[This article was written as a response to the decision of Iran page editors to temporarily remove an article originally published on Jadaliyya on 22 November 2020. That article has since been republished (click here) in accordance with the original decision to temporarily take it down.]
I am writing in response to “Mourners in Common: Qassem Soleimani, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, and the ‘Pattern’ of Iranian Culture” by Peyman Eshaghi. I take issue with and question the credibility of any essay that ties Iranian cultural patterns organically not simply to nationalism, but, more significantly, to discourses of security and threat that legitimate the projection of extra-territorial power. While composing this reply, I read Babak Rahimi’s “Abjection and Repair,” which left me surprised and disappointed. While this essay is not primarily a response to Rahimi, whose work I have followed over the years with interest, it nonetheless starts from an orientation point in his essay. Rahimi questions whether the essentialism in Eshaghi’s article warrants removing it and asks whether readers would “engage in a Twitter storm against [any] article that equally applies an essentialism of primordial nationalism.” Not all essentialisms or nationalisms are the same, however. Eshaghi’s article presumes a transhistorical cultural and emotional essence as key to constructing a discourse of national security that justifies the exercise of military power beyond Iran’s borders. The essentialism in Eshaghi’s article enacts injury by dismissing the suffering of “others.” I wish to address the ways our speech acts frame those “other” lives when, in death, they are excluded from rituals of national mourning.
My own anxieties about navigating local and global, national and international spaces in ways that engage with both academic knowledge and personal embodied experience drove the writing of this response, foregrounding a perspective that reflexively attends to geographies and histories of emotions and embodiment. As a scholar situated in transnational and de-colonial feminist approaches, I understand that there is a spatial politics to how our emotions attach to bodies, and that discourses materialize in ways that impact bodies unequally. Elsewhere, I argue that discourses of national security are increasingly interwoven with emotions. As such, they may frame particular lives as grievable via collective processes of memorialisation, while others’ lives are rendered invisible and thereby excluded as ungrievable. Supposedly inclusive practices of “mourning in common” actually marginalize and de-materialize Iraqi and Syrian bodies and lives. This discursive “violence of derealisation” makes possible further violence: since such lives are “already negated,” they can all the more easily be injured and destroyed. I thus reiterate my stance that the Eshaghi article should not have been published on Jadaliyya, at least not without major revisions.
The article proposes that Iranians discover who they are through shared grief for both General Qassem Soleimani and the singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian, regardless of whether they are secular or religious in their outlook. This collective emotion serves to bond Iranians together and to unite them against external threats, whether these threats emanate from the Trump administration or from ISIS. Drawing on Ruth Benedict,[3[ Eshaghi utilizes the concept of “personality types” as indicative of enduring Iranian character ideals that both Soleimani and Shajarian, in different ways, represent, and which delineate them as particular kinds of bodies. To borrow from Maya Mikdashi, here, “the ungendered body does not exist." Through designated attributes, these bodies are instead gendered as male. One attribute these figures share, according to Eshaghi’s narrative, is “honor,” which plays an instrumental role in separating those deemed outside from those within Iran’s national borders. Eshaghi presents honor, alongside “valor” and “self-sacrifice,” as “basic values in Iranian culture,” even though these values are, of course, not unique to Iran. From the early 20th century in the Middle East (as elsewhere), the strong, protective male and the nurturing female were key tropes in discourses of national strength. National honor, in this context, proves highly gendered: women embody it and men act to defend it.
Constructions of gender, then, are central to the way affective discourses of security divide national from non-national bodies, and to how emotions are organized around and “stick” to those bodies. On Persian-language Instagram and Twitter, for example, women’s bodies are represented, via viral images, as perpetually under threat, both by ISIS terrorists in the region and from the West. It is in the name of this gendered honor that women who protest against the compulsory hijab are condemned as posing a threat to national security. Feminist and gender scholars have long drawn attention to the ways national security discourses determine which bodies are proximate to the nation, and which bodies are othered as threats to the nation and placed outside its boundaries. Eshaghi’s article perpetuates these tropes, delineating the bodies of Soleimani and Shajarian as proximate to the heteropatriarchal nation.
Like Eshaghi, Benedict was also interested in conceptions of honor in non-Western societies. Rahimi’s response emphasises that Benedict’s work on Japan was helpful in combating racialized views of non-Westerners, before noting that her “anthropology…advocated a stable and harmonizing view of society as organic and self-contained, apparently most evident in smaller communities and non-European societies with distinct national cultures.” I would propose, however, following Lummis, that what was most problematic about Benedict’s work was that it took the patriarchal, militaristic self-image of an elite class at a specific historical moment and turned that into a reified image of Japanese society across time. Using this analysis, Benedict was apparently instrumental in persuading the American occupiers that the Emperor should remain as a stabilising symbol of primordial authority. Here, as in so many other cases, an essentialist viewpoint had an effect on the world.
