Constituting a New Identity: An Iranian Diplomat in Europe

This analysis of ‘Abdullah Mustowfi’s three-volume memoirs, Sharh-i Zindigani-yi Man [The Story of My Life) focuses on the representation of a process of transformation initiated by the author’s encounter with Europe in 1904 when he was posted as a diplomat to the Iranian Consulate in St. Petersburg. Interestingly, Mustowfi’s arrival in Europe coincided with the beginnings of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran. Intertwining personal and socio-political history as indicated in the book’s subtitle, [A Social and Administrative History of the Qajar Era], Mustowfi’s text provides insights into complex negotiations of personal and cultural identity at this crucial moment in Iran’s encounter with Europe that ultimately fostered the formation of modern Iranian nation.

Mustowfi was by no means the highest-ranking diplomat at the Iranian Consulate, nor was he the first Iranian to set foot outside his homeland. In fact, Mustowfi’s generation had extensive contact with the West and diligently recorded its observations for Iranian readers. Even the Iranian kings who traveled to Europe could not resist writing down their impressions, not foreseeing that their subjects’ fascination with life outside Iran would lead to a questioning of their own power.

In the pages Mustowfi devotes to describing his own experiences in Europe, particularly in Volume II of the memoirs, we see reflections of a much broader generational and collective attempt to articulate a new concept of Iranian identity through engagements with European social, political, and cultural institutions. What makes Mustowfi’s work particularly interesting is that in his recollections he does not merely occupy the position of the observer extolling the virtues of European civilization. Rather, he enacts the role of a transcultural Iranian by providing a step-by-step illustration of a cultural makeover. Encapsulated in his memoirs is the intense curiosity and effort embedded in the self-transformation so many Iranians of this generation wished to achieve.

The concept of “contact zone,” as developed by the comparatist Marie Louise Pratt, provides a frame of reference for understanding the principles of rejection, adaptation, and adoption operating in Mostowfi’s melding of personal and political history. Positioning his family history as inextricably intertwined with the history of the Qajar dynasty, Mustowfi’s personal trajectory becomes emblematic of the country’s transition from tradition and modernity.

Nasrin Rahimieh
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