This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States
(Duke University Press, 2022)
Manijeh and I like to say we were friends before we were born since our mothers were friends and overlapped in their pregnancies with us. Our mothers were friends because of our fathers. Manijeh's father was my father's architecture professor at Howard University in Washington, DC, where my father graduated with a bachelor's in architecture in 1975. But they were much more than professor and student—they were comrades in and around the Iranian Students Association (ISA), the US affiliate of the transnational coalition called the Confederation of Iranian Students, National Union or CISNU. As part of CISNU, ISA members worked tirelessly for almost twenty years to end US support for the Shah of Iran and to assist in the revolutionary overthrow of his puppet regime, to use the language of the time. Manijeh’s father was older and more of a sympathizer, while my father was an active member running from classes to meetings and demonstrations. But they shared a commitment to Third World Marxism, to heated debates about the future of Iran that stretched long into the night while we fell asleep on couches and in laps, and to the leftist truism that once the shah was gone, Iran would be free.
When the shah finally left in January 1979, our fathers left us and traveled around Iran together, hoping to build the socialist utopia they had worked so hard toward for so many years. A few months later, my mother and I moved to Iran to be with my father. I was born in Northern Virginia and I was three years and nine months old in March of 1979 when we moved. I went from the suburban stability of grass-covered lawns, McDonald’s, and our comfortable car taking me from the large supermarket back to our townhouse apartment, into a colorful and chaotic post-revolutionary society where we crashed at different grandparents’ houses with lots of cousins who looked at me like I was clearly not one of them.
As we now know, the revolution quickly radicalized in the direction of a religious dictatorship, forcing my father into hiding. His life was spared the mass executions that destroyed a generation of leftists by his eventual escape on horseback through Kurdistan and then across the Turkish border while pretending to be a woman in labor in the back of a car. It was 1981 and I was five years old. The war between Iran and Iraq had broken out and my father had already been to the front lines in the south where he had gotten the news that he was being chased by the Islamic Republic intelligence agency. He would make it safely back to the US, but the US would not give my mother a visa, so she and I had no choice but to stay in Iran. I would not live with my father again for thirteen years.
When my family moved back to Iran, I remember missing Manijeh and not fully understanding why we were no longer seeing each other. Manijeh was my toddler best friend. I vividly remember her big cheeks, shiny black straight hair, and the days we spent hanging out at the swimming pool. Thirty years later, I found her through another ISA childhood friend, here in New York City during the 2009 “Green movement,” a mass uprising that was happening in Iran.
It was the sweetest reunion, as if we had come full circle from one protest against the shah thirty years ago on our fathers’ shoulders to a protest against the stealing of people’s votes for a reformist government in Iran and the imposition of a conservative incumbent as president. Finding Manijeh felt like putting yet another piece of the puzzle of my fragmented past into place. In fact, we had just started—separately and unaware of one another’s journeys—to reckon with our parents’ revolutionary pasts. More precisely, it was revolutionary affects, the core of Manijeh's book This Flame Within, which brought us back together.
That year when Iranians took to the streets in the largest demonstrations since 1979, the same year I found Manijeh again, I had just decided I was ready to delve into my father’s archives. A decade had passed since I lost him to an abrupt onset of cancer, and I was finally ready to begin reading the documents and letters I had boxed away at the time of his passing. It was astounding what I found in my father's small storage unit in Northern Virginia: stacks and stacks of meticulously archived letters I had sent to my father during our long years of separation, letters my mother had sent to him, letters he had sent to his comrades, pamphlets from the ISA and other leftist groups, photos of his life, and even photocopies of what he had mailed. This was at once his personal archive and an archive of the leftist opposition to the shah, and I have been working with this material ever since. His archive is the impetus behind my art practice today, which is an extended effort to review and process our tumultuous revolutionary past.
At the same time, Manijeh was working in a parallel manner with her own autobiographical material, writing literary non-fiction about her father and how he had planted the seed of revolutionary consciousness within her at a young age. By 2009, Manijeh had made six trips to Iran, learned Persian from scratch, and become familiar with life in modern Iran, which was very different than the Iran of her father’s memories. Unlike my father, her father had returned to the US after only a few weeks in 1979, leaving before he was in any danger. Manijeh had been a socialist activist in New York for many years, and was just starting a PhD program to specifically study the Iranian diaspora. This path would lead her to write this book on the ISA and the Iranian student left in the US.
