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Professor Arash Khazeni Wins 2010 Middle East Studies Association Book Award

A Bakhtiyari khan at a lion gravestone in the Zagros Mountains, c. 1890.  Isabella Bird Album, UCLA Special Collections.

A Bakhtiyari khan at a lion gravestone in the Zagros Mountains, c. 1890. Isabella Bird Album, UCLA Special Collections.

Maydan-i Naqsh-i Jahan, the central square of Isfahan, showing the royal mosque, the bazaar, and 'Ali Qapu Palace, c. 1870.  Ernst Hoeltzer Collection, Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization.

Maydan-i Naqsh-i Jahan, the central square of Isfahan, showing the royal mosque, the bazaar, and 'Ali Qapu Palace, c. 1870. Ernst Hoeltzer Collection, Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization.

Arash Khazeni, an assistant professor of history at Pomona College, has been awarded the 2010 Houshang Pourshariati Iranian Studies Book Award for his volume Tribes & Empire on the Margins of Nineteenth-Century Iran (2010).

The recognition comes from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) of North America, the premier scholarly organization in the field. Criteria for the award include “substantive understanding of the social and political experiences of the Iranian people and their civilization” and “their contribution to and influence on the world at large.”

Khazeni’s book traces the history of the Bakhtiyari tribal confederacy of the Zagros Mountains through momentous times that saw the opening of their lands to the outside world, as the balance of power between the state and pastoral societies on the periphery of Iran was forever narrowed by imperial projects such as road building, ethnography and exploration.

According to the MESA announcement, “Until Dr. Khazeni undertook the difficult task of sifting through accounts involving the Bakhtiyari in the 19th century, we knew little about what happened to the tribal people and how they maneuvered in a world that had suddenly become much wider and much more complex. From the level of the Bakhtiyari people and their leaders, Dr. Khazeni introduces here an entirely new historical perspective on the much romanticized Zagros peoples.”

Khazeni, who was born in Tehran, became interested in the country’s tribes during road trips with his family as a child to Shiraz, Isfahan and the Caspian Sea. “We would encounter these remote tribes, and I was left with the impression that this was a different Iran from life in the cities.” Even though he lived in Tehran, he felt the pull of the mountains.

As a graduate student, Khazeni returned to his early fascination with the tribal people and areas he visited as a child. “The history of pastoral societies on the margins of the Middle East and North Africa had fallen by the wayside in recent years,” he explains. “With so much of the literature laying emphasis on the urban classes and the political center, I embarked on recovering a history of tribes and mountains. The story of the Zagros Mountains between Qajar Iran and Ottoman Iraq during the long 19th century is a tale about empire and assimilation, and the difficult birth of pastoral societies into the modern world,” he says.

To investigate that story, Khazeni made several research trips to Iran, “tramped through the Zagros Mountains and the Bakhtiyari land,” and visited archival collections in London Tehran and Isfahan to comb through 19th century chronicles, tribal histories, ethnographies and manuscripts.

“Up until the 19th century, three-quarters of this population was pastoral, nomadic societies of flocks and herds migrating between the highlands in the summer and the lowlands in the winter, while Iran was ruled by tribal empires that moved from the tent to the throne” Khazeni explains. “It took 19th-century contact with modern imperial projects and the world economy to settle this pastoral world.”

In his book, Khazeni takes readers through the sweeping changes in 19th-century Iran, from an era of tribal autonomy and pastoral life to times of increasing outside contact, environmental transformation, and the assimilation of tribes by a more far-reaching, assertive and modern state.

Khazeni’s next book will focus on the turquoise trade in the Middle East, the environment and the color blue in world history.