Days of Revolution: Political Unrest in an Iranian Village

 

Days of Revolution is an ethnography of politics in Iran, seen from the perspective of a village half an hour drive from the city of Shiraz. Though its title refers solely to the Iranian revolution of 1979, the book discusses social transformations in the village from the early 20th century up to 2013, focusing especially on the period between the land reform of 1962 and the revolution.  The insightful book is the result of the author’s long-term engagement with Iran. After more than a decade of visiting the country, Hegland spent eighteen months of fieldwork in the village between the spring of 1978 and late fall 1979, witnessing the revolutionary movement, the establishment of the Islamic Republic, and the American hostage crisis, after which she had to leave the country. She returned several times in Iran during the 2000s. An American, she experienced first hand the growing opposition against the U.S., and had to navigate the difficult position of unwillingly being considered a representative of the enemy, while also discovering the support and generosity of many Iranians. As the last pages of the book make clear, this unresolved “political” tension is ongoing, and undergirds the narrative of the book, which alternates moments of great intimacy and nuance, with more distancing observations that cast Iranian politics in a space of unmediated difference. Ethnographically and conceptually, the village occupies the middle ground in this regard. It is the entry point through which politics in Iran can be explained, (at least, as she puts it, village politics), but also represents the limit beyond which politics in the Islamic Republic remains at present impossible to understand for the author (p. 260). At the same time, Hegland explicitly rejects any temptation to interpret politics as an expression of culture (and in the footnotes points out the many contradictions of American politics), foregrounding instead a processual and historical understanding of power relations.

Since the 1950s, the socio-cultural anthropological study of Iran has been divided into three distinct domains of research: the tribe, the village, and the city. While the first two tended to dominate anthropological research before the 1979 revolution, work on cities has monopolized research since the 1980s, given Iran’s immense urban development and current anthropological focus on modernity, as well as the difficulties of carrying out fieldwork in the Islamic Republic.  Hegland’s book offers a renewed approach to the village, and reinserts the vocabulary and classical concerns of social anthropology, making the book doubly refreshing. Moreover, unlike more self-contained exercises, Hegland argues that in order to understand village politics, one should first of all examine relationships among the village, the main city (in this case Shiraz), and the state.  Keeping these links in evidence, Hegland explains village politics through an analysis of property and labor relations, and connects political change to transformations in land ownership. She examines these transformations through the concept of taifeh that she defines interchangeably as a political form, an ethos, a worldview and a paradigm.  In conversation with other works on village Iran (Friedl, Loeffler, Hooglund) and with Victor Turner and Richard Antoun, Hegland conceptualizes taifeh as  “any group with common identity and interest” (p. 8) a broad and flexible definition that allows her to include kinship, property, and space as constitutive elements of a binary system based on affiliation and opposition. Both women and men play crucial roles in maintaining the cohesion and power of a taifeh through practices of hospitality and reciprocity that reinforce its hierarchy. But structural relationships define taifeh less than strategic positioning. For Hegland, politics in the village are characterized by the process through which a group gains prominence by developing ties, gathering resources, and challenging adversaries in escalating clashes, resulting in the victory of one party and the total loss of the other. The winning faction rules authoritatively through its leader, until circumstances allow another taifeh to gain power.

Hegland analyzes the history of the village in light of this process.   She explains that until the monarchy’s land reform of 1962, an absentee landlord from Shiraz owned most of the land surrounding the village: a representative collected her share of the harvest, and oversaw sharecroppers’ rights to their own portion. In 1962, the landlord sold a large portion of her property to a local, while the remaining, less fertile, land was distributed to sharecroppers in plots too small to be profitable. The local landlord, together with his taifeh, and in close alliance with the police, controlled agriculture and political life during the monarchy and up to the revolution. The revolution replaced the government but also altered property relations.  The local landlord was expropriated, his land redistributed, at least in part, and his taifeh defeated by a rival one. Equally, if not more relevant, broader economic transformations since the 1960s–the oil boom in particular–made a significant portion of the village population more and more economically independent from land and village politics. Increasing state centralization weakened the taifeh system and made it more dependent on national dynamics, except in moments, like 1979, when the state’s weakness opened spaces for the return of factional politics. In this instance, taifeh was more a way for villagers to make sense of the revolution, than an operative system, though the ambiguity between politics as ideology and politics as taifeh was constitutive of the passions of those days. Noteworthy are the extended first-hand accounts of villagers who participated in the revolution and in the violent events within the village. Particularly captivating is Hegland’s account of a young man stabbed by his policeman brother-in-law, a rivalry where political position, economic opportunity, kinship relations, and emotions all coalesce (pp. 138-150). By the 2000s, urban explosion, real estate, and the labor market seem to have definitely turned the village into a Shiraz suburb inhabited by new migrants from the city or the countryside. Today the villagers Hegland spent time with are living elsewhere.

As with any thought-provoking ethnography, many questions remain open. What is the organizing principle of the notion of common interest at the center of taifeh politics? Does the vocabulary of factionalism recall too closely rigid views of supposedly traditional eastern politics, juxtaposed to modern (western?) ones? Are hierarchy and equality mutually exclusive paradigms of social relations? Moreover, if villagers found emancipation from taifeh by getting factory or government jobs, one would like to learn more about the social ties that imbricated them as workers, teachers, and especially policemen.  What are the intertwined forms of exploitation and reciprocity which defined these positions and made them equally part of village life? But it is the richness and open-ended narrative of Days of Revolution that will captivate readers interested in contemporary Iran, and offer them an original vantage point to think about the relationship between politics, kinship, and economy.

Setrag Manoukian, McGill University

Hegland, Marie Elaine. Days of Revolution: Political Unrest in an Iranian Village. Stanford University Press, 2014. Read more at Stanford University Press.

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