Tracing Indian Ocean slavery through Iranian cinema

As a graduate student, Parisa Vaziri was compelled to learn more about the history of enslavement in the Indian Ocean.

“It managed to be simultaneously mysterious, taboo, uninteresting and nonexistent for most people,” said Vaziri, assistant professor of comparative literature and Near Eastern studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

At the time, Vaziri was studying Iranian films made in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the most important periods of Iranian filmmaking, and she realized that knowing the history of Indian Ocean slavery was crucial to her understanding of the films. Yet the more she sought out information, the more disappointed she became in the lack of scholarship on this topic. In particular, Vaziri discovered a systematic neglect of slavery’s complexly intertwined, global racial legacies.

The gap inspired Vaziri to write her own book. In “Racial Blackness and Indian Ocean Slavery: Iran’s Cinematic Archive,” she explores how Iranian cinema preserves the legacy of Indian Ocean slavery. Vaziri said she wrote to “discard the tired clichés that have traditionally haunted the scholarly literature on Indian Ocean slavery” and to approach this history in an unexpected way.

The College of Arts and Sciences spoke with Vaziri about the book.

Question: What makes film an effective conveyor of the marginalized history of Indian Ocean slavery?

The book covers a range of different genres and periods, from commercial filmmaking to the development of avant-garde image-making to wartime cinema. I discuss both very well-known films and extremely obscure ones. But I suppose it is at least equally important to mention that my approach to cinema is primarily philosophical, and frankly speculative. Perhaps this is why the cinematic archive is most appropriate to the argument I make about Indian Ocean slavery.

Fundamentally, the book wants to challenge our naturalized demand for “facticity” about the past. Cinematic form allows us to imagine beyond the structural impossibility of fully reconstructed histories. I say that history is impossible, not because historians do not or are not continuing to write histories of Indian Ocean slavery. Rather, I question historiography’s dependence on the construction, or less radically, the existence of historical facts. Cinematic form sheds light on the aporetic heart of facts.

Q: Would you give an example of a film or a scene in which a reader new to this field might recognize the legacy of African enslavement in the Indian Ocean?

The films I write about do not reflect or represent Indian Ocean slavery in any straightforward sense. They are not “about” slavery. However, they do reflect its legacies in oblique ways. For example, one of the films I write about is an ethnographic documentary on spirit rituals practiced by communities of descendants of enslaved Africans in the Persian Gulf. I situate the cinematic techniques used to record this ritual within a broader history of commercial filmmaking – the sometimes dizzyingly haphazard editing practices of commercial directors that became the foil of a renewed investment in politicized continuity filming.

In my analysis of this documentary, as well as the elements of the spirit ritual itself, I follow the contradictory ways in which this phenomenon is both exposed to and resists its own capture; I connect its mode of inscription to the obscured, lyricized history of slavery of which it constitutes a trace. The dynamic I track allows me to illustrate what I call the “weak facticity” of Indian Ocean slavery.

Q: How are Black digital communities across Southwest Asia and North Africa generating contrasting narratives and protesting the unexamined state of anti-Blackness in the region?

The conclusion of the book is primarily concerned with how contemporary political movements are informing the ongoing shape of scholarship about Indian Ocean and trans-Saharan slavery. Up until recently, these histories were written with more or less minimal interest in substantive engagements with the racial legacies of slavery. Historians would sometimes claim, for example, that Black communities in Southwest Asia or North Africa were nonexistent, that they did not really comprise coherent diasporas, or that they did not experience racial injury or real forms of anti-Blackness.

Today, it is no longer possible to deny the existence of these communities, nor is it possible to deny the globality of anti-Blackness. I am interested in what these collectives’ digital art communicates, beyond the obvious and now unignorable demand that their existence be recognized.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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Book cover: Racial Blackness and Indian Ocean Slavery