by: Tatum Larsen
photo credit: Roxanne Varzi
Professor of cultural anthropology at UCI Roxanne Varzi is making her mark on the world of Iranian activism through her art and educational pursuits.
In addition to being a UCI professor, Varzi is a writer, filmmaker and multimedia artist. Much of her work focuses on her Iranian identity and strives to educate others about Iranian culture and issues to break down the “Us versus Them” mentality that furthers the gap of understanding between cultures, most poignantly the U.S. and Iran.
Varzi detailed the disparity between opposition and understanding in her 2006 book “Warring Souls: Youth, Media and Martyrdom in Post- Revolution Iran.” According to Duke University Press, she explored the lives, beliefs and largest obstacles facing young, middle class Iranians by “[d]rawing on ethnographic research [Varzi] conducted in Tehran between 1991 and 2000.”
In this book, Varzi illustrated her activism through her depiction of youth culture and resistance in a post-revolution Tehran. She dispelled myths and close-minded thinking patterns held against the youth in Tehran by educating about and depicting Iranian youth culture.
“A lot of close-mindedness comes from a lack of education. For me, I think the highest form of activism is to educate,” Varzi said.
In her personal essay, “Am I an Immigrant?,” Varzi wrote about the difficulty of moving to the U.S. at the age of eight during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and feeling that she had to hide her Iranian identity to avoid being bullied by peers who maintained the “Us versus Them” mindset. However, Varzi became re-acquainted with her Iranian identity after she studied at the American University in Cairo followed by a brief visit to Tehran. These experiences informed her passion for education and activism that carry on in her work today.
Today, Iranian and American relations are strained, most recently due to executive decisions made by the Trump Administration, including the ordered assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, which created civil unrest about the prospect of war.
“There have been other moments that have been just as heightened but this is probably one of the worst,” she said. “Just domestically in our country. Things are always kind of volatile off and on in Iran but I find the combination of the volatility here especially dangerous.”
More than 36,000 Iranian Americans reside in Orange County based on a 2018 American Community Survey. “More than 11,000 live in Irvine, home to the second-largest Iranian population in Southern California.” Many Iranian American Orange County residents, including students who attend UCI, are concerned about the fate of Iran and the safety of their loved ones during this turbulent time.
“I think it’s got to be really difficult,” Varzi said. “There’s a lot of discrimination, a lot of racism, a lot of misunderstanding … having lived through this from the time I was eight till now, I don’t think it’s ever easy.”
Though Varzi shared the worries that Iranian American students may be facing, she pointed to on-campus resources as a beacon of support and solidarity. However, she acknowledged that other Iranian Americans may not have access to such support systems.
“We have a Persian center and lots of Iranian faculty which is helpful, but I worry about places where these things don’t exist,” she said. “A lot of students will be alone without a support network. I grew up in the Midwest as the only Iranian and that was tough, especially during the hostage crisis.”
Here, she referred to the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, where a group of pro-Ayatollah students held 66 American citizens hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Varzi shared her concerns for elementary-age school children as she had first-hand experience in the realm of being bullied and feeling alone as a young Iranian American.
“My concern would be more in those pockets where kids are stuck where there isn’t a community or somebody to talk to or people who look like them,” she said.
Varzi said that being in this position, especially as a child, is difficult. “When you’re the person who is the minority, you’re always in a position of defending,” she said. “It also puts people in that position in a position of forgiveness … We’re the ones who have the power to forgive people for their ignorance.”
Varzi will continue her activism with the forthcoming release of her play “Splinters of a Careless Alphabet” to further educate people about the 1979 Iranian Revolution through a human-focused, unifying lens.