Erika Friedl and Reinhold Loeffler
Erika Friedl and Reinhold Loeffler
A verse from the Persian poet Sa’adi (, fl.1283) is displayed at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Humanity is a whole, Sa’adi affirms, and the pain of one person is felt by all people. In the view of Reinhold Loeffler, anthropology extends this humanistic sensibility by “acknowledging and giving permanence to the lives and thoughts of people who are unrecognized by the world at large, whose lives and thoughts are passing in oblivion.” Scholarship “gives a few of these a voice and so saves them – and by extension their community –from this fate.” [“The Making of a Historical Document,” Iranian Studies, 37 (2004), 585-592.]
Fascination with Islamic South Asian cultures has animated the scholarly life of Erika Friedl and Reinhold Loeffler. Shortly after secondary school, Reinhold Loeffler traveled through the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and Kuweit, where he taught German for two years; Erika Friedl discovered ethnology as a teenager by way of studying geography and the literature of the Near East. They began as students of the ethnologist and ethnohistorian Karl Jettmar at the University of Vienna and followed their mentor to the University of Mainz. At that time in Germany, it was customary for doctoral students in anthropology to base their dissertation on library sources. At Mainz, Friedl and Loeffler found a small, new department with close interactions between faculty and students. The department gave them access to field notes and unpublished data from several German ethnologists who had been active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Using these and other sources, Friedl wrote a dissertation on shamanism and Reinhold Loeffler on social stratification among tribes in the Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountains.
Erika Friedl and Reinhold Loeffler
Reinhold Loeffler then went for postdoctoral studies to Cornell University and the University of Chicago, where Erika Friedl joined him and they married. It was a remarkable moment at Chicago. David Schneider was turning kinship studies into an exciting field, Frederick G. Bailey was teaching British functionalism, and Clifford Geertz was introducing phenomenological perspectives into the study of culture; Fred R. Eggan still stood behind the lectern. In 1965, Geertz and Lloyd A. Fallers, both of whom with interests in the Middle East, supported the Loefflers’ plan to carry out fieldwork in Iran, sponsored by the Oriental Institute at Chicago.
The Loefflers traveled to the tribal area of Kohgiluye/Boir Ahmad in southwestern Iran with a nine-month-old daughter, even though the area had a reputation for independence and contentiousness. Eventually they settled in the largest village in the area, Deh Koh, at the base of one of the tallest mountains in Iran. They learned Luri and Farsi, as did their two children, and conducted basic ethnographic fieldwork for more than a year. In subsequent visits, they focused on a number of themes: family, folklore, tribal history, religion, folk-medicine, and ethno-philosophy, always with the goal of seeking to understand what makes people think and act the way they do.
After returning the Europe, Reinhold Loeffler signed on at Western Michigan University as Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology; Erika Friedl started teaching at Western a year later. Unlike other cultural anthropologists, who tend not to re-visit fieldwork communities, the Loefflers returned to Boir Ahmad fifteen times, for an accumulated stay of more than seven years. Chronicling life there has been their passion. They were in Iran during the US hostage crisis and also during the Iran-Iraq War. They saw Deh Koh grow from a small, isolated village without running water or electricity, into a town of 6000, well integrated nationally. Oil money, beginning to trickle down to rural areas at the end of the shah’s regime, made the transformation possible. The Loefflers’ access to Iran and the tribal area was always difficult, but they have managed to visit regularly every two or three years. They hope to travel there again, although their last attempt to secure visas, in 2008, was unsuccessful.
Wedding Feast in Iran
Listening to these two scholars, I was struck by the similarities between the temper of life in Deh Koh and in the American Midwest. Rules of economic exchange and traditions of cultural expression are different, of course, but television, cell phones, the Internet, automobiles, and kitchen gadgets are omnipresent in both settings. Deh Koh has no industrial base, while the Midwest is threatened with industrial erosion, but each venerates material riches. In both America and Iran, more women than men attend university. Since the 1990s, as a consequence of the availability of contraception and an expansion of public health, the Iranian birth rate has declined to European levels. Like Midwesterners, the people of Deh Koh are sensible and practical. They know the virtues of hard work, and they are skeptical of pie-in-the-sky reformers.
As professors, this anthropological couple has enjoyed great distinction. For two years, Reinhold Loeffler chaired the Ethnology Department in the South Asia Institute at the University of Heidelberg, and Erika Friedl was named a Distinguished Faculty Scholar at Western. As emeriti, both scholars continue to carry out research and to publish. “We are lucky,” they say, “because we feel no dividing line between work and leisure. Our work is always an intellectual journey, and often an adventure, too.” The following list provides an introduction to their thought.
Books by Erika Loeffler Friedl
Folk Tales from a Persian Tribe: Forty-Five Tales from Sisakht in Luri and English (Dortmund: Verlag fuer Orientkunde, 2007).
(Coedited with Mary E. Hegland) Ethnographic Fieldwork in Iran. Special issue of Iranian Studies, 37, no. 4 (2004).
Children of Deh Koh: Young Life in an Iranian Village (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997).
(Coedited with Mahnaz Afkhami) In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-revolutionary Iran (London: I.B.Tauris, 1994).
Women of Deh Koh: Lives in a Persian Village (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989). Second edition published by Penguin in 1991. A German Translation was published by Knesebeck in 1991, and Knaur in 1993. Turkish Translation by Epsilon (Istanbul), 2005.
(Coedited with Mahnaz Afkhami) Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation: Implementing the Beijing Platform. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997).
Traeger medialer Begabung im Hindukush-Karakorum (Vienna: Österreichische Ethnologische Gesellschaft, 1966).
Books by Reinhold Loeffler
Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988).
Soziale Stratifikation im südlichen Hindukusch und Karakoram (diss., University of Mainz, 1964).
“Anthropologists Record the Culture of Boir Ahmad in Southwest Iran: Interview with Erika Friedl and Reinhold Loeffler,” Persian Heritage, no. 49, Spring 2008, pp. 57-60.