PhD candidate continues research in spite of barriers

Siavash Sabetrohani headshot


On January 27, 2017, President Trump and his administration issued Executive Order 13769, the first of several executive actions restricting travel from a list of countries in Western Asia and North Africa, including Iran. The order, which the administration claimed was meant to protect national security, made specific exceptions for travelers on student visas. Yet, two years later, the visa of Iranian PhD student Siavash Sabetrohani was revoked. Another eighteen months later, the violinist and musicologist remains unable to return to the U.S.

“I left the U.S. in early January 2019 to conduct more research in Berlin and to visit friends in Amsterdam, before going back to Chicago in late March to teach my standalone course in the Spring quarter,” Sabetrohani explained via email. “Since my visa was expiring in June 2019, I thought to myself: why don't I apply to extend it now that I have some time to wait, in case it takes longer than usual. (Previously, I would get an answer on my visa on the same day!)

At my interview, the officer mentioned the Presidential Proclamation, revoked my valid visa, and said you'll have to wait ‘so that we can see you are indeed who you claim to be.’ (There’s one person in the world who shares the same first and last name as mine and that’s me!) When I asked how long? She said at least a month. Fast forward to one year and seven months later, and I'm still waiting...”

Sabetrohani is one of a number of Iranian students who have been denied entry to the United States in recent years, but most other cases are students coming to the U.S. to begin their studies. Sabetrohani had already been here three and a half years at the time his visa was revoked.

The musicologist and violinist came to the University of Chicago in 2015 to study with Professor Thomas Christensen, who he had met the prior year at a conference in Belgium. With the help of Christensen, he settled on the so-called “Berlin School” of music theorists as the subject of his dissertation work, and he scheduled a number of trips to Germany to review archival material related to his research. What was planned as a short trip in the winter of 2019, however, became a much longer odyssey outside of the U.S.

After his visa was revoked, Sabetrohani was unable to return to campus for the 2019 Spring Quarter, and he was forced to give up the course he had been scheduled to teach and to cancel a recital that had been planned (the young musicologist is also a concert violinist). “I had to cancel my course and had to pay rent for my apartment that had all my stuff in it for a long time until I could finally sublet it in September 2019.”

As he waited to hear from the State Department, Sabetrohani consulted with the University’s Office of International Affairs, and he and Department faculty reached out to congressional leaders. With no updates on his status and no progress from the University or from Illinois congressional delegates, he was left questioning whether he would even be able to continue his PhD. He went home to Iran for several months, and then to Turkey for a talk presented by Thomas Christensen. Fortunately, in September 2019, he was able to return to Germany under a DAAD Fellowship to continue his dissertation research.

Opportunities and Obstacles in Berlin

Sabetrohani’s research begins in 1749 with the first piece of music criticism published in Berlin. The author of that piece — Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, who was to be known for publishing inflammatory writing under pseudonyms — sparked a flurry of musicological publications, which coincided with the Aufklärung — the German Enlightenment — and the emergence of German national identity. While the theorists in his study are all independently understood as significant figures in music history, Sabetrohani’s dissertation will be one of the first pieces of scholarship to examine the Berlin school of theorists collectively, with a mind to the larger cultural forces of the time.

The Staatsbibliothek unter den Linden in Berlin, one of the preeminent research libraries in Europe, was to be the primary site of Sabetrohani’s archival research. Shortly after he arrived in September 2019, however, the library announced it would be closing for six months for renovation as of November 1st. Then, the coronavirus hit Germany in March. While Sabetrohani was unable to complete much of his work at the Staatsbibliothek, he was resourceful in order to continue his research. He familiarized himself with a number of other research libraries, such as the libraries at the Free University of Berlin and the State Institute for Music Research, and he became a pseudo expert with digital collections and online research tools. Still, he was unable to view the manuscripts at the Staatsbibliothek that are central to his research.

Sabetrohani’s fellowship was set to end in June 2020, and he would have again been left in limbo. In February, the Trump administration further expanded travel restrictions on those coming from Iran, as coronavirus cases in that country were beginning to rise (as of August 7, 2020, Iran has had 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus for every 100 thousand people; the United States has recorded 1,500 cases for every 100 thousand people), and Sabetrohani continues to await news on his visa status.

Fortunately, because the closure of the Staatsbibliothek had prevented him from completing his research, his DAAD fellowship has been extended through September. The Universität der Künste in Berlin has also extended Sabetrohani’s visiting student status, allowing him to remain in Berlin for at least another year and to complete his research at the Staatsbibliothek unter den Linden. With the University of Chicago providing hybrid instruction in Fall 2020 due to the coronavirus, Sabetrohani will also have the opportunity to teach a remote section of Introduction to Music: Analysis and Criticism, the course he was originally scheduled to teach in Spring 2019. He hopes to complete his research in 2020-21, followed soon after by the publication of his dissertation, but he still doesn’t know if or when he will be able to return to the U.S. Given the current situation, he doesn’t know about his future plans and prefers to focus on the present moment. Although he still remains hopeful to be able to go back to Chicago, even for a short time to at least say goodbye to friends in person and to make the necessary arrangements for his apartment and other personal matters.