"Hamid Dabashi is one of the most significant intellectual voices emerging outside of Iran since the Islamic revolution" --Shirin Neshat
Last night I had the opportunity to sit at a talk by the Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi. The talk was organized by an Iranian community organization in Virginia. Dabashi was in DC to launch his most recent book, "Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema," and had also accepted an invitation by the Iranian-American community to come and give a talk in Persian. The event was in a humble elementary school and there was a good turn out. Dabashi who was there with his family, was cheerful and generous with his time. It was the first time I saw him in person—having read some of his Op-eds, his Theology of Discontent (a mighty book on the Iranian Revolution of 1979), his work on Iranian cinema and his recent book Iran: A People Interrupted (a book on modern Iranian history and the geopolitics of the region). I was familiar with his theories of Cosmopolitism, Anti-colonial Modernity and Transnational Art etc. It was still really exciting to get to listen to him face-to-face, and in Persian. I had always wondered why he doesn't address an Iranian-only audience and I think I understood why, last night.
His talk was titled "Donya Khaneh-ye Man Ast: The Case Against Nostalgia and Diaspora". In short he was discussing the strange contradiction that while living in Iran, people are a lot more globally-minded (see themselves as belonging to the world) but as soon as they come out and live abroad they suddenly become "boomi" or nativist. While acknowledging the horrors of the tyrants ruling Iran (both during the Pahlavi dynasty and the Islamic Republic) for having forced many people out of Iran (of course more so since the 1979 revolution—Dabashi is a staunch critic of the Islamic Republic), he argued eloquently and with plenty of cogent and recent examples that we must still strive to remember the cosmopolitan character of Iranian culture and see ourselves as world citizens. It is in this way that we actually are, or become, really Iranian.
He invoked Iranian cosmopolitanism and argued for it through the poetry of Nima and his followers. He read Sohrab Sepehri's "Seda-ye Pa-ye Ab," explaining to the audience the worldview of a poet who at the start declares that he is "Ahl-e Kashan," but then puts the whole world as the focus of his poetry. He celebrated these poets' courageous and out-of-the-mold wisdom. His close reading of Sepehri's poem was like a revelation. I was in tears and the audience was stunned. At the start of his talk he said that it was the first time in years he was giving a talk in Persian, and apologized for any shortcomings. He was mighty humble! His Persian was superb. Dabashi's voice reminded me of Ahmad Shamlu and his eloquence and wisdom matched the best of world philosophers. He is truly a gift: but not only to Iranians but to the world. I was one proud Iranian in his presence. One who doesn't have to be "Persian" or proud of the Achamanids imperial warmongering and geographical expansion a la George W Bush style—"liberating" people by the sword (Dabashi discusses this in detail his recent book Iran: A People Interrupted).
How embarrassed I was when an old and I would dare say senile man got up and boasted that despite having a PhD, he had not understood what Dabashi's talk was all about! How embarrassing! Almost everyone in the audience, mostly the young and women, took turn to applaud Dabashi, thanked him for bringing a new vision and hope to their world, and spoke in gratitude to his scholarship and political courage for speaking for the voiceless. One woman asked Dabashi to travel around the country and give more talks to the Iranian community, the very people who need his wisdom the most at this time. In response to the older gentleman, Dabashi was a model of humility, while he could have easily outwitted the old man, he instead apologized for his inability to convey what he had in mind better—and left the audience in awe of his humanity.
As a reader of Dabashi, I had always wondered why he does not write or give lectures in Persian (he has a handful of articles written in Persian). As a "one and half" generation Iranian-American, now more comfortable in English than in Persian, I now think I have a clue. I think Dabashi may very well be Iran's first truly globally-minded (and celebrated) modern-day philosopher—precisely because his audience is the world and his language and concerns are global (he cares as much about poverty in Iran as he does for in the US or for an Iranian child's life as he does for a Palestinian). His vision of who and what we are is light-years past the last and lost generation of nativists—those whom Dabashi argues have a Shah and/or a Khomeini sitting in their hearts.
I have recently started reading Dabashi's work backward, beginning with his most recent and going back to his earliest writings. His voice is addictive and gives me hope for the future.