How did you get started in your discipline? What drew you to your research topic?
Growing up in Iran, I had such a hard time envisioning myself in the traditionally desired fields like engineering and medicine. I’d rather read books and write sad flash-fiction pieces from the point of view of broken tree branches and deflated soccer balls. I was also really passionate about learning new languages and coming up with scenarios where I had to only use words from that specific language. With my family’s support, I took the unconventional route and looked at the English departments in Iran’s universities. At the height of the 2009 mass-protests, I was trying to study for our university entrance exam. I watched the protests unfold through my parents’ recounts and the news as I wasn’t allowed to participate. It felt like the world was coming to an end. Instead of being a part of it, I was at home, studying as hard as I ever had. Around the time that the protests were waning, after endless months of nation-wide crackdown, I got into one of Iran’s top universities. I completed my undergrad in English Literature. It was surreal to be on a campus with students who had been jailed or had lost their loved ones in the protests.
After finishing my BA degree, I decided to invest in my passion for writing stories. I applied to master’s programs in Creative Writing in the United States. I wanted to write novels about the Middle East and North Africa. But after finishing my master’s, I realized I wished to continue my education and work toward building a career in academia. I wanted to continue my exploration of Middle Eastern diasporas and their forms of cultural production but did not know which discipline could house my research interests. And so, I applied to every discipline I could find. Even then, I couldn’t see myself fitting in any hard discipline.
In the end, I was drawn to Global Studies. Global Studies is a transdisciplinary field and welcomes its scholars to consider all aspects of a research topic using any methodology or approach their research questions warrant. I loved the freedom and flexibility that Global Studies allowed me to have. After finding my academic home, I began exploring the ways voice, identity, and narrative structures in diasporic novels written by Iranian American women impacted on their exoticization in their host countries.
After a year of training as a Global scholar, I expanded my research sites to the greater Middle East, looking into the ways the mass-protests of the 2010s provided a platform for dissidents, especially women, to raise their voices against injustice. I read up on Egyptian and Turkish histories and felt an instant connection. Iran, Egypt, and Turkey have had a long-standing history of nationalism, active and progressive women’s, worker’s, and youth movements, influential constitutional movements, been under the influence of foreign powers, and army officers changed the face of their nations and modern histories. These three countries have also had complicated relations with religion, both governmentally and societally, and they all witnessed revolutionary movements emerge in the 2010s. Because of these similarities, I sought to study them together in my dissertation project. This project then led me to explore my own migration journey and to think through the reasons why I left Iran. It also enabled me to feel more connected to the region, its people, the histories, and the cultures. Through this research, I have had the privilege of engaging in incredible conversations with Egyptians, Iranians, and Turks. I have found friendships and have formed a wonderfully supportive community. It’s like by engaging in this study, I have found a new meaning in my existence! I truly feel fortunate.
What is your dissertation about? What is its broader significance?
My dissertation research project examines a new wave of Middle Eastern and North African migration to the United States and Canada that began in the 2010s. I focus on Iran, Egypt, and Turkey as case countries. The increased governmental involvement in the lives of scholars, university students and professors, journalists, artists, and activists during the 2010s uprisings, I argue, has led to a new wave of mass-migration of intellectuals to the Global North. I use a qualitative approach, bringing together discourse analysis and ethnography to explore the ways protestors were “othered” by Middle Eastern governments in the 2010s. I examine policies, newspaper articles, and governmental decrees to shed light on these processes of marginalization and alienation.
My main contribution is to the field of Middle Eastern migration. There is so much work to be done examining the wave of migration that has taken place after the 2010s mass-uprisings across the region. While migration scholars have hinted at how current migration from the region resembles a “brain drain,” they have not presented this mass-migration as a new wave. Yet, based on the data I have extracted from the U.S. and Canadian migration services, there was a significant rise in the number of incoming migrants to North America from my case countries. This work will also be the first of its kind to signify this fourth wave’s linkage with national security issues and highlight recent migrants’ unprecedented downward economic trajectories. According to the leading figures of this field, MENA migration has been caused by economic or religio-ideological issues. Yet based on my preliminary research, migrants in the fourth wave know that their migration is political and due to “security reasons.” To add to that, traditionally, the migrant sees improvement in their socioeconomic status. However, the fourth wave is proving the opposite as these migrants were at the height of their careers, yet they now find themselves in lower socioeconomic status in their host-countries.
In thinking through your positionality, how do you define your relationship to the populations you study and what responsibility do you have in sharing their stories?
