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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Milad Odabaei—On Transitioning to the United States and Conducting Fieldwork in Iran

By Kian Moaledj, Winter Intern, Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies 

For Milad Odabaei, an Iranian-American engineer and anthropologist, the start of his fellowship at Princeton University coincided with the lockdowns of the ongoing pandemic. Despite his recent appointment to the Sharmin and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, Dr. Odabaei has yet to visit New Jersey. “I’ve been to New York, but never to New Jersey,” he says. For now, he’s working from home in Berkeley, California. “I expect to be in Princeton next fall,” he says.

Odabeai moved stateside in 2001, but his family has ties to the United States dating before the 1979 Revolution. “My parents used to live in the US before I was born. My father was a graduate student, so my older sister was born in Maryland.” Odabaei’s family returned to Iran on the cusp of the Revolution, and he grew up there during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and “the reform” period of the 1990s. After moving to the US, Odabaei worked as an engineer for a few years before pursuing a graduate degree in anthropology at UC Berkeley. Odabaei lived in Montreal for a postdoctoral fellowship at McGill University until his recent postdoctoral appointment at Princeton.

Odabaedi’s early life was defined by the turbulent years of the war and the consolidation of power after the Revolution. He recalls the rationing of electricity and the long queues for essential food items during the 1980s. In the 1990s, Odabaei witnessed the hunger for social and political reforms. “That’s when I became more conscious of what was happening politically. I read newspapers, books that were being published, and translations of European social-political philosophy. That was the beginning of what later would become my academic research.”

After high school in Tehran, Odabaei moved in with his family in California to continue his education. The transition was not too difficult for him, he says. “I had studied English at an institute which was established before the Revolution as part of the American-Iranian Cultural Center. I had some understanding of what life in the US was like,” he says. As a community college student, he remained in the United States for six years on a single-entry student visa. “I could not go back to Iran both because of restrictions of my visa, particularly after 9/11, and also my eligibility for compulsory military service in Iran.” Following a change of status for his visa, Odabaei was able to secure a green card and eventually become a citizen in 2013.

Upon graduation, Odabaei worked at an analytic consulting firm for a few years before turning his attention to anthropology and receiving his doctorate from Berkeley. His new milieu gave him the opportunity to look at Iran from different academic angles. “I think about my early years in the US as a sort of distancing from the Iranian social and political contexts, especially what I had taken to be self-evident truths and my interpretation of the world and how I understood the history of Iran and the world I came from. I could now think about them from different perspectives — and in a different language,” he says. “Graduate school allowed me to think more systematically about Iran. This distance made me want to reflect on history differently and compelled me to go back to Iran to do fieldwork.”

His return to Iran also was a way to cultivate new attachments and preserve old relationships in his home country. “Anthropology — I hoped, anyway — would give me the chance to maintain a certain kind of life in-between, to also relate to the conversations that are happening in Iran, about Iran, with the people who I focus on in my research.”

Odabaei has been conducting fieldwork in Iran since 2009. His doctoral research analyzes the debates about Islam and human sciences in the Qom seminaries and the Iranian academy as well as those outside Iran’s official institutions of education. These institutions have been incredibly politicized by Iran’s recent history, but Odabaei investigates how Shi’a seminaries and the post-revolutionary academy are spaces of intellectual debates worthy of study. “Despite radical politicization of religion, the primary task that brings Shi’i seminarians together is scholarship — the reading, commenting, and discussing of text,” he says. Odabaei spent most of his time with seminarians and academics and in reading groups focusing on European social and philosophical theory.

As an anthropologist, Odabaei needed to be transparent about his background with his interlocutors, though he says his American connections did not cause many issues. “They welcomed the fact that I was there. As I was interested in them, they were interested in me.” He recalls the time when a young cleric heard about his position in Berkeley and asked if he could be introduced to the highly influential feminist theorist Judith Butler. “He saw himself as the director of a center of Islamic feminism, asking questions about gender and family from the point of view of Shi’ism. He was interested in having a dialogue between what he saw as Shi’i feminism and Western feminism as embodied by one of my teachers at Berkeley.”

Odabaei spent a lot of time conversing and interviewing key Islamic thinkers, even those who had been dismissed from Qom’s seminaries yet nevertheless remained influential. His research entailed engaging in large public debates as well as smaller private intellectual circles. For years, he sat in these scholars’ classes as a student. “As an anthropologist, I would say that there’s a culture of learning, debate, and disagreement that is both very much related to Shi’i seminary culture and the revolutionary politics of contemporary Iran.” Another element of his research is in the politics and nuances of translation. Specifically, he looks at the discursive patterns where Iranian thinkers take the writings of prominent European philosophers and theorize how it could be applied to Iranian society.

He hopes his research will make people recognize the significance of the scholarship and debates that are happening in Iran today, in and around religious and secular institutions of education, and reexamine the dominant, and oftentimes incomplete, narratives that characterize religion and politics. “What I argue in my work, what I try to show, is that these practices of knowledge by seminarians, academics and the lay public are, on the one hand, a part of politicization of Shi’i Islam into a program for social revolution and state-making. On the other hand, they are a space for understanding and reflecting on the consequences of the creation of a modern Islamic state. They are centrally related to making sense of a world that continues to be disrupted from within and without,” he says.

The findings of his fieldwork will be published in his first book, The Outside/Kharij: Translation and Iranian Travails of Learned Politics. Odabaei is also working on another project that centers on queer Persian-speaking immigrants in North America. “It’s about social and political belonging in the diaspora, particularly by people who leave their homes with a certain idea of life in the Global North that often does not correspond to what they come to experience and confront: a new language, grammar of gender and sexuality, and the racialization of their identities upon migration. How is the disruption of cultural and generational transmission or the gap between expectation and experience of migration manifested in instances of violence and marginalization as well as arts and creativity?” His interlocutors include refugees and political asylum seekers who have left Iran. “I am particularly interested in how the experience of migration and developing a new identity, which is liberating for a lot of people, is at the same time an interruption of certain relationships with oneself, with family, and with the past,” he says. This project will examine how these individuals negotiate loss, craft identity, and form communities as immigrants.

We thank Milad for joining us on this interview. To view his recent article on Iran, click here. To view his page, click here.

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