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COLLECTIONBook reviews
TITLERepresenting the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform, by Negar Mottaheddeh: Review
AUTHOR 1Jack Kalpakian
TITLE_PARENTDigest of Middle East Studies
PUB_THISPolicy Studies Organization
ABSTRACTBook review that touches on the Islamic Republic's treatment of judgment day and how it relates to Bábí doctrine; the image of the Bábí as the internal, modern other inside Iran's national psyche; Qurrat al-'Ayn as a female equivalent of Joseph.
NOTES See preview at, and see also some other publications of Negar Mottaheddeh.
TAGSIran, General history; Iran (documents); Joseph (Prophet); Modernism; Persian culture; Reform; Tahirih
CONTENT Review of: Representing the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform - From the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran
Written by: Negar Mottahedeh
Publisher: Syracuse University Press, 2008
Review by: Jack Kalpakian
Published in: Digest of Middle East Studies 17:2 (Fall 2008), pp. 162-165

It is best to begin with a conclusion about this book first. This book should be placed on the reading list of the next United States president and on the reading lists of the leaderships all of Iran's friends, partners, competitors, allies and enemies. It develops a theme of profound internal torment of identity that is resolved through one woman's total break with tradition and her role in the eventual establishment of a new and liberal religious movement whose adherents have suffered quietly for a century and half in their native country while finding a large measure of acceptance outside it within the realm of the West. Any serious student of Iran would find the current leadership there a great deal more comprehensible in terms of its discourse and use of language after reading this book. It also outlines the deep torment that Iran has not yet recovered from concerning its encounter with modernity and its attempts to create and generate differentiation, when for all intents and purposes, Iran has become an element of the modern world.

Oil wealth as well as a systematic treatment of the ideology of Khomeini are also missing in the work. Oil allowed Iran to rent some aspects of modernity and it had an immense impact on the social structures of the country. Cinema, pistachios and carpets are Iran's main exports - as if the oil fields do not exist. We are given some hints that Khomeini was "more than a little Babi," but there is no systematic comparison that shows how the Ayatollah was drinking from the same springs as the Bab, although departing on a somewhat different journey. [Sayyid Mohammed Rida Al-Shirazi, also know as the "Bab", or "the gate", was the founder of a radical reformist religious movement in 19th Century Iran, who was executed for heresy.] In addition, we are given clues concerning the Islamic Republic's treatment of judgment day and how it relates to Babi notions of the same, but we are not given a systematic comparison on the points where the differences and similarities begin and end. This sort of analysis is essential for isolating the location of the inner other, in this case the Babi, in Iran's national culture. While this is a failure using purely academic standards, it is not a sufficient method to judge this book. To be properly understood, this book needs to be read at two levels on which it operates - the apparent and the hidden.

The apparent theme (zaher) of this book is the image of the Babi as the internal, modern other inside Iran's national psyche. The book begins with the discussion of an image of a Babi prisoner about to be executed during the reign of Nasr al-Din Shah Qajar. The image contains a clear message of grace, humility and dignity by the prisoner, Mirza Badi. The author tells us that her goal to show how the image of the Babi has become the other in Iran. Her method of doing so raises several important questions. First, there is a time-gap in her coverage; properly understood, this book is about the Qajars, the dynasty in whose time the Babi movement appeared, and the Islamic Republic of Khomeini. The Pahlavis are mentioned only four times throughout the book. Why was the Pahlavi dynasty excluded from analysis? Second, the images discussed from the Introduction to the end of the fourth chapter are images that are derived from text, and not images per se. Consequently, we have to ask the author how she defines "image". Third, the author rejects disciplinarity, and posits an anti-disciplinary, i.e. implicated knowledge as an alternative. Disciplinarity has origins and reasons for being - it allows academics to communicate within disciplines, and it also allows and is a pre-condition for inter-disciplinary approaches, which receive no mention in her discussion of disciplinarity, particularly in the third chapter. How does she believe that communication would take place under the specificities she enjoined? Finally, we are faced with the overwhelming presence throughout the book of the Babi martyr, poet and Saint Qurrat al-Ayn Tahirih. If Quarr at Al- Ayn is the primary manifestation of a revolutionary new modern Iran, an Iran that rejects as well as subsumes its Shi'ite Muslim heritage, then why is she absent in the role of the other in the image construction of the Islamic Republic, or for that matter, during Pahlavi Iran? After all, Mottahedeh claims that she argues that the Babi has played the role of the other in Iran and that is what she intends to show throughout the book. A careless reader may feel that the author failed in her stated academic project and that the book has failed to make a case for the role of the Babi as the other in Iran's psyche.

