Mikiya Koyagi, Iran in Motion: Mobility, Space, and the Trans-Iranian Railway (Stanford University Press, 2021). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Mikiya Koyagi (MK): I wrote a book that weaves stories of mobilities with particular attention to various scales of movement from provincial and national to transnational, but this idea developed only gradually as I conducted a series of research trips to collect documents.

When I started graduate school in the mid 2000s, many excellent social and cultural histories of the Reza Shah period (1921-41) were being published, including works by Camron Amin, Touraj Atabaki, Stephanie Cronin, Afshin Marashi, and Cyrus Schayegh, to name a few. So I knew that I was interested in writing a social or cultural history of the late Qajar and early Pahlavi periods, but I was not sure exactly what I wanted to write about in my dissertation. When I began to read the Iranian press of the period more extensively, it struck me that there were hundreds of articles about the Trans-Iranian Railway, Iran’s first long-haul railway completed by the Pahlavi state under Danish supervision in 1938. While all the articles praised the project as a manifestation of national progress under Reza Shah, they said nothing about what this massive infrastructural project meant for various groups that other historians have studied, such as workers (Atabaki), tribes (Cronin), and the middle class (Schayegh). Having discovered that there was no in-depth study about the railway project, I thought that it would be a great way to connect various social and cultural histories of modern Iran that tend to be narrated discretely.

When I dug deeper into published and archival sources, I realized that the dominant emphasis on national integration through the railway project tells a only small part of the story. Qajar travelers frequently encountered railway technology in Iran’s neighboring countries, such as Russia and India; early railway workers had often gained prior industrial experience in the Caucasus, the Ottoman Empire, and Iraq; many traveled by train to perform pilgrimage to the shrine cities in Iraq or to organize communist networks that linked Iran with the Soviet Union and the Persian Gulf. Finding these sources pushed me to think of my book not simply as a history of a particular national railway project, but instead as a larger history of mobilities and spatial imaginaries. It also helped me to read a large body of literature outside of Middle Eastern historiography that discusses how infrastructure produced national/imperial space (the works of Manu Goswami, Kate McDonald, and Eileen Kane, for example).

On a more personal level, I worked for a Japanese railway company after graduating from college in Tokyo. I wanted to work for the railway company because I was always fascinated by how large railway stations in Japan produced various forms of mobilities and immobilities around them. I did not expect that I would one day write a book about rail infrastructure in Iran, but I find it amazing that I somehow came back to a topic that interested me so much before entering academia.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MK: Iran in Motion traces contested imaginations and practices of mobility from the conception of a trans-Iranian railway during the nineteenth-century global transport revolution to its early years of operation in the late 1940s. As such, it follows many phases of the project, from imagining and planning to building, operating, and using the railway, focusing on a particular group in each phase. Readers will learn about all sorts of groups, including British imperial officials, Qajar-era diplomats, Iranian parliamentarians, technocrats, landowners, nomadic tribes, workers, and railway travelers.

The book argues that, rather than simply fostering national integration, the Trans-Iranian Railway project reorganized the movement of the nation both spatially and qualitatively. It redirected the flows of people and goods on multiple spatial scales, while seeking to convert “unruly” mobilities such as tribal and pilgrim mobilities into tamed labor and tourist mobilities. In so doing, the project brought the provinces closer to Tehran while also pulling them away from it, producing provincial, national, and transnational encounters along the route. This condition simultaneously fragmented and homogenized Iran.

In this sense, this book builds on scholarship on Iran’s nation formation and transnational connections (especially with India, the Caucasus, and Russia) in the last few decades, but it attempts to depart from the larger trend in three ways. First, I did not want to make the book only about ideas and identity. By tracing mobility networks formed around the railway, including regulations, institutions, skills, and knowledge, I explore the material underpinnings that interacted with nation formation and transnational connections. Second, many of the interactions that I discuss took place not in Tehran, but in the provinces, borderlands, and outside of Iran. By shifting attention away from the capital, I show how the nation as a unit was constantly in transition as mobile citizens became linked to multiple spatial imaginations. Third, despite my starting the project as a way to study the Reza Shah period, the book includes extensive discussions of the 1940s. By examining the politics of mobility after the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, I point out that a state-funded project of the Reza Shah period acquired a path of its own and shaped the sociocultural transformations of post-Reza Shah Iran. Seeing 1941 only as a moment of rupture obscures the contingencies of early Pahlavi projects.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MK: I would love to have scholars outside of Iranian studies read the book. In particular, scholars of mobility, space, and infrastructure would find the book relevant. I also hope that scholars in transport and mobility studies read the book, as the Middle East is largely absent in the field.

