By Rameen Shafiee, Research Assistant for the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies
In anticipation of her visit to San Francisco State University for “Forty Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies” this upcoming March 28-30 2019, I interviewed Dr. Beeta Baghoolizadeh. In addition to being an assistant professor of History and Africana Studies at Bucknell University, Baghoolizadeh is also an editor for the Ajam Media Collective, and the founder of “Diaspora Letters“. Baghoolizadeh, the child of Iranian immigrants, grew up in Los Angeles, CA, and did not have a strong family legacy in higher education. However, Baghoolizadeh is paving her own path through her work in the arts, her revolutionary approach to academia, and her passion for sharing modern Iranian history.
Like many academics, Baghoolizadeh’s drive stems from the dissatisfying answers she was given to her most pertinent questions. “My work as a historian, my work on Iranian slavery was inspired by growing up in LA and being told Haji Firuz blackface wasn’t
racist! It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I realized I could actually research this.” Such a controversial topic inspired Baghoolizadeh to study the overlooked and often under-emphasized history of slavery, abolition, and racism in Iran. Baghoolizadeh took her frustrations with the academic status quo and has created her own path to dismantle and reframe stories and narratives that most people accept as defacto truths. Through her work with the Ajam Media Collective, Baghoolizadeh creates a rich and diverse pool of research materials that is less elite and less state-centric.
The Ajam Media Collective is a digital platform created by Middle Eastern Studies graduate students (Alex Shams, Rustin Zarkar, Kamyar Jarahzadeh) to talk about issues pertaining to the Persianate world and all the connections within that world that we may normally never consider (i.e. Turkish, Armenian, Syrian, etc.). Baghoolizadeh wrote her first article for the Ajam Media Collective in 2012 on Afro-Iranians and became an editor soon after. Baghooolizadeh sees the Ajam Media Collective as revolutionary intellectual tool that “disrupts long taken-for-granted ideas in academia, like confronting anti-black racism, paying writers, and focusing on people rather than wars,” says Baghoolizadeh. Most revolutionary of all, perhaps, is that the Ajam Media Collectiva also makes accessible “ rigorous academic quality publishing for at no charge.” Baghoolizadeh believes that one need not be enrolled in a prestigious university to be able learn about and research topics like the true nature of Iranian slavery, or to learn the original source of Aladdin. With Ajam’s unique focus on the experience of the “other,” Baghoolizadeh has been able to address contemporary issues within the Iranian academic world. “I would say there is an intense over-emphasis on ancient Iran. Not that that is a negative, because I took pre-Islamic classes in college and it was great, but I also think that this approach stems from place of Iranian nationalism at the expense of studies in modern Iranian history or even diaspora studies.”
Her own connection with diaspora issues is beautifully articulated in “Diaspora Letters,” Baghoolizadeh’s own multi-media art project, which started as an Instagram post of one
of her whimsical sketches and has continued in a more serialized (although not necessarily in chronological order) form on Instagram and elsewhere. Since starting “Diaspora Letters,” Baghoolizadeh’s sketches and drawings have found audiences in in art galleries and animation cinema because they express many common feelings and
sentiments of those in the diaspora. In many ways, “Diaspora Letters” is the artistic extension of Baghoolizadeh’s academic perspective. Rather than focusing on more typical issues like nuclear proliferation and regime-change, her drawings emphasize everyday life in modern Iran and the diaspora. Scenes such as having tea with a grandparent better illustrate the every day realities in Iran better than a political pundit ever could. Baghoolizadeh’s “mundane yet poetic” art was spurred by her frustration with the way dramatic and overly simplistic headlines obscure any curiosity or attention to the realities of every day life in a place like Iran. “Diaspora Letters started off as panic drawing. I was trained in oil painting as a child, but put it aside. Then the Muslim ban happened and I was so stressed about it. When I was in Iran last summer I just started drawing scenes of everyday life.” Baghoolizadeh was hesitant at first to publish her work because she worried it would impact her status as a “serious academic,” but since she took that leap of faith she has received “overwhelmingly” positive feedback.
Baghoolizadeh is breaking the mold as both an academic and a scholar. Her scholarship
along with her advocacy for new forms of scholarly engagement and her art establish a new model for younger scholars hoping to feel less compartmentalized. As a historian, editor, and artist, Baghoolizadeh’s work draws from the stories many of us in the diaspora share. “One of my oldest memories is Haji Firuz being shut down for Nowruz and all the moms getting angered saying ‘it is not racist we aren’t like that, we are not like these Americans who are racist!’ But I ask: what does that do for us? What’re the implications? What had to be erased?” It is these unchallenged conventions that can hold us back from truly understanding and participating in our reality of becoming a more open and self-critical diasporic community. Baghoolizadeh is a model for questioning and challenging outdated conventions that no longer serve us and for building new and innovative ways of understanding the past. We look forward to having her at the conference “Forty Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies” March 28-30, 2019 at San Francisco State University!
Rameen Shafiee is an interdisciplinary academic born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He received a B.S in Applied Psychology at New York University, and recently completed two years of service with City Year San Jose/Silicon Valley. Shafiee is working as a research assistant at the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies and is deepening his understanding of the diaspora experience and how it affects him and others in his community.