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Exile from Exile

Make the University in Exile a Sanctuary

“But I have a valid visa,” I said, sitting amidst dozens of anxious scholars at International Student Services at the New School for Social Research. As nationals of the seven countries of the Middle East where Donald Trump does not “officially” do business — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia — we are all targets of the US regime under his rule. Yet something of solace comes from being students at the New School for Social Research, known since the 1930s as the ‘University in Exile.’ History tells us exiles are wanted here; I myself am a journalist in exile, and sought this school for its reputation as a scholarly home for people with stories like mine. However, I feel more precarious than protected as the University sorts out its stance on sanctuary status. This has led me to wonder what is the promise of this school, and what it will take for that promise to be reinvigorated and reshaped to meet the evolving demands of the rapidly changing political reality.

As an independent journalist in Iran, I never thought there would be a day that the paws of state would deprive me of the possibility of returning to the country where I was born and raised. After ten years of professional experience in major Iranian media outlets, I was arrested in 2007 and spent most of my 3-month incarceration in solitary confinement in the 209 Ward of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. I remember lying in my cell thinking about the world outside. Although I was only 23 at the time, I was familiar with the whole process of prison and torture. Beyond my journalistic work for the Shargh through which I daily engaged culture and politics, being one of those red diapers in Iran’s 1980s, the cell confinement reminded me of my mom, Nahid Kheirabi, herself  a political activist who spent a long time in solitary confinement and underwent physical and mental torture in 1970s. She was detained in the Savak’s notorious detention center, the “Anti -Vandalism Joint Committee facility” and then moved to country’s first women’s political prison: the Qasr Prison. I addressed the guards with contempt, and they were sure to threaten me that my life in Iran was over: “You won’t be able to live, work or study in this country anymore. A background check will always be ahead of you.”

One year after I was temporarily released on an unprecedented amount of bail for a journalist at the time, I was barred from continuing my professional job and course of study in Iran. Now my divorced mother and father — my father, Shahrokh Asefi, an activist, too — sitting side by side in the departure lounge of Tehran’s Khomeini Airport, waiting for my boarding, not knowing until the very last moment if I would be allowed to leave. Finally the plane took off, and I left for Germany as the guest of the city of Nuremberg under the German PEN project “Writers in Exile.” My two years with the PEN project passed too fast. In the blink of an eye, I was once again persona non grata: I became an unemployed “political refugee,” in Berlin, or a “Scheisse Ausländer”(“fucking foreigner”) depending on the eyes of the beholder. I left one place I was not wanted for another. For 8 years, I wrote for the Nürnberger Zeitung, and as an independent journalist I tried to shed light on the ambivalent relation between digital and social reality.

The exilic yearning began in earnest on a cold winter day in the historic city of Nuremberg. I met with my comrade Khalil Rostamkhani, a long-standing political activist and writer in exile. Having had the first sip of Gluehwein (mulled wine) I could not help but think of Khalil’s partner Roshanak Daryoush, a prominent Marxist translator, journalist and publicist who was also PEN grant recipient. Roshnak translated into Persian Lion Feuchtwanger’s Exile (1940), which compares the situation of German exiled activists after Hitler’s rise to power and the situation of Iranian exiled activists after Iran’s 1979 incomplete revolution, in which my parents had been active revolutionaries. I felt a kinship with those of both times and places: like the others, placeless, uprooted.

