Finding His Way: Maziar Behrooz

Maziar Behrooz '82Maziar Behrooz ’82 was a student at Saint Mary’s during the Iran hostage crisis, when a group of Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy  in Tehran, holding some 60 Americans hostage for 444 days from 1979-1981. It was a difficult time to be an Iranian student in the United States, Behrooz said.

“But there were a number of people who really went out of their way both morally and practically to help the 25 or 30 Iranian students on campus at the time,” Behrooz said. He remembered particularly then–Dean Tom Brown, who found ways to make the campus more hospitable to the Iranian students.

Behrooz, now a history professor at San Francisco State University, was encouraged to come to Saint Mary’s by the chair of the Government Department at the time, Sepehr Zabih (1925–2009), a political scientist, born in Iran, who taught at the College for more than 40 years.

“My father introduced me to Zabih in Tehran in the summer of 1978,” said Behrooz, who had attended an American high school in London and had already set his heart on studying to be a pilot at another American university. “But when that didn’t work out for medical reasons, I contacted Zabih, who facilitated my coming to northern California to attend Saint Mary’s.”

Behrooz became a government major, studying with Zabih, a noted scholar of Iranian politics and history, as well as Wilbur Chaffee and David Alvarez. Later he got to know Ben Frankel, chair of the History Department, who taught at Saint Mary’s for more than 50 years. “He really impressed me,” said Behrooz, who promptly decided to do a double major in government and history. “Frankel became a very good friend. He and so many of the people I met at Saint Mary’s had a very positive influence on me and helped me find my way.” Behrooz also studied with Kathy Roper and Carl Guarneri in the History Department.

After graduating in just 3½ years, Behrooz went on to earn a master’s degree in Modern History of Europe at San Francisco State in 1986, and a PhD in Modern History of the Near East at UCLA in 1993. Always in the back of his mind had been a desire to pursue research about the Iranian Revolution and the failure of the Left to alter the future of his homeland, a topic his mentor, Zabih, had also pursued.  

“My father was involved in the politics of the Left in Iran when I was young, so I was always interested,” said Behrooz, who grew up in a family environment influenced by intellectual reading, discussion, and an interest in politics. His first book, Rebels with a Cause (1999), “fills an important gap in the literature on the Islamic revolution,” according to a review in the October 2002 Mediterranean Quarterly. His second book is a collection of articles and interviews on the topic.

Behrooz travels every year to Iran to visit his mother and his brother and family. “When I was sent outside Iran at 16 years of age, my father told me that I should never lose my connection to Iran. ‘No matter where you go, whatever you do, make sure you can always come back,’ my father said, and I took it to heart. I don’t want to lose that connection.”

Behrooz publishes his scholarship in English first and then in Persian, ensuring that Iranians are able to read his work. He stays in close touch with politics, culture, and social change there, but he now focuses his research on late 18th-and early 19th-century Iran.

“I have been interested since high school in knowing why Iran was incapable of coping with the modern world, with colonialism and imperialism during that time, and why it was defeated by the Russians and the British,” he said. Also, writing about current affairs in Iran today can be hazardous for those who visit there frequently, Behrooz added.

“So, I’ve tried to put a distance between myself and current events for safety reasons, attending more to social issues that have been understudied and less problematic.” He anticipates that such danger may increase over time, particularly for scholars in the humanities, subject matter that is treated with suspicion by the Iranian government. “Humanities scholars are sometimes viewed as being ‘in cahoots’ with foreigners,” Behrooz said. “When it comes to humanities and social sciences, you have to be very careful what you say and how you say it.”

Behrooz, who teaches Middle East history courses at SF State, believes one of American society’s greatest strengths is its excellent education system, because it fights ignorance and promotes better understanding. “Education makes a positive difference in the world,” he said. “I am glad to be part of that.”