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Michigan Iranian American Oral History Project


With support from a Michigan Humanities Council Heritage Grant and University of Michigan-Dearborn Development Grant, the MIAOHP collected 14 interviews in its first phase from 2016-2018. All interviews were recorded in southeast Michigan, either at the Journalism and Media Production Studio on campus or at an off-campus location chosen by the interviewee. For the past three years, we’ve been working to index, transcribe, and display these interviews on an accessible and discoverable site hosted by Mardigian Library. The development of MIAOHP led to the creation of a second oral history database, the Michigan Middle East Travelers Oral History Project (MMETOHP), launched in 2023.

The MIAOHP collection is unique in two respects. First, it is the first oral history project in Michigan to feature Iranian Americans and one for the few studies to focus on the Iranian diaspora in the American Midwest at all. Second, this project was not organized around a secondary research agenda, such as understanding Iran’s political history or social movements or even to explore the theoretical frames that have been applied to immigrants generally or Iranian Americans specifically. Rather, it was organized with an open-ended, exploratory ethos and operated with the unofficial motto of, "there’s no wrong way to be Iranian American." This stance, it was hoped, would lead to a focus on individual stories of living in Michigan, placed in the context of their lives rather than "History." We had no pre-existing studies of Iranian Americans in Michigan to frame our inquiry. We did not want to reduce any individual to a representative of the Iranian American experience as a whole. Our small collection obtained a wide range of experiences. Some stories of arrival begin before the Revolution of 1979 ( one as early as 1955), and some begin after. While most stories begin with a childhood in Iran (in a variety of places: Tehran, Shiraz, Tabriz, Maragheh, Miandoab), one begins in Michigan (in Kalamazoo, with family roots in the province of Gilan) while another begins in India (with family roots in villages near Yazd). With each interview, new lines of inquiry emerged for us - ones that we hope will inspire curiosity in all users of this collection and new research agendas for scholars in the growing field of Iranian Diaspora Studies.

What are some things we can say, however provisionally, about the range of Iranian American experiences in Michigan? Local historical press databases reveal that although Iran - commonly referred to as Persia before the 1930s when Iran officially changed its name - was covered sporadically in the 19th Century, the first mention of "Persians" in Michigan occur in the late 19th Century. The first "Persian" in Michigan to be named in the Detroit Free Press was a young man called "Sayyad," who had just been recruited to play football at the University of Michigan from Hope College in Holland, Michigan in 1899. Sayyad was Christian, and apparently an ethnic Assyrian from Iran. This fact heralded two factors that seem to have remained true of the Iranian American presence in Michigan: though small, it reflects the ethnic diversity of Iran itself, and, one of the key "pull" factors to this state has been institutions of higher education. These institutions could give Iranians an opportunity for a sustained stay in the United States even before immigration policies liberalized in the 1960s. There is more to these individual stories than that: the role of family and informal networks in the immigration experience, official policies in Iran and the United States (before, during and after the revolution of 1978-9), and circumstances that may be unique to each interviewee’s experience. Repeated listening to the stories in this collection will suggest other lines of inquiry. Future interviews will enrich and diversify the collection and its potential. Indeed, the diversity of Iranian American experiences observed in just the first phase of the MIAOHP has inspired us not just to go deeper, but wider.

One thing that came up repeatedly in MIAOHP interviews was how well-traveled many interviewees are. The role of oral history as a travelogue, as a reflection of individual and collective agency with respect to “regimes of im/mobility” was so pronounced that we initiated a "spin off" project in September 2021 called the The Michigan Middle East Travelers Oral History Project. The MMETOHP will have a wider scope in two respects. First, it will recruit interviewees that have visited the Middle East in any capacity, whether or not the person had heritage connections to the Middle East or not. So many of the global networks that facilitated the movement of Iranians to the United States included Americans who had visited the Middle East. It seems like too important an aspect of the story of not just Middle Eastern diasporas but American engagement with the Middle East. Second, the MMETOHP takes a more expansive view of the Middle East, something akin to the late 20th Century of "the Greater Middle East" that includes Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and North Africa.

The MIAOHP as a Living Archive

Another way to think about a "living archive" is as a perpetually unfinished one. That is certainly how things seemed during the journey to get this digital oral history collection published in November 2021. When the project began, we had no idea about the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer and the role it has come to play in making this collection accessible. We prepared our first draft transcripts to be read, with the recordings held on servers at the Bentley Historical Library (digital copies of the Phase I interviews are saved there).

OMHS was developed by Professor Douglas Boyd at the University of Kentucky Nunn Center for Oral History to bridge the gap between transcript and recording, as well as archive and audience. The OHMS Application connects indexing and synching metadata to audio-visual recordings. Transcripts needed to be modified to be properly displayed and annotated within OHMS. The OHMS Viewer enables viewers to navigate to the precise section of an interview they wish to review and search both the transcripts and index for further analysis of an interview. OHMS also facilitates the indexing and playback of interviews in more than one language. Mardigian Library secured serve space to host (and share) the videos using the Kaltura-based MiVideo video and collaborated with me and my research assistants to establish a repository in OHMS and that would be displayed using the OHMS Viewer displayed on a page powered by OMEKA S. The result is the searchable digital archive you see here.

