ST CATHARINES, Canada – Behnaz Mirzai’s students often say her office is like a museum.
With shards of ancient pottery recovered from the mountains of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, colourful vases from Isfahan, and tribal masks from Zanzibar adorning the shelves, it is easy to see why.
Mirzai has spent nearly 20 years studying the origins of the African diaspora in Iran, including the history and eventual abolition of slavery in her native country.
It was a topic that few knew about in the late 1990s, when she began her research, and one that remains unfamiliar to many today.
“Living in Iran for all my life, we had never heard about slavery in Iran,” Mirzai told Middle East Eye from Brock University, where she now works as an associate professor of Middle Eastern history.
Discovering slavery in Iran
Mirzai held a master’s degree in Iranian and Islamic history from Azad University in Tehran when she came to Canada in 1997.
When she began graduate studies a year later at York University in Toronto, a meeting with history professor Paul Lovejoy set her on the path to discover a little-known slice of Iranian history.
“I [didn’t] know whether we had slavery because this is not a common topic or something that people know or discuss,” Mirzai said. After contacting former professors in Iran, Mirzai discovered that Iran did indeed have a history of African slavery – and Iranian archives had the documents to prove it.
“Slavery wasn’t integrated into the history of Iran… In terms of the knowledge of people, common people or even academics, [it] was very, very limited or at that time, [it] was zero,” she said. “There were no written articles or books; it was so new.”
Trade between modern-day Iran and African countries goes back several hundred years. But slavery in Iran spanned two major periods, Mirzai discovered: the Qajar dynasty (1795-1925) and the early years of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979).
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