By Persis Karim, Director, Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies
Meeting for the Association of Iranian Studies (AIS) biennial conference in late August was a joy on so many levels. After a two-year pause on gathering in-person was imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us from around the world (the US, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Iran) lamented the loss of intellectual exchanges that this conference affords. But this year, with the help of conference and program chair, University of Salamanca Professor Miguel Ángel Andrés-Toledo, we gathered in the final days of August in the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site of the University of Salamanca, Spain. So many of us in the weeks before were hesitating—due to Covid-19, to the long trip that required planes, trains and taxis, and also because for many of us, the conference fell right as our semesters began. But it was all worth it. We were able reconnect, listen to provocative and ground-breaking presentations, and break bread in one of the most beautiful conference settings we could have imagined. Naturally, our long separation meant we exchanged stories of our children and families, shared news of books published and projects underway, but also shared visions for the future of our field. Nowhere was this more evident than in the diverse array of panels and individual paper topics, as well as the even greater representation of panels dedicated to Iranian diaspora topics.
I have personally been attending the biennial conferences of the AIS regularly since I was a graduate student in the 1990s at the University of Texas at Austin. In those early days, I felt out-of-place, both because of my background as a half-Iranian woman, studying not Persian literature, but Comparative Literature that eventually became focused on the scattering of Iranians around the globe in their exile and movement after 1979 (before we were using that term “diaspora”). In the time since, I’ve seen a precipitous change to understand that we in the Association of Iranian Studies are indeed governed by the sentiments and experiences of diaspora belonging and un-belonging; most of our members live in Europe, the United States, Canada, and other parts of Asia. That is not to say that there are not Iranian-based scholars in this association, and in fact there are many, but rather instead to suggest that it does make sense to include the study of one of the largest diasporas in the modern 20th century as part of our research and teaching about Iran.
This year’s AIS was also different for another reason. Increasingly, I see the important leadership that is being offered by the officers in AIS and in a number of disciplines that recognize the work of younger scholars who both want to connect to and research topics about Iran, but also cannot easily do so. The field of Iranian Diaspora Studies has begun to be put more centrally into conversation with the study of Iran; that is new. They are not separate and distinct from each other, but rather are more integral and engaged with each other. In addition to the roundtable that I organized “Emerging Within and Connecting to Other Disciplines” (which include Dr. Farzaneh Hemmasi, Dr. Amy Malek, Dr. Amin Moghadam, Dr. Manijeh Moradian, and Nima Naghibi)—from a range of disciplines including ethnomusicology, Anthropology, Geography, American Studies/Gender Studies, and English—there was at least three other panels dedicated to Iranian Diaspora Studies, instigated by younger scholars and graduate students working across the disciplines. I had the privilege of listening to a younger Italian-Iranian graduate student named Sheida Bessozi, who is based in the Basque region of Spain, discuss her ethnographic research (Anthropology) on Iranians who have settled in Spain. Her work revealed fascinating insights into the differences between resettlement in Spain as compared with a country like the US or other locations in Europe. Several other panels highlighted Iranian-American literature or transnational cultural contexts, as well as racialized identities in the Iranian diaspora context.
Another highlight of the conference this year, was the very welcoming space that AIS has made for Iranian Diaspora Studies generally, and for the Center specifically. We were pleased that the Center was able to offer two new prizes in the context of the AIS conference: the Hamid Naficy Book Award and the Neda Nobari Dissertation Award which were made on behalf of the Center. The first Hamid Naficy book award was given to Dr. Farzaneh Hemmasi, University of Toronto (Ethnomusicology), for her book, Tehrangeles Dreaming: Intimacy and Imagination in Southern California’s Iranian Pop Music (Duke University Press, 2021).The award committee, composed of Professors Persis Karim (chair) of San Francisco State University, Camron Amin, University of Michigan, Dearborn, and Kevan Harris, University of California, Los Angeles, selected Hemmasi’s book for its rigorously researched study of Persian pop music in Los Angeles and its wider influence globally. This book builds on the groundbreaking scholarship of Dr. Hamid Naficy, whose pioneering work on media, exiles, and diaspora communities is foundational to the field of Iranian Diaspora Studies.
“Professor Hemmasi’s book provides an in-depth investigation of the intersection of history, politics, cultural production and distribution of this genre of music in the numerous cultural contexts in which it resides,” reads the committee’s statement. “Her work explores the ways that music, and the communities that consume it, maintain a dialogue with the heritage of the homeland, while also nurturing its own musical brand in a globalized mediascape.”
Additionally, two other outstanding books received honorable mentions for this prize. They are: Exile and the Nation: The Parsi Community of India and the Making of the Modern Iranian Nation (University of Texas Press, 2020) by Dr. Afshin Marashi (University of Oklahoma) and Iranian Literature After the Islamic Revolution: Production and Circulation in Iran and the World Edinburgh University Press, 2021) by Dr. Laetitia Nanquette (University of New South Wales). These awards were presented by Persis Karim at the conference in Salamanca.
The Center also awarded the Neda Nobari Dissertation Award to Dr. Amir Sayadabdi for his dissertation, “Food and Identity: The Iranian Diaspora in New Zealand” (Ph.D. received at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand) last year. This award was established in honor of SF State University alumna and philanthropist Neda Nobari, whose generous gift established the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at SF State University in 2017. Ms. Nobari’s vision to support new research and scholarship about the global Iranian diaspora is critical to expanding our understanding of transnational experiences and to developing interdisciplinary approaches to this emerging field. The award committee’s statement reads, “this beautifully written dissertation offers a nuanced account of how Iranians in Christchurch, New Zealand negotiate the vicissitudes of migration through cooking, eating, and sharing food within and beyond their own community. Sayadabdi, who is currently a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, offers “a deeply thoughtful account of his fieldwork in family homes, at parties and celebrations, in Iranian restaurants and grocery stores, in which he observes the symbolic and affective dimensions of food and foodways.” The award committee composed of Dr. Manijeh Moradian (Barnard College), Dr. Nima Naghibi (Toronto Metropolitan University), Dr. Amy Malek (Oklahoma State University), and Dr. Neda Maghbouleh (University of Toronto) also awarded an honorable mention to Dr. Nazli Akhtari’s dissertation (Performance Studies, University of Toronto) “Diasporic Constellations: Performing on the Periphery of the Archives.” Manijeh Moradian presented these awards at the AIS conference. The importance of recognizing new research and scholarship in this field cannot be overstated. We need to see this emerging scholarship as the vehicle for putting the history of Iran and the history of Iranian immigration and movement into a broader field of study that includes Iran, but also a number of other disciplines. For the Center, the AIS conference was the perfect place to make these awards and to show our colleagues and friends that indeed, we have done much work in our five years as a Center, and indeed we have much more to do. Our support of other scholars, institutions, and projects is just one of the visions of our center and one of the ways we want to build not only the field, but also a spirit of collaboration and support for the next generation.