Letter of Solidarity Standing with NIAC

[Sign the open letter here]

January 17, 2020

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), and its sister organization NIAC Action, are American civil-society organizations working on behalf of members of the Iranian-American community and the broader American public. At a time when our nation is bitterly divided, NIAC is an important voice in our public debate on issues of enormous consequence for all Americans — and particularly for Americans of Iranian heritage — including heightened tensions in the Middle East and the risk of war, policies like the Muslim travel ban and extreme vetting, the rise in domestic hate crimes, and the protection of civil liberties.

We are deeply disturbed by the letter from Senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Mike Braun insinuating that this Iranian-American organization has dual loyalties, is somehow less American than other organizations in this space, and should be subject to a Justice Department investigation. While these Senators may have profound differences in opinion with NIAC, particularly on the question of escalation and potential war with Iran, the Justice Department is not the forum to resolve those debates. These tactics have no place in our political process or our national discourse, and risk turning our Justice Department into a political tool to intimidate and silence voices that disagree with whichever administration is in power. We are concerned that everyone involved in contentious policy debates, regardless of political persuasion, will be at risk.

We are proud to stand with NIAC and commend its essential contribution to the public debate.

Signed,

Organizations
About Face: Veterans Against the War
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
American Friends Service Committee
Beyond the Bomb
CAIR-Texas DFW
Center for Constitutional Rights
CODEPINK
Daily Kos
Defending Rights & Dissent
Demand Progress Education Fund
Foreign Policy for America
Freedom Forward
Global Zero
Granada Center for Human Rights
Historians for Peace and Democracy
Immigration Hub
Indivisible 
Institute for Policy Studies
Irish International Immigrant Center
Japanese American Citizens League
Jewish Voice for Peace
Justice for Muslims Collective
JVP Action
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Montgomery County (MD) Civil Rights Coalition
MoveOn
MPower Change
Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC)
Muslim Voters of America
National Immigration Law Center (NILC)
Oil Change International
Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility
Peace Action
Physicians for Social Responsibility
Ploughshares Fund
South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
Static Free Films, Inc.
The Avalan Institute for Applied Research
United We Dream
US Campaign for Palestinian Rights
VoteVets
Win Without War
Women’s Action for New Directions

Individuals – Organizations Included for Identification Purposes Only 
Gordon Adams, Professor Emeritus, School of International Service, American University
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, CAIR Georgia
Salam Almarayati, Muslim Public Affairs Council
Reza Aslan, Renowned Author and Professor
Andrew Bacevich, President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
Dante Barry, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice
David Barsamian
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, Bourse & Bazaar
Zahra Billoo, CAIR San Francisco Bay Area
Audrey Bomse, National Lawyers Guild
Salih Booker, Center for International Policy
Heather Booth
Yvette Borja, ACLU Arizona
Charles E. Butterworth, University of Maryland, Emeritus Professor
Abdul Cader Asmal
Manzoor Cheema, Project South
Juan Cole, University of Michigan
Holly Dagres
Kelsey Davenport, Arms Control Association
Hassan El-Tayyab, Friends Committee on National Legislation
David Emami, City Councilor, Happy Valley Oregon
Rahna Epting, Executive Director, MoveOn
Hadi Esfahani, Professor, University of Illinois
Prof. John L. Esposito, Georgetown University
Richard Falk, Princeton University
Farideh Farhi, Independent Scholar
Mateo Farzaneh, Northeastern Illinois University 
Jon Finer, Former Chief of Staff and Director of Policy Planning at the State Department
Dr. Eugene Fisher
Lara Friedman
Mark Gasiorowski, Tulane University
Prof. Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Princeton University
Jeanette Gottlieb, Peace Corps Iran Association
Cyrus Habib, Lieutenant Governor of Washington State
Morton H. Halperin, Open Society Foundations
Amir Handjani, Truman National Security Project
William Hartung, Center for International Policy
Nader Hashemi, University of Denver
Jaylani Hussein, CAIR-MN
Deepa Iyer, Solidarity Is
Mitra Jalali, St. Paul City Council
Maryam Jamshidi, University of Florida, Levin College of Law
Robert Jervis, Columbia University
Persis Karim
Hoda Katebi
Tara Kaveh, Alliance San Diego
Bijan Khajehpour
Dr. Fazal Khan, University of Arizona
Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association*
Ahmad Kiarostami
Stephen Kinzer, Author, “All the Shah’s Men”
Paige Knappenberger, Climate Nexus
Lawrence Korb, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense
Daniel Larison, The American Conservative
George A. Lopez, Kroc Institute, Notre Dame
Firuzeh Mahmoudi, United for Iran
Robert Malley, Former Special Assistant to the President
Sarah Margon, Open Society Foundations
Edward Martin, Center for Interfaith Engagement, Eastern Mennonite University
John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
Nicholas Miller, Dartmouth College
Ramin Montazeri
Melody Moezzi, Author, Attorney, Activist, & Professor
Bitta Mostofi, Public Servant & Advocate
Asieh Namdar, Journalist
Bruce D. Nestor, Former President of the National Lawyers Guild
Paul R. Pillar, Quincy Institute and Georgetown University
Mitchell Plitnick, ReThinking Foreign Policy 
Gobi Rahimi, Filmmaker 
Nasrin Rahimieh, University of California, Irvine
Ben Rhodes, Former Deputy National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama
Mahsa Rouhi, International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS)
Muhammad Sahimi, NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering and Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, USC
Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, Virginia Tech
Monique Salhab, Veterans For Peace
Susan Scott, National Lawyers Guild International Committee
Azadeh Shahshahani, Project South
Samer Shehata, University of Oklahoma
Annelle Sheline, The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
Debra Shushan, J Street
Nahid Siamdoust, Yale University
Arjun Singh Sethi, Georgetown University Law Center
Barbara Slavin
Nader Soltani
Lakshmi Sridaran, South Asian Americans Leading Together
Yasmine Taeb, Democratic National Committeewoman
John Tierney, Council for A Livable World
Jim Walsh, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Stephen Walt, Harvard University
Stephen Wertheim, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
Lawrence B. Wilkerson, Former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State
Dylan Williams, J Street
Carolyn Yale, Member of Peace Corps Iran Association
Stephen Young, Union of Concerned Scientists
Nahal Zamani, Center for Constitutional Rights