Outside of academia, I hope that many Iranians are going to read this book because there are so many myths about the Trans-Iranian Railway project. For example, Iranian school history textbooks portray the project as a British ploy, erroneously noting that the British preferred a north-south route, while the book debunks this myth by showing how British officials never had a consensus about the most desirable route of the railway. Likewise, the nostalgic imaginations of the Pahlavi period take state propaganda at face value and view the project as a visual manifestation of technological modernity under Reza Shah, completely ignoring the massive scale of displacement and destruction brought about by the project. Especially as the book is published in the centennial of the 1921 coup that brought Reza Khan to power, I hope that it satisfies the intellectual curiosity of Iranian readers and provides a nuanced interpretation of the project.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

MK: I am presently working on two projects. The first one is about Iran’s eastern borderlands, a region that is generally neglected in the area studies paradigm. Iran’s eastern borderlands were linked to Central Asia, Afghanistan, India, and the Indian Ocean through both land and sea transportation routes, making this project a natural evolution from Iran in Motion. In writing this history, I want to be attentive to Clapperton Mavhunga’s critique of transport studies’ narrow focus on mechanized modes of transport. This is especially important in the Middle East, where older modes of transport continued to coexist with automobiles.

The second project evolved out of my interest in spatial imaginaries. I am examining a particular strand of Japan’s spatial imaginary of Asia that emerged in the late nineteenth century. This imaginary is fascinating because it incorporated Islamic West Asia into the concept of Asian civilization, drawing on perceived cultural affinity between Japan and West Asia. Instead of repeating the well-known history of Japan’s political project of pan-Asianism (as scholars like Cemil Aydin and Selçuk Esenbel brilliantly tell), I am exploring what Japanese travelers to West Asia, including diplomats, traders, converts to Islam, scholars, and artists, had to say about the “western core of Asia” that corresponded with Japan as the eastern core.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 6: Workers of the Victory Bridge)

In 1946, Mardan-e Ruz printed a letter from railway workers in Arak. The workers noted that they had been living “away from families for four years” to operate the railway and argued that they felt entitled to “go back to their home regions” or receive a higher salary. The movement away from family to an unfamiliar city was a key component in narrativizing their experience of the occupation and encapsulating the profoundness of their sacrifices. Because they had endured separation from families during the occupation, they considered themselves to be more entitled to receive rewards—even more entitled than native workers from the south who had not moved across the nation. If the IRO’s housing and socialization programs were indeed predicated on the assumption that workers were heads of nuclear households, shouldn’t the organization reward workers for making the ultimate manly sacrifice of moving away from their families?

Railway workers often incorporated marriage and family into their life stories to express disillusionment with their postwar socioeconomic circumstances and to implicitly or explicitly critique the IRO leadership. When “Get to Know Railway Workers” featured Eskandar Ranjbaran, a fifty-one-year-old welder in Bandar-e Shah factories, he talked about his difficult childhood in Ardabil. Born into a modest merchant family, he received no education until he took adult literacy courses through the IRO late in life. He started working when he was eight, eventually manufacturing samovars in his native city. His life took a drastic turn when he left his family and relocated to the new port city of Bandar-e Shah in 1931 to take advantage of railway construction there. Living in a tent in malaria-ridden Mazandaran to work in the railway industry had not been easy. During the early phase of railway operation, he had been involved in a tragic accident when his train crashed into a mountain. Over the next twenty days, he and his fellow workers had tried to recover pieces of the locomotive and bodies of the victims. The nightmarish experience remained vivid in his memory. After all the sacrifices that he had made along with thousands of other Iranian railway workers, however, Ranjbaran’s present life remained difficult. With a monthly salary of 2,300 riyals and various benefits, which would probably bring his total salary to around 3,500 riyals, he had to support nine family members. No other source of income was available. He considered marriage a man’s obligation, but it was a difficult financial commitment.

