcolonial reason finally exposes its vacuity and self-implodes. Benjamin did anticipate this overcoming of the postcolonial reason, though as a prototypically European thinker (even as a Marxist), he never went anywhere near the condition of coloniality. He did so inadvertently



when toward the end of his short and tragic life, he turned to the active theorization of fragments and debris as the allegorical site of messianic

salvation. But I reach that site slightly differently. Let us trace the body libido (as I did in my Corpus Anarchicum) as it transforms into body social, and the social into the mythic, reaching for a shamanic moment when the mythic subconscious of the decay announces itself, taking the mass grave of the Khavaran cemetery, where the bodies of successive mass execution of political prisoners in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic are buried, as an event that does not allow for the evident decay to perish into oblivion. Khavaran becomes the site of an anamnesis, remembering the forcefully forgotten by looking at the debris, the trace, the fragmented and disallowed memories, and therefore the dust. There is a trace of significant relic from the dust around Khavaran and the staging of art as public ritual, such as most pronouncedly in Shirin Neshat’s oeuvre as a mobile mausoleum, as a shrine, a haram/sanctuary, full of iconic images:

a new, and a renewed iconography staged to be sold. We must go to

Shirin Neshat precisely because the global visual regime has successfully appropriated her art, through her clever gallery salesmanship, selling it for

the visual debris of forgotten facts, for we must enter the battlefield right at the heart of the visual regime, where, as Guy Debord prognoses it decades earlier, the visual becomes the fetish of dead and deadening certainties. We must go to the heart of the globalized capitalist “society of spectacle” because that is where every pain is transformed into passing visual pleasure of the highest bidder. Look at Shirin Neshat and her appropriation by collectors, curators, journalistic art critics, or else by anthropologists. Art

is the transformation of trace into sign (Derrida), where the truth of the

visual allows for the reverse move: from the sign to the trace, the dust, the debris, the factual site of Khavaran in the deadly vicinities of Tehran as upstream from Barbara Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea, New York. Capital as the validation of Europeanized modernity has from its very inception been globalized, marking the site of any (and all) contempo- rary art as the locus classicus of sellable debris, while reproductive hetero- normativity remains the tacit globalization of the Mommy–Baby–Daddy triumvirate (Christianity secularized at the service of capitalism) declared long before the capital went visually global. That hetero was and remains the other of auto, not homo. Nowadays we can have hetero-, auto-, or homo-normative reproductively, and the promiscuous logic of capital- ism will buy and sell them all. The more urgent question is, What about the massive systematicity of the present, of the now, of the everlasting



“new?” The simultaneous necessity and impossibility of any meaningful critique—rather than the radical piety that postcolonial critics like Gayatri Spivak flaunts as passivism, always skirting the issue—does not abrogate responsibility. Consider the conflicting sites of cinema between Cannes and Kandahar, between red carpet high culture of the European bour- geoisie out on a soirée and the bloody trail of misery it screens. On these mutually exclusive sites as careerist filmmakers will make their careers, the murderous Taliban stage theirs, and the US military manages to subcon- tract its torture industry, we are left with the debris of all these trajectories, determined to make sense of a senseless world. The sense and sensibility are made only possible if we take the commercial debris of the capital as the allegories of an aesthetic intuition that can transcend to overcome it. My contention in this book is to argue the active, however implicit, formation of an aesthetic intuition of transcendence that is poised to over- come both (1) the postcolonial reason, and (2) the colonial modernity that had occasioned it. As the current condition of the amorphous capital needs people to exploit and art to distract the banality of its own boredom, we still have the active memory of the time when art served a purpose on its habitually parapublic sphere long before and long beyond the reach of Sotheby or any other art auctioneer or gallery could buy or sell its debris. That active memory will not degenerate into nostalgia if it is rooted in the debris the culture and art industry have consistently left behind. From the multiple phases in which art has performed varied subversive roles, to the rise of the commodity fetishism as the work of art, spreads and dwells an allegorical momentum that in this book I wish to call and consider an aesthetic intuition of transcendence, when art, found and lost, bought and sold, leaves traces of itself like the dust of those broken bones and murdered dreams in Khavaran and Sabra and Shatila mass graves, remem- bers itself having had a self-effacing purpose, which was far from being compromised by any politics, for it was the foregrounding of the always already next horizon of the political.


Let us now work our preliminary way toward the manner in which this aesthetic intuition of transcendence manifests itself in various and multiple social movements. Consider the most recent example of such movements. In what sense do we consider it a movement? The late Muslim revolu- tionary Mehdi Bazargan (1908–1995) is reported once to have said the



leader of the 1977–1979 revolution was the Shah, meaning whatever he did decided the revolutionary course of action the people adopted. In that sense, the leader of the Green Movement was the Islamic Republic and its entire state apparatus. The crisis-laden disposition of the Islamic Republic has now come back to haunt it and deprive it of any legitimate claim to national sovereignty. This is a regime that was founded on either creating crisis (such as the Hostage Crisis) or else taking advantage of crisis others created (the Iraqi invasion of Iran, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon). Now that very logic keeps creating its own crisis, crisis that the ruling regime cannot control, and has therefore just radically compromised the Iranian national sovereignty by saving itself through a nuclear deal that effectively subjects the Iranian nuclear energy program under intrusive inspections no sovereign state would ever allow. From its periodic democratic spec- tacles of elections, to varied phases of women’s rights struggle, to mul- tiple student revolts, labor unrests, to regional and global relations, the Islamic Republic has always been a contested ruling regime. By virtue of this crisis-laden record, it exposes its systematic, hallowed, contrapuntal, and negational character. The geopolitics of the region can be at once revealing and conceal- ing this internal dynamic of state illegitimacy. Judging by the mid-June 2009 massive post-presidential election uprising, the Islamic Republic looked at the brink of collapse. A mere half a decade later, by mid-2015, the fortunes of the beleaguered theocracy seems to have changed dras- tically and it appeared as a formidable force in the region, presumed widely to be so powerful that its neighboring Arab ruling regimes and their Israeli partner began to worry about the resurrection of “the Persian Empire.” How accurate was that assumption of the internal fra- gility, and how true are the assumptions of its regional power? Where is Iran headed, what are its strengths and weaknesses, on its internal, regional, and global scenes? How do we make a distinction between its ruling regimes and its vibrant population? Does the robust inter- nal opposition to the ruling regime strengthen or weaken it? Have we already entered the phase of a renewed significance for an ancient civi- lization in its topography of power and politics, culture and industry? These are the key questions that are categorically absent in the current debates about the Iran nuclear deal, and yet are precisely the terms that connect the Green Movement to the will if a nation to engage in diplo- macy against the entrenched ill will of those who oppose it in Tehran, Tel Aviv, or Washington, DC.



The prospect of a nuclear deal between Iran and the USA and its European allies had renewed the significance of Iran on global platform. Against all odds, the US President Barack Obama was single-mindedly pursuing a diplomacy of rapprochement with Iran that could very well be his lasting legacy (on par with President Nixon’s China initiative or the SALT Treaty) and perhaps alter the geopolitics of the region for generations to come. The Saudi and Israeli governments had come out with their longstanding collaborations against the Iranian influence in the region, thus leaving the significance of the Palestinian cause and the “Arab–Israeli conflict” behind. The rising significance of Iran in the region had not been an overnight success for them or concern for others. It had been achieved via shrewd politics under duress over the course of the ruling regime’s entire history since the success of the Iranian revolution in 1977–1979 and the Islamists’ outmaneuvering all their rivals. That Iran was now spoken of as an “empire,” however flawed that assumption might have been, was the sign of its extraordinary regional power to alter the course of a global configuration of politics in the region. Iran had now emerged as a regional powerhouse, not as much because of its revolutionary promises but on the ruins of the catastrophic policies of the USA and its European and regional allies, of which it was now a singular beneficiary. But whatever be its deep- rooted causes and history, the future of that regional power demonstrated far-reaching global consequences. The state was thus paradoxically placed to be the beneficiary of the regional politics not despite but in fact because of its robust internal opposition, staged for the whole world to see during the Green Movement. The mere possibility of a US–Iran rapprochement had exposed a much larger domain of confluence between the USA, EU, and Iranian interests, much to the chagrin of Israel and many failing and vulnerable Arab states. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that a US–Iran detente would be the biggest geopolitical event affecting the future of the region at large for generations to come. As a sign of this transformative relation of power, the Arab regional rivalries with Iran had increasingly assumed ethnic nation- alistic and sectarian Sunni–Shi’i overtones. Meanwhile in art and industry, hard sciences and demographic infrastructure Iran was poised as the most powerful nation against the backdrop of a vastly crumbling postcolonial map of “the Middle East”—with a sizable but not unruly population on par with India or China, and yet not as small and vulnerable as almost all its neighbors. From the Green Movement of 2009, to the Arab Spring of 2011, to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), to regional



significance in 2013, the region seemed in the midst of world-historic changes and Iran was an increasingly dominant force in these unfolding

events, not just because of its political and military significance in mul- tiple Arab settings but far more crucially because of its vibrant, defiant, and politically alert population. Ever since the Green Movement of 2009,

it was increasingly obvious that we needed to make a fateful distinction

between the ruling Islamic Republic and the robust nation it wished but failed completely to represent. In this book, I wish to provide a provocative reading of Iran in its current geostrategic significance, paying simultaneous attention to both its internal and external dynamics, bringing the two together to see how

the fate of the nation is being drastically altered. I intend to produce a succinct account of the resurrection of Iran as a powerful nation (not

a nation-state) against the backdrop of a widely dismantled regional

geopolitics, allowing for hidden and repressed political and cultural forces to surface and redefine the future history. Iran and its environ are undergoing deep-rooted and wide-ranging changes in the twenty-first century, and the existing modalities, paradigms, and analytical tools have become completely outdated and cliché-ridden, regurgitated senselessly by politicians, journalists, and area studies scholars alike. When the Green Movement in Iran took place in June 2009, I thought the task at hand for those deeply committed to the civil rights in Iran and its region at large to offer a perspective from the necessary and inevitable distance of the globality of our perspective, theoretically strengthening the movement in a language radically different from the current clichés. Predicated on this premise, the pattern I will follow in this book is decidedly zigzagging between the regional and the domestic scenes, though increasingly coming out toward a global perspective on national liberation movements that are transnational in their origin, destinations, and vantage points. Birth of postcolonial nation-states from the ruins of Muslim Empires has been always precarious with porous borders, making it impossible to tell the fate of any nation in terms domestic to its dynamics. Over the last 300 years plus, these porous borders have been definitive to colonial and postcolonial history of the region at large. These porous borders have to do with fateful encounters between the dying Muslim Empires of Mughals, the Safavids/Qajars, and the Ottomans, on one hand, and the encroachment of European Empires on the other. The active imagination and the aesthetic reason at the formative roots of these postcolonial nations have always outstripped their material foundations, political wherewithal,



INTRODUCTION: THE REBIRTH OF A NATION 17 Image 1 Parviz Kalantari, Vista, 2005 Desert remains the

Image 1 Parviz Kalantari, Vista, 2005 Desert remains the imaginative site and sight of purity, of mirage, and of barrenness, paradoxically pregnant with hidden possibilities, at once real and delusional, implied and potential. Here in the work of Parviz Kalantari that image promises and delivers resurrection, on the borderline of fact and fantasy, hidden pleasures and manifest destinies. The image enables a different working of mirage in, for, and beyond the desert. Kalantari’s work delights with simplicity and purity, idyllic in its nomadic luminosity. They are childlike in their innocence, archetypal in their shimmering suggestions. The rebirth of the nation originates from its deepest alle- gorical memories. Here the memorial metaphor of the desert becomes emblematic of a distant compelling mirage that is and is not there. Every spot on that memorial landscape is a miniature modulation of the idyllic worked to perfection. The vision exudes with colorful jubilance, like a dream. Every spot is the snippet of what was and what can be, picked up from a distant dream and canvassed to form the picture of a people from a distant dream to form the picture of a people invited to come to inhabit this dreamlike city. Who lives here? No one. Every one. The habitat is perpetually vacant. The habitat is perpetually peopled. The picture is an invitation sent from the past to a permanent future. The picture is a blueprint of a rebirth conceived from the absolute metaphors of a nation, conscious or unconscious of itself. The picture captures the most innate intuition of aesthetic transcendence to a nation, made a nation by virtue of this intuition.



and above all state apparatuses that have laid illegitimate claim on them. There is always a poetic surplus between that aesthetic reason and these material realities. I wish to think through that aesthetic reason in this book and make it dominant in a liberating narrative of the nation. We will never understand the fate of these nations unless and until we decouple them from the ruling regimes of power that lay illegitimate claim on them. The successive coincidence of the Green Movement and the Arab Spring finally brought this aesthetic reason and poetic surplus to a glob- ally staged crescendo, whereby the internal dynamics of power and the external geostrategic changes reached the point of no return and caused a major epistemic breakthrough in notions of nation and its transnational origins and destinations. In this book, I wish to argue that in the aftermath of the Green Movement and the rise of the Arab Spring, however violently seasoned by the rise of ISIS, we have successfully entered a new phase of nation-reformation that categorically leaves the postcolonial period behind and announces a postnational politics in which nations will have to rein- vent themselves. A postnational reading of nations and their narrations, predicated on the articulation of an aesthetic reason and poetic surplus accumulated in the course of colonial modernity will therefore be among the defining moments of my story of the rebirth of Iran as a nation.


One quick look at Iran and its environment today and you may wonder how on earth could anyone under these circumstances speak of a “rebirth” of that or any other nation. Over the last 30 years plus Iran has been ruled by a totalitarian theocracy garbed thinly as am “Islamic Republic,” ruling with an iron fist and a claim to the divine ordination of a Shi’i jurist to rule the nation. The region in which Iran is located is ruled by one dictatorial regime or another, with repeated social uprisings to change that fact invari- ably thwarted, meandering, and murderous. The last time Iranians rose up in the course of the Green Movement in 2009, they were ruthlessly crushed. The rise of the Arab revolutions too soon degenerated in the appearance of a monstrosity called ISIS, the postmortem gift of Saddam Hussein fighting against the legacy of George W. Bush and the unfold- ing Arab revolutions from under his grave. There are some observers who even speak of a “thirty year war” in the Arab and Muslim world. But the calamity is not limited to Iran and its Arab neighbors. From Pakistan and Afghanistan to Turkey, Russia, Greece, and the rest of Europe are in



turmoil, as are widespread social unrest in North and South America. Anti- immigrant legislations from Canada to Australia all point to structural and endemic crisis in the context of which it is hard to imagine anyone speaking of a “rebirth” of just about anything, least of all any nation. Against all these odds, in this book I wish to share the vision of an entirely different world in and around Iran. What I see is the unfolding of a long durée, otherwise hidden to naked eyes blinded by the rapidity of day-to-day events. Those who are caught up in these nasty, fast, and furious unfolding and fail to see the bigger picture are not that dissimilar to climate change deniers who fail to see the sea level rising. So fully cog- nizant of what it is that I miss seeing in the immediate vicinity of Iran, I wish to share the clear contours of what I see in the larger-scale historical strokes of the nation and its transnational setting. At the writing of this introduction to my new book in late July 2015, the world is enraptured by the prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Iran nuclear deal is its symbolic dimensions. Lifting the threat of a military confrontation, the gradual easing of the sanctions regime, both pales in comparison to months and weeks of relentless pictures of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the US Secretary of State John Kerry appear- ing in the same frame of many photographs bringing their silvery hairs together for a diplomatic powwow. Nothing brought the Islamic Republic out of diplomatic isolation from the centerfold of global capitalism more effectively than these pictures, the content of the actual agreement would be almost entirely insignificant compared to the cathartic powers of these pictures, which must have driven (as they did) the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his US supporters up the walls. In these pic- tures, Zarif became the simulacrum of “Iranians,” in its full semiotic force, while ostensibly he represented the ruling Islamic Republic. He managed to cross a threshold between the repressive state and the defiant nation, one foot in the ruling regime and the other in the defiant will of its people. It is that cleavage that we need to mark and explore. The actual content of the deal pales in comparison to its symbolic triumph, for Iran to negotiate on equal footing, Zarif being consis- tently compared by his admirers to such now legendary statesmen and Mohammad Mosaddegh or even Amir Kabir, however exaggerated the comparison might be. The actual accord was also compared by many of its Iranian critics to two infamous pacts of Golestan (1813) and Turkamanchai (1828). So between the infamy of the deal for its detractors and the hyper- bole of praise for Zarif the balance between the repressive state and the



defiant nation oscillated back and forth, marking a semiotics of a tumultu- ous moment when the nation both took advantage of a global recognition of its existence as it discredited the ruling state that claimed its name with suspended legitimacy. The content of the deal has no doubt compromised the sovereignty of the state in terms of unprecedented and intrusive permission for inspecting and monitoring the Iranians nuclear, scientific, perhaps even security and military sites. However, the Iranian factional divisions and the strong internal (the only legitimate) opposition to the deal made sure at least on the surface this compromise of the national sovereignty was not total. But certainly the ruling regime was allowing access to its nuclear infrastructure in a manner that no other sovereign nation-state— Russia, India, Pakistan, China, or any European country—would ever allow. Under circumstances when Israel is sitting on a massive stockpile of nuclear warheads and nobody dares even to ask it to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) the Iranian concessions were certainly out of the ordinary. This compromise, however, happens in a condition and the circumstances when Iran’s borders have already been porous from inside out, with significant presence of Iranian security, intelligence, and military forces in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, and so on. So the inspectors who are crossing the Iranian national sovereignty to check its nuclear program and perhaps even military and security infrastructure are going through the same porous borders from which Qasem Soleimani, the leading Iranian military attaché in Iraq and Syria and perhaps even beyond, has crossed to interfere in the internal affairs of the neighboring countries. This was at a time when Turkey was bombing Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia was bombing Yemen, Egypt was bombing Libya, Israel was sitting on the broken back of Palestine, and the USA and its European and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies were dominating from one end of the globe to another. So no particular postcolonial border was secure and delimiting the operation of any given state and its obvious will to preserve itself. The easing of sanctions will certainly increase the Iranian cash flow—but where will that cash flow go? As a rentier state, Iran is heav- ily contingent on oil revenue, much of which is of course under state control and will increase the power of the Revolutionary Guard Corp and their monopoly capitalism. But this will not translate into massive military expenditure, nowhere near Israel, Saudi Arabia, or even the tiny UAE. The ruling regime in Iran does not operate that way. Heavy weap-



onry and massive military expenditure are not their forte. They do soft power: widespread diplomacy, major propaganda machinery, small-scale asymmetrical warfare, proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah. But there are chances that the cash flow will enhance the power of the private sector and enable a moderately independent middle class to grow, despite official corruption. Even a moderately enriched middle class will enable a more robust civil society and more potent public sphere, globally wired beyond any meaningful state control. This does not mean the collapse of the rul- ing regime. It means a more robust confrontation between the nation and the state, which is precisely the secret of their mutual strength. This fact is far beyond the grasp of settler colonies like Israel, where there is no dis- tinction between the state and the nation. In Israel the settler colony state created the “nation,” whereas in Iran the nation has far longer roots than the state that wishes but fails to rule it. To understand how the tension between the nation and the state strengthens them both, we must also widen the frame of reference and look at the Iranian nuclear deal first and foremost in the context of the Obama Doctrine, or what one might call imperialism by proxy. What to his Republican opponents and neocon detractors appears as appeasement and disengagement is actually a much smarter form of imperialism that works like a ringmaster in a circus or perhaps a chess player would be a better metaphor where the master player knows the powers and weaknesses of all his players and by making one smart move allows for the rest to adjust their positions and moves accordingly. One result of this mode of proxy imperialism is the de-Zionification of the American Empire, where the interests of Israel are covered by Washington but do not predetermine its choices. One immediate result of this Obama Doctrine is the fact that Israel loses its monopoly of interpreting “the Middle East,” for Americans. The rise of pro-Iranian lobbying groups like the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is a clear indication that American Zionists have finally found their match among a younger generation of politically ambitious and savvy “Iranian-Americans.” Against all this background, Arab nationalism collapses into ethnic provincialism, while Iranian nation expands its emotive horizons and triumphs over state sectarianism, in diametri- cal opposition to militant Zionist “nationalism” (flaunted by a settler colony). The active Iranian national consciousness thus gets layered memories of its successes, and failures, as it celebrates and fortifies its reconnecting to its transnational origins. So that the brand that calls



itself “Iranian-American” promotes anything from the neoconservative wings in Los Angeles to neoliberal wings in Washington, DC, with a more radical force always in the offing.


In this book, I make a clear distinction between Iran as a nation and the Islamic Republic as a state: these are two categorically distinct but politi-

cally intertwined realities. Their historic opposition to each other does not dismantle the state or subjugate the nation: but paradoxically and con- trapuntally strengths them both. Revolutions such as the Constitutional (1906–1911) or the one that resulted in the Islamic Republic (1977–1979) are launched to dismantle the state, but they far more importantly expand the layered horizons of the nation into its transnational domains beyond any state claim to legitimacy. It is thus imperative for us to look at the formation of postcolonial nation-states (viz. those formed in the aftermath of the ascendency and demise of European classical colonialism) on a dif- ferent scale. The European and North American democratic claims to the nation strengthened them both by virtue of collusion of interest, while on the postcolonial site the fundamental disparity between the nation and the state strengthened them by friction. No ruling regime—in the case of Iran from the Qajars to the Pahlavis to the Islamic Republic—has ever had

a total claim to the evolving and multifarious disposition of the nation.

The hyphen between the nation and the state in “the nation-state,” falsely and blindly extended from its European to its non-European provenance, points to a categorical distinction, a separation, and therefore a critical bifurcation. The nation has developed in one direction by accumulating

collective memories, while the state has piggybacked like a parasite on that mobilizing and mobile memory. What has exacerbated the distinction between the nation and the state

is the contrapuntal manner in which memories and forms of knowledge

are re/produced in the nation, and the manner in which the state has historically sough to pacify the organicity of that dialectic. The social and intellectual history of Iran will have to be understood in decidedly dialecti- cal and contrapuntal terms. The three dominant postcolonial leitmotifs of ideology production I have identified in details—socialism, nationalism, and Islamism—have emerged in conjunction with each other, in dialectical reciprocity, as the verbose or silent interlocutor of each other. Marxism did not “influence” the leading Islamist ideologue Ali Shari’ati. Shari’ati was



talking to Marxism. Trying to convince Marxists of his time of something or another. Islamism influenced anticolonial nationalism too. Mohammad Mosaddeq was not just a Muslim. He knew of the active rise of Islamism as a potent political force and was trying to win them over to his cause. The problem with the triumphalist Islamism that has dominated the Iranian political culture in the form of the ruling state is that they iden- tified, cornered, and destroyed these interlocutors and cannibalized on their conceptual, analytical, and theoretical organs, and thereafter they have become a totalizing monologue. However, the nation at large has already moved to greener pastures, and with the rise of Iranian New Wave, underground music, blogging, and now the Facebook and the Internet at large have opened up newer horizons far beyond the arrested imagination of the repressive and illegitimate state. That interlocution among various ideological forces in contemporary Iranian history was a case of active contestation as a reading of history. When Shari’ati speaks, it is not just Shari’ati. He is more than one person, more than one voice. He speaks a multiple voices, with a heteroglossia, for his voice dialogically contains other voices incorporated into the idi- omaticity of his speech, positions and their political parlances with which he is having a running conversation, contestation, and competition. The idiomaticities of his hidden or obvious interlocutors are integral to his Bakhtinian utterances. This dialogical disposition of the Iranian political culture has placed it on a global scene and operating on a transnational public sphere from which it nourishes and sustains itself beyond the fron- tier fiction of the state that wishes to rule it. Consider the fact that Ali Shari’ati found his political parlance in Paris, Al-e Ahmad somewhere between his militant Shi’ism and his mature Marxism, Morteza Motahhari in the course of his dialogues with Henri Corbin (as facilitated by Seyyed Hossein Nasr), Mahmoud Taleqani with Arab heritage of Third World socialism, Mehdi Bazargan with his enduring interest in India and its anti- colonial struggles, Bani Sadr with French (European) socialism, Allamah Tabataba’i with a tradition of European philosophy that Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Henri Corbin had introduced to him. These are all the leading ideologues and interpreters of the Islamic revolution in Iran and not a single one of them, as they were forecasting the cataclysmic event, was thinking and acting except in dialogical interlocution with the outside world. An Islamic Republic cannot come to power via this route and then try to shut it off completely without the route finding sublated venues of rearticulating itself in even more universal terms.



