Thirty-five years ago today I was living in Iran, in the (then) small village of Aliabad, when the 1979 Revolution, which would culminate in the overthrow of the Shah, first began. As I reflect on the Revolution, I think about the people of Aliabad, with whom I shared the experience.
In typical anthropological-participant-observation fashion, I joined in revolutionary marches both in the village and nearby Shiraz, with the other women and girls of the village—sometimes carrying my then one-year-old daughter. Along with other residents of the settlement, I felt fear, anxiety, distress, grief, anger, exhilaration—and all of the other emotions that went along with living through a revolution.
We woke up in the morning, anxious to find out what was happening across the country, wondering apprehensively what the day would bring. We listened to the BBC Persian news service and talked about the ongoing conflict with whomever we met. For years afterward, all of the revolutionary experiences and discussions seemed burned into my memory. Even after going through the depression, grief, and disillusionment of the following years (also felt by Iranian American friends) the 18 months I spent in Iran between June 1978 and December 1979 remain the most gripping period of my life.
During the process of anthropological fieldwork, the researcher usually develops close relationships with the people she lives among. Since we went through a revolution together, perhaps I feel all the closer to my Aliabad friends. These people take central stage in my day-to-day social interactions in the field, as well as in my mind, memory, and even my dreams, when I’m back home. Fortunately I’ve managed to keep in touch with some of them. Along with other older people from that community, I sometimes think back to old times, bemoan the current materialistic attitudes with fewer interactions among relatives, and feel nostalgic for the lifestyle of those days. Desire to see old friends, a wish to rejoin a community very dear to me, and curiosity—personal and scholarly—about ongoing developments, means that time spent in Aliabad and Shiraz with friends is precious to me.
One of the effects of long-term participant observation is that the anthropologist becomes very attached to many people in the research community. In my view, participant observation is very much a joint project, a collaborative effort. During the fieldwork process, the researcher learns from people, and the abilities of the people with whom the scholar works dramatically affect the research project.
I had the generous help of many gifted observers and analysts who shared the results of their watching, thinking, and understanding with me, and am still awed by the analytical abilities and nuanced understandings of political, economic, and social conditions of many Aliabad residents. For their insights and generosity, I am not adequately able to convey my gratitude.
People do seem pleased to have their experiences documented in print. During my 1978-1979 stay, I remember one young man asking me to write and tell people about it all. With the publication of Days of Revolution, I hope to have accomplished just that. Another small way I have found of saying ‘thank you’ is to give people photographs. In 1978-79, people tell me, I owned one of only two cameras in the village of some 3,000 people. I only wish I had taken more photos then. A financially strapped graduate student at the time, I did not even spare the funds to buy a flash attachment and was limited to outdoor shots.
During more recent visits, I have taken many more photos and always share a copy with the people in them. When I go back, people ask me for photos from 1978-79, pictures of deceased family, men working on farms, and so on. A few times, I have had all of them—even multiple copies of each—but it is never enough. I am always asked to bring more.
For the 35th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, I thought I would share some of these old photos in this blog. I dedicate this writing and these photographs to my friends in Aliabad and Shiraz and to the memory of those friends and teachers from there who are no longer with us.
(In order to put photos of women on social media, I would need to have prior permission, so unfortunately, you will not see photos of Aliabad women).
Mary Elaine Hegland is Professor of Anthropology at Santa Clara University. She was the only American scholar in Iran conducting field research during the Islamic Revolution, and one of very few to have access to the country in the 35 years since. She is the author of Days of Revolution: Political Unrest in an Iranian Village.