By Kia Makarechi
July 14, 2011, New York, NY-Go ahead, ask her. As an Iranian-American writing on Italian history, Mahnaz Yousefzadeh has been asked so many times, she has a smart answer ready: Why didn’t she spend her scholarly life unpacking the intricacies of Iranian (or at least Middle Eastern) history?
“I think it’s important—intellectually—to move out of one’s culture, towards another and then possibly, to return,” Yousefzadeh says. “One’s understanding could become more nuanced, and yes, even more authentic.” On a more personal level, she says, she has always been drawn into the discovery of the unfamiliar, the not-so-obvious, and the hidden.
Yousefzadeh teaches humanities in the Liberal Studies Program of Arts and Sciences at New York University, and is the author of the newly-released City and Nation in the Italian Unification: The National Festivals of Dante Alighieri (Palgrave Macmillian).
The book runs the gamut of themes, from the relationship between a nation’s poets and patriotism, to the interactions between civil society and the state, and from the role of women in forming nations to the tenuous balance between tradition and modernity.
When she began her own graduate studies, Yousefzadeh was automatically assigned to a Middle Eastern studies advisor. When she explained that her area of scholarly interest was European history, she says her department was confused. “It was very surprising to them that I didn’t want to focus on Middle Eastern history.”
Since then, she’s racked up an impressive resume of curricular and research accomplishments. With an exploratory and improvisational mindset, an extensive experience in and intimate knowledge of Italy, she devised a summer program around Mediterranean themes that took students, including Middle Eastern majors to Italy. It should be noted that the program went beyond typical museum fare, instead took the participants on a journey through natural and cultural archives, pristine locations, original sources. Her custom-created excursions went behind the scenes of culture creation, and beyond the touristic spectacles.
The circumstances surrounding Yousefzadeh’s interview with PAAIA were rife with intellectual hilarity. Her new book focuses on the cultural festivals that heralded the eventual unification of Italy in the middle of the 19th century. Our conversation took place in a quasi-Italian café near the festival that followed the Persian Day Parade of New York City.
Over the course of a nearly two-hour conversation that delved relatively deeply into the causes of and barriers to Italian unification, Yousefzadeh displayed a burning passion for the subject of her 266-page work. By the interview’s end, suffice it to say that this reporter had a greatly improved understanding of the pivotal moment in European history.
Her book delves into the strategies of Florentine cultural nationalism and contrasts that with the Piedmontese territorial nationalism. At the center of this argument is the festival commemorating the 600th birthday of the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri which was celebrated in Florence and elsewhere in Italy in 1865, and serves as a microcosm of the unification process.
Yousefzadeh’s next book will concern cultural interactions in the Mediterranean region during the early modern period, with special focus on a visit a Florentine ambassador paid to the Sultan of Egypt in 1422 and the links between the Medici and Shah Abbas courts during the 16th and 17th centuries.
In some ways, the new subject matter seems to be a move closer to what many expect of an Iranian-American scholar. But why? “I’ve studied both areas, and there are so many systemic connections between the histories that it doesn’t make sense to study either in isolation.”
Perhaps if our academics can understand the failure of isolation, one day our politicians and leaders will come around as well.
Kia Makarechi is a News Editor for the Huffington Post. He lives in New York, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.