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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Dr. Amy Malek, College of Charleston

“If we’re going to better understand a global, dynamic diaspora on the move, we have to engage in global research that is also mobile, transnational, and dynamic,” said Dr. Amy Malek, a cultural anthropologist and Assistant Professor of International Studies at the College of Charleston. Malek, who earned her PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles and an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies from New York University, will give the opening keynote presentation at the upcoming “Forty Years & More Conference” at the end of this month.

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 Screenshot from an interview for Manoto’s “Beleet (Ticket)” with Tara Aghdashloo on the LA Iranian community.

Malek’s research interests lie at the intersections of citizenship, visual culture, and diasporic identity. When I asked her to describe a common thread in her current research, Malek noted the transnational reach of the Iranian diaspora as central to her work. “I think it’s important to take a transnational perspective so I can study the ways that Iranians create and maintain identities and networks across borders, but also how those identities and mobilities are shaped by shifting geopolitics, increasing neoliberalism, and intra-community dynamics,” she said.

In order to get at this interplay of local and global, Malek is interested in the impacts of policies like multiculturalism on immigrant groups. Malek’s current book project involves long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Stockholm, Toronto, and Los Angeles, focusing specifically on cultural production by Iranians in these diaspora cities. “This lens has allowed me to see and compare the ways Iranians in different parts of the diaspora navigate their positions in European and North American societies, and how they engage transnationally in doing so,” she said. 

Malek suggests that large-scale public events by necessity “tie together the cultural with the economic and the political, enabling a more global and holistic analysis of diasporic strategies for representation and inclusion.” As a result, she investigates the production of recurring large-scale public festivals of Iranian culture in major diaspora cities – such as Tirgan in the center of Toronto (drawing 100,000+ attendees biennially since 2008), or Eldfesten in the center of Stockholm and other Swedish cities (drawing tens of thousand attendees annually since 2010). Malek sees Los Angeles and Southern California – home to the largest Iranian population in diaspora – as a crucial site to her transnational study. “L.A. is the community that has historically been highlighted in research, but also the community against which the whole diaspora often gets judged, especially in Western media. But despite having a larger, more established, and arguably wealthier Iranian population in LA than in any other diaspora city, it has been challenging for the LA community to create free, large-scale, recurring, public events. In this book, I seek to better understand why that is, and show what related challenges to inclusion this observation reveals.”      

Malek has had long-standing interest in the Middle East and in diasporic experiences. She is the child of an American mother and an Iranian father and, like many researchers, personal experiences led her to ask some of the initial questions that motivated her academic trajectory. “I continue to be interested in questions of immigrant representation, identity, and belonging as a result of being an Iranian American. But unlike many in the Iranian diaspora, I did not grow up among an Iranian community beyond my family home, and didn’t travel to and from Iran or other Iranian diaspora cities as a child. It was only after meeting other diaspora Iranians while studying abroad in college that I began to think about the variety of experiences and lives Iranians are living around the world. So I think a lot of my early research interest was rooted in a curiosity about experiences that were and are different from my own, and an attempt to understand how we as humans build community.”

When I asked her about the directions she sees the field of Iranian diaspora studies taking, she identified her excitement about fellow scholars in Iranian diaspora studies who are analyzing race and racialization, and new archival research and oral histories that examine experiences of Iranian immigrants that “diverge from the post-1979 origin story, and subvert the traditional claim of high educational attainment and wealth as markers of diasporic belonging and success.” She says she would like to see more studies that engage transnational approaches, and research that extends beyond the traditional sites of American or Western European capitals. “Also, we are seeing more studies about the second generation, which is great, but we need to start asking questions about the third generation, the growing cohort of grandchildren of the immigrant generation. The literature suggests this is a crucial generation for questions of language and culture in diaspora, and it will be interesting to see what new research can reveal.” 

In discussing her academic influences, Malek identified Dr. Hamid Naficy as one of the most important scholars that inspired her to move toward diaspora studies.His research was groundbreaking not because it was about Iranians, but because his sharp, theoretical insights about exilic experiences, expressed in exquisite prose, were meaningful and applicable widely across exilic and diasporic experiences. To this day, whenever I re-visit “The Making of Exile Cultures” I marvel at his ability to convey theoretically-informed insights so beautifully and I discover nuances that I may have missed before, ones that are still relevant nearly 30 years later.“

True to her diverse research interests, in addition to her book project, Malek has forthcoming articles on questions of postmemory and nostalgia, the digital circulation of family photos, and dual citizenship, as well as new research on anti-racism activism in the Iranian diaspora.

We are looking forward to hearing Malek at the upcoming “Forty Years & More” conference at SF State March 28-30, at SF State, where she will give the opening keynote address.

*PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of 2008 New York Persian parade, courtesy of Dr. Amy Malek.

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