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Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran


My project on prayer and poetry was just published: Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran (Stanford University Press). I begin this book with the question of how we can avoid looking at revolutions as either failures or successes. The 1979 revolution in Iran resulted in a mass involvement with theological questions—most notably, what kind of Islam is the true one? The Islamic Republic sought to define and impose a certain version of Islam on Iranians. Hence, it was inevitable that people would question the authority of this particular approach by the state and offer their own alternatives. I show in my book how classical poetry (much of which is mystical) is used in the public sphere to construct and argue for alternatives.


I also examine debates such as whether a namaz must have a spiritual aspect or is it merely a fulfillment of a religious requirement. What are the stakes of such debates and how are the various positions articulated. I explore the role of language in constructing a relationship with God. What is inward speech like and is it very different from the kinds of speech we use to address others around us?

I analyze the temporality of performing a ritual: Is praying at 18 the same as praying at 60? If not, what are the changes in form and content. What happens to a ritual such as the namaz when it is performed, not in public and with other people, but in private and at home, in the presence of God alone. For more on this project, see this recent interview.


Comparative Notions of Sincerity 

Sincerity is often discussed as somehow belonging exclusively to Protestantism. Through two panels organized at the AAA, we published papers on sincerity among Methodists in Papua New Guinea, in contemporary Russia, among Orthodox Jews in New York, and Shi’a women in Iran. This collection that I edited was published in the journal Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 

Translation, Education, and the Production of Knowledge

Tehran boasts a surprisingly large number of bookstores—old and dusty ones as well as sleek new ones. These bookstores house copious translations of literary works, old and new, from many parts of the world. In the last few decades, self-help books that come out in the U.S. are translated almost immediately. What attracted my attention this time is the sheer volume of translations in philosophy and the social sciences from French and English.

Examining reading materials for graduate students in anthropology and sociology, one comes away with the impression that more than half of what they read are works in translation. How do translations contribute to the production of knowledge and to creativity within the local intellectual milieu? Which translations enter the curricula at universities and why? There is a category of books in Iran that are both translations and original works–they are called roughly “translated and composed” (tarjomeh va ta’lif). Often, university professors translate an author’s work and write an introduction to it themselves, adding commentary where necessary. I have begun interviewing translators of social scientific and literary works. I am also putting together a history of course materials in the last decade.


Modesty and Public Appearance Among Jews, Christians and Muslims

I have broadened this project and carried out interviews with rabbis, priests and Muslim clerics in London as well in Iran. I am now in the process of putting together the historical and contemporary materials that I have gathered. I begin this research with the overarching question of the meanings of modesty and ask a number of questions: How do aesthetics and morality intersect for different groups of Iranians and what has changed in this respect since the early 20th century? What roles have class and gender played in negotiating the relations between piety, modesty and dress? I have found the literature on the social history of moral regulation in the West and of sumptuary laws to be quite relevant to this project. There needs to be a revisiting of this period in Iranian history that pays close attention to the long term consequences of de-cloaking (suits, skirts and hats, as opposed to robes, turbans and veils), the effects of the technologies of photography and film (both of which came to Iran only a few years after Europe), the proliferation of shops and places of leisure, and the steady increases in literacy rates. Most research on hijab excludes three very important groups: men, non-Muslims, and non-believers. There are ways in which what men wear also illuminate the question of modesty. And there is no principled reason why non-Muslim views of modesty should not be researched and analyzed. In Iran, Zoroastrianism predates Islam; and Jews and Christians have been living there for a long time, the latter since the time of Cyrus (550 B.C.). How could it be that their codes, views and practices would not be relevant to Iranians’ notions of modesty?



I have written a great deal on the social, cultural and political complexities of the language situation in Egypt. Some of my discussions on Egypt are also applicable to other parts of the Arab world. In my book Sacred Language, Ordinary people, I pursue the question of what a modern language is as well as what the relationship is between a “modern” language and modernity. I follow the reasons for the historical refusal of allowing vernacular forms of Arabic to become written languages of their own, the consequences of this “decision,” and the varied implications of using Classical Arabic instead—a language which a majority of Arab Muslims (as well as other Muslims) believe to be the word of God and in this sense “sacred.” There is often an emphatic denial of the importance of the association between Classical Arabic and the Qur’an, both on the part of many secular Arab intellectuals and on the part of non-Arab scholars who dismiss such ideas without any systematic study.

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