 

 

NIAC’s 2019 Reflections

End of year message from NIAC President, Jamal Abdi:

I could not be more proud to be part of the organization that is fighting in the trenches every single day to advance the interests and protect the rights of the Iranian-American community and our allies that support peace, civil rights, and fair immigration.

Despite the many challenges our community faced in 2019, we achieved a lot and are setup for success in 2020. None of our accomplishments happen in a vacuum – they are the result of the hard work of NIAC’s staff members, board, and volunteers; the contributions of our supporters, and the alliances we have with our friends at J Street, ACLU, Iranian American Bar Association, and our network of partner organizations large and small.

From acting as a trusted voice on U.S.-Iran relations, to pushing forth legislation that protects us from systematic discrimination, to celebrating our culture and heritage, together we are making a lasting impact for our community and for all Americans. 

Our victories are your victories–and your support ensures we can continue building the political power needed to champion our community’s priorities into 2020 and beyond. 

Read on for just a few of the many wins we collectively secured in 2019:

 

BUILDING POLITICAL POWER

The 2020 election may be the most critical one of our lifetime. By engaging our community in the policymaking and electoral processes, and organizing our resources through political giving and volunteering, we are building a future in which our community’s interests are represented all across the U.S. In 2019, we doubled down on building political power by:

 

ADVANCING PEACE & DIPLOMACY

11,944. That’s how many messages NIAC members sent to their elected officials in 2019 demanding they block Trump’s path to war. An empowered Iranian-American community can advance policies that incentivize peace and diplomacy across the global stage. In 2019, our fight to advance peace & diplomacy included:

 

SECURING EQUITABLE IMMIGRATION

Immigrants are what makes America great and are the cornerstone of the inclusivity, justice, and equality necessary to keep the American dream alive. Ensuring that Iranians have the same opportunities as other nationals key to protecting diversity. This year, we worked to secure equitable immigration by:

 

PROTECTING CIVIL RIGHTS

This country’s founders enshrined the inalienable rights of all people in our Constitution and Americans have fought for generations to secure and protect those rights. Our community faced numerous setbacks to our basic civil rights this year, but we took on the battles to preserve our rights by:

 

SPOTLIGHTING HUMAN RIGHTS IN IRAN

Raising up the struggles faced by Iranian human rights defenders and holding the Iranian government to human rights standards is essential to building a future in which the U.S. and Iran enjoy positive relations. As an American organization, NIAC does not have a role to play in the domestic affairs of Iran–but we do have an obligation to support human rights standards to which the U.S. and Iran are party. Our initiatives in 2019 included: 

