A Brief Personal Biography
An Iranian born Kurd, Drake professor Ismael Hossein-zadeh came to the United States in 1975 as a foreign student to pursue his college education in economics. After completing his graduate work at the New School for Social Research in New York City he joined Drake University faculty in the fall of 1988, where he taught classes in political economy, comparative economic systems, international economics, history of economic thought and development economics until his retirement in 2011. His published work covers significant topics such as financial instability, economic crises and restructuring policies, currency-trade relations, globalization and labor, economics of war and military spending, and the roots of conflict between the Muslim world and the West. He is the author of Beyond Mainstream Explanations of the Financial Crisis (Routledge 2014), The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism (Palgrave–Macmillan 2007), and the Soviet Non-capitalist Development: The Case of Nasser’s Egypt (Praeger Publishers 1989).
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Ismael was born in 1946 into a Kurdish tribe located in the Northeastern region of Iran, called North Khorasan, near the southern border of Turkmenistan. The region is located on the Revand Heights, which consists of a series of parallel ridges that run from the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea to the northwestern borders of Afghanistan.
The people of his tribe migrated annually along with their herds of sheep and goats along the grazing routes between the summer pasture in the higher elevation of their mountainous region and the winter pasture located in the warmer valleys some 250 miles westward near the Caspian Sea. The migration took anywhere between four to six weeks as the tribes would usually take their time to graze their livestock along the way between the summer and winter pasturing grounds.
Ismael’s mother gave birth to him in a tent she had made (with the help of his father) from the hair of black goats while the tribe was on summer migration. He was the first born of fourteen children, of which only six survived. Since his family owned only a small number of livestock, his father often worked as a shepherd for others to provide additional income for his family’s subsistence.
Before reaching school age, Ismael migrated with his family and their tribe along the grazing lands of their livestock. But when he reached the age of seven, he stayed behind in his tribe’s village, called Bovanlu, with his paternal grandparents to go to school. Since at the time there were no schools in Bovanlu, he attended the elementary school in Oghaz, a village about two miles away.
The living conditions were quite primitive where Ismael and his people lived. There was no electricity, no tap water, no paved roads, and no conveniences of modern lifestyle. Wood and bushes were the source of heating while kerosene was the source lighting. He remembers how he had to do his homework during daylight time because at night they had to economize on the kerosene light. He also recalls how he would occasionally violate the “curfew” when he wanted to study at night: he would gently turn the kerosene lamp on, kept the light dim, and quietly study in bed—all the while making sure that his grandparents were sleep.
In those days, formal education in Ismael’s region, and in Iran’s countryside as a whole, generally meant elementary education. Many families did not send their children, certainly not girls, to school at all. The lifestyle in the countryside (semi-tribal, semi-farming) was such that formal schooling beyond simple ability to read and write was considered redundant and/or cost-inefficient, as it would cost parents money to send their kids to school while depriving them of the children’s valuable work.
Accordingly, Ismael was expected to quit school once he was able to read and write, certainly once he had completed elementary school, and join forces with his parents to carry out the age-old tradition of nomadic lifestyle. But Ismael had a different dream: to leave that lifestyle behind, to continue his education beyond elementary school, and to get a high school diploma so that he could become a teacher. (At the time, a high school diploma was sufficient for becoming a school teacher.)
Ismael remembers the exact moment of his deciding to become a teacher: when he saw a teacher for the first time in his life. “I was fascinated by the fact that the teacher had more knowledge of things, certainly of the world beyond our region, than my fellow country folks did,” says Ismael. “I was also impressed by how the teacher was dressed in neat clothes and a clean white shirt,” he adds. Ismael also remembers how his decision to abandon the tribal lifestyle was inspired as much by his desire to become a teacher as it was by his wish to leave behind the hardship and insecurity of shepherding and subsistence farming.
Due to financial constraints, however, Ismael’s father was opposed to his leaving home for a distant place to go to high school, since at the time there were no high schools near his home. He recalls how upon his own, his mother’s and one of his elementary school teacher’s insistence that he should continue his education at the high school level, his father had said, “it is not that I am against education; we simply cannot afford it.” He fondly relates how his father was a gentle and kind-hearted man and, after some resistance, conceded to the plan of his going to high school.
