Q&A with Hamid Dabashi: Iran Without Borders
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by Leeron Hoory
Hamid Dabashi’s new book Iran Without Borders: Towards a Critique of a Postcolonial Nation begins with the idea that the political narrative of Iran today is based on a false binary between a tyrannical Islamic regime and a secular, liberal elite. The book claims that Iran has always been formed through transnational and cosmopolitan influences; it must therefore be liberated from these false and falsifying postcolonial borders.
Dabashi illustrates how Iran was formed inside and outside of its borders through influences from Calcutta, Istanbul, Cairo, Berlin, New York, and beyond, ultimately revealing that the very stitches of what we call Iran are and have always been sewn from a transnational and cosmopolitan thread.
This visionary book has far-reaching implications for our contemporary political narratives of nation-states. Dabashi is an acclaimed scholar and professor at Columbia University and a columnist for Al Jazeera. He has written over 25 books on subjects that vary from politics, history, and cultural criticism. Bookwitty met with Dabashi to speak about Iran Without Borders:
In your book, Iran serves as a case study that applies to other countries like Turkey, Egypt, India and Pakistan. How would journalism and scholarship about Iran and its neighboring regions change through locating it within a cosmopolitan and transnational context?
One objective and ambition is for a new generation of scholars, thinkers, social activists, and journalists to stop thinking of borders in fetishized terms, and that there is something constitutionally, radically different between you and somebody your age in Iran or Pakistan, just because of borders, police, immigration, and passports —especially in the age of globalization, the internet, and cyberspace. There is an infinite number of cosmopolitan worldliness commonalities connecting people together. So that’s my ambition, to think of nations beyond these borders.
My next book that’s about to come out (Iran: The Rebirth of a Nation) is about how we have to think of nations as independent from a state. This whole notion of nation-state comes with a hyphen that is entirely artificial. States are a monopoly of violence. They have a claim on nations. Do you feel that if Trump becomes the president of the United States, that he is the administration defines you? Of course not. Nations have a reality, purpose and dynamic which is different than the claim that the state makes upon them.
Early in the book, I talk about how Khamenei, when he was afraid people were not going to vote, says, “even if you don’t believe in the Islamic Republic, come and vote for your country.” Ah ha, so these are two realities: one is the nation, and one is the state.
Was there something specific that sparked the idea for this book?
I think the idea over the last three, four, five books of mine, has been crossing boundaries, and that these fictive frontiers are distorting our understanding of reality and how it happened.
I have been working towards the separation of nation and state, because I think this is a bad marriage. It doesn’t work. Today when we say, the U.S. did this, or the U.S. did that, what is that supposed to mean? Or that Americans are electing Clinton — well, less than 50% percent of eligible voters actually vote. What about the rest? We need an analysis of those other 50%, and those who are voting for the lesser evil, who don’t like either candidate. Our understanding of a nation has to be separated from the electoral process, from the state apparatus, from the passport we carry.
Who are some of your recent influences?
Over the last decade and a half Walter Benjamin has had the most profound enduring impact on my thinking — particularly his unique fusion of Messianic Judaism and Marxism, his exceptionally important work on the philosophy of history, as well as his work on the nature of violence. His later work on his Arcade Project as well as his theory of allegory as ruins and fragments are increasingly important for me.
Equally important to my thinking is Levinas and his book Infinity and Totality, his philosophical work on the inscrutable face of the Other has had an enduring presence in my work. Third is Hannah Arendt who is something of an intellectual hero to me, both in her life and her thoughts, her book on Revolution has been definitive to my reading of the Arab revolutions.
Could you talk about the interdisciplinary nature of your book?
What I tell my students, usually, is what I call ‘multiple archives.' It’s a paradox of seeing. For example, these are prescription glasses. When I put them on, they are distorting reality. But this distortion also enables me to see properly.
Every set of lenses has a paradoxical reality: they enable you to see, but they also distort reality. When you go to an optometrist, she keeps on putting multiple lenses until you get to 20/20. The multiple lenses enable you to see properly. This is the metaphor I use for what we call interdisciplinary studies. If I use only history or anthropology or political science, or art or literature, yes, they enable you to see something precisely, but distort other things. There is no rigid way of doing it; the ideas guide you.
I’m not against discipline because I am a product of disciplinary formation, but a good sociologist, political scientist, historian, needs to cross disciplines at some point, in order to chase after the truth of what it is that they want to say.