 

COMMUNITY & CULTURE

NIAC takes immense pride in the rich tapestry that makes up the Iranian-American community and culture. Our heritage provides us common ground to grow as a community and support one another as we trailblaze in the U.S. Our community & culture initiatives this year include:

 

#IAFilmmakers Series: Profile of Tina Gharavi

Though born in Iran, the term world citizen is fitting for filmmaker Tina Gharavi. She left Iran at age six before the ramifications of the revolution had transformed the country. Gharavi left her homeland and her mother to live with her father. She has lived, studied, and worked in the United States and Europe, amassing diverse experiences along the way that have helped her become a global storyteller. Working in television, film, documentary and feature films, Gharavi’s body of work tours the globe and often focuses on pressing social issues and the experiences of refugees, immigrants, and marginalized groups.

It is evident that her own background, Iranian identity, and nomadic life have impacted her work as a filmmaker. One of Gharavi’s earlier documentary projects, Mother/Country, follows her on a journey back to Iran to grapple with her personal history. In her 2013 BAFTA-nominated feature film, I Am Nasrine, Gharavi tells a coming-of-age story of two Iranian teenagers that leave Iran to live in the U.K. A writer, painter, and director, Gharavi is a woman of many talents whose inspiration to make films stems from a love of arts, familiar to many in the Iranian diaspora:

“I actually started out as a painter. I went to art school because I wanted to paint and do art and it just happened that, when I was 18, I worked on a feature film as a runner when I was still in high school. I worked on a Hollywood film that I was shooting in New Jersey and I saw what it was like to work on a big movie, when you have all of these people working together on a common goal. I had purpose, there was an adrenaline and energy…I really love regimentation, I love order, I love finding a way of collectively achieving something or in other words, team work. So, when I went to art school there was cameras lying around and I just started to pick them up and shooting…I have never been to film school at all. It’s really been something that I learned on the ground, making movies and you know I do love it.”

For Gharavi, her time in art school, and especially painting, have had a major influence in her work as a filmmaker, “Well if you see my films they are quite painterly. A lot of people will note that they are very beautiful and that the aesthetics are very strong. I still think of them as paintings, they just happen to be moving, and have sound and music.” But of course, her experiences as a traveler and immigrant have played a key role as well. It is no surprise that for Gharavi, diverse world cinemas have influenced her:

“Iranian cinema has certainly had an influence, and has always been something that I sought out and respected, but I have to honestly say that I am driven by Hollywood cinema, French and European cinema as well. From cowboy movies to Italian social realism…I think in one sense, being part of a wider diaspora, my references are very broad, but of course I love Kiarostami. I love the work of many Iranian filmmakers. Just because you’re Iranian you worship at the altar of Iranian cinema. I’d say the filmmaker that influenced me the most was an Iranian woman who only made one movie, and that’s Forough Farrokhzad. Her beautiful, The House is Black,I mean, it’s an art piece really, it’s a poem, and that film means a lot more to me as a film with a feminist language of storytelling.”

Looking at the way Gharavi describes the film of Farrokhzad, it’s no wonder that she wishes to leave her own audiences with a similar moving impression and tell stories that underrepresented:

“The whole goal I have is to elicit an emotional response, to make them feel something…and taking them on that journey where they are feeling something you are trying to communicate. That’s what is so powerful about cinema, you can use it as a tool for empathy…My end goal is to be able to tell the stories that are missing. At the moment I’m working on a film based on Iranian women and looking at ways of seeing images of strong female archetypes, because we don’t see that, it’s not something that I am finding everywhere. I think I tell stories which are, in one sense, stories that I wish I could watch.”

This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.

#IAFilmmakers Series: Profile of Gobi Rahimi

Iranian-American director, Gobi Rahimi, immigrated to the United States at a particularly difficult time to be of Iranian heritage in America. Moving to the States shortly after Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, Rahimi was exposed quickly to the challenges of a hyphenated identity often marked by hostility.

