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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 July 2012


This paper traces the emergence of folklore studies and ethnography in interwar Iran. It argues that these disciplines were part of larger nationalist projects of representing and speaking for the “masses.” The first part of the paper explores how and why a number of Iranian intellectuals engaged in folklore studies after a period of prolonged political activism in the first few decades of the 20th century. The second part of the paper examines cultural institutions established by the state, mainly in the late 1930s, in an attempt to appropriate and institutionalize folklore studies and ethnography for the purposes of nation building. These efforts were fraught with ambivalences because the “masses” were simultaneously praised as repositories of “authenticity” and looked down upon as a potential source of “backwardness.”

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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Author's note: I thank Beth Baron, Aomar Boum, Devika Bordia, Houchang Chehabi, Aslı Iğsız, Sara Pursley, and three anonymous reviewers for making helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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26 Aryanpur, Az Nima ta Ruzigar-i Ma, 467.

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30 Radhayrapetian, Iranian Folk Narrative, 108–109.

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33 Amini, Amir Quli, Dastanha-yi Amsal, 2nd ed. (Isfahan: Amini, 1954)Google Scholar; idem, Si Afsanah az Afsanahha-yi Mahalli-yi Isfahan (Isfahan: n.p., 1960).

34 Amini, Dastanha-yi Amsal, 1–5.

35 Aryanpur, Az Nima ta Ruzigar-i Ma, 456–57.

36 Amini, Si Afsanah az Afsanahha-yi Mahalli-yi Isfahan, hah.

37 Ibid., vav.

38 Amini, Dastanha-yi Amsal, 1–2.

39 Katouzian, Homa, Sadeq Hedayat: The Life and Literature of an Iranian Writer (New York: I. B. Tauris, 1991)Google Scholar. For an in-depth discussion of his contribution to folklore studies, see Fazeli, Politics of Culture in Iran, 62–75.

40 Hidayat, Sadiq, ʿAlaviyah Khanum (Tehran: n.p., 1933)Google Scholar; idem, Hajji Aqa (Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1952); idem, Sag-i Vilgard (Tehran: Bazargani-yi Nijat, 1943); idem, Afsanah-i Afarinish: Khaymah Shabbazi dar sih pardah (Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1946).

41 Hidayat, Sadiq, Farhang-i ʿAmiyanah-i Mardum-i Iran, ed. Hidayat, Jahangir (Tehran: Nashr-i Chashmah, 1999), 31Google Scholar.

42 Ibid., 23.

43 Ibid., 25–30.

44 Ibid., 32.

45 Ibid., 27–28.

46 Hidayat cites the work of the American missionary Bess Allen Donaldson as an example of such polemical scholarship. Hidayat, Farhang-i ʿAmiyanah-i Mardum-i Iran, 240; Bess Allen Donaldson, The Wild Rue: A Story of Muhammadan Magic and Folklore in Iran (London: Luzac & Co., 1938).

47 The one exception to this appears to have been a short film made in 1925 on Takiyah Dawlat, a Qajar amphitheater used for taʿzīyah performances in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jamshid Malekpour, The Islamic Drama (London: Frank Cass, 2003), 144.

48 The Egyptian effendiyya betrayed similar ambivalences in their representations of peasants in literary works. Selim, Samah, The Novel and the Rural Imaginary in Egypt, 1880–1985 (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004)Google Scholar.

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50 Given recent scholarship suggesting that folktales often encapsulate everyday strategies for survival and resistance against those with power—whether kings, governors, landlords, or merchants—Pahlavi concerns over the subversive potential of folk narratives were perhaps well founded, particularly because the memories of the Constitutional Revolution were still fresh. Michel de Certeau's observation regarding the importance of power reversals in folktales as a strategy for survival are particularly apt: “The formality of everyday practices is indicated in these tales, which frequently reverse the relationships of power and, like the stories of miracles, ensure the victory of the unfortunate in a fabulous, utopian space. This space protects the weapons of the weak against the reality of the established order. It also hides them from the social categories which ‘make history’ because they dominate it. And whereas historiography recounts in the past tense the strategies of instituted powers, these ‘fabulous’ stories offer their audience a repertory of tactics for future use.” Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 23.