We were both looking at the emotions of our parents’ generation and really zooming in to understand what had happened and how things had unraveled from the highest hopes and dreams. For me, making art was the first step towards addressing the heaviness I felt in my chest from all the years of separation and longing I endured growing up, a direct cause of what Manijeh describes as the intersection of American imperialism's support for the shah and the Islamic Republic’s authoritarian turn—and my father's political activity against both of these forces.
Golnar Adili (Rail): I want to personally thank you so much for writing This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States (Duke University Press, 2022). I rarely come across an account of this specific history of the leftist Iranian students fighting against the shah from the US, and one that focuses on their affects, emotions and fates. We usually only hear about the dominant Shia religious forces and ideology that made the revolution. This counter-narrative is crucial for understanding the complexity of the Iranian revolution and especially the role of women in the politics of dissent.
How did you come to write this book and dedicate yourself to the topic of affect in this context? Knowing that your relationship with your father has formed your political awareness and position in this world, can you remember one of the first memories that planted the seeds of this book?
Manijeh Moradian: Thank you, Golnar, for engaging so deeply with my work. In many ways, I wrote this book for you, for us, for our generation that has had to live with the legacies of a revolution that brought a new dictatorship instead of liberation. Even though I did not face a long separation from my father or live through the war like you did, I had a different diasporic version of pain and loss. In the US, we endured the intense anti-Iranian hatred whipped up by the hostage crisis and ongoing US hostility towards the Islamic Republic. Amid all of the racism and Iranophobia, there was very little space for my father to mourn for that other free and democratic Iran that never came to pass. And the ISA, which was already heavily factionalized, fell apart. From my young and partial perspective, the whole community of Iranians that you and I had together in our earliest years disappeared along with you. I remember feeling like I could be swallowed up by my father’s sadness and I had no words for my own isolation and grief. After the revolution, there were no Iranians in my life for decades, until I finally tried to undo the damage of racism and assimilation by going to live with my uncle and cousins in Tehran in 2004.
The first seeds of this book were the stories my father used to tell me about his activism at Howard University as part of the civil rights and Black power movements and the movement against the US war in Vietnam. He was also very active around Palestinian liberation and wanted me to identify with the children throwing stones at Israeli tanks that we would see on television during the First Intifada in 1987. As a child in a segregated Zoroastrian village outside of the central Iranian city of Yazd, my father had faced poverty and hunger, as well as discrimination from the Muslim majority. He was forever narrating the emotional and affective links between those early formative experiences, including his experiences in high school before, during and after the 1953 CIA coup in Iran, and the way he positioned himself in the US on the side of the oppressed. He didn’t use terms like “affect” of course, but he would describe a visceral feeling of solidarity and empathy with Black people resisting poverty and police repression. He had experienced a different version of these things in Iran and it stayed with him, finding a novel form of expression in his activism around other people’s freedom struggles in the US.
So I grew up knowing there was a history of Iranians participating in these other movements during the highpoints of student protests in America and also knowing that my father expected me to follow in his footsteps, to prioritize fighting for justice over upward mobility and other notions of immigrant success. This was not typical of the Iranian diaspora, which has tended to be disproportionately wealthy and to affiliate with whiteness. So I wanted to write what you called a counter narrative of the role of leftist Iranian foreign students in the Iranian revolution as well as of the hidden history of diasporic Iranian affiliation with other racialized and targeted populations.
Rail: As an artist working with this personal history, I find your ethnographic and testimonial approach extremely heartfelt and intimate, showing us how the micro level of embodied affects, “this flame within,” is translated into larger social movements and challenges to the structures of empire and patriarchy. How did you decide to use these methodologies in your research?
Moradian: I came to this project half way through writing a memoir about my family and my relationship with my father. When I did my MFA in creative nonfiction at Hunter College, we learned that memoir was a genre that could be used to contest the omissions of official histories with the self-narrations of women, immigrants, racial and sexual minorities, and working class people. In graduate school, I learned about affect theory and this gave me permission to write in a scholarly context about how people carry histories in their bodies. So I thought that if I was going to contest official histories of the Iranian revolution and the Iranian diaspora in the US, I would need first-hand accounts; I would need stories. I started interviewing former ISA members in 2012, a process that went on for several years.
When I asked former ISA members how they became so focused on activism when most of their peers came to the US, got their degrees, and went home, I was surprised to hear people talk about memories of repression and resistance in Iran. Maybe it was a memory of the shah’s militarized crackdowns on dissent or of SAVAK, the US-trained secret police, torturing a loved one. Or maybe it was a memory of an uncle who was part of the Tudeh Party, the Iranian Communist Party, in the 1940s or some other family history of involvement in democratic and socialist opposition movements stretching back to the beginning of the twentieth century. All of these childhood memories came pouring out and people very much understood these experiences to have something to do with how they became revolutionaries in their teens and twenties, with how they came to orient their lives around revolution instead of around lucrative careers and the reproduction of the status quo.
