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Global Autofictional Flânerie

© 2022 Johns Hopkins University Press


He is a walking paradox: a loner who desires the crowd, “a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito,” a spectator who casts off his air of detachment, a skeptic who can experience states of childlike wonder, “an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I.’” [1] More gaze than body, he is a phantom of the arcade, “a mirror as vast as the crowd itself . . . a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness” (Baudelaire, “Painter,” 9). Who is this person? “Observer, philosopher . . . —call him what you will,” the flâneur is the modern man par excellence, an urban stroller who will always be encountered, en passant, in the act of capturing “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent”—that is, the contradictory, enigmatic, and elusive condition otherwise known as modernity (13).[2]

This origin story has long dominated critical discussions of flânerie, a term I take to signify a way of moving through urban space as well as a first-person narrative form that documents that movement. The flâneur’s vein of solitary, melancholic, and aimless walking—typically coeval with the modernization of a global city—has become synonymous with strolls through nineteenth-century Paris. Even recent efforts to chart the spread of flânerie into other global cities have rehearsed this particular story, looking to Parisian flânerie as the initial tradition that contemporary walkers rail against or continue in.[3] The rhyme between Paris, flânerie, and modernity has endured for many reasons, but it generally attests to the success of Charles Baudelaire and his afterlife in the writings of Walter Benjamin. Rare is the treatment of streetwalking that does not acknowledge Baudelaire’s legendary typology of the flâneur in “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863).[4] And if Baudelaire’s efforts were not enough, the association between the flâneur, France, and modernity was enshrined a century later, when Benjamin hailed Paris as “the promised land of the flâneur” in his unfinished yet exhaustive index of the city, The Arcades Project.[5]

This article aims to trouble these pairs. It constructs a wider genealogy of flânerie in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, beginning with two figures who sauntered through the streets of Tehran: the fokoli (فکلی) and the farangimaab (فرنگی مآب). By foregrounding the literal and fictional wanderings of these types, it locates the contemporary world flâneur—who forms the heart of this article—in a non-Western tradition; in doing so, it avoids contributing to a Eurocentric understanding of Paris as the capital of modernity, one that posits Baudelaire as the point of departure for all readings of the flâneur. These efforts to expand the canon of flânerie do not deny the richness of the writings of Baudelaire and Benjamin—only their singularity. Looking to the fokoli and farangimaab thus contributes to the theoretical project of “provincializing Europe” by identifying “actual forms of cosmopolitan life.”[6] In the process, it restores flânerie to its untapped complexity, capaciousness, and global origins. Flânerie was a ubiquitous feature of urbanization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—a practice of literal ambulation and narrative focalization that ultimately enabled a critique of modernization.

If flânerie was a global phenomenon during this period, so too was modernity; this modernity was dialectical, the product of asymmetrical exchanges of ideas, fashions, and languages between cities “East” and “West.” In light of this composite view of modernity, the use of the word “flânerie” to describe a corpus that includes texts from the Global South may appear curious, even misguided. Why employ a “Western” term to treat “non-Western” objects, potentially ramifying problems of Eurochronology in the process?[7] The first reason is legibility: the protagonist of urban life already has a name, and it is the flâneur. The use of the term also hinges on a second contention: just because flânerie was first coined in France does not mean it originated there. To believe so is to commit a genealogical fallacy. Thus, while fokolis or farangimaabs may have never used the term flânerie themselves, their lives and narrative representations exemplified its local or indigenous resonances.[8] The appropriation of Baudelairean flânerie by Benjamin further suggests that within a diffuse and unevenly modernized Europe, flânerie was a translational and transnational phenomenon from its very inception.[9]

While European flânerie was not monolithic—critics have in fact attempted to disambiguate Baudelaire from his reception in Benjamin— these two writers generally express a vein of flânerie largely focused on external stimuli: “Landscape—that, in fact, is what Paris becomes for the flâneur,” writes Benjamin (Arcades Project, 417).[10] Persian flânerie, by contrast, is more interested in the inner life of its fokolis and farangimaabs, and the essay will argue that this interiority corresponds to a popular but little-understood literary form called autofiction. While inward flânerie gains purchase in the real-life and fictional walks of fokolis and farangimaabs, it is of course not the preserve of the Persian tradition.[11] Nevertheless, introspection is an especially prominent feature of Persian flânerie, which draws to some extent on an older Sufi tradition in which “the deepest interiority of physical and social space” is folded into “the secret interiority of the individual Self.”[12] The Persian tradition of dramatic flânerie, which fashions a floating self that drifts between author, script, and actor, is especially well-suited to illuminate the contemporary global novel of autofictional flânerie, one of whose chief features is a productive indeterminacy between author and narrator, which is never resolved but intentionally held in abeyance.

In A Singular Modernity, Fredric Jameson cautions against making precisely this sort of claim. “The thematics of subjectivity tend illicitly to contaminate ‘theories’ of modernity,” he warns, before adding, “older ideologies of the modern have been misleading in their insistence on some ‘inward turn’ of the modern or on its increasing subjectivization of reality.”[13] Jameson proposes a depersonalized conception of modernism that is attuned to processes larger than the individual bourgeois subject: namely, industrialization, which has its origin in Europe (Modernity, 136–37). However, this essay does not corroborate Jameson’s singular account of modernization (qua the spread of Western capitalism) by merely shifting its geographical coordinates. Instead, it describes how an interior vein of flânerie—paradigmatic examples of which are found in Persian literature—shares a close association with a now ubiquitous literary form called autofiction. In pointing out the homology between this way of walking and this way of writing, the essay demonstrates how autofiction is a formal expression of flânerie. While not all novels of flânerie take the form of autofiction, a substantial number of autofictions narrate experiences of flânerie. This follows: narratives of flânerie, which relate the idle walks and racing thoughts of their unmoored protagonists, zoom in on moments when the protagonist feels he is failing to coincide with himself, capturing the type of vertiginousness that lies at the core of autofiction. The constitutive aimlessness, passivity, and irresolution that characterize every act of flânerie echo the concerns of a genre whose defining trait is its undecidability. Both autofiction and flânerie ask “Who am I?” in ways that are inextricably connected: autofiction poses the question of form in its plays with authorship, which are the product of a protagonist whose bouts of flânerie typically comprise the novel’s content. The coincidence of autofiction and flânerie, or “autofictional flânerie,” denotes a process whereby a fragile, unstable, writerly identity is constantly negotiated in the movement from the page to the street to the page, once more.

