Muddling through the Iranian Revolution

Perspectives on History- November 11, 2015

Naghmeh Sohrabiis the Associate Director for Research at the Crown Center and the Charles “Corky” Goodman Professor of Middle East History at Brandeis University.

Revolutions are epic events that shape both what comes after them and narratives of what came before them. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 is no exception. The postrevolutionary state in Iran has engaged in an extensive project of memory making through public commemorations and the production of written documents and oral histories. And individual figures of the revolutionary movement and of the ancien régime alike have been publishing their memoirs or recording their memories in oral history archives such as Harvard University's Iranian Oral History Project and the Berlin-based Research Association for Iranian Oral History.

As a result, there is a vast scholarship on the Iranian Revolution, published both inside and outside Iran, much of which focuses on the political, economic, social, and ideological reasons for the revolution. But what does the unfolding of a revolution feel like to those living through it? Do people's experiences of the revolution (inevitably remembered as fractured and muddled) line up with historians' later tidying up of the narrative, or do they deviate from it? Is it even possible to get at something as elusive as the experience of a revolution decades later? These questions have been at the core of my research in the 2014–15 academic year when, as a Mellon New Directions fellow, I set out to both train in ethnographic methods and conduct research on the experience of the 1979 revolution.

But why ethnography? Capturing a revolution as it unfolded, rather than analyzing the reasons for it, necessitates interviewing a wide swath of people about the fabric of their everyday lives in the lead-up to the historic event. Many took part in the revolution for reasons that often are not included in archives and formal analyses, such as youthful idealism and rebellion against social norms, curiosity, or even love. For many, if they had ever told their stories, it was within intimate circles of friends, and rarely in a linear fashion. Unlike the polished and oft-told narratives of the revolution's leaders, these stories require time, patience, and sometimes persuasion to be elicited. One of the sentences I heard frequently from people I interviewed was "I'm not sure this is interesting to you." ... Read the Full Text