Afshin Marashi, Exile and the Nation: The Parsi Community of India and the Making of Modern Iran (University of Texas Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Afshin Marashi (AM): So much of our understanding of Iran is filtered through the lens of political binaries formed in the twentieth century. After many years of reading, learning, and thinking about Iran’s modern history, I wanted to write a book that captures the myriad, multiple, and varied possibilities that were available to Iranian modernity. The early twentieth century, in particular, was a period when so much was unresolved and up for grabs, and yet our historiography very often reads the present into the past. I wanted to write a book that recovers some of the alternative forms of modernity and nationalism—roads taken and roads not taken—that were also part of Iran’s history.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AM: Exile and the Nation is a natural evolution from my first monograph, Nationalizing Iran. Like my first book, the focus here is to historicize the origins of modern Iranian nationalism, especially as it relates to the ubiquitous theme of the revival of antiquity in twentieth-century Iran. In writing the first book, one of the conclusions that I came to was that the Zoroastrian community of India, the Parsis, played an important role in shaping the pre-Islamic revival in twentieth-century Iran. The Parsi community is, of course, one of the world’s historic diaspora communities, having largely emigrated from Iran following the Islamic conquest in the medieval period, and settled in western India over the course of the subsequent millennium. I realized that the Parsi community’s efforts to reconnect with their “ancestral homeland,” beginning in the nineteenth century, was a very important—but still under-acknowledged—part of the history of Iranian nationalism.
My primary focus in the first book was more narrowly on state-led projects of nation-building and the influence of Eurocentric paradigms of thought in shaping modern Iranian national consciousness. It became clearer to me that there were many more diffuse channels of culture that were intersecting to produce the pre-Islamic revival inside Iran, and that an important strand of that culture made its way from India, and specifically via the Parsi community in Bombay. I realized that there was much more that needed to be worked out than what I had explored in the first book. So, I thought I would return to this topic to write a more in-depth monograph. Most of the work that I have done since the publication of my first book has touched on one element or another of this history, but the publication of Exile and the Nation develops it into a single work. It is a book that has had a long history of its own and is the culmination of more than a decade of work.
J: What is the book’s central argument?
AM: In the most essential sense, the book argues that modern Iranian nationalism is not simply a product of European cultural and intellectual influence, and its history cannot simply be traced to the “orientalist laboratory” of nineteenth-century scholarship. Instead, the book argues that modern Iranian nationalism is also a by-product of a remarkably complex and fertile exchange of influences that took shape in the Indian Ocean world of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, the “cultural traffic” between the societies that bordered the Indian Ocean world had entered into a new and more dynamic phase. Much of this was enabled by the history of technology—as well as empire and capitalism—that now greatly facilitates the circulation of not only commodities, but also of peoples, books, and ideas.
In this sense, Exile and the Nation has greatly benefitted from the growth of fields such as global history, Indian Ocean studies, connected history, as well as the study of diaspora and transnationalism that have taken shape over the past decade or more. The work of Nile Green, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Mohamad Tavakoli, and Monica Ringer have in particular informed the history of the Parsi-Iranian exchange on which the book focuses.
So, the book tells the story of the reciprocal intellectual engagement between Parsis and Iranians, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. It explains how this engagement took place in the context of an Indian Ocean world where an earlier “Persianate” cultural paradigm was waning and being challenged by new paradigms of culture and politics. One of the ideas that gained currency in this context was a reappraisal of Iran’s classical Zoroastrian heritage. I should add, however, that the book is not a triumphalist intellectual history of liberal cosmopolitanism and cultural exchange in the Indian Ocean. It is a story about the tensions and contradictions involved in the Parsi-Iranian exchange, and perhaps the inability of the Parsis and Iranians to ultimately understand each other. The newly empowered Zoroastrian heritage that grew from this exchange was put to use in multiple ways, and for different types of political projects. As the book argues, the political outcomes that grew from the Parsi-Iranian exchange were unexpected, contradictory, and increasingly complicated by the politics leading to WWII.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AM: One of the book’s main conceptual goals is to contribute towards a broader rethinking of the area studies paradigm of scholarship, especially as it relates to the field of Iranian Studies. The area studies paradigm still has a great deal of institutional inertia, but it can obscure as much as it illuminates. The Parsi-Iranian exchange is a perfect example of a topic that would have fallen between the cracks of the conventionally conceived Middle East Studies and South Asian Studies fields of a decade or two ago. I remember as a graduate student when Mohamad Tavakoli famously described texts produced between Iran and India as “homeless texts” since they did not fit neatly into established assumptions of either field. There has been a great deal of effort in recent years to break down the intellectual silos separating the traditional area studies, and to look for the “connected histories” between them. Our colleagues in the early modern field have pioneered this, but I would argue that the modern period still has room to grow in this respect. I would, however, hesitate to call this type of scholarship “global history” because I think the achievement of the traditionally conceived area studies was to emphasize a depth of historical, cultural, and linguistic knowledge, which global history does not always emphasize. I think the challenge of a new “critical area studies” paradigm is to retain a depth of knowledge about specific culture zones, even as we expand the frontiers, or breadth, of our geographic research areas. I hope that Exile and the Nation can contribute to these conceptual discussions, and maybe serve as an example of this type of research.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AM: I am especially eager to have scholars from multiple area fields read the book, especially scholars in Iranian Studies, Middle East Studies, and South Asian Studies. I also hope that the book finds an audience among those in the fields of Indian Ocean Studies and transnationalism. I think there is something important in the history of the Parsi-Iranian exchange that will be relevant to those specializing in these fields.
