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The Iranian Diaspora in Spain: First Insights from Fieldwork 2019-2022

By Sheida Besozzi, Ph.D. Candidate, Hegoa Institute for International Cooperation and Development Studies, University of The Basque Country (UPV/EHU)

Spain is not a country that immediately comes to mind when thinking about regions of the world where Iranians have settled. The literature on the Iranian diaspora, although recently expanded to include more regions and countries, is still very much centered on those locations where Iranians have settled in larger numbers and where there is a longer history of Iranian migration, such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. More recent scholarship has also begun to include Australia and New Zealand, as well as some countries in Northern Europe, such as Germany, Sweden, Norway, France and Italy; other recent scholarship has begun to explore Iranians who have settled in other countries in the Middle East.

My own connection to Iran is complex, even while I consider myself a part of the larger global diaspora. I define myself as a second-generation Iranian-Italian woman; my mother is Iranian, my father is Italian. I was born in Italy and lived there during the majority of my childhood and the early part of my adolescence, including shorter periods in India, Yemen and Malaysia. At the age of fourteen, my mother and I moved to the UK, where I lived until I completed my university education in Development Studies and Spanish at the University of Sussex in 2010. I have never lived in Iran, and only visited during my childhood. Nonetheless, I feel a strong identity with Iranian culture as it was always present at home, thanks to my mother’s effort in maintaining the connection. She made a point to speak Farsi, and to include music, food and cultural celebrations present in our home. My academic interest towards Iran, Iranian history, politics, social movements, feminist movements, and the diaspora and transnational solidarity started during my undergraduate years. Since moving to Spain in 2010, I have furthered my studies, including achieving written and oral fluency in Spanish and Basque. I currently live in the Basque Country, (North of Spain), and am based at Hegoa Institute for International Cooperation and Development Studies, at the University of the Basque Country.

My desire to deepen my study of Iran and to understand the socio-political connections between Iran and Spain are new areas of research.[1] As stated in the book Una vieja Amistad. Cuatrocientos años de relaciones históricas y culturales entre Irán y el mundo hispánico (2020), the historical connections between the two countries have been “excellent.”[2] In addition, the political and diplomatic relations between Iran and Spain have been cordial throughout four centuries, with Spanish and Iranian politicians and diplomats exchanging public visits during various governments. Before beginning my research, however, I was not aware of these connections. Unlike other migrant groups in Spain, such as Colombians or Moroccans, Iranians have little visibility in the Spanish public sphere. In this sense, I discovered through research that culture can function as a useful vehicle for the diaspora context in Spain; much of the work carried out by the Iranian diaspora scholars in Spain has focused on the translation of Persian into Spanish, writing about Iranian socio-political history in Spanish, developing textbooks to teach Persian for the Spanish-speaking public, and organizing cultural celebrations of Iranian holidays etc. But field work, or anthropological research on living Iranian diaspora subjects is a much younger field of research.

When I first told my thesis supervisor that I wanted to focus my fieldwork on the Iranian diaspora in Spain he was skeptical, asking “but are there enough Iranians here, really?” According to 2021 data, the Iranian population in Spain is estimated to be around 10,400.[3] Madrid, Barcelona and Malaga are the cities with the largest populations of Iranian immigrants and second-generation Iranian Spaniards. Madrid historically represents the central point for arrivals from Iran and still is the city in which many Iranians choose to reside permanently. One of the things that I found most interesting when I started my fieldwork, was the discovery that Spain, together with only two other countries in the world at the time, allowed the entry of Iranians without a visa until 1980. That said, unfortunately, there is no way of knowing how many first-generation Iranians actually arrived in Spain up until 1998, as no previous official census data exists.

My research methods for involve primarily in-depth, semi-structured interviews. I have collected the narratives of thirty-two Iranians in the Spanish-located diaspora through a combination of thematic and life history interviews. I began my fieldwork in the Summer of 2019 in the city of Madrid. Since then, I have carried out interviews in Spanish and Persian, gathering narrativesof twenty-seven first-generation Iranians and five second-generation young adults. I have also conducted three “expert” interviews. I will complete my fieldwork between October and November 2022 to include the narratives of other eight first-generation Iranians and another expert interview. My main focus has been on first-generation Iranians who have settled in Spain in the mid-1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s; nineteen of the twenty-seven Iranians interviewed resettled in Spain during those periods. I have expanded my interview pool to include first-generation Iranians who have come to Spain in later periods, to further contextualize more recent migratory processes from Iran to Spain, as well as to understand the evolution of the socio-political connections between the country of origin and that of the country of settlement. In the majority of cases, I was allowed to record the interview and when not, I have taken notes. The informants have been given fictional names for security reasons. The interview structure was organised around five main topics: life in Iran before departure; the migration process; evolution of the socio-political connection to Iran while in the diaspora; the notions of home, belonging and nostalgia and; Iranian diaspora identity. Although the face-to-face interview was the preferred modality from the beginning of fieldwork, four interviews were carried out online through Zoom, Skype or WhatsApp. This actually allowed for a greater number of visions to be included, as I have been able to gather narratives from adult and elderly first-generation Iranians living in the Spanish Island of Menorca, or locations such as Elche and Valladolid. I have also noticed that in some cases, this format gave some interviewees more freedom to express themselves, especially on difficult topics. One of the greatest challenges of doing this kind of fieldwork, and one brought up by other researchers of the Iranian diaspora, is the lack of trust amongst Iranians in the diaspora. Contacting Nima[4] was key in order to get to know other Iranians in Madrid, through the snowball sampling technique. Through Nima I was able to meet many of the first- and second-generation Iranians that have participated in my study. One of them is a first-generation Iranian woman named “Donya” who works as a nurse in Madrid. We met in a public café in the centre of Madrid, and after finding the quietest table there, she opened up to me in a way she, herself, had not expected and later seemed to regret at the end of our meeting: “I travel back and forth to Iran and I don’t want any problems,” she said. She shared memories of her adolescence in Iran that included a certain nostalgia about the Pahlavi years: “I know that many problems existed back then too, but compared to now, I cannot help but feel nostalgia.” This is a feeling I have encountered with many other interviewees. To me, Shaheen’s is particularly representative of the complexity surrounding this particular diaspora. He is a first-generation Iranian university professor living in Madrid who arrived in the early 1990s. In spite of his reformist ideals, he says he cannot help feeling nostalgia about that same period: “I cannot help it, Sheida. The government that came after has caused so much pain. It goes beyond what we could have ever imagined.” This is especially poignant given the protests of fall 2022 still going on in the streets of Iran.