Yet in many ways, Rahimi embodies the American Dream: an immigrant story with trying times and adversity, but with the determination to follow his dreams, Rahimi found his way to art and directing, and worked with some incredible people along the way. Perhaps best known for his work with rapper Tupac Shakur, Rahimi’s path to the world of directing is a story itself:

“I was selling real estate for Century 21 in Irvine, California with a yellow jacket and a name tag knocking on 100 doors a day. I fell in love with an Iranian filmmaker, she was actually one of David Lynch’s ex-girlfriends. She would write film scripts thinking one day David is going to fund one of her movies, and I was like, ‘sweetheart I don’t think it’s ever going to work that way. Let’s do something, let’s create something.’ We knew a group that were also friends of our, I made a music video for them and I have to say for the first time in my life, I fell in love with a profession. I never thought that the arts could be a profession or a career choice so at that point I thought, ‘this is it, I found my passion’… A little while later I met Tracy Robinson, moved to LA and started off as a PA on Rap videos and produced about 80 videos with her, we worked with Erykah Badu, Queen Latifa, Snoop, Dre, Ice Cube, and others. And I sort of fell into it, I fell into my passion and I never looked back.”

For Rahimi, his work in the rap music industry was formative to his art, he especially recalls his interactions with Tupac with a special fondness,

“His impact is 23 years on and it is still being felt. What I learned from him is that you can achieve anything if you set your goals on it and he was proof of that because he would visualize something and speak on it and make it happen. It was good to be in his presence, I felt like there was some sort of destiny to it. It could have been anyone that was there for the last year of his life and it happened to be me.”

But, like many Iranian-American artists, Rahimi senses the impact of his Iranian identity and heritage in his work as well,

“I think that being Iranian has a certain depth to it anyway, but being a displaced Iranian or being a part of the diaspora that is outside of the country, brings a deeper layer because you are sort of in no man’s land, looking to identify with a new culture or a new country… The two times that I went back to Iran in the last 10 years, when I came back I felt more Iranian. The scents, smells, textures, the grumpiness or irritability of Iranians, what they are going through in Tehran, the authenticity of that really affected me. Any culture, when there is adversity, adversity creates the best art, and I hope that eventually when I am able to make some films I can translate the depth of that or the truth of that in whatever project I decide to make.”

After all these years living in the United States, Rahimi still sees the caricatured ways in which Iran and Iranian people are viewed. If he had the opportunity to work in Iran, addressing the fallacies and bridging the divide of his hyphenated identity would be his subject of choice, “I would love to do a tour and documentary on Iran’s most beautiful and unseen spots. I think that would do many things. It would demystify and paint a more accurate picture of our country because many people think that it’s a big desert and that everyone rides camels over there. I think there is a lot of inaccuracies that need to be dispelled.”

When Rahimi describes what he loves most about Iran, it becomes clear that what draws him to his community and identity is a deep affection for people,

“I love the geography, the diversity of the cities, the warmth of our people, I think that we have some of the most big-hearted people on the planet and I take pride in that. I think that a lot of the ones that have not been back to Iran in over 40 years and have assimilated a little too much have maybe forgotten their roots. I guess that’s not my responsibility and people have to live their own lives, but I love the country and I love the people.”

This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.

NIAC Panel at University of Denver on Trump’s Middle East Policy

On December 11, NIAC’s Colorado chapter held its first ever public event, a panel discussion at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies that examined Trump’s Middle East foreign policy. Denver University Center for Middle East Studies Director Nader Hashemi moderated the discussion between former US Ambassador Gary Grappo, University of Denver professor Micheline Ishay, and NIAC Senior Research Analyst Sina Toossi.

.

The diverse, standing-room-only crowd in attendance was a testament to the important role NIAC can fulfill in educating a Denver community greatly interested in topics important to both Iranian Americans and the public at large. The successful event was the result of a collaboration between NIAC, the Center for Middle East Studies, and WorldDenver—all three of whom look forward to working together in the future

#IAFilmmakers Series: Profile of Soudabeh Moradian

An Iranian-American immigrant, Soudabeh Moradian spent most of her life in Iran where she went to school to study cinema at the University of Tehran. She immigrated to the United States in 2009, bringing with her years of experience working on films. As one of the most distinguished cinemas in the world, Moradian’s training and knowledge from Iran prepared her for a career in the United States.

Her films, whether documentary or fiction, often center on social issues such as war, inequality, and women’s rights. Of course, such subjects and themes are significant in contemporary Iranian society and prevalent in its art and films. In the U.S., Moradian has continued her already extensive body of work as a filmmaker with acclaimed films such as 2016’s Polaris, which gathered awards and screened at festivals across America, and in Canada and Europe. She also shares her passion for cinema with her students as a professor of film.