I am also eager to have the Iranian and Zoroastrian diaspora communities read the book. The theme of migration, exile, diaspora, and displacement is very much a part of the contemporary experience of Iranians and Zoroastrians. So the book tells a story that will be very familiar to Iranian and Zoroastrian readers, as they read about their diasporic forebears of the early twentieth century. There is a colorful cast of characters in this history that I have tried my best to bring to life, and I have tried to tell this story with compassion and empathy.
Finally, I should add that I hope this book can find an audience among Persian-language readers inside Iran. Even though I am from a generation of Iranian-American scholars who use English as their primary language, I aspire to have the book find its way into Persian, perhaps not unlike the way some of the books that I write about in Exile and the Nation “travelled” between languages and landscapes to find their way inside Iran’s print marketplace. For Iranian readers, I hope the book might contribute towards reassessments of Iran’s history, and participate in ongoing discussions of the possibilities that were (and are) available for Iran’s politics.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AM: Most immediately, I am planning to produce an edited volume on the Parsi-Iranian exchange. There is still a great deal of work to be done on this topic, and I am hoping an edited volume will bring together the research of others who are similarly engaged in this history.
In terms of longer-term projects, I am considering a more general history of Iran in the interwar period. There has been a substantial amount of scholarship produced over the last two decades focusing on the Reza Shah period. Much of this work, however, remains specialized and scattered. It might be time to synthesize this scholarship into a more general and accessible work, especially as we approach the Pahlavi state’s centennial in 2025. If I am fortunate to have the time, these are some of the projects that I hope to work on.
Excerpt from the book
[…] Like the Parsis, the shifting political terrain of the first few decades of the twentieth century came to shape — with some urgency — the way that Iranians also came to perceive their rediscovered cousins from the distant shore. As Iran’s nation-building project began to unfold, first in the years following the 1905 Constitutional Revolution, and subsequently with the rise of Reza Shah and the Pahlavi state of the 1920s and 1930s, debates surrounding Iran’s cultural, religious, and literary heritage were at the forefront of efforts to reconsider, redefine, and, in the words of Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, to “refashion,” the cultural definition of the Iranian nation. The Iranian encounter with the Parsis was an important element of the debates during this period, and for many Iranian nationalist intellectuals, the Parsis came to represent a direct link to a living tradition of Iran’s pre-Islamic classical past. As Iranians increasingly came to imagine a culture of neo-classicism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the seventh century displacement and resettlement of the Parsi community in the sub-continent was understood as insulating these émigré Iranians from the cultural effects of Arabization and Islamization that had transformed Iran following the Arab-Muslim conquest.
Purdavud’s journey to India, and the broader possibility of renewed contact and connection with the Parsi community was therefore perceived by many Iranian nationalists as something more than an exercise of cultural tourism made possible by the newfound comforts of steam-powered sea travel. The new Iranian engagement with the Parsis was instead perceived as a rediscovery of Iran’s classical past, and as inspiration for a renaissance of a putatively lost — and now found — authenticity that had been preserved by the Parsis in India, and which could now serve as a blueprint for the political project of Iran’s twentieth century history of nation-building and cultural nationalization. This Iranian encounter with the Parsis was therefore inspiring, but at the same time also unsettling. To paraphrase Raymond Schwab, while it is possible to document the intellectual consequences of Iran’s own oriental renaissance, “…what we cannot reproduce is the great shock with which a whole buried world arose to unsettle the foremost minds of an age.” The creative inspiration accompanying the initial Iranian rediscovery of the Parsis was also coupled by an equally powerful mood of anxiety that grew from the stark realization of contemporary Iran’s own relative decay in comparison to the progress and prosperity that their now perceived Parsi cousins had achieved during their long sojourn in India. Both of these emotions were engendered by the renewed contact between Parsis and Iranians. Ultimately, it was precisely this dialectic between mimesis and alterity, between recognition and difference, that both captured and troubled the imagination of Iranian intellectuals like Ebrahim Purdavud and the others discussed in this book.