51 Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad, “Language Reform Movement and Its Language: The Case of Persian,” in The Politics of Language Purism, ed. Jernudd, Björn and Shapiro, Michael J. (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1989), 81104Google Scholar; Ludwig, Paul, “Iranian Language Reform in the Twentieth Century: Did the First Farhangestan (1935–40) Succeed?,” Journal of Persianate Studies 3 (2010): 78103Google Scholar; Kia, Mehrdad, “Persian Nationalism and the Campaign for Language Purification,” Middle Eastern Studies 34 (1998): 936CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Perry, John R., “Language Reform in Turkey and Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17 (1985): 295311CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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53 Ibid., 154.

54 Ibid., 157–58.

55 The best discussions of the pedagogical function of this organization are Marashi, Afshin, Nationalizing Iran: Culture, Power, and the State, 1870–1940 (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2008), 104109Google Scholar; and Kian-Thiébaut, Azadeh, Secularization of Iran: A Doomed Failure? The New Middle Class and the Making of Modern Iran (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 8586Google Scholar.

56 Shafaq, Rizazadah, Mubarazah ba Khurafat (Tehran: Firdawsi, 1939)Google Scholar.

57 Sanders, Todd and West, Harry G., “Power Revealed and Concealed in the New World Order,” in Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order, ed. West, Harry and Sanders, Todd (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), 137Google Scholar.

58 These definitions and their relation to superstition are discussed with great skill by Smith, Steve, “Introduction,” in The Religion of Fools? Superstition Past and Present, ed. Smith, Steve and Knight, Alan (Oxford: Oxford Journals, 2008), 3855Google Scholar.

59 Shafaq, Mubarazah ba Khurafat, 11–13. Shafaq later gave the example of Rustam and Isfandiyar as significant figures in Iranian national myth but condemned these legends when they paraded as history. Ibid., 66–67.

60 Ibid., 70, 73, 76–77.

61 Ibid., 4, 22, 65.

62 Ibid., 53, 65.

63 Ibid., 23, 55, 58.

64 Ibid., 88.

65 Smith, “Introduction,” 9.

66 Shafaq, Mubarazah ba Khurafat, 85, 87.

67 Ibid., 79–82.

68 Ibid., 86.

69 Schayegh, Cyrus, Who Is Knowledgeable Is Strong: Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900–1950 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

70 Ibid., 12.

71 Rahguzar, Riza, Fazlullah Muhtadi (Subhi): Girdavaranadah-i Qissahha-yi ʿAmiyanah va Avvalin Qissahgui-yi Zuhr-i Jumʿah-i Radiyu Iran (Tehran: Daftar-i Nashr-i Farhang-i Islami, 1994), 5253Google Scholar.

72 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd ed. (New York: Verso, 1991)Google Scholar. Rudolf Mrazek has demonstrated how Indonesian nationalists effectively employed radio as a novel technological medium in their anticolonial struggles. Mrazek, Rudolf, Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002), 161–81Google Scholar.

73 Hidayat, Farhang-i ʿAmiyanah-i Mardum-i Iran, 164.

74 Subhi, Fazl Allah Muhtadi, Afsanahha-yi Kuhan (Tehran: Rangin, 1946), 15Google Scholar.

75 Ibid., 3–5.

76 Ibid., 10–13.

77 Ibid., 17–29. Muhtadi-Subhi includes references to Iranian provincial variants of stories throughout his text. See Ibid., 73, 84, 90, 98–100, 104–105, 123, 132.

78 Kezer, Zeynep, “Familiar Things in Strange Places: Ankara's Ethnography Museum and the Legacy of Islam in Republican Turkey,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 8 (2000): 101–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79 For an important discussion of the ethnography museum, see Fazeli, Politics of Culture in Iran, 58–61.

80 Marashi, Afshin, “Performing the Nation: The Shah's Official State Visit to Kemalist Turkey, June to July 1934,” in The Making of Modern Iran: State and Society under Riza Shah, 1921–1941, ed. Cronin, Stephanie (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 103–25Google Scholar.

81 This need for external validation of Iranian cultural prestige by international arbiters was also evident in the 1934 Firdawsi Millenary celebration, to which many foreign scholars were invited. Marashi, Afshin, “The Nation's Poet: Ferdowsi and the Iranian National Imagination,” in Iran in the 20th Century: Historiography and Political Culture, ed. Atabaki, Touraj (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 93111Google Scholar.