Moradian’s subject matters make clear that her desire for story telling was stirred by the hope to evoke change, as she explains her own inspiration to become a filmmaker:

“It goes back a long time ago because I went to film school in 1991, I was always interested in film and cinema, and I wanted to become a filmmaker so that I could be a voice for my generation. I went to film school in Iran at Tehran University School of Art and Theatre and started filmmaking in 1996. In those days we wanted to change the world through our films, which was a crazy idea and we were so young. After that I started making documentaries and the documentaries became my central focus point after that. I was interested in the psychological impacts of war and that was my main subject, that and women and social issues, and all human inequalities. The psychological impacts of war and those social issues were the main topics of my films and I started from there.”

These motifs are present in her film, Polaris, which follows the story of a half Iranian-half German war photographer suffering from PTSD. Moreover, Moradian made sure to tell a woman’s story with women behind and in front of the camera, showing that her works are not just stories meant for entertainment, but embody an outlook of activism and humanity that draws her to social issues:

“The documentary series I started with I focused on women who lived in an Iranian village around the country so I made those documentaries to show the hardship and the life and inequality between women and men and I wanted to speak about women’s rights. Actually, before that documentary, I focused on the psychological impacts of war which is called ‘Mahin’ it was about a girl who was affected in the Iran-Iraq war, it was interesting for me that there are some impacts of war that nobody is aware of.”

While Moradian recalls the restrictions on her work in Iran, especially because of its political nature, it also becomes evident that she was never shy about pushing the arbitrary boundaries set by authorities:

“I was commissioned by Iranian television to make a TV series about women in Iran and I was commissioned because they wanted a female director. I went around Iran to make the series about the hardship women face. They wanted to show the life and success of these women, but what I showed was their hardship, polygamy, and what they went through. Then when they showed it on TV, in the middle of broadcasting, I think it was the second time they were showing it, the series was stopped. I heard that it was a very serious order for it to have stopped showing because one of the episodes was about polygamy, so they stopped showing it.”

But her activism and concerns over war did not stop in Iran, instead, Moradian looked at the U.S. led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well through her films:

“In 2001, after 9/11, I decided to continue to speak about war so I went to Afghanistan and I made a documentary about war when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan. I went there to make a documentary about the psychological impacts of war on women and children… I worked with an American filmmaker to make a television series about American soldiers in Iraq as well, to show another aspect of war in Iraq. On one side I was focused on the psychological impacts of war in general and on the other side women and social issues in Iran.”

For Moradian, Polaris was the culmination of her work and years of experience documenting women’s struggles and war:

“I am a woman and I was feeling responsible for telling all of those stories. I tried to reflect on all of those stories I had seen and, in my script as well, I combined those experiences for the narrative of Polaris, which I was able to make when I immigrated to the United States.”

This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.

NIAC Congressional Fellow Ethan Azad is Fighting for Rep. Rashida Tlaib

“Get involved,” encouraged Ethan Azad – the National Iranian American Council’s Ali Youssefi Congressional Fellow – “and don’t wait for people to make the changes that you want to see in the world happen because there’s less of those people than you’d expect.”

Ethan is currently working in the office of Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) as part of NIAC’s revitalized Congressional Fellowship, named in honor of NIAC’s former board chair Ali Youssefi. A UC San Diego grad, Ethan got his first experience in Washington as an intern for NIAC in the spring of this year. The Congressional fellowship is designed to provide young Iranian Americans the opportunity to learn the legislative process and start a career in public service by working on Capitol Hill.

Past NIAC Congressional fellows have included Yasmine Taeb, the first Iranian American elected to the Democratic National Committee. Other fellows have gone on to serve in government, run for public office, and work in fields shaping policies that impact Iranian Americans. Lily Sarafan, who served as one of NIAC’s original fellows, generously helped re-launch NIAC’s Congressional fellowship program.

Ethan sat down with NIAC staff to share his experience thus far, as he is roughly halfway through his four-month fellowship with Rep. Tlaib.

On representing the Iranian-American community, Ethan said “The pressure’s high, because there’s not many of us there, so you want to do great. You want to make sure that you’re representing the Iranian-American community in a positive light, which isn’t difficult when you’re there fighting for issues that you actually believe in and for the rights of ordinary people.

“You don’t see much of us (Iranian Americans) around there. There’s a few of us, but we work together well and collaborate all the time.” Ethan credits fellow Iranian American staffers on the Hill with helping him learn the ropes when he was first getting started.