For Iranian nationalist intellectuals and activists who were seeking strategies to reform Iranian culture in order to overcome what they perceived as a long period of cultural degeneration, economic impoverishment, and political weakness, this discovery of the Parsi community in western India can be read as one of those examples of “the intervention of enchanted agency” that was conjured from the increased circulation of peoples and printed materials in what Nile Green has described as the “religious economy” of the Indian Ocean world. From the point of view of Iranian nationalist intellectuals, their aspirations for bold transformations inside Iran were shaped, not only by purely theoretical, fictive, and phantasmagorical utopias of modernity, but also by the very real, more immediate, and directly tangible heterotopias that Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi has defined, following Michel Foucault, as “alternative real spaces” through and against which the Iranian present came to compare, conceive, and ultimately construct versions of its possible future. While the term heterotopia has most often been used to analyze the epistemic genealogy of the European encounter with the colonial world, the concept can also be useful in understanding the nature of the Parsi-Iranian encounter. The Iranian discovery of the Parsis was one of these heterotopic encounters engendered by the circulation of peoples and ideas within the Indian Ocean world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Green has argued, an intellectual history of the Indian Ocean world can be built most fruitfully within a framework that recognizes the cultural-philosophical effects engendered by these “waves of heterotopia” produced by the manifold encounters set in motion by industrialized travel and the proliferation of vernacular print technology.
The simultaneously inspired, yet troubled, enchantments that were engendered by these stark trans-oceanic encounters — like the ones produced by the Parsi-Iranian exchange — would not, however, stay contained within the imagination of adventurous and impressionable travelers, but came to have very real implications as the source for twentieth century political projects in the societies that bordered this oceanic zone. In the Iranian case, the encounter with the Parsi community produced profound implications for how intellectuals and nationalists came to imagine an Iranian modernity rooted in a rediscovered, reconceived, and reconstructed culture of Indo-Iranian neo-classicism. This imagination was neither spectral, nor illusory, but was instead vividly apparent through the now animated example of western India’s Parsi community. The impressive prosperity that the great Parsi merchant families and industrial barons had achieved in India, as well as the general respect afforded by dominant British imperial standards to the Bombay community’s modern educated and professionalized middle classes, made this Parsi model of Iranian regeneration an especially attractive one for early twentieth century Iranians debating the best strategy for their own path to modernity.
For both Parsis and Iranians, therefore, the acceleration of their mutual engagement within this culturally fertile oceanic ecumene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, produced simultaneous heterotopic visions that, while bearing some correspondence with one another, were by no means mutually equivalent. For Parsis, their newly romanticized longings for an ancestral Iran was imagined as a territorial displacement from an original homeland; for Iranians, their enchantment with the Parsis was conceived in terms of recovering faint cultural remnants resulting from a temporal displacement from a lost antiquity. Both of these interconnected — and ultimately unrealized — Parsi and Iranian imaginings unfolded across the cultural landscape of the Indo-Iranian world during the long nineteenth century; both ultimately came to realize their most potent consequences in the respective political histories of Iran and India during the twentieth century. […]
[…] As the chapters in this book have also illustrated, these contrasting appropriations of the Zoroastrian heritage meant that Parsis and Iranians were most often speaking through, past, and beyond each other, even as they were building new networks of contact, connection, and mutual exchange. The infinitely mutable cultural and political nature of nationalism enabled these starkly contrasting versions of the national idea to grow from the common heritage shared by Parsis and Iranians. The grounding of the cultural basis of nationalism in esoteric doctrines associated with faith traditions only further enabled the inherently ambiguous nature of the Zoroastrian tradition to be appropriated in multiple and varied political forms. By the end of Purdavud’s life, the political trajectory of the Iranian pre-Islamic revival had changed from the possibilities of a utopian modernity that he had imagined as a young man travelling between Beirut, Berlin, and Bombay, to become the conservative politics of official Pahlavi nationalism characterizing the late 1960s.
In the decade following his death, the intellectual project of Pahlavi nationalism was ultimately swept away by yet newer configurations of culture, politics, and ideology. While today the romanticized culture of Iranian neo-classicism that Purdavud had helped to construct retains important traces inside Iran, it is more fully represented in the exilic cultures of Iran’s diaspora communities that are today scattered across the many metropoles of our now globalized ecumene. Like the doctrine of Nietzschean eternal recurrence, or perhaps like notions of time characteristic of Isma‘ili cosmology, the legacy of twentieth century Pahlavi nationalism has therefore not disappeared, but has followed — curiously and perhaps appropriately — the precedent of its medieval Parsi precursors to become a new iteration of a displaced Iranian culture, separated from its original ‘homeland’ and, also like its Parsi precursors, become a culture that has grown roots in new and more hospitable landscapes outside of its place of origin. These diasporic homelands where the legacies of twentieth century Pahlavi nationalism continue to thrive can today be found in new global metropoles such as Los Angeles and London, or Toronto and Tel Aviv. While tracing the evolution of this analogous history lies outside the immediate framework of this discussion, the desires, anxieties, and potential historical trajectories of this more recent displacement — like the history investigated in this book — has its own cultural and political imagination that also deserves consideration.