And so he left home at the age of 13 to attend middle school at the small town of Bajgeeran some 40 miles away. Although by the standards of today’s means of transportation a 40-mile distance is not much, it seemed like a long distance in those days as there were no motor vehicles of any kind. Furthermore, the travel between Ismael’s village of Bovanlu and Bajgeeran would usually come to an end between late October and early March due to heavy snowfalls in the high mountains that lie between the two places.
To economize on expenses, he shared a single room with three other students in Bajgeeran. As adversity instructs, Ismael learned from that early age how to take care of himself: cooking, washing, cleaning, sewing, and doing whatever else needed to be done in the course of a simple, but not easy, student life. This turned out to be the pattern, more or less, of his long student life—from middle school in Bajgeeran, to high school in Quchan, to college education in Tehran and to graduate studies in New York City.
Due to his family’s financial hardship, Ismael had to quit school for two years, between the seventh and eighth grades. During those two years he was encouraged to follow tradition: marriage and tribal lifestyle. To the chagrin of his father, Ismael refused to take that path. Instead, he stayed in the village, did some farming, some reading (to the extent he could find books to read, which were quite scarce), and a lot of brooding over the uncertain course of his future.
Nearly two years after having to quit school, a travelling school officialfrom Bajgeeran visited Bovanlu, Ismael’s village, and asked the village mayor, called kadkhoda, about the student (Ismael) who had very much impressed him two years earlier when he had attended the middle school in Bajgeeran, but had dropped out of school after the seventh grade. When the mayor replied that his family could not afford to send him to school anymore, the school official, Mr. Pakzad, left Ismael and his family a message: the school would pay for his lodging and books, if the family could provide his food.
Ismael did not get the chance to see Mr. Pakzad during his short visit to Bovanlu, since he was tending a herd of sheep and goat on the outskirts of the village. But when he returned home in the evening and learned of the message, he was elated. Early the next morning, he left home for Bajgeeran, nearly forty miles away, through the narrow, meandering trails of high mountains—alone and on foot, with only his clothes on his back and a loaf of bread in his pocket.
Arriving in Bajgeeran late in the afternoon, Ismael stayed overnight with his old friend Reza K. He had befriended Reza (and his family) two years earlier when he was in the seventh grade. Reza’s father, whom Ismael had come to call amoo (uncle) Heidar, was very kind to Ismael. Ismael fondly recalls how Amoo Heidar would frequently tell him not to hesitate to ask if he needed anything.
The next day, Ismael’s father followed him to Bajgeeran, carrying his meager belongings on the back of a horse. The school official, Mr. Pakzad, fulfilled his promise: providing Ismael with textbooks and other school paraphernalia, as well as a room for his lodging in a relatively secluded corner of the campus, which he had to share with three other students.
After completing middle-school in Bajgeeran, Ismael moved to Quchan, a bigger city, to attend high school. In Quchan, he rented a small room in a private house in return for tutoring (and helping otherwise) the two kids of the family that owned the house—the Mohammed-zadeh family. Ismael had come to know the family from years past in Bajgeeran, because at that time the Mohammed-zadeh family also lived in Bajgeeran. The head of the household, whom Ismael called khaleh (aunt) Zivar, treated Ismael like her own two children. (During a visit to Iran from the United States some 29 years later, Ismael was able to locate and visit with aunt Zivar’s son, Mohammed Reza, who now worked in the city of Mashad as a high school teacher.)
When Ismael got his high school diploma (1969), he was expected to become a school teacher, as he had promised his family, and as he had, indeed, dreamed of becoming a school teacher in his childhood years. By this time, however, “my dream seemed to have grown bigger” he says. “Since in the face of some highly challenging odds I had managed to become a school teacher, I now dreamed of becoming a college professor,” he adds.