The ruling state on the other hand has no capacity for such interlocu- tion, polyfocality, or contrapuntal dialectic. The Qajars ruled in the name of an outdated Persian monarchy, the Pahlavis sought to modernize that political culture, while the Islamic Republic has dragged it into its Shi’i and Islamic directions, radically compromising the revolutionary dispo- sition of Shi’ism as a religion of protest now that is in power. None of these states, as a result, and as a rule, can ever (conceptually, categorically, critically) embrace and represent that evolving totality and the unfolding contrapuntal dialectic of the nation. The state is structural–functional, the nation dialectical. The state is ideological, the nation utopian, though in slightly different way than what Karl Manheim originally formulated the difference. In his classical Ideology and Utopia (1936), he writes:

Ruling groups can in their thinking become so intensively interest-bound to a situation that they are simply no longer able to see certain facts which would undermine their sense of domination. There is implicit in the word “ideology” the insight that in certain situations the collective unconscious of certain groups obscures the real condition of society both to itself and to others and thereby stabilizes it. 9

He distinguishes this ideological thinking from its opposite Utopian thinking and writes:

The concept of utopian thinking reflects the opposite discovery of the political struggle, namely that certain oppressed groups are intellectually so strongly interested in the destruction and transformation of a given condition of soci- ety that they unwittingly see only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it. Their thinking is incapable of correctly diagnosing an existing condi- tion of society. They are not at all concerned with what really exists; rather in their thinking they already seek to change the situation that exists. 10

I propose a more dialectical relationship between the state’s ideological self-assertion and the nation’s utopian defiance. It is not that the state does not see “the real condition of society.” It is in the interest of the state apparatus to see, interpret, and consolidate the status quo in a manner that sustains its power and legitimacy. In the case of the nation, it is not that it “unwittingly see only those elements in the situation which tend to negate” the state. There is in fact a very deliberate and conscious aware- ness of the status quo in direct contravention of the state’s hegemony. “They are not at all concerned with what really exists”: again Manheim



operates through a very positivist reading of the dialectic. The nation is perfectly concerned with what “really exists” but reads it through a whole different set of lenses. Indeed, “in their thinking they already seek to change the situation that exists”: and that is where the dialectic turns the dynamic positively contrapuntal. My little twist on Manheim’s theory of ideology and utopia is simply to divest it of its positivist investment in “What really exists” and propose that nothing really exists except the reasons and rationales for the state and the nation to see things radically differently for their respective purposes. More emphatically: Manheim’s formulation is set in two mutually exclusive binaries, while I suggest them to be mutually contrapuntal and dialectical, meaning they do not abro- gate each other. In fact, they sustain each other through a contestatory reciprocity.


How would a postnational account of the nation look like? How can one claim, as I do, that the contrapuntal tension between the nation and the state, long in the making, does not weaken either but strengthen both? In what terms could the rebirth of a nation so fully conscious of its distant and more recent memories be articulated? What does it mean for a poetic surplus of historical experiences finally overcome the paradox of colonial modernity, resulting in the formation of an aesthetic reason that overshad- ows and replaces the postcolonial reason and finally gives a nation its intu- ition of transcendence? How do we detect and argue all such theoretical propositions in the factual evidence of daily politics of the region, and how would they help us understand the unfolding historic events ahead? To trace the terms of such eventual reinventions, I will first look at the current geopolitics of the region in which the ruling regime in Iran has survived against all odds—under severe pressure, both internal and exter- nal to its borders. A postnational account of the nation does not abandon the national frame of reference, but embraces it within a larger trans- national frame of reference that contrapuntally make the national scene more meaningful (Chapter One: Persian Empire?). My next move is to go from the outside inward (thus thematically blurring their porous borders) and look at the changing dynamics of critical thinking and oppositional politics that have manifested themselves in the making of a civil rights (the Green Movement) movement that will now need to be understood in terms entirely alien to the limited political imagination of the ruling



regime. The rebirth of the nation is predicated on a full consciousness of its distant and more recent memories, in a manner that social movements rely on but transcend their collective consciousness (Chapter Two: A Civil Rights Movement). The rise of this civil rights movement in Iran will have to be under- stood in its own self-transformative terms, the manner in which it keeps shifting its strategies of opposition, a characteristic I will identify as a “metamorphic movement.” Predicated on a poetic surplus of all its expe- riences, a social movement becomes metamorphic and thus a living organ- ism in conversation with its changing environment. The metamorphic movement becomes heteroglossic, ventriloquist, and self-transcending (Chapter Three: A Metamorphic Movement). Our understanding of the Green Movement as the simulacrum of a metamorphic movement points to the unfolding of an “aesthetic reason” that I will explore in more details in the next chapter. I will propose here that the formation of this aesthetic reason is a key theoretical momentum finally to overcome the paradox of colonial modernity, through which the world at large was told to be free to think critically precisely at the moment when a colonial gun was put to its head and told that it was the subject to European capitalist modernity (Chapter Four: An Aesthetic Reason). These last four chapters will expose the body politics of the region in critical encounters with internal forces in a manner that requires a simul- taneous attention to domestic and regional force fields, and the manner in which we need to understand social uprisings. Next I will turn to Shi’ism, as inherently a religion of protest that has its own peculiar dynamics of power and rebellion, and which at once enables and delimits the terms of Iranian politics in transnational and transregional terms. The formation of an aesthetic reason predicated on collective historical experiences will retrieve the repressed intuition of transcendence embedded in Shi’i his- tory (Chapter Five: Shi’ism at Large). In my next move, I wish to show that neither Islam in general nor in fact Shi’ism in particular is any longer singularly in charge of how Iranians or Muslims read reality. To demon- strate this proposition, I will dwell on a particularly traumatic moment of the murder of a young Iranian woman, Neda Aqa Soltan, in the course of the Green Movement in order to show how reading that death refuses to yield to any official metanarrative of revisionist historiography—that the simple sign of a murder persists through its militant appropriation by both the state and its opposition. This chapter will begin to shift the focus of my attention from territorial to body politics, and see and suggest the meta-



morphic nature of both. This shift between physical territory and physical body is necessary in order to see the manner in which the formation of the aesthetic reason overshadows and replaces the postcolonial reason, which

is categorically predicated on the arrest and denial of the erotics of the

body and playful frivolity of emancipatory politics, its Dionysian proclivity

(Chapter Six: Invisible Signs). A major outcome of Chapter Six is to see the placing of the body of an innocent citizen at the receiving end of a bullet—for which the ruling regime refuses to accept responsibility—as the singular site of a renewed

body politics. My next move is again to exit the Iran scene and to navigate

a transnational public sphere upon which national realities are instantly

read and interpreted far faster and far beyond their false hermeneutic tam- ing within a dominant official reading. In other words, the world at large

is today much more alert and the fictive frontiers of nation-states, I argue,

far more porous for any tyrannical regime to have an exclusive claim on

a dominant truth (Chapter Seven: A Transnational Public Sphere). I will

then bring all these steps together into a critical reading of an emerging cosmopolitan worldliness upon which nations are now formed and need to rearticulate themselves. That worldliness, from which a renewed pact with history is enabled, has always existed in multivariate forms but it becomes more evident in moments of large-scale social crisis, when the nation finally uncovers its aesthetic intuition of transcendence (Chapter Eight:

Cosmopolitan Worldliness). For this metaphysics of fragile realities to begin to form an enabling force, in my next chapter I will turn to Walter Benjamin and other theo- rists, poets, and philosophers of fragments and dust to navigate the man- ner in which a liberating politics is rooted in a poetics of ruins. This marks the moment when no metanarrative of salvation can any longer hold and we must teach ourselves how to see a cohesive image in a broken mir- ror, where the intuition of transcendence is no longer predicated on any absolutist or absolute metaphor (Chapter Nine: Fragmented Signs). The

formation of this cohesive picture in a broken mirror is predicated on the fact of an implosion of “the West” as an absolute and absolutist metaphor that had enabled all its binaries and can no longer do so. I will now turn my attention to a detailed consideration of how “the West” as the defin- ing metaphor of capitalist (and colonial) modernity has finally imploded (Chapter Ten: The End of the West). At this point, I will resume my thinking through the active transmuta- tion of (1) body politics and (2) the formation of the posthuman body



together as the site of contestation and examine the manner in which the trauma of torture is encountered as evidence of this bodily transmutation into fragments and ruins. On the site of that broken body, I propose the reconstruction of an emancipatory politics (Chapter Eleven: Damnatio Memoriae). In the final chapter, I will turn to a singularly emblematic moment in a masterpiece of Iranian cinema, Bahram Beiza’i Bashu: The Little Stranger (1989), when the rebirth of the nation is staged as the second birth of a child to a mother in absence of her husband and thus as a fatherless immaculate conception. This moment I consider the most radical, the most liberating, instance of the rebirth of the nation, aestheti- cally foretold in a sublime moment in Iranian cinema (Chapter Twelve:

Mythmaker, Mythmaker, Make me a Myth). These successions of chapters coagulate around the central themes that in the rebirth of postcolonial nations, their fictive frontiers become more porous than ever and their inhibitive borders are effectively erased toward a global recognition of a postnational public sphere, upon which the posthuman bodies of their citizens become the site and simulacrum of their body politics and therefore as unruly signs refuse to behave to the whims of illegitimate state apparatuses, or else imperial warmongering. All forms of state—from deep state to garrison state to security state—are therefore rendered suspect in terms of any categorical legitimacy, forced to expose their brute violence as the sole source of power. The rise of ISIS alongside Israel (two identical fake states with no borders) thus stages this final demise of nation-state as an organizing principle and therefore the postcolonial nations are liberated from the paradox of their colonial modernity and postcolonial reason that had enabled and entrapped them at one and the same time. The liberation of the nation from the fetters of the state does not amount to the end of states. It announces a final break, an irredeemable divorce between the two falsely coupled concepts. As the specific case of Iran indicates, this fundamental and irreconcilable decoupling can and will in fact strengthen them both as they continue their fake fusion. In my conclusion, I return to these theoretical foregrounding of my central thesis in this book, and will argue that the critique of postcolonial reason must begin with an understanding of the colonial modernity that had paradoxically enabled the nation as a particular kind of public sphere. My contention here is to argue that the aesthetic critique of postcolonial reason (extending the arguments of three seminal thinkers on the subject, Theodore Adorno, Jacque Derrida, and Christoph Menke) foregrounds



its categorical subversion, and the consequence of this critique is the even- tual formation of an aesthetic intuition of transcendence. The result is a claim on an aesthetic sovereignty that—sustaining the critical constitution of an aesthetic intuition of transcendence—is no longer entrapped within a postcolonial reason or, a fortiori, colonial modernity. It is as if the sin- gular task of art in the postcolonial condition was to generate and sustain this aesthetic intuition to transcend the trap and trappings of both colonial modernity and the postcolonial reason that had paradoxically enabled and arrested the postcolonial nation. Upon the site of that aesthetic intuition of transcendence, through which alternative visions of worldliness are enabled, the continued currency of states such as the Islamic Republic or all its oppositional alternatives have already exhausted themselves beyond sheer violence or else banal demagoguery.


At the outset of this new book on Iran, it is necessary for me to place it in the larger context of my previous work so its significance is better under- stood. The writing of this book brings to a critical culmination much of my previous work on Iran, which has been one of my principle sites of critical investigation over the last few decades, when and where I have examined the history of one particular postcolonial nation-state in details in order to reflect on larger theoretical issues that are at the heart of my thinking on the intersection of culture and politics. I remain convinced that the specific sites of our critical thinking must remain consciously at the fore- front of our scholarship if their larger implications are not to plunge into opaque, unverifiable, and therefore universal vacuity. My Theology of Discontent: Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1993) was my earliest attempt at detailing the ideo- logical foundations of the Islamic revolution in Iran (1977–1979), mark- ing the historic momentum through which the absolute metaphor of “the West” had constituted the Schmittian “Enemy” and thus began to generate revolutionary political normativities. Islamist ideology was of course neither the only nor even the most potent postcolonial ideological formation at the root of the Iranian revolution of 1977–1979. But the detailed examination of the Islamist trait had given me ample space to see in what particular terms had “the West” as an absolute metaphor led Muslim thinkers to transform their religion into an ideology of revolution- ary uprising. The formation of “Islamic Ideology” I had then concluded



was the most potent manifestation of colonial modernity, at once enabling defiance and revolt and yet entrapping the political enterprise in its own self-contradictions. The anti-Westernism of the Islamist ideology, I con- cluded, was in fact the most potent form of so-called Westoxication. In Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran (1999), my colleague Peter Chelkowski and I were concerned with the manner in which during the revolutionary period (1977–1979), and after that during the Iran–Iraq war (1980–1988), a particular propaganda campaign of ideological persuasion had been set in motion. This as a result was an occasion for me to explore the public sphere and public space (and what I would later eventually call parapublic sphere) upon which the revolutionary art was being staged. This study became critical even more after the ruling Islamist regime began doctoring the history of the revolution, manipulating its archive, and claiming the entirety of the revolutionary momentum for itself. The cosmopolitan disposition of that revolution and its transnational character and culture was solidly evident in this book—particularly in the iconography of the pre-revolutionary period that staged (through politically active Iranian student organizations worldwide) anticolonial nationalist, Third World socialist, as well as Islamist propensities. In my Iran: A People Interrupted (2006), I narrated the Iranian history of the last two centuries in terms of the category of “colonial moder- nity.” Here my principal concern was the manner in which the European modernity had come to much of the colonized world through the gun barrels of colonialism, and thus became an oxymoronic contradiction in terms. I consider that paradoxical proposition at once enabling and limit- ing. I explored its enabling unfolding, and marked its limiting domains, as I proposed the variegated territories of Iranian arts and cultures as sites of resistance to colonial conditions of its receptions, and thus positing the possibilities of an anticolonial modernity in which colonial reason is countered by anticolonial reason and European notions of progress by revolutionary uprisings. It was here in this book that I first articulated in detail how I saw the rise and consolidation of the public sphere as the site of mellat, the nation, and proposed that the word mellat was interchange- able with public sphere. The Fox and the Paradox: Iran, the Green Movement, and the US (2010) is where I proposed the category of “colonial modernity” had yielded to “societal modernity” and thus marked the transformation of revo- lutionary aspirations of previous generations to call for civil rights, and



therefore I identified the Green Movement as a civil rights movement, which to me was now the most radical demand of this new generation. Through the writing of this book, my attention was increasingly drawn to Hannah Arendt and her articulation of the public space as the domain of liberty, to which I was now adding the idea of a parapublic space. I did not leave Arendt’s theorization of the public sphere intact. I linked it to Tocqueville’s notion of “voluntary associations” and proposed the effec- tive institutionalization of labor unions, women’s rights organizations, and student assemblies as the site-specific articulations of the public and para- public spheres. I subsequently extended these ideas in my book on Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (2012), where I proposed the end of all postcolonial formats of ideology production as a precursor of an open- ended epistemics yet to unfold. My conclusion in these two books was drawn toward the aggregated fragments of previous regimes of knowledge gathering momentum in the formation of new and unforeseen directions. One fact was now clear to me: that the formative forces of nations—across the Arab and Muslim world—were now parting ways from the vagaries of the state that wished but failed to rule them. By this time my concern with changing modes of knowledge produc- tion in the aftermath of the exhaustion of postcolonial modalities took a decisive turn to Walter Benjamin’s later work on archives, relics, and allegories. In Search of Lost Causes: Fragmented Allegories of an Iranian Revolution (2013) was my initial attempt at connecting the fragmented archives of Iranian revolutionary posters and Palestinian films together in order to argue for the formation of revolutionary allegories, through Benjamin’s theory of ruins as allegory. By this time in my thinking the idea of a postcolonial end of ideology formation was actively searching for the manner in which historical and cultural fragments were gathering in a momentum toward a critical reconfigurations of a liberation poli- tics, though not in totalizing and absolutist terms. Two crucial theoretical implications were now imbedded in this way out of the end of postcolonial knowledge production: the future liberations were no longer statist in their politics, or absolutist in their metaphoric foregrounding. My previous work on Iranian cinema, as well as on visual, performing, and literary arts in the region and around the world—such as my Close Up:

Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future (2001) and Masters and masterpieces of Iranian Cinema (2007) and numerous essays on modern and contemporary art—here all came together to mark the spectrum of what I would eventually call the poetic différance that has marked the unfolding



momentums of the nascent nations at large. What I mean by poetic différance, and will eventually describe in some detail, is the summation and eventual exhaustion of all the poetic encounters—in literary, filmic, and dramatic terms and across all the visual and performing arts—with the onslaught of colonial modernity and the traumatic creativity that it has occasioned. The summation of that encounter canvases the wide spectrum of such poetic productions, and their exhaustion, when and where they run out of aesthetic possibilities, leaves a significant residue I call the poetic residue or alternatively poetic différance that, just as Derrida would say, always already points to what it has failed to achieve and at the same time marks and anticipates the emerging intuition of transcendence deeply rooted in them. By now I needed to place the idea of “Iran” beyond its fictive frontiers and within its larger transnational spectrum, in order to see and show the much wider public sphere upon which it was and continues to be con- ceived. In my Iran Without Borders: Towards A Critique of Postcolonial Nation (2016), I did precisely that and placed the idea of the postco- lonial nation beyond its colonial boundaries and frontier fictions on the transnational public sphere where it was originally formed, and thereby sought to open up its self-transformative possibilities. This book dovetails with the three consecutive books I have done with Harvard University Press: Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (2011), The World of Persian Literary Humanism (2013), and Persophilia (2015), where I have navigated in some extensive historical and cultural details the layered genealogy of the public sphere and public reason and thereupon the active formation of the postcolonial subject. At this point in my writing, I had already published a book that explored a significant aspect of my thinking on the matter, gathered around the production of a corporeal anarchy with suicidal violence in response to structural political violence targeting the body. My Corpus Anarchicum:

Political Protest, Suicidal Violence, and the Making of the Posthuman Body (2012) is my most sustained course of reflection on the corporeality of the site of body politics, where I sought to trace the transformation of body politics onto a posthuman body, a body that was now the singular site of territorial claim to legitimacy by any and all state. Suicidal violence, I argued, was just the tip of the iceberg around and about which politics as Weberian (legitimate) violence was focusing its claims to legitimacy away from national territories and toward bodily domains, with rules and regula- tions and technologies of micromanaging artificial insemination, genetic



engineering, abortion, organ transplant, physician-assisted suicide, and so on. as indices of this transformation. Suicidal violence was simply an exten- sion of the mad logic of this posthuman body. The Foucauldian notions of biopower and biopolitics had rightly drawn our attention to the system- atized technologies of state domination. But I looked at suicidal violence as an act of symbolic and material defiance against biopower and biopolitics. Now in this book, Iran: Rebirth of a Nation, I pick up all these strands and pull them forward toward a significant but hitherto unforeseen conclu- sion and read the nation as distinct from state in the classical nation-state construction, and then through the formation of what I will articulate as an “aesthetic reason” (overcoming both colonial modernity and the post- colonial reason it had occasioned) find and pronounce its self-sustained sovereignty, predicated on sustained and successive waves of revolution- ary prose, poetry, and visual and performing arts performed categorically against the dominant censorial will of the ruling state. I will argue and demonstrate how the sovereignty of the eventual rise of an aesthetic intu- ition of transcendence has enabled the unfolding futurity of the nation beyond its fictive postcolonial frontiers, and autonomous of the state apparatus that wishes but fails to rule it. I do so first by placing the elusive nation within and without its fictive borders and work my way toward the constitution of the posthuman body as a metamorphic simulacrum of the body politics and then think through the aesthetic manners in which the body (from birth to death) is reconceived against all the strategies and technologies of biopower and biopolitics. I will do so through close reading of critical aspects of Iranian social and intellectual movements and its visual and performing arts, as well as through a critical conversation with a number of seminal works I con- sider critical to this argument: Hans Georg Gadamer’s “Relevance of the Beautiful” (1974), Christophe Menke’s The Sovereignty of Art (1988), Alan Singer’s Aesthetic Reason (2003), and Alain Badiou’s Philosophy for Militants (2015). Each one of these books, in its own different way and as they articulate the relevance, autonomy, and sovereignty of the work of art, is relevant to my argument for multiple reasons. In the last one, for example, Badiou argues the formation of a “modern militant,” which he considers a “transformative figure at the front line of emancipatory poli- tics,” in which he seeks to gather “a radical phalanx comprising students, the young, workers and immigrants … returning to the original call for universal emancipation and organizing for militant struggle.” I intend to build on Badiou’s argument by extending its decidedly European domain



to a more global perspective, while through Gadamer, Menke, and Singer replace Badiou’s “philosophy” with “aesthetic reason.” Iran as a result will, here as elsewhere, be a nexus classicus of my examination of a much larger postcolonial condition of agential liberation throughout the world with critical but corroborating differences. Without such site-specific

articulation of this liberation, the theoretical abstraction will overwhelm the subject and preempt the politics of the project. “Iran” for me here

is like “Macondo” for Marquez, or Yoknapatawpha County for Falkner:

though historical facts and institutional realities are the materials with which I tell my stories. In this book, I therefore contend a postnational reading of the nation that reveals the poetic surplus that has resulted in the course of national encounters with colonial modernity. This “postnational reading of the nation” is a strategic counter-essentialization of the nation by way of de- fetishizing its frontier fictions and therefore seeking to liberate the terms of its emancipation from within and beyond its entrapment in the “nation- state.” It works precisely in the opposite direction of the ethnic nationalism and sectarian politics that is ripping the postcolonial nations apart. From

this premise, we will then derive an aesthetic reason that is the conditio sine qua non of overcoming the “postcolonial reason” that had occasioned the rhetoric of ethnic nationalism. A postnational reading of the nation is made possible by retrieving the transnational origin of the nation (a task

I initially undertook in my Iran without Borders, and before that in my

Persophilia) and linking it to the geostrategic disposition of its structural– functional organism (as I do in this book). The poetic surplus that enables that aesthetic reason is the underlining metaphysics of all colonial cultural productions yearning for liberty in the absence of the material foreground- ing of “democracy” as a politically potent floating signifier. The national encounter with colonial modernity had occasioned these cultural produc- tions—and the poetic surplus is generated when all such poetic possibili- ties are exhausted: in poetry, fiction, film, drama, and so on. From this poetic surplus rise those aesthetic reasons that will finally triumph over the postcolonial reason that had saved and entrapped the postcolonial person at one and the same time. A postnational articulation of the rebirth of the nation will articulate the terms of such a liberation when the postcolonial person overcomes the repressed memories of coloniality.




1. For one such occasion of the rise of such questions, see Hans Georg Gadamer, Heidegger’s Ways (New York: New York University Press,


2. Ibid: 96.

3. Ibid: 96.

4. Ibid: 97.

5. Ibid: 98.

6. Forough Farrokhzad, “Tavallodi Digar/Another Birth” in Forough Farrokhzad, Tavallodi Digar/Another Birth (Tehran: Morvarid, 1343/1964). These and all other translations from the Persian origi- nals are all mine. Citations are permitted only with reference to this book.

7. For a comprehensive study, see Melvyn Stokes, D.W. Griffith's the Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

8. I rely heavily on the magnificent work of Christoph Menke, The Sovereignty of Art: Aesthetic Negativity in Adorno and Derrida (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999) for this articulation of the “sov- ereignty” of art.

9. Karl Manheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to Sociology of Knowledge. Translated from the German by Louis Wirth and Edward Shills. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1936): 40.

10. Ibid: 40.

Chapter One: Persian Empire?

At the current volatile geopolitics of the region, the ruling regime in Iran has survived against all odds—under severe pressure, both internal and external to its borders. The politics of crisis management is definitive to this state. A postnational account of the nation, as I propose to do, does not abandon the national frame of reference, or its entanglement with the state that claims it, but embraces the nation within a larger trans- national frame of reference that contrapuntally makes the national scene more meaningful. In this chapter, I begin with a panoramic view of the region at large, where the role of Iran has become consistently more dom- inant, to the point that some observers in the Arab and the larger Muslim world are speaking of a resurrection of “the Persian Empire.” This is a false analogy, I will argue, and a red herring. There is only one flagellant empire in our world, the US Empire, and it is not particularly a potent or competent empire. Instead of fishing for flawed metaphors, we need to reconfigure the geopolitics of the region, in which the ruling regime in Iran has amassed considerable soft power, waging a successful asymmetri- cal warfare to protect its domestic and regional interests. What we see as


result is not an “empire” but a new geostrategic reality in which Iran


dominantly mapped out not by virtue of any inherent hard power or a

particularly powerful political leadership but mostly by virtue of the follies of the USA and its European and regional allies and their misbegotten

imperial vagaries. Beginning with the geopolitics of the region will enable us to frame the Iranian national scene in a far better frame of reference.




“Iran is piling one brick on the other,” warns one pundit with solemnity, “today’s Iranians, with their Persian heritage, are on the march as surely as were the armies of Xerxes 2500 years ago.” 1 Usually such right-wing wizardry is the premise upon which is launched the criticism of President Obama’s evident determination to pursue a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. “Desperate for a legacy,” this particular warmonger surmises, “our president obsesses about a deal (no matter how wretched) on Iran’s nuclear program, while ignoring Iran’s aggression across the Middle East.” If the domain of such nonsense about the rising “Persian Empire,” a blatant act of fear mongering thus to call for yet another disas- trous war in the region to facilitate the further Israeli theft of Palestine, were limited to these neocon artists, there would be very little to be said. But alas, and quite regrettably, we have begun to see echoes of them among some of the leading Arab thinkers, intellectuals, and opinion- makers. Where did that come from? The origin of this particular brand of fanciful ghost-busting may seem to have been a casual remark by a verbose Iranian official who is reported to have said, “Baghdad is now capital of the Persian empire.” 2 But did he—really? A quick check of the actual phrase by this official, Ali Younessi, President Hassan Rouhani’s adviser on Ethnic and Religious Minorities Affairs, does anything but corroborate that charge: “cultural, economic and political cooperation between countries in the region,” he had said, and then parenthetically added, “(which in the past composed Persian empire) could be instead of past ancient empires.” Entirely high- falutin and convoluted sentence you might say, but a claim to the rising Persian Empire—by no means. Later on, Mr. Younessi went out of his way emphatically to deny he had ever said anything to claim the return of the Persian Empire—but to no avail. 3 If someone were to bother to read Younessi’s original Persian phras- ing, the confusion about the rising currency of “the Persian Empire” will become even more confounded, because in the midst of all his bombas- tic verbiage, he keeps repeating: “What I say does not mean we want to conquer the world but we must reach historical self-consciousness and understand our place in the world, and while thinking globally act in an Iranian and national manner.” 4 Again, pompously verbose, you might say and think the proverbial clerical penchant for vacuous hyperbole may have overcome the man at this conference on “Iranian identity,” where he delivered this speech—but calling for a Persian empire now? Not really.