In a sense, my scholarship is theorizing my own migration journey as well as the journey of other recent migrants from the MENA region, but I have learned so much more in the process. This research topic has enabled me to connect to the broader Middle East. As a born and raised Iranian, I grew up only learning about the tensions MENA countries have had with one another and the complex geopolitical issues we have dealt with. But through this research, I have been able to revel in everything that brings us together. I have met inspirational people, spoken about politics, food, MENA humor, and our resilience and courage to stand up to non-democratic rulers throughout time. I used to feel drowned in sorrow for all the atrocities we’ve been through, but now, I feel more grounded, purposeful, and stronger from the strength of my people! I know there’s so much work to do to understand the roots of our national, religious, and ethnic fragmentations. This might sound idealistic, but I know that through dialogue and critical thinking, we can be unified and achieve greatness! And because of this, I wish for my scholarship to highlight these strengths and stories of success, alongside presenting a balanced view of the region and the power structures at play. I am responsible to make sure my story and the stories of my fellow MENA–or more accurately Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA)–people who have recently migrated to the Global North is accurately presented. By retelling our stories, I aim to help my readers learn more about our heterogeneity, cultures, foods, and our politics of resistance.
As scholars, what sort of impact do you believe we should have in an increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic global climate?
We live in an era where Trump essentially and legally banned people from entering the U.S. from Muslim-majority countries with his Muslim Ban in 2017. So, I am fully aware that we, the scholars of the Middle East and North Africa, must work even harder to break this xenophobic and Islamophobic cycle. It seems like we all must become scholar activists! Along this line of thought, I believe organizations like Egypt Migrations are the places to invest in. We need more organizations and institutions that show our diversity, that celebrate our heritage, culture, and histories, and do not shy away from featuring bold and possibly controversial issues that we deal with. I think the more we highlight wholistic and well-rounded narratives about the MENA, the more successful we’ll be in our battle with xenophobia. I guess what I mean to say is that we need to decenter the U.S. and the Global North and all that they have brought upon us and center the SWANA region. By doing so, we can work through our colonial past, strengthen our arguments, and equip ourselves to battle the global rise of the right. I believe as much as the world is seeing more right-wing extremism, more grassroot movements have risen to counter this wave. And we scholars can and should be on the forefront.
Considering the state of Middle East Studies more generally, and research on Egypt more specifically, what topics and issues would you like to see addressed?
I’d like to read, write, and teach more about resistance, revolutions, and grassroots anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-military movements within the region. There is so much we can do to accurately represent the MENA region in academia. And so much work to do to show MENA ingenuity, strength, and resilience. I’d also like to see more about the history of our migration across the world. I think we need more scholarship on MENA migrant mobility, their stories of migration, their contributions to their host societies, and more on Global South-South migration.
I’d also like to see more scholarship putting Arab and non-Arab states in conversation. I’ve realized that there’s still work to do on that front and so much to discover. I believe the more we highlight what unites us as a region, the less our divisions make sense. I’ve had so much to gain from having Iran, Egypt, and Turkey together as my case countries. Growing up in Iran, we were indoctrinated to think Iran is so different from its neighboring countries. The education system tried to pit us against our Arab cousins. And through my research, I hope to show how nonsensical that is. I recently learned about a social psychology dissertation that examined the level of “trust” children had in other ethnicities—shoutout to Haleh Yazdi! The project demonstrated that Iranian children trusted Americans more than Iranians—even after years of tension and hostility between the two countries—and they trusted Arabs the least! Why is that? I think our colonial legacies have created rifts between MENA countries and I would like to see them explored more.
Are you planning to pursue a career in academia? What topics and themes do you hope to address in future work?
I’m currently wrapping up my dissertation and hope to go on the job market in Fall 2022. I aim to continue working on MENA migrations, but to expand beyond the U.S. and Canada, and to include migration across the MENA region, EU zone, and Australia. With that, I hope to study what Middle Eastern migrants have accomplished, how they have integrated in their new host countries, what their struggles reveal, and how they have dealt with xenophobia and racism. I also wish to include diasporic cultural production in my scholarship and to incorporate diasporic novels, music, and art in my teaching.
But there’s also a part of me that wishes to have a more impactful career. I’ve recently been involved in non-profits that serve immigrants and I am interested in continuing this work, especially in organizations that serve MENA migrants. I’d like to do research on migrant integration journeys and actively participate in the process through direct impact workplaces. Examples of this direct impact may be helping recent migrants settle in their host country, providing career development services for them to hit the ground running, and other services of the sort. Considering the many opportunities to serve and develop, we’ll see which sector ends up hiring me in the end!
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Leila Zonouzi is a PhD Candidate in Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation research is a comparative diasporic study between Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, where she looks at the new wave of mass-migration from the MENA region to the Global North following the social movements that occurred in the 2010s. She has an MFA in Creative Writing, and her poetry has been published in the Rogue Agent Journal and Gravel Magazine. She has a forthcoming chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Persian Literature edited by Kamran Talattof on the literature of the Iranian Diaspora. She’s an Iranian native and co-founder and former president of the non-profit organization, Iranian Students of California. She’s currently the editor at Egypt Migrations.