Shahram Khosravi, Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Shahram Khosravi (SK): In the shadow of an “Iranophobic” misrepresentation by the Western media and politicians, observing details becomes even more significant. I believe that an anthropological perspective capitalizing on an ethnography of everyday realities of people, and of how they are affected by political forces beyond their reach, offers an opportunity to contextualize Iranian’s lives within the larger framework of international conflicts.
This book arose also from concerns about an absence of anthropological voices among the myriad academic and nonacademic voices who define, represent, and analyze Iran and Iranians at a distance. It aims to offer an anthropological understanding of Iran.
What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SK: This book is made not out of other books, but out of walking and listening. I took long walks along the streets with Iranians and hung out in squares and on street corners all night long. We drove aimlessly throughout Tehran and Isfahan. I walked along walls to see what people write and paint on them. And during all these days and nights, I listened faithfully to their stories. Walk any day or any night in Tehran, and you will hear and witness a story. If not a story, then a joke or a rumor. When you live a precarious life—with the threats of war and foreign invasions, intense environmental disasters, and political insecurity—then you live in shadows of death, and to cope with it you need stories, jokes and rumors.
In this book, I have attempted to explore the paradoxes in Iranians’ everyday lives. On the one hand, there are the multiple precarities: a sense of disconnectedness, imaging a futureless tomorrow, home(land)lessness, intense individualism, and growth of incivilities. On the other hand, there is hope, performed in the repetition and replication of political engagement.
While young Iranians describe themselves as being stuck in belataklifi, purposelessness and endless waithood, while they are forced to endure, while they are regarded as “unproductive” and a “burden”, and while they find themselves forced into a petrifying immobility (both social and spatial), they are full of aspirations and inspiration. If there is indifference to the suffering of others, and if there is a sense of political detachment and lack of engagement, there are, at the same time, signs of the opposite. If many young Iranians express hopelessness, they still possess hope at the same time. For instance, there is a recent but forceful engagement with environmental movements and protests against public punishment. If they are supposed to be “invisibilized” by legal and political processes, then they are more visible than any generation before. This book has been an attempt to juxtapose these paradoxes in Iran in the first decade of the twenty first century. I have attempted in this book to employ hope as a method of analysis. Through ethnography and storytelling, one of my aims has been to replicate and transform hope.
How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SK: This book is the outcome of a long conversation and ethnographic engagement with Iran and Iranians. This conversation has been going on throughout my life, first as an ethnic minority Bakhtiari migrant in Isfahan, then as an émigré outside Iran. My ethnographic engagement, however, first started in 1999. The engagement and conversation resulted in Young and Defiant in Tehran, published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2008. The book examines how young, middle-class Tehranis struggle for identity in the battle over the right to self-expression. I looked closely at the structures confronting Iranian youth and the ways transnational cultural influences penetrate and flourish. Focusing on places of gathering, such as shopping centers, the book explored the practices of everyday life, through which young Tehranis demonstrated defiance against the official culture and parental dominance. Such places were sites of opposition, but also served as creative centers for expression and, above all, for imagination. I attempted to show the transformative power these spaces had and how they enabled young Iranians to develop their own culture, as well as individual and generational identities.
This book is different from Young and Defiant in Tehran in several ways. Unlike Young and Defiant, it extends its focus beyond both the middle class and Tehran. The data are collected mainly in Tehran, but also in Isfahan and from migrant workers from the rural areas. The case of the Julfa neighborhood in Isfahan, a city wrongly branded for cultural conservatism, depicts a multifaceted city, where daily contestation over urban spaces reflects social changes at large. I also include ethnographic inquiries from my own village in the Bakhtiari region. Many men and women from my village worked in construction or the service sector in Isfahan and Tehran for long periods. Broadening the ethnographic field to cover voices not only from Tehran but also from peripheries, I aim to show the magnitude of precarity plaguing urban and rural Iranians.
Whereas Young and Defiant in Tehran focuses more on the spatial relations in everyday life, a main theme in this book is the temporal aspects of Iranians’ everyday life: waiting, queuing, imaging a futureless tomorrow, feeling nostalgia, hoping, replication and repletion, and transiting from youth to adulthood. Another difference is that Young and Defiant was formed in a hopeful time for Iranians. During the reform-minded government of President Khatami (1997–2005), a relatively open political atmosphere emerged.
Precarious Lives took its form in more recent years characterized by multiple precarities, a shrinking of hope, people imaging a futureless tomorrow, home(land)lessness, intense individualism, deterioration of human capital, increasing violence (domestic and public), and growing political incivilities.
Precarity here is used to cover a broad range of social vulnerabilities that Iranians are struggling with: from insecure work conditions and physical insecurity to hopelessness, alienation, and disconnectedness from a sense of social community.
This precarity is the consequence of the shrinking of the welfare state, resulting in the loss of benefits for many workers, along with chronic unemployment and underemployment, created new forms of social marginalization and exclusion. Gradually, a post social state with more focus on the market economy than on welfare replaced the revolutionary state of the 1980s. Furthermore, the USA’s antagonist policy and international sanctions against Iran, partly still in force, have resulted in a drastic deterioration of the domestic economy.
One aspect of this precarious life is the predicament of waithood. Young persons are waiting for employment, moafi (exemption from military service), marriage, emigration, a good business, or change. Iranian youth imagine themselves as “just waiting.” The protracted waiting as the condition of belataklifi makes young Iranians believe they have no control over their lives. Yet their waiting is collective. The predicament of “waithood” is what a whole generation is suffering from.
However, this book explores, at the same time, the daydreaming and hope, intense civility, and solidarity during political protests and street carnivals. The book deals with these paradoxes in Iranians’ everyday life.
Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SK: I wrote Precarious Lives in an Iranophobic atmosphere supported by a huge apparatus of “mediawork” that has been producing anti-Iranian sentiments in the world. It is not easy to write about Iran or the Middle Eastern societies generally.
I share Farha Ghannam’s concerns, in her book on Egyptian urban masculinity, about “how to write [about Middle Eastern societies] in a way that is intellectually honest and politically responsible.”
I hope that this book show complexities of Iranian society, and I hope that non-Iranians can better understand the socio-political condition Iranians live in. I hope that this book can counter Iranophobia a little bit.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SK: My current research project is the study of post-deportation. It is a study of what happens to young Afghan asylum seekers after deportation to Afghanistan from Europe. I have been interviewing deportees, and, hopefully, I will visit Afghanistan later this year for a short fieldwork.
Excerpt from the Book:
Abbas was born in 1965 in a small village in the Bakhtiari region. He is the second of seven children and has two brothers and four sisters. Abbas started helping his father on the small land they owned when he had not even reached school age. He was only ten when his father died of a stroke at fifty-five. And then drought came, and with it their revenue vanished. Drilling a deep well required a lot of money they did not have. So he and his brothers started a circular migration lifestyle. They went to near and far places in search of jobs, always short-term, low-paying ones: day labor on construction sites in nearby cities during the winter, cleaning potatoes for plantations in late spring, work- ing on irrigation projects in summer, or harvesting on farms in early autumn. One late fall day in 1984, he was going to Borojen, a small town about one hundred kilometers north of his village, where his brother, who was working in Borojen, had found a job for him on a construction site. The job was to last several months, his longest so far. Early in the morning that day, he paid his fare to a driver and found a place next to other men and women in the back of a pick-up truck. Some were going to work, some to visit a doctor, others to obtain a dowry for their daughter. Approaching Borojen, the vehicle was stopped by the police. It was sarbaz giri (literally, soldier catching, arresting runaway soldiers and those who have not done their military service). Abbas was nineteen years old and had, like many other young men in the region, ignored call-ups from the military. The war with Iraq, now in its fourth year, was harvesting lives. The police asked for his papers. Abbas had none. Conse- quently, he was detained and soon sent to a military base in Isfahan to start his compulsory military service. After only ten days’ training, he was sent to
the war front. He got some instructions and became a deminer at the front, where he served for twenty-eight months. People were dying incessantly in the war. In the winter of 1986, the Iraqi army, facing heavy losses, used chem- ical weapons in large quantities. Abbas remembered details, confirmed by the documents in his medical dossier. It was a Monday, 17 February 1986, around noon, when the gates of hell opened. The mustard gas paralyzed the unequipped Iranian soldiers. The chemical weapons used by the Iraqi army killed around 20,000 and damaged 120,000 others. Survivors developed se- vere chronic complications. Many faced a slow and painful death. Others are still suffering. Abbas is one of them. He, like other soldiers, got primary treat- ment first after one day. Abbas says he still smells the gas, “like rotten eggs.” According to official sources, there are 550 000 janbaz (disabled veterans), of whom 120,000 are registered as chemically injured veterans.
The medical files he showed me said that his lungs are seriously damaged, his skin is burnt, and he suffers from depression. The Foundation for War Veterans classified him as the lowest rate of war-disabled veteran (janbaz), that is, at the 10 percent level. For 10 percent, he received an insignificant compensation. To feed his four children, Abbas became once again a circular laborer, moving from one informal job to another. His damaged lungs force him to sit down to take a breath after a short walk; his eyes get more irritated when working in dust; and his burnt skin makes working in the sun unbearable. Working long days on farms under the sun and in dust means incessant, insufferable pain. For more than two decades he has been engaged in negotiation with various military organizations and medical institutions to raise his percentage of disablement and suffering compensation to 25 percent. He said,
”If I had an inside connection in the system, I could get it. I was told there are people in Tehran who fix it for 10 million toman [about US$6,000 in 2011]. If I reach 25 percent, I get 600,000 toman [US$375 in 2011] per month for the rest of my life. I could get a bank loan without interest, and my family would be insured. ”
Abbas said that he knew many who had been injured just like him, on the same day, at the same place, from the same bomb, but received 25 percent disability. They were, however, Persian-speaking, literate residents in large cities with access to information. Abbas’s class and minority status denied and delayed his access to the citizen rights enjoyed by his peers. I witnessed this once when I accompanied him to a medical institution in Isfahan. He was sent back and forth between different floors and offices. When he opened his mouth, unveiling his status as a “villager” with Bakhtiari accent, he was ignored and treated badly. When I involved myself and talked on his behalf, in Tehrani-accented Persian, the situation suddenly changed for the better. His struggle is for rights to benefits in the form of social welfare. Abbas indeed is struggling for his citizenship rights, for the right to have rights. The first time I met Abbas was in the summer of 2002, and for thirteen years I have witnessed his struggle with the intricate and corrupt bureaucracy. Doctors, officers, bureaucrats, and individuals took his money to give him a signature, a letter, a name, an address, advice. All to no use. Every year I met him his dossier (parvandeh) was thicker than the previous year’s. He collected documents over documents; that made him even more dependent on brokers. In the governance of papers he is lost, abandoned, and extorted. As an illiter- ate poor man from an ethnic minority, living at the fringes of a remote prov- ince, Abbas has no chance against the state apparatus. His physical and
psychological suffering is not observed, registered, or recognized. Neverthe- less, like “biological citizens” in Petryna’s study, Abbas’s suffering and pain are the sole way for him to be included in the realm of the state. The last time I met him, in June 2016, he was still “10 percent,” 10 percent included, 10 per- cent citizen.
Abbas has access to only 10 percent of his citizenship rights.