But the news of an Iranian official calling for a Persian Empire with Baghdad as its capital was too juicy to let go and soon spread like a bush- fire among the nervous and confused pan-Arab nationalists rightly upset about the Iranian meddling in many Arab countries, so upset that they did not bother to check the original and see what the man had actually said. So where did such panicked rubbernecking around and about the phrase “Persian Empire” originate? The date of this speech by Ali Younessi is 17 Esfand 1394 on Persian calendar, which is 7 March 2015. But the neocon American and Israeli Zionist charge of this Persian empire busi- ness predates it by many months, and even years, until it finally found its way to the august pages of the New York Times by three apparatchik operators employed at the notorious Zionist joint Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy (WINEP). 5 In other words, the boorish and blasé charge of the ruling regime in Iran trying to revive “the Persian Empire” did not have to wait for Younessi’s off-the-cuff remarks at a gaudy confer- ence on “Iranian identity,” for the hasty and nervous Arab opinion-makers seem to have taken it directly from Israeli and American Zionists, with whom they now seem to share not just the English language but a fright- ful Iranophobia.


There is no longer any Persian or Arab or Ottoman or Indian or Chinese, or British or Spanish or Mongol empire, and all the angels of mercy and justice be praised for that. The only empire that exists, and which does not feel particularly well or imperial these days, is the American empire. It is a kind of postmodern empire, as it were, ruling, or wishing to rule, via drones, proxies, mercenary armies, private contractors, and lucrative arms sales to rich, corrupt, and bewildered potentates. Iran has not become a Persian empire. As a fragile and internally unsta- ble Islamic Republic, Iran has systematically and consistently spread its sphere of influence in a region where national boundaries mean very little. Saudi Arabia is right now in Yemen, and a couple of years ago it was in Bahrain. While bombing Libya, Egypt wants to lead a pan-Arab army around the region, as the European settler colony of Israel continues to sit on and steal more of Palestinian and Syrian territories and eying even more. Syria and Iraq are under attack by a murderous gang of former Iraqi Baathists and other runaway hoodlums they have hired from around the world and call themselves ISIS, “a digital caliphate,” as Abdel-Bari Atwan



rightly calls it in a new book, commenced by being lucratively funded by the Saudi and other ruling families in the region. 6 Pakistan acts freely in Afghanistan, as Turkey does in Iraq and Syria. Kurds have run away from Iraq to form an autonomous region and thus to protect themselves from yet another Baathist slaughter. Iran is integral to this widening gyre of geostrategic free-fall—not above it. To disregard the real imperial power operating in the region, and turn a blind eye to the aggressive counter- revolutionary mobilization and speak of “Persian Empire” at a time that all postcolonial boundaries have collapsed, is a silly red herring. Speaking of “Persian Empire” and thus exaggerating the influence of a deeply flawed, menacing, and malfunctioning Islamist theocracy plays the horn from its open side, as the Persian proverb aptly puts it, and blinds us to the factual evidence of a chorus of counterrevolutionary forces that place the ruling regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia on the same (and not on the opposite) sides. There is no “Persian Empire” in sight: only the hard geostrategic facts of US imperialism reshuffling its cards to play a more winning hand.


The nervous attribution of the rise of Persian Empire to contemporary Iran, however, points to a critical aspect of the rise of one particularly poignant case of postcolonial nation-state that requires further atten- tion. Although today the invocation of the phrase “Persian Empire” in the current geopolitics of the region has a decidedly ethnic character that dovetails with the bourgeois ethnic nationalism and sectarian overtone of regional rivalries, in the idiomatic expression “Persian Empire,” the adjec- tive “Persian” is in fact a linguistic and therefor cultural marker, and thus does not stand for any ethnic designation—though both Persian and Arab ethnic nationalism thus wish for it to signify. There are no such people as “Persians.” There is a language and therefore a culture that can be identi- fied as Persian. There is no race or ethnicity called “Persian,” the way say the Kurds or Baluchis think and project themselves as an ethnicity on the fictive margins of the thing that now emerges as “Persian.” By the same logic, Kurds too are only marginalized as an ethnicity and there is noth- ing in their body or blood that designates them as a “race.” Communities of people are racialized by way of a power-relation, and not as a matter of biological identity. They become a race or an ethnicity by exclusion, negationally, by the paramount illusion of something called “Persian” as a



marker of ethnic identity designating its peripheries as Turkish or Kurdish or Arab. Thus “Persian” works precisely in the same manner that “White” works in the making of the racialized relation of power in the USA or Europe. Throughout history from the earliest post-Islamic dynasties for- ward, “Persian” could have only been a marker of linguistic and therefore cultural formation especially after the rise of the Shu’ubiyyah movement against the racialized assumption of Arab supremacy. The term Persian Empire has no meaning in pre-Islamic imperial dynas- ties from Achaemenids to Sassanids except the manner in which the Greeks self-projected their own Ionian (or Dorian, Aeolian, Achaeans) identity to the Persepolis and the Persian seat of the Achaemenid Empire in Iran. Thus two manners of naming fused together to make “Persian Empire” a Latin phrase on the model of the “Roman Empire.” A fusion of succes- sive empires and Persian linguistic and cultural identity came together to inform “Persian Empire.” This imperial pedigree has remained a potent imaginary by virtue of the imperial provenance of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh epic (composed 1010). This plus all the other imperially idiomatic genres of Persian poetry—from panegyric to romance—have come together to mark the phrase “Persian Empire” as a false marker of ethnic identity. To be sure, and as I discuss in much detail in my book on The World of Persian literary Humanism (2013), Persian (“Farsi” in both Persian and Arabic languages) was used as a marker of ethnicity in the early Islamic period soon after the Arab conquest in contrapuntal juxtaposition to the Umayyad tribal racism and their patrimonial sense of superiority. But from then on, and as Turkish and subsequently Mongol tribes from Central Asia began forming Persianate dynasties, the term became a floating signifier, moving from a marker of ethnos to one of logos and then to that of ethos before dispersing into chaos. These four phases of what the word “Persian” has interchangeably meant also navigates the epochal passage of a people in the course of their Islamic history, soon after the Arab conquest of the Sassanid Empire (226–650) through successive Persianate imperial forma- tions. The fateful encounter with European colonial modernity opened up the public sphere upon which postcolonial nations and then states eventu- ally emerged. It was in the course of Perso–Russian wars of 1804–1813 and 1826–1828 and the sizable loss of territories by Golestan (1813) and Turkamanchai (1828) treaties that the current map of Iran was more or less shaped, with the formation of Afghanistan by British colonial intrigues (as a buffer state in the “Great Game” between British India and the Russian Empire) as the



last blow to that territorial claim of the Qajars to any empire. That impe- rial phantasm has now been fused with postcolonial geopolitics of various nations. Iran has had the exact opposite history of the USA as an empire. While Iran was diminishing, the USA was expanding its proportions, ini- tially continentally and then globally, and from there into the outer space and now into the cyberspace. The frontier fiction has been crucial for the USA. For Iran, it has gone from an amorphous history into an ahistori- cal phantasm. What remains constant is the active memory of successive empires sustaining the collective memory of a postcolonial nation consis- tently expanding the domain of its national self-consciousness against the claims of any ruling state: monarchical or mullarchical.


In what particular manner does the contemporary Iran emerge from ancient and medieval Persian and Persianate empires—and how does that manner qualify and anchor the current conditional of nation and nation- hood in Iran? If my proposal for us to sever the fate of the nation from the vagaries of the state is to hold, then we must carefully trace the rise of Iran as a postcolonial nation (not a state or even a nation-state) on the transna- tional public sphere that enabled its active postcolonial imagination. In the course of writing my book on Persophilia: Persian Culture on the Global Scene (2015), I demonstrated the formation of Iran as a postcolo- nial nation on the site of a transnational bourgeois public sphere that had gathered on it the remnants of the trope of “Persia” from the Biblical and classical antiquity to the rise of Renaissance and Enlightenment modernity and beyond. This articulation allowed me to see and propose the condi- tion of postcoloniality not as a tragedy as David Scott had, for example, proposed in his Conscript of Modernity, but more as a dialectical condition along the lines that Kojin Karatani has proposed in his Structure of World History. 7 Affecting a radical epistemic shift in assaying the formation of the postcolonial nation, this location of the subject on its transnational public sphere has the advantage of once and for all curing its chronic nativism. The attraction of Europe to Persia was precisely because of its impe- rial heritage, a fact uniquely exclusive to Persian empires from the Achaemenids to the Sassanids and not shared by any other ancient civiliza- tion that Europe had encountered. These empires were known to Europe from the Bible to the Greek and Roman sources. It was precisely the impe- rial pedigree of the Achaemenids and their domination of a global and



regional context that included Europe that had made them significant both in the Bible and for the Greek and Roman antiquities. In the Biblical and Classical ages and texts—Hebrew, Greek, and Roman—Persia and Persians were familiar foreigners, neither Hebrew, nor Greek nor Roman, nor a fortiori Christian. But they were never complete strangers either, and thus they could not be categorically othered. The encounter with the Persians predates the encounter with both the Ottomans and the Mughals, which mark the European imperial encounter with the region. Arabs become known to the Christian Europeans as Muslims as early as the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 and the subsequent Battle of Poitiers in 732. But Persians were known to Europeans much earlier and even before the rise of Islam and Christianity and therefore not as Muslims or Arabs. Europeans knew them from the Hebrew Bible and Greek literary and philosophical sources. The Book of Esther in the Bible, where King Ahasuerus/Xerxes has a key role, is usually dated to the third or fourth century BCE, while Aeschylus’ The Persians was com- posed and performed in 472 BCE, and Xenophon’s Cyropaedia circa 370 BC. At this time there are no “Arabs,” “Turks,” or others in the Bible or Greek sources. Even at the moment when Christianity becomes

a European religion in the third century, it has to compete with a tower-

ing Iranian religion, namely Mithraism. Persians were therefore familiar

foreigners that neither the Hebrews nor indeed the Greco-Roman world could completely own or completely disown. Persian empires were always known entities—feared, envied, hated, admired, but never a strangers or unknown. These same Persians and Persophilia becomes a peculiar attraction to Europeans of later generation during the Renaissance and

Enlightenment modernity. There is not a single period from antiquity to modernity in which Europeans have not known or referenced Persians and invariably marked their Persophilia. This historic antiquity is quite crucial for when European Empires begin to conquer the world and eventually produce a transnational bourgeois public sphere their Persophilia will have

a global repercussion and thereafter a direct impact on the formation of

“Iran” as a postcolonial nation, and subsequently a nation-state. Persia and Persian empires were of particular interest to Europeans in their age of empires—and as it happens when they were about to launch their far-reaching projects of Enlightenment democracy against their dynastic heritage. With the publication of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1721), the figure of the Persian as a familiar foreigner enters the European age of Enlightenment modernity proper. In Persian Letters,



the two traveling Persians, Usbek and Rica, are foreigners who are famil- iar with the changing Europe. So the proverbial question asked in this book “What does it mean to be Persian,” is really “how can one be a European?” Which is the central question of Montesquieu’s entire philo- sophical project as one of the key architects of the Enlightenment moder- nity. The prose of Persian Letters best captures this strange and foreign familiarity with Europe, at once critical and yet intimate—and both from the point of view of two travelers who are at once agitating and observing the Europe they see in a state of flux. Thus, the proverbial question of what does it mean to be Persian is in fact the shadow of the key question of modernity: What does it mean to be European? Persian Letters is an active anthropology of the Parisian public space and public sphere—from cafes to opera houses to newspapers—in its formative period. The two Persian travelers are the conduits of not just marking this formative period of European bourgeois public sphere but through their letters in effect carrying it home to their recipients. By the time we get to William Jones (1746–1794), the major Indo- Iranian philologist, his theories made those foreign Persian more famil- iar by first giving himself a Persian name—“Jones Oksfordi/Jones from Oxford,” and then by capitalizing on a philological theory that makes Persian language suddenly a European language. So these Persian- speaking people in Iran or anywhere else suddenly woke up one day and discovered that entirely unbeknownst to themselves they were really speaking a European language. The philological theory of Indo- European languages had of course nasty racial undertone that went on to wreak havoc in Europe, but it still managed to create an elective affin- ity among Europeans, Indians, and Persian-speaking world, including Iranians. India did not have any Biblical or classical resonance as much as Persia and Persians did in the Bible, for the Greeks and then for the Romans and subsequently the Christians. So the Indo-European theory of languages had far more traumatic consequences in Europe and Persia, awaiting later Hindu fundamentalist Aryanism in India. Though these theories may have had earlier versions in India, Indo-Persian heritage is in effect developed by this European theory of racialized languages. Precisely at a moment when Persian-speaking travelers like Mirza Saleh Shirazi and Abu Taleb Makki traveled from Iran or India and wrote their pioneering European travelogues, these dominant theories of Indo-Iranian-European languages placed Persian language on a public sphere upon which Europeans were busy both conquering and defining the world.



PERSIAN EMPIRE? 45 Image 1 Mana Neyestani, Untitled, 2009 The image of rebirth, resurrection, and revolt

Image 1 Mana Neyestani, Untitled, 2009 The image of rebirth, resurrection, and revolt pops up on satirical sites too, where Iranian visual culture is replete with subversive possibilities. Here Mana Neyestani captures the moment of political suppression in Iran during and in the aftermath of the June 2009 presidential election, when the V-sign of victory and the “Green”- sign of the Green Movement were being officially repressed and persecuted, young activists brutally beaten up and tortured, and on occasions even point blank mur- dered, and yet the very nature of the violent repression strengthened the logic of the movement. The gesture is ingenious in its wit and brevity. The state violence wishes to cut down the V-sign and Green-sign of the movement and yet paradoxically with that very act of violence turns it into a singular sign of defiance. The gesture of the middle finger partakes in the European and US context of the artist’s residence and thus enables and enriches a more potent sign language. The middle finger does not mean in Iran what it means in Europe or the US. The wit thus becomes globally expanded from the site-specific location of the Green Movement in Iran into a soli- tary register around the globe. The aesthetic and iconic universalizing of that par- ticularity ipso facto overcomes the “postcolonial reason” working at the political core of the nation, as it does the colonial modernity that had occasioned it.



Goethe (1749–1832) furthered the course of familiarizing the foreign Persians through his attraction to and rendition into German of Hafez and composing lyrical poetry in his fashion and calling it West-Östlicher Diwan. Soon many other European Hafezes were created on the fashion of Goethe. Soon after Hegel (1770–1831) comes and brings Persians into the fold of European and world history, where Europeans feel already at home, and thus he makes Persians further at home in Europe. But Hegel still denies these Persians and the rest of Orientals any possibility of thinking; for him, they are not capable of philosophy. So Goethe and Hegel complement each other—sustaining the familiar foreigners, both European and yet not completely so. This forerunner of European roman- ticism however eventually yields to a kind of mysticism that paves the way for the rise of European fascism, which in effect furthers the racialized theories of Indo-European languages. It is this version of mysticism as precursor of fascism that generations later Seyyed Hossein Nasr, through what they now call Gnosis, takes to Iran, as Ananda Coomaraswamy to India, and Frithjof Schuon back to Europe. In Iran this mysticism feeds into Ayatollah Khomeini’s ascetic revolutionary disposition, in India it meets Hindu fundamentalism, while in Europe and the USA it is com- mercialized into New Age mysticism. What I discovered in the course of writing Persophilia was the complete ideological fabrication of “the West and the Rest” binary, and the necessity of placing postcolonial transnational public spheres and their contingent nation-formations on the circularity of globalized labor, capital, and mar- ketplace of ideas. Consider how the preeminent Indo-Pakistani thinker Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) took Goethe’s version of Hafez from Germany (where he was a student) to India and added Rumi and Dante to it and turned it into the cornerstone of his pan-Islamism and Islamic philosophy, while North American historical Transcendentalism took the same European romanticism to America and led to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) considering himself a reincarnation of Sa’di. At the heart of globalized capitalism in North America, Persophilia was embedded into an ideology of philosophical revolt against instrumental reason, while in India, on the colonial edges of capitalism, it becomes an ideology of resis- tance to the same-old imperialist extension of that very instrumental rea- son. In India, it eventually helped the formation of militant Islamism that led to the Partition and the formation of Pakistan, and had an equally fate- ful renevous with the Islamic Republic of Iran whose ideologues were very much indebted to Iqbal. While in the USA, Transcendentalism in time



lost to what Adorno and Horkheimer diagnosed as “Culture Industry” before Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement picked its non-

violent civil disobedience aspect up, while on the selfsame scene Malcolm

X was and remained like Muhammad Iqbal and his Iranian protégés like

Ali Shari’ati: an Islamist before his final delivery to a more global revo- lutionary posture. But the figure of Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), who received his Hafez directly from Iran and for healthier reasons than Iqbal’s, remains an exemplary model of a more horizontal exchange of ideas in the formation of regional public spheres. Persophilia, meanwhile, remained integral to the rise of the most provocative ideas and philosophies in Europe. From the bosom of the Hegelian denial of Oriental philosophy emerges Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and his love and admiration for Hafez—so that his Persian prophet, which

is a combination of an imaginative Zoroaster and a Germanic rendition of

Hafez, becomes the new European figure of revolt. The historic revolt of

Nietzsche against the whole Platonic tradition of philosophy culminating

in Hegel here assumes the symbolic force of two Persian figures (a prophet

and a poet): Zarathustra and Hafez, who in the German philosopher’s

mind mutate into a singular force of Dionysian revolt. This is also the point where the whole categorical Saidian notion of “Orientalism” as a mode of knowledge production at the service of European colonialism (which

is true but limited in its scope) needs to be balanced with factual evi-

dence to the contrary. Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1891) and Mozart in “magic Flute” (1791) are anything but “Orientalist” in the Saidian sense, for here they rescue Hafez and Zoroaster and deliver them for a cataclysmic Dionysian revolt that after performing their critical function in European intellectual and artistic history come to inform the Nimaic revolt against Persian classical prosody and give birth to Ahmad Shamlou and Forough and Forough Farrokhzad who become the Persian versions of that Dionysian revolt against the sort of absolutist mysticism that through Seyyed Hossein Nasr and his Islamist followers was now infringing on a militant Gnosticism that dovetailed perfectly with political Islamism. That militant Islamism, which Nasr et al. facilitated and Shamlou and Forough gloriously resisted, has by now overcome that Dionysian spirit and is established as an Islamic Republic. In this context, we need to look at the poetry of Sohrab Sepehri as a curiously subversive force here, for he infiltrates religious intellectuals’ mysticism and subverts it. The result of all such reflections and counter-reflection of Persophiliac tenden- cies on the European and by extension transnational public spheres is the



location of “Iran” as a postcolonial nation on a much wider spectrum of sentiments, thoughts, and movements, than within the frontier fiction of Iran as a nation-state. Meanwhile Edward FitzGerald (1809–1883) published his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as a counter-Victorian poet for “the other Victorians,” as the US literary historian Steven Marcus would say. 8 This Khayyam offers a de-gendered homoeroticism to Europeans that suspends both ecclesiasti- cal and worldly authorities and opts for an erotic asceticism that best fits not just Fitzgerald’s own mostly repressed homosexuality but also dovetails with a kind of protestant ethics at the heart of both European capitalism and British imperialism. The global expansion of Khayyam in effect fol- lows the footsteps of British colonialism—they go together. In the poetic persona of Omar Khayyam, FitzGerald thus produces a new European prophet not quite unlike Goethe’s Hafez and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra— all varied models of Dionysian revolts against Christian bourgeois ethics and its underlying ressentiment. Again, none of this can be derogatorily dismissed as mere “Orientalism,” without concealing far more signifi- cant structural changes in European and by extension global social and intellectual history, with only a tangential relation to colonialism. This Khayyam later comes to Sadegh Hedayat in Iran who extends him into the Iranian scene while he was closely connected to India where he published his literary masterpiece The Blind Owl (1937). In Hedayat, however, his admiration for Khayyam soon degenerated into a visceral anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism. From FitzGerald to Hedayat’s respective Khayyams, the figure of one Persian poet circumambulates the active formation of a transnational public sphere upon which European and Iranian social and intellectual movements intertwine. In his version of attraction to Persian poetry, manifested in his classic “Sohrab and Rostam” (1853), Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) went for the anti-Oedipal trace, putting into his own poetry the famous story of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh where the chief hero of the epic, Rostam, inad- vertently kills his own son—and thus the earliest origin of his major essay “Culture and Anarchy” (1867–1868), which Edward Said misread because he did not pay any attention to the Arnoldian cultural paradox at the heart of this seminal poem. Arnold saw a major tragic transfusion in the transfiguration of “religion” “culture.” It is from here and other European Shahnameh scholarship that a renewed interest in the Persian epic eventually goes back to Iran to the Pahlavi state-building monarchy and the recruiting of Ferdowsi for a forced formation of the fatherland, a



violent twisting of the central trauma of the Shahnameh. But the defining stories of the Shahnameh—Sohrab, Esfandiar, and Seyavash—remain cat-

egorically anti-Oedipal, where fathers kill their own sons, and their grand- sons turn around to revenge their murdered fathers. This defiant theme of the Shahnameh in turn gives rise to the persistent trait of what on an

a number of occasions I have called a “delayed defiance” (as opposed

to the Freudian “delayed obedience”) in Perso-Islamic culture, which I have traced in detail in my book on Shi’ism as a religion of perpetual protest. 9 Matthew Arnold’s “Sohrab and Rostam” resonates with a num- ber of leading Iranian literary critics—such as Shahrokh Meskoub and Mostafa Rahimi—who sustain the course of the preparatory stages of the anti-Oedipal (later appropriated as “Islamic”) Revolution in Iran. The violent transformation of a quintessentially anti-Oedipal revolution into an “Islamic revolution,” now presided over by octogenarian patriarchs, remains the central paradox at the heart of the rebirth of the nation. Staging playfully the familiar foreignness of the Persian becomes the uncanny sight of a soprano castrato (now done by a mezzosoprano or countertenor) singing the mighty Xerxes in Handel’s Serse (1738). The opera anticipates Nietzsche’s critique of Wagner, in Nietzsche contra Wagner (1895), and his denouncing of Parsifal as triumph of asceticism over sensuality, generations later. The fascination of Matisse and Gauguin with Persian paintings extended that early operatic Persophilia into the groundbreaking sights of European artistic revolutions of the nineteenth

and twentieth centuries. The mirror image of all this soon appeared on the Iranian cultural scenes. From varied appearances of opera scene in Iranian cinema—Mehrjui’s Ejareh-neshin-ha/Tenants (1986) to Bahman Farmanara’s Khak Ashena/Native (2008)we eventually come to Kiarostami directing Mozart’s Così fan tutte (1790), along with his ver- sion of Ta’ziyeh staged at Avignon, where the familiar foreigner becomes more integral to the European imaginary. Here and elsewhere “the West” continues to seek to authenticate itself with their tabloid fascination with the late Pahlavi Mohammad Reza Shah and his royal family until the spec- tacle comes to a crushing closure with the fierce bearded face of Ayatollah Khomeini, just before yet another fascination with Iranian cinema rekin- dles it. The insignia of a new generation of Iranian immigrants to Los Angeles occasioned the rise of Persian cats, Persian caviars, and Persian carpets to rekindle the Khayyam and Hafez’s memories in dauntingly cliché-ridden, vacuous, and miserable tableaus: a spectacle that reached

a nauseating low in the American reality television series Shahs of Sunset



(2012). From the sublime to the ridiculous, from Handel’s Serse to the Shahs of Sunset, Persophilia degenerated into Iranophobia to bring the organicity of a globalized public sphere to the challenge of a new genera- tion of Iranians navigating their nationhood on uncharted territories. The experience though is not entirely unprecedented. Shahs of Sunset had its antecedent in James Morier’s Adventures of Haji Baha of Isfahan (1824). In the capable hands of Mirza Habib Isfahani this ghastly colo- nial cliché buffoonery was turned around into a cornerstone text of the Constitutional Revolution—and that is where the younger generation of Iranians can find a clue of what to do with the Los Angeles idiocy that passes for entertainment at their expense. Mirza Habib Isfahani’s habitat for that feat of literary rendition was Istanbul, the remissive cosmopolitan space between Europe and Iran, the space where European Persophilia yielded to Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911 and Morier’s rac- ist supremacist prose inadvertently produced the Persian revolutionary prose of Mirza Habib Isfahani. As Haji Baba went to Europe to mock Montesquieu’s Persian Letters in the age of British imperialism, Mirza Habib Isfahani’s prose went to Iran to lead a historic revolution. Here we see how British colonialism had generated its own antithesis entirely inadvertently so that in effect a British fictive character out of European Persophilia had come back to lead a massive revolution in Iran, where the encounter with the European colonial modernity finally brought the Persian figure of the familiar foreigner home to Persia itself (now being reborn as the postcolonial nation of Iran) and thus Iranians became self- consciously and productively aware of their own paradoxical conscious- ness, so that there was always an Other in their Self. There is another lesson in the unanticipated consequences of a colo- nial fiction. The fictive character in James Morier’s Adventures of Haji Baha of Isfahan becomes a real literary historian and as E.G. Browne (1862–1926) goes back to Iran to offer Iranians an enduring gift. Browne was the European figure of Persophilia incarnate closely familiar with that foreigner. His travelogue to Iran is the complete reversal of Morier’s lit- erary racism. As a literary historian, Browne’s monumental four-volume “Literary History of Persia” (1902–1924) emerged as a key text in the transnational canonization of Persian literary sources and the process of postcolonial nation building. He was closely affiliated with such leading Iranian literati as Mohammad Qazvini, Seyyed Hassan Taghizadeh, and Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh, and such leading periodicals as Kaveh and Iranshahr that were laying the foundations of the emerging nation’s lit-



erary public sphere. These pioneering literary giants became the active conduits in the formation of the post-Constitutional Revolution literary public sphere, defining the nature and disposition of generations of literary scholarship to come. It was precisely upon the fertile ground of that liter- ary public sphere that “Iran” as a postcolonial nation was firmly rooted. In an attempt to take over that public sphere by royal decree, the Pahlavi court philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr was instrumental in facili- tating the French Islamicist Henry Corbin’s journey from his youthful fixation with Martin Heidegger to Iran to translate (with remarkable scholarly tenacity) his Heideggarian mysticism into Shi’i Gnosticism. But this powerful movement, fully funded by the royal court, was success- fully resisted by the Gramscian appeal to the far more potent intellectual force of Jalal Al-e Ahmad, as it was by the Nietzschean streak of rebel- lious Dionysian joy flowing in the robust veins of the rebellious poetry of Ahmadi Shamlou and other poets. Al-e Ahmad’s close affinity with the leading Iranian dramatist Gholam-Hossein Saedi and his magic realism best represented this grassroots revolt against the sort of Aryan authen- ticity that Seyyed Hossein Nasr and his Javidan Kherad/Sophia Perennis business tried but failed to sell on the Iranian intellectual scene. As this fateful battle between the ascetic mysticism of the Corbin Circle and the defiant Dionysian will of revolutionary prose and poetry locked horns, the charismatic populism of Ayatollah Khomeini mobilized an entrenched bazaar-clerical network to assume the leadership of the revolution that toppled the Pahlavi dynasty in February 1979. But that fateful battle to claim the effervescent forces of the transnational public sphere as the site of the new nation continues apace.


