Hamid Dabashi is an Iranian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York City. He has authored over twenty books, with his most recent book being Iran: The Rebirth of a Nation receiving incredibly positive reviews. Hamid Dabashi received his early education in his hometown and his college education in Tehran before he moved to the United States, where he received a dual PhD in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, the oldest and most prestigious Chair in his field. He is a founding member of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, as well as a founding member of the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University. Hamid Dabashi has also authored over 100 essays, articles and book reviews in major scholarly and peer reviewed journals on subjects ranging from Iranian Studies, medieval and modern Islam, comparative literature, world cinema, and the philosophy of art (trans-aesthetics). An internationally renowned cultural critic and award-winning author, his books and articles have been translated into numerous languages. Hamid Dabashi is also a public speaker around the globe, a current affairs essayist, and a staunch anti-war activist. Please enjoy my interview with Hamid Dabashi…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I say I teach trouble making. It’s a shorthand for I teach “in the Department of Middle East and Asian and African Studies with an emphasis on Persian culture and social and intellectual history of Islam and world cinema with a base in comparative literature and society”—for if I said that they will have no freaking clue what I do for a living. So the answer “troublemaking” is both fairly accurate and also puts a pleasant twist to the Protestant question asked a Muslim in the spirit of capitalism.
I am mostly reading Facebook. Next to Facebook (literally next to my iPhone) I am reading Totality and Infinity by Emmanuel Levinas. But I am reading that magnificent book like I read my newsfeed. It makes me understand it better. You must understand I read philosophy like fiction. I stopped reading fiction a very long time ago, and I dearly miss it. My close hermeneutic studies with my late teacher Philip Rieff at the University of Pennsylvania during my graduate student years ended my reading fiction years. We used to spend six-month reading In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka or 1 Corinthians or In the Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion by Soren Kierkegaard. That life-0f-the-mind-changing experience ended my fixations with fiction. A couple of years ago I was in St Petersburg as a member of the jury in a film festival and in the company of a Russian colleague I went to visit Dostoyevsky’s home and neighbourhood where he wrote Crime and Punishment. All I could remember was my 11-year old boyhood when I first read that masterpiece in its Persian translation! So these days I read my Facebook and my favourite philosophers the way I used to read Dostoyevsky or Turgenev in my teenage years. They both make more sense if read as works of fiction.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
It’s no book. I come from an oral tradition. It is my mother’s storytelling, from the heart. She was not a literate person. She was the most cultivated human being I have ever seen. She and her mother, my maternal grandmother, were master storytellers. For years the image of a mother having her child sitting on her lap reading from a book to her was entirely strange to me. For me, stories are to be told not read to children—the way my mother did to me and my younger brother. She was the first daughter of a working class couple who had just come to a major city from a small town. She was not put to school out of fears of a newly arrived working class couple scared of big cities. But her younger sisters, my aunts, were all sent to school. As a result, my aunts were all sophisticated bourgeois ladies married off to middle-class bourgeois husbands, while my mother was married to my father who was a labourer with Iranian national railroad. My mother, as a result, had all the gifted nuances of a master storyteller uninhibited by the written words, with the chip of her bourgeois younger sisters and their tall and handsome husbands on her thin, beautiful, shoulders. I always imagine her as a young girl, perpetually in the age of my own younger daughter, now ten. My childhood literary and poetic imagination was exceptionally colourful because of my mother and her gifted sense of poetic storytelling.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A bartender. In the city of my childhood Ahvaz in southern Iran we had some amazing Armenian bartenders, who served Russian vodka, local beers, and heavenly Armenian delicacies and were all great conversationalists. As a child and then a teenager I was not allowed to drink. But I accompanied my older brother who used to frequent these bars with his friends. I loved the environment, its finicky cleanliness, and I adored the Armenian bartenders, and their thickly Armenian accents when they spoke Persian, and their uncanny ability to talk about anything. In a way, you might say in my writing and scholarship I am trying to reach the oral audacity and warm storytelling aura of those Armenian bartenders. So there you have it: my poor pious Shi’i Muslim mother and our local Armenian bartenders were my inspirations.
When did you fall in love with philosophy?
When I encountered Thrasymachus in the First Book of The Republic by Plato (again in its magnificent Persian translation, which I read as a teenager—to me Plato still speaks Persian, imagine that!) For me Thrasymachus ends European philosophy just when it was getting started, when he puts a puncture into Socrates freewheeling philosophizing about justice. To this day Thrasymachus is my central philosophical hero.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
What a strange weird man? What happened to you?
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
Yes, when I wake up on my iPhone, looking up into my iPhone–that is how I start writing too, “looking up to” what I read and write. It gives your critical intelligence a sense of mortal confidence. There is also still a dreamlike quality to what I read and write. When I get up and my day starts in earnest then I attend to my reading and writing on a sporadic pattern, predicated on the constancy of that everlasting moment of darkness ruled by my half-charged iPhone. I also listen to books a lot—on my iPhone. There are these books-on-tapes I love to listen to before I fall asleep. They are usually read by great actors. During the following days, I find myself mimicking those voices and phrases to myself. “If you be Mr Hyde, I’ll be Mr Seek.”
