Narges Bajoghli on her book, Iran Reframed

Cover of Iran Reframed by Narges Bajoghli

Interviewed by Zehra Hashmi

Zehra Hashmi: The storytelling and narrative flow of this ethnography works beautifully, and seemingly effortlessly, allowing the argument to emerge organically and convincingly from the stories you tell. To begin, could you speak to your writing choices, specifically the innovative way you are using your interlocutors’ stories as the driving force of the book as opposed to an intervention into existing anthropological literature? What was involved in making these choices; was it primarily informed by the material you were dealing with and the subject at hand—or, put another way, if you were to write another book on something entirely different, would you choose a similar mode of storytelling and narrative construction?

Narges Bajoghli: I first wrote this manuscript as a more traditional scholarly manuscript because that’s what I thought I should do to gain acceptance in academia as a junior scholar. Yet, I had done a lot of public writing to that point, some of which engaged storytelling, and had also trained as a documentary filmmaker at NYU during my doctoral training. After turning in my traditional manuscript, my editor at Stanford University Press, Kate Wahl, encouraged me to write more in line with my previous public work and to show the anthropological, media, and social dynamics at play, rather than tell them. Hearing that from her was a relief—it felt like a green light to write the book I most wanted to read. As a first-time author and a junior scholar, the push to trust my own writing voice and to take storytelling seriously in my scholarship was exactly what I needed. So, I set about to re-write the manuscript as a whole. In doing so, I did two main things: first, I read a lot of great creative non-fiction, both longform essays and books to get ideas and inspiration for structure. And second, I storyboarded the manuscript as if I were making a film. I went back to my fieldnotes and the evidence I had provided in my more traditionally academic manuscript and drew out the stories of my main interlocutors as ones that would anchor the book.

As anthropologists we know the central importance of storytelling for humans. So, in writing this book, I took all of that to heart and applied the craft of storytelling as the central tenet of the book. Since I was writing on Iran—a country that despite all the ink that’s been spilt on describing its socio-political development since the 1979 Iranian Revolution remains a deeply confusing place for most people to understand—I really wanted to engage audiences outside those who focus on Iran as an area of academic expertise. I was writing on a place that is at times both familiar to people (though mainly in stereotypes) and deeply alien; I knew the only way to cut through all of that was to center the lives of people and to have the reader follow them throughout the narrative arc of the book. 

As for whether I’d choose a similar or different mode of writing for an entirely different book, after my experience writing Iran Reframed, my answer is that I will definitely try to keep storytelling at the heart of whatever I write in the future. Not only is it more enjoyable as a writing process—even if at times much more difficult—but it helps to engage multiple audiences. I went into academia to not only speak to my colleagues, but to make what we work on available to larger audiences.

Zehra Hashmi: I am interested in how gheyr-e-khodi (insiders) works as an analytical category in the book. You show that who constitutes the gheyr-e-khodi is not fixed; a person once embraced can be shunned at a different point in time or place. But is there also a broader, over-arching shift in this insider-outsider dynamic that you are demonstrating throughout the arc of the book? I am thinking about how, on the one hand, the khodi are visibly marked through dress, while on the other hand, regime producers deliberately obscure the origins of some of their films by playing with visual markers and their own strategies for dissimulation (p. 91). Is the question of what constitutes the regime then determined by the shifting category of the gheyr-e-khodi? And more generally, could you expand upon what I read as one of the book’s central arguments about the role of internally contested meanings of the regime: how did you arrive at this argument and what does it reveal that external critiques of the regime do not?

Narges Bajoghli: What I was trying to do in the book was to show the layers of power, how it shifts, how it’s not static, and how complex it can be. Showing the shifting terrain of khodi/gheyr-e khodi was one of the main ways I attempted to do this. Oftentimes we conceive of power in ways that I don’t think captures how incredibly malleable and flexible power manifests itself in our daily lives, especially state power, and the ways that it comes through in everyday practices of dress, speech, and so on. So, even in a state like Iran that is marked by a particular kind of post-revolutionary politics, power shifts to stay alive and the markers of khodi/gheyr-e khodi are used to demarcate its realm.