Today Iran is a regionally powerful state, capable of sitting at a table with even more powerful states of the world and negotiating its nuclear pro- gram. Israel and its newly found Arab partners are not very happy about that fact and accuse it of retrieving its imperial past. Why? Because Israel and Saudi Arabia and many other small postcolonial Sheikhdoms are abso- lutist states, and not nations, and thus have no clue how Iran as a nation has emerged. They see it as they see themselves. They assimilate it backward to a map drawn by British colonialism. Iran was a nation before it became a nation-state. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and all its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners put together emerged as colonially manufactured states



from the clash between the dying Ottoman Empire and the European imperial encroachments in the region. These are two vastly different his- torical facts. The culprit in all of this is the Israeli settler colony that is a gar- rison state pure and simple, built on the broken back of Palestinians, who are a real people, a real nation, made into a nation by a sustained history of anticolonial struggles. Predicated on a distant, ancient, Biblical, and imag- ined Hebrew past in Palestine, Israel imposes a settler colonial state on the factual evidence of another nation. With no sustained history in Palestine, except in the diasporic communities—Ashkenazi or Sephardic—Israel is the prototype of a colonially manufactured state forcefully populated by successive Zionist migrations. Saudi Arabia meanwhile is a family oil busi- ness, not a nation, like the Bushes in Texas. Unless and until these very simple historical facts are put on the table the fate of nations and their historic encounters with domestic and foreign powers that have sought to dominate them will never be clearly read. In the specific sense that I propose here, there are only four major nations in the region: India, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. India emerged out of the fateful encounter between the Mughal Empire and the British and Portuguese imperialism. Iran emerged out of similar encounters between the Safavids/Qajars and the Russian, British, and French colonial dom- inations, and Turkey and Egypt out of the crumbling remnants of the Ottoman Empire and its collapse under the mightier forces of the European empires. The rest of the current postcolonial states in the region are minor or major commentaries on the colonial encounter. We need to be entirely clear and conscious of this fact and do not muddy the water when read- ing the current history of the region. Out of those colonial states some people like the Kurds did not get a state, neither did the Palestinians, while Israel was planted by the European colonial collusion to get rid of their “Jewish Problem,” and have a colonial foothold in the region. Nations like Palestine and the Kurds, dispersed as they are across many borders, have a far more solid and credible claim on nationhood than manufac- tured borders within Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or UAE. Their common struggles against European colonialism and domestic tyrannies have given them a robust shared memory without the presence of any state to claim it. Central to our understanding of the region will always remain Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and India (which historically and culturally includes Pakistan and Bangladesh). The historical frame of reference must always remain the last vast and multinational three Muslim Empires—the Mughals, the Safavids, and the Ottomans—before the fateful colonial encounter with



European empires—otherwise our histories will always be assimilated backward to a commentary on the margins of European history. It is not accidental that that the rebirth of Iran as a nation is a quintes- sentially poetic proposition predicated on a sustained course of literary history. For the last 1400 years of its Islamic history and before that to the time immemorial, it has been the literary history of the nation that has given its successive empires a sense of continuity and purpose. Empires rise and fall, dynasties come and go, religions change from Zoroastrianism to Manichaeism to Islam before they collapse into sectarianism and bloody conflicts—and yet every new dynasty that comes to claim any small or large expanse of land on this vast emotive territory the first thing it does is to commission the writing of a Shahnameh, then have it illustrated, and then make their royal or clerical courts hospitable to poets and prose stylists, so they might (just might) be graced by the gift of legitimacy that this liter- ary and poetic heritage momentarily bestow upon them. It was precisely this cadre of Persian poets who in the aftermath of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911 poured into something that now they called vatan/homeland, their newly minted public sphere, and invented their homeland outside any royal pedigree.


1. See: Ralph Peters, “The Iranian dream of a reborn Persian Empire” (New York Post, 1 February 2015). Available online here: http://nypost.

2. See: “Iranian advisor clarifies ‘Baghdad capital of Iranian empire’ remark” (Al Arabiya News, 13 March 2015). Available online here: http://eng-

3. See: “Rouhani adviser denies he called for Iran's return to empire” (Al- Monitor, 10 March 2015). Available online here:

4. See this link for Younessi’s original statements in Persian: http://www.



5. See: Charles Krauthammer, “Iran’s emerging empire” (Washington Post, 22 January 2015), available online here:

c3098336-a269-11e4-903f-9f2faf7cd9fe_story.html, and Marc Goldberg, “Iran Trying to Revive the Persian Empire!” (Jerusalem Post, 2 January 2012). Available online here: ticle.aspx?id=366148, and Soner Cagaptay, James F. Jeffrey, and Mehdi Khalaji, “Iran Won't Give Up on Its Revolution” (New York Times, 26 April 2015). Available online here:

6. See Abdel-Bari Atwan, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (London:

Saqi Books, 2015).

7. See David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), and Kojin Karatani, The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

8. See Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1966/2008). This book would later become useful to Michel Foucault for his theories of sexuality.

9. See Hamid Dabashi, Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press, 2011).

Chapter Two: A Civil Rights Movement

Let me now move from the geopolitics of the region inward (thus the- matically seeking to blur their porous borders) and look at the changing dynamics of critical thinking and oppositional politics that have manifested themselves in the making of a civil rights (the Green) movement that will now need to be understood in terms entirely alien to the political imagina- tion of the ruling regime and the dominant state apparatus. The rebirth of the nation I propose here is predicated on a full consciousness of its distant and more recent memories, in a manner that social movements rely on but transcend their collective recollections. What was affectionately called “the Green Movement” (after the campaign color of the most widely loved and endorsed presidential candidate of the 2009 election, Mir Hossein Mousavi) was the summation and sublation of all the previous revolution- ary uprisings in Iran in the last 200 years—the rebirth of the nation and national consciousness embodied and manifested. This fact was beyond the comprehension of both the ruling regime that sought to suppress it and the cliché ridden “opposition” it had generated and rejected into exile so that by opposing the Islamic Republic would in fact corroborate it. Between the illegitimate ruling state and this discredited “opposition” (seeking support from the US neocons, Israeli Zionists, and Saudi Arabia) ran a mighty river of national consciousness that continued apace dismissing and denouncing them both. It was a historic moment to behold how a healthy and robust national consciousness systematically discredited and dismantled both the ruling state and its treacherous expat opposition. Perhaps the most signifi- cant aspect of the Green Movement was to discredit the Islamic Republic



that ruled with an iron fist but without legitimacy and to expose the fake and faulty expat “opposition” that had no conception of the layered and organic consciousness of a national liberation movement and sought the support of warmongers from Washington, DC, to Tel Aviv to Riyadh, to change the ruling regime in Iran and replace it. The Green Movement was the interpretation of a dream, and this blinded tyrants and discredited war- mongers alike had no way of seeing or reading it. In mid-June 2009, as the promise of long and languorous summer days was in the offing, the spectacular rise of a series of initially joyous and beautiful but soon angry and bloodied uprisings in Iran caught the world, yet again, by surprise. Millions of Iranians, sporting playful green ribbons about their bodies, faces, and fingers took to streets and sang and danced to a tune of their own making. The presence of young and old women at the forefront of these rallies was particularly palpable and visibly over- whelming in the operatic unfolding of a collective democratic will. After weeks of presidential campaigns and robust televised debates among four major candidates, Iranians went to voting stations on 12 June 2009 in their masses of millions—40 out of a total of 46 million, according to official estimates, some 80 % plus of the eligible voters in a country of 72 million people. When shortly after the polls were closed, the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was officially declared the winner, a spontaneous outburst of defiant demonstrators took to the streets taking the officials to task and declaring their votes stolen and the election rigged. Days and weeks of even more determined demonstrations and violent crackdowns ensued. Foreign correspondents were expelled from the country. Scores of demonstrators were cold-bloodedly killed, hundreds of public intellectu- als were arrested, and thousands of demonstrators were kidnapped off the streets by multiple security forces. The custodians of the Islamic Republic and their military, security, and intelligence apparatus were determined, so were the demonstrators, and their leaders—the four main oppositional fig- ures, Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, another presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi, and the former president Mohammad Khatami in particular. Joining them soon was the elder statesman and former presi- dent Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who in no uncertain terms declared the Islamic Republic in a crisis of legitimacy. Senior Shi’i authorities like Ayatollah Montazeri were also of the same opinion, as his prominent stu- dent Mohsen Kadivar was dismantling the very juridical foundation of the Islamic Republic. What was going on—the world wondered.




The publication of John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World in 1919 ranks as the first post-traumatic narrative in the aftermath of the Russian October Revolution in 1917 and marks the commencement of a century- long ideological warfare throughout the globe, particularly in what was soon termed the “Third World”—from Asia to Africa to Latin America. Ten years short of a century later, I wrote a book after ten days of massive social unrest that followed the 12 June 2009 Iranian presidential election and forever changed the face of the regional and perhaps global politics by announcing an end to the era of grand ideological warfare and the active commencement of a post-ideological struggle for civil liberties. 1 If the Russian Revolution of 1917, on the heels of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911, commenced a century long of revolutionary uprisings, the Iranian presidential election of 2009 marks the rise of a civil rights movement with unprecedented consequences in the national, regional, and by extension global geopolitics. I wrote that book to argue that the social uprising that followed the 12 June 2009 presidential elec- tion marked the end of a century-long ideological warfare and the com- mencement of a civil rights movement in decidedly post-ideological terms in Iran with far-reaching implications for the region at large. The history of modern “Middle East” begins with the very term with which it is now designated—a colonial concoction that has cast the fate of millions of people in a convoluted conundrum of internal despotism, external domination, and overriding contingency on world economic sys- tem, each exacerbating the other. Though the term may have originated in the 1850s in the British India Office, it was popularized in the early 1900 by the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914) who used it at the tail end of the Great Game (1813–1907) to refer to the Persian Gulf as the center of a strategic line that the British had to control in order to preempt the Russian advances into their spheres of influence. As the historical fate would have it, this very Persian Gulf that was once considered the fault line of the colonial rivalry for world hegemony is now the ground zero of an epistemic shift in the postcolonial geopolitics of the region, when the rise of a grassroots civil rights movement redefined its future beyond the control of the outdated term “the Middle East.” To the degree that European colonialism was coterminous with the age of modern anticolonial ideologies, the rise of the civil rights movement in Iran marks the commencement of a postcolonial spirit when the terms of



engagements have radically altered in non-violent and civil disobedient terms. This is the end of a long and tiresome spectrum in ideological for- mations in response to European colonialism. Beyond the faulty borders of the state, the creative soul of nations seems to have been finally liber- ated from that specter. The temporary appearance of ISIS and their mur- derous exhibitionism has now completely distracted the world attention from this fact. But a steely gaze and persistent analysis are required for us to see its rise and unfolding. This epistemic shift marks a transition from a deeply ideological to a post-ideological generation, some 70 % of the 72 million plus Iranian population that is under the age of 30 and has overcome their parental politics of despair. In response to both the onslaught of European colo- nialism throughout the nineteenth century and the gradual demise of the Ottoman Empire and the Qajar dynasty early in the twentieth century, three almost simultaneous ideological formations divided the attention and loyalties of Muslims—anticolonial nationalism, Third World social- ism, and militant nativism (Islamism). Throughout the Arab and Muslim world, from North Africa to the Levant to Central Asia and South Asia, these competing ideologies have navigated the contours of modern history. That modus operandi of ideological warfare, which came to a full choral crescendo during the Iranian revolution 9f 1977–1979, has now epistemi- cally exhausted itself. While the ruling cadre of the Islamic Republic, fully cognizant of its crisis of legitimacy, continues to speak the conspiratorial language of an everlasting “Doshman/Enemy” plotting to overthrow the regime, the young men and women marching in the streets of their home- land are singing the lyrics of an entirely different song—not of revolt but of civil liberties, not of changing the regime, but of making it irrelevant. Bringing all the competing ideologies that have haunted the political imagination of people throughout the twentieth century to a climactic cre- scendo, the Islamic Revolution altered the geopolitical shape of the region and precipitated much that was to happen later and culminate in the events of 9/11 and afterwards, including the US-led invasions of Afghanistan in October 2001 and Iraq in march 2003. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 sent a tremor throughout the region and had much popular appeal in the Arab and Muslim world, effectively threatening many of the Arab–US allies and their illegitimate and undemocratic rule. Two bumper zones soon appeared on two sides of the Islamic Republic: (1) the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 that commenced a bloody and brutal eight- year war to the West of the nascent republic, and (2) the rise of the Taliban



in Afghanistan both to fight the Soviet occupation and to resist the spread of the Islamic revolution into Central Asia. The USA under the Reagan administration and its European and regional allies had a major role in arming, financing, and providing vital strategic support for both these fronts facing the Islamic Republic. Soon after the end of the Iran–Iraq war and the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1988 the boomerang effect came to full swing: Saddam Hussein used the same weapons that the USA and its allies had given him to attack Iran to invade Kuwait, as the Taliban com- menced its brutal theocratic reign over Afghanistan and allowed for the rise of al-Qaeda from the same cadre of militant Muslims who had come to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. As the Taliban brutalized Afghanistan, al-Qaeda emerged as a transnational militant Islamism that engaged in a series of violent operations against the US targets. Whether al-Qaeda was or was not directly responsible for the group of militant adventurists (led by Muhammad Ata) that perpetrated the murderous acts of 9/11, it was coterminous with the creation of a state of asymmetrical warfare that had occasioned it in Afghanistan. With the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the rise of al-Qaeda as a deterritorialized militant organization, and the commence- ment of the US “war on terror,” the post-9/11 state of affairs brought the age of ideological warfare to a climactic crescendo and a dissipated finale. The publication of Francis Fukuyama’s “the End of History” essay in 1989 was the American take on this end of ideology, before Samuel Huntington radically revived it in his “Clash of Civilization” thesis in 1992 and put it squarely at the service of a renewed pact with now a monopolar American imperialism. While at the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama’s idea of “the End of History” anticipated and complemented Huntington’s idea of a “clash of civilization” and both became a prelude for the rise of a monopolar American imperialism in even grander and more vacuous civilizational terms, in Iran, as a vanguard of post-ideological world no longer at the mercy of imperial thinking the world was about to witness something entirely different. The Islamic Republic became the last manifestation of an ideological uprising that was at least 200 years in the making. Benefiting from and subsuming both anticolonial nationalism and Third World socialism, the Islamic revolution in Iran ended a beleaguered monarchy, violently outma- neuvered its rivals, established an Islamic Republic, and occasioned a seismic change in the geopolitics of the region that culminated in the cataclysmic events of 9/11. In the post-9/11 world, the Islamic ideology had already



performed, exhausted, and wasted its political potency at the same time that all other grand narratives of emancipation—nationalist or socialist—had also lost their continued currency. While the brutal crackdown and execution of the oppositional forces in the 1980s might be considered the last pitched battle between militant Islamism and its principal ideological nemesis, the presidential election of 1997, the student-led uprising of 1999, the parlia- mentary election of 2000, and the presidential election of 2001 might be offered as the principal signposts of a post-ideological generation whose contentions with the Islamic Republic were no longer in grand ideological terms but in fact within the confinements of the constitution of the Islamic Republic, taking both its democratic and non-democratic institutions so seriously in fact to overcome them both. The second term of Khatami’s presidency, however, coincided with the events of 9/11 and the eight cata- strophic years of George W. Bush’s presidency, which in turn had the cata- lytic effect of helping the election of a populist demagogue like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. It was left for the immediate aftermath of George W. Bush’s presidency and the commencement of President Obama’s (and yet entirely independent of his yet to be unfolded policies and actions) the Reform Movement in Iran resumed its course in full throttle with the presi- dential election of June 2009. The Islamic ideology cannibalized and consumed the non-Islamic ideologies and itself came to an episteme cul-de-sac in part because its internal ideological rivals (nationalism and socialism) had all been brutally crushed, politically defeated, forced into exile, and thus the public space was militantly occupied by a vastly juridicalized political discourse that began to spin around its own tale. At the same time, the principal exter- nalized interlocutor of Islamic ideology, “the West,” had imploded out of its own epistemic exhaustion and thus along with the rest of “the East” Iranians were freed to think and imagine themselves in terms beyond any entrapped epistemic coloniality, which is exactly what the younger genera- tion did in their visual and performing, literary and poetic, arts decades before the events of June 2009 unfolded. After more than 200 years of a compelling and enabling delusion of a nation-state, the Green Movement of the summer of 2009 finally disman- tled that fatal distraction, and with a simple rhetorical question, “Where is my Vote?” ended its grip on the nation. That question had no answer. The masses of millions asking that question were only strategically challenging the presidential voting results. They were putting a question mark in front of the whole idea of state, any state, before and after the Islamic Republic,



that wanted and had failed to represent them. The Islamic Republic had fused together and cannibalized all its competing ideologies, and manu- factured a deeply flawed and illegitimate state. In the words of its most prominent Shi’i clerical critic, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, the Islamic Republic was neither Islamic nor a republic! The condemnation was fatal, final, uttered by a key architect of the very theory and idea of an Islamic Republic. That amalgamated ideology that had foregrounded the very idea of an Islamic Republic had now ended not just the Islamic Republic but in fact the delusion of the nation-state and forever liberated the nation from the state.


My central argument in this chapter is that the events of post-presidential election of June 2009 mark the commencement of a major epistemic shift in modern Iranian political culture, with ramifications that may indeed extend to the wider region and categorically alter the political culture of the Arab and Muslim world for good. What in the course of the Green Movement we were witnessing was in fact the commencement of a civil rights movement in Iran, carried on by a post-ideological generation that has lost all emotive connection to their parental preoccupation with master narratives and grand solutions. My proposal is that the dissolution of that illusion of any form of representative democracy was the final decoupling of the fate of the effervescence nation thriving on a transnational public sphere away from the tyranny of this and all other postcolonial states that had by now categorically lost the prospect of ever coupling with it in the legitimate formation of a viable nation-state. The course of grand postcolonial ideological thinking first crescendo and then exhausted itself and eventually resulted, I contend, in the emer- gence of an aesthetic reason that acted in lieu of a public reason (overcoming the dead-end of postcolonial reason occasioned by colonial modernity) that had failed to emerge in a viable and enduring way. The creative formation of this public reason was initially aborted in the course of colonial moder- nity and then made impossible by the militant predominance of a juridical reason/manteq-e feqhi hat had completely occupied the Iranian political scene. Visual and performing arts, I thus argue, became the harbinger of this epistemic shift, facilitating a detour from a public reason that compet- ing anticolonial ideologies had failed to form or even facilitate an aesthetic reason that was cultivated in the hidden sinews of visual and performing,



literary and poetic, arts, and then back to a public space that was now heavily choreographed, color-coded, and operatic in its unfolding. The formation of the three ideological trends in Iran, from the onslaught of the Constitutional Revolution (1906–1911) to the success of the Islamic revolution (1977–1979), has been epistemically, narra- tively, and institutionally self-transformative. In visual, performing, liter- ary, and poetic arts there were those aspects that were at the service of these ideological formations and those that began to differ and divert from it (from the poetry of Nima Yushij to the fiction of Sadeq Hedayat to the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami) toward a formal destruction of the dominant ideologies and any state apparatus they could procreate and paved the way toward an aesthetic emancipation from the entire domain of the postcolonial reason. The main hallmarks of the consolidation of Islamic Republic as a repressive state occurred during the crucial period of 1977–1979, through the putsch to bring the Pahlavi monarchy down, the American hostage crisis, and the ratification of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic and its critical, tyrannical, clause of Velayat-e Faqih/ Authority of the Jurisconsult. This is the period when the ideological forces come to full political fruition and contestation, as the realm of the aesthetics freezes in Ahmad Shamlou’s famous poem Dar in Bonbast/ Against this Dead-end (1980). Before the composition of this poem and concomitant with it, however, in three successive realms of Nimaic poetry (1930s), Hedayatesque fiction (1960s), and Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema (1980s), the aesthetic foundations of a much wider and far more universal cultivation of the creative judgment on the domain of aesthetic reason were at work. During the eight crucial years of Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988), the Islamists consolidated their power, eliminated their ideological and politi- cal rivals, and ultimately took advantage of the Salman Rushdie Affair of 1989 to revise the constitution of the Islamic Republic in a manner that would guarantee the preservation of their reign after Khomeini’s death. The Iran–Iraq War introduced a critical turning point in the geopolitics of the region and was conducive to the rise of Shi’i communities in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as the two successive Intifadas and ultimately the rise of Hamas in Palestine. In the realm of art, this is the period when the trauma of the cataclysmic revolution and the eight years of bloody war coagulates and forms the most catalytic force of visual creativity that will soon come into fruition in the globally celebrated Iranian cinema. Before the dramatic rise of Iranian cinema to transnational attention in the 1990s, for about a decade in the 1980s the poetic and literary arts were being



A CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT 63 Image 1 Golrokh Nafisi, The Sky is ours, 2010 The expanded

Image 1 Golrokh Nafisi, The Sky is ours, 2010 The expanded images of revolt span across the spectrum of the daily life. Here Golrokh Nafisi captures the essence of popular support for the Green Movement in Iran, for which she emerged as the most widely popular iconographer. Nafisi has a gentle visual soul, covering her steadfast determination to narrate, visualize, and perform. She represents a new generation of quiet defiance, determined but not angry, rebellious but not violent. Her forte is the depiction of the daily life, with ordinary men, women, and children in their urban settings as her site and citation of quiet rebellion. Resurrection of the nation here is embedded in the everydayness, in the habitual, in the familiar, and in the sunrise to the sunset. No revolutionary pro- nouncement is needed, no bombastic assertion, no grand ideology. The visual idi- oms of the artwork dismantle the pomposity of the ruling state, its grand but vacuous claims on truth and justice, its metaphysics of violence. The work lifts and sublates the ordinary into the defiant, effortlessly, happily, decidedly, and in it the nation sees itself confidently, reassured, purposefully.



transformed in spirit and force into visual and performing arts, and this emotive transformation was crucial in the formal destruction of the poli- tics of despair that had by now, in the aftermath of Ayatollah Khomeini’s charismatic terror, completely exhausted itself. During the eight-year presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989–1997), the period of the postwar reconstructions, Iran witnessed the generation of a class of nouveau riche and along with it much resentment, anger, and disenfranchisement that it entailed. This is also the time when the Iranian cinema captures the global imagination, while contemporary art and underground music become the fertile ground for the next generation of mixed but still collective sensibilities. As the age of ideological convic- tions comes to a complete exhaustion during the graceless presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani, the creative contours of a post-ideological generation is now in full display in Iranian visual and performing arts. The Reform Movement (1997–2005), spearheaded by President Mohammad Khatami but radicalized in post-ideological terms by the student-led uprising of July 1999, was yet again on full display during the parliamentary election of 2000. An aesthetic reason, now in full display in Iranian arts, was now fully functioning as the modus operandi of the sublated public reason, spreading widely into the public domain. The col- lapse of the ideological age was now fully evident during the eight years of Khatami presidency, as was the effervescence of a liberating aesthetic func- tioning beyond the reach of any grand narrative of salvation—Reformist or Princiaplist, in power or in opposition. The making of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Testing Democracy” (1999) is a crucial text in marking the first infiltration of the aesthetic forms into the post-ideological politics of civil liberties, in this case the crucial factor of the freedom of the press, for which Makhmalbaf transforms his camera into a pen. During the 2005 presidential election and the subsequent presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2009), the inner contradictions in the making of an “Islamic Republic” finally came to a full swing. The Reform Movement had effectively failed to deliver on civil liberties, as the economic mismanagement of the country had created a vastly disenfran- chised class at the mercy of a new echelon of administrative populism that Ahmadinejad best represented. The aesthetic reason in the public domain, charting the creative modes of liberation in the realm of arts, was now readied for a full societal performance. By this time, the underground music of such pop artists as Mohsen Namjoo and Shahin Najafi had inher- ited and creatively transmuted the realm of the aesthetic emancipation



into the making of a post-ideological politics of emotive liberties in decid- edly patricidal directions. Predicated on these crucial episodes, the June 2009 election and the making of a civil rights movement in Iran was the birth channel of the major epistemic shift that will unfold over decades to come. From the commencement of the presidential campaigns, to the day of voting on 12 June 2009, to the dramatic unfolding of demonstrations, streets of Tehran became the societal setting of a massive operatic spectacle in which the launch of Iranian civil rights movement and the historic epistemic change it announced were performed with the very same emancipatory aesthetic that had been in the making for generations and now claimed its rightful place on public space for public happiness. This whole silent uprising— with a simple unanswerable question, “Where is My Vote?”—was a work of art, not just in the sense of its mechanical reproduction of an uprising or its electronic metastasis, but in the manner that it left a residue, a trace, some debris for the posterity, which I propose staged the site of an aes- thetic intuition of transcendence.


