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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Learning from the Movements of Gymnastics—Professor Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi on Becoming a Historian and Director of a Canadian Institute of Iranian Studies

By Banafsheh Azadi, Center Intern, Concordia University

When you listen to Dr. Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, director of the newly-established Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of Toronto (where he is also a professor of History and Near Eastern Civilizations), you cannot help but understand how his experience as a gymnast shaped him. “In gymnastics, you have to consider originality, risk, virtuosity, and then just do it. As a teenager, in Iran, I often got into fights. And when I was studying history, I learned how to fight verbally and textually, becoming more adept at constructing and defending arguments,” Tavakoli says. “The paradigm shifts from gymnastics to becoming an academic—a playful kind of fighting, wrestling through argument—those all helped me,” he adds. “My gymnastics training prepared me for a disciplined academic mode of thinking. I didn’t want to write history the way everyone else was doing; I wanted to write it differently. Like competitive gymnastics, risk, originality, and virtuosity are vital components of my academic career.”

Gymnastics dominated Tavakoli’s adolescence and young adulthood. He was one of the youngest members of the Iranian National Gymnastics Team during the Seventh Asian Games held in Tehran in September, 1974. He came to the United States from Iran in 1975 and attended the L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, Texas. During the 1976 United States Gymnastics Federation “Boys Age Group” competition, he ranked fifth on the rings. Impressed with Tavakoli’s all-around performance, a recruiter for the University of Iowa invited him to join the Hawkeye Gymnastics Team by offering him a full-ride athletic scholarship. He was the top Iowa gymnast from 1977 to 1980. In the summer of 1979, he travelled back to Iran and competed in the National Iranian Gymnastics competition. With the highest score in all six gymnastics events, he became the National Champion (qahreman-i qahremanan).

This determination in gymnastics has served Tavakoli well. It’s made him flexible, adaptable, and open to learning. “Making mistakes, readjusting, that’s the beginning of committing. That, I think, is the gymnastic gene of my crazy life,” he says. Tavakoli has, by no means, had a simple life. During the first three years of his education at the University of Iowa, Tavakoli leaped from one major to another. Frequently, he went to see his academic advisor to declare his intention to change his major. Finally, he became a political science major and as a graduating senior, he received the 1980 Dr. E.E. Oberman Award as “Iowa’s Outstanding Senior for a career of excellence in scholarship, sportsmanship and gymnastics performance.”

The decision to commit to the study of politics, however, was reflected in his growing attention to the ongoing revolution in Iran: “When I went back to Iran in the summer of 1979, I witnessed the unfolding of the last stage of the revolution.” The events on the streets of Tehran intensified Tavakoli’s interest in comprehending political change. He was intrigued by what he saw. Born and raised in central Tehran, a neighbourhood called “Chaleh Meydoun,” or what he brands as “the navel of Tehran,” gave him a view of Iran and its modern history that left an enduring impression. When he went back to Iran in the months after the 1979 “February Revolution,” he noticed that many of the street names in the northern part of Tehran had been altered. But in his neighbourhood, all of the names had remained the same. This contrast surprised Tavakoli, “With the revolution, I realized that Iran was moving in a direction that I was consciously leaving behind. I had come from a conservative Bazaari family, but my brothers and I were rebelling against our religiously-oriented father and siding with our more tolerant, accommodating, and secular mother.” On the contrary, the revolution delivered outcomes that replicated his father’s values.

Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi (middle) as part of the Iranian National Gymnastics Team. 

During the summer of 1979, Tavakoli considered staying in Iran and engaging with the revolution. But his three older brothers compelled him to go back to the US to finish his education (Tavakoli is one of eight sons and one daughter). “I didn’t dare to challenge my elder brothers,” he says. Tavakoli returned to finish his education in Iowa, where he continued to compete in gymnastics. But because of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Iran and the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics. “The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan determined the end of my gymnastics career. I did not compete in gymnastics again. It was then that I decided to study history.”

Tavakoli’s powerful memories of reading poetry and books of all kinds, as well as his mother’s support of her children’s education, prompted him to become a historian. His University of Chicago graduate education gave him access to an immense library. Working as a library assistant, he searched for the books he wanted to read. This unique experience familiarized him with Iran’s historical and literary texts and shaped him as a major collector of Persian books and journals in North America.

After teaching at the Normal campus of Illinois State University for 14 years, Tavakoli moved to Toronto, Canada in 2003. In Illinois, he had built a community around him, and in Toronto he has sought to do the same. “Birthplace is important. Sites of memories are vital, but individual identities are dynamic. My Iran is right here with me in Toronto, with my books in our house. I am surrounded by it.” Tavakoli says he wants “to be both local and global.”