Feminist critiques of essentializing distinctions have pointed to the unequal allocation of emotions in war and conflict situations. National, as opposed to transnational, mourning operates through an obvious selectivity about which bodies are, in fact, valued and grieved. It draws on particular feelings that aid in creating a hierarchy of suffering and grievability, according to which some lives are automatically deserving of destruction and others are not. While the language of the Eshaghi article is carefully evocative and even sensitive, it reserves sensitivity for those bodies deemed properly national, that is, those that are possessed of the ‘right’ emotional attributes and characteristics. Apart from “honor,” the key quality that connects Shajarian and Soleimani in the article is “comfort.” For Eshaghi, this is the primary affect that both men generate among Iranians:
“These two men provided Iranians a sense of strength, comfort, and security (Soleimani) as well as an equally comforting sense of identity, tradition, and uniqueness vis-à-vis the greater region (Shajarian).”
“Comfort” here seems to have connotations of a safe domestic space watched over by protective patriarchal figures, a space that not only preserves “strength” and “security” but also a sense of cultural difference from the surrounding region. This peaceful enjoyment of cultural ‘uniqueness’ is underpinned, in the article’s own terms, by war elsewhere, a trope that occurs frequently in Western security discourses. The article’s emphasis upon the gentleness of both men—Soleimani is humble, Shajarian spiritual—makes an association between extreme violence and comfortable peace possible. According to this narrative, these attributes go together with “honor.”
Characteristics that might seem unassuming and harmless, I contend, also divide those who inhabit a space of security from those who do not. I am not arguing against the construction of shared national histories or memories per se, so much as against the deployment of these histories for the purpose of lending a mythic allure to violence against those populations rendered outside or peripheral to the national community. In this regard, it is particularly important to resist the co-option of Shajarian’s legacy into a state-centered securitization narrative. While the singer’s music at times evoked a long Iranian history dating back to the time of kings, his songs did not only speak to an imagined past. They also resonated emotionally with Iranians’ shared and real experiences of suffering over recent decades - due to war, economic sanctions, and internal repression - as Nahid Siamdoust points out on this site. When he identified himself with the “riff raff,” Shajarian contested the relegation of suffering lives to the margins of the nation.
An alternative approach would situate nationwide processes of mourning and memorialization as always subject to contestation. At their core, these rituals construct the nation and its ‘others’ through narratives in which mourners performatively occupy and delineate national space (online or offline) and thereby reshape national memory. Eshaghi focuses on the seemingly spontaneous reactions of mourners on social media. A critical scholarly lens would seek to explore how emotions and meaning around mourning rituals are shaped through practices of statecraft that seek to govern populations. It would, crucially, ask what the mourning of lost Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish lives might look or feel like, or in other words, how mourning could be transnational and transregional, and not only national.
Reflecting on the role of culture in building the postcolonial nation, Frantz Fanon argued in 1959 that “[i]t is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness establishes itself and thrives." If the terrain of national struggles opens to the international, then part of the task of cultural practitioners, as well as writers on culture, is to explore what is specific and what is universal in cultural formations, rather than participate in constructing an exceptionalism that divides “us” from “them.”
To conclude, the present exchange is not an “ideal speech situation” of relative equality among potential participants. Subaltern voices are excluded just as surely as subaltern lives remain un-mourned. Nor are we likely to get close to a situation where we may conduct debates without the possibility of our deliberations being shaped by coercive power relations, as participants can ignore the ways in which their arguments serve to legitimize injustices that arise from power imbalances. Challenging Eshaghi’s article represents one small effort, given the circumstances, to repudiate the violence enacted when power imbalances are ignored.
 Sara Tafakori, “Affective territories of recognition: Iranian feminist activism and the (de-)authentication of suffering,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (Forthcoming, Fall 2021).
 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Second Edition (London and New York: Verso, 2006), 33.
 Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin), 1934.
 Maya Mikdashi, “How Not to Study Gender in the Middle East,” Jadaliyya, 2012.
 See e.g., Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation (London: Sage, 1997); Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with moustaches and men without beards (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).
 Nicola Pratt, “The Queen Boat Case in Egypt: Sexuality, National Security and State Sovereignty. Review of International Studies, 33:1 (2007), 129-144; Najde Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt, What Kind of Liberation? Women and the occupation of Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
 Ruth Benedict. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1946).
 Douglas Lummis, A New Look at the Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Shohakusha, 1982); see also Elson Boles, “Ruth Benedict’s Japan: the Benedictions of Imperialism,” Dialectical Anthropology 30 (2006), 27–70.
 Linda Ahall and Thomas Gregory (eds.), Emotions, Politics and War (London and New York: Routledge, 2015); Carolyn Pedwell. Affective relations: the transnational politics of empathy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
 Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion.
 Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).
 Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
 Jessica Auchter, The Politics of Haunting and Memory in International Relations (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).
 Alina Sajed and Timothy Seidel, “Introduction: Escaping the Nation? National Consciousness and the Horizons of Decolonization” Interventions, 21:5 (2019), 583-591, 586.