The familiar other: Cultural representations and Netherlands-Iran relations, 1959-1979
In the study of West-East relations, difference often takes centre stage. This holds for both culturalist and postcolonial perspectives. By contrast, in my investigation of Netherlands-Iran political relations in the 1960s and 1970s, I will focus on the role of SIMILARITY. What lay at the root of the remarkably close ties between the Netherlands and this large Muslim country? Or, in popular parlance, what made Iran such a welcome friend of the Netherlands? My hypothesis is that a crucial role was played by Dutch cultural representations of Iran as fundamentally familiar at the same time as an Other.
In the Netherlands, good political relations with Iran coincided with a period of increased interest in Iranian society, history and culture. “Persia” was seen as having a rich cultural and historical background. The Shah was well-regarded as the emperor of this ancient civilisation, and represented as an enlightened figure who would lead his country toward progress along a Western model. The development of Netherlands-Iran relations, which included personal friendships between the Dutch and Iranian royals, appealed to these representations and reaffirmed them. Hence, cultural representations and foreign relations operated in conjunction to do much more than overcoming difference: They highlighted similarity, and from there, helped establish a sense of familiarity.
My research project looks at the DIALOGICAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CULTURAL REPRESENTATIONS AND FOREIGN POLICY. How did political ties between the Netherlands and Iran build on Dutch cultural representations of Iran, and how did they shape these cultural representations in turn? My theorisation of the concept of the familiar Other will make an important intervention in the study of West-East relations in Middle East Studies and International Relations, and move beyond the limitations of culturalist and postcolonial approaches which remain dominant in the Humanities.