The first step in this direction was to take the very rigorous entrance exam to college. To take the test, Ismael had to travel to Tehran, some 400 miles away. The trip would cost about 280 tomans (7 tomans were equal to one US dollar at the time), he remembers, which he did not have; neither did his family. Besides, he could not even share the idea of taking the test (and the trip) with his parents, since they had waited a long time for him to get his high school diploma, to become a school teacher, and earn an income. “Instead, trying to go college? Out of the question,” he recalls his father saying.
Ismael figured that if he studied hard and got admitted to the prestigious Tehran University, not only did he not have to pay tuition he would also be eligible for the highly subsidized room and board provided by the University.
After some soul searching, Ismael shared his dream of going to college with khaleh Zivar. Without hesitation, she said she would be glad to lend him the money for the trip. This allowed Ismael to travel to Tehran and take the test, without telling his family, or anybody else. “I guess part of the reason for my keeping the trip and the test a secret was because the admission test was so demanding that I did not have much hope of passing it,” he muses. He remembers how the overwhelming majority of those who passed the entrance exam to Tehran University were from larger cities with better schools and teachers, not from smaller places like Quchan.
When the results of the test were published two weeks later in nationwide newspapers, Ismael’s having passed the test became big news, not only in his high school and his village, but more broadly in his entire region, which consisted of several small towns and many villages.
Ismael recalls how his parents were both happy and sad to learn of his having successfully passed the test. Happy, because it was a rare success, and they were proud of it; and sad, because it was beyond their financial means to send him to college.
As Ismael and his family pondered over this (bitter-sweet) situation, they received a message from a Mr. G. Rezaian to the effect that he would gladly support Ismael’s college education without expecting anything in return. Mr. Rezaian was a Kurd who lived with his family in Quchan at the time. He had no family connection with Ismael or his folks, but had come to know him through his own and his relatives’ children who were in Ismael’s school, while he studied in Quchan. He was a kind and generous person who valued education, and had volunteered to help Ismael when he learned of his predicament.
“Although my parents were touched by Mr. Rezaian’s offer, they were nonetheless taken aback by it,” Ismael remembers. He further relates: “I guess it was too much for the tribal/Kurdish pride to accept such a generous offer. My brother, who was by now 18 years old, was especially adamant that we should not accept the offer. Instead, he offered, and my parents accepted, to sell seven head of the family’s sheep, as this would bring enough money for my going to, settling in and living for few months in Tehran.”
A few months after settling in Tehran, Ismael landed a part-time teaching job at Mash-ale Danehs, courtesy of Mr. Shamkhali. Mr. Shamkhali, who was also originally a Kurd from Bajgeeran, ran a night school in southern Tehran, called Mash-ale Danesh. Before going to Tehran and starting college, Ismael had contacted him, and received the promise of teaching part-time at Mashaal-e Danesh in the evenings. Mr. Shamkhali stood by his promise, and Ismael’s teaching at his school crucially contributed to the provision of his living expenses while attending college in Tehran.
To follow his dream of becoming a college professor, Ismael had to find a way to go abroad to get the required doctorate degree. So, while still a student at Tehran University, he contacted his fellow countryman Baratali M. who had had an opportunity to visit the Unites States during a military training tour. Baratali was from Oghaz, the village next to Ismael’s village of Bovanlu. He had been recruited into the Air Force, and sent to the United State for a four-month training tour. (Under the Shah of Iran such military training programs in the U.S. were carried out regularly.) Baratali encouraged Ismael to apply to graduate programs in the United States and not worry about money because, he told Ismael, once he got to the U.S. he could find work to support his graduate studies. And that is, indeed, what Ismael did.
Upon graduating from Tehran University (1973), he did more teaching at Mashaal-e Danesh to save money for the plane ticket to the United States. He also did a lot of private tutoring during the year prior to the planned trip to the U.S. And by late 1974 he had managed to save enough money for the air fare. By this time, he had also secured admission to the economics graduate program at Queens College in New York City. There was yet another hurdle in the way of his getting a student visa from the U.S. consulate in Tehran: showing a savings bank account of at least 7,000.0 US dollars in his own name. (This was a general requirement, designed to make sure that students who came to the U.S. had enough money not work there.)
