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Preserving familial roots

Prof. Shavarini shares her family stories from Iran

By Celine Hacobian
On September 10, 2012

  • Shavarini’s book started as journal entries. Olivia Pobiel

Prof. Mitra Shavarini (WMGS) says that family history is like a photo album filled with memories from birthday parties, graduations and proms. "Some of these stories evaporate," she said in a lecture on Friday, unless someone writes them down so that they are not forgotten.
Shavarini started writing journal entries for her children so that they would understand their family's experiences, and this eventually became her book, Dessert Roots: Journey of an Iranian Immigrant Family.
Shavarini gave a lecture last Friday in the Laurie Theater about her new book that depicts her family's journey to the United States and their relationship with their homeland of Iran. The lecture was followed by Leila May Pascual's '15 Tagalog song about her own experiences as an immigrant from the Philippines; a historical background by Prof. Kristin Lucken (IGS); and audience reflections portrayed by a playback theatre group composed of Will Chalmus '07, Nathan Porteshawver '09 and Etta King '10.
Shavarini addressed the idea of writing down family histories because "we all have our own perspectives," she said. While a family history can be a "treasure chest of stories," howvever, it can also be "a Pandora's box" that acknowledges instances that create familial tension.
Shavarini was born in Tehran, Iran and moved to the United States when she was nine-years old. "We came as a family unit, which at that time was very rare, because most Iranians who were coming at that time were students and typically male, so to come as a family unit was very odd," she said in an interview with the Justice.
Shavarini's father was on a four-year assignment with the National Iranian Oil Company. Although he went back to Iran in 1976 at the end of his four years, he wanted his children to get an American education, so Shavarini and her brother stayed in Rhode Island with their mother. The state turned out to be "a rude awakening for us, because we were dark-skinned people in a really white environment," she said.
When her father returned to his home country in 1976, Iran "was [in] a time of boom and prosperity, but then by 1978, things turned dark and then [my father] left at the end of 1978, thinking 'it's a temporary thing until everything is quelled,' but then it turned out to be 33 years before he went back," she said. In fact, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was forced to leave Iran after being overthrown. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took over as supreme leader, resulting in arrests and executions of members of left-leaning ideological parties.
During the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, when 52 Americans were held captive for more than 400 days after the American Embassy in Tehran was taken over by Islamist students, Shavarini was able to finish her education at the University of Rhode Island because she was already enrolled, whereas due to of the lack of diplomatic realtions between the United States and Iran, Iranian students could not get student VISAs to pursue a college education in the United States.
Once she graduated from URI, Shavarini moved to Massachusetts, received her teaching degree and taught at a private school. Around the time that the hostages were released, Shavarini started teaching students with special needs and then taught students with socioeconomic disadvantages.
In 1992, the Iranian government asked for ex-patriots to travel to the country to help rebuild it after the revolution. "I was in my 20s and idealistic, ... so I went back and I taught at a university over there, fell in love with it and then came back to this country wanting to go get a degree in education and work on women's education in the Muslim world specifically in Iran on higher education," she said.
Because she is unable to stay in Iran for more than four months, she taught for one semester in Iran before she came back to the United States to receive her doctorate from Harvard University. For years, she went back and forth between the United States and Iran doing research and fieldwork in her homeland.
Shavarini immediately recognized the differences in culture after a "draining" revolution. She found it challenging to see the youth in the society who had experienced all the atrocities of the revolution. "We were Iranians on both sides, yet we had such different experiences and they thought that ... we had lived outside and didn't go through the same suffering that they had, and yet, we did. It was really tough to survive in [the United States]," she said. Shavarini says that she realizes why Iranians in Iran were resentful of their "life of privilege in the West."
Although Shavarini was able to adjust to the culture depending on which country she was in, her parents were not able to do the same. She said her mother had difficulty creating friendships, and while part of it resulted from the Iranian cultural norm of being reserved, part of it was also because she was not able to find a place among the residents of Rhode Island, who did not understand how to welcome her into the community. "[My parents] didn't invite people over because I think they were really ashamed that they were going through hard times," she said.
Shavarini said that her book was not originally meant to be a book. "When I started to write, it was just journal entries," she said. She began to write them for her children when they were born and continued when her parents decided to move back to Iran. "I was worried that we'd lose a lot of these families because I thought it was their role to give these stories to [my children], and then ... there wouldn't even be an opportunity for them to hear them," she said.
Shavarini said that the process was sometimes spiritual because "you connect to some sort of other world that you didn't know, ... so for me to try to conjure those times up in the story meant that I had to go to a different world and really live it and experience it to describe it," she said.
Shavarini is thankful to her father for bringing her family to the U.S. despite the hardships her family endured. "[The book] really started out of journal entries and for me not to lose my parents' story." 

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