A Death on the Anniversary of the Iranian Revolution

Haleh Lajevardi.

Haleh Lajevardi, an Iranian professor of sociology, died last week in Tehran at the age 56. Her brother who tweeted the news of her passing did not reveal the cause of death. People close to her knew that she had dealt with bouts of depression for many years, particularly after she was dismissed from her position at Tehran University more than 10 years ago.

Lajevardi was educated inside the country and received her Ph.D. from Tehran University in political theory. Her brilliance was noted when the same department that granted her degree hired her as an assistant professor after she submitted her doctoral dissertation. In addition to her own scholarship, she established herself as an influential public intellectual with her work at Aarghanun, a journal dedicated to literary criticism, philosophy, art critique, and political theory.

From 1995 to 2006, as a board member, she regularly contributed to the journal by careful translations of texts by theorists who influenced her own work. The long list of her translations include works by Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Richard Rorty, Paul Ricoeur, Hand Georg Gadamer, Paul Valéry, and many others. She played a key role in introducing a whole new generation of Iranians to critique as an intellectual vocation.

It is her most lasting contribution that makes her passing relevant to the anniversary of the revolution—her book Zendegi-ye ruzmarreh dar Iran-e modern (Everyday Life in Modern Iran) (2010). The book, which was based on her dissertation, is a critical look at transformation in the everyday life of Iranians, particularly that of women’s, two decades after the revolution of 1979. She wrote about a period of postrevolutionary life when people of all walks of life tried to establish a sense of normalcy and order outside the revolutionary fervor and devastations of war.

Through a close reading of a number of Iranian films that follow the lives of ordinary people in different social milieus, Lajevardi investigates how the heroic life of revolutionary times is translated into the monotony of everyday routines. Describing a scene from Under the Skin of the City, a film by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, one of the most prolific Iranian women filmmakers, Lajevardi shows how Tuba, an old working-class woman, has become a subject fully conscious of her being and her place in her social world. Tuba knows how and why she should assert herself in the realities of her daily life, at home, at work, in the neighborhood, with her family, with the filmmaker who is following her moves.

This, for Lajevardi, was the most significant consequence of the revolution. The revolution spread the idea of sovereignty across the country—the idea that not only do we have the right of self-determination as a nation, but also as individuals we have the ability and the authority to exercise our will over our circumstances.

She wrote her book during the decade that saw the rise of civil society, during the time that a new generation of Iranians looked inward in the hopes of realizing the possibilities of foundational transformations and social change. Lajevardi saw herself as one of the subjects of her study. She understood the experience of individual sovereignty as “a walk on the razor’s edge.”

I do not know whether she chose “the razor’s edge” in that passage in her book as a reference to Somerset Maugham’s novel. But her anxieties in her book about the tension between self-consciousness and one’s real possibilities in life, between hope and despair recall the epigraph in Maugham’s book “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”

The edge of the razor was not kind to Lajevardi. She was dismissed from her job after the massive protests over the results of the presidential election in 2009. Everyday life became a struggle for the scholar of everyday life. A thick layer of despair and depression stifled the prospects of hope and jubilance.

In a note on the passing of Haleh Lajevardi, one of her colleagues Abbas Kazemi wrote, “Hope had sprouted on campus [when she was there] during the reform era. Massive waves of change formed gently and rose to encompass our entire lives. Then the waves quietly ceased, swallowed by the earth not to return ever again. Amazing human beings who faded and died, many of whom we do not know their names, gone in despair in an everlasting migration.”

Revolutions are walks on the edge of a razor, a bloody venture into a world that promises hope and faces despair—the hope of possible realities and the despair of facing real possibilities. Haleh Lajevardi saw with true brilliance that the everyday life of a nation will not be the same after undergoing a historic revolution. Everyday life might cease to be heroic, but it transforms the ordinary into something self-conscious. She knew that the revolution would continue to live in that sovereign subject, the ordinary person who is aware of her authority and ability to determine her own fate.

It is a sad occasion to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution without one of those who recognized its historic significance. A young cultural theorist who shined light on the gift of self-determination that was bestowed upon Iranians by a revolutionary movement that transformed individuals into conscious, hope-bearing subjects. The current rulers of the country need to recognize that such despair undermines the legitimacy of their rule. Despair is a malaise that threatens the sovereignty of the country. Many people have left the train of the revolution since its inception, many have stepped down and others thrown out. But today there are expectations that need to be realized, demands that need to be met, and voices that need to be heard.

Last year on the anniversary of the revolution President Rouhani warned that “the previous regime fell in 1979 because it failed to recognize the voices of the people.” All factions in the Iranian state need to take that lesson to heart. People who make their voices heard might be silenced, some like Haleh Lajevardi might fall into absolute despair, some others might leave for exile, some might romanticize life before the revolution, some might even promote American debilitating sanctions imposed on the whole nation as a wake-up call. But would those in power want to rule a nation rent in despair? Let us hope that these beautiful voices are heard, even in their eternal absence.

Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi is an Iranian-born American historian, sociologist, and professor.