As Ranjbaran’s interview illustrates, many railway workers’ self-narration in “Get to Know Railway Workers” had three distinct components. First, many workers had been born into poor families so that they ultimately left their hometowns to seek better economic opportunities. Leaving their familiar homes to work on railway construction at places like Bandar-e Shah was more than a spatial move to an unfamiliar geography. For these workers, it was also a mental move that marked the beginning of the profound sacrifices they would make throughout their careers as railway men; it also marked the beginning of the upward socioeconomic mobility it seemed to promise.

Second, many interviewees celebrated the valor of railway workers in creating the Victory Bridge legacy. As one worker stated, “My biggest attachment as a worker to this company comes from our contribution during World War II in advancing the Allies’ cause and our gaining the name ‘The Victory Bridge.’” Particularly for old-timers like Ranjbaran, the Victory Bridge finally gave a name to all of the sacrifices they had made for the national railway since the construction period had begun. Interviewees often cited the grave physical dangers they had exposed themselves to in order to build and operate the railway. Some, like Ranjbaran, vividly recalled witnessing terrible accidents as defining moments while working on the railway. The experience of accidents, including witnessing the deaths of fellow workers, rescuing the injured, and suffering injuries in the rescue process, captured the essence of their sacrifices.Thus, the intensity of physical danger inherent in Iran’s largest national industry formed the basis of a peculiar masculine self-image. Again, workers participated in constructing the Victory Bridge legacy around their own very personal sacrifices.

Finally, after describing their sacrifices, they discussed marriage and family. As Ranjbaran’s interview typified, railway workers emphasized their difficult economic circumstances. They stressed that they were the sole breadwinners for their families. As such, they claimed that they struggled to make ends meet, sometimes by having to take second jobs, eating mostly bread and vegetables, or even by receiving financial support from their own fathers. Having embraced a middle-class nuclear family ideal, they valued its hallmark of sending children to modern schools, stressing that they prioritized expenses for their children’s education. This was at the expense of spending in other areas. Lamenting the difficulty of supporting a family of four with his monthly salary of 3,000 riyals, one worker asked rhetorically, “With my income and the kind of expenses that I have, what kind of leisure could I enjoy? It’s not even enough to buy newspapers, which is like food for the brain. How could I be interested in cinema, theater, music and so forth?”

Nonetheless, workers were in unanimous agreement about the general desirability of marriage as man’s essential duty (vazifeh) and service (khedmat). Claiming that marriage was obligatory and that whoever did not get married was committing a grave sin, one worker asserted, “Marriage is the basis of population growth and the foundation of family.”Others qualified their general statements about marriage, as one worker noted, “From a religious perspective, being single is a major sin. For state employees like us, however, being single is better since we have such a low salary.”Yet another worker went even further by stating, “In Iran, marriage is a grave sin for the poor but a blessing for the rich. Either case, one should get married.”

Taken altogether, despite the purported goal of introducing a diverse yet united Iranian railway workforce, self-narrations in “Get to Know Railway Workers” had a subversive subtext. They revealed workers’ deep ambivalence resulting from the gap between the masculine ideals their line of work embodied and the emasculating reality of not earning sufficient money to provide for their families. They were unable to secure a comfortable life for their children, and some had to rely on parental financial support. The argument was always the same: as workers who had created the Victory Bridge legacy, they felt entitled to be rewarded. But in postwar Iran, railway workers’ dreams of upward socioeconomic mobility as the patriarchs of nuclear families remained largely unfulfilled. Ironically, they had embraced middle-class nuclear family values implicit in the housing and socialization programs promoted by the IRO only to become acutely aware of the impossibility of living up to those values. For that, they blamed the IRO leadership while trying to prove that they were more sacrificial than all other railway workers. Thus the contestation over who truly owned the legacy of the Victory Bridge had both unifying and fragmenting effects among railway workers. As events soon proved, the issue fostered differentiation within the IRO’s national workforce on the eve of the mass political movement that erupted during nationalization of the oil industry.