As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was pacing the very last few days of his lame- duck presidency, and as the ruling regime of the Islamic Republic was staging yet another useless spectacle to prove to itself it is still a legitimate state, the world attention was quite naturally drawn to the presidential elec- tion that demonstrated a massive and nationwide conviction that the elec- tion was rigged, resulting in what its supporters affectionately called “the Green Movement.” 2 What did exactly happen to that Green Movement, where are those masses of millions of Iranians who long before the rise of the Arab Spring poured into their streets and demanded their civil liberties with a simple, rhetorical, question: “Where is my Vote?” On 23 June 2009, a spontaneous mass demonstration erupted in Iran against the officially declared victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in per- haps the most publicly contested presidential election in the history of the Islamic Republic. The following day, the victorious Ahmadinejad staged an official demonstration in support of the declared victory. The day after that, on June 25, Iran witnessed a huge mass rally against the status quo with the slogan of “Where Is My Vote?”, which eventually emerged as the defining moment of an uprising that its supporters by now called the “Green Movement.” The Green Movement progressed apace with mass



demonstrations and civil disobedience until 14 February 2010, when its attempt to stage a rally in support of the emerging Arab revolutions was brutally suppressed. The nominal leaders of the uprising were systematically arrested, sub- jected to kangaroo courts, and jailed. But Mir Hossein Mousavi, who became universally recognized as the symbolic leader of the movement, valiantly stood his ground, and in a series of public statements that culminated in the Manshur-e Jonbesh-e Sabz (the Charter of the Green Movement) joined the Iranian people in writing a new chapter in their long and tumultuous struggle for civil liberties and democratic institu- tions. Varied readings and misreading of the Green Movement ensued. There were those among the opposition in and out of Iran, particularly those based in the USA and aligned with the neocons interest in “regime change” in Iran, who thought it was geared to dismantle the ruling regime. The ruling regime itself termed it a Fetneh or “sedition,” instigated by the triumvirate of the USA, Israel, and the UK, and their local lackeys, thus in effect accusing its own founding figures (Mousavi was prime minister under the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, for eight years during the critical years of the Iran–Iraq war) to be instruments of foreign designs. Both these readings were flawed, limited in critical imagi- nation, waged from the vantage point of a regime that was clinging to power and a bankrupt neocon ideology that wanted to dismantle it on behalf of Israel. In between these two partisan positions, the fact remained that there was a collective uprising based on its slogan of “Where is My Vote?” From the day one I had called it a “civil rights movement” demanding civil liber- ties (and not a revolution seeking to overthrow the regime), and within a year after its commencement, I published a book detailing my argument. 3 Soon after the widespread crackdown on the movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and his comrade Mehdi Karroubi (who was also a presidential candidate) were all put under house arrest and silenced. But other prominent figures continued to write and air their opposition to the status quo. Chief among them were Abolfazl Ghadyani, Mostafa Tajzadeh, and Mohammad Nourizad, all of whom were among the leading revolutionaries, the founding figures of the Islamic Republic, and still in principle committed to it. Two other dissident figures became prominent in the course of this uprising: human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Scores of other Green activists still remain in jail, along with



dozens of journalists, human rights activists, and members of the Baha’i faith who had nothing to do with the Green Movement. The prominent Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, meanwhile, opted to stay out- side her homeland and speak vehemently against state repression in Iran. Leading intellectuals such as Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar, and Akbar Ganji also opted for a life in exile and began authoring a massive body of literature that cast a categorical shadow of illegitimacy over the entire course of the Islamic Republic. The Jaras website soon emerged as the podium of these most religious intellectuals, who wrote learned essays in Persian defending the veracity of the Green Movement in Iran. These were people who had originally written the Islamic revolution into a deeply rooted Islamic narrative. With their departure into exile and active opposition to the ruling regime, the Islamic Republic was left a naked the- ocracy with the militant Pretorian class of Revolutionary Guards defend- ing its octogenarian pastoral class. Meanwhile, thousands of Iranian dissidents fled Iran and opted for the indignity of exile outside their homeland. Some of these dissidents joined the US neocon operations and/or the pro-Israeli think tanks to call for regime change in Iran. But the overwhelming majority of them opted for a full recognition of the dignified limits of what they could say or do from abroad and never joined the bandwagon of “regime changers,” or the treasonous path of plotting against their own homeland. The outdated monarchists and the discredited Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) tried to jump on the bandwagon of the Green Movement but failed. The main body of expatriate Iranians remained committed to the democratic aspirations of their homeland but equally adamant and vocal in opposition to the crip- pling economic sanctions that Washington neocons, their Zionist contin- gency, in collaboration with certain nasty streak of their expat opposition Iranian allies, were seeking to impose on Iranians, or even talk of a military strike as a kind of “humanitarian intervention.” 4 The debates and con- testations among the pro-sanctions and anti-sanctions camps continued apace, with the events in Syria and before it in Libya as a warning sign of what would happen if “democracy” were to be imported. The Green Movement marked a decisive turning point in Iranian his- tory and brought a critical insight to full recognition: Iran will never be ruled by a democratic state for two complementary reasons: (1) “democ- racy” is already a floating signifier, a fleeting ideal, the idiomaticity of its actual achievement always already outdated, and (2) Iranian people, as a living orgasm, a nation ever renewing itself in wider and more enabling



terms, will never be satisfied by any state even if Jean-Jacque Rousseau and the whole encyclopedists ensemble descended from the Enlightenment heavens to rule them. The aesthetic intuition of transcendence that agi- tates their democratic desires is always ahead of their material means. The dynamics of this dialectic is therefore a potent, necessary, and provocative momentum for the cause of civil liberties, predicated on a robust transna- tional public sphere, with or without the consent of a state apparatus that wishes but fails to rule over them.


We may now wonder what did exactly happen to the Green Movement, aside from discrediting the Islamic Republic as a champion of revolution- ary causes in the region and around the world. As I have consistently argued, the Green Movement was not a revolution in the classic sense of the term. It was not violent, and it was not targeted to dismantle the rul- ing regime. It simply declared the death of the state by posing a question to it that it could not answer: “Where is my Vote?” The Green Movement had neither the ideological nor the militant wherewithal of any classical revolution. It was calm. It was quiet, patient, gentle, and it will outlast all its militant nemeses and obstacles with temperate tenacity. It wishes to raise no flag, form no state, and fathom no necessary means of violence. The Islamic Republic may or may not fall from under the pressure of its own inner contradictions, or under the encroaching pressures of the geopolitics of the region, or else by the forces of neoliberal economics it has enthusiastically embraced in the aftermath of its nuclear deal with 5 + 1. But whether it stays in power or falls, it makes no difference to the expansive horizons of the nation that declared itself in the course of the Green Movement, in which “Where Is My Vote?” will stay the course as the measure of its once and future directions. Outdated and obsolete expat oppositions, ranging from the corrupt MEK to the bankrupt mon- archists, saw the Green Movement and wanted to ride on it and go back to rule Iran. But they failed, for they had nothing to contribute or to share with the millions of Iranians who, decades after the Iranian revolution of 1977–1979, had no use for their or any other obsolete ideologies. Iran as a nation was being born in the midst of these outdated ideologies of vio- lence, the one that ruled, and the ones that wanted to rule them. As a sign of this rebirth, the Green Movement exposed both the ruling regime and its bankrupt opposition for being out of touch with



reality, and highlighted the necessity of a new course that is predicated on principles that safeguarded the nation and rendered the very idea of state dispensable: its categorical instance on the territorial integrity of Iran; repeated insistence against economic sanctions crippling the daily lives of millions of Iranians; opposition to covert operations or military strikes against Iran; against separatist movements; adamant about its non-violent disposition; opposition to any measure or movement that endangers the well-being of Iranians; insistence on dialogue, on the cultivation of public reason, on cleansing the political culture that had produced one tyranny after another. So where is the Green Movement and what happened to it? It is there, in the bosom of people’s dreams and aspirations, systematically changing, claiming, redefining, the public space and the political culture it rightly claims. Its violent disposition exposed, the Islamic Republic evaded the more immediate consequences of the Green Movement by successfully shifting the leverage of the national politics to the regional context, a move that was in fact aided and abetted by the combined malfeasance of the USA and Israel and their regional Arab allies trying to divert the force of the Arab revolutions. But that very shift came back to haunt the Islamic Republic in Syria, where the fall of the Assad regime will not bode well for the ruling Shi’i clergy and its current defiance of the will of its own people. That very eventuality, however, will be equally detrimental to the US alliances with Israel and their European and regional allies to divert the course of Arab revolutions. They will, in the long run, lose. These historic revolutions have already changed the political DNA of the region for the better, and with it the world. The fate of the Green Movement at this his- toric juncture is thus exceedingly consequential. Two contradictory devel- opments soon emerged to frame the Green Movement: the increasing pressure of the USA and Israel to impose crippling sanctions on Iran with the option of a military strike constantly on the horizon, and the succes- sive Arab revolutions that began to change the geopolitics of the region. With every turn of the screw, as the warring states in the region gave birth to the murderous Islamic State (mirroring the Jewish State), the nation became a healthier and more robust measure of its own claims on reality. The Arab revolutions, which the ruling regime in Iran sought falsely to brand as an “Islamic Awakening,” were in fact exactly the opposite of any such branding and a return of the repressed for the ruling regime in Iran, the fact that the Iranian Revolution of 1977–1979 was a multifaceted rev- olution that had included anticolonial nationalists, Third World socialists



and liberal or hardline Islamists among its ideological strands. It was only after the machinations of the US Hostage Crisis (1979–1981), the prolonging of the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988), and the Salman Rushdie Affair (1989), under which smoke-screens the ruling Islamists conducted continuous university purges, monopolized the mass media, militarized the security apparatus, carried out cultural revolutions and mass execu- tions of political prisoners. Accordingly, the revolution was categorically labeled “Islamic,” thus seeking to distort the fact that Iranian political culture has always included liberal or hardline Islamism, but has never been limited to it. The more the ruling regime insisted on calling itself an “Islamic Republic,” the more liberated became the nation in its ever- expanding moral imagination. As millions of Iranians began to be deeply affected by the treacherous crippling sanctions that the pro-Washington expat opposition encouraged, and as the threat of war (aka “humanitarian intervention”) mounted, most Iranians remained committed to their aspirations for civil liberties in their homeland, while categorically opposing the imposition of sanctions, the threat of war, and the assassination of Iranian scientists, widely believed to have been carried out in collaboration with Israeli and Saudi support. The Green Movement acted as a catalyst to help distinguish between the morally corrupt and politically opportunist expat opposition and their American, Israeli, and Saudi backers—while the main and healthy body of the movement adhered to its principled aspirations for enduring institu- tion of civil liberties with or without an Islamic Republic. In the larger historical and geographical context of the Green Movement, as a result, it bloomed early like a fragrant flower, to para- phrase a beautiful poem of Ahmad Shamlou (1925–2000), the Iranian poet of liberty, announcing the winter had ended, and gently sublated into the Arab Spring, forever changing the geopolitics of the region by declaring all states, qua states, illegitimate. This is not to suggest that the Green Movement “caused” the Arab Spring. It simply means the fate of millions of Iranians and Arabs is not that different from each other, and their historic march toward liberty is far more organically linked than the manufactured sectarianism and racism that on the sur- face mars that collective fate. The Green Movement announced the end of postcolonial ideology, almost identically to the way in which the Arab Spring ended a vicious cycle of domestic tyranny and imperial domina- tion. The Green Movement and the Arab Spring come together in a singularly powerful way to announce to sever the vagaries of the state from the fate of nations.



As the Green Movement receded from the public space into the under- ground, it began occupying a parapublic sphere that will continue to thrive under the radar of the violent changes that now ravage the region from Iraq to Syria, between the Jewish and the Islamic states. As such, it will remain a prototype for a non-violent civil rights movements, a per- fect model for the region at large, as the Arab and Muslim world goes through massive revolutionary changes. During the earliest stages of the Arab Spring, I suggested reading it like the Third Intifada, borrowing a Palestinian reality and lending its allegorical power to a much larger historic scale. 5 During the height of the Green Movement, Iranians them- selves were borrowing the term “Intifada” to refer to their uprising, and in a piece on the legendary Palestinian cartoon character Handala I extended that Palestinian icon to the cause of liberty in Iran. 6 We need to use our regional idiomaticity of revolt in understanding and expanding their revo- lutionary potentials. Today, the ruling regime in Iran is actively present in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Palestine, Bahrain, Yemen, and as far as Africa and even Latin America. The same transnational space must be used in reverse, and in fact functions in reverse, where the transnational public sphere is the most potent domain for the rebirth of nations beyond the control of the states that lay illegitimate claims on them. In a critical piece, Murtaza Hussain has rightly suggested that after the US invasion of Iraq and the carnage in Syria, the notion of those nation-states is in fact now just a political fiction. 7 That fiction has always been definitive to postcolonial nation-states, and their ruling regimes des- perately trying to survive should not be the only forces that cross bor- ders. Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf shadows, Israel, the USA and its European allies systematically trespass national boundaries, and so must liberation movements hide and then seek each other from one tyranny to the next. The Iranian Green Movement, the Palestinian Intifada, the Kurdish enclave of Kobani, and the Arab Spring are all like beautiful water lilies floating on the surface of the same expansive pond, nourished by the same subterranean gestations. What holds them together is transnational public sphere on which all these nations are being reborn.


1. See Hamid Dabashi, Iran, the US, and the Green Movement: The Fox and the Paradox (London: Zed, 2010).



3. See this interview on CNN: expert-protestors-want-civil-rights-not-revolution/, and my book Iran, US, and the Green Movement: The Fox and the Paradox (London:

Zed, 2010).

4. For one of my earliest essays opposing such sanctions see, Hamid Dabashi, “Huge risks in Iran sanctions” (CNN, 21 August 2009). Available online here: meast/08/05/dabashi.sanctions.iran/. For an even earlier essay opposing military strike and economic sanctions against Iran see my “Iran: Let the democratic process work” (Asia Times, 8 April 2006). Available online here:

5. See Hamid Dabashi, “The Third Intifada has already begun” (Aljazeera 11 October 2011).” Available online here: http://www.aljazeera.

6. See Hamid Dabashi, “The Arab Roaming the Streets of Tehran” (PBS, Frontline, Tehran Bureau, 7 July 2009). Available online here: http://

7. See Murtaza Hassan, “Iraq, Syria and the death of the modern Middle East” (Aljazeera, 7 May 2013). Available online here: http://www.

Chapter Three: A Metamorphic Movement

The coupling of the nation and the state has been a historic mistake, a vestige of the European colonial history and heritage, carried unthink- ingly into the postcolonial history of other nations. As a nation, Iranians have never come anywhere near a democratic state. From their imperial past they collapsed into a colonial encounter with European empires, and from the Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911 they began dreaming of democracy. That dream has turned out to be a nightmare. From the Qajar absolutism they were delivered to the Pahlavi tyranny, and from the Pahlavi monarchy to the even more tyrannical Islamic Republic. The ruling states have systematically improved their techniques of domination: The Pahlavis were better in seeking to justify their monarchy than the Qajars were, and the Islamic Republic is even more efficient than the Pahlavis in manufacturing the sham of consent. What we have forgotten, and left entirely un-theorized, is the fact that the nation has also changed, altered, expanded, and opened up its horizons to newer and more enabling vistas. The urgent task at hand is to decouple the nation-state and let the state dwell on its delusion of legitimacy and have a far more accurate concep- tion of the nation and its defiant, successive rebirths. The rise of the Green Movement as a civil rights movement will have to be understood in its own self-transformative terms, the manner in which it keeps shifting its strategies of opposition, a characteristic I will iden- tify as a “metamorphic movement,” for it keeps changing names, colors, identities, alterities to pursue a singular purpose of reasserting itself on an ever-expansive transnational public sphere. Predicated on a poetic surplus



of historical experiences, a social movement becomes metamorphic and thus a living organism in conversation with its changing environment. The metamorphic movement becomes heteroglossic, ventriloquist, self- transcending, speaking multiple languages, assuming different colors and shapes, but remains steady in its assertive self-conceptions. It is the nature of this metamorphic movement that I propose here as the propelling engine of the rebirth of the nation as a reality sui generis and entirely liber- ated from the delusion of any form of representative democracy, the least of all an oxymoronic proposition that calls itself an “Islamic Republic.” What happened to the Green Movement? 1 What happened to those masses of millions of human beings pouring into the streets of their home- land demanding their civil liberties and showing the absence of a basic trust in the political organs guaranteeing those liberties? I wish to put for- ward the argument that social movements such as the Green Movement do not disappear into the thin air. They metamorphose into different shapes and forms. On the same day that the USA announced it would be sending arms to the opposition in Syria, a massacre took place in Syria, Iraq was roiling in sectarian violence, and Afghans were struggling to survive the corrup- tion of their government. In the midst of all this carnage and catastrophe, Iranians took time off from their daily chores to go out and vote for their next president. This election began as all others, with the ruling state stag- ing yet another spectacle to show its legitimacy, but it got more than it bargained for. Millions of Iranians flocked to the polling stations on 14 June 2013, a fateful day that followed months of gut-wrenching debates between those who wanted to go back to the ballot boxes—no matter how undemocratic the vetting process—and those who were adamant that after the 2009 elections they would never again vote in this horrid Islamic Republic. 2 The battle lines were thus clearly drawn between a ruling state that lacks legitimacy, and a nation that uses every opportunity to assert its political will. Of Iran’s 50 million-plus eligible voters, about 36 million participated, of whom more than 18 million voted for the winner, Hassan Rouhani. 3 These numbers are important, mainly due to the arguments that those who didn’t vote for him were probably going to vote in the polls regard- less of the contenders, as opposed to those who did vote for him, who were probably embroiled in a heated and purposeful debate on whether or not to even bother voting. What ultimately turned the table toward voting was not any heated discussion among the leading intellectuals, or even the



ordinary people—though there were some delusional Don Quixotes on Facebook who thought their “status updates” from the USA or Canada or Europe encouraging voting for Rouhani was chiefly responsible for the heavy turnout! Instead, young and old Iranians, men and women, went to campaign stumps of their favorite candidates and partook in what Hannah Arendt calls “public happiness.” It is the nature and disposition of that public happiness which remains the only reliable measure of the political will of a nation. While all candidates had their own supporters and diehards, it was Hassan Rouhani who, before he knew it, was flooded by cries of “politi- cal prisoners must be freed!” or “ya Hossein, Mir Hossein,” an ingenious fusion of a Shia invocation of the name of the third Shi’i Imam and a reference to Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. For the moment, it did not matter that Rouhani did not reciprocate these cries and remained deafeningly silent in response. The die was cast, and people were out in the public domains and were claiming their space. Suddenly June 2013 looked, sounded, and felt like June 2009. Though he scarcely mentioned Mousavi or Karroubi by name, Rouhani otherwise rose to the occasion and touched many bases: demilitarizing the public space, return- ing joy and energy to university campuses, attending to women’s rights issues, and following a nuclear program that was not at the heavy cost of other Iranian interests. These were people’s demands, the nation’s wishes, and Rouhani was a mere instrument, a mere mouthpiece. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, tried to micromanage the elec- tion, but the intention of Iranian citizens went far beyond his or anyone else’s control. People, the nation, in their collective actions, took the pen from Khamenei’s hand and authored their own history: history of the nation, independent of the state that claimed but failed to rule them. He thought he was using the nation to prolong his reign. The nation was using him to expand its territorial claims, its political will, its opening, expanding horizons.


In Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), the curtain rises for the audience to see a theatrical company getting ready to rehearse Pirandello’s own play The Rules of the Game (1918–1919). As the rehearsal is getting under way, suddenly six strange characters appear onstage and rudely interrupt the rehearsal. The cantankerous director,



incensed by the intrusion, asks who they are. One of them says that they are six unfinished characters in search of an author to finish them. That by now legendary opening gambit of what later would develop as the “absurdist” movement in European theater had a real-life simile in the course of the 2013 presidential election in Iran, when eight “unfinished” presidential candidates entered the Iranian stage. The contenders, undaunted by the absurdity and handpicked by the Guardian Council to meet the strict demands of clerical rule, searched for a way to complete their characters and have one picked, reinvented, and delivered unto his- tory. The author of this play, in this particular case, was the Iranian people. Forget about Rouhani, the Iranian nation (as a living organism) effec- tively told Khamenei and the Guardian Council: “You give us the prover- bial Molla Nasreddin (a popular folkloric character) and we will turn it into the poster boy of our democratic hopes and dreams.” It makes abso- lutely no difference if Rouhani delivers or not on his campaign promises (though in his first nationally televised address to the nation he specifically promised he would) what matters is that people used the small crack the ruling regime offered them and turned it into what Elias Canetti calls “people power.” What we witnessed during this and previous Iranian presidential elec- tions is how the superior social intelligence of a democratically defiant public takes what the theocratic state throws its way, breathes new life into it, and creates their own leaders. They did this with Hashemi Rafsanjani in 1989, soon after the devastating Iran–Iraq war; then again in 1997, they did this with Khatami; in 2009, with Mir Hossein Mousavi; and then in 2013, the same with Hassan Rouhani. How this democratic will per- forms, conscious of its public power, is a lesson for our understanding of the larger democratic tsunami that is running its course through the Arab and Muslim world. For four grueling and punishing years, Iran has been in a state of limbo: Mir Hossein Mousavi was under house arrest, scores of democracy activists were subjected to kangaroo courts and jailed, the Khatami-led Reform movement had been rendered obsolete by the far more potent and progressive Green Movement, all while Ahmadinejad’s divisive presidency created infighting among the conservatives. As the state was going through its motion to stage its non-existent legitimacy, the nation was organically growing in exponential terms. When this presidential election began, the Reformists at first hoped to beat the dead horse of their cause and get Khatami to run. He wiggled for a while, but then wisely realized he wasn’t the man for the job, while



Mousavi was alive and well under house arrest. Then the outmaneuvered Reformists began placing wagers on Hashemi Rafsanjani, but he too was roundly rejected by the Guardian Council (an exceedingly important development that requires a critical reading of its own). So the discredited and outmaneuvered Reformists entered the race with the feeble figure of Mohammad Aref, of whom they tried to create a national hero after he dropped out of the race to help Rouhani, before the main body of the Greens finally resolved to flock around him. This extraordinary ability of the public (the nation at large) to transform politicians into the per- sonification of their democratic or rebellious wills has a magnificent ante- cedent in the nineteenth-century Iran that is even more radical. During the Tobacco Revolt (1890–1891), there was a famous fatwa issued by Ayatollah Mirza Hassan Shirazi against the use of tobacco that was widely believed to have inaugurated the revolt. To this day, many historians are not quite sure that Shirazi actually issued that fatwa, or whether it was the collective will of the people in Shiraz that wished and willed it to have been issued. This incident toward the end of the Qajar monarchy (1789–1926), and as the dress rehearsal of the Constitutional Revolution (1906–1911) remains definitive to the will of the nation making of its feeble leaders the personification of their democratic demands. In this most recent election, the democratic will of the nation was even more pronounced. Those who did not vote told Khamenei he could not get away with murder. He could not order the maiming and murder- ing of people in 2009, incarcerate and torture those who object, put the symbolic leaders of the Green Movement under house arrest, and then in 2013, come back and call on them to vote. Those who voted, meanwhile, told regime changers the US neocons and their Zionist allies that Iranians were perfectly capable of using whatever means available to them to man- age their own democratic future. It does not matter that people were out in Gezi Park but not in Azadi square. In this grand chorale of democratic uprising in the Arab and Muslim world, each nation does what it does best, and they will all benefit and learn from each other. The Egyptians and Tunisians do one thing, the Turks another, and the Iranians the next. What mattered was the fact of a transnational public sphere on which all these nations performed and identified themselves, entirely independent of the states that categorically failed to rule or to represent them. In Iran proper, the first sentence that will be uttered by the next leader of any significant social movement will have to start from the very last sentence of Mir Hossein Mousavi’s statements and his Manshur/Charter



of the Green Movement. Neither Khatami nor Hashemi Rafsanjani is that leader, nor could they try to pull the force of history backwards by falsely arguing that the Green Movement was too radical and they were more moderate. Was Rouhani bypassing the Reformists and recapping onto the vast ocean of the nation’s democratic will for the next phase? It was very hard and too early to say, and almost impossible to imagine. People had cleared the air for him to fly, or else if he preferred the metaphor to change, a warm and inviting sea to swim in. He could pick his metaphor and become part of history. It made no difference whatsoever to the fate of the nation. They would turn a dead wood into their next democratic aspiration, and perform their public happiness (Hannah Arendt) for the whole world to see.


