History Department
History Department

Graduate Student Spotlight: Shaherzad Ahmadi

Mon, July 23, 2018
Graduate Student Spotlight: Shaherzad Ahmadi
Shaherzad Ahmadi joins the History Dept., University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, this fall

Hosted by the Institute for Historical Studies, the New Work In Progress (NWP) series showcases some of UT History's current Ph.D. candidates and their research. While this year’s series has recently concluded, we are continuing to highlight our graduate students on this website with a series of Q&A articles. We will feature both their NWP papers and different stages of graduate student life post-comprehensive exams, including archival research, teaching, publications, conference presentation, and job placement. This article features Shaherzad Ahmadi and her job market experience. Interview by Shery Chanis, Ph.D. Candidate, UT History Dept.

Shery Chanis: In your New Work in Progress paper, you discuss the Arabistan-Basra borderlands between Iran and Iraq in the twentieth century. How did you become interested in the history of this region and its inhabitants?

Shaherzad Ahmadi: Like many graduate students, my interests changed a great deal during my research year. Originally, I planned to write about the Iran-Iraq War. I wanted to know how the war affected the Arab inhabitants of the borderland whose national loyalties were unclear to both the Iranian and Iraqi political elites. Largely due to the limited sources available to researchers for the post-revolutionary period in Iran, I began to refocus my attention to the borderland experience, beginning in the early twentieth century, which widened the scope of my research. I thus began asking questions about the functionality of borders in addition to national loyalties.

I also wondered how an individual or group’s position in a conceptual and cultural in-between zone, like a frontier, affected their experience of nation-building and modernization. I was deeply invested in demonstrating the ability of undereducated and marginalized people (i.e., Arab Iranians) to influence their local environment and state policies. Rather than search the record for an omnipotent state that exercised undue control over the lives of its population, I hoped to prove that local inhabitants maneuvered around the state and maintained a political and cultural distance from Tehran and Baghdad’s watchful eyes.

Chanis: You are interested in the local perspective in relations to state policy. By looking at this borderland, you argue that the people who straddled this area did not necessarily resist the regime but rather found ways to evade state control. What does it tell us about the study of this kind of "porous borderlands," as you put it, and how do we understand the relationship between the state and the "periphery?"

Ahmadi: Historians in my field have done tremendous work to prove that nations and borders are artificial constructs of the modern age. Certainly, the histories of Iran and Iraq are different and the concept of an Iran is less artificially constructed than an Iraq. Nevertheless, both states developed a notion of a national heartland and maintained tenuous relationships with their more volatile peripheries. Historians have also explored the ways in which the state exercised control over citizens, who gained political rights during the transition to nation-states but also lost a great deal of autonomy. For example, these populations were now encouraged to send their children to school, declare their incomes, settle in one community (rather than travel seasonally with their tribes), pay taxes regularly, express loyalty to the state, and join the national military in conscription.

When I began writing this dissertation, I realized that inhabitants of the periphery could use their geographic distance to maintain pre-national ways of life and social networks. Although Arabs in Iran had become citizens of the country, and patrol guards surveilled their cross-border movement, they also used their tribal connections to trade goods in the black market, avoided sending their children to Iranian schools, and consumed literature about Iraqi nationalisms. This was dangerous for Tehran, as questions began to swirl about the national loyalties of Arab Iranians. It is important to note, however, that ethnonationalism did not inflect local Persian-Arab relations in the frontier. Although both Iran and Iraq offered racialist national narratives (the former championing Persians and the latter exalting Arabs), Arabistan was not a region wracked by ethnic violence. To the contrary, not only did locals evade the state’s legal restrictions on movement and trade, they also avoided adopting the ethnic prejudices that characterized their national cultures.

I believe that the porous border ultimately allowed these border dwellers to maintain a cultural and political distance from Tehran and Baghdad. In other words, some may have been patriotic citizens of one or the other country, but by and large they operated in ways that benefited themselves and their families. This self-interest is not necessarily political; rarely do I find individuals actively resisting the nation or the state. Instead, I find them expressing a certain level of ambivalence toward the nation-state and the national project by trading in the black market, enrolling their children in certain schools, and settling across the border for work. I thus engage strongly with the concept of national indifference, which has been well-explored in the historiography of Eastern European.

Chanis: Can you tell us about your dissertation? How does the New Work in Progress paper fit into your dissertation?

Ahmadi: The chapter I presented engages Persian archival sources that explore how Arab Iranians continued to transgress national borders for trade and employment far beyond the establishment of modern Iran and Iraq. Historians agree that the black market, or the illicit trade between Iran and Iraq, became a much bigger problem in the 1930s. The chapter I presented adds some texture to this trade. I explore what border dwellers traded, how they got past border patrolmen, the regular violence between contrabandists and border patrolmen, the clumsy application of state laws in the periphery, and the rather muted local response to the state’s robust efforts to surveil the population. Rather than actively protesting the state, locals alternatively evaded and manipulated the state in order to achieve their limited goals (whether economic or personal). The chapter also delves into education in the borderland and the phenomenon of Arab Iranians sending their children to local Iraqi schools. This environment caused many Iraqis to wonder if this Arab community in Iran really belonged in Iraq.