While every interview displayed here is indexed, it will take time for this site to reach its goal of having every interview subtitled and synched and indexed in both Persian and English, with annotated transcripts in both English and Persian. Many interviews feature both languages (and sometimes more), or are a complex mix of both languages. Transcripts and subtitles tend to flatten the dynamic you can hear or watch in the interview, but, like any other form of annotation, they can also provide clarifying context for what you hear and see. As you read the transcripts and listen to the interviews, take advantage of the additional resources listed below to enrich your analysis of what you hear, see and read. Revisit the interviews as you revisit the annotation as you reconsider the growing scholarship on Iranian American and Iranian Diaspora Studies. This living archive was very much a collaborative project, as you can see from the growing list of contributors that have helped record, contextualize and display the interviews of the MIAOHP collection. Of course, the most important collaborators are those who have shared their stories with us. It is a very generous thing to offer one’s voice to an oral history project.

What is Next for the MIAOHP?

Phase II will be more intentional than Phase I. As this version of the site is being published and publicized in December 2021, a pandemic still rages and much work remains to be done to display Phase I interviews in the most discoverable and accessible fashion. In addition to finalizing the index, transcripts and subtitles for the remaining Phase I interviews, we hope to add supplemental reading guides and other contextualizing material for each interview. Ultimately, we would like every resource on this site available in English and Persian. Accomplishing all that will require time and money. Everyone who has worked on this project over the years has been doing so when time permits. Transcription and translation, in particular, are time-consuming tasks that have made a mockery of previous predictions of completion of Phase I. Phase II will likely commence before Phase I concludes.

What will Phase II consist of? Part of the answer is obvious: we will begin to schedule, record and share new interviews. But, the MIAOHP will not achieve its full potential if Phase II is only about adding more interviews to this collection at Mardigian Library. Rather, there needs to be some sort of expansion or proliferation of our project’s model. This could consist of more interviews being conducted by others and then shared with this repository. But, ideally, our model will be replicated at other institutions across the state so that our site can include them in the list of active oral history projects below. Just as no single person is the ideal interviewer for every potential interviewee, no single institution can accomplish the task of recruiting, recording and sharing all the stories of Iranian Americans in this state (or anywhere).

To large extent, the Covid-19 panedemic has re-shaped the potential scope of the MIAOHP.  In Fall 2022, we recorded our first Zoom interview.  Our student interviewer, Mr. Gary Bennett, was based in California and our interviewee was based in Florida.  The only "Michigan" connection was that Mr. Bennett grew up in Michigan and was completing his degree at UM-Dearborn after a hiatus by taking an online capstone course, History 4515:  Culture and History in Modern Iran.   As things turned out, Mr. Bennett decided to record the interview in person when was visiting in Florida (but he still used Zoom to capture the interview and upload to our digital archive).   The interview turned out well we think, and, going foward, the MIAOHP collection is likley to grew through interviews recorded by our students as capstone experiences or major projects in select courses.

Meet the MIAOHP Team

Camron Michael Amin, Project Director, 2015 to Present

Razieh Araghi, Student Research Assistant, 2021 to Present

Graham Liddlell, Student Research Assistant, 2019-2021

Marlaine Magewick, Student Research Assistant, 2020 to Present

Muhammad Ali Mojaradi, Student Research Assistant, Intern and Research Assistant, 2016-2019

Tina Nelson, Intern and Research Assistant, 2016-2019

Deanna Burrows, Student Research Assistant, 2017-2019

With further essential assistance from Greg Taylor (Journalism and Media Production Studio Manager) and Patrick Armatis and Holly Sorscher (Mardigian Library)

Additional Resources

Resources on the Iranian Diaspora and Iranian Diaspora Studies

Other MENA Diaspora Research Centers

Other Iranian and Iranian Diaspora Oral History Collections

Presentations on the MIAOHP

Amin, Camron M. “Bilingualism(s), Regimes of Im/Mobility, and Identity in the Oral Histories of Iranian Americans in Michigan.” Michigan Oral History Association Flipped Conference, October 20, 2021.

Select Bibliography

This list will be updated over time but is always likely to be more representative of the field than a comprehensive record of the growing body of research on the Iranian Diaspora and Iranian Americans specifically. Some of these entries are part of the Mardigian Library digital collection and are free to access for University of Michigan-Dearborn students, faculty and staff. For a more concise list (with links to resources), please consult the Iranian Diaspora Studies Library Guide.

A World In Between: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays by Iranian Americans. Edited by Persis M. Karim and Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami. New York: George Braziller, 1999.