The New School for Social Research — the University in Exile — would become the next stop on my journey. Because I grew up with Marxist activists for parents and had long been involved in radical circles, the legacy of The New School was not unfamiliar to me. My arrival to the school would not have been possible without the generous support of Prof. Lawrence Hirschfeld, who was the chair of the anthropology department at the time. Having lived in exile — a restless opposition to both the colonizer and the colonized, as the late Edward Said put it — I became convinced of the importance of material culture to social and political identity and I wanted to study and understand more about human society. I wrote to Prof. Hirschfeld and told him of my desire to study anthropology, and his advocacy and the grace of the dean’s office made it possible for me to attend. In New York City, I have been embraced by fellow exiles, academics and activists, including my journalist colleagues such as Liza Featherstone and scholars I admire, like Sohrab Behdad, the author of Class and Labor in Iran who was a founding member of National Association of University Professors, formed in fall of 1979 Revolution; Hamid Dabashi, who provides a critical examination of the role of immigrant “comprador intellectuals” in facilitating the global domination of American imperialism; and Leyli Shayegan, the assistant director of Teachers College Press and the daughter of Ali Shayegan the Minister of Education in Mossadegh Cabinet. Leyli and her father came into exile following the 1953 CIA coup in Iran, and her father taught at the New School. They and many others have stoked the exilic yearning that has defined the last many years of my life. To be welcomed in this way in NYC has encouraged and comforted me as I have carved out a complicated agency, traveling the globe to find terrain on which I am welcome. Such comfort can only ever be partially attained.

Anticipating a refuge of sorts brought me to the New School to trace the politics of belonging or “home,” though we are in some ways very far from the world that inspired Alvin Johnson and his colleagues to create a ‘new school’ willing to take political risks and protect the lives and work of intellectuals at risk of persecution. Besides the urgent need to have an active academic workers union at the New School, what the concept ‘exile’ was to the generation that initiated the University in Exile, the concept ‘sanctuary’ is to me and to many NSSR scholars today. Therefore, beyond the rhetoric of alleged allies, to become a sanctuary is nothing but to keep the meaning of the University in Exile alive.

Meanwhile, life for an exile remains precarious. Having lived in the US as a graduate student on an F-1 visa, I had to visit Germany last summer to maintain my German status. I could not mail my documents; I had to physically enter the country, regardless the financial difficulty travel imposes. To extend my travel document with the generous assistance of my colleague Jens-Uwe Thomas at Reporters without Borders, I waited in the line among a number of refugees in front of the Foreigners Registration Office. Separated by nationality and shuffled to the designated building, “the West and the rest” as Stuart Hall put it, the office informed me I would have to return in person in two months time to hand in the current passport and exchange it for the new document. Afraid of losing my on-campus job, which helps me just barely make rent, I soon returned to New York City. My enquiry for a German passport after all those years was also refused. “You have not lived in the country in recent months…” they said. Seeking security has meant crossing borders, but every border crossed creates new insecurities, new losses. Place, identity, home; these can never be stable categories for someone like me.

I was one of a number of the Middle Eastern graduate students among the protesters who flooded NYC’s Washington Square Park to oppose the Muslim ban. Protesters hung banners that read, “I am a Muslim, I am a woman, I am a Palestinian immigrant, I am a queer Muslim undocumented immigrant,” and “Drive US imperialism out of the Middle East.” These signs demonstrate that this fight could meaningfully extend beyond national identities and state borders if these signs represent something beyond the liberal logic of identity politics and commodification of activism.

Having been warned that I have to be careful about joining the protests or what I am writing these days, I cannot help but think of agency, the dark days following my temporary release from Tehran Evin Prison (nicknamed “Evin University,” due to the number of intellectuals housed there,) and the parallels with 1933, when New York City gave shelter to many leading leftist German intellectuals, who were stripped of their citizenship by the Nazi-regime. While Iranians have voiced frustration with being targeted for exclusion by the new US administration and the beginning of the drum beats of some form of warfare against Iran is evident, the ongoing upheavals show us how in a “globalized” world, states have an additional source of power and a sphere of influence that extends beyond the masculine borders of the nation. Despite being warned against it, I joined New School scholars in the sea of protesters at Union Square. We were chanting, “from Palestine to Mexico, all the borders got to go.” There I saw the visage of Mexican Marxist painter Frida Kahlo in the distance looking at Trump’s border wall, whispering in Persian in my ear, “We did not cross the border. The border crossed us.”


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Soheil Asefi

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