Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Mikiya Koyagi's "Iran in Motion"

Mikiya Koyagi is Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Iran in Motion: Mobility, Space, and the Trans-Iranian Railway, and reported the following:
Iran in Motion is a social history of the Trans-Iranian Railway project from its conception to early years of operation, weaving together interrelated stories of mobilities among imperial officials, Iranian diplomats, agriculturalists, tribes, technocrats, workers, and passengers. Page 99 of my book discusses the organization of tribal labor on railway construction sites in the western province of Lorestan during the 1920s and 1930s. In particular, the page details various problems that the railway consortium faced in retaining tribal laborers, who often hopped from one construction site to another in search of higher wages. They also frequently deserted construction jobs to prioritize the needs of their primary livelihood, be it animal husbandry or settled agriculture.

Is page 99 a page that I would normally use in my talks to grab the audience’s attention? Probably not. The page contains detailed descriptions of tribal labor, but it doesn’t include any of my favorite catchy anecdotes. Furthermore, because each chapter of the book focuses on a particular group/phase of the project, page 99 can introduce only one of the many primary actors in the book to readers.

Nevertheless, I do think that page 99 captures an important component of my argument: the Trans-Iranian Railway project was an attempt at transforming mobilities not only spatially but also qualitatively. My book illustrates that the railway project spatially redirected mobilities, and in so doing, it conjoined and separated multiple geographies locally, nationally, and transnationally. It also shows that the project embodied the Iranian state’s attempt at taming undesirable mobilities and transforming them qualitatively. For example, viewing the visibility of Shi‘i Islam in railway spaces as a sign of Iran’s backwardness, official discourse encouraged Iranians to travel to the provinces to visit important monuments of national history for vacation while lamenting the presence of misbehaving pilgrims in traditional garments. Thus, pilgrim mobility was expected to be transformed into tourist mobility, and the process entailed all sorts of expected cultural transformations such as sartorial Europeanization, the internalization of new conceptions of time, and the adoption of new standards of respectable behavior (in reality, the two categories of pilgrims and tourists were never separate as I discuss in the book). By the same token, seeing unpredictable tribal mobility as an obstacle to economic development, the state and the railway consortium attempted to transform tribesmen into reliable laborers who would come back to construction sites every day for an extended period of time. Page 99 gives readers a glimpse of these efforts, which ultimately failed as illustrated by the return to nomadic tribalism following the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941 and the subsequent collapse of the Iranian state.
Learn more about Iran in Motion at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue