Growing Up Irooni- Interview with John Ghazvinian

Leyla Shams
January 26, 2021

John Ghazvinian is the author of the new fantastic book, America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present, a comprehensive new survey of the bilateral relationship, based on years of archival research in both Iran and the United States, which he has been working on since 2008. For the past many decades, the relationship between the United States and Iran has been very hostile and toxic, defined by coups, hostage crises, inflammatory slogans, devastating sanctions. But it hasn’t always been this way, and the two countries actually had quite a lot of mutual admiration in the past. The book chronicles that, all the way back to 1720. Iran is often on the front page of the news in the US these days, but you will probably be surprised to find out that it was often on the front page of the US news in the 18th century as well.

John was born in Iran but moved to London at the age of 1 and to Los Angeles in high school- I wanted to talk to him about his relationship to Iran and the language growing up, and what led him to write the book, much of which relied on primary source material in the Persian language located in Iran. 

Listen to the interview, or read the transcript below for highlights (edited for clarity).


Leyla Shams: I've been immersed in your book for quite a while now. And I've really enjoyed reading it. So right now we're actually recording this in January of 2021, and the US has been in a state of a lot of turmoil. Reading the book right now has actually been kind of comforting because I realized this isn't the first time this is happening. We're just in one of those periods of a lot of upheaval right now. Is that how you feel as a historian?

John Ghazvinian: As a historian, it's obviously very interesting to live through these difficult times that we're in. As a historian of US Iran relations, it's hard to know exactly how to connect the, whatever you want to call it, democratic crisis, we're facing in the US to the history of relations with Iran. But, we do have as we're recording now, an inauguration coming up next week. And of course, that's always a time when Iran tends to come back into the headlines a little bit, and questions arise about how the new administration is going to handle relations.

L: Yes, that was interesting to read, too. So when did you decide to stop updating the book? Or when did you stop writing?

J: Yeah, that was one of the challenges of writing longer history that starts in the 18th century and ends in the present day, because the present day keeps shifting, and so it's a never ending target. So I think the bulk of the research for this book in 2008/2009, around that time, and I did the bulk of the writing around 2010/2011/2012, and I was finished by 2013. But the original version of this book was twice the length that it is now believe it or not. It took several years of editing to just get it down to a manageable size. And astute readers will notice that because actually, the last chapter is very heavy on the first Obama administration and actually relatively light on the JCPOA itself and the Trump administration.

L: So Chai and Conversation is a language learning podcast, I wanted to come at it at that angle and ask you about your journey. You explained in the beginning of the book that you moved from Iran when you were one years old. So one of the things that's unique about this book is that you had access to primary source materials in Iran, and in the United States. So I'm curious about your language learning journey, about how you came to the point that you could even study these source materials and understand them in Iran. So can you take us back- where were you born? And where did you move to when you were one years old?

J: Yes, I was born in Iran in 1974. And our family moved to London in 1975 when I was just a little over a year old, 14 months old. And I would actually say that Farsi was probably my first language. I remember speaking it slightly. I remember being just a little bit uncomfortable with English when I first started school and confusing some words and so on, but very quickly, probably by the age of four or five English became really my first language and more comfortable. We spoke Persian at home, like so many people. You know, I grew up with sort of kitchen table Persian, which I'm sort of embarrassed about. It is a little bit awkward when I'm speaking to real native speakers because I don't sound very literate or very eloquent, I struggle for words, and sometimes don't understand what's being said, particularly when more Arabic words are being used and those kinds of things. We moved to Los Angeles just before I started high school, and actually my grandmother used to visit and on one and one of her many visits she wants brought a "Farsi Beeyamoozeem". At the time anyway, it was a standard primary school textbook. And I love languages, and I love learning languages. And it's one of the few things in life I've always been pretty good at. So I remember sitting down with that book and just in a couple weeks teaching myself how to read and write in a very rudimentary way, and then sort of forgot about it. That was probably the first peek. I was never really that interested in connecting with my Iranian roots. To be honest, I did British history as an undergraduate, and even initially in graduate school, and so on. So I forgot a lot of what I learned, but was always kind of interested in going to Iran and seeing Iran. I got more and more interested after September 11 like a lot of Middle Eastern people, I think. I've been studying Arabic recently, which has really helped my Persian. It's amazing. I mean, for people who are in a similar situation, there's an instinct that I think we have, like, 'I'd love to learn Arabic, but I feel like I need to perfect my Persian first.' No, like, don't do that. Because first of all, you're never going to perfect any language, including your own your own native language. But actually, learning related languages can really help you think about the language. I mean, Arabic has helped my Persian enormously.

L: You're the second person that I've now interviewed that has suggested that.

J: Absolutely. I mean, basic things like reading and reading, obviously, much, much quicker now. Writing, my handwriting is so much better. It's a weird thing. But to talk to your original question, when I went out, I wanted to do this book, that was definitely one of the challenges. And, you know, it's amazing with language, how quickly immersion helps. So just being in Iran, within a couple of weeks, it's like, oh, this is really different. I'm reading street signs much more quickly, I'm just reading everything much more quickly. I'm learning so much vocabulary, just by being in that kind of immersion environment.

L: So then how did you get to the point where you could read the source materials quickly?

J: I wouldn't say quickly. There are some source materials that I still really struggle with, especially a lot of Qajar documents, 18th century documents that are written in a sort of antique way of speaking and antiquated way of writing. Often they are also not very high quality documents in terms of looking a lot of old newspapers that are brittle and  crumbling, that was a missing or the type the type print isn't very good, or it's been, you know, kind of washed out over the years or smudged or what have you. So there's a lot that's hard, or handwritten documents. Of course, the biggest challenge is, letters, correspondence.

L: Right. Was there a lot of that in your research?

J: I think there probably would have been more if my Persian had been better. I don't want to overstate this, but probably a little bit of an over reliance on printed material, 20th century printed material rather than 19th century, you know, handwritten letters, for example. You know, that's fine. The book is primarily situated in 20th century anyway.

L: Right. You said you studied British history. And then you wrote a whole book about Africa and traveled through Africa. So what brought you back to Iran? What made you interested in that part of history?

J: I did a PhD in history. I realized as soon as I started graduate school, that I wasn't really interested in becoming a professional historian in the traditional sense, an academic historian. I have tremendous respect for the work that academic historians do, but it's not for me. Early on, I felt like I didn't want to be writing articles that are read by a small number of people academic journals. To me, that wasn't the heart and soul of history. It wasn't why I was excited by history. So I went into journalism right away, even during graduate school, and I did my PhD, my doctorate at Oxford, and I would go down to London work for some of the newspapers there and worked in the London bureau of Newsweek back when that news magazine still existed, doing Western Europe stories. And you know, I love journalism, loved it. But I have in some ways the opposite problem, which is that you're writing for a very large audience, but the work can sometimes be a little more superficial. So I've tried ever since to carve out a career of in between. I'm very passionate about the idea of academics speaking to general audiences and making expertise accessible, especially as historians writing history as a story as something that has a character has a some life in it. I went to Iran three times to do archival research for this book, and I believe that there is enough in there that is highly valued, I hope valuable to scholars. And experts. But still, it was very important to me that this be a book that you could give to your uncle who loves to read history, that it could still be a good story, that it would have a certain pace to it.

L: I thought the first 100 pages were so fascinating that I didn't know a lot of it. And it's just so frustrating to read, it seems like just the relationship is the series of missteps. And it's kind of like a Shakespearean tragedy, if they'd only understood what was happening on this side. I mean, I guess that's the whole point of the book, if they'd only kind of understood each other better, things would be so different. So you first moved to London, and before the revolution, it sounds like and then you'll move to the United States. Do you have a difficult time being an Iranian in the United States? How do you reconcile those things?

J: I've had in many ways, a fairly, relatively privileged upbringing. My parents always put a lot of emphasis on education and made tremendous sacrifices to make sure I went to really good schools and so on. So I don't want to tell a sob story. I'm not some sort of, traumatic experience, as many people have, fleeing as refugees or what have you. We were sort of migrants. Having said that, yes, it's not always easy to grow up Iranian in the United States. I, frankly, denied my heritage for a long time and would tell people, when I was in high school, if they asked me what I was, I had a much stronger English accent at the time and so I just said, Well, I'm British, you know, and I'm English. Surprisingly, a lot of people would buy that. My name is John, I'm Christian, I'm from England. I mean, it's ridiculous that but of course, you know, 13 year olds will believe a lot that you tell them. So, you know, I got away with that for a while. And looking back, that's a shame. You know, quite honestly. But as time went on, obviously, by the time I was an undergraduate, and so on, much more vocal about claiming that.

L: What is your relationship with Iran now? Do you still visit? You've been three times? What's your relationship with the Iranian community where you are now? And what's your relationship with going back and forth to Iran?

J: I went three times with the research of the book in 2007, 2008 and 2009. I was there in 09 during the disputed presidential election. And in fact, I left just a couple days after that, and I'm going to write an essay about this at some point, because there wasn't space in the book for this. But I mean, I did a lot of the archival research in the midst of that, and was flying out of the airport without a bunch of foreign ministry documents on a memory stick. Sort of like, Oh, my God, that could have gone really, really different. But I mean, there's nothing dubious about what I was doing. These are documents that I obtained, with permission working in the archives, but I mean, it was such a chaotic situation that that could have easily been misunderstood at the airport. But that was the last time I was in Iran. And I would love to go back. And you know, I regret not having gone back when things were a little bit better around the JCPOA. I think I thought like a lot of people Oh, it will get better and better. There were other things going on in my life at the time and and then things got worse and just and it doesn't feel like a great time right now. My relationship to the Iranian community where I am- it's interesting, because in LA, I had no Iranian friends, which I think is bizarre, probably  even if you're not Iranian. My parents were very assimilationist the mother especially I think there was just a feeling of they just wanted me to fit in and you know, I look I said I think I had a Pretty conflicted, more than conflicted, probably a pretty negative relationship with my own identity at that point in my life as a teenager, you know. But these days, it's interesting because I'm now executive director of the Middle East Center at Penn, which means that I have no choice but to interact quite a lot with not just the Iranian community in Philadelphia, but many Middle Eastern communities in Philadelphia. And I phrase it that way, but of course, it's a very pleasurable choice. And I've loved I really enjoy getting to know not just the Iranian community in Philadelphia, but also the Arab community, Turkish community, many other Middle Eastern communities. So that's been interesting.

L: What are your tips for people who, like you, have not grown up in Iran? A lot of the people that come to Chai and Conversation grew up their parents didn't really force them to keep speaking Farsi. And so they've kind of lost it. So what is your tip for them? Do you think that it's important for them to go back and learn Persian?

J: No, I think that's a very personal choice. I would never be prescriptive about that and say, No, this is something that everybody should do. For a long time, I wasn't interested. And I wouldn't have probably taken kindly to someone saying, No, you really need to go and do this. But I think it finds you or it doesn't find you. It found me after September 11, for a whole host of reasons, which I think is pretty self explanatory. But I think, you know, it's been a pleasurable experience and journey for me to get to know my parents, I think to get to know them better, as people. I think a lot of us when we become adults,  start to suddenly relate to our parents as adults and start to appreciate that they are people and I think this is just one more way to do, to be able to speak their language, hear their stories, visit their homeland, and see where they grew up. And see what their experiences were like, and try to understand that. That's been one of the the real pleasures of working on this book, actually. In many ways, I felt that this wasn't my history as much as it was theirs, or these are their generations. There's a real responsibility that comes with that. But also a real pleasure, you know, of kind of going to these places, learning, asking questions, and trying to reconstruct a narrative about a certain time that your parents lived in, or that your grandparents, or in many cases your great grandparents who you never knew lived in. And there's a real weight of responsibility to how do you tell that story, when you have no real way of talking to your grandparents or great grandparents anymore? You know, because they're not around anymore, but trying your best to kind of reconstruct down stories, just forces in the history and weaving that together in a way that's meaningful.

L: One thing I was going to ask you- I didn't see this show up in the book. But did you see any references to the 1918 pandemic when you were writing? Because a lot of things happen around that time. And you did mention there was disease. But I know it affected Iran very significantly at the time, was that something you came across in your studies?

J: Yes, not in huge detail. It's not something I was focusing on. But I do remember coming across references all the time to not just 1918, but quite a few cholera pandemics that existed before then. For example, in fact, I even think I ended up having to take it out of the book, I make only a very brief reference to it. But there was a couple of cholera pandemics in 1892 and 1904  in which Americans played a role, I mean, there were the American missionaries at the time, rounded up patients, took them to clinics in wagons, I mean, saved 1000s of lives. Iranian newspapers at the time, were grateful.They played a very constructive and positive role. They opened up the the American missionary hospital, which originally had just the Christians, but the American legation embassy, as we call it today, at the time, the American Embassy really put a lot of pressure on the missionaries to say, 'No, open your hospital to everybody, we really need this.' That's a big, great goodwill,.  So that's how we handle things in 1904. And I think there's actually a real lesson in that if I can be permitted to get a little bit political here. Because that's not how we handled things in 2020, when we can maintain sanctions, increased sanctions on Iran, making it impossible for Iran to obtain medications and vaccines and so on. I think it's worth remembering how the United States have just a century ago handle these things. It's pretty different.

L: And to conclude, there's a lot of people of our generation who are not in Iran anymore. We're in the United States, and we're here to stay. What is your hope for the future of the diaspora? What's your relationship with the diaspora right now?

J: My hope for the diaspora is that we stop being so polarized and vicious towards one another, and to recognize that you can have constructive political disagreements without accusing each other of being agents of this or that or whatever. It's tragic. Obviously as a post revolutionary society, Iran is highly divided. I would say Iran is probably less divided though than the diaspora is divided in many ways. The diaspora is viciously divided and very highly polarized and actually very extreme on all ends. I was going to say on both end, but in many ways there's more than two poles. I don't care whether you're a leftist, Marxist, Mujahideen, although I'm not a big fan of theirs. But if you are a Pahlavist, if you are a monarchist, if you're a diehard supporter of the Islamic Republic, if you are a reformist, if you are somewhere in between, we have to be able to have constructive fact based and analytical, respectful disagreements with one another. We just don't seem to be doing that all. I see it on Twitter. And maybe Twitter's not the best place, because all I see is a lot of people yelling at each other, and not engaging respectfully, and a lot of name calling. And that's unfortunate. You know, I have my opinions. I know there are people who won't agree with a lot of what's in the book, and that's fine. But all I ask is that you read the book and if you have disagreements, you perhaps cite specific other books, other sources, other reasons for your analysis. I don't see a lot of that a lot of the time. And that's unfortunate. I just see a lot of abuse and a lot of intolerance. Let's not question each other's motivations. If somebody is a diehard Pahlavist monarchist opponent of the Islamic Republic, and wants regime change, I am not going to assume that that person is being funded by the State Department, I'm going to assume that that's simply how they feel. And I would ask that if somebody is a diehard supporter of the Islamic Republic, and they happen to live in the United States, that you do not assume that they are somehow an agent of the Islamic Republic, or as happens far more frequently, you know, to me, or to other analysts, who are trying to walk some sort of middle ground and actually be neutral and thoughtful, I think about all of the facts that often we get accused, I would say, probably more frequently by, you know, by monarchists got accused of being you know, my Twitter feed is full of people saying, Oh, you know, this guy's whatever. And this is the reason for that, it's easy to do this. There's plenty in the book that you can pick apart without accusing me of anything, go for it, please, I invite you to disagree and disagree constructively. And I will do the same with you. That is my I pledge, but I just asked that we respect one another's good intentions, that we don't become cynical and mistrusting of one another, because that's not the way that we move forward. Regardless of what outcome we all want to see a better Iran, we all may have slightly different ideas about what that looks like, you know, we're not going to get by, by throwing around names.

L: Well, the book is a great starting point to kind of see all this in context and see how these extreme viewpoints have gotten us to where we are. And so hopefully everyone can take a look at that and and think about the way they engage like you're saying.

J: You know something? It's funny, it's the one thing we have that Iran has in common with the United States. We are extremely polarized political atmosphere when no one seems to be able to have constructive disagreement. Okay, there's one thing we've got in common.

L: I do have hope that we could just have hours of constructive dialogue, just put everything on the table. It seems like a toxic relationship that needs need some mentoring, and it needs to be worked through. So I really hope that people read your book and take to that advice, and that the future will be brighter.

J: The big takeaway from the book is that for the overwhelming majority of the history these two countries have had with each other, it's been warm. It's been positive. It's been a history of mutual admiration and fascination, and even mutual idealization. The last 40 years, does not characterize the entire relationship. And I think that's something that's important for us to bear in mind. It doesn't have to be this way.

L: Thank you for writing it. It was really a pleasure to read it. It was a lot of fun, very informative, and I recommend it to everyone.

J: Thanks for taking the time to read it and for talking to me. 

Related Links: