Alex Shams is a writer and PhD student of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is the editor of Ajam Media Collective (ajammc.com), an online journal dedicated to culture, society, and politics in Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the broader region. He previously worked as a journalist based in Bethlehem, Palestine.
We talk to Alex about identity, sacred spaces, provenance and the city as a work of art.
Can you tell us a bit about you and your journey into academia?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My father came as a refugee from Iran in 1979, and my mother is American. One thing I love about California is how diverse it is - I grew up around people from across the Middle East, Latin America, and South and East Asia, and I had an appreciation for cultural diversity from a young age. In the 1990s, I started traveling to Iran to visit my family there. I spent a few summers in Tehran growing up, where I became fascinated trying to understand the complexity of Iranian society and how different it was from the images I grew up seeing back in the United States – or even from my father’s memories! On those trips, I came to appreciate how much our understanding of the world is constructed by who is telling the story – as well as how truth is always multiple. Even in a single place and time, people can have totally different views of how things work or why they happen based on their own experiences.
When I got to college, I wanted to spend more time in the Middle East to develop my relationship to the region. I studied abroad in Egypt and learned Arabic. Living in Cairo had a huge impact on me. I fell absolutely in love with the city – its beauty, its chaos, its people, its energy. Spending days walking in different neighborhoods – Wast al Balad, Sayyida Zeinab, Mounira, Bulaq, Shubra, Zamalek – made me see how much more complicated Cairo is than what initially meets the eye. I realized that a city is not just a collection of monuments or buildings – it’s all the people and social relations that really make a place what it is. As I spent time in Cairo I met people from so many different backgrounds and communities - Coptic and Greek Christians, Sunni and Shi’i Muslims, atheists, etc. I came to grasp how what we call “the Muslim world” is really far more diverse than we realize – more diverse than what either the Western or local media show us.
I eventually got a master’s in Middle Eastern Studies and then I moved to the West Bank where I worked as a journalist at a Palestinian news agency. I fell in love with Bethlehem, where I was living at the time. I became fascinated by how people the whole world over recognized Bethlehem’s name but knew nothing about its current reality. I saw Christian tourists and pilgrims bused in to visit the Church of the Nativity, led around by Israeli tour guides. Instead of a beautiful town home to Palestinian Christians and Muslims, including many refugees from the 1948 Nakba, they described Bethlehem as a scary place full of “criminal Arabs.” I was shocked when I realized something similar was happening with Muslim pilgrims from the West in Jerusalem too. They would come on “coexistence” tours coordinated with Israeli institutions that framed the situation as a question of “religious conflict” – and not one fundamentally triggered by the Israeli occupation of Palestine. And I saw how Israeli authorities took over sites of shared religious pilgrimage between people of different faiths and turned them into exclusively Jewish holy sites.
This got me thinking about how sacred places don’t exist in a vacuum – how they are part of people’s social lives as well as political debates and conflicts. How a place like Al Aqsa is not just a Muslim holy site but also one of the few social spaces that Palestinians from Jerusalem can exist and spend time in without being harassed by Israeli soldiers. And how turning holy sites into museums or sites for tourists or pilgrims to visit can involve violence and displacement for local people.
After a while I got tired of the journalist rhythm – having a few weeks to investigate a story and then having to move on. I applied to do a PhD so that I could engage in more in-depth research over a longer period of time than journalism allowed.
You are currently completing a PhD in Constructing Islamic Modernity: The Politics of Sacred Space and Transnational Pilgrimage in Post-Revolutionary Iran. What inspired you to undertake this research and what do you hope to uncover?
Ever since I was young I was interested in spending more time in Iran to understand the land that my father came from. Unfortunately, however, US sanctions on Iran have criminalized almost any kind of opportunity that would make that possible beside short visits. The main victim of US sanctions is ordinary Iranian people who have suffered immensely from the economic damage they’ve caused. But these sanctions also criminalize Iranian-Americans from doing many basic things like, for example, teaching in an Iranian school. I realized that doing research in Iran was one of the few ways I could spend an extended period of time there.
I started researching this topic because I was interested in understanding the relationship between religion and politics in contemporary Iran. After my experiences in Palestine, I was fascinated by sacred places and the different meanings they hold for different people – as well as how authorities try to impose their own meanings on those places.
In Iran, religious shrines are an important part of the landscape. In major cities, there are gorgeous shrine complexes built little by little over many centuries that are dedicated to members of the Prophet Muhammad’s family and his descendants that are unbelievably beautiful works of art and architecture. Beside these grandiose holy places, there are also small, humble shrines in every town and village across Iran that are spiritually important for local people. In some, these are tombs of specific holy figures; in other places they might be a fresh spring or an old tree where people feel a connection to the divine. On my visits to Iran, I became fascinated by the stories shrines could tell – as well as how authorities attempt to co-opt them and associate their holiness with their own political power, a phenomenon that has occurred worldwide throughout history in different ways.
I think in the West we tend to think about Islam in terms of mosques and we forget that for most of Islamic history, local shrines were central to people’s piety and faith. They were also often refuges for marginalized members of society. In many places, for example, women were prevented from attending mosques; but shrines were open to all and often maintained by marginalized groups. Shrines can tell us stories that you can’t find elsewhere. They can also unite people in resistance against oppression.
As part of my research, I had the privilege of going on the Arbaeen pilgrimage in Iraq, which involves several days of walking to reach Imam Hussein’s shrine in Karbala. Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, the pilgrimage was strictly forbidden and you could be detained for taking part. But even in a system where the smallest act of resistance was criminalized, people would find ways to walk to Karbala, taking hidden pathways through date palm groves along the Euphrates river to avoid police who saw their devotion as a threat not only to state authorities but also to how the government defined Islam. Since Saddam Hussein fell, up to 25 million people have joined the pilgrimage every year, defying bombings and threats by groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The experience of being welcomed by Iraqis, who pass out free food and drink and offer up lodging to pilgrims along the way, was an incredible one that strongly contradicts the images of Iraq we see in the media. It also puts people’s generosity, solidarity, and collective struggle at the center of faith. I find this very inspiring.
Experiences like this made me realize how important it is to expand our conception of faith beyond imams and scholars and to include the acts, practices, and beliefs of ordinary people. Shrines can tell us very different stories about the Muslim world than we’re used to hearing. In Iraq, I visited a shared Jewish-Muslim shrine not far from the most important pilgrimage sites in Shi’i Islam. In many parts of the Middle East, people of different faiths continue to visit shrines and celebrate festivals together. Today, we often see religion as a dividing line between people. But these shared shrines offer us a different version of history.
It's not only about diversity between religions but also among Muslims. In contrast to mosques which so often carry the names of men in power, you can find many shrines dedicated to women. This includes the tombs of Sayyida Zeinab in Egypt or Fatima Masoumeh in Iran, which both see millions of visitors every year. Shrines have also acted as refuges for queer and trans Muslims. This includes places like Madholal Hussein in Lahore, Pakistan, home to the tomb where a Sufi mystic and his Hindu male beloved are buried together. Throughout years of political repression that banned independent practice of religion, Muslims across the Soviet Union continued to visit shrines to continue their relationship with the divine. We tend to think of hiking as a modern pastime, but stunning natural landscapes have always inspired awe and devotion. Many of Iran’s oldest shrines, like Bibi Shahrbanu near Tehran or Chak Chak near Yazd, mark places where water emerges from rock in the middle of dry deserts. Inspiration is all around us.
I think we often allow religious institutions to define our relationship to faith. But Muslims of many backgrounds have always found so many other ways to connect to the spiritual.
What are your thoughts on the representation of Islamic heritage and culture in the west?
In recent years there have been great strides as Western institutions have come under pressure and protest from Muslim communities to develop more accurate ways of representing Islamic heritage and culture. I think this has allowed more voices into the conversation of who gets to define Islamic heritage, which is extremely important. In contrast to the post-9/11 period, when Muslim voices seemed almost absent from the conversation about Islam that unfolded in the US and Western Europe, today we see strong community voices with access to major platforms in a way that means institutions know they have to be responsive to Muslim voices when they engage in representation of Islam. And instead of dismissing these voices as they may have in the past, they are more responsive. Not always, but it’s definitely getting better.
The flipside of this is that at times, Muslim voices in the West can overshadow conversations happening elsewhere. Being in the West gives Western Muslims a platform that Muslims elsewhere are generally denied. As Muslim communities in the West gain growing access to platforms in the West, I think it’s especially important that they also pay attention, listen to, and elevate voices from around the world so as to ensure that they do not reproduce global power dynamics within the Muslim community. This means being aware of power dynamics elsewhere, too – for example by not partnering with repressive regimes or allowing dictatorships abroad to define what Islam is. I don’t think replacing the British government’s view of Islam with the Saudi government’s view of Islam would be a particularly liberating step, for example. Just as we’re aware of power dynamics in our own contexts, we need to include them in our analysis of events elsewhere. We need to listen to and elevate marginalized voices from around the world, not their oppressors. Solidarity at the grassroots is key.
You are known to talk about colonialism, looting, and museums. Can you share your thoughts on collecting institutions and Islamic art?
The story of the formation of the modern world is the story of capitalism and the organized theft by colonial powers of resources from around the world. This includes many objects that today exist in museums across North America and the West, largely inaccessible to the people from the countries they were taken from. I think it’s important for institutions to be honest and transparent about how objects ended up where they are.
Archaeologists believe that an object is meaningless to interpret without knowing its context. To figure out what something means, you have to know where exactly it was found, how deep down it was, what was around it, etc. All of that matters for interpreting the object and contextualizing it historically and socially. We need to take that kind of approach to objects in museums as well. We need to know their stories - the social histories of the object, so to speak. Knowing how something ended up where it is can teach us not only about the object itself but also how the modern world came into being – and the power dynamics at play. This can teach us about more than just “over there,” but also about how “here” is connected to “over there.”
We need to develop this kind of gaze. And it shouldn’t just be limited to Western institutions. Throughout the Muslim world, collections have been developed through the appropriation of objects from the periphery to the center. Relations of violence are not just across borders; they can happen inside them too. A museum in Cairo may be accessible to tourists and Egyptians in the capital, but it’s removed from the lives of Egyptians living in other parts of the country who don’t have the resources to come see it. This is why local museums are so important. I think it’s crucial that Muslims in diaspora recognize that governments across what we call the Muslim world are similarly embedded in relations of violence and theft with marginalized communities inside their borders, and this needs to be taken into account in the conversations we’re having.
How can we ensure the art reflected in museums and galleries have an authentic view on Islamic history, heritage and culture?
I don’t know if something called an “authentic” view really exists. Islamic heritage is defined by its great diversity. And yet there’s a tendency even among Muslims to create a monolithic image of Islam that doesn’t quite reflect the diversity of what Muslims do, who they are, and what they think.
Today we see many Muslim institutions around the world trying to define Islamic heritage, culture, and art in ways that position themselves at the center and marginalizes those who disagree. Governments sponsor exhibits that make it seem like the way they understand Islam is the only right way. Islamic art objects are the products of dynamic, pluralist, and diverse cultures and societies - and yet when these funders try to present these objects, they so often represent them as part of a hierarchical and monolithic culture!
We have to take a wide-ranging view of Islamic art and culture – and refuse to let it be defined just by those in power. The question of what is an “authentic” view of Islamic history, heritage, and culture is far more complicated than it may initially appear because Muslims have never agreed on these issues among themselves – nor should they! Diversity is what makes us great and dynamic.
This also means that we need to take into account power dynamics when we think about the past. Just like in the present we recognize that authorities often stifle creativity and organic expressions of culture and art, we have to remember that the past was also full of conflict and struggles to define things that we have received as a given, like “the tradition.” From the vantage point of the present, the decisions of the past seem stable, but every historical event was also the result of discussions, debates, and disagreements, just like in the present. This diversity of opinion is what made the Islamic tradition so flexible, wide-ranging, and diverse at different times and places. If we are dedicated to thinking about marginalized voices in the present, we should be dedicated to uncovering perspectives that were lost or repressed in the past as well. The most dangerous thing would be if we turned “authenticity” into its own cultural straitjacket – one that forces us to conform to someone’s ideas of what the past was and how it worked.
Once we realize that the past wasn’t monolithic, it allows us to consider authenticity as something that can be defined in multiple ways. It’s crucial that as we struggle to “decolonize” how we think about Islamic history, that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the political decolonization of the 1960s and 70s. Many revolutionary intellectuals inadvertently regurgitated the frameworks of previous colonial rulers by imagining culture as something frozen that could be retrieved, revived, and enforced – not as something dynamic, plural and changing. The second we try to pin it down as one thing and use it as a weapon to stymie innovation is the second that culture dies. We must keep this dynamic understanding of culture in mind as we fight against the frozen conceptualization of “Islamic culture” that many institutions have long fostered.
Do you think museums have more responsibility to ensure the provenance of artefacts are acknowledged?
The story of an object is important. It is itself a learning tool, a way to help us think about the ethics of why and how things move. It can help us understand colonialism, capitalism, and the formation of the modern world. In the same way we tell stories of immigration and people moving, we should tell the stories of objects, who moved them and how.
Understanding the network of provenances - and how an object came to be owned by a museum - would give us a more realistic view of the world, rather than presenting objects as if they were magically transported from their original locations to the museums they are in now. A view of the process would help visitors understand better their own place and relationship to the world.
What are your thoughts on the repatriation of art and artefacts?
Repatriation of art and artifacts is important but I think it is important that Western institutions don’t just ship things back and hope for the best. There needs to be an honest assessment of institutional capabilities and plans for how to manage these collections in the long term. Lack of resources in home countries shouldn’t be an excuse for Western museums to refuse to send them. This fact should push those Western museums to share resources and know-how and develop partnerships with institutions back in home countries to prepare and care for the objects upon their return.
