Meet Zohreh - a true citizen of the world

Posted on Sun, 12/01/2019 - 11:30am

By Tracy Poyser

ZohrehMalibu East is a global village, with immigrants from across the globe living in harmony with U.S.-born residents. That’s why you should meet Zohreh Ghavamshahidi, a relative newcomer in our midst. She embodies what it means to be a citizen of the world while realizing her own American dream. Zohreh moved here from Madison, Wisconsin, in January 2018 after a 28-year tenure as professor of political science and international studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Born and raised in Iran’s capital, Tehran, Zohreh was interested in travel and the world from childhood on. Her parents believed she could become whatever she wanted to be, but her greatest inspiration was her maternal aunt Heshmat Eftekhari, a remarkable woman who had survived great hardship herself and steadfastly encouraged her niece’s intellectual pursuits. “She was a brave and independent thinker, yet compassionate and kind, with the soft heart of a bird,” Zohreh remembers. She values the example of kindness provided by her dad, and the streak of ambition with “a bit of craziness” from her mom.

Zohreh loved winters in Tehran, with snow covering the majestic Alborz mountain range of northern Iran, which she could see from her home. She went climbing with her dad and loved school sports, with her high school team having been chosen to go to a sports camp in Izmir, Turkey. And, through a teacher who had a brother living in Germany, she was able to visit Cologne and Düsseldorf in the Rhineland and spent two months traveling by train all over Turkey, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.

Her paternal grandmother was a landowner in Mashhad, the second-most populated city in Iran, located in the northeast part of the country near the borders with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, where her father grew up. She remembers the scent of apricot orchards, old clay houses, ghost stories and a wonderful storytelling aunt who introduced her to the famous tale of Scheherazade, who became queen of Persia after telling 1,001 stories to its jealous king, who spared her life.

She first attended a public school where English was taught, but didn’t learn Arabic although it had been mandated by the educational system. (She and her family spoke Farsi, the predominant language in Iran.) She then went to Damavand College, an American all-girls college with many students who had high-ranking parents in the international diplomatic service. In 1976, Zohreh earned her bachelor of arts, majoring in comparative history and culture.

At 26, she spread her wings and left her home country for the United States, fascinated with what she perceived as the American openness to new ideas, especially in arts, technology and science.

Zohreh had contacted agencies in Tehran that provided admissions to U.S. universities and was given a choice between the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor or The University of Oklahoma in Norman. She opted for Oklahoma on the spur of the moment because of Ann Arbor’s winter deep freeze.

She studied and lived in Norman for nine years, starting with anthropology with a focus on Native American cultures, and moving on to political science and international relations to help bridge the gap between the Middle East and the West. Zohreh earned her master’s degree at Oklahoma in 1979 and added a Ph.D. in political science in ’86.

In 1987, she taught political science under a one-year contract with the University of Wisconsin and was considering a position in Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, as a professor and director of international studies. Instead, she opted for a permanent teaching position in the political science department back at UW-Whitewater, allowing her to live in nearby Madison, Wisconsin. She became tenured as an associate professor in 1993, and as a full professor in 2000. She retired in 2016 and was awarded the status of Professor Emerita of Political Science in May of that year.

Zohreh received her U.S. citizenship in Oklahoma City in 1987. At UW-Whitewater and beyond, she was considered a driving force in the area of women’s studies and rights. She was a vocal proponent for understanding our changing global landscape, especially with regard to the Middle East and Islam, and worked tirelessly to foster greater awareness about this often-misunderstood region and culture.

Through her eloquent and incisive presentations, audience members and students have gained a much more nuanced and complex understanding of the specific geopolitical issues of the Middle East far beyond the stereotypes presented in mainstream media. … Her firsthand knowledge of the Middle East coupled with her endless curiosity provided her students with more insightful knowledge about a part of the world not easily understood by outsiders,” quotes a 2006 UW-Whitewater news article by Barbro McGinn.

During her almost 29-year tenure, Zohreh received 18 honors and grants, including two Fulbright awards to Uzbekistan, a National Endowment for the Humanities award to a seminar on ethnic conflict, a United States Institute on Peace Summer Seminar award to create a course on conflict resolution and crisis management, and a University of Wisconsin Faculty Excellence in Service award.

Zohreh’s two-year Fulbright scholarship to Uzbekistan from 1994 to 1996 is one of the most fascinating periods in her colorful life and career. Part of this Central Asian country was once part of Iran, then was annexed by Russia, became a republic within the Soviet Union, and has been an independent sovereign state since 1991. Those two years were an eye-opening experience for Zohreh, with people she’ll never forget, and exotic places most of us will only see on a map, such as Samarkand and Bukhara, famous names on the ancient Silk Road. The country’s climate is dry, and it can get very cold, so she didn’t miss Wisconsin winters. At Tashkent State Economic University, she taught international relations, economics and law in English, but learned Russian by living with a Ukrainian family. She also spent time in Khujand, the second-largest city in Tajikistan.

In 1995, she met a woman named Claudia on a subway in Tashkent, who was recruiting women for the European Union Conference on Women in Islamic countries, including Muslim women in socialist countries. This led to a lecture trip all over Germany, an article on “Women and State Building in Uzbekistan” – and a lifelong friendship with Claudia.

Back at UW-Whitewater, Zohreh participated in a grant-funded 2009 project by the U.S. Department of State to bring Muslims, Jews and Christians together, including weeklong visits to Syria and Jordan, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Other professional assignments took her to Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Jamaica and the Bahamas, England, Germany, France, Sweden, Norway and Greece. She also had a chance to visit almost every state in the USA.

Zohreh’s meditation practice included a 2007 trip to Vietnam with renowned Vietnamese spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and 300-400 people from all over the world. It left an indelible impression, culminating with a United Nations celebration in Hanoi commemorating the Buddha’s birthday. And, through a cousin who was the Iranian ambassador to Hanoi, Zohreh was able to stay there for three weeks and then add a three-week trip to mainland China with students from UW-Whitewater, featuring visits to several major cities and beautiful nature sites.

As a retiree, Zohreh wanted to live in Chicago, which she used to visit 4-5 times a year. She loves our city’s international flavor and diversity. She took her time finding a place to live, with proximity to the lake and a safe building as priorities. After almost two years, she was about to sign a contract on a unit in East Point next door when she noticed a Malibu East B-unit listing. Our sound financial situation and excellent security had impressed her – and she needed a home for her two beloved pooches, Sushi and Cinnamon, both of whom, sadly, died earlier this year.

Now, she finds respite in nature, hiking, swimming, racquetball, reading and meditation, and takes walks along the lake almost every day. She’d love to make more contact with neighbors in the building, especially from her home country, Iran, to find out about their stories. So, please introduce yourself when you see Zohreh in the elevator or at our meetings and social functions – or ask our doorman to have her get in touch with you.