I developed an affective theory of revolutionary subjectivity through analyzing these interviews and then applied that lens to the archival research that also went into the book. I wanted to take seriously affective attachments to revolution, not as naïve delusions, but as legitimate responses to oppression and as an engine of history. Revolutionary affects and affects of solidarity are two concepts I developed to theorize and understand why so many young people, not just from Iran but from around the world, devoted their lives to revolutionary activity in the 1960s and 1970s. My argument is that when revolutionary affects of different groups overlapped, they formed powerful affects of solidarity that made Third World internationalism possible.
Rail: This Flame Within was born out of your American Studies PhD at NYU. It is a refreshing angle and one that really illuminates the entanglements of the Iranian diaspora with political shifts in the US and in Iran. How did this academic context impact and shape the project?
Moradian: When I was in graduate school, American Studies had become a critical location for the study of US empire. I was reading histories of Asian migration to the US, accounts of Afro-Asian solidarities, and of transnational solidarity movements. I kept thinking, “Iranians were part of all of this before 1979 and yet they are missing.” We think of 1979 as the beginning of the story of Iranians in the US because that was when large numbers fled the revolution and settled here for good. Yet there were tens of thousands of Iranian foreign students who came here in the preceding decades. I wanted to explain the presence of these Iranians, the largest of any foreign student population of the post-WWII era, as a strategy of US Cold War imperialism. If the US was going to win the war against Communism by modernizing the Third World, it would need a cohort of western-educated professionals to carry out this project. I came to think of these foreign students as “imperial model minorities” because they were supposed to model the benefits of pax Americana and play an indispensable role in the spread of capitalist progress. They were also supposed to distract from the fact that the US prescription for the Third World usually involved overthrowing popular democratic leaders, like Mohammad Mosadeq in Iran, and instituting authoritarian dictatorships, like that of the shah. So what happened in Iran was part of a larger story about US Cold War imperialism and the contradictions and revolutions that resulted.
Rail: I remember during the 2009 protests, when we had just met in New York after so many years of separation, your protest signs had LGBTQ and feminist messaging. This was very rare at that time. Out of those marches in support of the Green Movement, you along with several other women, formed the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective. The core of This Flame Within revolves around transnational feminist frameworks. How did your work with Raha influence your analysis and why did you decide to take a feminist approach to the history and legacy of the ISA?
Moradian: I was active with Raha in New York throughout the time of researching and writing my dissertation on the ISA. The analysis we developed collectively through our meetings and actions runs through this book as a kind of driving, inspirational force. Together we learned about the experiences of Iranian leftist and secular women during the 1979 revolution and also about ongoing feminist campaigns in Iran. We wanted to stand in solidarity with people in Iran fighting for liberation without reproducing pro-war logics of anti-Iranian racism and Islamophobia in the US. We took the position that we had to oppose US sanctions and threats of war towards Iran and oppose the Islamic Republic’s brutal repression and patriarchal laws all at the same time. We refused to pick a side between these two governments in their existential and increasingly militarized battle and sought to open up new routes of solidarity and affiliation between freedom movements in the US and in Iran. Our lead banner that we took to all the demonstrations read, “Solidarity Comes from Below.” We looked to bottom-up grassroots movements for where real democratic and feminist politics would emerge in Iran and in the US. Although we understood US imperialism to be a global force of destruction, we challenged the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic’s “anti-imperialist” rhetoric and argued that Iran was a regional imperialist intervening in other countries to further its own agenda. We saw this as a transnational feminist stance, the ability to counter different forms of oppression emerging from different locations yet impacting the same bodies. We didn’t think western women were already liberated and that Iranian women needed to be saved. We also didn’t think Iranian women were only oppressed by US imperialism. We argued that there are different forms of patriarchy and misogyny operating in each society and that we needed to oppose all of them, otherwise solidarity was meaningless.
In the book, I elaborate on this analysis and show how US imperialism and dictatorship in Iran are both implicated in subverting the freedom dreams, to borrow a phrase from Robin D.G. Kelley, of Iranian people. Whether imperialism and dictatorship are aligned, as they were during the shah’s era, or whether they are antagonists, as they have been for the past forty-three years, these are the two forces constraining the lives of Iranian people and producing new rounds of scattering, new iterations of the diaspora.
