Reimagining the Iranian Past

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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In this talk I present three versions of the death of Cyrus the Great and explain the differences that are found among them. I show that, in the absence of official written records, the life and death of Cyrus became a powerful but undefined and flexible framework for conveying whatever ideological message an author had in mind.

We have no Persian textual sources describing the death of Cyrus, so we must rely solely on our Greek historians. First, Herodotus says that there are many versions of Cyrus' death, but that the most plausible is that he was captured and killed during a frivolous war against the nomadic, savage Massagetae. Second, the Cyrus of Xenophon's Cyropaedia learned from a dream that his time had come. After three days of sickness, he summoned his two sons to his side and divided the kingdom between them. Following a thoroughly Greek meditation on morality and the immortality of the soul, Cyrus died. Finally, in Ctesias' Persika, we see hints of both death on the battlefield and in bed. In one fragment, Cyrus was captured by the Saka, but survived. In a different fragment, Cyrus was wounded while at war with the Derbices, but survived long enough to return to Persia. Again, he divided the empire between his sons before his death.

These three versions are irreconcilable: Cyrus cannot die in bed and in battle. The three versions are all the products of later manipulations of the character of Cyrus. Herodotus, in accordance with his belief in the inevitability of the mighty being brought low, created the story of Cyrus' needless war against the Massagetae and his subsequent ironic death. Xenophon and Ctesias' versions were influenced by the revolt of Cyrus the Younger against his brother King Artaxerxes, 150 years after the death of Cyrus the Great. These two historians were on opposite sides of the Battle of Cunaxa, but their accounts both stress that royal brothers must be loyal to each other in order for the realm to remain strong. For Artaxerxes, nothing could be better than to have Cyrus, the heroic founder of the dynasty, demand that younger sons obey their brothers, and this is likely the story that Ctesias learned at the royal court. Xenophon emphasized the wisdom, skill, and graciousness of Cyrus, and linked these traits to Cyrus the Younger, Xenophon's friend and employer.

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The presentation aims to visually complicate the gender aspect of Iran' nationalism, theorized by Afsaneh Najmabadi and Mohammad Tavakoli-targhi. Through engagement mostly with archives of early photography, but also with those of various early newspapers' logos and picture-narratives (such as Sur-i Israfil, Nahid, Mulla Nasr al-Din), this presentation traces the multifaceted gendering of the symbol/figure of (mother)nation and the eventual erasure of this multiplicity – in collapsing of its different connotations into one – to bring about the ideal modern gendered citizen of the nation.

A recently-accessible archive of late Qajar and early Pahlavi photographs in London, along with the archives of the same period's newspapers of Iran in the collection of the Library of Congress in Iran (Kitabkhana-i Majlis) and National Library (Kitabkhana-i Milli) and Archives of Iran. The cross-referencing of the mediums in this research will complicate the notions of fantasy and reality in the construction of the figure of the ideal woman.

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Anthologies, essays, and translations have been produced in English for the works of the leading modernist poets, but little is available in English on contemporary Iranian poets. In my presentation, I will provide a brief survey, with illustrations and examples, of the specific features in Iranian postmodern and avant-garde poetry. The survey will begin in the 1990s with what has been called “šeʿr dahay haftād.” This new generation advances Persian poetry by self-referentially experimenting with original and traditional forms and ideas. Their writings are often rooted in the works of the pioneering modernist Iranian poets.

Iranian postmodern ghazal poets continue the experimentation with traditional forms pioneered by such poets as Simin Behbahani. Their versatile poems infuse classical tropes with colloquial idioms and pop culture references in order to produce ghazals that decontextualize and recontextualize the sacred and profane, quickly shifting in registers of tone and diction. Poets like Mehrdad Fallah (b. 1960) expand on the early innovations in concrete poetry by Tahereh Saffarzadeh. Fallah’s “Valieasr Street” series is made up of calligrams where words branch out in a visual form that delivers multiple readings as well as slippage and dissonance of the signification in the text.

Contemporary poets also experiment with polyvocality and mixing genres. For example, The Perfume of the Name (2013), co-authored by Mohammad Azarm (b. 1971) and the pen-named poet Eve Lilith, addresses issues of identity and gender not only in content and form but also by not identifying which part of the text is written by which author. Named after a term by Jacques Lacan, Volume One Love: My Jouissance (2006), by Mohammad Ramezani-Farkhani (b. 1970), is an example of a mixed-genre work that combines different forms, tones, and styles. Ramezani-Farkhani was the subject of issue 6 of the journal Hekāyat šeʿr, which focuses on the young poets of the post-revolutionary period.

Some poets will incorporate a number of these techniques. For example, books by the pen-named Anima (b. 1980) may include polyvocality, postmodern ghazals as well as calligrams. Recently, Anima -- whose writing has won the Karnameh Poetry Prize and been a runner up for the Gheysar Aminpour Prize for free-verse poetry -- has even created poetic theater in art galleries.

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The enlightenment period in late 19th-early 20th century Iran is very important for the understanding of modern Iran. It formed the basis for the constitutional movement und offered elementary ideas of Iranian self-awareness in reaction to the colonial interests of European powers. The Iranian enlightenment discourse constitutes a pool of new ideas that were influenced by the reception of knowledge from the European sciences and indigenous social and religious conventions.
The paper focuses on the discoursive practices of influential publications of the enlightenment period to redefine the religious in the context of Iran's development to modernity and progress. It will shed light on the process of creating new meanings that were important for a new conception of history and the imagination of the Iranian community of that period. Last but not least, the paper will discuss crucial theoretical and methodological questions that can bring new insights into the issue of reframing the religious.