The fokoli and farangimaab, two well-known types in late nineteenth-century Tehran, double as avatars of autofictional flânerie. These figures behaved in ways typical of the flâneur, “strolling in the boulevards at leisure, riding trams, gazing at the new display windows and lurking by gas lanterns.”[14] They were distinguished by their clothing, and their new modes of dress signaled new ways of being: clean-shaven and Western attired, fokolis and farangimaabs went to great lengths to display themselves on Tehran’s grandest promenade: Lalehzar Street. Ja’far Shahri sketches the scene in his history of Old Tehran:

In the afternoon, groups of joyous people turned to this street, since other than looking at the tall and excellent buildings and chic and luxury shops that existed there, the most gay and jolly ladies and the handsomest and most attractive boys [pesaran] also headed there during these hours, and the most chicly dressed men and most à-la-mode lads were seen. . . . . Long tailcoats, narrow collars and tight demi-saisons, with tight trousers and shirts with white starched collars that the strap of the cravat surrounding them was visible, with cardboard felt hats that the fokolis, the rich and the well-dressed men wore were seen . . . . Their jackets were short, tight around the waist of black British wool, their trousers were tight of white flannel and they had bowler hats. Together with newly arrived shoes of varnished leather and bicolor suede, with gaiters worn above the foot. [They had] a pocket square and held a walking stick, wore a monocle and tied a cravat. The chain of their pocket watch hung like a crescent from the button of their vest pocket and they wore strong perfumes. (Ja’far Shahri, quoted in Balslev, “Farangimaabs and Fokolis,” 130)[15]

As this passage’s special attention to Western jackets, cravats, and smells suggests, the fokoli and farangimaab emerged through an encounter with Europe. Derived from the French word for detachable collar, faux-col, the fokoli was, in essence, an ambling Persian dandy. The connotation of the word was unmistakably derisive: fokolis were deemed Westernized in appearance alone. By contrast, the term farangimaab—which literally denotes one who leans towards the West—could describe individuals who had achieved a more delicate marriage of Persian and European culture: where the word fokoli chiefly designated a type of fashion, farangimaab gestured towards a synthetic style of thought (143). In either case, these wandering figures were not facsimiles of the European flâneur transposed into a new context; rather, they developed out of a two-way colloquy with the continent. (In The Arcades Project, for example, Benjamin repeatedly mentions that the Parisian flâneur walked along streets whose design and architecture were influenced by Middle Eastern culture: “first department stores appear to be modeled on oriental bazaars”; “the best Parisian society had already discovered the ‘secrets of the mosque’”; “nickname for Haussmann: ‘Pasha Osman’” [48, 829, 127]).[16] Retaining their agency and their dignity, fokolis and farangimaabs appeared in public in ways that transcended paradigms of imitation or belatedness. Nonetheless, they were often conscripted into modernization debates reliant on those very rhetorical paradigms. Through their literal and literary sojourns to and from Europe, Persian writers, intellectuals, and statesmen of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries increasingly found themselves asking the same question: was the country forsaking its authentic traditions for the veneer of a European modernity?[17]

Hamid Naficy, recognizing the false dichotomy underlying questions such as these, has shifted the debate toward the theoretical possibilities that lie in hybridity, ambivalence, and synthesis between cultures. In his eyes, fokolis and farangimaabs—far from being posersinaugurated new forms of mobility that drew upon the French tradition as well as an indigenous Persian element. Significantly, his study of the construction of the Persian dandy in light of Iran’s early cinema culture recasts the ostensibly derivative behaviors of the fokoli and farangimaab as sites of resistance. Their penchant for imitation, for Naficy, takes on the agential spirit of parody. Prominent twentieth-century Persian intellectuals, such as Seyyed Shadman (The Conquest of Western Civilization, 1948), and Jalal Al-e Ahmad (Occidentosis, 1962), thus

failed to see that many of the pathological terms with which they condemned the dandies referred not so much to their imitation of the West as to their mimicking, which undermined both Western and Iranian traditions. They were reading only the identification, not the alienating mechanism. Instead of validating mimicry as a strategy of resistance, they regarded it as mere imitation, which only served to create self-doubt and shame. And since they regarded the objects of the dandies’ imitation to be the superficial trappings of the West, not its deep values, its philosophy, or its technoscientific achievements, they could claim that Weststruck individuals knew neither the self nor the West well and that they did not fully belong to either. Dandies in this view became lightweight floating signifiers in search of signifieds. In part, this misreading stemmed from the distrust that both secular and religious intellectuals across the political spectrum had for mimicry and its engine, performativity (emphasis added).[18]

It is debatable, however, to what extent representations of the fokoli and farangimaab in Persian literature square with Naficy’s multivalent reading of them. Many of these texts are seemingly content to caricature these caricatures, satirizing the fokoli’s misuse of Western styles without attributing to them any latent critical intent.

Starting in the nineteenth century and continuing well into the twentieth, representations of Persian flânerie began to proliferate. The novelist Zayn al-Abedin Maraghei (1840–1910) serialized his سیاحت‌نامه ابراهیم‌بیگ, or Travel Diary of Ebrahim Beg, in an Egyptian newspaper beginning in 1895, while Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani (1854–96) and Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzadeh (1812–78) explored the translation of Enlightenment ideas into the Persianate sphere through their own roving forays into drama.[19] A specifically autofictional variant of flânerie appears in the work of Hasan Moqaddam. Moqaddam’s جعفرخان از فرنگ برگشته , or Ja’far Khan Has Returned from Europe, offers one of the best-known portraits of the fokoli and farangimaab. Staged in 1922, the play is slightly outside this article’s temporal framework, which stresses the coeval emergence of flânerie in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century global metropolis in order to place various centers of modernity—Paris and Tehran among them—on the same plane. However, given that fokolis and farangimaabs were very much creatures of urban and literary life in the nineteenth century, their representations in a twentieth-century modernist drama can certainly serve its claim.[20]

Ja’far Khan Has Returned from Europe is exemplary of the genre of fokoli literature. This one-act play warns of the deracination that can follow even a brief stint abroad: its prodigal protagonist returns home a changed man, seemingly more interested in his European poodle than in the Persian girl his family wants him to marry. (The play gives a remarkable amount of space to the poodle, a metonym for the encroachment of European values that is repeatedly deemed “نجس” or “unclean.”) Peppering his speech with French expressions and combining them with Persian words to unintentionally comedic effect, Ja’far Khan has become illegible—a walking malapropism. No one understands him anymore, literally or figuratively.[21] The extent of his alienation is revealed in one key scene when he lectures his uncle:

 مقصودم این بود که ... اگه ما می خواهیم ... ترقی کنیم باید مثل اروپایی ها کار بکنیم.

(I meant that . . . if we want . . . to progress, we must work like the Europeans.)

In his rejoinder, the uncle doubles down on his nationalist commitments in a line that would become equally familiar to Persian audiences:

آقا جون من، گوش کن: اینجا فرنگ نیست. ما ایرونی هستیم و مسلمون. نه پشت (pouchette تلفظ میکند) لازم داریم ، نه تمدن، و نه با توله سگ باید غذا نخوریم.
(Moqaddam, جعفرخان, 25).

(My dear sir, listen up: this is not Europe. We are Iranians and Muslims. We don’t need pouchettes or civilization, and we must not eat with dogs.[22])  

Moments like this recur throughout the play; everything from the question of marriage to dress to speech becomes a microcosm of the slow creep of what Al-e Ahmad would later call “Westoxification.” Moqaddam’s drama struck such a nerve with the Persian public that the line “Ja’far Khan has returned from Europe” became a common expression to describe anyone who came back from Europe with a different or alienated worldview (Naficy, “Modernity’s Ambivalent Subjectivity,” 285).