To fulfill this requirement, a friend of Ismael, H. Gholami, lent him the required money for the visa interview at the U.S. consulate in Tehran, which helped secure his student visa. Upon getting his visa, Ismael flew to the United States on February 2, 1975, to pursue his graduate studies in economics—first at Queens College of the City University of New York, then at New York University, and finally at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, where he got his doctorate in political economy.
At the New School, Ismael immersed himself in the field of political economics, studying the influence of economics on history, sociology, politics, philosophy and psychology. With his unique upbringing, Ismael began to understand the role of economics in shaping a nation’s lifestyle and ideals.
“For many people around the world, especially in less-industrialized societies, abstract issues like democracy are not viewed to be as critical to life as bread-and-butter issues like jobs and economic security,” he points out. “I detect economics behind many things: politics, legal systems and many other social issues and structures. They are often submerged and invisible, but I see economics at work almost everywhere.” With the same determination to pursue his education, Ismael is steadfast in his pursuit of research and writing to shine a spotlight on economic injustice as it impacts humanity globally.
Ismael vividly remembers that he arrived in the United States with only $73 dollars in his pocket. And so he had to find a job quickly; and he did. On the third day of his arrival, he found a job to work as a dishwasher, at the T-Bone Diner in Queens, New York. This turned out to be one of many odd jobs he had to do to support his graduate studies in the U.S. (In the context of his journey to the United States, Ismael would like to acknowledge the kindness of two individuals, Baratali M. and Karam D., who helped him with his admission application to Queens College, as well as with finding his first apartment and first job in New York City.)
Upon completing his graduate work at the New School (1988), Ismael moved to Des Moines, Iowa, to teach economics at Drake University. Because of his unique personal background, his diverse intellectual interests and broad academic training, encompassing both mainstream and political economics, his students often found his classes challenging as well as inspiring. Statements from his former students clearly confirm this point: “Thanks for an excellent course this past spring. . . . The skills of critical analysis and skepticism that I acquired this semester will stay with me for a long time” (T. Sechser, Drake and Iowa Rhodes Scholar). “I would like to thank you for your insightful lectures and knowledge, which you eagerly shared, making my education at Drake one of a kind” (E. Vasiliades, London School of Economics).
A committee of Drake professors who reviewed Ismael’s academic dossier for tenure and promotion purposes wrote: “Professor Hossein-zadeh is a consummate teacher, scholar and citizen in both the professional and the general community. He employs an effective and innovative style of teaching. His approach to economics is one that recognizes how integral it is in understanding and addressing major social issues. He is a deeply caring person who treats his students and colleagues with compassion. He shares his expertise generously with the public.”
Since joining Drake University in the fall of 1988, Ismael has published three books, and many scholarly articles in prestigious professional journals. His published work is praised by his peers (nationwide and beyond) as being rigorous while at the same time accessible and inviting to the educated lay reader. His views on various issues of political economics have been quoted in both the New York Times and the equally prestigious Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.
A major thrust of Ismael’s written work has been to “demystify economics,” as he puts it; to write about it in a way that is understandable to any educated lay reader who is interested in social, economic and political issues. He regrets how mainstream economics (as an academic discipline, as well as a set of policy guidelines) has evolved as a largely esoteric field of discourse—abstracted from many of its social, political and historical contexts and developments.
This explains why, along with long scholarly articles, he has also published many shorter pieces in well-respected magazines and newspapers, both print and electronic. These relatively shorter, clearly written articles cover significant topics in various social and economic issues that find relevance to everyday living conditions of people. These include issues such as financial crisis, unemployment, budget deficit, national/sovereign debt, economics of war and military spending, economics of prison-industrial complex, economics of war on terrorism and on drug dealing, and the like.
Ismael also uses his expertise to make generous contributions to the Drake community and to various civic groups beyond the campus, both nationally and internationally. He regularly provides a public service by contributing commentaries not only to the printed news media, but also to television networks and radio broadcasts on the subjects related to international economics, the Middle East, the Arab/Muslim world, war and militarism, and more. His views on these critically important issues, as expressed in his articles and media commentaries, reach a wide audience worldwide.