The Iranian Diaspora

Amy Malek
Written by Amy Malek

In recent decades, the term diaspora has been used to describe groups who share national, ethnic, racial, or other ties while residing outside of a shared homeland, real or imagined. The ancient Greek usage of the word (meaning “to scatter” or “to sow widely”) applied to those who emigrated from their city-states to colonize new land for the empire. The current use of diaspora builds upon this Greek meaning: when dispersed, people – like seeds – grow roots in their new environments and give rise to new communities in diverse locations.  Thus, intrinsic to the idea of diaspora is a sense of connection to a homeland and the development of communities with shared belonging in dispersed locales.  Historically, Diaspora (capitalized) has been used to refer to Jewish communities formed initially by the expulsion of Jews from Judea in ancient times.  But diaspora (not capitalized) is now used by scholars, journalists, and politicians to describe a vast number of communities around the world that share national, ethnic, religious, or other characteristics.  These dispersed communities emerged as a result of both voluntary and involuntary migrations and their living members may or may not have the desire to return from whence they or their ancestors came.

The term has been applied as much to the widespread African diaspora (dispersed due to involuntary migration during the African slave-trade) as to the Cuban diaspora (dispersed due to political and economic circumstances), but also to internal diasporas, such as “the Katrina diaspora,” a phrase used to describe evacuees of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina who fled to neighboring states and who have not yet been able to return or who may not wish to do so.  Thus, we can speak of an Armenian diaspora, a Chinese diaspora, an Irish diaspora, and so forth. While earlier scholars of diaspora created lists of qualifying characteristics that could be used to determine whether a given group “counted” as a diaspora, as the term gained traction in everyday language beyond the ivory tower recent scholarship has suggested that, instead of using diaspora in a descriptive way, we might be better off thinking of it as a category of practice.  In other words, diaspora is meaningful only because individuals and their communities have found it meaningful and actually use it: it is a way of identifying themselves, of advocating for and mobilizing their communities, and of maintaining the continuing connections between groups of co-nationals, co-ethnics, or co-supplicants wherever they may be in the world.  According to this newer understanding, membership in a diaspora is a process, and a matter of ongoing relationships, identification, and practice.  In other words, not everyone who immigrates to a new country by necessity becomes a diasporic subject.

Indeed, the adjective diasporic is often used by scholars to point to the fact that membership in a diaspora is neither obvious nor fixed; people move, and move again, and their identities shift and adapt in different ways and in response to different places and situations.  So the adjective diasporic suggests that there is not one “right” way to be a member of a diaspora; it is about an individual’s sense of belonging, place, and identity, particularly in relation to a homeland, its cultural forms, and its peoples. Taking the Iranian diaspora as an example, Iranians who have emigrated since the 1970s have scattered to nearly every continent, comprising a global diaspora estimated at between 4 and 6 million strong. Communities in the Iranian diaspora are concentrated in several global urban centers, such as Los Angeles, London, Stockholm, Hamburg, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, and, of course, Toronto.

While newer destinations like Kuala Lumpur have become home to recent Iranian immigrants, more established communities of diasporic Iranians, like Los Angeles, are home not only to immigrants (the first generation) but to multiple generations of their descendants, including immigrants’ children (the second generation), and their children’s children (the third generation).  Given the often political and economic motivations for their migration, diasporic Iranians have varying relationships with Iran. Some cannot return to Iran for fear of persecution while others who emigrated as students or for economic reasons may travel back and forth frequently. Some diasporic Iranians would return to Iran if they could, while others choose to live outside of Iran and have no desire to return permanently. Similarly, while some diasporic Iranians view their identity as rooted in Iran, others see their transnational connections to fellow Iranians outside of Iran as more formative of their sense of belonging.

About the author

Amy Malek

Amy Malek

Amy Malek is a sociocultural anthropologist and lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her primary research interests include migration, diaspora and transnationalism, ethnicity, cultural production, cultural policy, and visual culture, with a particular emphasis on Iranian communities in North America and Europe. Her dissertation research was an examination of the impacts of cultural policies on diasporic cultural production among and across Iranian communities in Canada and Sweden.

Alongside her academic pursuits, Amy serves on the Board of Advisors of Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB), a non-profit organization serving the Iranian diaspora community, and as the editor of Yadashts, a blog related to Iranian diaspora arts and culture. In summer 2010, she organized and curated Document: Iranian Americans in Los Angeles, a documentary photography exhibition exploring second generation Iranian Americans in L.A. at the UCLA Fowler Museum. In 2012, she served as the director of the Fifth International Conference on the Iranian Diaspora. Amy and her work have been covered by media outlets such as the BBC, L.A. Times, and Le Monde M.

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