The play dramatizes the idea of “autofictional flânerie” in two ways. The first is quite literal. If its details are rather specific about how Ja’far Khan loafs around home, unburdened by work, pondering the widening fissure between his birthplace and his new airs, it is because they were directly lifted from Moqaddam’s experience. “This is my own life,” he conceded in an interview. “I have criticized myself. I, too, came from Europe” (Moqaddam, quoted in Naficy, “Modernity’s Ambivalent Subjectivity,” 296). Moqaddam, employed by the Iranian Foreign Office, lived (though perhaps did not enjoy) the itinerant life of the flâneur, spending time in Egypt, India, and Switzerland, where he died of tuberculosis in 1925. Fashioning for himself a theatrical double who shared the same peripatetic impulse, Moqaddam undertook a mutually revelatory voyage with Ja’far Khan, the author’s literal sojourns giving way to the fictional ones of his vagrant protagonist; given the vexed nature of the fokoli and farangimaab, it is fair to suggest that in creating this character based on himself, Moqaddam saw an opportunity to think through both his interior dramas and those of his society in flux. The ceaseless shuttling between Europe and Persia was thus not just a literal practice. It fostered for writers like Moqaddam equally real mental journeys in which character and author are suspended between the radically different values of two distinct, albeit overlapping, time-spaces. These travels suggest one tenet of autofictional flânerie: some form of exile—literal, figurative, or both—is a sine qua non for producing writing that, in turn, naturally embeds traces of its real-life creator.

Moqaddam’s actual views on modernization, then, must lie somewhere between his interviews and Ja’far Khan’s own words in the script. Complicating matters is the second dimension of identification that binds the roving playwright to his protagonist: Moqaddam himself assumed the role of Ja’far Khan during the play’s premiere at the Grand Hotel in Tehran in 1922. The autofiction here rests on a series of layers of self-scrutinizing irony: if the character Ja’far Khan launches a withering indictment of Persian culture within the play, but if the play itself sends up its protagonist’s own critique—and if the author of this critique plays the protagonist, a fact of which his audience was doubtless aware—minimally we can say that no object, institution, policy, or person leaves the show unscathed.

To extricate ourselves from this recursive maze, the idea of performance broached by Naficy may be of some help. Naficy, recall, suggests that fokolis and farangimaabs possess the capacity to mimic—not imitate—their European peers. Whether these flâneurs are conscious of what Naficy dubs “the alienating mechanism” is perhaps irrelevant; the point for him is that we enter a permanently unsettled zone of ambivalence or simultaneous double meaning. Mimicry in this poststructuralist sense doubles as a form of appropriation, diffusing any conception of an “original” in favor of a view in which cultures are composites, perpetually bleeding into one another. The “alienating mechanism” in this context scrambles the locus of identity over at least three constantly overlapping sites: the author pulling the strings (Moqaddam), his protagonist (Ja’far Khan), and the actor (Moqaddam). The actor in fact becomes the ultimate embodiment of autofictional indeterminacy, literally playing author and protagonist at the same time. In the form of a single person there is thus a dramatic enactment of the play’s constitutive tussle of identities: Persian and European, Hasan Moqaddam and Ja’far Khan.

I linger on this case study because it makes a hard and fast distinction between real-life author and dramatic character not only impossible, but also simplistic, dogmatic, and undesirable. There isn’t a clear demarcation between fiction and reality here, but a tremor in between them. Far from separating life and art into neat dichotomies or settling for one-directional clichés (e.g. “life imitates art”), Moqaddam’s drama thrives off of the frisson between the two, underscoring their mutually enabling fusion. Moqaddam’s interest in exploring the borders of himself and his protagonist—as well as his evolving understanding of those borders as he acted them out—naturally invites a return to the author, at least as another figure in the network that produces writing about the self. The troubled relationship between author and character is irresolvable, and that is the point. The New Critical insistence on separation of author and narrator becomes even more challenging to uphold given that discussions of Persian literature in Western venues almost always require the kind of biographical preamble provided here (fig. 1).

French and Persian text mixed in Ja'far Khan Has Returned from Europe
Fig. 1. Persian and French mingling in the script of Ja’far Khan Has Returned from Europe.


The experience of flânerie typified by the fokoli and farangimaab—in which an exterior gaze provides the backdrop for interior dramas that ultimately produce writing—continues to animate strolls through twenty-first-century Tehran. Consider Fariba Vafi’s novel پرندهٔ من  or My Bird (2002). My Bird is largely a novel of confinement, and its inclusion here may surprise readers of contemporary Persian literature. Hugely popular in Iran upon its publication, My Bird presents a vein of flânerie so inward that an American reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly complained, “the writing is so thoroughly introspective that the book could have been set in any grimy working-class neighborhood with loud neighbors, marital discord and selfish, demanding relatives.”[23] That this novel defies its local particularity and testifies to a more universal experience of alienation is not surprising: its narrator is a flâneuse who walks in an everyday form of escapism. Fleeing her household responsibilities and dissatisfied husband, she champions walking as a one-size-fits-all cure to all of life’s ailments, saying: 

راه رفتن خوب است. همیشه خوب بوده است. همیشه به درد می خورد. وقتی که فقیری و کرایه تاکسی گران تمام می شود. وقتی که ثروتمندی و چربی های بدنت با راه رفتن آب می شود. اگر بخواهی فکر کنی می توانی راه بروی. اگر هم بخواهی از فکر خالی بشوی باز هم باید راه بروی. برای احساس کردن زندگی در شلوغی خیابان ها باید راه بروی و برای از یاد بردن آزار و بی مهری مردم باز هم باید راه بروی. وقتی جوانی. وقتی پیری. وقتی هنوز بچه ای هر توقف یعنی یک چیزی خوشمزه. و برای توقف بعدی باید راه رفت.[24]

  (Walking is good. It’s always been rewarding. It’s certainly useful when you’re poor and the taxis are expensive, or when you’re rich and you lose weight by walking. If you want to think, you can walk. If you want to empty your mind of thoughts, walking helps. To appreciate life, you should walk in busy streets. To forget people’s unkindness and malice, you should walk, when you’re young and when you’re old. When you’re a kid, every stop means something delicious, and to get to the next stop you should keep walking.[25])

Walking gets the nameless narrator around town; it is also interstitial in a more metaphorical sense. These walks are merely a way to pass the time before a more monumental move to Canada can take place. But this aspiration—long discussed by her husband, but increasingly unlikely—is not realized within the novel’s timeframe. The book instead concludes with a walk, which the protagonist takes to ward off feelings of claustrophobia. Peering into homes on the block and smelling the jasmine trees, she begins to contemplate where her own “bird” or peripatetic spirit resides, if it will ever lift her into a new city or country, or if she has one at all.

The novel paints its protagonist’s life with an impressionistic brush; absent a plot or epiphanic moment, it is held together by four logics: walking, looking, waiting, and writing. All are implicated with each other. Acts of looking take place while the narrator walks the streets. These ambulatory observations eventually become fodder for writing the novel in our hands. These movements, moreover, collectively testify to the experience of “waiting”: as she walks, looks, and writes, the protagonist is mostly killing time as she awaits both her husband’s return from a business trip and the family’s proposed move to Canada. These logics, notionally oriented towards the external world, instead provide a more reliable barometer of the protagonist’s internal climate.