As part of the fellowship, Ethan has handled a broad legislative portfolio, helping Rep. Tlaib’s office on foreign affairs, trade, financial services, firearms and government oversight. A significant portion of his work has been on the forthcoming expiration of sections of the Patriot Act in December, which provides an opportunity to ensure greater protections for communities of color impacted by unconstitutional mass surveillance.

Ethan recounted how he had “double take” moments stepping into elevators with prominent legislators his first week, which is now a common occurrence as part of his fellowship. He’s also helped Rep. Tlaib prepare the questioning of key members of the Trump administration on issues that are critical for the Congresswoman’s Detroit constituents, like housing finance and access to affordable housing.

“Working for Rashida is amazing,” said Ethan. “I’m just so fortunate to be in her office. She is one of the most courageous members of Congress. She has no fear. She is ready to take a stand for her constituents.” Ethan went on to describe her as “a hero” for her fearlessness in voicing her constituents’ concerns in the halls of Capitol Hill.

He also credits Rep. Tlaib’s staff with a warm welcome. “The staff has been incredibly welcoming and friendly. It’s been so educational to work alongside them in their efforts as well.”

Rep. Tlaib credits Ethan with invaluable contributions to her work. “It’s not easy to hit the ground running with committee hearings, vote recommendations, and the like, but Ethan has done so from day one with the utmost grace and eagerness, “ she said.

“That, coupled with the quality of his work, makes me so excited for the remainder of his tenure with us and for his future well beyond it—it’s certainly a bright one,” Rep. Tlaib added.

Ethan also had high praise for NIAC and its fellowship program. “I recommend NIAC’s internship, fellowships and all of their work without reservation,” he said. He encouraged more members of the community to get involved with NIAC, saying “you guys are essentially the spearhead of a lot of the desires of the Iranian-American community.”

“It’s important for Iranian Americans to get involved in civic life because our voices don’t play as big of a role in making policy that affect all our families here and in Iran,” said Ethan. “So force your way into the door, don’t knock on it,” he advised Iranian Americans who are considering a career in public service.

NIAC plans to continue its Congressional Fellowship program in 2020 and will begin its application process in the New Year.

#IAFilmmakers Series: Profile of Caveh Zahedi

Born and raised in the United States, Caveh Zahedi is an Iranian-American filmmaker that found his inspiration in films as an outlet for his political interests and artistic expression. After graduating from Yale University with a degree in philosophy, Zahedi spent time in France pursuing his film career, eventually returning to the United States to attend film school at UCLA.

An independent filmmaker, Zahedi’s work is often experimental and explores a range of topics that challenge status quo thinking. As Zahedi himself states, he wants to push his audience, “to grapple with the ethical issues posed by the work.” He often immerses himself into his films as part of the subject matter, blending documentary, fiction, and re-enactments. His presence in his films are frequently self-reflexive and meta in nature.

For Zahedi, his Iranian identity was an important influence on his filmmaking, “Iranian culture that I grew up with made me not fit in with my peers, which is always good for storytelling.” The irony of the parallels in Zahedi’s work with those of Iranian auteurs such as Kiarostami, is that Zahedi became familiar with Iranian cinema after he began his career in films,

“I feel very close to Iranian cinema, but I feel that I discovered it after I started making films in that style already. So, I think that there is almost a genetic aspect to it. It is actually very weird how similar my films are to Iranian filmmakers such as Kiarostami and Panahi, and there are a few different filmmakers who sort of work in this documentary-fiction hybrid form that I also work in. I started doing that before I discovered their work and when I discovered it I was really like, ‘Wow, they are doing the same thing, that is very weird.’ So, I don’t know what it is, but it is weird.”

Zahedi recalls his visits to Iran as a child, “The last time I was in Iran I was 10 years old, but I love the food, exoticism, and the weirdness about the place. For me it was really strange and wonderful.” Despite his desire and attempts to travel to Iran in order to make a film, Iran’s government enforces strict restrictions on filmmakers. As he explains, the raw subject matter and style of his films are not welcome in his country of heritage,

“I was planning on shooting a project in Iran about 10 years ago. It was not focused on anything political. It was about horse racing in northern Iran. It was going to be a self-reflective film about going to Iran and making a film about horse racing, nothing politically related. But the producer had trouble with the government and her passport was taken away and then she was on trial and they basically told her that she could not work with me. She had a copy of one of my films in her apartment that is titled, “I am a Sex Addict”, they watched it and said that this guy is not welcome here.”

