grants from SOAS Research Fund, SSRC Research Project 1983-4.
Iran -Tehran, Isfahan (Shahr-e Kord conference on Nomads and Development), 1992,
Sept grant from BIPS
Iran – Tehran, Kermanshah, Tabriz and Ardabil, 1993, Aug-Sept
grants from BIPS, Nuffield Foundation, to explore possibilities of new projects
Northen Afghanistan, March 1971 ( Photo taken by Nancy Lindisfarne-Tapper)
My interest in Iran began when I was an undergraduate student in Cambridge; it was kindled by two Fellows of my college, Peter Avery, Lecturer in Persian, and my supervisor Edmund Leach, who had once done a short study of Kurds in Iraq. In summer 1963, at the end of my second year, I made my first visit to the Shahsevan nomads of Iranian Azarbaijan. On graduation the following summer, after a second trip to Iran, I moved to SOAS, and for my doctorate I conducted a year’s (1965-66) intensive fieldwork among the Shahsevan.
The Shahsevan were pastoral nomads, living in felt-covered ‘yurt’-style tents, herding sheep and goats and using camels for transport. (Several thousand families of them still pursue this way of life in 2011, though many have abandoned camels for trucks and pickups.) Their social, economic and political organization, I soon discovered, were strongly influenced by two main factors: their location on the frontier of Iran and Russia, later the USSR and now the Republic of Azerbaijan; and their relations with these various states.
Fieldwork was followed by archival and library study on Shahsevan history, and an inordinately long thesis on political and economic change. Much revised, the thesis was eventually published, mainly in the form of two monographs. Pasture and Politics (1979) is a micro-analysis of the social, economic and ritual organization of a small Shahsevan nomadic community. Frontier Nomads of Iran (1997) is a comprehensive political and social history of the Shahsevan tribes.
My PhD was awarded in 1972. By this time I had already completed a second field study, this time in Afghanistan, jointly with Nancy Tapper (now Lindisfarne). After a survey of northern provinces in the summer of 1968, for most of 1971 we lived with a community of semi-nomadic Durrani Pashtuns, accompanying some of them on their spring migration to the Hazarajat and back to their home villages in Saripul; in the summer of 1972 we spent a further two months in their villages. I concentrated on economic and political activities, tribalism and ethnic relations.
At the end of the 1970s Nancy and I planned return visits to both Shahsevan and Durrani, to focus on religious practices in their local market towns. Revolutions in both Iran and Afghanistan put paid to this plan, and we diverted to Turkey, where, together with our young sons Ruard and Edward, we spent over a year (between 1979 and 1984), mainly in the provincial town of Eğirdir. Here I worked on the basic ethnography of the town: the market, local economic and political organizations, and men’s religious and ceremonial practices, with a focus on Islam and Turkish nationalism.
Since then I have carried out no further extended fieldwork. I have visited Iran three times, in 1992, 1993 and 1995, and more recently I have travelled fairly extensively in other parts of the Muslim world, ranging from Morocco, Bosnia, Syria and Jordan to Malaysia and Indonesia.
My first nexus of interests was in pastoral nomadism, sedentarization, and tribal political organization; apart from my doctoral thesis and the resultant books on the Shahsevan, I published key comparative papers on nomadic community organization and on pastoral land tenure practices (1979), both originally presented at the 1976 Paris conference on ‘Pastoral Production and Society’.
Fieldwork in Afghanistan was intended to follow up my interest in pastoral political economies and nomadic settlement, but also posed the crucial and comparative issue of tribe-state relations in Iran and Afghanistan. In 1979, together with the late David Brooks of Durham University, I convened at SOAS a conference of anthropologists and historians on ‘Tribe and State in Iran and Afghanistan’; this led to my first edited book (1983). Since then I have developed my ideas on nomadism, settlement and tribalism in a series of articles and chapters.