Writing—and the dramatization of the literary act itself—is the element of autofictional flânerie that assumes special importance in this novel. Towards its conclusion, but also in scattered clues throughout the novel, My Bird calls attention to how it is fashioned as a literary object—and by whom. Vafi’s narrator intones the phrases “می نویسم” (“I write”) or “نمی نویسم” (“I do not write”) in a quiet anaphoric flourish to open chapter 43:

برای امیر از اتوبان و ساختمان نوساز نمی نویسم. از سوپرمارکتی که از همان اول، مشتری هایش را فراری داده است، نمی نویسم. از خودم می نویسم و از دنیای دورو برم. از گوشه گوشه خانه جدیدمان می نویسم. از صاحبخانه می نویسم و از شاهین و شادی که بزرگ تر می شوند و شیرین تر.
(Vafi, پرندهٔ من, 120)

(I don’t write Amir about highways and the new construction. Neither do I write about the supermarket that drove away the customers from the very beginning. I write about me and the world around me. I write about every corner of our new house. I write about the landlord, and Shahin and Shadi who are growing up and becoming sweet; Vafi, My Bird, 110)

Here an outward vein of flânerie—one that might typically describe new supermarkets, highways, or construction—is scarcely of interest to the narrator. Her sight, directed inward, is instead preoccupied with transforming her interior impressions into writing. Scenes such as the one above represent this process by lingering on the time of composition, which is often not a single moment but a series of fragmented attempts to write in the face of daily interruption. Earlier in the novel, for example, the narrator’s husband enters while she is crafting a letter to her sister; his presence clearly alters the writing of the letter in real time, and he implores her to write faster and more convincingly. (His urgency is explained by the fact that this sister, based in the United States, may help realize his dream of moving to the West.) Her children also chime in and request that the letter reflect their own questions for their aunt. These scenes of writing dramatize the letter’s conception, composition, and revision over the course of a day, allowing the reader to glimpse the various stages of the process by which life enters narrative and narrative alters life. Melding moments of dialogue, extended description, and personal recollection, these letters return to us the autofictional insight that life and art are mutually revelatory. In a novel that is narrated by a nameless “I” who appears to bear some resemblance to its author, such scenes also invite us to consider the presence of the author in the relationship between the narrator and the narrator’s text. Like Moqaddam, who simultaneously performs the dual role of actor and dramaturge, Vafi’s narrator creates a bond with the work that is an extension of herself; the novel, then, muddies the lines between author and narrator by shining light on the relationship between writer and work-in-progress.

In My Bird, walking and writing are inspired as much by confinement as they are by idleness. Its flâneuse’s malaise, and her subsequent guilt for her inactivity, eventually generate the novel we read. This sense of productive shame motivates another work of autofictional flânerie set in contemporary Iran: Ja’far Panahi’s Taxi (2015). Here the solitary figure of the flâneur is dispersed into tripartite form: camera, director, and car. The film features the character of Panahi behind the wheel of a cab in Tehran, picking up passengers and recording their conversations for the film that he is making (and that we are somehow watching) via three dashboard cameras. The film was an attempt to flout the formal filmmaking ban handed down to him by the Iranian government. It was also an attempt to do something with his time; as his This is Not a Film (2011), makes clear, the house arrest loosely imposed on him by the government had otherwise threatened to drive him mad. Once in the cab, Panahi yokes flânerie to surveillance; the interior logics in Vafi’s novel—waiting, walking (driving), and writing (filming)—are all present. The assemblage of flânerie across camera, director, and car affirms the idea that “the flâneur is not so much a person as flânerie is a positionality of power—one through which the spectator assumes the position of being able to be part of the spectacle and yet command it at the same time” (Schwartz, Spectacular Realities, 10). With that in mind, it makes sense that Panahi, the subject of so much surveillance, deploys its very tools in this film to recapture a degree of agency.

A homage to Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Taxi is more locally inspired by Abbas Kiarostami’s car film, Ten (2002). In Ten, a woman drives her son around Tehran while Kiarostami, off camera, remains ever-present.[26] “This is because,” as Hamid Naficy puts it,

these shots are all filmed without the driver and the passenger ever being present together in the car. Each time that one person is on camera, Kiarostami occupies the other front seat. . . . The protagonists are forced to react not to each other . . . but to the director next to them.[27]

While Ten discloses yet another type of surveillance at work—that of the omnipresent director— Taxi, its offspring film, documents a mode of observation more common to the global metropolis. The film, often championed as a salvo against the Iranian government’s censorship of its director, comprises the very surveillance Panahi rails against. This is noteworthy given that Taxi has successfully courted a far more uplifting narrative. Panahi’s shared cab, for many critics, appears to convene an emerging public sphere in Iran, an open forum in a society in which free expression is otherwise not a right. By this logic, the cab is a liminal space, at once public and private, where men and women from different walks of life can enter into serious, if brief, debates about culture, ethics, and society.[28] This view isn’t limited to Iran, either. In Turkey, Orhan Pamuk has claimed the taxi cab as one of the country’s most enlightened spaces, writing, “If being modern means being able to feel at ease in a city among people we’ve never met before and being able to peacefully share with these people a common purpose, whether real or imagined, then the places where the people of Istanbul are most modern are the seats of the shared taxis.”[29]

A composite of staged “hidden camera” recordings from Panahi’s cab, Taxi instead documents a dystopian present in which a society unwittingly replicates the government’s practices of censorship and surveillance. Virtually every conversational set piece in the back of the cab, captured by one of its dashboard cameras, involves an additional layer of furtive video; in these scenes, an iPhone video is made of a supposedly dying man’s will and CCTV footage of an attack is viewed on an iPad. The content of these small screens then enters the full screen and surveillance becomes the film itself—a transition that stages yet another conversation about authorship. Put another way, Panahi’s dashboard cameras surveil his passengers, who surveil each other, and, often, themselves—all for the unintentional benefit of the government, an agent of whom, we surmise, steals the main dashboard camera in the film’s final scene. As these additional layers of filming unfold within the film, and as Panahi’s cab picks up and drops off passengers in “real-time” in Tehran, Taxi reveals the extent to which surveillance drives its meta-cinematic project.

Self-surveillance and self-reflexive filmmaking come together in one memorable scene in which Panahi’s niece Hana, a budding filmmaker herself, reads aloud her teacher’s instructions on how to make a distributable short film. These instructions are not guidelines but rather a series of interdictions that ends with the cryptic warning: “Avoid sordid realism.” These restrictions allegorize the reasons for which Panahi’s films have been banned in Iran: “She said to show what’s real, but not real real,” says Hana, whose own camera inadvertently captures a crime shortly afterwards. Her digital camera zooms in on a child trash picker pocketing fifty tomans from someone else. Hana reprimands the kid, not for taking the money but for making her film guilty of sordid realism, and therefore undistributable. Hana’s “film” in this scene is literally an act of surveillance; as soon as Panahi leaves the car, she immediately turns on the camera and begins to record. She does not inform Panahi or the child she was filming them, nor would she have disclosed her intent to distribute the film if the latter’s theft hadn’t made the project undistributable. For Hana, like the character of Panahi, there is no difference between real life and cinema. Consent to film her subjects is beside the point. Film only makes sense to her—indeed, is only possible for her—as surveillance.

In this scene, the viewer sees Hana making her film, shot on her digital camera, because Panahi’s dashboard camera captures her doing so. Taxi then assumes the point of view of Hana’s camera to show the scene of the fallen tomans. In its restless voyeurism, Taxi takes an almost anthropological view of how layers of surveillance undergird its director’s mobile, self-reflexive filmmaking practice. Just as My Bird shines light on the process of writing, editing, and waiting in real time, Taxi faithfully documents how the film itself is made, on wheels, by a character whose “real-life” directorial fame frequently trickles into his conversations with passengers. The link between self-surveillance and self-reflexive cinema also owes to the fact that Panahi—who has long toyed with the boundaries between reality and fiction—is playing himself.