Though Zahedi is regrettably not allowed to make a film in Iran, he is still motivated by its culture. He is currently working on a project close to home for the Iranian-American community, a film about Rumi, “I love Rumi’s poetry, again I feel very close to it and Rumi’s poetry very much resonated with me. I feel like his mysticism embraces all of humanity, the good and the bad, and the light and the dark at the same time, and I like it. It is not moralism, it is very non-dualistic.”

Zahedi’s films are marked by the sort of open candor that defies an Iranian cultural proclivity towards saving face, his work challenges not only taboos within the Iranian-American community, but society at large. His advice for fellow filmmakers and hopes for his own work are to encourage that kind of frankness, “I would urge up-and-coming filmmakers to practice meditation in order to find an inner stillness from which their work can flow honestly and organically. I hope to inspire people to be more honest with themselves and with those around them.”

This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.

#IAFilmmakers Series: Finding Farideh – A Search for Home

Sitting in a small theater in Southern California, I watched the Iranian documentary film, Finding Farideh, amongst a theater full of fellow Iranian Americans. The film was shown as part of the University of California, Irvine’s ‘Docunight’, which invites people to see and understand Iran through documentary films. It may be ironic that in the United States we find a group of Iranians watching such films to familiarize themselves with a part of their own identity. But in fact, it is perfectly fitting for a diaspora, disconnected from its country of origin and heritage, to partake in this sort of exploration.

A mix of nostalgia, some simulated and some real, with self-reflection filled the auditorium as an audience of Iranian Americans watched a story in some ways akin to their own. In the documentary, young Iranian filmmakers, Azadeh Moussavi and Kourosh Ataee, tell the story of Farideh, a 40-year old woman that was abandoned as a baby in Mashhad, Iran, at the holy shrine of Imam Reza. After being found and taken to an orphanage, Farideh was adopted by a Dutch couple and subsequently raised in the Netherlands. The film follows Farideh on her journey back to Iran, as an adult searching for her biological family and fulfilling a lifelong dream to travel to Iran in a sort of homecoming for someone who has no actual memories of the place.

For Farideh, growing up in the Netherlands posed its own challenges, she recalls feeling out of place and different from the other girls at school, an impression that was exacerbated when she was bullied. Despite loving her family, Farideh bemoans the sense of loneliness she felt growing up, and the feeling that she was never a good daughter, which added to her sense of guilt for wanting to find her biological family. Eventually, with the support of her family, Farideh sets out to find her biological family. When three different families respond to her story, Farideh sets off to Iran to meet them in Mashhad and reveal her family through a DNA test.

Farideh’s mix of fear and longing is common among diaspora Iranians who wish to visit Iran, but are often worried because of the images and depictions of the country from the outside. In Farideh’s case, her adoptive parents thought of Iran as dangerous, but as she arrives in Iran and begins to explore the country and get to know the families that claim her as their daughter, she feels nothing but love and belonging, “I am being touched, kissed and embraced by all these families, in my heart I am home.”

The crux of Farideh’s journey is not in finding her family, but in finding herself. Part of that self comes from a sense of belonging to a family, to a country, and to a culture and heritage. Though she grew up in Holland with a Dutch family, the hyphen in Farideh’s identity could not be ignored. As Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

As I’m sure many in the Iranian diaspora can relate to, for Farideh, those roots were in Iran. After visiting, she stated, “I feel that I have awakened a part of my heart.” Iranian Americans flock to cultural and community events like the screening of an Iranian documentary to keep awake that part of their heart and satiate the need for connection that we all crave. For immigrants and diasporas, the notion of ‘home’ can be ambiguous, but our sense of belonging can always be found in community.


This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.

#IAFilmmakers Series: Celebrating Iranian-American Filmmakers

Films are a universal medium, a way to communicate across groups, barriers, and borders. They are simultaneously an expression of an individual person and a collective group. Though set in different places and spoken in different languages, films have the power to captivate and connect people in moving ways. Despite the Iranian government’s restrictions and censorship on art, Iranian cinema has played a significant role in elucidating Iranian culture and contemporary life to audiences worldwide.