It would have been very easy to only write about US imperialism and the shah and how these intertwined forces produced a foreign student population along with the rebellion that erupted from within its ranks. But this would have been telling only part of the story. In order to have a nuanced analysis of the multiple, overlapping sources of oppression facing Iranian people before and after 1979, I turned to the tools of transnational feminism, which were forged in dialogue with women’s experiences in anti-colonial and anti-racist revolutionary movements around the world. The ISA itself was rather hostile to feminism, as was most of the Marxist-Maoist student left in those days. They saw feminism as separatism and understood that it would take a united movement of men and women if there was any chance to win against the most powerful imperialist country in the world. This call for unity was very common among colonized and racialized groups. Feminists of color in the West and feminists in what we now call the Global South have long argued that unity is certainly needed among men and women, but just not on the basis of suppressing women’s rights!
It was during my interviews with several women who had been active in the ISA that I made the connections that became so central to the book. These women told me about how they returned to Iran to participate in the revolution and found themselves disoriented by the interim government’s push to limit the rights of the very women who had helped to overthrow the shah. I interviewed women who had been part of the March 1979 women’s uprising in Tehran, which was triggered by a government announcement imposing compulsory hijab in all government offices. This announcement brought, at the very minimum, ten thousand women into the streets. In fact, Raha’s first public event in NYC was a screening of a documentary film about this uprising, Iranian Women’s Liberation Movement: Year Zero, which we showed on International Women’s Day in 2010. We felt we were indebted to these women who had tried to resist the shah, the US, and the encroaching theocracy. They had been defeated, but we wanted to carry on their legacy. I realized this history I had studied in my activist life was also central for the story of the ISA and the Third World left more broadly. I wrote about the experiences of ISA members who joined the March 1979 uprising and those who didn’t, tracking the way ideas about feminism and anti-imperialism often clashed but occasionally came together to create new political possibilities. Drawing on interviews, archival women’s pamphlets from 1979–80, and my close reading of the Year Zero documentary, I took on the marginalization of women’s rights by the left and the hierarchical forms of anti-imperialism that dominated at the time. The book excavates what I call an “intersectional anti-imperialism” forged in the heat of the very first battles against the religious government. I situate Iranian women as part of the larger story of the emergence of Third World feminism from within anti-colonial revolutionary movements. Gender and sexual freedom and oppression were not side issues, but central to the fate of the revolution and of Iranian society! I ended up writing about the gender and sexual politics of the ISA and about the betrayal of non-revolutionary revolutionary women that happened in Iran in the first weeks of the revolution. This is part of the counter narrative I am telling, that many thousands of women resisted the notion that they should be second-class citizens in the name of fighting imperialism.
Rail: What a moment this book should come out in, when the Kurdish women’s slogan "Woman, Life, Freedom" is also the slogan of a new Iranian revolution that started in September of 2022. Since one of the main concerns and chapters in your book is about how women were left behind in the 1979 revolution, I wonder how you see the current uprising. In Chapter 5, “Political Cultures of Revolutionary Belonging,” you share a quote from one woman who was active in the ISA who said, “Only within the revolutionary struggle could women prove their worthiness and demonstrate that they had the same potential, talents and capabilities as their male comrades.” What are some of your thoughts about the new uprising and what is different about the place of women and gender and sexual freedoms this time?
Moradian: I could never have imagined the book would come out in the midst of a new Iranian revolution, let alone one led by women with feminist demands. The book essentially argues that there can be no meaningful national self-determination, no valid anti-imperialism or freedom or justice, without full equality for women. It seems this is also the conclusion of vast numbers of Iranians who no longer see their government as legitimate. The issue of forced hijab and the state’s ability to kill women to enforce this policy catalyzed this revolution and made it possible for people to make connections between a wide range of structural oppressions and grievances that have turned the majority of the population against the regime. The right to bodily freedom from a patriarchal state, the right to be free from all forms of gender and sexual violence, the right to decide for oneself about one’s gender self-expression and who to love, these are no longer considered secondary issues to national sovereignty. It’s as if the painful lessons of 1979 have been learned through the harshness of lived experience and what we see today is a vindication of those who protested in March 1979. I think we have to keep asking: How do we support the feminist demands of this movement and keep them at the center? How do we prevent nationalist calls for unity from silencing those already marginalized, like Kurdish and Balochi Iranians? And how do we keep in focus the reality that there are multiple forms of oppression—domestic, religious, secular and foreign—that are arrayed against a democratic feminist future for Iran? I hope that the transnational feminist analysis I offer in the book for how to think through these complex life and death issues can be useful, especially for those interested in diasporic solidarity.