Colonial powers caused tremendous harm by pulling out of their former colonies and neglecting to build infrastructure for the transition that could allow decolonized states a fair chance at self-determination and political and economic independence. We need to learn from that. There needs to be a well-thought out process of transition in which historical culpability does not just become a statement or apology but instead becomes the basis of a framework for a long-term relationship of reparation. Western institutions should think of repatriation not just as handing things over but as a process of building new, more equal relationships with partner institutions around the world that they are, for better or worse, morally indebted and forever linked to.
It also means they should get creative about what happens with the exhibits where those repatriated objects used to stand. Just like many museums around the world use replicas of historic objects because they lack access to the original, Western museums could replace the originals with replicas. They could spend their funds educating the public and providing displays that explain why and how it was morally necessary to return the original object, with an explanation of how it ended up there to begin with and how museum collections are related to broader questions of global inequality and colonialism.
We shouldn’t just remove history and try to erase it and pretend it never happened; we should remember the crimes of the past and learn lessons from them so that we can avoid repeating them in the future. It would be a shame if repatriation led to a situation where people in formerly-colonized countries became aware of historic theft of heritage but in Europe and North America became a way for institutions to remove memories of their own complicity. Repatriation should not lead to amnesia - it should be the start of a longer conversation.
You are the editor of Ajam Media Collective, an online academic platform focused on culture and society in Iran and Central Asia. What perspectives do you hope to present around heritage?
We present different perspectives that run contrary to dominant viewpoints about the region presented in the media. In doing so, we hope to challenge erroneous conceptions spread in Western media as well as monolithic views on history that are reproduced and spread across the region as well.
Do you have a favourite work of art?
The most beautiful works of art I’ve ever seen are cities. Each one is a unique work of art, created by thousands of different people over years, decades, and centuries. Cities emerge organically through collective effort in a way that never ceases to impress me. It may not fit a traditional conception of a “work of art,” but the experience of wandering and getting lost in the streets and alleys of historic cities across the Middle East is one that brings me a feeling of immense wonder and appreciation for human creativity and talent.
This is why I feel so strongly about the need to keep places alive. Traditional ideas of historic preservation often try to freeze places in time by protecting buildings but ignoring the people that hold communities together. Today in cities as diverse as Mecca, Istanbul, Cairo, and Qom, we see governments displacing communities and killing cities in the name of protecting them, bringing “order,” and ensuring tourists can access them. We have become better at seeing how war and conflict can destroy cities – but we’re less aware of how their own governments, in the name of cleaning places up, often destroy them, too.
Reducing cities to a collection of monuments for tourists to visit is a betrayal of our urban heritage. Our heritage efforts need to preserve not only the physical but also allow people to continue inhabiting those spaces. We need to take into account both the tangible – the physical – and the intangible – the social. I wouldn’t call it a victory for heritage if all of our old buildings are converted into fancy coffeeshops and boutique hotels and the people who made their homes in them are all displaced to slums on the edge of town or condemned to dresses up in “traditional” costumes they’ve never worn before to show off to visitors.
Tourism can and should be one part of the strategy for preservation – but we also need to think of tourism as not just seeing buildings but also as being a way to learn about a way of life. As tourists, we need to be sensitive to the places we enter – and to not expect every door to open us. Otherwise, tourism can become a version of colonialism – showing us a vision of what we want to see instead of allowing us to glimpse worlds that are unfamiliar to us and that challenge the way we think. Being too comfortable all the time can prevent us from learning, from growing, and from making meaningful connections. And preserving cities by turning them into Disneyland versions of themselves kills human creativity and submits them to profit-oriented designs from above.
What are you currently reading?
I’m working on “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World,” by Mike Davis, who tries to make sense of how a series of 19th and 20th century humanitarian crises that have often been described as being caused by environmental or ecological factors are in fact tied to the birth and spread of modern capitalism.
What are your career aspirations?
I’m interested in finding ways to write and share knowledge not defined by academia. I’m grateful for the opportunities academia has given me, but I’m also frustrated by the way the process works and how in academia we’re often encouraged to produce knowledge that can only reach a limited audience. I’m interested in moving beyond that right now, both through reporting and publishing for a wider audience. I think personal stories are a great way to help people understand the world and its complexities. I’ve spent the last few years digging into my own family history and trying to understand all the twists and turns that brought me to where I am, a process I encourage anyone who can to engage in. I’m hoping to turn that into a book. I’m also planning to work on more long-form writing building off interviews and research I’ve conducted in the last few years. At the moment I’m working on developing a documentary TV series about faith and climate change. We’ll see what the future holds.
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