I hope to help students think about their preconceptions and understand that nothing comes out of a vacuum. Everything we see has a history behind it, whether it’s the Middle East or any other subject.
As a child in Los Angeles, Professor Beeta Baghoolizadeh was steeped in the culture of her parents' native Iran, where traditional New Year celebrations feature a character called Haji Firuz. He wears a red outfit — and blackface, which is either soot from the traditional fires that mark the festivities or a reference to Iran’s long history of slavery, depending on your point of view.
Baghoolizadeh's fascination with the alternate histories of that character inspired her doctoral study of race in the Middle East, particularly conceptions of blackness, and began her quest to illuminate sources of accepted truth. Now, as a professor of history and Africana studies, she wants her students to understand that even official records have an editorial viewpoint that has been curated in a way that emphasizes some facts and leaves out others.
"I ask them if they have an Instagram. They raise their hands. Then I ask them when they last posted a photo of themselves with a breakout or acne. Of course, no one does that," she explains. "Then we talk about what archives do, and how sometimes archivists hide or even destroy documents that would make things or people look bad. In other cases, materials are deemed too mundane to preserve. But even if documents aren’t excluded out of malice, it's important to understand that archives are curated to present a certain view, and that affects the way we see history."
Race is a visual language, notes Baghoolizadeh, and that shapes the way she shares Middle Eastern history and culture with her classes. Historical photographs, portraits, theatre and caricatures offer quick shorthand for ideas that might be difficult to articulate to those who don't speak Middle Eastern languages. Two of her courses, Photographing Race and Comic Book Histories of the Middle East, reflect that teaching philosophy.
"When I can introduce concepts visually and teach classes how to read photographs, which have their own language and framework, that's really exciting,” says Baghoolizadeh, who is also an illustrator and has exhibited her work. Along with teaching and conducting research, she is working on an illustrated history of slavery in Iran.
Many of her students are surprised to learn of the Middle East's diversity and deep integration with its European, African and Asian neighbors. Humanizing the region, Baghoolizadeh says, is one of her goals. "Once we understand the history, we can better understand what's going on today and not simply reduce politics to us versus them."