Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Being Without Belonging—Iranian Diaspora Subjects in the Transnational Research of Professor Sahar Sadeghi

By Safa Danesh, Center Summer Intern, Eastern Connecticut University

Growing up in a diaspora means to grow up questioning how to fit in. It takes time in order to make sense of how one can belong, especially when belonging results in exclusion from the dominant social, ethnic or national group. Professor Sahar Sadeghi knows this well and addresses these issues in her work as a scholar of Iranian diasporic experiences. Sadeghi, who is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Muhlenberg College, focuses on geopolitics as well as racialized and politicized belonging of Iranian people in several national contexts.

Sadeghi classifies herself as a “twice-migrant” as she moved from Iran to Germany in 1985 as a young child, and then later from Germany to Northern California in 1992, where she attended middle and high school. During her time as an undergraduate student at UC Davis, Sadeghi majored in sociology, and it was then that she says, “I really started thinking a lot more about identity, who I was, and where I fit in racially and politically in the US.” Those questions would ultimately become the foundation of her later research, which, in her senior year, started as an honors research thesis on identity of second-generation Iranians in the Bay Area. Since this initial study, Sadeghi has continued to build on her work by conducting qualitative interviews with Iranians in Germany and comparatively analyzing Iranian experiences in both the US and Germany.

“Comparing various national/transnational groups of Iranians is a unique way to understand the Iranian diaspora and changing developments,” says Sadeghi. This method has also allowed Sadeghi to highlight the similarities and the differences that exist within the diaspora and to further understand the impact these differences have in two distinct national contexts. “I’m looking for generalizations, but I’m also not… The similarities tell us something, but the differences tell us a lot too,” she says. Sadeghi’s research highlights the nuanced experiences of Iranian diasporic communities in both the US and Germany, as well as the changing attitudes toward Iranians and refugees more generally.

At the core of Sadeghi’s work are the lived experiences of individuals within the Iranian diaspora, including her own familial experiences. The phrase “being without belonging” appears throughout Sadeghi’s writing and is used to sum up these experiences and the feeling of being a part of a diaspora. Sadeghi describes belonging as, “a two-way street…where you have equal social citizenship. Iranians have legal citizenship, but the question is, do they have actually have social citizenship?” she adds. Sadeghi has ultimately found that it is hard for Iranians—in both the US and Germany—to unequivocally say yes to this crucial question, albeit for different reasons. In the context of the US, “Iranians have been called enemies of the state since the Hostage Crisis…until the issue of Iran is resolved, Iranians probably cannot have a sense of belonging here. In Germany, I would tell you that until anti-foreigner racism, which is very deep, gets alleviated, Iranians cannot really belong,” explains Sadeghi. In her research, it has become apparent that “belonging” is harder to achieve than simply “being” a part of a place or culture. The individuals interviewed by Sadeghi will often describe situational instances of belonging, but clarifies that these feelings are often impermanent.

Sadeghi offers concrete examples to understand the broad concept of “belonging” and how one can perhaps belong in an unconditional way. “Certainly, by Iranians being able to have the entire holiday of Nowruz off is a way of thinking about belonging—similar to the same way that the holidays of Christmas and Easter are nationally recognized in the US,” she says. But a common theme that Sadeghi encountered in her research is that many Iranians in both the US and Germany feel that there are limits to their belonging. “I often hear from my informants that they ‘do not know what else they can do to belong. They feel like they’ve done everything to tell the country/culture where they live that they are an actual participant in the society,”  she adds. This is the contingent and changing nature of how Iranians and other immigrant communities are subjected to larger societal narratives that can put their “belongingness” into flux, Sadeghi explains.

Although there is still more work to be done on the geopolitical influence on Iranian diaspora members’ sense of belonging, she says that the last two decades of research have made a monumental impact on the field. “I remember one of my [undergraduate] professors saying, ‘are you sure this whole geopolitics thing is really real?’” Sadeghi recalls of a conversation that took place when there was little research on Iranian diaspora studies available at the time of her undergraduate honors thesis. Sadeghi took these comments to heart and followed her instincts, knowing deep down that the right sorts of questions simply needed to be asked. Sadeghi reflects how the limitations of belonging are manifest personally in her own life as an immigrant. “In my graduate school application, I wrote a letter… in order to qualify for scholarships– because they said I was white– but none of my experiences reflected that white experience. Mine was similar to many of my interviewees.”

Sadeghi is heartened by the number of younger scholars choosing to focus on the Iranian diaspora and the diverse experiences of immigrants and second-generation hyphenated Iranians.  “What I see is a really important direction for this field–exactly what we are doing… revealing, discovering, revealing these different levels of generational differences.” Sadeghi notes that conversations about anti-blackness and racism in Iran and in the diaspora are critical and are reflective of the internalized racism engendered in our communities. “These are important conversations. Whether they are about race or gender and sexuality, these issues and the research questions they necessitate, are some indication that we’re finally addressing some of the difficult topics that need to be explored,” Sadeghi says. She is optimistic about the future of this field because she says “there are a lot of passionate scholars, activists, and researchers who are committed to telling our story, and telling it authentically, even if it makes some folks uncomfortable.” In addition to the exciting and validating work she is contributing to the emerging field of Iranian diaspora studies, Sadeghi looks forward to continuing to teach sociology at Muhlenberg College.

Her first book, which will be published in 2022 by New York University Press, documents some of her research about Iranian experiences in the US and Germany over a six-year period. In her book, Sadeghi details how geopolitical arrangements, asylum, refugee and immigration policy, and racial citizenship shape Iranians’ quality of life and narrations of belonging and identity. Specifically, she asks the questions of how larger events and trends like the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the 1980 Hostage Crisis, the 2010 International Sanctions against Iran, the 2015 Refugee Crisis in Germany, the 2016 Iran Deal, the Presidency of Donald Trump, the 2017 Executive Ban on Immigration and Travel, aka, “The Muslim Ban,” and the recent de-certification of the Iran Nuclear Deal have produced a climate that persistently racializes and politicizes Iranian communities in the US and Germany?

To learn more about Sadeghi’s research, you can listen/watch her contribution to the 2019 panel, “Race and Racialization in the Iranian Diaspora,” at our Forty Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies on our YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqkR5TIqzPk.

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