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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Dr. Claudia Yaghoobi and the Importance of Making the Marginalized Visible

By Kian Moaledj, Spring Semester Intern, Bates College

Dr. Claudia Yaghoobi has always had a soft spot for the underdog. “Anything about transgression, anything about crossing those lines of “Us” and “Them,” anything about othering, and everything about inclusivity and diversity has been dominant in all of my research,” she says. As a Roshan Associate Professor in Persian Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Yaghoobi specializes in teaching Persian literature as well as courses in Iranian cinema, diaspora, and gender and sexuality in Middle Eastern texts. Prior to coming to the US, Yaghoobi was a tenured professor in her native Tehran. When asked where “home” is, she’s quick to quote Latinx literary critic, Gloria Anzaldúa: “I am a turtle, wherever I go I carry “home” on my back.”

The idea of “home” has recently become more nebulous for Yaghoobi. “I think in the globalized world in which we live, geographical borders matter little. Wherever you go, home goes with you.” In Yaghoobi’s case, she is an Armenian born and raised in Iran. “I trace my background, my Armenian ancestral background, to the time when the Safavid Shah Abbas forcefully relocated Armenians to Isfahan.”

Yaghoobi is all too familiar with what it means to be marginalized. As an Armenian Iranian (or, Iranian Armenian), she recounts her upbringing after the revolution, when her school was allowed only a few hours each week to teach the Armenian language. “The community members and the Armenian leadership had to fight. We went on strike. As a fifth grader, I remember going to school, but not attending class.” Armenians in Iran have faced a long and difficult history, says Yaghoobi. Following the 1979 Revolution and the Iran–Iraq War, many in the Armenian community emigrated from Iran to US cities with already large Armenian communities such as Glendale, California where much of Yaghoobi’s family now resides.

In 2001, Dr. Yaghoobi and her family applied to move to the United States, but because she submitted her application a week before 9/11, she had to wait five years for her papers to get processed as the economic and social situation in Iran continued to deteriorate. Finally, in 2006, she was able to come to the United States, where she received her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Before landing her current academic position, she taught in the English Department at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Despite Yaghoobi’s professional success, living in the US has not always been easy. When she first moved to Chapel Hill, without any support system or friends, she learned that some of her next-door neighbors were KKK members. Initially laughing off the overt displays of racism and bigotry, she soon felt she was becoming a target for her brazen neighbors. “I had never been exposed to that kind of extremism and hatred, even in Iran,” she says. Yaghoobi learned how to deflect the taunting questions about her origin, by responding that “we came from Georgia.”

Yaghoobi’s work focuses very much on sharing the stories of the disempowered. “I want to give a voice to minority groups. And by minorities, I’m talking about all kinds of minorities.” Her first major research project, a continuation of her dissertation, is titled Subjectivity in ‘Attar, Persian Sufism, and European Mysticism and looks at the legendary poet Attar of Nishapur and Sufi mysticism while also exploring same-sex relations and interfaith marriages. Her second book, Temporary Marriage in Iran: Gender and Body Politics in Modern Iranian Film and Literature, investigates how women engaging in perfectly legitimate yet ephemeral sigheh (temporary) marriages are stigmatized and made subject to violence.

The cover of Yaghoobi’s second book, Temporary Marriage in Iran: Gender and Body Politics in Modern Iranian Film and Literature.

Her third and current project is influenced by her own identity as an Iranian and Armenian and in her experience living a multicultural American life. “I don’t know why, but I felt this pull from my ancestors to figure out my identity — part of the trajectory of diasporic peoples…  I suppose.” The book, tentatively titled Multiple Consciousness, Transnationalism, and Nepantla in Armenian Cultural Productions from Iran and the US, dives into the creative themes and impulses of the Armenian diaspora and also artists’ desires to create. Yaghoobi draws on this idea of “Nepantla”, as employed by Gloria Anzaldúa, to describe the experience of “occupying that liminal space where transformation happens.”

Yaghoobi’s project takes a very interdisciplinary approach and engages “poetry, fiction, short stories, novels, autobiographies, memoirs, music videos by Vigen and Andy, classical music by Loris Tjeknavorian, paintings, film and documentary, sculpture, and graphic art and design.” She is specifically focused on art produced after the two major contemporary Iranian historical events of the past 40 years: the 1979 Revolution and the Iran–Iraq War. She explores how these events “prompted the two mass immigration trajectories or waves for Armenians, and how those moments created moments or possibilities for Armenians living in Iran to question their identity, their Armenianness, and their sense of belonging to Iran and their decision to remain or to leave for places like the US.”

In one of the chapters, Yaghoobi explores the importance of the Armenian language and the push by some to retain its linguistic purity. In another chapter, she discusses the concept of collective memories in folktales and stories. “A huge part of that chapter is the collective memory of the 1915 genocide,” Yaghoobi says. Despite the fact that Iranian Armenians were not directly targeted, Yaghoobi says, “they draw on the transnational collective memory of that event — and it continues to this day. The Armenian Genocide occupies the minds of so many authors and artists.”

The epilogue of the book engages the 2020 Nagorno–Karabakh (Artsakh) War and how it impacted diasporic Armenians in the US and around the world. “The 1915 collective trauma still looms large: many of us feel we are still not safe.” Yaghoobi points to the Armenian cultural centers that have been recently desecrated even in the United States, including in San Francisco where an Armenian church was set on fire. Armenian schools have also been vandalized. The war, along with the pandemic and the summer of civil unrest, put Yaghoobi under enormous pressure last year. “I went through so much stress and my body basically reacted to that stress. I realized that I had to listen to my body and, you know, slow down.”

But, in spite of the trauma and despair of 2020, Yaghoobi sees glimmers of hope. She welcomes the opportunities of collective learning that were presented to many. “I don’t think if we didn’t have the pandemic, the protests, and everything that’s going on globally, we would have collectively gone through such a rapid learning process.” This semester taught her to be comfortable in being vulnerable with her students, and she was heartened to see how much they appreciated her candidness.

For her exceptional teaching, Dr. Yaghoobi has been nominated as one of two candidates for a diversity, equity, and inclusion award at UNC. “I feel honored that they saw that in me. Diversity, equity, and inclusion mean a great deal to me. In everything that I do, I try to give a voice to the underdog, to make those who are invisible, seen.”

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