The Green Movement was the culmination of all the previous social move- ments in Iran, their sublation into a civil rights movement, their retrieval

back to the bosom of the nation as the giver or denier of legitimacy. “Where

is my Vote?” was a rhetorical question—expecting no answer. Neither the

Islamic Republic nor any other state before or even after it could ever fully answer that question. As such the Green Movement was the ghost of all the revolutions past and all the revolutions future. It is a metamorphic movement, and acts as a rolling metaphor. It changes color and density, purpose and process. It may upper as a rally here, as a presidential or parliamentary election there, or else pop up in a widely celebrated film, a work of fiction, the victory in a soccer match, a piece of poetry, or just in

a painting, or during a playful summer day in a park where young people

shoot water at each other. The Green Movement was a non-violent civil rights movement that for the first time posited and cultivated the possibilities of civil disobedience to alter its own political culture, and not just to overthrow one useless and illegitimate state for another. The longer it takes the better for it exposes the violent traits that join it but cannot tolerate or understand or come to

terms with it. This is how the system, the political culture of a deeply rooted nation, cleanses itself, rids itself of the delusion of any democratic state. This time around the nation wants it both ways—it wants neither domestic tyr- anny nor foreign domination. What the nation was therefore retrieving was

a post-28 Mordad Syndrome, post-ideological world—where the traumatic

modes of ideological production had categorically exhausted themselves.



Iran was now passing beyond the bugbear of secularism, retrieving its cos- mopolitan culture, and learning how to world the world, after more than 300 years of encounter with European colonial modernity. Iran as a nation had systematically lost its momentum over the last 300 years to “Islam and the West” so it may take three decades or more to see through these epis- temic breakthroughs. In the making of this political culture, both the ruling regime and all its nemesis in and out of the country are lost in the maze of their daily politicking and entirely oblivious to this unfolding path: like a broken record repeating dead and deadening phrases. To understand the nature and disposition of this movement, we must come to terms with its poetics. The revelatory poem of Forough Farrokhzad, “Another Birth” (1964) is particularly poignant in this sus- tained course of reflections on the birth and rebirth of nations entirely independent, adjacent, and far beyond the claims and control of any state apparatus. One particular stanza of that poem sums its poignancy:

Man pari-ye kuchak ghamgini ra mishenasam

I know a sad little fairy Living in an ocean Playing her heart Ever so softly In a wooden flute—

A sad little fairy

Who dies with a kiss every night

And every morning With a kiss

Is brought back to life. 4

Perhaps a deeper root of Farrokhzad’s poetic intuition here may be traced back to a famous poem of Rumi, “Ro bemir ay khwaja qabl az mordanat/ Oh sir, go die before your death,” which is itself predicated on a prophetic tradition “Go die before your death.” Based on a Jewish and Christian notion of “second death,” Philip Rieff also examined his theory of culture in his Fellow Teachers/Of Culture and Its Second Death (1973). All of this in the Biblical tradition points back to John 3: 1–21: “You Must Be Born Again.” In my reading of Bahram Beiza’i “Bashu: The Little Stranger” (1989) in one of my future chapters, I have read that seminal film as the case of a material rebirth through an allegorical gesture toward an immacu- late conception of a mother in the absence of any man/husband. These are



all to map out a topography of artworks, from poetry to film and fiction, that both in specifically Iranian terms and also on a transnational literary public sphere enable the possibility of reading the rebirth of the nation in specifically allegorical terms that position the nation as a rolling metaphor. Through the poetry of Farrokhzad I invoke all these references as the clear indication of an aesthetic (in lieu of a metaphysics) of intuition of transcendence, foregrounding the argument that the fact and phenom- enon of nation was born before any state laid any claim on it. I have often cited the legendary Iranian poet Aref Qazvini (1882–1934) who in fact says that before he used the word “Vatan/Homeland” in his poetry, one out of ten Iranians did not know what it meant. Aref’s declaration is in fact corroborated by the course of the Constitutional Revolution in the cru- cial period between 1906 and 1926, when the Qajar dynasty was collaps- ing, the Pahlavis were nowhere in sight, and yet the poetic and emotive foundations of the notion of Vatan was being solidly articulated. During the period between 1906 and 1926, a solid period of some 20 years, the notion of the nation was being actively formed and there was no central- ized state anywhere in sight. This is the critical period we need to consider as the hiatus when the Qajar monarchy has collapsed, the nation as a bona fide idea is actively formed long before the future Pahlavi state has any centralized command over it. So if the postcolonial nation is formed before state, by virtue of national struggles that turns a people into a nation, then all states are only claim- ants and usurpers, by definition, ex post facto claims on the nation. In the case of Iran proper, we basically have had two violent takeovers of the nation, once by a monarchy (the Pahlavis) and then by a mullarchy (the Islamic Republic). They were the remnants of the battle two institutions of power had waged under colonial duress, and as such they are deeply rooted in Iranian political culture, but their categorical confrontation and competition for power is a colonial byproduct. Why and how? Qajars were the bastard mutation of the Safavids collapse under the Afghan invasion. The Safavid (along with the Ottomans and the Mughals) were the last Muslim empires developing public spheres and public reason in their own terms. From the Afsharids to the Qajars, Iran witnessed the catastrophic tribalization of its political culture, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Safavid urbanism, while the Babi Movement was the last attempt to retrieve the Safavid public space, with Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa’i (1753–1826) resuming where Mulla Sadra (1572–1640) had left off. But the combined



A METAMORPHIC MOVEMENT 81 Image 1 Koorosh Shishehgaran, Untitled, from the War series, circa 1984 The

Image 1 Koorosh Shishehgaran, Untitled, from the War series, circa 1984 The national becomes memorial, the memorial iconic, abstract, and self-generative. Here in Koroush Shishehgaran’s work marking the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) the iconic act of abstraction appropriates the visual memory of the war for the people who fought it, away from the official claim on it, marking the moment when the nation went through the most traumatic period of its recent history. The power of the work is precisely in its abstract concealment of the violence of the war. The work is implicitly launched against an entire official industry of claiming the victims of the war as state martyrs, while refusing to assume responsibility for the prolongation of the war under which smoke screen the revolutionary momentum was confiscated to form an Islamic Republic. As that republic went its own way towards state violence, this painting marks the momentous occasion of the nation claiming its own victims of the war, young men and women who died to protect their nation, not the ruling state. The result is through a miasmatic working of the aesthetic reason the politically confiscated “public reason” is sublated and made to overcome the postcolonial polit- ical reason the state has appropriated for its own self-legitimizing rhetoric. Shishehgaran’s art denies that appropriation and retrieves its master tropes for the nation.



collaborations of the Qajar monarchy and Shi’i clerical order destroyed the Babi Movement and by defeating them secured their respective ascen- dency to define and divide and rule the Iranian political culture. They depended on each other, but they also generated their own antithesis, the reformist courtiers like Amir Kabir and Sepahsalar and revolutionary Shi’is like those gathered in the Babi Movement finally joined force and dis- mantled the Qajar dynasty and launched the Constitutional Revolution of 1906–1911. But they failed to dismantle the institutions of monarchy and mullarchy and replace them. The rise of the Constitutional Revolution was ultimately the work of reformist courtiers and revolutionary clerics, and yet paradoxically the retrograde Pahlavi monarchy and conservative cleri- cal establishment became the institutional beneficiaries of it. To a lesser but still significant degree the Constitutional Revolution was also the work of a rising cadre of public intellectuals like Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani and Mirza Habib Isfahani who would be resurrected in the next century as the leading revolutionary poets and literati of the Pahlavi period. The Qajar monarchy eventually yielded to the Pahlavi monarchy, and the triumph of monarchy in pre-reformist mode of the Qajar era revised the retrograde Shi’i clericalism, and thus were reconstructed the monar- chic notion of “Aryamehr/the Sun of the Aryan Race” for the Pahlavi monarch, along with identical Shi’i doctrine of “Velayat-e Faqih/The Supreme Authority of the Jurisconsult” for its arch nemesis Ayatollah Khomeini. These two paralleled and almost identically tyrannical institu- tions became even more entrenched, conservative, and tyrannical. One ruled Iran from 1926 to 1976, and the other from 1976 to 2009, when the Green Movement finally exposed the delusion of any notion of the “nation-state” as ruled by either of these delusional doctrines. The pro- verbial cat was now out of the bag and the cosmopolitan culture of Iran had come back to haunt the illegitimate state. The nation had retrieved its repressed memories, and had fortified itself for its future rebirths, while the two successive states that had laid claims on it had completely exhausted any claim to legitimacy and reduced to pure violence. It is here that the aesthetic intuition of transcendence overcomes both the postco- lonial reason and colonial modernity to safeguard and sustain the nation beyond the state apparatus that falsely lays claim on it. What enable that aesthetic intuition above all is the potent erotics of the body that overcomes the politics of denial and despotism that represses the body as the most defiant cite of rebellion against tyranny. In Forough Farrokhzad’s famous poetic phrase,



Dast-ha-yam ra dar baghcheh mikaram/

I will plant my hands in the garden,

Sabz khwaham shod midanam midanam midanam/

I will grow: I know, I know, I know, 5

we see how the poetic body defies politics and its contingent metaphysics of death and denial, while the rest of Farrokhzad’s poetry resists the bio- power of politics and jubilantly reasserts its erotics of the body. We would not be able to speak of a rolling metaphor of revolt in a culture were it not for this bodily investiture of defiance.


The site and citation of that bodily investiture is the historically cultivated public sphere that encodes and enables the defiant body. The formation of the historically anchored public sphere upon which the nation is formed and the body become defiant in the course of its encounter with colo- nial modernity has its layered origins in internal and external forces com- ing together to deliver Iran in the course of its historical encounter with European colonial modernity. In The World of Persian Literary Humanism (2013), I have done an extensive study of the eventual rise of this public sphere. In the shadow and shade of Arabic literary humanism as the lingua franca of successive Arab or Arabized empires, emerged Persian literary humanism, which the great scholar of Islamic humanism George Makdisi did not examine to realize that humanism was a reality sui generis, and that its open-ended sovereignty always pointed to its own anteriority and alter- ity, even as it constituted the literary subtext of imperial cosmopolitanism that it defined and served. 6 Islamic scholasticism, categorically serving the feudal foundations of the Arab empire, entirely lacked that defiant element of deferred defiance of literary humanism, not just in its Arabic vintage but, a fortiori, in the more unruly Persian literary humanism. In order to see the rise of that literary public sphere, we first need to note one crucial factor: In the shadow of the privileged position of “English and Comparative Literature,” worlds of literature (and not the contorted notion of “World Literature”) will resolve Edward Said’s life- long preoccupation with humanism without engendering agential sover- eignty for the singular imperial world it thus constitutes, privileges, and empowers. Retrieving the cosmopolitan worldliness of Persian literary humanism posits a kind of comparatism crucial for the task of coming to



terms with the epistemic violence that is today institutionalized in the dis- ciplinary disposition of “English and Comparative Literature,” which ipso facto delegates the open-ended multiplicity of worlds of literatures either to the vacuity of “World Literature,” or else seeks to assimilate and canni- balize them by way of “distant readings,” or else, “close readings” through the closed-circuited hermeneutic circle of provincial Eurocentricism of the First World. What I suggest is not out of any hostility to Eurocentric world, for that too is a world, one among many others, that was once able to colonize, cannibalize, and leave in ruins other worlds, but is no longer permitted to do so. That task at hand, as a result, is to reconfigure the literary public sphere upon which such worlds of literary imagination have historically asserted themselves. What I believe I discovered in my World of Persian Literary Humanism is the inner dynamics and tropics of thematic organism of Persian literary heritage from its ethnocentric origins early in Islamic his- tory to its transformation into initially logocentric in the late Ghaznavid period, then ethos-centric during the late Seljuqs and Mongol periods, and ultimately a chaotic disposition during its encounter with European colo- nial modernity. The ethnocentricity of Persian literarily humanism began and lasted through the Samanids and Saffarids in reaction to the tribal imperialism of the Arab invasion and domination, and thus as a marker of communal identity, of Ethnos/Nezhad. In that imperial context and as Islamic scholasticism became the modus operandi of its ideological domina- tion, Persian literary humanism found and flourished in its linguistic iden- tity, as a Sokhan/Logos, before it was sublated into Ethos/Hanjar during the Mongol, and Chaos/Ashub in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Persian language and therefore literary heritage, as we speak, read, write, and understand it for the last 14,000 years thus began as a marker of ethnic identity in contrapuntal reaction to the rise of Arabic as a marker of Arab conquest and cultural hegemony in the course of the Shu’ubiyyah movement. That ethnocentricity was soon sublated into an active logo- centricity in the context of the confidently Persianate Ghaznavid empire, a Turkic dynasty that was heavily Persianized both culturally and admin- istratively. That tropic transformation of the ethnos to logos at the heart of Persian literary humanism was definitive to the formation of Persian literary cosmopolitanism that was formed at the royal courts but was fed by the worldly disposition of lands it had conquered and culturally Persianized. At this confident moment, “Persian” is no longer a marker of ethnos but one of logos. The logocentricity of Persian literary humanism



achieved in the Ghaznavid period the masterpieces of the genres in qasideh to epic. These two genres are clear indications of the royal, dynastic, and imperial context of this cosmopolitan logocentricity in which Persian lit- erary humanism becomes the lingua franca of a vast, transnational, mul- tiethnic, and cross-sectarian empire. The appearance of Naser Khosrow (1004–1088) and Shahab al-Din Yahya Suhrawardi (1154–1191) in this period and later during the Seljuqids is the sign of the oppositional alterity within the dialectical logic of Persian literary humanism, a phenomenon that would later be retrieved and accentuated in the making of the Persian literary public sphere. The imperial context of the logocentricity of Persian literary humanism goes positively global during the Mongol empire (1206–1368), when the rise of Persian historiography, arts and sciences, clearly indicate the full dimensions of Persian literary prowess. This is the absolute height and the zenith of the classical age with Rumi, Sa’di, and soon Hafez emerging as the towering poets of their times. Now Persian humanism has reached and plateaued in its logocentricity, finally yielding to a literary ethos beyond just language and deep into a culture that it creatively cultivates. In the next stage, during the Timurids period (1370–1507), Persian literary humanism becomes performative, but in Behzad’s (circa 1450–1535) painting, “Yusuf and Zoleikha,” it implodes into a paralingual semiosis and finds unprecedented visual manifestations. The logocentric atom of Persian literature here splits, as it were, during the Timurids period and gets ready for multiple emerging paradigms. At this point, Persian literary humanism spreads over four and faces a fifth imperial context. Its poises goes to the Mughal domain and becomes melos (when it discovers its musi- cal capabilities), its semiosis goes to the Safavid court and becomes societal (assumes social significance), while its humanism goes to the Ottomans and becomes cosmopolitan (manifested in a vastly urban empire), as the totality of its literary heritage goes to Russia and becomes polis (gives birth to its political possibilities). When it finally faces European imperialism, this very constellation of multiple possibilities occasions the splitting of its logos into chaos. During the Qajar period (1789–1926), the ethos of Persian literary heri- tage finally faces the European imperial worldliness, and gets ready for its explosion upon the chaos of the public sphere it invents perforce in the face of colonial modernity and calls it Vatan/Homeland. So the pattern that emerges is as follows: After the Arab invasion of the seventh cen- tury, the pre-Islamic literary heritage emerges and becomes ethnos, after



the Turkic invasion that culminates in the Ghaznavid empire in the tenth to eleventh century it becomes logos, after the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century it becomes ethos, and after the European invasion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it becomes chaos. Under the traumatic impact of every new seismic change, the ethos remodulates and manifests itself in varied literary tropics. During the Timurids period, this trajectory finds room for a paralingual symbiosis, when letters become mere signs and richly resonate in Persian paintings and manuscript illustrations. So a deeply rooted literary ethos, we might say, is the driving force of Persian humanism exploding into the chaos of a public and parapublic sphere when confronting European colonial modernity. When Europe goes through its capitalist modernity, with global colonial conquests contingent on it, the ethos of Persian humanism defines a public sphere in terms that now con- stitutes it as a postcolonial “nation/mellat,” and as Europe lingers into postmodernity we experience the condition of chaos as the final separation between the nation that now categorically claims a transnational public sphere, and all the superfluous state apparatuses that have laid any false claims on it.


How is the fate of the nation, thus located on a transnational public sphere, now decoupled from the vagaries of the state that lays claim on it—and how can we assess that claim? Zahra Shams was a 21-year-old student of law at Ferdowsi University in Mashhad. She was arrested on 6 May 2010 and held in solitary confine- ment. She was not a political activist. The reason for her arrest: Her sister Fatemeh Shams is a poet, blogger, graduate student at Oxford University, and a solid supporter of the Green Movement in Iran. Fatemeh Shams became even more vocal after her sister’s arrest, when then her husband Mohammad Reza Jalaipour (they have since divorced), also a graduate student at Oxford, was arrested in the airport as the couple was leaving Iran to resume their studies in the UK. The authorities in Iran had evi- dently arrested Zahra Shams to force her sister Fatemeh into silence in Oxford. She was not silent. She became ever more decidedly vocal. Majid Tavakoli was a 24-year-old student activist from Amir Kabir Technical University in Tehran when the Green Movement com- menced. He had been repeatedly jailed for long periods of time. Arrested on 7 December 2009, during the student protests over the disputed



presidential election, Tavakoli became the subject of global solidarity when authorities in Iran sought to humiliate him by taking his picture garbed in mandatory women’s veils. Almost instantly countless Iranian men wore veils and published their pictures on the Internet in solidar- ity with Majid Tavakoli. Similarly, when Majid Tavakoli went on a dry

hunger strike to protest his solitary confinement, his mother too initiated

a hunger strike in solidarity with her son, which many young Iranians

from around the globe followed. The authorities yielded and transferred Tavakoli to a regular ward. Majid Tavakoli’s body had become metamorphic, as had Zahra Shams for her sister Fatemeh Shams. Zahra Shams, an apolitical law student, and Majid Tavakoli, a major political activist and a pain in the neck of the Islamic theocracy in Iran, are two typical examples of the two embrac- ing ends of the spectrum on which young Iranians were challenging the clerical theocracy that has ruled their land. The hopes and aspirations of these young women and men, some 70 % of them under the age of 30, were branded a “Fetneh/Sedition” by the loud but entirely ineffective propaganda machinery of the Islamic Republic, by a state apparatus that

lacked any legitimacy to call the democratic will of a nation a “sedition.” Fortunately for Iran, and fortunately for the world, that old and noisy machinery was entirely ineffective. Zahra Shams and Majid Tavakoli, and the generation they represent, were creatively in charge of representing themselves and telling the world what they want. The state had all the Orwellian propaganda at its disposal, but the location of the nation on a transnational public sphere had the momentum entirely in its hands. In a region infested with violence—genocidal, homicidal, or suicidal—

it is impossible to exaggerate the significance of a massively popular civil

rights movement that has begun and continued with the most funda- mental democratic question of “Where is my vote?”—a seminal question that had never been asked in such monumental scale in any other aspiring democracy in the region. Throughout the height of the Green Movement (2009–2010) not a single Molotov Cocktail had been thrown by a single protestor against the onslaught of a vile, brutal, and sustained state oppres- sion. With the ring of that simple but resounding question, “Where is my vote?” masses of millions of people had forced the hand of the Islamic Republic, exposing its naked brutality. If the world were to listen and watch carefully, from the ancient Greek theorization of democracy to the French Revolution and the cry for liberty, equality, and fraternity, down to the American revolt against despotism and tyranny, and ultimately to the



commencement of the civil rights movement in the USA in the late 1950s were all resonating in the Iranian cry for political freedom and civil liberty. The price that a determined nation was willing to pay was epic in its pro- portions, lyrical in its rhapsodic chants, joyous in the colors they flew. Innocent citizens, for daring to doubt the veracity of the official results of a presidential election, were subject to systematic and unbridled violence by the security apparatus of a theocratic state that seemed to be, more than anyone else, completely cognizant of its own absence of legitimacy. The Green Movement was the end of the state. Any other “election” that was performed in the Islamic Republic would be as significant as a football match: an occasion for the nation to assert itself publicly. The Islamic Republic was of course no exception to the rule of state- sponsored violence against innocent civilians in the region. From Israel to Pakistan, from Russia in Central Asia to Saudi Arabia in Yemen, the region was and remains alternately plagued by militarized or militant, state- sponsored or insurrectionary brutalities, imperial in its attitude or local- ized in its dimensions. Against that backdrop, the Green Movement in Iran had opened a new and entirely unprecedented chapter in the political culture of the region that old colonial officers branded “the Middle East.” Violent coups, militant rebellions, military invasions, and brute insurrec- tionary uprisings—all bracketed between medieval tribalism, neoliberal imperialism, and anything in between—are the staple of the political cul- ture in this region. It is in that context that the Green Movement had emerged as the vanguard of a seismic change in the very language of politi- cal thought and practice, a metamorphic movement that had occurred at the year zero of a new history. Perhaps the surest sign of the changing world that the Green Movement had announced was the amorphous nature of its leadership, which slowed down the measures of its immediate success in the same cadences that sustained its unfolding democratic course. In a region where the endur- ing formation of democratic institutions and of non-violent transition to democracy has always been thwarted by the rise of one charismatic tyrant or another, from Gamal Abd al-Nasser to Ayatollah Khomeini, the Green Movement boasted no such leader and was teaching those who cared to watch an entirely new lesson in the art and craft of small steps and careful coalition-building on the long and arduous path to securing civil liberties. Mir Hossein Mousavi was not as much a “leader” of this movement, as he repeatedly emphasized, as its cathartic occasion, its symbolic representa- tion. He stayed the course until he was put under house arrest, and after



that he remained silent, for the chorus he had joined was singing apace, in different tunes, but melodious in its changing harmonies. Through non-violent social actions, the Green Movement exposed not just the lurking violence camouflaged under the thin veneer of Islamist claim to republicanism in Iran, but the equally violent policies of the USA and its regional allies. The spectrum of Green Movement appropriation of the public space bespeaks its varied social domains—ranging from massive public rallies to crowded concert halls to rambunctious subway rides to cantankerous parliamentary maneuvers to turbulent university campuses to a rainbow of websites, blogs, Facebook and Tweeter pages, under- ground music, open love letters to imprisoned spouses, and so on. On these public and parapublic spaces, it is not just the three-decades-long false halo of sanctity around the Islamic Republic that has disappeared in the aftermath of the Green Movement, but so has been exposed the bank- rupt politics of despair and resignation, and the nihilistic politics of accept- ing reality as it is, and not as it should be. It is not just the neoconservative politics of military interventionism that is exposed for what it is but also the conventional left-liberal nihilism that did not know how to deal with the Green Movement and thus categorically dismisses it for (believe it or not) it saw Ahmadinejad as a bulwark of resistance to imperialism! 7 In a context that the Israeli army in matter of hours and in interna- tional waters off the coast of Gaza kills and wounds more innocent civil- ians trying to help 1.5 million Palestinians stranded under embargo than the Islamic Republic has over a year of civil unrest in its own sovereign territory, we seem to be expected to be grateful that the security appara- tus of the theocracy only kidnaps people off the streets, beats them up, tortures, rapes, and every once in a while murders them. What’s a little torture in Kahrizak and Evin over the last year compared to what the USA has done in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Bagram Airbase in the course of its “war on terror” over the last decade? The combined moral bankruptcy of that comparison has stopped even bothering people across political divides. The fundamental challenge that the Green Movement faced was not just an ethics of indifference, predicated on a politics of despair, that sus- tains the status quo of business as usual. The geopolitics of a region that in the game of power it plays suppresses the fate of nations and submits them to the overriding powers of a political logic infested with state vio- lence decides the terms of the battles that these nations face. The principle burden of responsibility in this politics of despair falls on the sole surviving



superpower in the region, namely the USA, which ever since World War

II has been dragged into a quagmire of indecision and indeterminacy,

seeking to manage one crisis after another, with absolutely no overriding principle or vision, and thus with dismal and counterproductive results, invariably supporting undemocratic regimes to safeguard its immediate interests, and ipso facto forfeiting its longstanding ideal and principles.

Today, Iranians braving brutal repression in their streets and on their roof- tops are infinitely truer to the ideals and aspirations of Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King than those in position of power and authority

in the USA. What their struggles show is the manner in which nations

consistently give birth to themselves in manners beyond the control of any ruling state. Years into its commencement, the Green Movement was unfolding in full view of the world at large, and nothing would stop its historic, wind- ing path. It may thunder as a cascade today or flow quietly in a plateau on

another—but like any other bountiful river it will not stop until it reaches

its destined ocean. From the gracious patience of Zahra Shams quietly

fasting in solitary confinement in a Mashhad prison to the noble anger

of Majid Tavakoli counting days to his people’s freedom in a cell in Evin

prison, the young Iranians are teaching nations the very alphabet of a language of liberation that the world leaders are yet to learn. If the nation was born poetically, literary, and the state had followed the nation and announced its birth in pure violence, then the poetic of national liberty

was now woven into the aesthetics of people’s defiance. There will thus always remain a legitimacy crisis by the ever-widening distance between the poetically performed nation and the violently self-conscious state.


1. An earlier draft of this part of my argument was published on Aljazeera as “Ballot wars: The Iranian public strikes back” on 17 June 2013.

2. For an excellent chronology of events that led to the massive participa- tion in this presidential election, see Leyla Shirazi, “Iran’s Presidential Elections: The Live Embers of a Democratic Opposition Glow” (Jadaliyya, 14 June 2013).

3. For identical numbers from two opposing sources citing the Ministry of Interior, for the veracity of Rouhani’s election, see here: http://, and here: http://www.farsnews.



4. Forough Farrokhzad, “Tavallodi Digar/Another Birth” in Forough Farrokhzad, Tavallodi Digar/Another Birth (Tehran: Morvarid, 1343/1964). These and all other translations from the Persian origi- nals are all mine. Citations are permitted only with reference to this book.

