Reading the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East – Interview with Amir Moosavi
This article is part of the TRAFO series ‘Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop “Reading the ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East”. The workshop is convened by Amir Moosavi and will take place at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin on 15-16 June 2017. It is funded by the VolkswagenStiftung and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and held in cooperation with the research network Figures of Thought | Turning Points. Cultural Practices and Social Change in the Arab World at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at Philipps-Universität Marburg.
Amir Moosavi is a fellow of the research program Europe in the Middle East – the Middle East in Europe (EUME), supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the VolkswagenStiftung and W. Mellon Foundation. His research interests include modern Arabic and Persian literatures, with an emphasis on Iran, Iraq and the Levant, and the cultural history of the modern Middle East. His dissertation focused on Arabic and Persian fiction from the Iran-Iraq War. Amir Moosavi has taught at NYU, Bard College, and Hunter College.
Why did you organize the workshop “Reading the ‘1979 moment’ in the Middle East” and what are you hoping to achieve?
The theme of the workshop is related to a future research project that I hope to begin soon. I’ve chosen the year 1979 because it was astonishing year for the region that we call the “Middle East.” In the course of a single year, the world witnessed a series of events that, although unconnected to one another in their causality, dramatically shifted the social, political and cultural trajectories of many of the countries that make up Arab and Persianate worlds. In less than 365 days, Khomeini took over power in Iran following the 1978-79 revolution, Egypt enacted a peace treaty with Israel, Islamist insurgents seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca, Saddam Hussein assumed full control over Iraq and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. At the same time, the Lebanese Civil War raged in the background, a major uprising that would culminate in a massacre was brewing in Syria, and in not-so-distant Pakistan, a mob of angry protestors burned the American embassy. All of these events were connected with the emergence of various strains of political Islam and the serious decline of the political left in the region.
All of these events and their consequences have been the subject of numerous works of academic, journalistic and popular inquiry, but there have been few attempts to bring them together in a comparative framework that looks beyond the boundaries of modern nation states. The few works that do so, by people like Hamit Bozarslan, Christian Caryl and David Lesch are good, but I think we can do more. In organizing this workshop, I’m hoping to bring together scholars of various disciplines, regional languages and countries and put them into conversation with one another. 1979 is a year that we need to think of as transformative for the region as a whole (if not the world) and not simply for individual states.
Why did you choose the cultural and intellectual legacy of this era as the main focus?
There are two main reasons for this. I think that existing studies of the events of this year have tended to focus on their political and social significance. That it was a pivotal year, politically and socially, is undeniable. However, the rise of political Islam and concurrent decline of traditional leftist politics in the Middle East also had important cultural and intellectual consequences. Intellectually, as many scholars of political Islam have pointed out over the past 30 years, Islamist groups often coopted leftist discourse and repackaged it in an Islamist mode. In that way, I hope that this workshop will be an opportunity for a comparative discussion of what this transformation has meant since 1979. On a cultural level, 1979 signaled the appearance of various forms of cultural production that now had to contend with a new social and political reality. By way of example, one can look at film and literature coming out of countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. Not only did the events of 1979 and their consequences lead to new thematic concerns in cultural production (revolution, war, the effects of political Islam on everyday life), but they also affected formal approaches to literature and film, particularly when we look at more experimental approaches taken to depict war and violence.
Based on the topics and questions that have been debated so far: what are the key arguments for conducting comparative and transregional research? What are the unique perspectives and insights that the participants will gain from attending your workshop?
As I’ve mentioned, I think comparative and transregional approaches are necessary to come to a more complete understanding of the events of 1979 and how they have transformed the societies of an entire region. This workshop will be an opportunity for researchers working in different fields and disciplines to come together through a mutual interest in a particular “moment” in recent history. In the end, I hope that it will be a first step in a much larger process of periodizing the contemporary history and culture of the Middle East.
 Hamit Bozarslan, “Revisiting the Middle East’s 1979”, in: Economy and Society, Vol 41 (4), 2012.
 Christian Caryl, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the birth of the 21st century, New York: Basic Books, 2013.
 David W. Lesch, 1979: The Year That Shaped the Modern Middle East, Boulder CO: Westview Press, 2001.
Further contributions to the TRAFO series „Emerging Topics“:
- Konfiguration des Säkularen. Einblicke in die kritische Säkularismusforschung – Interview with Schirin Amir-Moazami, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.05.2017.
- Transregionale Verflechtungen: Räumliche Zusammenhänge jenseits etablierter Metageographien – Interview with Steffen Wippel, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.04.2017
- Heritage, Decolonisation and the Field – Interview with William Carruthers, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.04.2017.
- „What Makes a Man? Sexuality and Representation in Europe-Middle East Encounters“ – Interview with Tarek El-Ariss, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.04.2017.
- Making and Changing Spaces of Action under the Global Condition – Interview with Martina Keilbach, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.03.2017.
- Practices and Processes of Space-making under the Global Condition – Interview with Steffi Marung, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.02.2017.
- Stepping Back in Time. Living History and Other Performative Approaches to History in Central and South-Eastern Europe, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.02.2017, guest contribution by Sabine Stach (German Historical Institute Warschau).
Citation: Reading the ‘1979 Moment’ in the Middle East – Interview with Amir Moosavi, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.05.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6705.