Born in Richmond, Virginia to an Iranian professor and a political prisoner under the Shah, Seyed Mohammad Marandi spent his first 13 years in the United States. He recalls a time he once loved NFL football and felt more American than Iranian. But since returning to Iran, where he volunteered in the Iran-Iraq war (surviving attacks with chemical weapons he believes the U.S. supplied to Saddam Hussein), his perspective on the United States, specifically its foreign policy, began to change.
Now, as head of the North American Studies graduate program at the University of Tehran, Marandi looks at the United States from a more distant—and vexed—vantage.
He discusses via email what it’s like to study and teach American politics and culture as they affect Iran and the Middle East—including everything from the “axis of evil” to the movie 300. And further, why he believes books like Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir of an English professor’s life during the revolution, and Persepolis, a graphic novel turned feature film set during the Islamic Revolution, only serve to demonize and “orientalize” Iran.
—Amy DePaul for Guernica
Guernica: What are some of the most popular academic areas of interest in the North American studies program at the University of Tehran?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: Since the program is interdisciplinary, students have had the opportunity to follow very diverse paths. Some are interested in American literature, some in U.S. public diplomacy, some in U.S. foreign policy, and some are interested in American films and Hollywood. At the moment I am supervising two MA students who are working on their thesis. One is working on the impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. on American literature and the other is working on the American role in developing school textbooks in Iraq and Afghanistan after the invasion of each country. She is trying to examine what the U.S. government is trying to keep out of these textbooks and what it is trying to put in them. How the U.S. tries to impose its views on the Iraqi government is also of interest in this thesis.
When my nine-year-old-son asks me if the Americans are going to kill all of us, then one can expect students to show an interest in current affairs.
Guernica: As for cultural studies, how popular is American film, and, in particular, what aspect, era or genre?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: Yes, they are all interested in film. It’s a good way to enjoy yourself and at the same time to feel, and sometimes pretend, that you are doing something to further your academic education! Again, I think there is a general interest in films that deal with contemporary issues. Constructions of Iran, Islam, the Middle East as well as the U.S. itself are also of interest, it seems.
Guernica: Can you name some movies that interest your students?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: The students often like to talk about movies that they feel are Orientalist like 300 or Babel. They talk a lot about the possibility of U.S. aggression against Iran and the Iranian hostages being held by the U.S. in Iraq.
Guernica: What eras of U.S. history seem to draw the most interest among your students, and why is that?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: Post World War II America draws a great deal of interest, but the students also seem to know quite a bit about American exceptionalism and its historical roots.
Guernica: How important is the study of current politics in your program? That is, recent Iran-U.S. tensions, the Bush declaration of the ‘axis of evil,’ etc.?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: Our focus is not on current politics, but students seem to be naturally drawn to this topic. This is understandable, when the U.S. is constantly trying to terrorize the nation with threats of war, students obviously take notice. When my nine-year-old-son, after watching the U.S. vice president talk on TV, sadly, asks me if the Americans are going to kill all of us, then one can expect students also to show an interest in current affairs.
Guernica: Do students enter the program with a sense of admiration or enmity for the U.S., or perhaps a mixture of both?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: Both and many things in between. However, there is a great deal of contempt for the current regime in Washington, understandably.
Guernica: What are your thoughts on the U.S. government’s democracy-promotion efforts in Iran?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: The fact that the American government has formally set aside an enormous yearly budget of nearly $75 million to increase cultural exchanges in order to bring about what it calls “regime change” has muddied the waters and complicated American Studies in Iran more than anything else.
Also, as a result of the involvement of American foundations that have backing from the U.S. State Department in Iranian internal politics, cultural exchange and dialogue have become more and more problematic. It is difficult for Iranian scholars and universities to retain their independence and to be seen as doing so, when cultural warfare is being carried out by some of their American partners. Indeed, such irresponsible behavior basically serves to intensify suspicion and in reality decreases the opportunity for real and meaningful dialogue.
Guernica: On this very subject, I read about what sounded like an exchange program you were trying to set up in the States, and it appears to have been scrapped. What happened?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: A long-planned nine-month trip to the United States that six of our students were to take part in has been canceled. The students were to teach Farsi at different American universities for nine months and then return to Iran and presumably inform their peers about their experiences in the U.S. It was hoped that this opportunity could be used for the students to do research in American Studies. This cancellation was partially a result of the American side initially rejecting three of our top students who were known to be vocal critics of the U.S. government. Despite the fact that the American partner was eventually forced to change its decision and accept the students, this aroused suspicion in different parts of the University of Tehran and the Ministry of Higher Education, and eventually the Minister withdrew his support for the program.