Regarding your second question, the role of internally contested meanings of the regime—Iran is different than other revolutionary states of the 20th century because it did not develop a party system. Add to that the fact that the revolution was not led by a small cohort of people—so there has always been contestation over the meaning of the revolution and its legacy from its onset by its myriad participants. What this has meant as we enter into the fifth decade of the revolution is that there has not been a top-down “this is what the revolution is, period!” The internal divisions among those who are loyal to the post-revolutionary state is very much a struggle about what the legacy of this revolution will be. This has always been a live question inside Iran, even if this gets flatten for outside observers. Though these struggles spill out into domestic media, the degree of contestation behind closed doors in regime centers was constantly palpable.

Zehra Hashmi: What kind of an audience was in your mind when you wrote this book? You show that the Iranian diaspora plays an important role in the media landscape within Iran, and so even as these boundaries between audiences are not hard and fast, has the response of people in Iran differed from those in the US? Additionally, given your position and your experience, did you feel conflicting solidarities in the field, and if so how did you approach and manage these dual (or more!) pressures?

Narges Bajoghli: During fieldwork I definitely felt multiple points of tension. When I left fieldwork, I couldn’t write for a long time and had to work through the anger and frustration that often arose from what I saw. I knew I’d come under attack from various sectors—even if I didn’t know how extensive the attacks would be at the time. Just the mere fact of spending time with pro-regime actors in Iran opened me up to criticism from Iranians opposed to the state (including many in my own family and close friends circles). That I expected and I assumed that when folks read the book they’d understand what I was trying to do and why it was important to research sites of power, even for (or I’d argue, especially for) activists.

What I did not expect and couldn’t have known was the ways the U.S. government funded attacks against me. My book came out in the throes of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign for regime change/collapse in Iran, and I was targeted by a campaign funded by the Pompeo State Department that went after Iranian American academics, journalists, and analysts. That campaign was primarily an online smear campaign with attendant attempts to discredit me as supposedly pro-regime and put my job in danger. The funding for that campaign came to an abrupt end after I hired lawyers, yet nonetheless the orbit of regime-change organizations and people around Trump/Pompeo continue their attacks. But as one of my graduate school mentors once said to me, “everything is data,” and indeed, I am keeping good notes on all of this and hope to one day write about how power and media work in the United States on issues of national security interest.

As for the primary audience for my book, my primary audience was my students and their generation of learners. Not only because our books often get assigned in college classrooms, but also because my students’ questions and curiosity as I was writing my book were front and center and I wanted to write for them to make sense of this increasingly confusing world where state power and media production are becoming harder to parse out—everywhere, not just in Iran.

Zehra Hashmi: Many of the people you introduce us to are working on memorialization projects, particularly around the Iraq-Iran war, and its resonance (or lack thereof) with the youth. In a few places, you touch on the role of Shia imagery and the figure of Imam Hussain—especially in relation to the aesthetics of loss, sacrifice, mourning, as well as remembrance itself. While political Islam may be less of a driving political force for the youth in Iran today, as you show, how does the changing political landscape map onto the symbolic and aesthetic draw of Shia imagery and its role in shaping media aesthetics and landscape, not just for the regime producers but the population at large?

Narges Bajoghli: Currently this is most present in the depictions of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who was assassinated by the United States in January 2020 in Iraq. I show in the book how he was the central lynchpin for creating a new narrative of the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian state as nationalists above and beyond religious in an attempt to connect with youth. Since his death, media depictions related to Soleimani (of which there have been endless renditions) have been fascinating to trace. The aesthetics of Shia imagery are central to his memorialization as an important martyr, but they are markedly different from the ways important war martyrs of the first few decades of post-revolutionary Iran were depicted. Soleimani is both couched in Shia imagery and rendered as the quintessential national hero. For regime media makers, they talk about the images they are creating of Soleimani as being very important for them because it allows them to update Shia imagery for today’s generation and to embed a nationalist “cool” into the aesthetics they felt no longer resonated. 

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