#ICYMI: NIAC’s Annual Ruby Gala in New York

On September 26th, NIAC took New York by storm to host the organization’s annual Ruby Gala. From a diverse array of inspiring speakers to a lively cocktail hour, the evening brought together our dearest friends and our most valuable partners to celebrate the Iranian-American community’s successes over the past year. 

MSNBC’s Ari Melber, host of “The Beat with Ari Melber,” emphasized the notion that political power is in fact “zero sum” and that the Iranian-American community must work to build its power to ensure they have a seat at the table. 

New York Assemblyman and Congressional candidate Michael Blake took to the stage to share his own story of his Jamaican background, emphasizing the common struggles that immigrants of all creeds and countries face. Florida State Representative Anna V. Eskamani also wowed the crowd with her own family’s history of settling in the United States, of navigating her identity in a state with few Iranian-Americans, and lauded event attendees for their support in ensuring she became the first Iranian-American to serve in the Florida Legislature. 

NIAC President Jamal Abdi also shared his own story of his family’s immigrant journey and underscored the importance of our community doing everything possible to build the political power Iranian Americans need to secure a seat at the table: “NIAC is here to protect the American dream for everyone of us,” Jamal shared during his address. “We wake up every single morning and ask ourselves: what do we need to do today? What battle do we need to fight? What do we need to do  to protect the civil and human rights of Iranian Americans?”

Among the evening’s highlights was the awarding of NIAC’s Courage Award to J Street, which Dylan Williams, J Street’s Senior Vice President of Government Affairs, accepted on the organization’s behalf. NIAC is proud to work alongside J Street to advocate for Iran policies in the White House that will advance peace and diplomacy—not lead to war. J Street’s tireless dedication to peace, equality, and justice has made them an invaluable friend and partner, and we’re pleased to have had the chance to acknowledge the organization’s outstanding work.

Gathering so many amazing members of our community in one room to reflect on the successes we’ve secured and the challenges we’re working to overcome is always a highlight of our year. Particularly now, as we face a tumultuous political environment, our community’s solidarity ensures our community’s strength. A chance to gather around food, friends, and powerful words, to garner support and connect with our community, means that NIAC can continue to build on the foundation needed to secure political power and ensure our voices are heard all across the country, from New York to Washington DC. 

Missed the event? No problem! Check out our highlight reel of the night here and visit our events page to learn more about our upcoming galas in Washington DC and San Francisco!

#ICYMI: NIAC’s Annual Sapphire Gala in Los Angeles

On September 21st, NIAC was pleased to host its annual Sapphire Gala in Los Angeles. The evening was marked by an outstanding group of NIAC friends and allies, exceptional speakers, food and entertainment, and, of course, some laughter and levity, thanks to our master of ceremony, Iranian-American comedian K-von

We had the pleasure of hearing not one, but two incredible Congresswomen who work everyday to champion the priorities of the Iranian-American community and the progressive values our country so deserves. NIAC Research Fellow, Dr. Assal Rad, after remarks of her own, welcomed Congresswoman Katie Porter (CA-45) to the stage.

Congresswoman Porter regaled the audience with the importance of holding the White House accountable and with her experiences working with the Iranian-American community. She has been integral in the fight to protect our community against the discriminatory Muslim Ban. Moreover, she remains an ardent proponent of advancing peace and diplomacy by preventing war with Iran and advocating for the United States to return to the Iran nuclear deal.

NIAC President Jamal Abdi also took to the stage to share his own story: his family’s immigrant journey, navigating being Iranian and American, and underscoring the importance of our community doing everything possible to build the political power we need to secure our seat at the table. 

We were proud to give Congresswoman Maxine Waters (CA-48) NIAC’s first ever Courage Award. NIAC Board Member Siobhan Amin presented Congressman Waters with the award for her commitment to peace, equality, and justice. In today’s political environment, she has been an oasis of the sound policy needed to ensure our children and all future generations can live in a more peaceful world. We are fortunate to call Congresswoman Waters our friend and ally and to have had such an amazing keynote speaker captivate the room with her story about fighting for the foundational values of this country.

All of us at NIAC are so grateful to have the incredible support of our community. Even in the hardest times, we find strength through solidarity. This year has been marked by a flurry of politics that have impacted our community in undeniable ways. Only together—and of course assisted sometimes by good food, amazing friends, and powerful words—can we build political power for the Iranian-American community and ensure our voices are heard all across the country, from Los Angeles to New York to Washington DC. 

And make sure to check out our events page to learn more about our upcoming galas in Washington DC and San Francisco!