Pardis Mahdavi is the dean of social sciences in Arizona State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The author of six books, most recently Hyphen, she is an Iranian-American anthropologist whose scholarship covers gendered labor, migration, sexuality, human rights, transnational feminism, and public health. Before speaking at a Zócalo/ASU Center on the Future of War event, “Can Women’s Movements Save the World?,” co-sponsored by the ASU Global Human Rights Hub, Mahdavi spoke in the green room about her favorite part of Persian New Year, the smell of dirt in Tehran, and why she’d like to travel to 2121.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I had Cocoa Krispies cereal. We're a big cereal family.
What year, past or present, would you like to time travel to?
2121. I want to see where all these movements that we've been working on got us to. I would like to see if we made the social transformation that we've been trying to make. Or, what could we have done differently? What could we have done better?
Are there any Persian traditions or customs that you would like to see widely adopted in the U.S.?
I'm actually writing an article on Persian New Year, which is coming up in just a couple of weeks. It's called Nowruz. It's our biggest holiday of the year. It's a secular holiday, and it follows the Spring Equinox, so we always celebrate it the moment that it turns spring. And up until the week leading up to and the week after we have all these festivals. My favorite is the fire jumping festival, where we put a bunch of fires out in our backyard. When I was in California, we would do it on the beach with hundreds or thousands of Persians. And everybody jumps over the fire.
As you're jumping, you say, "My sickness to you, your health to me." It's a time of new beginnings, and it's also a time of forgiveness. So if you've had rows with people in the past, if you have a grudge against somebody, that's the time when you go and you try to say, "OK, let's hold hands, jump over the fire and put the past behind us, let's find a new way forward." I always feel lighter after I do it.
What smell brings back the strongest memories for you?
The smell of dirt. Sometimes I really miss the way the dirt in Tehran smells, the dirt in Iran, the dirt in the Middle East in general, that smell of dirt.
You worked as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times Magazine before becoming an anthropologist. How does that Venn diagram between reporting and ethnographic methodology play out for you?
Well, first let me say that when you're in the field, a journalist is an anthropologist's best friend and an anthropologist is a journalist's best friend. An anthropologist is going to be the person who's done the deep dive, who's been working a long time in the community, who has the networks. It's a really important skill for an anthropologist to be able to delve deeper into the parts of another culture or another group that people aren't used to seeing.
What the journalists bring to the table is that sense of timeliness: Why now? They bring that urgency and that exigency to the writing. So I think it's sort of a perfect marriage of the two, and they work really well together. My favorite year in Tehran was when I was living in this apartment building and above me were three American journalists: one from NPR, one from the Chicago Tribune, and one from the Washington Post. We had so much fun just covering things together. I would take them to underground raves and they would take me to parliament. It was just great; it was probably my best research year of my career.
In your first book, Passionate Uprisings, you describe some really harrowing moments while researching sexuality in Iran. How do you cope in intense situations?
The way I cope is I think about these stories that haven't been told and that really deserve to be told. That's what drives me as a writer, as an ethnographer, and as somebody who's an activist at heart. It's just making sure that these unsung heroes are brought out into the light.
What is your favorite household chore?
Probably cooking, baking. My daughter and I have been baking a lot [during COVID]. I also really love making Persian food, because that's a way that I keep my culture alive for my kids. I made a pretty elaborate Persian feast over the weekend with different stews and kebabs, and this really yummy eggplant dip. As we're turning to Persian New Year, there are all these foods associated with it, so I'm going to have to start preparing. There's a particular soup that we eat on the fire jumping ceremony, Ash-e Reshteh. It's a soup with noodles and beans and lots of greens and vegetables because it's, of course, spring in the new year. And then there are special foods we eat actually on new year, and I'm excited to be making the preparations for that.
How would your friends have described you in high school?
Dorky, geeky, awkward—but also thoughtful and creative.
Where do you do your best work?
I tend to get up at 5 in the morning and write for an hour. Writing is what keeps me going. It fuels me. So I get up very early, I sit on my couch, way before the sun rises, and I write. That's definitely an important start to my day. Then, at the end of my day, I dance for an hour. I’ve been a dancer my whole life, and I like that my day is book-ended by two creative things that take my mind in different directions.
What has been your quarantine guilty pleasure?
Definitely Netflix. I'm watching Yellowstone right now—that Kevin Costner series. I let myself watch a little bit of TV each night, which I never did before quarantine.