By Alexa Rae Barger
When Amin Moghadam began his studies, he had not anticipated where his education and research would take him. Though born and raised in Tehran, he found himself interested in studying outside of Iran. “I had studied French, so I applied to schools in France and went to Strasbourg,” he said. His studies and research have sent him everywhere from France to the south of Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. While working on his doctorate in Human Geography at Lyon 2 University, Moghadam began his fieldwork in Dubai – a decision that would impact much of his academic career.
He found himself especially drawn to the stories and experiences of Iranians living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Iranians from the south (especially Larestan) have moved, lived, and worked in the Emirates since at least the beginning of the 20th century. Due to the nation-state building processes both in Iran and in the UAE, since the inception of the country in 1971, and the enforcement of national borders, the mobility between the two shores of the Persian Gulf became more difficult for their inhabitants. While earlier generations of Iranian immigrants were naturalized as Emirati, those who arrived after that time have not been able to acquire the Emirati citizenship and are therefore considered as “temporary workers.” As far as the dominant political culture was concerned, “you were either Emirati or Iranian,” says Moghadam; as “security-driven” policies vis-à-vis Iranians became more prominent, so did the desire to assimilate as much as possible. At the same time, this group of diasporic Iranians has been anything but invisible. Moghadam’s work has followed the various forms of cultural expression and movement connected to this group – from spaces of artistic expression to representations in popular media. “I am always working with different geographical scales,” he says – but he maintains an interest in different means of expressing identity and modes of identification.
Moghadam now works as an Associate Research Scholar at Princeton University, within the Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies. Through his work, Moghadam hopes to unify the various approaches and perspectives he has encountered in his studies of sociology and geography. In France, sociological criticism focuses on the role of class – to the exclusion of all other factors. In the United States, the focus is often on the construction of race. Meanwhile, the existing scholarship on the Emirates and other Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, emphasizes on the divide between nationals and non-nationals. For Moghadam, a more holistic way of thinking exists at the intersection of these approaches – “there are always so many factors at play,” he says.
Moghadam had the opportunity to share his approach at the “Forty Years and More” conference, hosted by the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University held on March 28-30, 2019. His presentation, “Chanting the Shores, Mooring in the City: Iranian Cultural Expressions in Dubai,” is based on his fieldwork in the Emirates, and principally focuses on the formation and modes of representation of Iranian diasporic identities. He compares his observations with popular representations in Emirati media, including the animated series Freej, which features a main character of Iranian origin. “At the same time,” he notes, “there’s the struggle to find a sense of belonging.” Many younger people consciously hide their Iranian origins (in their language or expression) in order to fit in – while others proudly discuss their heritage in their community and through their art. In order for that conversation to continue, however, one has to build trust. Moghadam constantly thinks about the relationships he has been able to build as a result of his research – not only with his fellow scholars, but with the communities where he engages in his scholarly work. “Building that level of confidence is the first ethical rule of ethnography,” he says, “and it is key to all of my academic work. The most important part of my scholarship is listening to others.” When asked about some of the ultimate goals of his research, he says, “In my work, I hope I am faithful to the stories of people – above all else, to reflect the way they think of themselves and the way they talk of their lives.”
At the conference, Moghadam says he saw himself participating in an important, timely, and transnational conversation about immigration and belonging.
We would like to thank everyone who attended “Forty Years and More” last month. To learn more about the conference and the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies, go to: https://cids.sfsu.edu/conference.
To learn more about Moghadam’s work, go to: http://princeton.academia.edu/AminMoghadam.