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?
It is not a book. It is an essay. Freud’s essay on “the Uncanny.” I think Freud was high on something when he was writing it. It is unreal. It is uncanny. It has impacted me not because of the brilliance of what he says, but his (yes uncanny) ability to cease and theorise on something so ethereal, so unreal, and yet so evident and so powerful. Freud has perhaps had more impact on me than any other thinker, in part because he enables me to disagree with me. Years ago in one of my books, I turned to his idea of “deferred obedience” as a civilising force and came up with the idea of “deferred defiance” as a revolutionary force. That to me is the sign of a brilliant mind. He enables you to play with him.
The Republic by Plato. Book One. When Thrasymachus appears. Always ask yourself what happened to him. TO me the history of Greek and subsequent European philosophy is the history of the disappearance of Thrasymachus. Why did philosophy continue after that great man? All the current postmodern/poststructuralist/post-colonial crisis of European philosophy, in my humble opinion, is the return of Thrasymachus.
Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?
Khayyam, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Because they have taught me how to laugh, how not to take philosophy too seriously, read it like fiction, learn how to play with it. Recently I published a book I called Can Non-Europeans Think? which begins with an Introduction I called “Can Europeans Read?” The book has happily been widely received and translated into many languages. But when I read some of the reviews that are out I giggle at the inability of serious people to see Nietzsche in the root of my philosophical happiness. To me, and as I say in the book, Europhobia is the worst kind of Eurocentricism. In that book, my humble homage to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Khayyam, I acknowledge my rootedness in European philosophy as I bid it farewell to think for myself.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
Yes: “Book of Hosea” in the Hebrew Bible, which I associate with Philip Rieff, my Jewish mentor of some seven years during my graduate school years. I read it with him, chapter and verse. It turned me into a Jewish prophet, or what in New York we call a “Jewish Intellectual.” They say Edward Said, who was a Christian you know, was the last “Jewish intellectuals.” In that tradition, I am the first Muslim intellectual of New York. In my most cherished private dreams, I am the younger Muslim brother of Hannah Arendt and Theodore Adorno. But because he died young (he committed suicide running from the Nazis), Walter Benjamin remains my martyred uncle, the absolutely highest epiphany of truth.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I’d say The Masnavi by Jalal al-Din Rumi. But not to be read the way these so-called “religious intellectuals” badly recite it like a guru to their old tired devotees on the internet. I read it the way I imagine Rumi wrote it for the love of his life Shams-e Tabrizi. Masnavi is a magnificent love letter, not a metaphysical treatise for God’s sake. There is a magnificent new English translation of it being done and published by a truly gifted translator Jawid Mojaddedi, for those who cannot read it in original Persian.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Non-fiction, which of course I read as fiction. Alas, I have lost my ability, as I said, to read fiction as fiction. I start theorising it. Comparative literary theory kills literature and analyses its corpse. Our only salvation (and revenge) is to read Derrida and Spivak like we read works of fiction. They make more sense that way.
Do you think reading is important?
No. Writing is important. We can only read when we have started writing. This writing is not necessarily for publication. I always tell my students to think more than you read, read more than you write, write more than you publish. So writing is the epicentre of reading. It anchors us.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
It is a book by a brilliant Palestinian critical thinker Isma’il Nashef and it is called Tufulah Huzayran/June Children.” It is a journey into Arabic children’s literature to retrieve some of the unresolved traumas of the Arab world since the June 1967 War. It is about the manners adults project their own sense of defeat to children. I deeply admire the way in which Ismail Nashef philosophises politics in a deeply humanist tradition here. I wish someone would translate it into English.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Real books. I cannot read digital books. I think them weird and fake. I read Facebook on iPhone. But not books. I am a Gutenbergian through and through. There is a tactile, physical, sensual relationship for me with a book. Remember we go to bed with books, and our happiest hours are when we fall asleep reading them, and even if we are too tired we still gently put them on our nightstand!
Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. It will alter their conception of time and narrative. It is full of utterly brilliant stories of superheroes and supervillains. It will make Marvel’s superheroes look like pussycats. But more than its stories it is the manner in which mythical, heroic, and the historical are fused that makes this book so exquisitely exceptional.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
The Qur’an—no doubt. Because I do not completely comprehend it. It alters your conception of authorship, readership, morality, verbality, truth, reason, and revelation. Every time you go back to it, it has something new to reveal to you. It is not accidental it is considered to be a miracle by Muslims. It is a happy book, a fearsome book, a jovial book, a tremendous book, all at the same time. Imagine God telling you stories: promising you things, frightening you, then kissing and cuddling you. The Qur’an is wasted on these ageing bearded jurists who have all forgotten how a mighty magnificent God would tell stories.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Yes the Bible in its Persian translation. It is so astonishingly beautiful when read in Persian.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
A book on how Donald Trump was impeached and removed from office.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
The Life and Opinions of Hamid Dabashi, Gentleman.