Vafi’s My Bird and Panahi’s Taxi are examples of how Moqaddam’s vein of self-conscious strolling continues to guide the contemporary Persian tradition of autofictional flânerie. But the interiority made famous by their jaunts through Tehran has gone global. In the twenty-first century (and in the decade preceding it), a genre of international literature and film has proliferated under the label of autofiction, forming a loose avant-garde that increasingly acknowledges that bursts of reality from an author’s life may shape the thoughts of his wandering narrator. The best-known examples of contemporary autofiction are Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up (1990), Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life (1994), Mariusz Wilk’s The Journals of a White Sea Wolf (1995), Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (1997), Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick (1997), Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics (2000), Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2000), W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant (2002), Ivan Vladislavić’s The Exploded View (2004), J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year (2007), Teju Cole’s Open City (2008), Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (2008), Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle (2009–11), Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks (2010), Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) and 10:04 (2014), Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home (2011), Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012), Enrique Vila-Matas’s The Illogic of Kassel (2014), Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (2014–18), Shirin Neshat’s Looking for Oum Kulthum (2017), Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (2017), Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth (2017), Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry (2018), and Antonio Muñoz Molina’s To Walk Alone in the Crowd (2021). A minor nonfiction cottage industry, including Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust (2000), Frederic Gros’s The Philosophy of Walking (2008), Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse (2016), and Matthew Beaumont’s The Walker (2020), has also emerged. As the range of these titles indicates, autofictional flânerie observes no national boundaries. Its exponents hail from Iran, Poland, the United States, England, Germany, Turkey, South Africa, Argentina, Norway, Mexico, Chile, Spain, and India; their stories chronicle hermetic voyages inside a city, transatlantic returns to the homeland, and experiences of tourism. A number of these texts—particularly the car films of Kiarostami and Panahi—may not ordinarily come to mind when one thinks of autofiction, but sketching the formal properties of this genre reveals how a form of mobile, self-reflexive narration has permeated world literature and cinema in the present.

The French writer Serge Doubrovsky is credited with coining the term autofiction in 1977. After completing the manuscript of a largely anonymous novel that year, his publisher asked him to describe his project for the back cover. He dubbed it autofiction. “I did not want to create a new literary genre,” he told Le Monde in 2013. “I was just trying to define what I had just done.”[30] The following year, he attempted to codify what he meant by the term. For him, it had come to represent

false fiction which is the story of a true life; by the motion of its writing the text is instantly expelled from the patented register of the real. Thus, neither autobiography nor novel in the strict sense, it operates in a no-man’s-land, in a ceaseless cross-reference, in a space which is impossible and elusive everywhere but in the operation of the text itself.[31]

This is the basic definition of autofiction that prevails today. Critics ranging from Paul de Man to Phillip Lejeune to David Shields have described it under different critical banners, but their analyses generally coalesce around the constitutive indeterminacy between reality and fiction that Doubrovsky first emphasized.[32] 

Some of these works declare themselves to be true stories that later acknowledge the fictionalizing tendencies of memory (Orhan Pamuk’s memoir Istanbul), while others brand themselves as fictions whose major and minor events appear verifiably true (Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle). In any case, exploiting the porousness between the “I” of the writer and the “I” of the narrator becomes the point. Many readers of Teju Cole’s Open City have taken this a step further, equating its protagonist, a Nigerian-German doctor living in America named Julius, with Cole himself:

[S]omebody actually said to me about Open City, “Why did you rape that girl?” She wrote a letter and said, “Oh, by the way, I know it’s fiction, but I just got to ask, why did you rape that girl?” And I just thought: why would you assume that? But in a perverse sort of way, that’s what we as writers do. We invite the ambiguity. We are a little bit frustrated by it. But we invite it.[33] 

Cole’s anecdote recalls an early aperçu of Lejeune’s classic study of autobiography: “If the identity [of the protagonist] is not stated positively (as in fiction), the reader will attempt to establish resemblances, in spite of the author; if it is stated positively (as in autobiography), the reader will want to look for differences (errors, deformations etc.).”[34] For Lejeune, the contract between reader and writer is simple. While in autobiography “the author, the narrator, and the protagonist are identical,” in autofiction—he employs the term autobiographical novel—it “involves degrees. The ‘resemblance’ assumed by the reader can be anything from a fuzzy ‘family-likeness’ between the protagonist and the author, to the quasi-transparency that makes us say that he is the ‘spitting image’” (Lejeune, On Autobiography, 13). Like the plays of Moqaddam, contemporary autofictions require their readers to dwell in that ambiguity. They open the question of authorship but engage with it in a far different manner than their postmodern precursors. While writers such as John Barth and Paul Auster also played with identities, writing into their fictions characters with their own names, this ambiguity was a result of a desire to exploit the freedoms that postmodernism had newly afforded them; their novels responded to the supposed “exhaustion” of literature through contests of mise-en-abyme.[35] Autofiction, on the other hand, is distinct from that strain of playful postmodernism. And it is separate from Wayne Booth’s notion of an “implied author,” in which fiction writing becomes a form of self-doubling that facilitates self-knowledge.[36] Autofiction is instead a project of verisimilitude, a realism for the twenty-first century. If disbelief, according to the likes of David Shields, can no longer be suspended in the present, autofictions acknowledge from the outset that they are written by authors whose “real” experiences may or may not inform those of their narrators.[37] What’s left, then, is a loose transcription of reality that remains framed by the artifice of the novel. As Heti put it in a review of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, “The realism is really real.”[38]


If Persian interiority is inherent to the experience of autofictional flânerie, it must be a feature of the contemporary global novel as well. I will now read a contemporary “Western” autofiction—Teju Cole’s Open City—in light of the inward vein of flânerie I have identified in Persian literature to offer an account of the novel that both avoids Eurocentrism and teases out a new feature of the interiority that is constitutive of the genre.[39] Open City is, on one hand, a classic text of flânerie; its narrator Julius wanders through New York and Brussels in search of connections that he inevitably rejects. At the same time, unlike most works of flânerie, the novel does feature a moment of revelation: two-thirds of the way through, Julius is confronted with an allegation of rape that dates to his teenage years in Nigeria. During this conversation, Moji, his victim, tells Julius that she knows he will not deign to reply. She is right.

Retreating into his solitude, Julius begins to describe the sunrise of the Hudson River. And then, before the reader can even notice, he recounts an anecdote about a young Nietzsche. It is not as if Julius, psychopathically, does not feel emotion in this situation; the novel’s subtext even suggests that he thinks about killing himself on his walk home, as he briefly stops alongside the same George Washington Bridge from which Rufus Scott jumps in James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962). Julius simply chooses not to respond to two very direct questions: “But will you say something now? Will you say something?”[40] If Julius will not speak in the novel’s most salient moment, perhaps other moments can shed light on what has transpired. Recall what Julius says earlier of his college mentor, Professor Saito: “I learned the art of listening from him, and the ability to trace out a story from what was omitted” (Cole, Open City, 9). This article will do the same with Julius’s narrative, tracing out a possible explanation for Julius’s silence through the scenes in which he does speak to others.

Consider two conversations that precede the novel’s climactic conversation with Moji: one with a Liberian man in jail and another with a Haitian shoe-shiner in Penn Station. Julius visits the Liberian man with the church group of his then-girlfriend. The man relates to Julius his entire life’s story in over thirty minutes. Unlike other radical acts of narrative compression, this half hour is dilated: the reader learns that the man’s mother and sister were killed in the Second Liberian Civil War, events which prompted him to seek refuge in the United States. Julius listens to the man’s story and leaves the session proud, even if the only reason he came to the prison was to please his girlfriend. Here Julius’s passivity takes on a positive valence, as it allows an untold story to surface: “I was the listener, the compassionate African who paid attention to the details of someone else’s life and struggle. I had fallen in love with that idea myself” (70). This complicates the picture of Julius as a selfish loner. Even if it is for the wrong reasons, he has recuperated an experiential truth of the war, relating through this man’s personal narrative the kind of story that is often ignored by conventional historical treatments. This conversation is an example of how Open City can stand in solidarity with the marginalized; thanks to Julius’s well-placed silences, the novel recovers countless stories and histories from the Global South.

