Q&A with history professor Golnar Nikpour

by Mary Winters | 2/20/19 2:30am

One of 32 new faculty members at the College, history professor Golnar Nikpour brings her specialty in modern Iranian political and intellectual history to the department. She has extensively explored questions of power, rights, and incarceration in her interdisciplinary studies, which have focused on Middle Eastern and North African history, Islamic studies, critical prison studies and women and gender studies. Nikpour received her bachelor’s degree from Barnard College and her Ph.D. from Columbia University. She is currently teaching a class on gender in the modern Middle East and North Africa, and will teach a history seminar on the global history of human rights. 

How did you become interested in Iranian history?

GN: My interests began as an undergraduate at Barnard College. I took an introductory class to Islamic history my first year and was just blown away by how interesting the topic was. When I first started college and I was 17 or 18 years old, I was interested in literature and kind of thought history was a little bit on the dull side. I was more interested in the humanities and the arts, but then taking a college level class really just opened my eyes to how much more lively history is than it seems like it is in high school. I was drawn to the idea of taking Iranian history, Middle East history and Islamic history because my own family background is Iranian. I was born in Tehran and moved here when I was small, so I had some sort of personal investment in it. But then the topic itself actually just really came to life as I started to study it more and more, and at that point and became an intellectual investment as well as a personal one.

What do you think is the most common or problematic misconception Americans have about Iran?

GN: That’s a great question. It’s difficult to pick just one to be honest. The baseline is that there’s this conception that folks, not only in Iran but across the Middle East or the Muslim majority, have a uniformity of life and thought, and that everybody’s sort of dominated and driven by a very doctrinal idea of Islam that is very conservative. That’s really not the case. The entirety of the Muslim majority world is incredibly diverse in terms of languages, ethnic backgrounds, social backgrounds and religious backgrounds. Iran is a place where there’s something like 50 different linguistic groups. It’s one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. It’s quite religiously diverse for the Middle East — almost as much so as the United States. There’s a lot of different kinds of people, and they’re folks who are working to make their lives livable and happy in ways that people all over the world are striving to do. I think on a very basic level, I would say that the diversity across the Middle East is often misunderstood here. And then there’s just a basic lack of knowledge of Iranian or Middle East history. For instance, most Americans don’t know that the United States organized a coup in Iran in 1953 and overthrew a democratically elected prime minister for an authoritarian king, and that this is something that is a very raw wound in the Iranian political consciousness. The average American today wonders why there’s animus coming from Iran towards the United States, and don’t have much of a sense of that backstory. I would say that that’s generally the case across the Middle East, that there’s a lack of appreciation for how hands on the United States government has been, and a lack of knowledge of that history, which is hopefully something that I can fill out if people take my classes.

Are you currently conducting any research and if so, on what?

GN: I’m working on my first book, which is a history of the modern prison in Iran starting in the late 19th century and running until the current day. The book is about prisons as an institutional history, but more than that, it is about all of the public effects that the transformation of the penal code and the emergence of modern prisons in Iran has had — all of the ways that this big transformation has changed the way people live. The penal code in Iran was centralized in the 1920s and '30s, and that’s when the modern prison system was really pushed into overdrive. Tens of new prisons were built and many new laws were put off the books. And so Iranians had to learn en masse what it meant to be possibly surveilled or policed in modern ways and then possibly incarcerated. So I look at things like criminology texts, state archives, crime novels, all sorts of different ways of tracking how Iranians have thought about crime and punishment and how they live in a modern carceral state.

What have you found to be the most interesting or exciting work that you’ve done?

GN: I’ve been working on this book for several years now and I’m still routinely interested in what I’m doing. Sometimes it’s kind of dark because I read about torture and violence and relatively grim topics, but at the same time doing this research has given me the opportunity to spend a great deal of time in Iran and in archives across the Middle East and across Europe and the U.S. and I just really enjoy that process. I really enjoy the process of being a historian, of doing research, of having a kind of half formed question, and not really even totally knowing what I’m looking for always, and finding things that constantly surprise me. I really love that. And beyond that, I’ve really come to enjoy teaching here at Dartmouth, too. The last few months of being here and getting to know the students have been a real pleasure.

What drew you to Dartmouth?

GN: Dartmouth is obviously one of the top schools in the country. I don’t think that there are many better opportunities in terms of the sort of perfect marriage that scholars are looking for between having all of the support that we need as researchers and a place that really supports and encourages cutting edge research, but at the same time very good and motivated students and small classrooms where you can really engage with your students and get to know them. All of the things that bring students here are similar things to what bring faculty here — you’re getting something like a small liberal arts education in a big research university that has the kind of resources at its disposal to bring that intellectual world to life for everybody.

Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing Iranian history?

GN: If you’re in a Dartmouth student interested in history in general, Middle East history or Iranian history in particular take classes in the history department, come find me — I’m your person if that’s your interest. Start taking classes in history and talking to those of us in the department about the different options you have for career paths. For instance, if you’re interested in history, Middle East history or any history, there are so many things you can do with that beyond being a historian. That’s one of the things that sometimes worries students. They’re interested in the topic, but they’re not totally sure yet how they can make that practicable. And there’s actually a lot of different paths, and those of us in the department are pretty good at finding ways to plug our students into some of the bigger picture things, ways that they can both learn about their interests and find ways to make those part of their lives. Come talk to me. Read a lot of books and don’t believe everything you read in the press.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.