Amin, Camron Michael. "Professional Transnationalism and Iranian-American Im/Mobility in Michigan," in American-Iranian Dialogues: From Constitution to the White Revolution, c. 1890s-1960s. Edited by Matthew K. Shannon. Chapter 10 (183-202). London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Amin, Camron Michael. "Gender, Madness, Religion, and Iranian-American Identity: Observations on a 2006 Murder Trial in Williamsport, Pennsylvania." Soc. Sci. 6, no. 3: 85 (2017). Link.

Amine, Laila. "Alicia Erian's Towelhead: The New Face of Orientalism in the US Ethnic Bildungsroman." College Literature 45, no. 4 (Fall, 2018): 724-746.
doi: Link.

Bennett, Robert. "Defending the "Republic of the Imagination": Imagining Diasporic Iranian American Identities beyond the Jurisdiction of the Nation-State." MELUS 33, no. 2 (2008): 93-110. Link.

Bozorgmehr, Mehdi. "From Iranian Studies to Studies of Iranians in the United States." Iranian Studies 31, no. 1 (1998): 5-30. Link.

Chaichian, Mohammad A. "First Generation Iranian Immigrants and the Question of Cultural Identity: The Case of Iowa." The International Migration Review 31, no. 3 (1997): 612-27. Link.

Darznik, Jasmin. "Forough Goes West: The Legacy of Forough Farrokhzad in Iranian Diasporic Art and Literature." Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 6, no. 1 (2010): 103-16. Link.

Elahi, Babak. "Translating the Self: Language and Identity in Iranian-American Women's Memoirs." Iranian Studies 39, no. 4 (2006): 461-80. Link.

Elahi, Babak. "Fake Farsi: Formulaic Flexibility in Iranian American Women's Memoir." MELUS 33, no. 2 (2008): 37-54. Link.

Foltz, Richard. "Iranian Zoroastrians in Canada: Balancing Religious andCultural Identities." Iranian Studies 42, no. 4 (2009): 561-77. Link.

Hanassab, Shideh. "Sexuality, Dating, and Double Standards: Young Iranian Immigrants in Los Angeles." Iranian Studies 31, no. 1 (1998): 65-75. Link.

Higgins, Patricia J. "Interviewing Iranian Immigrant Parents and Adolescents." Iranian Studies 37, no. 4(2004): 695-706. Link.

Hoffman, Diane M. "Language and Culture Acquisition amongst Iranians in the United States." Anthropology & Education Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1989): 118-32. Link.

Hoffman, Diane M. "Self and Culture Revisited: Culture Acquisition amongst Iranians in the United States." Ethos 17, no. 1 (1989): 32-49. Link.

Honey, C. (1978). “Iranians in Oklahoma: Learning the Hard Way.” Change 10(10), 21-23. Retrieved from Link.

Khosravi, Shahram. "Displaced Masculinity: Gender and Ethnicity amongst Iranian Men in Sweden." Iranian Studies 42, no. 4 (2009): 591-609. Link.

Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora. Edited by Persis M. Karim. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2006.

Lotfalian, Mazyar. "The Iranian Scientific Community and Its Diaspora after the Islamic Revolution." Anthropological Quarterly 82, no. 1 (2009): 229-50. Link.

Maghbouleh, Neda. The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018.

Mahdi, Ali Akbar. "Ethnic Identity amongst Second-Generation Iranians in the United States." Iranian Studies 31, no. 1 (1998): 77-95. Link.

Malek, Amy. (2006). "‘Memoir as Iranian Exile Cultural Production: A Case Study of Marjane Satrapi's ‘Persepolis’ Series.” Iranian Studies, 39(3), 353-380. Retrieved from Link

Modarres, Ali. "Settlement Patterns of Iranians in the United States." Iranian Studies 31, no. 1 (1998): 31-49. Link.

Mostofi, Nilou. "Who We Are: The Perplexity of Iranian-American Identity." The Sociological Quarterly 44, no. 4 (2003): 681-703. Link.

Motlagh, Amy. "Towards a Theory of Iranian American Life Writing." MELUS 33, no. 2 (2008): 17-36. Link.

Mobasher, M. Mohsen. Iranians in Texas: Migration, Politics, and Ethnic Identity. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2012.

Rashidian, Mitra, Victor Minichiello, Synnove F. Knutsen and Mark Ghamsary. “Barriers to sexual health care: a survey of Iranian-American physicians in California, USA.” BMC Health Services Research, 16:263, 2016.

Ronaghy, Hossain A., Elaine Zeighami and Bahram Zeighami, “Physician Migration to the United States – Foreign Aid for U.S. Manpower,” Medical Care 14: 6 (June 1976): 502-511.

The Iranian Diaspora: Challenges, Negotiations, and Transformations. Edited by Mohsen M. Mobasher. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2018.

Zogby, James, Elizabeth Zogby and Sarah Hope Zogby, PAAIA Survey of Iranian Americans, 2017 and 2019.