At first, Julius’s conversation with the Haitian shoe-shiner appears to follow a similar script. The man also tells his story, which is presented uninterrupted. There is one brief pause, however, and it is telling; the shoe-shiner notices Julius’s flagging interest and inability to empathize. In other words, he catches Julius falling into solitude even in the act of conversation. “I see from your face that it is hard for you,” the man says, “that it is hard for the young, like you, to understand these things” (71). It is generous of him to chalk up Julius’s inattention to his youth; he is not so young, after all. Such behavior is not out of character for Julius. At times the reader may mistake his silence for listening when it should be recognized as indifference. Even as his own mother is trying to tell him a story—in which she will reveal that he is the child of rape—he cannot be bothered to maintain focus: “I had no feeling for the stories she was telling or the longing behind them. I struggled to concentrate” (79).  

In an interview, a former editor of The Paris Review proposed an explanation for the simultaneous desire to confess and conceal that is at the heart of a novel like Open City—and of the global novel of autofictional flânerie, more broadly. These comments follow the publication of the journal’s anthology of new writing, but they are generalizable to the contemporary generation of writers I have sketched throughout this article. In the interview, Lorin Stein says:

So we have all these first-person narrators. When it’s done right, fiction provides the authority to speak about deep things; at the same time, it provides a shield, a mask. The mask lets you say things, talk about things, that you couldn’t ordinarily talk about. You don’t have to make sense in quite the same way. You don’t have to account for yourself in the same way. You don’t have to pretend that you’re a single subject. You don’t have to pretend you’ve got free will. You don’t have to pretend that you’re the master of your conscience. Or that you don’t have forbidden desires that you act on. You can talk about shameful things . . . . And I think literary writing in the first person is very good at dealing with shame. Not getting rid of shame, but exploring it—from behind a mask.”[41]

Exploring shame from behind a mask: one can think of few better descriptions of contemporary autofiction. Open City discusses this explicitly at times—Julius confesses the shame he feels, and the shame about the swiftness with which that shame dissipates, after realizing his next-door neighbor has died without him knowing—as well as implicitly: the whole novel is an indirect confession.

Knausgaard is the embodiment of the autofictional writer whose peculiar draw derives from his persistent essays at expiation. “Every disclosure in Knausgaard’s work comes bathed in male shame—a self-abasing need to confess, not to marginal status but to the predicament of ordinariness,” writes Nicholas Dames.[42] But his work represents just one strain of the autofictional enterprise. Though autofictions share a radical commitment to realism, they vary in terms of their openness to alterity. Fond of quoting Benjamin, many of these works take to an extreme his notion that “genuine memory must therefore yield an image of the person who remembers.”[43] If introspection tends to saturate experience in these novels, we can distinguish the extent to which their narrators accommodate the perspective of others through a focus on form. The likes of Knausgaard and Amit Chaudhuri prefer the first-person diaristic narrative, which assimilates different voices, but only as a means of furthering the performance of its author-narrator’s insight. Autofictions can take on explicitly dialogic or epistolary forms as well—think of the letters of Sheila Heti or Chris Kraus—though such works likewise tend to amplify the perspectives of their protagonists, rather than those of their addressees. Rare are autofictions that transcend self-reflexivity and acquire genuine self-awareness; such works force their characters to confront their egotism, often by humiliating them. In Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, this feat is achieved through a formal experiment: the novel’s three narrative threads are literally separated by two horizontal lines on the page, preventing their voices from collapsing into one another. The elderly narrator’s high-minded political views thus fail to overshadow his simultaneous seduction attempt of a much younger woman.

These writers use autofiction to explore shame. But as Stein adds, the goal is not “getting rid of shame,” either. This is an important point to underline, for the act of writing can create rather than release shame. Shame originates, in part, from the experience of looking at oneself from a remove in order to write about oneself. “Autobiographical writing,” Timothy Bewes contends, “is almost inevitably a shameful exercise, since in undertaking it we cast the ontologizing gaze of the other upon ourselves. The autobiographical gaze is an aloofness inhabited by the self in respect of the self; the shame is attributable to the discrepancy embedded in this relation, rather than to anything directly present in the content.”[44] Form, for Bewes, discloses the incommensurability of literature and real life, of the “I” on the page and the “I” of experience. While Bewes’s book is about shame in postcolonial literature, the postcolonial context is almost immediately evacuated for a formal one, so fundamental is shame to the experience of putting words to the page.

In addition to this formal register, shame travels through the novel of autofictional flânerie via the privilege of flânerie itself. Unlike Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century flâneur, who critics have described as a beneficiary of empire, the contemporary world flâneur wanders not to reinforce the primacy of his nation but out of habit: for someone of his class, free movement between world capitals is no longer extraordinary but de rigueur.[45] The flâneur of the twenty-first century is not restricted to his homeland nor does he valorize it above other places. His conversations expand his worldview precisely because his imperial, native culture—in this case, the United States—is being pilloried by all sides. The modern flâneur shares this guilt about his provenance—a somewhat affected feature that belies his sense of gratitude for his place of birth—and this is partly the reason for his travels. Secretly, he wants to be upbraided for his complicity. This desire is especially true of the protagonists of Open City and Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, who are tourists and students, dropping in for vague reasons like artistic inspiration. These flâneurs are often aware of the superficial nature of their travels yet proceed to undertake them anyway. Hence the sensation of guilt that permeates these texts, which make obvious “the enormous disparities in power, funds, access to care, language, and life chances” that cordon off the flâneur from those he observes.[46] But simply being aware of their own privilege doesn’t do much, either. The flâneur of Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad (2009), an Indian student in London, feels superior to those participating in a television relief concert, wondering how “the exulting crowds in Wembley and Philadelphia [didn’t] see their heroes’ and their own complicity in the famine.”[47] But these words too strike him as false, and he soon admits how often “he’d seen the necessity for certain actions and yet couldn’t participate in them” (Chaudhuri, Odysseus Abroad, 4). His character understands that his elaborate feats of ratiocination are just excuses for inaction. And yet this form of self-critique only leads to greater political apathy.

