The Spirit of Carnival in the Iranian Presidential Election Campaign of 2009

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Loyola University, Chicago
Academic Bio: 
Afsaneh Kalantary completed her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz in June 2005. Following her doctoral studies, she continued to work there as a lecturer. Starting Fall 2009 she will be teaching at Loyola University, Chicago. Her dissertation entitled “Exilic Yearnings and Diasporic Homes: An Ethnography of Memory, Place, Race and Gender Among Iranian Exiles in Berlin, Germany” presents an ethnographic account drawing on fieldwork which, as a Fulbright scholar, she conducted among Iranians living in Berlin. Her scholarly interests are interdisciplinary and range widely, from Middle Eastern and Iranian Studies, and European and German Studies to critical race theory, postcolonialism, and gender and feminist studies as well as studies of migration, diaspora and transnationalism.

In this essay, a cultural analysis of the Iranian presidential election campaign of 2009, I will engage with the ways in which various cultural and political symbols, bereft of their historically specific cultural signification, are summoned by opposing camps and given a new meaning.  In a carnivalesque process of overturning social rules of everyday life, this process of re-signification, creates a paradoxical political space wherein either the daily rules of the theocratic state are invalidated, or the symbolic gestures of dissent are emptied of their historically specific transformative meaning.  The following examples represent this process.
The color green, a symbolic color of adherence to Islam in Iran and many other Muslim societies, and the color worn by the descendants of the Prophet Mohammed (Sayyeds), is used by the presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s campaign as a secular sign of regeneration and change.   Mousavi’s supporters, many of whom visibly secular young men and women, shown dancing and chanting during campaign rallies, use this color in campaign posters, wrist bands, T-shirts, ribbons, and scarves, while many devout Muslims, who still adhere to the religious symbolism of the color green, are attracted to Mousavi’s candidacy by this very seemingly blasphemous act. 
On the other hand, some dissident student activists invoke President Barack Obama’s campaign message of change in their support for the candidacy of Mehdi Karroubi, the only high-ranking Shi’i cleric among the four presidential candidates.  That is, in their critique of the theocratic rule of the state, they paradoxically turn to the only candidate who symbolically represents the rule of the clergy in Iran.  
While the campaign promises of change by Mousavi and Karroubi abound, one of the means by which different camps attract their supporters is the use of protest songs collectively sung during the campaign rallies or in their campaign videos broadcast via internet.  One such song which many young crowds of Mousavi supporters sing during his campaign rallies is “Yare-Dabestani-ye-Man” (My schoolmate) which ironically has become the preferred secular protest song since the 1999 student uprisings in Iran.  Paradoxically, some supporters of the current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, using the melody of this very protest song, have altered the lyrics to praise his populist persona and social policies.  That is, a song representing a student movement’s protest against both the conservative and reformist camps is summoned by these very camps to rally support for their candidates. 

Academic Discipline : 
Cultural Anthropology
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