Guernica: Have you given up hope of placing your students in U.S. universities?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: I would definitely be interested, despite the behavior of the U.S. government. That is why I’m trying to find a strong foreign partner for a joint PhD program.
Guernica: How is it you were born in the U.S., and where did you grow up?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: My father fled Iran during the Pahlavi regime [aka, the Shah, 1941 - 1979]. He had been in prison for almost half a year as a student and he was about to be rearrested for criticizing the Pahlavi regime. I was born in Richmond, Virginia, and after about six years my family moved to Dayton, Ohio.
Guernica: How long did you live here, and what was your reason for returning to Iran after living so many years here?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: When I was 13 we moved back to Iran. After the Shah was overthrown, my father was able to go back to Iran without fear of being arrested.
Guernica: What did you like best (or worst) about your life here, and what, if anything, do you miss?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: For a few years, I missed NFL football quite a bit. (I was a Dallas Cowboy fan!) Of course, now I don’t have much interest in football anymore. I felt that there was quite a bit of racism in Dayton. But, perhaps, it was because I lived in a rather wealthy white neighborhood and I wasn’t considered white. My “foreign” name or religion didn’t help either. But I had some very good friends.
Guernica: How difficult was it to re-enter Iranian life, and can you explain how you came to serve in combat?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: I knew very little Farsi when I came back and that was a major problem. After my first year at an international school, I had to go to an Iranian school, because all the international schools were closed. Farsi was a major problem and so was the fact that the standards of education in Iranian schools are much higher than in the U.S., so I was well behind my classmates in every way. I had a couple of very difficult years at school.
What was even more painful was to see the extent to which the country in which I was born and brought up could behave in such a criminal manner.
I served in combat, because I felt strongly that a huge crime was being committed against the people of Iran by Saddam Hussein. What was even more painful was to see the extent to which the U.S., the country in which I was born and brought up, could behave in such a criminal manner. I personally experienced two major chemical attacks and these weapons of mass destruction were provided to Saddam by the U.S. and its European allies.
Guernica: To the degree you are comfortable doing so, could you elaborate on your experience with chemical weapons?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: I survived two gas attacks. The first was in 1984 during the Khaybar operations and the second was during the last few days of war in 1988 in Shalamche. I also went to Halabche soon after Iraqi forces attacked the town with chemical weapons. It was a nightmare. I remember the blind cats. Iran halted its offensive [operations] against Iraqi forces to save the population. Roughly 5000 people died within minutes. Needless to say, despite the fact that within days tens of western reporters were taken to the town, there was almost no report of the attack in the western media or the so-called free world until after Saddam attacked Kuwait almost 3 years later. At the time, the U.S. government shamelessly claimed that Iran carried out the attack, even though everyone knew what had happened.
Guernica: What, if any, are some common misconceptions about the U.S. among your students, and what skills or knowledge do you want students to take from your program?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: Our students are obviously better informed [about the US] than most; after all, they are students in North American Studies. All of our classes are in English, so they also have a strong command of the English language. In addition, we regularly invite academics who work in the field of American and Canadian Studies from universities such as the University of Birmingham in England, Northwestern University, the American University of Beirut, UCLA, U.C. Santa Barbara, and New York University, to come and lecture in our department.
Guernica: Can you describe some of your recent scholarly efforts relating to North American Studies, including your examination of Iranian diasporic memoirs, such as Reading Lolita in Tehran, Persepolis and others?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: One topic which often brings liberals and conservatives together in the U.S. is Iran. There is a general consensus that the Revolution was the embodiment of backwardness and barbarism. Hence, when some members of the Iranian diaspora, especially women at the moment, use different tropes including the trope of the veil and the issue of gender to construct an image of oppression or to describe the ‘silenced’ Iranian woman, western intellectuals, policymakers, and publishing houses are all quick to introduce them as presenters of the authentic Iranian experience.
It is the accusers who must provide the evidence.
Despite the fact that these memoirs are often deeply flawed and contain dubious material, they are viewed as authentic largely because of their ideological attachment to so-called ‘progressive western’ values and the persistence of romanticized and Orientalist portrayals of Iran.
In my opinion, the continued popularity of these gross distortions of Iran in the U.S. seems to reveal more about certain aspects of America than about Iran. It seems that the popularity of these memoirs is largely due to the fact that, while claiming to do the opposite, they regularly reinforce the dominant representations of Iran in America by constructing an exotic, backward, and barbaric Iran principally based on U.S. archives. With the threat of another tragic war looming I felt that this issue is something that academics like myself have a duty to deal with.