Chaudhuri’s flâneur has undertaken the passage from India to England, periphery to center, but autofictional flânerie more commonly describes the opposite movement. More privileged flâneurs stand out during their travels because of their dress and speech, though they make half-hearted efforts to fit in. Cole’s narrator in Every Day Is for the Thief (2007) takes a dangerous bus frequented by locals over the protestations of his family, while Lerner’s considers attending a political march, but fails to properly understand its significance for his Spanish friends. These characters take these actions knowing they will likely fail at them. Regardless of their inevitable failure, they know that they will be rewarded for trying anyway. This pride in low expectations is part of the new embarrassment of the expatriate novel—an improvement, to be sure, of its earlier equation of “history abroad” with “atrocity,” but an ever-so-slight one.[48]

While some autofictions relate tales of studying abroad, others capture a different type of travel in which the protagonist, a member of the diaspora, actually has some claim to the country he is visiting. Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth (2017) and Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief both chronicle returns to the homeland, but their narrators arrive with an unmistakable air of foreignness, drenched in a hauteur they would never admit to. Their trips, moreover, are not exclusively premised on the recovery of their heritage. “What drives ethnic fiction today,” Caroline Rody argues, “is not only the ‘vertical’ axis of memory and return, traditionally dominant in ethnic literatures, but increasingly the spatial, ‘horizontal’ axis of encounter.”[49] Unlike the family-centered realist saga that characterized early “ethnic” fiction, these flâneurs increasingly write from within the urban metropolis in search of experience. (“The degree to which my family members wish me to be separate from the life of the city is matched only by my desire to know that life,” writes Cole’s narrator in Every Day.[50]) These urban experiences, while novel, are often unpleasant. Straddling several cultures at once, while residing in countries in which their parents were not born, these flâneurs, foreigners everywhere, experience the shame of having their identities either doubled or rent in half. This is not always a bad thing. Those shunted to the margins, as Edward Said memorably put it, “can see things that are usually lost on minds that have never traveled beyond the conventional and comfortable.”[51] This may explain why so many protagonists of autofictions, natural observers, are writers in the making.

These writers—seasoned explorers of their own minds, local cities, and foreign capitals—exhaustively document the awkward process of acculturation in a new setting. Their travels typically, though not always, shuttle them between the Global South and Europe.[52] The flâneur from the Global South may romanticize the West—as does the husband of My Bird’s protagonist—or denigrate it: recall, in Open City, how Julius’s Moroccan friend launches a critique of the Enlightenment from Brussels. Likewise, the Western flâneur making the opposite journey (à la Lerner’s) is often too alienated to experience proper cultural immersion. These types of cross-cultural encounters are not exclusively modern, nor are they usually successful. But as Ja’far Khan’s voyage from Persia to Europe reminds us, global autofictional flânerie—and its attendant cross-pollination of persons, ideas, and languages—fashions an inward vein of modernity that was always the product of exchanges between unequal yet interdependent corners of the world. The dialectical nature of this modernity is registered by flâneurs who are equal parts dandy and fokoli.


I am grateful to the many friends, colleagues, and advisors who shaped this manuscript, especially Amy Hungerford, Marta Figlerowicz, and Robyn Creswell. Babak Tabarraee first introduced me to the fokoli. Thanks also to the members of the Yale 20/21 Working Group and Comparative Literature Department Open Forum for their incisive feedback.

[1] Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), 8–9.

[2] Must the flâneur be a man? This article does not directly address this question as it has received extensive treatment in Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988), 50–90; Anke Gleber, The Art of Taking a Walk: Flanerie, Literature, and Film in Weimar Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 171–90; Deborah Parsons, Streetwalking the Metropolis: Women, the City, and Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); The Invisible Flâneuse?: Gender, Public Space, and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris, ed. Aruna D’Souza and Tom McDonough (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006).

[3] Richard Wrigley, The Flâneur Abroad: Historical and International Perspectives (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014); Hsiao-yen Peng, Dandyism and Transcultural Modernity: The Dandy, the Flaneur, and the Translator in 1930s Shanghai, Tokyo, and Paris (London: Routledge, 2015).

[4] For a representative sample of recent scholarship on flânerie, see Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1991); Elizabeth Wilson, “The Invisible Flaneur,” New Left Review 191 (1992): 90–110; T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Vanessa Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Mary Gluck, Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Richard Wrigley, “Unreliable Witness: The Flâneur as Artist and Spectator of Art in Nineteenth-Century Paris,” Oxford Art Journal 39, no. 2 (2016): 267–84.

[5] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002), 417.

[6] Sheldon Pollock writes, “cosmopolitanism is something you do, not something you think” (“Cosmopolitan Comparison,” American Comparative Literature Association, New Orleans, LA, April 2010, 7, 20,; See Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). In an article and a book chapter, Jacob Edmond superimposes the nineteenth-century French flâneur onto the twentieth-century Chinese equivalent. By contrast, I illustrate that flânerie was always a global phenomenon without a true place of origin. See Jacob Edmond, “The Flâneur in Exile,” Comparative Literature 62, no. 4 (2010): 376–98, 377; Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

[7] Emily Apter, “Eurochronology and Periodicity,” in Against World Literature (London: Verso, 2013), 57–69.

[8] The proper plural form of these terms is fokoli-ha (فکلی ها) and farangimaab-ha (فرنگی مآب ها), but I follow other critics in using the English pluralization.

[9] For a study of Europe’s uneven modernization, see Arno Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (New York: Pantheon, 1981). Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life”—supposedly the locus classicus of the genre—is, moreover, largely devoted to the flâneur of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” (1840). This Poe story, Walter Benjamin reminds us, is itself antedated by fifteen years by E. T. A. Hoffman’s own text of flânerie, “My Cousin’s Corner Window” (1822). Benjamin’s own “intellectual compass” was itself scattered across several cities outside of Paris, including Moscow, Berlin, and Naples, a fact that further underscores the absence of a single point of origin for the flâneur. See Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Press, 1969), 157–202, 173; Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, 40.

[10] Sonam Singh, “Baudelaire without Benjamin: Contingency, History, Modernity,” Comparative Literature 64, no. 4 (2012): 407–28; Critics have generally observed “the incompatibility of [Parisian] flânerie with private life and interiority.” See Mary Gluck, “The Flâneur and the Aesthetic: Appropriation of Urban Culture in Mid-19th-Century Paris,” Theory, Culture & Society 20, no. 5 (2003): 53–80, 55.

[11] Consider the twentieth-century Situationist movement. See Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014).

[12] Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 377.

[13] Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (New York: Verso, 2013), 131, 135.

[14] Sivan Balslev, “Farangimaabs and Fokolis: Masculinities and Westernization from the Constitutional Revolution to Reza Shah,” in Iranian Masculinities: Gender and Sexuality in Late Qajar and Early Pahlavi Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 122–62, 122.

[15] See Ja’far Shahri, طهران قدیم (Old Tehran) (1357; rpt., Tehran: Maherat, 1978), 278–82.

[16] When Susan Buck-Morss writes that the Parisian arcades have been “imitated throughout the world, from Cleveland to Istanbul, from Glasgow to Johannesburg, from Buenos Aires to Melbourne,” she does not acknowledge the bi-directional nature of this influence. See Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, 40.

[17] For accounts of how international travel influenced nineteenth-century Persian literature and its meditations on modernity, see Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, “Persianate Europology,” in Refashioning Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and Historiography (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 35–53; Kamran Rastegar, Literary Modernity between the Middle East and Europe: Textual Transactions Between Nineteenth-century Arabic, English, and Persian Literatures (London: Routledge, 2007), 77–125. Naghmeh Sohrabi contends that the travelogues produced by these voyages reveal more about Qajar Iran than the European cities they describe, but the trips she discusses—including Naser al-Din Shah’s famous stint in Paris—explicitly address Iran’s “progress” vis-à-vis Europe. See Naghmeh Sohrabi, Taken for Wonder: Nineteenth-Century Travel Accounts from Iran to Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). In the twentieth century, the compatibility of European ideas and Persian values were questioned by Ali Shari’ati and Dariush Shayegan, who were influenced by Heidegger. See Ali Mirsepassi, “Heidegger and Iran,” in Political Islam, Iran, and the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 85–128.

