Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Alireza Doostdar reviews Persianate Selves

Mana Kia. Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2020). 371 pp.

Review by Alireza Doostdar

14 October 2020

Who is a Persian? An inhabitant of the territorial entity formerly known as Persia? A descendant of an Iranian ethnic group? A speaker of the Persian language? An Iranian from Southern California who would rather identify with the ancient Achaemenid empire than the Islamic Republic of Iran? The question and the answers typically offered in response to it are hopelessly mired in twentieth century geopolitics and the nationalist assumptions at their core. It is difficult to ask such a question, much less to say anything intelligent about it, without becoming hamstrung by problematic ideas about what constitutes identity, how people relate to origin and place, and how language is connected to territory and social collectivity.

Mana Kia’s ambitious new book makes a powerful foray into these questions by examining how a mobile group of men living in West, Central, and South Asia understood themselves and their relations to others in the tumultuous period roughly between the fall of the Safavid Empire in the early eighteenth century CE and the early Qajar era about a century later. She calls this group “Persians,” not because they identified as such (they did not), but because their modalities of affiliation and intimacy were linked with a cultural idiom dominated by the Persian language.

This cultural idiom was adab, which Kia defines as the “proper forms of aesthetic style and ethical conduct” (p. 9). Persians acquired adab through education in a basic set of ethical, literary, and “commemorative” texts that included poetry, history, travel accounts, autobiographies, biographical compendia, and others. Through adab, Persians grasped and expressed their connections to place and origin, self and community, in ways that were multiple and “aporetic,” which is to say, based on distinctions and oppositions whose terms were negotiable and their boundaries permeable. These distinctions seem paradoxical to modern eyes, but only because, Kia argues, our ways of seeing have been too strictly conditioned by positivism and empiricism. On one level, then, Persianate Selves is an attempt to reconceptualize self-making, intimacy, and sociality in a world where a very different set of epistemological orientations held sway.

Over the course of her book, Kia builds a multilayered argument for why premodern Persian selfhood and sociality should be understood in a way that delinks language from territory and ethnicity. These concepts, Kia writes, are too strongly wedded to one another not only in nationalist discourse, but also in the protonationalist analytic imaginary of many historians. Her point is not that language, territory, and collectivity were unconnected before the nineteenth century, but that their relations were multiple, polyvalent, and context-dependent. Moreover, each of the three concepts should itself be rethought: Persian was often not a language people were born into, but something they learned through education. Political territory meant something different from home, which was itself different from place of origin. And ethnicity as a logic of commonality based on shared blood made no sense to premodern Persians, who instead grouped themselves and others according to complex formulations of lineage, learning, occupation, and kinship.

In dislodging protonationalist categories in the understanding of affiliation, belonging, and selfhood, Kia offers sharp analytic tools for rethinking what it meant to be Persian before the rise of nationalism. But her insights also make it possible to ask whether in fact nationalist imaginaries have been as thoroughly successful as we have assumed them to be. If we think of nationalist modes of self-making and belonging as similarly prone to multiplicity and aporia, perhaps we remain more unconsciously “premodern” than we like to think. Within this possibility also lies the promise for conceiving new kinds of connection in what Kia calls our “impoverished times” (p. 203), the dangers of which are more apparent than ever.