5. Forough Farrokhzad, “Tavallodi Digar/Another Birth” (Op. Cit.).

6. See Hamid Dabashi, The World of Persian Literary Humanism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), and George Makdisi, Scholasticism and Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West (Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 1989).

7. I have detailed this historic mistake in my essay, “Left is wrong on Iran” (al-Ahram, 16–22 July 2009).

Chapter Four: An Aesthetic Reason

Our understanding of the Green Movement as the simulacrum of a meta- morphic movement changing shape and form but not purpose and direc- tion points to the unfolding of an “aesthetic reason” that I wish to explore in some detail in this chapter. Here I wish to propose that the articulation of this “aesthetic reason” is a key theoretical momentum finally formed to overcome the paradox of colonial modernity, through which the world at large was told to be free to think critically precisely at the moment when a colonial bayonet was put to its head and subjugated to European capitalist modernity at gunpoint. The Green Movement, I have proposed, was the most cogent mobilization of civic forces to articulate and defend civil liberties in terms beyond the limited ideological means and political imagination of the ruling Islamic Republic and even (or particularly) its manufactured loyal opposition (the so-called Reformists), and a fortiori the categorically discredited “expat opposition” that its only difference with the ruling regime is that it covets a power it lacks. In its political potency, the movement (however short-lived in its most public phase) was and will remain post-ideological, and as such declared an effective end not just to the limited legitimacy of the ruling regime but far more potently the end of “the West” as an absolute metaphor of our time. Upon this historic scene appeared, now I wish to argue, the articulation of an aesthetic reason to replace the postcolonial reason that had informed mobilizing ideological formations of the last 300 years, positing a major epistemic shift that now stands for the postcolonial public reason that had failed to secure foundational institutions of liberty and democracy in any



postcolonial nation-state such as Iran. After generations of phantom liber- ties, I will argue, that turn from the postcolonial reason to aesthetic reason is coterminous with the age of globalized capital and the society of spectacle it has entailed. What this civil rights movement thus faced, as its principal obstacle is the active transmutation of an Islamic Republic, now bereft of any semblance of legitimacy, into a garrison state, occasioned by the geo- strategic changes in the region. The end of “the West” as a master trope coincides with the general global condition in which the habitual politics of despair has exhausted itself and thus we have the birth of the first post- colonial person liberated from an historic entrapment within the condition of both coloniality and postcoloniality.


What does an aesthetic reason actually mean? How does it enable the for- mation of an aesthetic intuition of transcendence? Where and what are its roots and origins, and in what particular ways does it liberate the postco- lonial subject from the condition of coloniality, the exhausted epistemes of postcoloniality, the paradox of the colonial modernity, the thwarted domain of public reason, and perforce the limits of the postcolonial rea- son? To answer these vital questions, I first need to take a brief philosophi- cal detour. As Christoph Menke observes in The Sovereignty of Art (1988/1998), the realm of the aesthetic is that of “contradiction, rejection, and nega- tion.” 1 Art is not politics, sociology, anthropology, a revolutionary proj- ect, a moral edifice, or an ethical mandate. Art is not what everything else is. Art is—not this state of negativity, Menke, following Adorno, believes gives art its singularly definitive authority and autonomy. That it is, and it can do, what nothing else is, what nothing else can do. Art is about noth- ing. Art is about itself, and as such it poses a threat to everything else, to the instrumentality of the (postcolonial) reason, by simply being there. Is the aesthetic experience just one among other experiences made possible by the breakdown of instrumentalized reason in the course of European capitalist modernity, or is it, alternatively, a realm in which an existential experience exceeds such differentiated realms of reason and posits another altogether ulterior experience irreducible to other modus operandi of rea- son in modernity? The experience of the postcolonial person has posited the real of the aesthetics as one safe haven secured from both the colonial reason and the postcolonial politics.



In the European context, almost entirely oblivious to its extended colonial shades and shadows, from Kant to Weber to Adorno all such reflections on aesthetics have taken the differentiated realms of reason in the course of capitalist modernity as the conditio sine qua non of coming to terms with the aesthetic experience. If we take Weber as the German theorist who took the aesthetic experience as one among other differenti- ated realms of disenchanted reason, Adorno would stand opposite him as the German theorist who thought aesthetic experience ought to be taken as something irreducible to such differentiated realms of instrumental rea- son. What stood between these two theorists of aesthetic modernity was another, darker, side of modernity, namely the German Jewish Holocaust. It was before the Holocaust that Weber thought the aesthetic realm was one among other differentiated realms of disenchanted reason, and it was after the Holocaust that Adorno sought to detect in the realm of the aes- thetic a redeeming domain to overcome the instrumental reason and its potential (now actualized) terrors. What both Weber and Adorno disregarded, did not consider, for it was smack in the middle of their European blind spot, was their colonial (for the rest of the world global) site of the aesthetics, where its fate was one of schizophrenic bifurcation between radical instrumentalization in the form of socialist, nationalist, or nativist ideologies to oppose and end European colonialism on one extreme end, or else abstract and aloof interioriza- tion on another. 2 Adorno’s instinctive insistence that “resolution of this relationship requires doing justice to the duality (Doppelpoligkeit) of aes- thetic experience without subordinating either of its two defining features to the other” 3 remains critical to its extension to the colonial site. What Adorno was proscribing was, though entirely unbeknownst to himself as an incurably European philosopher, the best that had been done at the colonial site. Overcoming the differentiated realms of European reason was ipso facto embedded in the coloniality of the reason for the rest of the world. What Adorno suggested Europeans needed to achieve was already achieved on the colonial edges of the European capitalist modernity. It is thus not accidental that Adorno came to that conclusion in the aftermath of the trauma of German Jewish Holocaust, which was a concentrated dose of what European colonialism had been administering to the world at large. As “European reason” spelled “colonial reason” for the rest of the world and required and produced a “revolutionary reason” to oppose and end it, in the realm of the aesthetic, overcoming that European, colo- nial, and even revolutionary reason was always already definitive to the



arts that it anticipated, as perhaps best evident in the domain of magic realism in Latin American literature, jazz and blues in US music, abstract realism in visual arts, mimetic spontaneity in theater (Verfremdungseffekt/ Distancing Effect for Brecht with varied and older versions in Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Persian dramas). As yet another German who tried to cope with post-Holocaust anxiety and thus came close, though never consciously, to the colonial site, Brecht’s theorization of alienation would anticipate much that would later happen in cinematic virtual realism in Iranian cinema. 4 To overcome that European split, Menke, following Adorno and Derrida, has a very simple but compelling proposal that can be useful for our reading of the postcolonial scene and the making of an aesthetic intu- ition of transcendence. He suggests:

The aporias of the traditional romantic view of the sovereignty of art can only be resolved by combining two theses: (1) the deconstructive thesis that the aesthetic critique of reason is the subversion rather than the overcoming of reason; and (2) the thesis, which can be found in Adorno, that it is not the contents but the effects, consequences, or repercussions of art that are the foundations of this critique. Taken together, these two claims outlined an understanding of aesthetic sovereignty—as an aesthetically generated cri- tique of reason—that not only does not violate the autonomy of the enact- ment of aesthetic experience, but is actually premised upon it. 5

We need a number of quick adjustments and fine-tuning here. First and foremost, on the colonial site we have been entirely disabused of that “traditional romantic view of the sovereignty of art” so we need not over- come or resolve it. European romanticism has had a very limited domestic implication on that site and carries no particular bearing on the global consequences of European Enlightenment modernity. But the two the- ses that Menke offers are quite critical. The idea that “the aesthetic cri- tique of reason is the subversion rather than the overcoming of reason” resoundingly echoes in the vast and diversified experiences of the colonial world at large, though we need to replace the word “reason” in Menke’s formulation with “colonial reason” to make more sense. Subversion of the colonial and postcolonial reasons, in successive historic moves, is therefore contingent on the aesthetic act in emancipatory directions. Of equally revolutionary consequence is the Menke/Adorno insight that “it is not the contents but the effects, consequences, or repercussions of art that are the foundations of this critique.” From then on “an aesthetically



generated critique of reason” becomes “an aesthetically generated critique of postcolonial reason” for the world at large. That once we carry Menke, Adorno, Derrida’s aesthetic critique of European reason to the colonial and postcolonial realm the act forces the European philosophy to face its own colonial foregrounding of reason is something beyond the immediate concern of my study here.


To conclude this quick philosophical detour, the critique and subversion of both the colonial and postcolonial reasons has been historically culti- vated in the aesthetic domain (from poetry to cinema) by virtue of the absence of any sovereignty attributed to the delusion of European Reason (for the world was at large was the Unreason of that Reason), which was quite unreasonably brutish in its naked violence on the body politics of the colonial world. Let me now carry the implications of this aesthetic critique of postcolonial reason to the site of public space, public reason, and a renewed form of organic solidarity on which it is first expressed and from which it is eventually sublated. What is at stake here is to see how this aesthetic reason informs a new breed of organic solidarity beyond any fic- tive frontiers and upon a solid conceptualization of a transnational public sphere and public reason. The struggle for and within colonial modernity was through the con- struction of public reason, which in the aftermath of the colonial conquest of the world was argued by nativist inorganic intellectuals dreaming of phantom liberties. This inorganicity, however, was adjacent to deeply rooted aesthetic expressions by poets and artists that in turn gave birth to the making of an aesthetic reason, which was organic to the making of varied forms of societal modernity—all of which is predicated on a post- colonial condition when as early as 1930s Sadegh Hedayat had already dismantled the knowing subject of capitalist modernity on its colonial edges, and Nima Yushij had radically reconfigured the aesthetic judg- ment of that knowing subject in his formally subversive poetry. When I suggest that the Green Movement as a civil rights movement is predi- cated on a post-ideological disposition, I foreground it on the active dis- mantling of the colonized minds who keep reading it either as a Fetneh/ Sedition (by the ruling regime) or alternatively as a Enqelab/Revolution to topple the Islamic Republic (by its opposition). I say so because the formation of the master narrative of utopian ideologies (from anticolonial



nationalism to Third World socialism to militant Islamism) was predi- cated on and produced within the context of a colonial modernity that could not but produce inorganic intellectuals and their phantom liber- ties on one side and their political transformation to illegitimate state apparatus on the other. The end of colonially conditioned ideologies produced and propagated by inorganic intellectuals occurs in the context of the end of “the West” as the principle interlocutor of anticolonial ideologies. The end of “the West” means, in turn, the birth of the first postcolonial person outside the purview of the condition of post/coloniality, the person who is capable of thinking and acting outside the colonial machinery that did not just para- doxically produce but in fact even anticipated the terms of his/her ideo- logical revolts. The current and dominant, entirely amorphous, condition of globalized capital we call “neoliberalism” does not coagulate around any civilizational pole (“the West”) to generate alterity (“the Rest”), for it lacks and defies identity. This entire globalized condition generates and sustains a transnational public space, and its contingent public reason and organic solidarity, that has always already trespassed any colonially, manu- factured frontier fiction. This transnational public sphere opens up toward a semiotic of post- coloniality where the foreplay of signs do not mean or amount to a sta- ble semiotics, as perhaps best represented in the globally celebrated but entirely inconclusive work of the Iranian artist (based in New York) Shirin Neshat. The making of an open-ended aesthetics retrieves the cosmopoli- tan worldliness of cultures and thereby restores confidence to a knowing, feeling, and intuiting subject beyond any national frontier or colonial bor- der. The aesthetic reason predicated on this foreplay of signs emerges on the fertile ground of the dissolution of all militant ideologies chief among them in this case militant Islamism, which commenced long before the rise of the barbaric ISIS. Militant Islamism radically diminished and compro- mised the moral authority of Islam and from Iran sent the leading Muslim theologian Mohsen Kadivar into exile to explore a figment of his own defi- ant imagination he calls “Islam-e Rahmani/Benevolent Islam,” while the prominent sociologist Asef Bayat was mapping out the contours of what he considered “Post-Islamism,” and a noted philosopher Arash Naraghi was busy justifying “humanitarian intervention” as a camouflage for mili- tary interventionism. Meanwhile, what the Islamic Republic was calling a Fetneh/Sedition (the Green Movement) was ending the very legitimacy of this or any other postcolonial (Islamic or non-Islamic) state.



What the end of militant Islamism and the Islamic Republic (and with them Islam itself) amounts to is the moral crisis of Islam as it has been articulated since its fateful encounter with European colonial modernity. This has in turn prepared the ground for the active retrieval and restora-

tion of a cosmopolitan worldliness that includes but is not limited to Islam. Muslims, in other words, will have to deal with their renewed worldliness outside any imperial domain and upon their transnational public spheres. 6 The reading of the Qur’an as articulated by the leading Egyptian her- meneutician Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid, or of Islamic law as complicated by the Palestinian scholar Wael Hallaq, is the best examples of this retrieval of what I call cosmopolitan worldliness. On a wider scale, filmmakers, journalists, novelists, poets, historians, and so on are today operating on

a global scale that points to the incorporation of Iranian cosmopolitan

culture back into its historical worldliness. The result is the formation of

a transnational public sphere, public reason, and organic solidarity on the

emotive universe of bygone Muslim empires but true to the spirit of the democratic age in which we live. Opposing the rise of this cosmopolitanism is (among other forces) the US imperial nativism that wishes to incorporate and neutralize what is hap- pening in countries like Iran back into itself and its false imperial image, aided and abetted by native misinformers like Azar Nafisi, Mehdi Khalaji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or Abbas Milani. As the dark shadows of exilic intel- lectuals who resist the empire (whether native to this empire like Noam Chomsky or immigrants into it like Edward Said), these native misinform- ers persist in alienating these cultures both from themselves and from the imperial domain of the US global imagination. Naïve and self-delusional filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf who travel to Israel to make films or engage in fanciful politics underline and exacerbate this alienation, as

do self-alienating anthropologists of Iranian or Arab descent who con- tinue to travel for their “field work” to their own homeland to turn their own family and friends into anthropological objects of curiosity for their white interlocutors back on North American or Western European uni- versity campuses. Meanwhile mystic monarchists like Seyyed Hossein Nasr militantly oppose that cosmopolitanism by propagating a New Age mys- ticism they have fabricated from the scattered evidence of a “Tradition” that never was. Against the grain of this obscurantism the retrieval of the central paradox of Shi’ism is one among many strategies to the retrieve and restore critical dimensions of Islamic cosmopolitanism. 7 Overcoming these varied forms of self-alienation, I have found a reading of Walter



Benjamin’s theory of allegory as fragmentary and of Sergei Eisenstein’s equally provocative theory of montage exceptionally pathbreaking for the notion of a fragmented reality to posit a formative but contingent agency. This condition—a transnational public sphere that generates its own vin- tage public reason—paves the ways toward a renewed notion of organicity. The globalized circumstances of capital have created new lines of solidar- ity. Neocons and neoliberals want to stage a regime change in places like Iran, while nativists want the status quo, whereas a new organicity is com- mitted to anticolonial, anti-racist, anti-imperialist and regional and global solidarity against the amorphous capital and its postmodern empire. To be a voice of dissent in these circumstances you must first and foremost be a voice of dissent where you live, and from there across and around the globe, its most atrocious trouble spots in particular, so that when you come across the people to whom you belong by birth and breeding you will have already set the record straight. It is only against that background that your voice of dissent cannot be assimilated into the power structure of the dominant hegemon that wishes but cannot assimilate you, for it gives it indigestion. You cannot raise your voice against the criminal atrocities in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine; if you have not already raised, it gains the far more atrocious crimes of the ISIS and Israel, or if you do, the voice would be that much compromised by the hypocrisy and duplicity that informs it. Just because a theocracy like the Islamic Republic is para- noid, it does not mean that comprador intellectuals like Azar Nafisi, Abbas Milani, or Ray Takiyeh are not aiding and abetting in the imperial design. The transnational disposition of the public sphere that thus informs the formation of the public reasons is quintessential to that aesthetic reason of revolt that is now giving birth to nations. Be that as it is, there is something far more materially grounded at work here. To be a voice of dissent you need to be deeply rooted in and mor- ally identify with the weakest and most vulnerable in the society where you live. The urban poor, the impoverished working class, the invisible illegal immigrants, the weakest and most vulnerable among Muslim and non-Muslim refugees are where the roots of this solidarity lie. When you thus go around the world and place yourself alongside the weakest and the most vulnerable, you will be in a position to denounce without the slightest hesitation the misogyny and patriarchy in the Hamas without denying its political role in the Palestinian national liberation. Here you can denounce Hassan Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad without dismissing Hezbollah as a legitimate Lebanese resistance movement, or implicating



the legitimate resistance of Iranians to crippling sanctions and the threat of war as aligning yourself with the ruling Islamic Republic. The condition of transnational public sphere makes it impossible to hide behind the bogus notion of “exile” and “diaspora,” becoming dually marginal in both the country of your origin and the country where you live. If you can see the link between vulnerable illegal immigrants and refu- gees and the national liberation movements around the globe, you would then not be surprised to see masses of non-Palestinian labor migrants in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. It is precisely in the Shi’i and Palestinian neighborhoods of Dahiyah, Sabra, and Shatila, that you will see Bangladeshi and Philippine slaves being sold to the Lebanese bourgeoisie precisely in the same manner that other illegal immigrants are abused in the USA or in the Europe. It is impossible to live in this world and still fancy a blindfold around your eyes that will focus on your nativist priorities and disregard the world.


Iranians have never lived in a vacuum. The manufacturing of nativist ideologies (Islamism or ethnic nationalism) authenticating the absolute metaphor of “the West” has been instrumental in placing postcolonial nation-states like Iran on another imaginary planet. To test the authority of the aesthetic reason on that transnational public sphere within which postcolonial nation-state have appeared on an entirely different political phantasm, let me switch site and consider the matter from a different van- tage point, from half way around the globe, where the condition of post- coloniality will enable us to see the formation of the aesthetic reason in similar, comparative, and liberating ways. Here my purpose is to show how the aesthetic reason rises in multiple and varied contexts with remarkable affinity to the Iranian scene and thus connecting the nation to a larger transnational frame of reference entirely independent of any state appara- tus that may or may not lay a false claim on it. Let us begin where the master of phantasm himself ended—in Mexico City. 8 The cinematic semiotic that posits Luis Buñuel’s “Phantom of Liberty” (1974) as a spoof on the bourgeois banality that Karl Marx’s commodity fetishism had theorized in the opening chapter of the first volume of Capital (1867) and subsequently Guy Debord’s Society of Spectacle (1967) had staged, let us remember, was made entirely possible



by none other than Etienne-Gaspard Robert (aka Etienne Robertson) and his pioneering phantasmagoria productions in the post-revolutionary Paris (1797). The same revolutionary dream of 1789 that transformed Athanasius Kircher and Christiaan Huygens magic lantern (mid- seventeenth century) into Etienne Robertson phantasmagoria in 1797 would in less than a century later stage Karl Marx’s critique of political economy into his Capital in 1867, so that by 1974, Luis Buñuel would playfully devote one of his masterpieces to see how the phantom of lib- erty degenerates into the spectacle of bourgeois banality. Right there, in Buñuel’s penultimate film is precisely where art has seized the moment to endure beyond the cul-de-sac of any possible postcoloniality. But to see that endemic transmutations of facts and fantasies, of revolutionary appointments and postcolonial disappointments, we need to expand the 200-year time frame to 400 longue durée—so that we can see the link from the magic lantern in mid-seventeenth to phantasmagoria in mid- eighteenth to the theory of commodity fetishism in mid-nineteenth to the society of spectacle in mid-twentieth century and the phantom of liberty in the late-twentieth century. On that spectrum, art is always ahead of politics, the undoing of the revolution, even as, precisely at the moment that, it feigns to serve it. The signs that come together to put their signature on the work of art never behave—always misbehave. The occasion of the bicentenary of Latin American wars for independence is no sign of—cannot be taken as—the failure of the tenuous relations between aesthetics and the eman- cipation it must always promise but fortunately can never deliver. Quite to the contrary: something in that relationship, tenuous that it must remain, continues to resonate beyond the dead-end of postcoloniality. There is no postcoloniality in art, for art is always already postcolonial, for it never was precolonial or colonial. A postcolonial aesthetic is simply to come to terms with art. The political configurations that during the course of two centuries of post/coloniality have informed any aesthetic emancipation is precisely what has kept the struggle alive—not in abusive postcolonial promises but precisely in subversive aesthetic parameters, with an aesthetic reason overcoming the postcolonial reason that has failed to deliver. The continued problem of emancipation within the postcolonial dynamics of the Southern Hemisphere and beyond is no indication of the failure of that always already tenuous relationship between art and politics but the



challenge that the condition called “postcoloniality” faces in order to read the signs of our own time beyond the clichés of that postcolonial pre- sumption. The horizon in the leader’s gaze in José Clemente Orozco’s (1883–1949) “Zapata” (1930) is yet to be discovered, navigated, mapped out. On the horizon of that lost gaze, Orozco secured his immortality, procured a postcolonial relevance for everywhere that postcolonial politics fails. Transcending the celebratory disposition of pre- and post-independence marks the recognition of the challenges we face in deciding where and how would Zapata fight today. The inevitable and indispensible divide between the discourse of political and economic emancipation in Latin America or anywhere else for that matter and the social and aesthetic movements that are coterminous with them points to the necessity of going beyond the cliché-ridden fields of postcolonial theory that thinks by acting as “the native informant” will bypass the amorphous regime. The problem with postcolonial theory, as it is practiced and performed by émigré subalter- nists on North American Ivy League campuses, and with no organic link to North American subalterns that come in waves of labor immigrants, is that they mostly have nothing or very little to say about art, for its open-ended aesthetics cannot be figured in the closed-circuit of their entrapment in their Europe. On that closed-circuit, art has bypassed them aesthetically, as they have convinced themselves that they are “Europeanist.” The bent neck of the white horse in Diego Rivera’s (1886–1957) “Agrarian Leader Zapata” (1931) looks into the depth of an eternity yet to be fathomed— not just by the émigré Europeanist theorizing subalternity, but by, and in, the autumn of all patriarchs yet to come. The necessity of multiple archives that includes but is not limited to the artistic is yet to reach the threshold of postcolonial theory, as in fact the bifurcation between the Homeric poesy and the Aristotelian poet- ics is yet to be resolved into a postmodernity that remains committed to the fact of the political. The Aristotelian mimesis can only promise a kind of catharsis that can be operative only if we are witness to some- thing at once foreign and familiar. Where is the space of that double-bind except the solitude that is always already pregnant with the societies that at once punctures and enables it? To be able to come to terms with that solitary space from which art issues its misbehaving signs we need to realize the precise nature of its paradoxical self-negation. Octavio Paz’s



The Labyrinth of Solitude/ El laberinto de la soledad (1950/1975) is one crucial space for seeing how this solitude works at that paradoxically soci- etal level:

The Mexican, whether young or old, criollo or mestizo, general or laborer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defense: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation. He is jealous of his own privacy and that of others, and he is afraid even to glance at his neighbor, because a mere glance can trigger the rage of these electrically charged spirits. He passes through life like a man who has been flayed; everything can hurt him, including words and the very suspicion of words. His language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rain- bows, indecipherable threats. Even in a quarrel he prefers veiled expressions to outright insults: “A word to the wise is sufficient.” He builds a wall of indifference and remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible. The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself. 9

