Iranian Nationalism & Nostalgia
Fragment on a research interest
On 15 October 2021, I delivered a short presentation at the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies Workshop on “Violence, Witnessing, and Recovering the Archives” entitled, “Nostalgia, Diaspora, and Iranian Neo-Monarchists.” My talk focused on the political and cultural functions of nostalgia by a segment of the contemporary Iranian diaspora, particularly in the United States. In thinking here through nationalism and nostalgia in the American case, I hope to explore in my dissertation the ways in which memory was and is utilized, revised, and weaponized by the Iranian diaspora in France.
Influenced by Kathleen Stewart’s polemic on nostalgia, as well as by Hamid Naficy’s analysis of Iranian diasporic practices of cinematic remembering in Los Angeles, I read nostalgia as a polyphonic “mode of representation” and as a “cultural practice” in the era of postmodernity and transnational capital.1 Stewart reminds us that one’s experience of nostalgia differs depending on one’s social and cultural positionality. At the same time, she argues that nostalgia, as a cultural practice, “sets in motion a dialectic of closeness and distantiation; its goal is not the creation of a code based on empty distinctions but the redemption of expressive images and speech.”2 Naficy argues that “nostalgia for one’s homeland has a fundamentally interpsychic source expressed in the trope of an eternal desire for return—a return that is structurally unrealizable.”3 Naficy also points out that the trope of exilic return misses the mark in one major respect: “the fact that the unconsummated longing which is the motive force of [artistic representations of exile] would cease to exist if return and reunion were successfully accomplished.”4 Naficy has already done much of the analytic work of interpreting the significance of Iranian diasporic nostalgia in Southern California from the 1980s through the 1990s. Through his analysis of poetry, music videos, and household furniture, Naficy makes a case for the reactionary and regressive logic of nostalgia. “The exilic commonality with home...is illusory,” he argues. “It must also be noted that the style of imagining is not homogeneous, that there are different versions of history: official versions and those held in popular memory.”5 While it is true that “nostalgia serves to soften the blows from…various traumas,” Naficy suggests that “nostalgic longing can produce not unity but discord, not peace but war,” all this because it “seeks not so much to preserve the past as to restore it through fetishization of an idealized construction.”6
Inspired by Donya Alinejad’s 2017 monograph, The Internet and Formations of Iranian American-ness: Next Generation Diaspora, I took to the Iranian social media presence on Facebook and Instagram to better understand the discursive constellations and rhetorical practices of neo-monarchists.7 My goal was to see how the cultural practice of nostalgia was framed and enunciated, primarily through visuals with superimposed text, stand-alone text, and other media forms. It is important to keep in mind that Alinejad’s 2017 monograph speaks to the diversity of politically active Iranians in the first and second generation in the United States who reject the nationalist-monarchist ideological paradigm. However, as I began to study the political activities of Iranian students, politicians, and special interest groups in the mid-to-late twentieth century, I became aware of a new groundswell of support for the neo-monarchist cause. In 2020, a new organization was established: Iranian Americans for Liberty. IAL is armed with a political action committee, Iranian Americans for the Constitution, and a super PAC, Iranian Americans for Peace. IAL’s activities include press releases, webinars, and a social media presence. According to journalist Bryan Metzger, IAL takes “aim at both the Iranian government and Iranian Americans who favor engaging with the country, while echoing traditional hawkish talking points.”8 IAL is thoroughly inundated with neo-monarchists who advocate for the return to power of Reza Pahlavi and support an America-backed toppling of the current regime. IAL has ties to the Farashgard movement, which is known as “Iran Revival” in English, as well as the Constitutionalist Party of Iran, based in Southern California. IAL is also tied to pro-Israel advocacy organizations and its members are closely allied with Republican members of congress and actively seek to dissuade all cooperation with the current regime in Iran. Do organizations like IAL exist in France? If they do, what are their primary sources of funding? To whom do they appeal in the Iranian diaspora?
The Iranian neo-monarchist cause participates in the regressive and fetishizing logic of nostalgia. The historical revisionism of some neo-monarchists participates in an almost perverse restructuring of what Monica M. Martinez has identified as “vernacular history making.”9 Blogs, websites, archives, and social media presence cater to the consumption of styles of life and modes of belonging that are over-saturated with mimetic circuits of the Pahlavi dynasty and an imagined former glory of Iran that is not reflective of academic scholarly consensus.
Arjun Appadurai argues that pastiche and nostalgia are “central modes of image production and reception” in the postmodern era.10 Moreover, “The past is now not a land to return to in a simple politics of memory.”
It has become a synchronic warehouse of cultural scenarios, a kind of temporal central casting, to which recourse can be had as appropriate, depending on the movie to be made, the scene to be enacted, the hostages to be rescued. All this is par for the course, if you follow Baudrillard or Lyotard into a world of signs wholly unmoored from their social signifiers (all the world’s a Disneyland).11
Throughout my chapters, I want to explore the imbrication of nationalism and nostalgia in the Iranian diaspora in France. Given that the first draft of Appadurai’s essay was written in 1990, to what extent does his analysis hold for the Iranian diaspora in France from the time of the CIA-backed coup in 1953 to the Iranian Revolution in 1979? What imagery did Iranians, representative of both “high” and “low” culture, project about Iran and Iranian identity while they were in France? Were there differences between intellectuals, students, and artists regarding thought-about-nation? What organizations were created, either government-sponsored or independent, which sought to prorogate certain visions of the meaning of being Iranian? My understanding of Iranian nationalism during the twentieth century has been influenced by the scholarship of Reza Zia-Ebrahimi.12
Kathleen Stewart, “Nostalgia—A Polemic,” Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 3 (1988): 228.
Stewart, “Nostalgia—A Polemic,” 228, 39.
Hamid Naficy, “The Poetics and Practice of Iranian Nostalgia in Exile,” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 1, no. 3 (Winter 1991): 285.
Naficy, “The Poetics and Practice of Iranian Nostalgia in Exile,” 288.
Naficy, “The Poetics and Practice of Iranian Nostalgia in Exile,” 299.
Naficy, “The Poetics and Practice of Iranian Nostalgia in Exile,” 299.
Donya Alinejad, The Internet and Formations of Iranian American-ness: Next Generation Diaspora (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillian/Springer Nature, 2017).
Bryan Metzger, “How a shadowy, hawkish new group tied to Iranian monarchists is gaining influence in Congress,” Responsible Statecraft, 04/01/2021, https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2021/04/01/iranian-americans-for-liberty-monarchists-gaining-influence-congress/.
Monic Muñoz Martinez, “Recuperating Histories of Violence in the Americas: Vernacular History-Making on the US–Mexico Border,” American Quarterly 66, no. 3 (September 2014).
Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” in Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader, ed. Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur, KeyWorks in Cultural Studies (Malden, MA; Oxford; Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 2003 ), 28.
Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” 29.
Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).