Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on borderland histories of the Middle East, identity politics, and ethnicity. Her current project considers the historical migrations and displacements of Iranian and Persianate communities over time and space. She has also worked extensively on gender studies and the social histories of medicine, disability, and hygiene. Dr. Kashani-Sabet enjoys creative writing and has published both poetry and fiction to narrate the stories of displaced Iranians.
Wolf Humanities Center Penn Faculty Fellow
2021—2022 Forum on Migration
Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History
Tales of Trespassing: Borderland Histories of Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf
The story of the modern Middle East often follows a national trail. By contrast, my book project, “Tales of Trespassing,” chronicles the ways in which itinerants and migrants have transgressed the borderlands of Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf in search of economic opportunities and social mobility. I explore the co-existence, and subsequent virtual erasure, of long-standing ethnic communities from Basrah, Baghdad, and the Gulf coast, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century through the establishment of the mandate system and beyond. The Shia-Sunni battle that now wages in much of the Middle East has its roots in ethnic rivalries that, after the advent of state nationalism, resulted in the imposition of a dominant identity, and simultaneously the suppression of other local languages and cultures. After WWI, many Middle Eastern nation states espoused mono-lingual and mono-ethnic identities that disadvantaged their culturally diverse populations.
In this study, I document the intermingling of ethnic Arabs, Persians, Turks, Kurds, Baharna, and others through stories of trade, pilgrimage, intermarriage, disease management, and smuggling in a distinct geographic setting and era. I limit my study largely to Iran, Iraq, and the southern Persian Gulf coast given that much changed in the region due to the intervention of British imperial policies. I trace the ways in which sectarian upheavals intensified in times of distress such as plague epidemics or international crises. As states developed and improved mechanisms for policing their borders (such as the use of passports, quarantines, and custom houses), migrants and settlers adapted and found new ways of alternately succumbing to, or trespassing, state surveillance. What impact did these changes have on claims over land ownership, natural resources, and belonging?
My research considers the myriad ways in which an understanding of borderlands can inform our knowledge of Ottoman Iraq, Iran, and the Persian Gulf through commerce, consumption, the sharing of natural resources, and social contact -- all of which had an enormous impact on the daily lives of individuals in the region.