A native of Baghdad, Iraq, she was educated in Europe and the United States. She received her Master of Arts and doctoral degrees (Ph.D. 1989) in art history and archeology from New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.
Prior to her appointment at Columbia University, Bahrani taught at the University of Vienna in Austria, State University of New York at Stony Brook, and was a curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Near Eastern Antiquities Department from 1989 to 1992.
On May 25, 2004, Bahrani was appointed to work with the Coalition Provisional Authority as Senior Consultant for Culture. She has stated that her objective will be to continue the reconstruction of the Iraq National Museum and the Iraq National Library and to identify new opportunities for training and study abroad.