82 Boum, Aomar, “The Plastic Eye: The Politics of Jewish Representation in Moroccan Museums,” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 75 (2010): 4977CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cohn, Bernard, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

83 There are perhaps some telling parallels between the ways in which ethnography and literary appropriation were both used for different purposes by European imperialists and non-Western nationalists. For an examination of how literary texts such as A Thousand and One Nights and The Adventures of Hajji Baba Ispahan could be appropriated simultaneously for colonialist/Orientalist and nationalist/anticolonial purposes, see Rastegar, Kamran, Literary Modernity between Middle East and Europe: Textual Transactions in 19th-Century Arabic, English and Persian Literatures (London: Routledge, 2007), 56Google Scholar, 72, 128.

84 For a thorough discussion of the Society for National Heritage in the early Pahlavi era, see Grigor, Talinn, “Recultivating ‘Good Taste’: The Early Pahlavi Modernists and Their Society for National Heritage,” Iranian Studies 37 (2004): 1745CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

85 Hikmat, ʿAli Asghar, Si Khatirah az ʿAsr-i Farkhundah-i Pahlavi (Tehran: Sazman-i Intisharat-i Vahid, 1976), 366–75Google Scholar.

86 Hass, Wilhelm, “Muzahha-yi Buzurg-i va Muzah-i Itnugrafi-yi Iran,” Amuzish va Parvarish 10 (Farvardin 1940): 3438Google Scholar.

87 Hass, Wilhelm, “Vazaʾif-i Muzah-i Insan Shinasi,” Taʿlim va Tarbiyat 6 (1936): 94Google Scholar. Hass also believed that Iran's absence from international ethnography conferences, such as one he attended in London several years prior, was a great shame because Iran's history could shed light on the histories of other nations. Ibid., 95.

88 Haqiq, Fazlullah, “ʿIlm-i Insanshinasi,” Taʿlim va Tarbiyat 7 (1937): 165–70Google Scholar. Haqiq also recounts a conversation he had with a Belgian scholar, Dr. Marne, who had studied many different peoples over a broad geographical area and had apparently noticed the influences of Iranian civilization on them. He expressed hope that in the near future Iran would establish serious ethnographic and anthropological studies and a museum, which would facilitate the study of these various regions. Ibid.

89 Ibid., 170.

90 Yasami, Rashid, “Bayanat-i Aqa-yi Rashid-i Yasami dar Bab-i Fulklur,” Taʿlim va Tarbiyat 6 (1936): 8687Google Scholar.

91 The equation of the “folk” with the ancient past was also evident in constructions of Greek nationalism that treated folklore “as a repository of verbal monuments.” See Herzfeld, Michael, Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modern Greece, 1st ed. (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1982), 30Google Scholar.

92 Yasami, “Bayanat-i Aqa-yi Rashid Yasami dar Bab-i Fulklur,” 88.

93 Fabian, Johannes, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 1121Google Scholar.

94 Furughi was quick to point out that Darwinian evolution did not contradict a belief in God, perhaps anticipating potential criticisms of his evolutionary model of society. He categorized ethnography as a branch of biology on the grounds that humans are animals. He likewise outlined evolutionary models of human development. Furughi, Muhammad ʿAli, “Mardumshinasi Chist?,” Amuzish va Parvarish 8 (1938): 1012Google Scholar, 17.

95 Ibid., 19.

96 Struggling to articulate a definition of ethnography, Furughi argued that it was simultaneously the study of the “spirit and customs” of a people and the study of their “physical characteristics.” Ibid., 15–16.

97 Ibid., 20.

98 Foucault, Michel, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Martin, Luther H., Gutman, Huck, and Hutton, Patrick H. (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 1649Google Scholar.

99 Shawqi, ʿAbbas, Dasht-i Gurgan (Tehran: Intisharat-i Muʾassasah-i Khavar, 1936), 15Google Scholar.

100 Ibid., 18–19.

101 Ibid., 45.

102 Thongchai, Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

103 Shawqi, Dasht-i Gurgan, 13–14.

104 Ibid., 41–42. For similarly romanticized representations of the Bedouin in Iraqi nationalism, see Bashkin, Orit, The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009), 207–12Google Scholar.

105 Shawqi, Dasht-i Gurgan, 40.

106 Ibid., 40–41.

107 Ibid., 44. A strict dichotomy between the “here and now” of “civilization” and the “then and there” of “savage society” was a key assumption of European colonial anthropology. Fabian, Time and the Other, 26–27.

108 Shawqi, Dasht-i Gurgan, 44.

109 Ibid., 8–10, 12–13, 44–48.

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