I particularly cherish the interviews and informal conversations with Nima and her family whom I interviewed twice along with her father Mehdi. Together with her parents and sister, Nima fled Iran in 1980 because her parents were receiving threats from the regime and their lives were at risk if they stayed. The hardship of having had to flee Iran and become political exiles, was sweetened by the solidarity that they would eventually receive from their Spanish neighbours in the working-class neighbourhood where they ended up. The Spanish population had literally just come out of a long dictatorship, at the time of Nima and her family’s arrival, and Spain lacked the necessary infrastructure to accommodate newly-arrived migrants. The dictator General Francisco Franco governed Spain for almost forty years, from 1936 until 1975. His death in 1975 marked the beginning of the Spanish Transition, a period during which Spanish governmental institutions started to remerge and build democratic institutions. Foreign immigration did not really occur during Franco’s regime and the idea of “migrants” at that time was associated with those Spanish families that had migrated to other countries for economic or political reasons and eventually returned to the Spanish territory.

Through Nima, I was introduced to the Asociación iraní pro-derechos humanos (Iranian Association for Human Rights-IAHR) made up solely of first-generation Iranians who have been located in Madrid since the early 1980s and 1990s. IAHR is an Iranian diaspora association working for the defense of human rights in Iran, founded in 2009 by Nima, Anoush and others. Anoush had arrived in Madrid in the early 1990s, and although his initial aim was to reach Canada, he ended up staying in Spain as he felt that the culture and the people resonated with that of his native Iran. Anoush told me, “The truth is, I liked Spain from the very first day I arrived, the people were very friendly, the people were similar to my people, [even though] you did not know the language, you knew ‘hello’ and little more. You can go to a a cafe and the person who seated next to you will converse with you as if you are their neighbour.”

Another interview subject, Pari, a first-generation Baha’i Iranian woman living in Valladolid, recalls the first years of her life in Spain, in the city of Pamplona, after her and her mother’s arrival in 1980. She tells me of the racist comments she heard regarding her physical features that she heard from Spanish schoolmates, as they were not used to children of other nationalities in Pamplona. This northern part of Spain, capital of the region Navarra, is historically politically-split between Spanish and Basque nationalism. She was subject to very similar comments when her family moved to Valladolid, a small city in the North-eastern autonomous community of Castile and León. Eventually, the family received the support of their Spanish neighbours as well as the Baha’i community in Spain. A recurring element within all of the interviews is the support and informal solidarity felt by the first-generation Iranians, who settled in Spain in an earlier period; this was support from  local neighbours, work colleagues, occasional acquaintances, schoolmates, as well as formal support from NGOs like the Spanish Red Cross and CEAR.[5] These informal support networks existed parallel to the lack of formal infrastructure for migrants who arrived between the1970s and the 1990s.

During our interview, I was struck by Pari’s ability to recall very painful moments of her childhood in Pamplona and Valladolid without the shedding a tear. She would tell me how her mother went from being a successful doctor in Iran to working as a tailor in Pamplona and how she always made sure that she and her sister had everything they needed, even though that was very difficult for her as a woman who spoke almost no Spanish. Experiences of trauma and also nostalgia for Iran has been expressed in nearly all of the interviews I have carried out with first-generation Iranians who settled in Spain. This resonates with other scholarship on the Iranian diaspora  and suggests that Iranian first-generation diaspora subjects carry with them what Amy Malek calls “historical baggage” that still needs inquiry, in the same way that an investigation into historical memory would benefit the Spanish population after the Franco years. Focusing on the experiences of those first-generation Iranians who reside in Spain gives us the possibility to discover a very experience of migration as compared to that of the United States, the United Kingdom or other Northern European countries. Because of the particular historical and social texture of a society like Spain, that has lived through a civil war and an autocratic regime for many years and a more recent relationship to foreign migration, the Iranian diaspora context in Spain is unique and an important one for the larger field of Iranian diaspora studies.

Sheida Besozzi’s research will be presented at the conference, “The Iranian Diaspora in a Global Perspective,” which will be held on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles on February 16-17, 2022. The Center is a co-sponsor of this conference. We will share more details with you about this conference in upcoming blog posts, newsletters and social media posts.  

All photos courtesy of Sheida Besozzi.

[1] See Camacho Padilla and Escribano, 2020: 23, en Fernando Camacho Padilla y Fernando Escribano Martín (coords.), 2020, Una vieja amistad. Cuatrocientos años de relaciones históricas y culturales entre Irán y el mundo hispánico, Silex: Madrid; Camacho Padilla et al. (Coords.), 2020, Miradas de Irán. Historia y cultura, Catarata: Madrid.

[2] Camacho Padilla and Escribano, 2020: 11.

[3] Instituto Nacional de Estadística: [Accessed on 1/10/2022]. It is worth mentioning that these numbers include people who were born in Iran and now have either an Iranian or Spanish nationality or both.

[4] All of the names used are fictional due to security reasons.

[5] Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado, for more information see:

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