Collective Memory and Contested Narratives of Contemporary Iran (2)

Studies on memory and violence – memory as “wounded by history” (Ricoeur 2000) – remind us of the political load of remembering as a place where subjectivity and politics bind (Loraux 2002), at the intersection of collective identities and individual trajectories. How does the present engender the past with regards to episodes of violence that that have informed current political life in Iran in both explicit and implicit ways? While writing their history remains a battlefield and a work in progress charged with prohibitions, a space for understanding is opened through looking at the experiences and memories of violence. Judith Butler renders the memory of deliberate violence to be “unthinkable” in some way, to constitute an “assault on thinking” itself. If indeed such violence cannot 'be thought' then how does this affect the way that traumatic memories are recuperated and transmitted from one generation to the next? How does the past permeate the present – even through denial and silence – and how does this process embody agency and shape subjectivities?

The postrevolutionary state in Iran has been (mainly) successful in excluding fractions of the population from the body of the nation, either through repression, silencing, death or through exile. There has been a process of nation building and a redefinition of national identity after the revolution and through the war with Iraq, from which exiles or political opponents have been excluded. A pervasive victory narrative – featuring both the revolution and the “sacred defence” against Iraq – sits at the forefront of the national re-telling of the tumultuous decade of the 1980s. Borrowing the notion of “remnant” developed in another context by the philosopher Agamben (1999), we could argue that those who were expelled from the national identity constructed through the Islamic republic are “remnants” of the nation. The question then remains: what narrative and memory do they carry with them, about the immediate post-revolutionary era and the revolution itself, and how can this enlighten, modify, challenge, alter collective memory in so far as it is a counter narrative to the official history?


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In the last 30 years in Iran, repression was used as a mean of control over society through an economy of silence and publicity around state violence, and through the prisoners’ families. For the families and people close to political prisoners, silencing, intimidation, uncertainty, disruption of social networks were not only an effect of state violence, but a tool of social and political control. This missing link between targeted repression documented in the closed world of the prisons, and the wider social world (which was living in the very determined context of a violent exterior war) has received less attention. However, the experience of the families who had relatives in prison is fundamental for two reasons:
- The control that was exerted on them (surveillance, interdiction to organize funerals, non-admission in universities) can help understand and map the modalities of state control over society beyond the repression used inside prisons, and thus understand the relative silence that surrounds what happened in the 1980s.
- The memory of violence the families carry with them has a subversive potential: how does it come out? In which form? How is it transformed into political agency, as the example of gatherings around Khavaran, or the political activitism of children of people executed in the 1980s after 2009 show.
A thick description of the families experiences and modalities of memorialization helps to understand the texture of the “bluriness” (What really happened? At what scale? How to name it?) of the immediate postrevolutionary era .
A main notion is the economy of silence and publicity, through a politics of death (giving back the bodies or not, informing of the execution or not). The absence of sepulture and the impossibility of ritualized mourning show how politics of death are used not only to suppress opponents and minorities, but also to govern a population who lives in terror and with the wounded memory of dead without funerals.
Family experiences allow us to explore how politics of death involve kinship as the mediating link between private and public spheres. How did practices of disappearance shape the memorialization of violence and its intergenerational legacy in exile, while there remains no resolution or recognition?

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With violence prevailing, questions about justice and accountability preoccupy the scholars of Humanities and social sciences and the conscientious people of the world. Yet how may the question of justice be addressed and the work of mourning performed while the perpetrators are still in charge and force the survivors into silence? My paper strives to shed light on some of the issues concerning questions of survival, remembrance and testimonies in relation to a particularly violent period in Iranian recent history, the 1980s. It tackles questions of justice, memory and witnessing through an ethnographic and textual exploration of the procedures, outcome and severe contentions that have surrounded a campaign known as Iran Tribunal.

Embarked in 2007 by a group of Iranian dissidents abroad, Iran-Tribunal claimed to be an international “people’s court,” and “a social movement” with the goal of assessing “the possibility of setting up a Truth Commission and a People’s Tribunal,” to investigate “the mass executions and massacre of political prisoners in 1980s” and holding “the Islamic Republic of Iran accountable for its crime against humanity” (website). The Tribunal saw itself acting “as a court of the people, a Tribunal of conscience,” that was to “bring this human tragedy, which has been concealed and undisclosed for so long, onto the world stage.”
Due to the fact that those on trial were still in the position of power, the tribunal acknowledged that there could be no reconciliation and instead would bring these “atrocities” to the “world stage.” Yet, the Tribunal has since been accused by some of the opponents as being in line with, or even supported by, the Western governments which are interested in instigating war or imposing sanctions on Iran. My paper examines these controversies, their implications for the families of the dissidents who testified, and the possibility of alternative narratives that may have found their way to the public through such platforms. What kind of politics of memory, witnessing, and testifying, or seeking justice is at play in these delicate situations? How do the new waves of suppression, epically those of the post presidential election of 2009, impact the memories and the work of mourning of the families who have lost loved one in the 1980s? How do the new dissidents relate to the tribunal and to the survivors of the earlier suppressions? Based on my ethnographic research and textual analysis, this paper will tackle these questions.

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It has been thirty three years since exiled Iranians who were eliminated from society in Iran settled in Europe and found safety in exile. How can we assess their memory? How does memory construct and modify over the course of time the memory of Iranian political exiles? How can life trajectories and social processes affect and transform their memory? The response to these questions inevitably leads us towards an analysis of the social dynamics of memory. What we have to contend with is not just a simple recording of memories pulled from oral histories. Our research is mainly centered on a sociological analysis of memory. This paper locates itself at a crossroads between two methodologies: the first has been gleaned from E. Goffman's concept of "moral career" and the second is heavily inspired by the sociology of M. Halbwachs where the supposed "collective" and "homogenous" memory forged during the Iranian revolution of 1979 has been shown to be to be ultimately subjective. In point of fact, memory breaks down progressively when the social frameworks for individual resocialization exploit different places of exile. Memory then transforms itself with due respect to the new social environments, and this is a specific feature of the life trajectories of those exiled.
Our research on the subjectivity of 150 Iranian political migrants in different countries in Europe (France, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom) has revealed that, despite their steadfastness and adherence to the same political family, an individual dimension nevertheless has emerged, engendering three different methods in the process of "memory's" adaptation to new social realities. Each of these methods displaces the locus of pain and the concomitant symptoms of anxiety and social rift. That is not to say they disappear. They operate differently and we want to show and outline this in our paper.