There are several levels beyond the apparent in the book. At the layer closest to the outward image, the book's baten [inner meaning] places Babaism at the center of modern Iran and makes a powerful argument that Iran's attempts to embrace modernity cannot be understood independent of through understanding of both Babism and Bahaism. It draws a picture of Iran as a country haunted by modernity, embracing it and at the same time finding disgust within itself towards it. The second layer of the book's inner meaning is a defense of the epistemology and ontology of the Bahai approach to the Bab and his movement which Bahaism claims as its forerunner. The author worked with the H-Bahai list's participants in her creation of the book, and the book includes a form of Bahai apologetics. The next innermost layer concerns the placement of Babism (and by extension Bahaism) within the national traditions of Iran, both Islamic and Zoroastrian. The author posits Babism as opposed to Arab hegemony within Islam and as paints it as an Iranian movement par excellence. She shows clearly how its texts, events and characters duplicate the passion plays and other theatrical forms practiced in Iran, and outlines how it dramatically turned the meanings of these things around. The innermost, and for this reviewer, the most important core of this book, concerns the author's treatment of Qurrat al-'Ayn.

The author makes a case of Qurrat al-'Ayn as a female equivalent of Joseph, but one whose effect is somewhat different on his audience. At her "unveiling" at the Babi conference in Badasht (1848), she brings about a final and total break between Babism and Islam, because she persuades many but not all of the Babi attendees to break their prayer seals and dispose of their prayer mats. Without delving into the details of the event, one could say that Mottahedeh seems to say that Qurrat al-'Ayn believed that Iran had no choice but to create a new religion based on its space, its geography, its sacred and its time in order to be able to break free from the hegemony of the religious class, to break free from the Arab and to embrace modernity, unveiling, equality and the national. It is very hard not to feel the pain bellowing out of the author's words as she describes Qurrat al-Ayn's execution, and not to feel her sorrow for her, the Bab and their followers as they carry out a real-world passion play - thereby reenacting Ashura in their own blood through "a fold in time." It is also absolutely impossible not to describe the author's feelings towards Qurrat al-Ayn as anything other than love, adoration, respect and even veneration. At no point is Qurrat al-Ayn criticized, although one legitimate criticism may be that by promoting a radical break with the past, she inadvertently doomed the Babi movement. In Mottahedeh's discourse, Qurrat al-Ayn is placed in the center of Babism, eclipsing even the Bab himself, despite his significant presence in the book. Qurrat al-Ayn was a brave, beautiful, intelligent and thoughtful woman; her courage in facing death is also beyond doubt. The book becomes a passion play of her life and it does so by ejecting all disciplinarity and method in favor of a warm embrace of Qurrat al-Ayn's person, thoughts, ideas, and actions. The core of this book is a delshodegan; not as in the film of the same name that the author reviews in the fifth chapter, but an enamourment in the sense of the author's religious love for Qurrat al-Ayn.

Of course, the author is entitled to her perspectives and her Saints. This reviewer, for one, has his own, as does everyone, whether they choose to acknowledge them or not. Yet, can this pass for academic work? Perhaps this is the wrong question. Another question may be what is the value of this book? Plainly, the value of this book is to give outside viewers of Iran, particularly those who read more carefully and avoid the zaher, a deep gaze into the psyche of a nation torn between its origins, its version of Islam, and the modernity symbolized by the farangi. To that extent, the book is extremely useful. It also is written from the perspective of the inner-other. The author speaks from her position as an un-veiled woman of Iranian origin, associating herself with a gravely persecuted religious community, living in Western exile and laboring in a Western liberal arts university; in other words, Mottahedeh herself represents all that is and was rejected and despised by all the regimes of Iran from the Qajars onwards. There are plenty of reasons to listen to the excluded, oppressed, and marginalized voices of any given society first, and in this case, this book more than satisfies.

    [Author Affiliation]
    Review by
    Jack Kalpakian, Ph.D.
    Al-Akhawayn University, Morocco
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