[18] Hamid Naficy, “Modernity’s Ambivalent Subjectivity,” in A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 1, The Artisanal Era, 1897–1941 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 277–308, 294; Seyyed Shadman, تسخیر تمدن فرنگی  (The Conquest of Western Civilization) (1327, rpt., Tehran: Zandi, 1948); Jalal Al-e Ahmad,  غرب زدگی (Occidentosis) (1340, rpt., Tehran: Revagh, 1962). Along similar lines, Tavakoli-Targhi contends, “Whereas European modernity actively suppressed the heterotopic context of its emergence, Persianate modernity celebrated its transformative conversance with Europeans. This active remembrance of the creative process of cultural hybridization and diversification is often misunderstood by the historians of modern Iran as an undifferentiated process of Westernization” (Tavakoli-Targhi, Refashioning Iran, 44).

[19] See Fereydun Adamiyat, اندیشه های میرزا فتحعلی آخوندزاده (The Thoughts of Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzadeh) (1349, rpt., Tehran: Khavarazmi, 1970); Iraj Parsinejad, A History of Literary Criticism in Iran (Bethesda, MD: Ibex, 2002), 39–94; Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 41–72. Ahmet Midhat’s Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi (1875) and Muhammad al-Muwaylihi’s What 'Isa ibn Hisham Told Us (serialized beginning in 1898) similarly combine flânerie with an uneasy encounter with Europe, albeit in their respective Ottoman and Egyptian contexts.

[20] “[F]okoli was the name given to modernizers by the religious fanatics during Naser al-Din Shah’s reign, which places the emergence of the term in the late nineteenth century” (Balslev, “Farangimaabs and Fokolis,” 144).

[21] Another example of this phenomenon is Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh’s short story فارسی شکر است,  or “Persian Is Sugar” (1300, rpt., 1921), in which one character speaks in heavily Arabicized Persian, another speaks in heavily Francophilic Persian, while a third is bewildered by both.

[22] Hasan Moqaddam, جعفرخان از فرنگ برگشته (1301, rpt., Tehran: Matbay-e Faroos, 1922), 21, my translation.

[23] “Fiction Book Review: My Bird by Fariba Vafi,” Publishers Weekly, September 28, 2009,

[24] Fariba Vafi, پرندهٔ من (My Bird) (1381, rpt., Tehran: Nashr-e Markaz, 2002), 104.

[25] Fariba Vafi, My Bird, trans. Mahnaz Kousha and Nasrin Jewell (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009), 95.

[26] These vehicle-based surveys of places may belong to the tradition of the “phantom ride.” See Katie Trumpener, “Panoramic Journeys 1900/2000,” in On the Viewing Platform: The Panorama Between Canvas and Screen, ed. Katie Trumpener and Tim Barringer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020).

[27] Hamid Naficy, “All Certainties Melt into Air: Art-House Cinema, a ‘Postal’ Cinema,” in A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 4, The Globalizing Era, 1984–2010 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 175–268, 191.

[28] Peter Bradshaw, “Taxi: a Ridealong Career Selfie from Banned Director Jafar Panahi,” The Guardian, February 6, 2015,

[29] Orhan Pamuk, The Innocence of Objects, trans. Ekin Oklap (New York: Abrams, 2012), 109.

[30] Anne Chemin, “‘Fils’, père de l’autofiction,” Le Monde, July 18, 2013,

[31] Serge Doubrovsky, quoted in Thomas Spear, “Celine and ‘Autofictional’ First-Person Narration,” Studies in the Novel 23, no. 3 (1991): 357–70, 357; Serge Doubrovsky, Autobiographiques: de Corneille à Sartre (Paris: PUF, 1988), 70.

[32] Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-Facement,” MLN 94, no. 5 (1979): 919–30, 920; Timothy Bewes, “Recent Experiments in American Fiction,” Novel 50, no. 3 (2017): 351–59, 358.

[33] Teju Cole, “Printing - Teju Cole,” Interview Magazine, March 21, 2014,

[34] Philippe Lejeune, On Autobiography, trans. Katherine Leary, ed. Paul John Eakin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 14.

[35] John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” The Atlantic Monthly 220, no. 2 (1967): 29–34.

[36] “As [the novelist] writes, he creates not simply an ideal, impersonal ‘man in general’ but an implied version of ‘himself’ that is different from the implied authors we meet in other men’s works” (Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1983], 70–71).

[37] In Reality Hunger, David Shields describes a contemporary artistic movement characterized by “a deliberate unartiness: ‘raw’ material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional . . . . openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk . . . reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone . . . criticism as autobiography . . . a blurring (to the point-of-invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.” Josefina Ludmer similarly contends that contemporary writing has relinquished its claims to literary autonomy: These writings “leave literature and enter ‘reality’ and the everyday, the reality of the everyday.” For Carlos J. Alonso, such works refuse “to separate and distinguish themselves from all the other discourses of the social configuration in which they are immersed: their indifference to being consumed as a distinct and privileged cultural discourse—in other words, as literature.” Reinaldo Laddaga arrives at similar conclusions from an analysis of Latin American fiction, suggesting that a coherent global constellation of autofictional flânerie exists. See David Shields, Reality Hunger (New York: Vintage, 2011), 3, 5; Josefina Ludmer, “Literaturas posautónomas,” Cíberletras 17 (2007),; Carlos J. Alonso, “The Novel without Literature,” Novel 44, no. 1 (2011): 3–5; Reinaldo Laddaga, Espectáculos de realidad (Buenos Aires: Beatriz Viterbo Editorial, 2007), 21.

[38] Sheila Heti, “So Frank,” London Review of Books, January 9, 2014,

[39] Pieter Vermeulen foregrounds the Baudelairean flâneur and its obverse to account for the novel’s secret. See Pieter Vermeulen, “Flights of Memory,” Journal of Modern Literature 37, no. 1 (2013): 40–57.

[40] Teju Cole, Open City (New York: Random House, 2012), 245.

[41] Lorin Stein, “Lorin Stein on the Power of Ambiguity in Fiction,” interview by Joe Fassler, The Atlantic, November 17, 2015,

[42] Nicholas Dames, “The New Fiction of Solitude,” The Atlantic, April 2016,

[43] Walter Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory,” in Selected Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone, ed. Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Belknapp Press, 1999), 2.2:576.

[44] Timothy Bewes, The Event of Postcolonial Shame (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 33.

[45] “The flâneur was a product of the nineteenth-century European imperial capital; while he was acutely self-conscious of his place at what he perceived to be the center of modernity, his sense of European particularity was nevertheless also born out of his relation to non-Europe” (Edmond, “The Flâneur in Exile,” 377).

[46] Caren Irr, “Toward the World Novel: Genre Shifts in Twenty-First-Century Expatriate Fiction,” American Literary History 23, no. 3 (2011): 660–79, 667.

[47] Amit Chaudhuri, Odysseus Abroad (New York: Vintage, 2014), 3.

[48] Bruce Robbins, “The Worlding of the American Novel,” in The Cambridge History of the American Novel, ed. Leonard Cassuto, Clare Eby, and Benjamin Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 1096–1106, 1099.

[49] Caroline Rody, The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5.

[50] Teju Cole, Every Day Is For the Thief (New York: Random House, 2014), 35.

[51] Edward W. Said, “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals,” in The Edward Said Reader, ed. Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin (New York: Vintage, 2000), 380.

[52] This is not always the case. Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, for example, describes a vein of “South-South” flânerie that attempts to omit the category of the West altogether by focusing on exchanges, past and present, between India and Egypt. See Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land (New York: Vintage, 1994).