Tavakoli recalls how his connection to Iran and the memories it holds for him are generated in revisiting his childhood haunts. Between 1998 and 2008, Tavakoli went back to Iran almost every year to see his elderly and ailing parents. “The first time I went to Iran after the revolution, I wanted to go to Tehran’s Chaleh Meydoun, Meydoun Kohneh and Bazaar, and to our ancestral village Targh—our family’s summer cottage—all of the places where I grew up. These were personal pilgrimages to the sites of my formation as an individual, journeys of self-rediscovery and self-refashioning,” he says.

The city of Toronto holds special memories for Tavakoli as well. “They call it Tehranto, and it is as diverse as the Tehran of my childhood. Every time I miss Tehran, I go to a Chelo Kababi, eat freshly baked sangak and taftoun bread! We have great friends here. We have a very dynamic community of Iranians in this great northern city. But it is a politically fragmented community.” Recently, Tavakoli has been working to present and install a statue of “Cyrus the Great” in Toronto, which is called “Cyrus in the 6ix.” “Perhaps the personal reason that Cyrus is important is that in the neighbourhood where we lived during my early childhood, Cyrus Avenue was the main road near our house, which we could see from our rooftop. The road went through the Jewish neighbourhood of Tehran, on the intersection of what was then called Armenian Street and the Jewish neighbourhood. Toronto also brings these sites of identity together. It is a culturally rich city.” Tavakoi says he doesn’t see the statue as a symbol of nationalism but rather as a way to explore multi-confessionalism, multilingualism, and multiethnic identities, which are vital components of Iranian-ness by his estimation. Because of his own upbringing in a neighborhood where Jews, Muslims, Bahais, and Zoroastrians lived and worked together, he considers religious and cultural tolerance as essential components of the “Cyrus in the 6ix” project.

A favorite photo of Tavakoli with the Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamloo and his wife, Aida. 

Canada and the ways it represents the diversity of Iran and, more importantly, the global Iranian diaspora is important to Tavakoli. He says that the Iranian diaspora community can develop in various ways. Whether people identify as Iranian Canadians or Iranian Americans, they carry with them multiplicities of identities, he explains. “There is no one way or one mode of being Iranian, and there is not a singular Iranian diaspora,” he says. “It’s not wise to insist on unifying a diverse diaspora,” he adds, “but it is vital to have a positive symbol that accommodates the diversity of Iranian diasporic individuals and communities.”

Tavokoli has an impressive resume of experience that has added to his dexterity and originality in the field of Iranian Studies, as well as Iranian Diaspora Studies in his new position as Inaugural Director of the Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of Toronto. He was the founding chair of the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto, Mississauga (2004-07), past president of the International Society for Iranian Studies (2008-10), editor at Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (2001-2012), editor of Iran Nameh (2011-2015, and co-editor of the Routledge Iranian Studies book series. With over twenty Iranian Studies faculty and a large number of Ph.D. students, the Mir-Djalali Institute will serve as a major research hub in North America.

In his new role, Tavakoli is excited about spearheading the Iranian Cinema and Persian Women Poets compendia, which are generously funded by the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation. As an authoritative compendium on all aspects of film and motion-picture production, Tavakoli seeks to develop the Iranian Cinema digital compendium into a resource that provides historical articles on movies, genres, film movements, filmographies, directors, composers, stars, cinematographers, set designers, sound specialists, editors, choreographers, film studios, movie theaters, film posters, film critics, and audiences, among other topics. Informed by several decades of transdisciplinary recuperative research in Persian literary studies, Tavakoli sees the Persian Women Poets digital compendium as providing literary-historical articles on female poets and their poetic agency, on imagination, tropes, narratives, and on their lives and the provenance and literary significance of their poetry. Written by experts in Iranian Studies and its cognate fields, these compendia are intended for both scholars and the educated reading public. Tavakoli plans to draw together at least 200 articles on women poets and to make them available to the public. The goal is to include women poets in Iran’s literary canon who stand beside Roodaki, Hafez, Sa’adi, and Mawlana. Working to shift the disciplinary boundaries of history, literature, art, and culture are central aspects of Tavakoli’s mission in these projects.

His passion for these projects, and for enriching the study of Iran’s rich cultural history, is evident, of course, in Tavakoli’s early teenage experience as a gymnast in 1971, which is portrayed in a picture published in the Keyhan Varzish where he is performing one of the most difficult tricks in the history of Iranian gymnastics. That daredevil sense has made Tavakoli one of the most versatile and productive scholars in North America. He says that his work as the founding editor of the journal Diyar, as well the well-respected bilingual journal Iran Namag of which he is a founding editor, will be supported under the auspices of a new organization he is spearheading: the Canadian Society for Iranian Studies.

To learn more about Dr. Tavakoli-Targhi’s leadership of this institute and its developments, visit:

All photos courtesy of Dr. Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi.

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