My Afghan fieldwork also focused on other issues, especially ethnicity and ethnic identity. What turned out to be a keynote paper at the 1985 Paris conference on Le fait ethnique en Iran and Afghanistan (1987) was the first of a series in which I criticized both anthropological and emerging media notions of ‘ethnicity’. I have published several articles drawing on the Afghan fieldwork, some jointly with Nancy, and Nancy drew on joint field materials in her outstanding monograph, Bartered Brides: Politics, Gender and Marriage in an Afghan Tribal Society (Cambridge 1991). In 2020, I published the first of two long-overdue monographs of my own, Afghan Village Voices (I B Tauris).”
Publications resulting from my fieldwork in Turkey have so far been confined to two substantial articles written jointly with Nancy, one on religious and secular fundamentalism, the other on ritual and gender; and an edited book, Islam in Modern Turkey (1991) resulting from a 1988 workshop. I hope to complete a long-planned portrait of society in the town of Eğirdir. Meanwhile I have continued to develop my interest in the anthropology of Islam, both as localized practices and as a body of knowledge and belief produced in specific contexts.
Four years as Chair of the SOAS Centre of Near and Middle Eastern Studies widened my perspectives on Middle Eastern affairs. I was involved directly in convening and organizing a large number of lectures, seminars and international conferences and workshops on a variety of themes. I headed a group that bid successfully for a contract to produce a Report for the FCO on Some Minorities in the Middle East, and edited the Report (with an Introduction) as an Occasional Paper for the Centre (1992). In 1992, together with Sami Zubaida I convened a conference on Culinary Cultures in the Middle East that led to a successful book (1994), reissued in 2000 as A Taste of Thyme. Later edited books also mainly derive from conferences I convened at the CNMES.
My interest in aspects of material cultures is reflected in several other publications: on weaving, folk-music, camel-breeding, food, water, and nomadic tents. Also related is a critical essay on philosophers’ approaches to human-animal relations.
Though my active research on pastoral nomadism ceased many years ago, I maintain a strong interest in the topic; for some years I taught a course on it. My most recent publication on the theme is an article on Afghan nomad identity in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (2008). In the 1990s I devoted what research time I had to Iran, starting in 1992 with my participation in a large conference on ‘Nomadism and development’ in the Bakhtiari mountains near Isfahan. Then in 1993 and 1995 I spent several months in Iran, together with my wife, anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini; apart from brief visits to the Shahsevan, we were trying to set up joint projects with Iranian organizations to study and facilitate the services provided to nomads.
Unfortunately I have not been able to visit Iran since 1995; but I am still very much concerned with fate of pastoral nomads in the country, and the Shahsevan in particular, as reflected in my contributions to The Nomadic Peoples of Iran (2002), the brainchild of my co-editor Jon Thompson, which is built around the brilliant photography of Nasrollah Kasraian.
My recent research interests have moved towards popular, public and visual culture in the Middle East, with a focus on Iranian cinema, partly resulting from my experiences in 1998-9, when I was able to travel with Ziba to film festivals and other venues in Europe and North America, where the award-winning documentary Divorce Iranian Style (which she co-directed with Kim Longinotto) provoked interestingly varied reactions among Iranian and non-Iranian viewers. Another edited book (The New Iranian Cinema, 2002) arose from the first of two conferences I convened at SOAS on this subject, which I also taught as an MA course (2001-4).
My interest in cinema also partly stems from a long-term involvement with ethnographic film. I shot footage (8mm and 16mm) on all my fieldwork trips, though never to a professional level. I have always been convinced of the value – and aware of the limitations – of visual anthropology, and I used film in most of my teaching, starting with the Wednesday lunchtime Ethnographic Film programme, which I inaugurated at SOAS in 1973, and continuing from 1985 in my BA and MA courses on Anthropology and Film (the first such courses in any University department in the UK). I have been a long-term member (and chair for several years) of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Ethnographic Film Committee, and convened both the first (1985) and the seventh (2000) RAI International Ethnographic Film Festivals at SOAS.
After my retirement in 2004, my first project was the co-writing with Ziba of Islam and Democracy in Iran: Eshkevari and the Question for Reform (2006), the first of perhaps several joint studies of Iranian political culture. Otherwise, I have been reflecting on, writing up, and publishing research materials collected long ago.