New Directions in American Studies


The archives of Howard University’s student newspaper The Hilltop might seem an unlikely place to find evidence of a revolutionary Iranian student movement in the U.S. Yet the rowdy bunch of Iranian foreign students enrolled in the 1960s and 70s, whose Western education was supposed to prepare them to manage the U.S.-led modernization of Iran, made headlines many times.

Interestingly, this cohort of what I am calling “imperial model minorities gone rogue” did not limit their activism to condemnations of U.S. support for the Shah’s despotism. In fact, the first time they made the paper was for a protest in 1971 that attempted to spread a critique of U.S. empire in the Middle East among the anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements going on around them. Their march through campus sought “the support of blacks in America for the Palestinian liberating [sic] movement in the Middle East.” As the January 15, 1971 issue of The Hilltop reported, Iranian students distributed a leaflet arguing the case for the “common cause and destiny” they believed these two groups—African Americans and Palestinians—shared, concluding with a tribute to African American and Native American liberation movements “as an integral part of the world revolution.”

One Iranian activist at Howard also remembered a much larger demonstration in New York in which the Iranian and Palestinian freedom struggles proved inseparable. Mohammad Eghtedari, in an interview with the author, elaborated: “We went to make a demonstration for Iranian issues but the majority of our students and organization in New York had brought slogans in support of the Palestinians. In fact, the Jewish Defense League from New York came and attacked the demonstration and several people got arrested. They thought we were Palestinian! Our slogans were so pro-Palestinian that they got confused.”

It is important to note that these students were members of organizations banned in Iran; arrest could, and sometimes did, lead to deportation and to the Shah’s notorious torture cells. Political ideology alone cannot explain the willingness of Iranians to take such risks to support the Palestinian cause. Rather, these brief examples reveal deep bonds of affiliation that flourished in diaspora during an era of Third World internationalism—a feeling as much as a practice of solidarity.

My approach to this history, and its disavowed, ghostlike presence among the post-1979 Iranian diaspora, is informed by three overlapping trends that have transformed the field of American Studies into a site for the study of U.S. empire in a transnational frame: scholarship on political cultures of Afro-Asian/Afro-Arab connections; the incorporation of women of color, post-colonial and transnational feminist theories and methodologies; and queer diasporic investigations of alternative archives and subjugated knowledges.

Excavations of Afro-Asian and Afro-Arab imaginaries and solidarities reveal complex modes of identification between differently racialized populations and cross-pollination between anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements. Diaspora, including but not limited to the U.S., is often a crucial site of possibility for these solidarities, a space in which the displacements of colonization and the racialized violence of state repression can facilitate a co-mingling of experiences, histories and aspirations. This framework provides a generative model for my explorations of the affects and activism that linked the Iranian anti-Shah movement to Black and Native liberation movements in the U.S., and to many other diasporic manifestations of anti-colonial movements in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. This subfield, then, has primarily traced identifications that do not rest on static notions of race, ethnicity, or culture, that do not privilege reproductive models of kinship.

In this sense, research into Afro-Asian/Afro-Arab—and now Afro-Iranian—connections shares a conceptual affinity with frameworks central to women of color, postcolonial, and transnational feminisms. These feminisms have problematized and theorized ways of thinking and practicing solidarity across many kinds of borders. Of course, these feminisms have also been critical of the ways in which anti-imperialist politics became detached from broader social justice agendas in the course of decolonization and the establishment of postcolonial states. Transnational feminism insists that we study the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality within and across different national and imperial regimes. Notions of attentiveness to location, to the specificity of experience, and to hierarchies of power among women, have been at the heart of this work. While these critiques are not new, the extent to which this scholarship is being read, taught, and incorporated into the field of American Studies marks a significant shift in the field.

Transnational feminist interventions are crucial for avoiding romanticization of the era of decolonization and for understanding the difficult work ahead of us today in order to rebuild new forms of grassroots internationalism. In my work on the Iranian anti-Shah movement, I analyze the gendered components of Third Worldist solidarity, looking at how the regulation of “femininity” and of female sexuality facilitated massive betrayals within the revolutionary movement. For example, when thousands of women marched in Tehran against the first signs of an Islamist takeover of the Iranian revolution in spring of 1979, the vast majority of the left refused to support them, arguing it was more important to form a united front with Khomeini against the threat of U.S. intervention.  The Iranian state’s co-optation of anti-imperialist rhetoric highlights just how essential transnational feminist critiques of post-colonial nationalism and leftist anti-imperialism are if there is any hope of reclaiming and revising revolutionary ideas to fit the experiences and democratic aspirations of the postcolonial generation.

At the same time, we cannot afford to let the past go. A critical nostalgia for those alternative futures that did not come to pass can restore a sense of indeterminacy to history and to the present, bolstering resistance to the current political impasse between different forms of neoliberal authoritarianism, whether secular or religiously inflected. Queer diasporic scholarship on affect, emotion, and memory works to depathologize melancholic attachments to loss, offering new ways to contest the teleological history of the victors.

For example, one way of understanding the capacious solidarity of the diasporic anti-Shah movement is to consider how memories of the C.I.A. coup in Iran in 1953 traveled with Iranian students to the U.S., revealing a covert action unknown to the American public at the time. I argue that a melancholic relationship to the loss of an independent, democratic Iran exerted a powerful affective and emotional pull on these students, opening them up to empathy with others who had experienced similar kinds of losses. These affects and memories work against the U.S. disavowal of empire, a disavowal at the heart of American nationalism that the “new” American Studies has been working to expose.

This point brings me back to the question of Palestine. Iranian student activists in the U.S. worked to educate their American peers about the U.S.-Shah-Israeli alliance throughout the 1960s and 70s. Their joint organizing with Palestinian and other Arab students illuminates the dialectic between the materiality of imperial networks and the affects of resistance, moving beyond a simple assertion of common interests and enemies. Risking arrest, deportation and torture to protest in the U.S. for freedom in Palestine, Iranian student activists were compelled to act, unable to separate their own desire for freedom and justice from that of Palestinians. If the chief concern of the new American Studies is mapping what Lisa Lowe has called “the intimacies of four continents” (a reference as much to the shifting global division of labor as to the imbrication of slavery and freedom, of colonizer and colonized), then these intimacies include both the material support—the money, weapons and political cover the U.S. gives Israel, for example—as well as notions of empathy, affective affiliation, and intertwined futures.

What if today we also dare to make connections between movements for justice in the U.S. and in Palestine? Following transnational feminist formulations of solidarity, I do not respond to the Palestinian boycott call out of pity for those with less power than I, or because I assume that I am already free so I should help others catch up. Rather, without collapsing the real differences in power and privilege that shape our life chances, I understand that Palestinians and Americans are differently situated subjects of settler colonialism and that we each have a choice to make about the stance we take in our particular locations.

Taking my location into account, as a scholar and activist concerned with refashioning a liberatory feminist anti-imperialism for a new generation, as someone living on native land in a violently racist nation that is continually trying to exert its interests all over the world, I cannot turn away from the Palestinian BDS movement. I understand this movement as a leading edge of resistance to an unlivable set of global conditions, in particular those of settler colonial dispossession, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing. And we are all intimately entangled, in different ways, in the histories and current practices that perpetuate such conditions. In the ASA boycott resolution, then, we should hear the echoes of so many demands for justice, a cacophonous chorus persisting against all the odds in imagining other possible futures.

Manijeh Nasrabadi received her PhD in American Studies from NYU and is a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Davis.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Younes Parsa Benab Personal Papers)

Manijeh Nasrabadi