The following chapters explore the Iraqi intelligentsia’s sentiments toward Arab Iranians, who they considered their coethnics suffering from a cruel Persian dictator, and the Baath Party (which took over Iraq in 1968). The Baath was most concerned with loyalty to the party and, as a result, expelled many Iranians already within Iraqi borders. This included 50,000 exiled between 1969-1975 and another 50,000 (perhaps more) between 1980-1988. At the same time, the Baath Party had become convinced that Arab Iranians in Iran, who had suffered from the Pahlavi monarchy, would join the Baath and express loyalty to Iraq. As a result of the propaganda campaign, largely supported by Arab Iranian organizations funded by Gulf countries, as well as the ethnic conflict between Persians and Arabs that emerged immediately after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Saddam Hussein was convinced that Arab Iranians would defect and fight for Iraq. He was proven incorrect. In fact, the Iran-Iraq War unified Arab Iranians and made Arab separatism an unviable position due to Saddam’s bloody invasion.

Chanis: What do you think is the main contribution of your dissertation?

Ahmadi: I am primarily interested in three things. First, I want to prove that ethnic diversity in a national periphery, even during colonial intervention, did not necessarily lead to conflict. Although the stage was set for a violent conflict between Persians and Arabs in the Arabistan-Basra frontier, that did not come to fruition until 1979 because of the healthy relations between the two groups during the preceding centuries. Second, I want to extend the scope of our study of borders. Most historians of the region ask how the initial transition from empires to nations affected the conception and surveillance of borders. I take a longer view and delve into the failure of the state to monitor and restrict movement at the border through the twentieth century. Finally, I wanted to establish the phenomenon of national ambivalence or indifference in the Middle Eastern context and explore how we may possibly evaluate that sentiment. It is very difficult to establish an individual’s identity, so I avoid that term. But, what can be said about loyalties in the frontiers based on the black market, regular cross-border movement, the growth of political parties, children’s education, passports held, etc.? I argue that, by taking this more holistic view, we can avoid the citizen-regime dialectic and instead focus on the environments that independent actors in the frontier were able to cultivate for themselves, in spite of state interference.

Chanis: You recently defended your dissertation. Many congratulations! How did you prepare for the defense? Can you tell us how the defense went for you?  

Ahmadi: I prepared a five-minute statement, which summarized my research arc and findings. I alluded to several issues I had when writing the dissertation and expanded on them when the committee asked me questions about the dissertation. I had an enormously supportive committee and I believe that, because they had been involved throughout the writing process, I anticipated many of their comments. It was a fruitful discussion about how to develop the work further for the book.

Chanis: Many congratulations on your tenure-track position! How exciting! How did you go about your job search, such as identifying positions to apply and preparing for your application materials?

Ahmadi: Like other graduate students, I workshopped my cover letter (our department had a wonderful workshop that I attended) and modeled the letter after other successful applicants. I received tremendous advice from professors and fellow graduate students who had recently found jobs or served on hiring committees. I was also an avid reader of The Professor Is In! There is a lot of great information out there but, I think, the three most important things to demonstrate are a) the ability to publish your research, b) an interest in teaching, and c) a clear articulation of your project’s contribution. On the topic of what jobs to apply for — I limited myself to Modern Middle East listings. I did not apply to jobs that seemed to favor medieval Middle Easternists or jobs that seemed tailored to a different field (Israel/ Palestine, for example).

Chanis: How did you balance writing your dissertation and getting on the job market at the same time?

Ahmadi: I believe that the best time to be on the market is when you have a complete first draft of your dissertation (even if it is not in the best shape). This allows you to focus on the job market while revising, rather than writing and reading through sources. Reading through sources and appreciating where they fit in my argument and dissertation took the most time for me. Having most of that done by the time I was on the market was an enormous gift. Also, if you have that complete first draft — again, I am stressing the word draft — you can more confidently tell the hiring committee that you are on track to finish by the end of the year.

Chanis: What advice would you give fellow graduate students on getting on the job market?

Ahmadi: Be cognizant of your time and focus on your objective. Set aside a certain number of hours every week where you do nothing but take account of the jobs listed on h-net. I made very detailed lists for each department and university, complete with the research interests of each professor, in order to appeal to each individual institution. Make sure that you think carefully about the university’s culture and how you would fit — and what you could contribute. What services could you offer the students to enrich their intellectual development? Be prepared to explain your research and the future trajectory of your interests. Make sure that your cover letter reflects the experiences you have and reiterate your skills during the interview while relating them to the strengths and needs of that department. Appeal to your friends and colleagues for advice and take advantage of every opportunity to practice before a Skype interview or a campus interview.

Dr. Ahmadi will join the faculty of the Department of History at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, this fall. Read more: https://www.stthomas.edu/history/facultyandstaff/faculty/shaherzad-ahmadi.html

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