What in my judgment Paz is offering here is much more than a reflec- tion on his own national identity—the spiritual solitude that paradoxically embraces a social identity—for it in fact marks the (entirely understud- ied) aesthetic condition of postcoloniality, where an artist like Paz himself transcends the politics of his identity in the poetics of his own fiction. The solitude that Paz describes is in fact the tabula rasa of the birth of the first and last postcolonial person, the person whose mind has been decolonized, and who has now come to stand in front of the work of art not as the political persona but as a postcolonial agent. If man indeed is, as Paz suggests “nostalgia,” as he is “a search for communion,” then art is the rendezvous of that communion, predicated precisely on his solitude. It is thus about silence and solitude as an always pregnant revolutionary moment that we need to think. I appeal to the metaphor of pregnancy, of the fetus in the mother’s womb, as the supreme moment of silence and solitude intentionally to mark the decidedly repressed feminine disposition of the moment that gives birth to a kind of hope for emancipation that can never be completely delivered or totally disappointed. To make my point I draw your attention away from Octavio Paz’s reflection on solitude to Amir Naderi’s cinema of solitude. In a cinematic career that has now



expanded over almost half a century, dodged a dictatorial monarchy and

an Islamic theocracy, as it has mapped out its panorama of solitude on two continents, Amir Naderi has dwelled precisely on the moment of solitary embracing of the universe, where his cinema becomes the microcosm of

a cosmic reflection on the borderlines of the solace of solitude and the

society of spectacle. In one of his masterpieces, “The Runner” (1985), the lead protagonist, the solitary figure of Amiru, becomes the tabula rasa of that solitude and the singular site of reflection on a pure cinematic venture that places the subject of the artist, at the moment of artistic creativity, outside the subject of his societal belonging. This solitude is not political,

nor is it apolitical, for it predates and survives the political. That solitude

is the site of the cultivation of an aesthetic reason that will shine upon any

meaningful society that exists and that will come. That very solitary aura, from which art emanates, is equally evident in the fragmented narrative of the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s cinema where a disjointed subject faces a fragmented reality and yet man- ages to make perfect sense of it—all predicated on the solitary sight of a Palestinian man (ES) who never speaks. The character of ES, at the center of all Elia Suleiman’s cinema, the acronym that is and is not standing for “Elia Suleiman,” is precisely that: an acronym that is arrested at the moment of its meaningless sign-ness and acronymity. ES never talks—he just witnesses, remaining a sign that dismantles all other signs that feign meaning, signification, and purpose. There is an open-ended hermeneutics to that silence that no Israeli checkpoint can stop, no Palestine Liberation Movement can abuse, and no future Palestinians state can foreclose. ES is pure aesthetic reason. That solitary sustenance of sign that at once politicizes Elia Suleiman’s cinema but does so beyond the politics of any particular movement for the liberation of Palestine is equally at work at the heart of Shirin Neshat’s work. A solitary discovery of a moment that the artist is both beyond and before her society, the visual spectrum of Shirin Neshat’s work can be seen as the expansive unfolding of a solitary soul in societal forms discovering its aesthetic reason. Born and raised in Iran but coming to artistic fruition in the USA and celebrated globally, Shirin Neshat is the artist of the cross- ing borders, where no political regime has any authority over her, and no postcolonial power can afford claiming her. Her piety disrupts the secu- lars, her eroticism disturbs the pious. She is a subject outside any regime of subjugation. It is not accidental that Shirin Neshat reminds many of her admirers of her Mexican antecedent Frida Kahlo. While Kahlo carried her



politics up her sleeve precisely as she was delving deep into her solitary soul, Shirin Neshat sublates her deeply rooted politics into a panoply of visual meditations that expose the porous borderlines of eroticism and body politics. The result is an aesthetic reason that subverts any state that comes close to it, but enriches the nation it thus addresses. When it comes to the sense of art outside the territorial border of soci- etal belonging scarce a Palestinian artist needs any prodding. The con- temporary Palestinian photographer Tarek al-Ghoussein is iconic revolt incarnate, though all in the solitary confinement of vacated landscapes. As a Palestinian in perpetual exile, in an exile that has now become home, al- Ghoussein is the artist of postcoloniality by virtue of the fact that as a per- son, a persona, an artist, a human being, he does not, as Golda Meir once put it, exist. His solitude as a result is transparent—he does not exist. He has disappeared into the paradox of his own stateless status. The same soli- tary site of migratory meandering is evident in another Palestinian artist, Mona Hatoum, whose art is the visual chronicler of Palestinian homeless- ness. That homelessness translates into a visual vacuity, that is, the reflec- tion of the artist’s vacated soul, an aterritorial space from which the artist becomes a subject outside the subject. The abstraction of the aesthetic reason here has no state even to claim it. It floats globally and becomes emblematic for every nation. Art is a “No” to which no anticolonial revolt can ever be a terminal answer. Consider the work of “Termeh” (a pen name for Golrokh Nafisi), an Iranian artist who came to her own during the commencement of the Green Movement in Iran. The solitude that is hidden in all acts of social protest, the serenity from which political uprisings are made, palpitates in her art. At the center of Termeh’s social protest is always she, the solitary artist, assuming the social garb of her compatriots, and yet precisely at that moment she keeps her distance, aesthetically, from all of them. That space, that distance, is where the artist lives and dies in solitude, precisely at the moment that she is most social. The society that revolts at the heart of Termeh’s solitary art can at the very least be traced back to one of the greatest Iranian artists of the twentieth century, Ardeshir Mohassess (1938–2008), the silent screamer whose vision became his voice, singing melodically the unmelodious resonances of the horror that chases after him from one tyranny to another empire. Like Amir Naderi, Ardeshir Mohassess survived both a tyrannical monarchy and a theocratic banality to wed the fate of post-revolutionary Iranians to the neoconservative chi- canery that has ruled the USA before and beyond George W. Bush. At the



AN AESTHETIC REASON 107 Image 1 Esrafil Shirchi, If you came to visit me, unknown date

Image 1 Esrafil Shirchi, If you came to visit me, unknown date The collective cultural memory at the heart of the national consciousness consistently dissolves into abstraction—verbal, poetic, visual, allegorical. Here in Esrafil Shirchi’s work, the abstraction borders with an active mutation of words, letters, morphing towards a poetic iconography. The poem in this calligraphy is a famous line from Sohrab Sepehri, “If you came to visit me/Come gently and calmly/Lest the thin glass of my solitude/Might crack.” Shirchi’s calligraphy dances on this line, sings with it, performs it to perfection, transforms its audio effects into ocularcentricity, stages its hidden poetic craftsmanship. The gentle mutation of words and shapes, colors and forms, spatial territories and vocal invocations generates its own normative environ- ment. The space is not sober. It is intoxicated, subversive, suggestive, illusory. It invites in and keeps in. It is like a womb—pregnant with possibilities of birth, rebirth, resurrection. The culture here is at its melting point, when it has dissolved into forms and finitude—indefinitely. It is upon this miasmatic fertile ground when art of the abstraction take over the collective culture that the nation and the state are decoupled and their dialectical antagonism results not in any synthesis but in a negative dialectic that strengthens nation organically and the state mechanically.



heart of Ardeshir Mohassess’ art remained himself, the solitary artist no revolution could afford claiming. Ardeshir Mohassess was aesthetic reason incarnate. From the selfsame solitary soul of Iranian artists in exile issues the extraordinary work of Nicky Nodjoumi, the steadfast dreamer of night- mares that is blinded by his own hindsight. A kindred soul of Naderi and Mohassess, Nodjoumi is bitter, angry, sarcastic, and principled in his categorical denunciations of the bestiality that is at the heart of the political man. There is a perverse sexual banality at the heart of Nodjoumi’s work, which disallows any comfortable coming to terms with the politics of any emancipatory revolt. In his paintings, Nodjoumi has gone positively elemental, and in that elemental dealing with our predicament, there is no salvation—only depiction of the horror beyond any redemption, not just political but far worse—metaphysical. In Nodjoumi, we discover how a pure aesthetic reason can be merciless in its judgments, unrelenting in dismantling any claim to political author- ity. He is the undiluted naysayer. The Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali (1938–1987) had seen far worse atrocities and yet he managed to sustain a far more piercing gaze on the immediacy of politics, and yet all as the solitary witness present at the scene of a perpetual crime, the systematic armed robbery of his homeland. Naji al-Ali’s legendary creation “Handala” (the bitter one) has his back always to us, to the audience, and his face toward the event, the scene of the crime—a witness that cannot be bothered with our habitual dis- tractions. Handala has survived long after the assassination of his creator Naji al-Ali—and as a runaway signifier he is beyond any state control. He is a signature signed under any truth spoken to power. Identical with Naji al-Ali is the Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani, who too has come to that inner peace that can witness, absorb, archive, and be a witness to the indelible present. Constitutional to Mana Neyestani’s solitude is the fact that he is a quintessentially cyberspace creation. He must of course get up in the morning somewhere on this planet, work through the day before falling asleep—but those facts remain entirely incidental to his cyberspace persona, of which we are aware only through his work. He comes to life on your screen every time you open your laptop and disappears into thin air whenever you close it. Like Tarek al-Ghoussein and Naji al-Ali, his Palestinian soul mates, Mana Neyestani does not exist. They are aesthetic reason pure, simple, abstract, ephemeral, need no state issuing them any passport for they have already crossed all borders.



For the saintly solitude at the heart of the moment of creativity I offer Khalvat-e Arefaneh, where Gnosticism becomes aesthetically agnostic. To show that impossible scene, I propose the Iranian poet/painter Sohrab Sepehri (1928–1980) and his notion of tanha’i/solitude. For Sepehri, both in his paintings and his poetry, the artist’s summoning to behold is always in an ironic mode, via a paradox that at once invites spectatorship and hides behind the spectacle. In effect, the artist invites and disinvites his audience at one and the same time—for the location of the artist, where we might meet him is nowhere in particular, effectively and only in the work of art itself, which is, as a work of art, a fiction, a nowhere—and if you were to go to visit him in his apartment or her study or studio, the person you will meet is really not the artist, for the artist, having finished working, is not there to greet you, is already gone somewhere else. The person you will meet is thus an imposter, a shadow. Now that nowhere is somewhere, for that is where the artist creates, with and without an audi- ence in mind. The artist breathes, lives, and creates on that space. On that space, the artist sees the impossible, imagines the imperceptive, and charts out the way. We may in fact never have permission to enter that impossible space, for as Sepehri says:

Beh soragh-e man agar mi-a’id/If you were to come to visit me, Narm-o Ahesteh bi-ya’id/Come ever so softly and gently Mabada keh tarak bardarad/Lest may break Chini-ye nazok-e tanha’i-ye man/The thin china of my solitude. 10

That thin china of solitude is always broken the instant the artist has ceased working, when he is effectively invisible. When it turns political, art is the other of itself, its self-transplanted outside itself—its phantom, fetish, and phantasmagoria all convoluted into one illusion to beguile its audience before it runs for cover. In Sepehri’s Hichestan/Nowhereville, where he resided and where he composed his poems and painted his can- vases, the artist becomes a Levinasian subject outside the subject of his art. The I of the artist at the amorphous moment of creativity, continuing with the Levinasian language, “is different because of its uniqueness, not unique because of its difference.” 11 That pure I, which is the subject of the aesthetic as transcendental consciousness, and as such the author of the aesthetic reason, “is itself outside the subject: self without reflection— uniqueness identifying itself as incessant awakening.” Levinas believed that this subject outside subject “has been distinguished ever since the



Critique of Pure Reason, from any datum presented to knowledge in the a priori forms of experience.” Art though is no knowledge, and artist as sub- ject is always already outside the subject. Levinas also proposed “it is by setting out from the implications of the Critique of Practical Reason that the transcendental I will be postulated beyond its formative function of knowledge, or, as Husserl would say, beyond the Cartesian cogito, where it is “indescribable pure Ego and nothing more.” 12 With its back turned to the audience and toward the event, thus bearing witness, Handala is the Levinasian subject outside the subject of a Zionism that the great Jewish European philosopher could not transcend to reach for his own very Other. If indeed as Hans-Georg Gadamer suggest in “The Aktualität des Schönen/The Relevance of the Beautiful” (1977), the work of art transforms our fleeting experiences into stable and lasting for an indepen- dent and internally coherent creation,” and that “it does so in such a way that we go beyond ourselves by penetrating deeper into the work,” 13 then the work is the final arbiter of that formal transcendence that no war of independence can exhaust, as no postcolonial state can claim.


By navigating on multiple locations, I have tried to place the artist on a transnational public sphere from which she draws inspiration and yet from which she disappears into the thin air, her subjectivity autonomous and triumphant by virtue of a misplaced authenticity we habitually attribute to her work. This I propose is the manner in which the aesthetic reason both posits the knowing subject and conceals its political whereabouts. Let me now test this proposition by applying it to three different filmmakers deal- ing with the Green Movement in Iran. When D.W. Griffith’s classic silent film “The Birth of a Nation” (aka “The Clansman,” 1915), set during and in the immediate aftermath of the US Civil War, was released, W.E.B. Du Bois, the most prominent African- American public intellectual of his generation, wrote a scathing review of the racial politics of the film and its glorification of the KKK. The enthu- siastic reception of the film by white Southerners (including President Woodrow Wilson), and the subsequent racial protests that ensued are now considered a threshold in the commencement of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. Not a classic film of that magnitude but three globally celebrated film- makers soon emerged as the center of the non-violent civil rights move-



ment that was unfolding in Iran in 2009–2010 and that had caught the world, and the geopolitics of the region, infested as it was with violence, by surprise. These three filmmakers were integral to a wider context of censorship and pressure that the Islamic Republic has exerted to manu- facture domestic and global legitimacy for itself, where it constitutionally lacks it among its own citizens. The first prominent Iranian filmmaker to become intimately involved with the Green Movement was Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Very early in the unfolding of events, Makhmalbaf falsely introduced himself as a spokesman for the opposition leader Mr. Mir Hossein Mousavi outside Iran, lobbying European and American politicians “to help” the Green Movement, ini- tially in generic and potentially misinterpreted ways. While many Iranians applauded Makhmalbaf’s enthusiasm and cheered him on for his active support of the movement, many others were exceedingly critical of him for what they believed to be a self-appointed representation of a multifaceted movement, and for unduly radicalizing its demands and making its success contingent on foreign (aka military) interventions. On exactly the oppo- site side of Mohsen Makhmalbaf stood Abbas Kiarostami, another globally celebrated filmmaker. While Makhmalbaf seemed to do too much and too early for the Green Movement, Abbas Kiarostami appeared to do too little and too late. While his nation was pouring into streets in their millions, facing vicious violence unleashed by the Islamic Republic, Kiarostami stood aloof from it all and even went so far as publicly admonishing one of his protégés, the Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Qobadi, for his open and candid advocacy of the Green Movement. In between Makhmalbaf’s rash and temperamental politics and Kiarostami’s cool and calculated distance from the collective fate of his people stood one Jafar Panahi who steadily, consistently, and with grace and tenacity supported his people in time of their dire needs. In every international film festival that he appeared as a member of the jury, Panahi donned a green scarf, searched and found enthusiastic Iranians among the well-wishing crowds, went to them and took pictures with them in solidarity, and soon after his festivals were done he rushed back home to Iran to be with his people. This was no accident. Panahi’s cinema, over the preceding two decades, had been a chronicle of his people’s struggle for civil liberties. Early in March 2010, Jafar Panahi and a whole group of his friends and family were arrested and jailed in Iran, many of them released soon after, while he and another filmmaker friend, Mohammad Rasoulof, were kept



behind bars. Abbas Kiarostami finally came out and publically asked for Panahi’s release, while at the same time distancing himself from Panahi’s cinema, which he characterized as “radical and sensational.” This was at a time that Makhmalbaf had altogether abandoned his cinema and was meet- ing with American and European politicians to fine-tune the exact sort of sanctions that he thought should be applied to Iran, indiscriminately asso- ciating himself with expatriate powerbrokers of Ahmad Chalabi sort who cared very little for their homeland and a lot for their own political careers. Neither life nor art though is as black and white as this may suggest. “Life is color,” as a famous phrase has it in one of Makhmalbaf’s sig- nature films, “Gabbeh” (1996). Abbas Kiarostami is not as conserva- tive or apolitical a filmmaker as he projects himself to be. The scripts of some of the most politically powerful films of Jafar Panahi, like “Crimson Gold” (2003), have actually been written by his mentor Kiarostami. At the same time, the high halls of power and politics are entirely alien sites for Mohsen Makhmalbaf, as is his recent acquaintances with comprador intellectuals, native informers, and neocon venues. After suffering four and a half years of jail and torture under the Pahlavi regime, Makhmalbaf emerged as one of the most widely loved and admired filmmakers of his people, before he and his family abandoned their homeland altogether and devoted their lives and art to the plight of Afghan children, making films or else building schools and hospitals for them. The vagaries of politics caught up with Makhmalbaf later when he traveled to Israel in a moment of self-delusional grandstanding to express his opposition to the Islamic Republic, as Panahi ill-advisedly defied the official ban on his filmmaking, made a few entirely forgettable films like “This is not a Film” (2011) and sent it clandestine to Berlinale. No one could or should ever tell an artist what to do—nor should art- ists ever be so tested in public for their politics. The time that the politics of a people’s despair dictates to their artists the terms of their public per- sona or a fortiori their artistic creativity is the time of a catastrophic night- mare. Filmmakers are not freedom fighters, and where they stand when their nation’s mettle is tested is their choice—and whatever their choice be, it will have no bearing on their art and the aesthetic reason the body of that art entails. Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami, and Panahi are among the most cherished and precious national treasures of their people, whatever their politics might be. Be that as it is, each one of these three filmmakers is today where the history and their people will always remember them most—and that too has the logic of its own historical inevitability: Before



his untimely death on 4 July 2016, Kiarostami was enjoying his freedom in Iran and free meanwhile to travel anywhere he wanted. Makhmalbaf is wasting his precious time lobbying European and American politicians, for he does not know exactly what. Panahi is restricted in his freedom facing the massive judicial injustices of the Islamic Republic, dearer and more beloved than ever to a people in the most traumatic and fragile moment of their fears and aspirations. These are the public personae of three master craftsmen in doing what they do when they do it best: imagining the oth- erwise. Artists are caught in something of an epileptic seizure when they create. They can neither anticipate the seizure, nor do they remember it when they have recovered from it. We mortals, on the other hand, must remember them only when they are caught in that epileptic seizure, for that is when they are speaking to us with an aesthetic reason that escapes them when they have recovered.


What exactly is the passage through which the aesthetic reason emerges from the midst and the debris of such daily politics of despair? Because of my work and interest in world cinema—Iranian, Afghan, Arab, and Palestinian cinema in particular—the relation between politics and cine- aesthetics, between reality and its representations, has always been at the center of my frame of reference. Examples of Iran, Afghanistan, or Palestine at Cannes—or even when Michael Moore took his “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) to Cannes—exposes the link between the nightmare we faced during the Bush administration and the pomp and ceremony of Cannes. Something happens on that red carpet that commodifies and fetishizes the pain and suffering, joy and defiance of people and yet para- doxically sublates them to a global spectatorship that acknowledges and registers them beyond local and regional denial or repression. The point here is to see through what remnants and debris of realities, at time con- flicting and paradoxical, does that aesthetic reason coagulate and result. Years ago when the interface between fact and fantasy in Iranian cinema began to interest me in the nature and function of cinema in contested sites I perpetrated the morphological violence on English language and suggested we might think of Iranian cinema as working through a particular working of “factasy”—a peculiar combination of fact and fantasy, politics and poet- ics that at least since Forough Farrokhzad’s groundbreaking “The House is Black” (1963) has been definitive to Iranian cinema. In another move,



when I was working on Palestinian cinema I thought of what Palestinian filmmakers were facing as a mimetic crisis, namely the crisis of representa- tion, or how can fiction exaggerate reality to make it register mimetically when reality itself was already mimetically flooded. In the works of Elia Suleiman in particular I thought a cinematic frivolity had choreographed the concocted silence and mechanical motion of the protagonist ES to slow down the unfolding of the real in order to renew its significance. Narrative in Elia Suleiman is broken down to allegorical staccatos, and thus reality approximated to it representational impossibilities. This crisis of mimesis is embedded in the enduring problem of how to represent a reality that has overcome and digested its own metaphors, leading the artist back to the thicket of the real to rediscover new metaphors for it. In cinema of Makhmalbaf in Afghanistan, “Kandahar” (2001) and oth- ers, as indeed in the cinema of Hany Abu Assad in Palestine, particularly his “Ford Transit” (2002), this crisis of mimesis became most evident—a crisis that in Abbas Kiarostami and Amir Naderi are resolved in two dia- metrically opposed directions—while Kiarostami abstracts motions from meanings to allow them to rediscover an opera aperta for themselves (Umberto Eco’s phrase), Naderi derives those realities to the point of their chaotic breakdown before opting for a mild miraculous exit. Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” (1851) or Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” (1951), Naderi once told me, were his literary models—“but I cannot have that kind of ending,” he added—I need a little bit of hope. The link between fact and fantasy is not an always stable nexus and is sub- ject to worldly circumstances and the open-ended hermeneutic to which it subjects works of art. The fate of the film “Kandahar” is a perfect example of this exegetical fluctuation. Cannes accepted the film in competition in May 2001 but did not quite know what to do with it, and this remained the case until the events of 9/11 when the film suddenly become a cin- ematic cult, beating “Harry Potter” per audience per screen even in the UK—“Kandahar” became a classical “Opera Aperta/Open Work” for the facticity of the work of art remained contingent on the hermeneutic con- text that society and politics kept imposing and withdrawing on and from it—so much so that the visual registers of the work of art become entirely contingent on the contextual variability of the society and politics that opts to embrace, interpret, or just ignore it. This crisis of mimesis is not always conducive to creative resolution, and in films like Hany Abu Assad’s “Rana’s Wedding” becomes positively inoperative and hits a coup de sac. When the paradoxical facts of the Israeli



occupation of Palestine and the Palestinian Intifada face each other in the real battlefield of history and the filmmaker fails to hit a mimetic moment to register let alone transcend it. But in another work of Hany Abu Assad, “Ford Transit” (2002), the creative cross-metaphorization of a young Palestinian cab driver at an Israeli military checkpoint in his homeland and a rap by “Dr. Dre” manages to lend nobility to one and potency to the other. The miasmatic crossbreeding between fact and fantasy on this particular cinematic site always walks on a treacherous edge between com- peting politics that can read it in one or exactly the opposite way. In the case of Siddiq Barmak’s “Osama” (2003), this dilemma gets completely bogged down in the politics of space in which it is screened, revealing the shifting contexts in which cinema as work of art are received. Addressing the atrocities of the Taliban in Afghanistan in a relentlessly emotional and realistic way, “Osama” could very well be abused in the propaganda machinery of War on Terror to justify the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Here the filmmaker is caught in a double-bind where he is damned if he does and damned if he does not address the calamities of a brutal fanati- cism that has taken over his homeland. These emerging and shifting sites of cinema that designate and dis- mantle any reading of a film at one and the same time posits a herme- neutic alterity that must learn how to dodge political abuse of one sort or another. This unstable hermeneutics, reminiscent of what Gianni Vatimo calls il pensiero debole/weak thought, inevitably casts filmmakers in politi- cal framings in and out of their control, as the three cases of Kiarostami, Panahi, and Makhmalbaf shows in the course of the Green Movement. These three examples—one apolitical, the other too political, while the third is transformed into the cinematic site of the Green Movement pre- cisely at the moment when he could no longer make film. Two filmmakers go into opposite directions by factor beyond their own cinematic control, and the third emerges as the cinematic site of moral resistance to corrupt theocracy positing his cinema as the simulacrum of the sacred. What does it exactly mean for a filmmaker to become, to emerge, as the filmmaker of a social uprising precisely at the moment when he can no longer make any film? The incarceration of Panahi for a film that he had not yet made turned him into a present absentee (mostly repre- sented by an empty chair in film festivals) in his own profession. This has extraordinary implications for the very notion of Vocation/Beruf in the lifework of a filmmaker who can no longer make film except in his own mind. I recently saw a cartoon depicting Panahi sitting in a cell in



solitary confinement projecting a film onto the wall. In other words, the collective will of people continues to make films for him in his absentia. When we look at the cartoon of Jafar Panahi sitting inside a cell watching an imaginary film projected on its wall, we may yet again wonder where exactly is the site of cinema when a globally celebrated filmmaker is arrested and incarcerated for a film that he has not even made, harassed, and barred from filmmaking for a film that he was merely imagining in his cell. So where is the site of cinema? Cannes, Berlin, an empty chair in a jury, the New York Film Festival, movie theaters, DVDs, Netflix, Pirate Bay, YouTube? Where? From censured mind of the filmmaker to the miasmatic disposition of facts and fantasies that come together to conjugate the tropics of a differ- ent cine-aesthetics we are now on the allegorical domains of a cinema that posits and places its own site-specific location of where it is that cinema is taking place, and how it is that posits its aesthetic reason. The new mix- ture of animation and documentary. Ali Samadi Ahadi’s “Green Wave” (2010) opts for altogether bracketing and bypassing visual reality and plac- ing it between animation and documentary. As best evident in this fea- ture-length film, reality has become amorphous, representation nebulous, site of cinema tenuous—which in fact leads us back to Walter Benjamin’s theorization of allegory early in the twentieth century. Walter Benjamin’s Trauerspiel/The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1927), which was predi- cated on his fragmentary work on Baudelaire, posits allegory as positioned on “an apprehension of the world as no longer permanent, as passing out of being: a sense of its transitoriness, an intimation of mortality, or a convic- tion … that ‘this world is not conclusion … The form that such an experi- ence of the world takes is fragmentary and enigmatic; in it the world ceases to be purely physical and becomes an aggregation of signs.” According to Benjamin, “transforming things into signs is both what allegory does— its technique—and what it is about—it’s content.” 14 The privation of the physical world implied in this transformation of things into signs makes the lines between facts and fantasies entirely porous. What Benjamin suggests here has an uncanny resonance in the Iranian context where this sense of allegory can be traced back at least to the Arabic and Persian allegories of Avicenna (980–1037) and Shahab al-Din Yahya Suhrawardi (1155–1191) that the French Orientalist philosopher Henry Corbin in fact translated as “visionary recitals,” referring to what the medieval philosophers called Alam al-mithal or Mundus Imaginalis. This fertile ground is where the aesthetic reason finds its immaterial, allegorical power.



Between Cannes and Kandahar, the divergent sites of cinema have trespassed the boundaries of violent politics and visual poetics and trans- formed the literal into the allegorical, the factual into the figurative, and

thereupon the postcolonial into the aesthetic reason. But if this were a one- way street, we would have had nothing new in the realm of the aesthet- ics predicated on Aristotelian mimesis and Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. What we have is actually a two-way street, traffic between the factual and the figurative, the literal and the allegorical, and we are not always sure

in what direction we are moving, fact to fantasy or vice versa. The traffic

soon assumes a reality sui generis, cinematically generating not just its own aesthetics, but also its hermeneutics, even its visual metaphysics. If Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema has gone into a direction of ceaseless and even paralytic semiosis, and in the opposite political direction Iran and environ have plunged into a politics of despair, a cinema like that of Panahi has hit a cine-aesthetic balance that manages visually to generate its own cine- epistemic universe in which things begin to mean beyond our received vocabularies—such as positing, in a key sequence in Panahi’s “Crimson Gold,” a Eucharist from a pie of pizza smack in the middle of a Shi’i coun-

try. This Eucharist is cinematic fetishism, where visual registers, mise en scène, camera movement, lighting and darkness, reverse angle shots and ultimately compositional editing all come together to mastermind a social body that seeks and receives salvation neither in a church cum mosque nor

in a political party cum false promises of any ideology, and perforce in no

state, but in a movie theater that might oscillate between a cinema hall or a laptop hooked to an external drive hooked to a Pirate Bay—but either way the site of cinema has brought together the diverging politics of despair

into a converging cinema of emancipation and salvation.