Guernica: Can you give an example or two of distortions that you believe are found in books like Reading Lolita in Tehran or Persepolis?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: I don’t know where to begin. Nafisi is one of the few people, including Saddam Hussein, who claim that the Iranians were the “perpetrators” of the war (page 209). She makes the ludicrous claim that ten- to 16-year-old Iranian military combatants carried out “human wave” attacks (208) and were promised “keys to a heaven where they could finally enjoy all the pleasures from which they have abstained in life” (209). As a veteran of that war, in which Saddam Hussein, with the backing of western powers, invaded Iran and used weapons of mass destruction against Iranian civilians and combatants, I would like to see some of these keys or other evidence to support these absurd claims.
She also claims that in Iranian prisons they married the virgins off to the guards, who would later execute them. The philosophy behind this act was that if they were killed as virgins, they would go to heaven (page 212). Of course, such systematic acts of rape never took place, but more important is the fact that no such philosophy exists except in the mind of Nafisi and other like-minded people.
What makes these bizarre accusations especially significant and dangerous is that Nafisi falsely associates them with Islam and the ideology of those whom she opposes. She does not feel the need to provide evidence to support her accusations. In fact, many of the quotes in her work are inaccurate, misleading, or altogether nonexistent, as a search through the complete works of Ayatollah Khomeini will reveal. It seems that people such as Nafisi are so sure of the unexamined reception of anything even smacking of opposition to the Islamic Revolution and Islam in general or any kind of hype about Iran, that they do not deem it necessary to give at least a touch of credibility to their claims… The same is true about Persepolis.
By dehumanizing others these people are aiding the neocons and other forces of darkness to justify more war…
Guernica: What kind of evidence can you offer to back up these distortions you cite? I’m particularly interested in the “keys to heaven” (depicted in the new movie Persepolis) and systematic rape of female prisoners. Has there been any serious historical research into these claims?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: There is no need for historical research. The war didn’t take place a thousand years ago. Over a million Iranians served at one time or another in the war fronts and most of them are living ordinary lives today and are available for interviews. These stories are largely unknown in Iran and when I tell them to my friends or students they usually laugh. If one were to claim that the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq have been provided with “keys to heaven” by the Pentagon, would that need historical research to be disproved or would you just say, “That’s just propaganda”? Indeed, how can you disprove the claim that U.S. soldiers have such keys? Or why should you disprove such ridiculous claims? It is the accusers who must provide the evidence. However, unlike some of my friends and students, I don’t think it’s a laughing matter. I think it is frightening to see what outrageous stories can be told in the United States and then are accepted by many educated people and academics as facts. Movies get awards, books become best sellers, heroes are made, and people become wealthy as a result of dishonest caricatures of Iranian people and society. By dehumanizing others, among many other things, these people are also aiding the neocons and other forces of darkness to justify more war, more suffering, and more destruction.
Iran had the same policy towards apartheid South Africa and, at the time, these groups were also considered to be terrorist organizations by many western governments.
Guernica: I have read your reference to yourself as a U.S. citizen — how do you reconcile having an American passport and an Iranian passport given your unfavorable view of the American government?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: I was born in the U.S. Why should anyone who has an unfavorable view of the American government renounce his or her citizenship? Why don’t its supporters relinquish their citizenship first?
Guernica: How do you reconcile the contradictions in your relationship to the U.S.?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: As a child, I used to feel much more American than Iranian. Like everyone else at school, I pledged allegiance to the flag. However, after returning to Iran, sadly, I learned about a very different America, an America that most Americans have no idea exists. For the first couple of years this was hard to accept, and it was really painful in some ways.
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: President Ahmadinejad said that the Zionist state of Israel should no longer exist as a political entity. This has always been the policy of successive Iranian governments such as those of President Khatami and President Rafsanjani. In general, Iranians believe that all Palestinians have the right to return home and that there is no chosen people on this earth, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian. Iran had the same policy towards apartheid South Africa and at the time when it was supporting and funding the ANC [African National Congress] among other groups in South Africa, these groups were also considered to be terrorist organizations by many western governments. It is ludicrous to believe that he meant nuclear weapons can be used. It is truly fearful to see how the mainstream media in the west can construct an adversary and that there are so few dissenting voices.
Guernica: What’s the most important point you’d like Americans to know about Iran?
Seyed Mohammad Marandi: Americans should know that Iranians are just as decent, human and rational as other human beings. Sadly, the mainstream media in the U.S. regularly fails to recognize and reflect this.
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