When American professor of history Hayden White noted that all history is fiction, he did not mean that it was all a lie. He drew our attention to something right under our nose, and wilfully ignored by practitioners of historiography: all history is fiction inasmuch it employs narrative as a form of representation.

It is a story meaningful only because the author is actively making choices in the arrangement of events with chronological sequence, in which the causal effects and weighting of importance make a narrative dynamic sequence. The narrative structure provides any report of an event the coherence and directionality that a mere chronological sequence does not. Here, contrary to all the criticism levelled against White, the veracity of historical events is not put under question. But it is the importance of the human agency of storytelling in historical representation that White invited us to ponder. In other words, history is not a static and external reality. It’s a reality mediated through language; it not only encodes reality, but also shapes what it purports to express.

Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism, by Columbia University professor Mana Kia, deals with the most vexing questions of how people identified themselves before the story of modern nationalism blended all our affiliations, ways of belonging and understandings of origin under the flag of one nation. Who are we if we discount the modern nationalistic tags of our belonging? Does the Persian language and literature belong to Iran alone? Is Urdu an Islamic or secular language? Are we only what our biology designates to us? Is ancestry bound by blood alone? Is a Pakistani or Indian who speaks Persian, Persian? What are our last names? Are places intrinsically valuable? Is home only where one is born?

These are foundational questions for any historical or literary inquiry that aims to engage the past and identify with it. Unfortunately, modern historiography has proven to be a Procrustean bed when it comes to understanding the ways in which people made sense of their world in the past. It has amputated whatever does not fit the criteria of positivist analytics of our dichotomous thinking. Kia exposes these beds of Procrustes in modern historiography by engaging not with the modern historians alone, but with the voices of the forgotten and misrepresented dead, who tell a different story of origin, belonging and meaning.

A book challenges our understanding of how people identified themselves before the advent of nation-states

Kia tells a story of the time when all Persian speakers were Persians regardless of their places of birth and family affiliations — a time just before European modernity started to lay claim to the older modes of meaning-making. Beware, though! European modernity and its logic were not restricted to European colonisation alone. The colonial logic of racial hierarchy and its exclusive dynamic were also emulated in the modern Irani reconstruction of Persian identity, co-opting the Persian language to Iran’s exclusive territory and secularising Persian poetry, which is believed to be the foundation of Irani national identity today.

Kia writes: “The story of a pre-Islamic nation also subordinated more recent, enduring ties of language, culture, circulation, commerce, kinship and history. Pre-Islamic history was not a new feature of the historiographical tradition. But nationalism took this heritage, severed it from the Islamic history with which it had been harmoniously intertwined, and reconstituted it into the shining story of the nobility and dignity of Persians as Iranians alone. Arabs became savages, Afghans thieves, Indians smelled and Turks were stupid. These claims to a progressive cultural superiority, based on racism, were strikingly insecure and contradictory.”

How do we make sense of what possessing a language meant before modern nationalism provided us with its vicious logics of chauvinistic exclusion of whatever was ‘uncomfortably similar’? Kia extends this particular question to the Persian language as the binding force of the Persianate self across its trans-regional existence in West, South and Central Asia, which was constituted on the stories, poetry, aesthetic sensibility and, above all, its proper form in perceiving, speaking and acting — its adab.

For Kia, to be a Persian in the premodern context was based on receiving a basic education in the Persian language, which included learning poetry, storytelling, government, philosophy, religious instruction, ethical literature and historical commemoration. It was a lens through which Persians as the speakers of Farsi — regardless of their geographical locality — learned to see and make sense of the world. As a result, their self-representations, their portrayal of life as they saw and lived it and the emotions they experienced, were informed by their engagement with their education in adab, an extensive corpus of texts that provided the coherent logic of being Persian.

As Kia states, adab transcended whatever land constituted a nation-state at any given time and, sometimes, even the Persian language itself. It’s the analysis of this sense of belonging and its modes of meaning-making before the contraction of the Persian language and rise of nationalism that Kia’s book aims to bring to the fore in Persianate Selves.

