Alumna donation makes Iranian diaspora studies possible
Next fall, SF State will open a Center of Iranian Diaspora Studies to promote information and research on Iranian culture — a project largely made possible with a generous donation from an alumna.
Neda Nobari, an SF State alumna and Iranian-American philanthropist, donated $5 million to the University last summer to create a space for Iranian studies to take place.
Sophie Clavier, associate dean of the College of Liberal and Creative Arts, believes that since the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1911 and subsequent mass migration, there has been an acceptance of Middle Eastern stereotyping. She points to terms such as “Islamism,” “radical Muslim” and “radical Islam” used in mainstream media as an example.
Clavier, who is working with the the team to establish the center, said mainstream media portrays Middle Eastern culture in a negative light. She believes the center’s creation is an important step toward broadening the understanding of Iranian diasporas, or the dispersion of people from their homeland. The term, diaspora, refers to immigrants or generations of immigrants who migrated to a certain area far from their homeland.
In an interview with SF State Magazine, Nobari said that while the first generation of Iranian immigrants in the U.S. had very few career options, both second and third generations have pursued advanced degrees and have shown interest in various academic fields.
According to the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies website, four professors from diverse academic backgrounds are being considered for the position of director of CIDS: Babak Rahimi, Mohsen Mobasher, Persis Karim and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa.
“We are all interviewing (candidates) right now, for there’s a committee that has been set up to hire a director for the center and so the interviews are underway,” Clavier said.
CIDS aims to educate the SF State community and the general public about the different aspects of Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures using art.
“It will be a center on the study of Iranian diasporas, but the idea is to look at the common experience of different diasporas and looking at (an) Iranian diaspora case study,” Clavier said.
The most recent activities on campus celebrating the establishment of the center include The “Mashrabiya: The Art of Looking Back” exhibit and the Kabul Dreams rock concert and film screening of the associated documentary showing the band’s journey to the United States.
The Mashrabiya Exhibit is located in the Fine Arts Building and presents the artwork of Middle Eastern diaspora artists based in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Open until March 16, the show highlights the complex geometric and symbolic architecture of the Middle East.
“How people are seen, how power is controlled in the outside and how it controls people is reversed in Mashrabiya,” said SF State professor and curator of Mashrabiya, Kavuri-Bauer.
Taraneh Hemami, an Iranian artist based in San Francisco, used the exhibit to introduce her photography focused on the Iranian community in the Bay Area.
Hemami said the personal narratives presented in the photographs aim to give a face to the people of the Iranian diaspora who are often portrayed as “faceless enemies” in mainstream media.
“Unfortunately, the information that is present in the public sphere is so biased,” Hemami said.
Grace Dickinson, an SF State graduate student, said even though she is not part of the Middle Eastern community, she has been interested in learning about the culture, which she was able to explore through “Mashrabiya: The Art of Looking Back.”
Yasmin Wilber, a Persian studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies minor, said that watching the documentary “Radio Dreams” and listening to music performed by Kabul Dreams helped her learn about modern Middle Eastern culture and her own ethnicity.
“I’ve never listened to rock music from that region,” Wilber said. “I think it brings a lot of awareness to a relevant topic right now, especially the politics and how the culture is perceived.”
CIDS will start as a research center, but is expected to host public events, lectures, art exhibitions and political discussions to promote recognition for the Iranian and Middle Eastern communities on campus.