Interview with Dr. Saghar Birjandian

Part of expanding our culture conversations is speaking with travel insiders from varied industries and all walks of life. These conversations are meant to create important dialogue about the culture of travel and the path in our careers that takes us there.

I’m personally honored to introduce you to Saghar, a former colleague and friend who I  met while we both were at NYU studying International Affairs. While my career journey took a few turns….Saghar relentlessly continued the path of a career in human rights and went on to become a scholar in transitional justice and peace-building.   Her work involves qualitative research, documentation of atrocities, policy analysis and development, and strategic advocacy to promote post-conflict justice processes that affected agents and communities prioritize for sustainable peace.  Today she’s sharing a little bit about herself and her perspective on travel and how we can all travel more intentionally post COVID.


1: Let’s start at the beginning, how did you end up in transitional justice?

Initially, I was interested in human rights and international law because of the various forms of racism and discrimination I personally experienced at a very early age in Canada. In addition, the intergenerational effects of what I would call a protracted genocide against the Baháʼí community in Iran cultivated in me a deep commitment to fight for equality and justice. Although, I do not identify as a Baháʼí or affiliate with any particular religious group, this familial and community history has undoubtedly shaped my inclusive worldview and commitment to preserving human dignity.

The field of transitional justice emerged from the human rights movement and international human rights and humanitarian law. Whilst studying these subjects as a graduate student at New York University, I was immediately draw to what was then a rapidly emerging interdisciplinary field called “transitional justice”, which grapples with the moral, legal, political, and social dilemmas facing societies that are working to address mass atrocities and periods of repression in their recent or distant past. There is something so refreshing and attractive about a society undergoing such a complex and profound transformation as not only are their opportunities to facilitate justice for attacks on human dignity, but crucially, there is an opening to restructure the social order that allowed such atrocities to occur in the first place.

2: What are your thoughts on how people can travel more intentionally post-covid?

I think it is good to remember how important travel is for our education. In a Covid-regulated world, I believe tourists should travel with the intention of dispelling myths and scrutinizing misinformation about “other” societies. If you think about it, the secondary resources at our disposal to learn about one another such as lectures, books, movies, news media, social media, etc. are subjective products, and therefore, they might not present as comprehensive a picture as inhabitants of a certain society would prefer to present to the world. Also, these secondary pieces of information present slices of time and space as representative of certain cultures, which again does not effectively portray the complex everyday interactions that inhabitants experience and produce. So, our biggest gift to ourselves as lifelong learners and to reconnect after the shock of this pandemic is to travel to contexts of interest to us to allow the air, food, art, history, people, and infrastructure of that society to authentically present themselves to our senses.

3: Your career has taken you to parts of the world that are not your typical tourist destinations, why is that?

Well this is not exactly true as on the one hand, some of the places I have been might not be the most popular tourist destinations globally, but on the other hand, they did have a rapidly growing tourism industry pre-Covid. For example, I lived in Uganda for four years cumulatively, and during my time there I watched their tourism industry bloom. The number of visitors from all over the globe grew exponentially from 2012 to 2018. Neighboring Rwanda also had a strong tourism industry, particularly for visitors that are into “dark tourism”, where societies make available certain sites where atrocities and other tragedies unfolded.

That being said however, when I did share with friends, colleagues, community members, and even strangers in Canada or the United States that I was visiting or living in these contexts, some prevailing responses were praise, shock, disbelief, concern, or confusion and this is in large part because certain societies, particularly Middle Eastern and African contexts, are portrayed as conflict-riddled and dangerous in North American news media and entertainment. In addition, international NGOs and UN agencies looking to mobilize resources for their respective initiatives often capitalize on these dominant narratives and circulate images of the most destitute and life-threatening circumstances in these settings to evoke sympathy and support, which helps to reinforce the false assumption that these contexts do not have much to offer in terms of tourism. I have now travelled to more than twenty countries across four continents and some of my most enjoyable tourism experiences were in African countries, namely, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and South Africa.

4: What has been one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned while studying peace-building abroad?

The prevailing lesson I’ve learned is that there is still a popular assumption, particularly across the Global North, that human beings in conflict and post-conflict environments in the Global South do not have much to teach those in other contexts about how to achieve sustainable peace. But ironically the opposite is true. We would need an entirely separate interview for me to explain my reasons in detail, which I am very open to!

5: How has your career shaped the way you travel?

As travel is often required in my line of work, it is hard to also make time for additional trips that are solely for leisure. So, I try to add a few days to my work-related trips if for example I am giving a presentation at a conference. I think a lot of people in my industry do this. I also try my best to learn about legacies of conflict and repression no matter where I visit as such histories help to understand a society’s contemporary social and economic landscape.

6: What does culture mean to you?

This is a great question. Culture to me is a collection of norms, beliefs, knowledge and patterns of behavior and speech that a group of individuals identify with, uphold, and adapt to new circumstances.

7: What is your advice on how people can expand their knowledge about culture and be open to diversifying their experiences as travelers?

As many people already know, it is very useful to do one’s research before travelling somewhere, particularly to ensure that we respect certain social norms and ideally, to learn a few words in local languages if helpful. But my advice is to be aware of your assumptions about the context you are traveling to and actively seek experiences that will challenge them when you are planning your activities. If you are not the “planning type”, then try to lean toward situations that make you uncomfortable as you roam around. Some of my most memorable moments that transformed my worldview have come from these types of experiences.

The Essentials

  • Favorite travel destination?

Sicily, Italy as it is the only place I’ve been to date where I could truly detach myself from everything and relax.

  • Favorite culture and why?

Ugandan. It is hard to lump all Ugandans together under one cultural umbrella as it is an extremely diverse society with more than fifty ethnicities. But some shared features across these diverse groups include resilience, political savviness, rhythm, and humor. I always learn, dance and/or laugh when I’m around Ugandans so how could I not go back for more?

  • On your travel bucket list?

Off the top of my head, I would say: Iran, Australia, the Netherlands, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, Portugal, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, and Progue. But in all honesty, I don’t really use a bucket list to plan my next trip. I just see where life takes me.

  • Name a Recuerdo (Souvenir) that you have brought from a destination you’ve travel to that you love.

When I was in Uganda, a dear friend of mine Haira Sentongo gifted me a pair of sandals that I wear every chance I get!



**Saghar recently also founded Collaborative Social Change, a not-for-profit company headquartered in Vancouver, Canada that works to prevent and address various forms of violence. She completed her PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She also holds a Master of Science in Global Affairs with a concentration in International Law and Human Rights from New York University and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Victoria, Canada.

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