The first of the book’s two parts, titled ‘Place’, deals with representations of landscapes and places and how they were remembered by two historians (even this term is problematic in the premodern context, for historians were, in all likelihood, also poets): Shaykh Muhammad Ali Hazin Lahiji (an Irani exile in Timurid Hindustan) and Khvajih Abd al-Karim Kashmiri (a Dehliite functionary in Nadir Shah’s army to Iran). In the light of their tazkirahs [commemorative texts], Tazkirat al Ahvaal (Hazin) and Bayan-i-vaqai (Kashmiri), Kia explores the range of meanings that defined place in the Persianate context from “objective understandings of geographical, political and historical to more subjective renderings of myths, homelands, and stories.”

Rather than being part of an empirical reality divorced from imaginative ideas, Kia reads these texts to illuminate the modes of meaning-making that were “aporetically distinct, overlapping and concurrently constituted place in multiple ways.” Her analysis engages with various conceptualisations of home, city, region and country as manifestations of place. In close and very sensitive readings of these supposedly historical texts, which have been superficially read for their historical truth-claims, Kia demonstrates that “places were an accrual of time and character, as much of brick and stone. Narratives were part of a continuum of knowledge about the past, though we moderns tend to divide them into histories, myths and fictional stories according to our own notions of veracity.”

Kia makes no claim to exclusively harmonious understandings of the place among the dramatis personae she studies. However, in highlighting the points of their differences, she provides incisive glimpses into the dynamics of their meaning-making, which nonetheless relied on the same terms of conceptual and emotional engagement.

The second part, ‘Origin’, defamiliarises the concept as it is normally understood as a reference to place and invites us to consider how it was understood by the premoderns: “Origin has come to mean place, but it is a cipher for much more ... A person’s origin encompassed inherited status, trajectory, station and relative position, yet not every element present at birth was memorable, evoked or narrated. Much had to be accrued, earned even. Origin was a story, a presentation, whose shape was guided by Persianate adab. It answered the question ‘who are you?’ and provided meaning for the answer to ‘where did you come from before you arrived here?’ Origin was a shifting truth, not self-evident natural fact. Answers depended on changing spatial and temporal moments of articulation. To translate Persianate origin requires that we move past modern, mutually exclusive binaries of natural and artificial. We must reconsider origin aporetically.

All three chapters in this part engage the questions of origin, lineage and places as understood by several other dramatis personae such as Lachmi Narain Shafiq Aurangabadi: descendent of the Lahori Khatri Kapuris, son of a Persian munshi in Alamgir’s court and student of Azad Bilgarami. Kia reads Aurangabadi’s Gul-i-Raana and analyses various articulations of origin and his claims to lineage. By highlighting the aporetic nature of belonging, the narration of origin and claiming of lineage, Kia shows how the dynamic process of self-fashioning relied on one’s journey as a family member, a disciple of a learned master (Aurangabadi makes a special connection of his lineage to his teacher, Bilgarami, which is perhaps more important to him than any filial affiliation) as well as a servant in the court of a righteous emperor (whose personal conduct was understood to be the constitutive element of any place’s character).

In a sense, the lineage was as much of a choice as it was a given factor in one’s life as far as the male population was concerned. Kia also engages with the gender aspect of this subject and relates the scant available material on female self-representation in the premodern political arena.

Kia’s book provides serious opportunities to think about our modern historiographical nomenclature of identity markers in premodern representations. It also unabashedly questions our modern dichotomous thinking, which tends to rupture the continuum of time that the narratives of Persianate adab sustained through centuries of Persian learning in premodern Hindustan.

Besides its scholarly contribution, Persianate Selves is an indispensable and highly recommended book for world leaders, policymakers and anyone interested in curing their monological ways of thinking about Islamic pasts.

The reviewer is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. Her research focuses on the medieval romance tradition in premodern India

Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism
By Mana Kia
Stanford University Press, US
ISBN: 978-1503610682
336pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 19th, 2020

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