Shiraz 2012: suspension


In City of Knowledge I suggest that in the late 1990s and early 2000s iron skeleton frames and columns were two signs through which one could understand the spatio-temporal coordinates of Shiraz, and Iran more generally. As signs of the present they pointed on the one hand towards a vision of a bright “developed” future and on the other hand towards a glorious past made of a solid national heritage. I also argue that this spatio-temporal imagination was conflicted, and that it resulted in a fractured landscape made of unfinished buildings, restorations and ruins.

In 2012, Shiraz is still characterized by a combination of construction, restoration and ruins. While many of the iron structures that punctuated the sky of the city have become apartment or office buildings, new skeletons still appear. Restorations are also continuing, while older homes are being demolished, gardens turned into apartments and so on. Construction of a subway system has created disruption along several main throughways (Boulvard Modarress, Vali ‘Asr, Ave Karim Khan, Namazi). Areas of the old neighborhoods, such as those around the Shah Ceragh shrine have been remodeled (new bazaar, and avenues) while others have been turned into informal parking lots where cars and ruins coexist.

There are also significant changes. The old neighborhoods are experiencing the beginning of what might become a more sustained gentrification process. A few self-described “traditional” hotels have opened, while more and more nineteenth century buildings are being restored. Some of these restored buildings now host private or public museums, which attack tourists and locals alike. This is a process that has happened already in other cities in Iran, most notably Yazd, where there has been a more sustained effort to transform the old neighborhoods into a tourist attraction.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, while oriented at defining the space-time of the present, eskelets and columns delineated a trajectory marked by references to the past and the future, in relation to which a present could be defined. Today, it is as if the coming to fruition of that spatio-temporal trajectory has made its “presentist” inclination absolute. Though not entirely gone, the “futuristic” and “heritage” oriented imagination has given way to a suspended temporality. Past and future are not anymore points of reference, but a set of juxtaposed images that inhabit a suspended present.

City of Knowledge is an effort to celebrate the city of Shiraz and its people.

While the city is well known for its classical poets, mystics and scholars, not much has been written in English on Shiraz in the twentieth century.

It would have been impossible to compose a detailed narrative about all the poets, historians and scholars who have been active in the city in these last hundred years. So I was forced to choose a selected few. I hope people familiar with Shiraz will not be too disappointed with my choices.

The people I write about in the book, as it is often the case in anthropology, stand for a larger whole. While not necessarily “representative,” they stand for a way of thinking and acting I call “city of knowledge.”
Shiraz 1997 Setrag Manoukian ©

This book presents a cultural history of modern Iran from the point of view of Shiraz, a city famous for its poetry and its traditions of scholarship. 

Exploring the relationship among history, poetry and politics, the book analyses how Shiraz came to be defined as the country’s cultural capital, and explains how Iranians have used the concept of culture as a way of thinking about themselves, their past and their relationship with the rest of the world.

Weaving together a theoretical approach with extensive ethnographic research, the book suggests a model to integrate broad concerns with a nuanced analysis of Iran’s cultural traditions and practices. 

The author’s interdisciplinary approach sheds light on how contemporary Iranians relate to classical Persian poetry; on the relationship between expressive forms and the political imagination; and on the different ways teachers, professors, cultural managers, poets and scholars think and work. 

Manoukian describes how history and poetry are the two dominant modes to talk about the past, present and future of the town and demonstrates that the question of knowledge is crucial to an understanding of the political and existential dimensions of life in Iran today.

This book will be a major contribution to the current effort to move away from nationalist views of Iranian history and culture, and as such will be of great interest to scholars of cultural anthropology, history, Middle Eastern studies and Iranian studies.