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Persian Studies in United States Reflects Dynamism and Growth

Thriving academic program grew from 19th-century roots

Professor Richard Davis teaches at Ohio State University.
Washington - When President Obama sent Nowruz greetings to Persian-speaking peoples around the world, he quoted a familiar line of the great Persian poet Saadi. Remarkably, the English translation that he used ("The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence") is more than 150 years old, by the 19th-century American philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson was not unique. Other literary figures of the time, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, would have been equally familiar with Saadi and other seminal figures of classical Persian literature.

"Later on, there was a whole rage for Omar Khayyam," said Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, director of the University of Maryland's Persian Studies Center, in an interview. "If you were an educated New Englander in the early 20th century, you wouldn't have a library without The Rubaiyat." (See "Persian Poet Omar Khayyam Inspires New Iranian-American Film.")


What is now called Persian or Iranian studies functioned for more than 100 years - from the 19th to the mid-20th century - as part of the classical academic model imported from Europe termed "Orientalism."

Universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago and California at Berkeley established departments of Near East or Middle Eastern studies built on the pillars of the four major cultures of the region: Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Turkish.

The Oriental model meant that Persian remained largely cloistered in a scholarly citadel, taught exclusively at the graduate level and treated as a classical culture from the distant past.

"Persian was defined as an ancient or dead culture," said Professor Hossein Ziai, director of Iranian studies at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), the largest such program in the country. "Persian was never looked at from the perspective of a living language and culture, but seen only as Old Persian, as a classical but dead language, like Sumerian," he told

On the other hand, 19th-century European scholarship did represent a major breakthrough in understanding the civilization of ancient Persia, said Kamran Talattof, professor of Persian studies at the University of Arizona. "German Orientalists, for example, had great respect for ancient Persian culture."

Maryland's Karimi-Hakkak said, "It was really with the emergence of the United States after the Second World War as a world power that Iranian studies really started in earnest."

America's postwar engagement with the Middle East helped produce a generation of scholars and teachers who had good opportunities to travel and study in Iran, whether as exchange students, diplomats or Peace Corps volunteers. Michael Hillmann, professor of Persian studies at the University of Texas, found his vocation as a teacher with the Peace Corps in Mashad in the 1960s. (See "For Many, Ties to Peace Corps Service in Iran Remain.")

The United States had another more subtle, but important, asset. Traditional European Orientalism, whatever its indisputable scholarly achievements, emerged in the era of colonialism, and as Karimi-Hakkak said, "posited the inferior 'other.'" The United States was never a traditional colonial power in the Middle East like Britain and France.

"By the time you cross to North America in the post-colonial era, you don't have the same situation," Karimi-Hakkak said.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, said UCLA's Ziai, "scholars began looking at modern Persian as distinct from its identity as an ancient language. It evolved into a separate discipline as a modern, living, international language and culture."


Persian and Iranian culture has long had scholarly advocates who have sought to expand its influence and appreciation. The first American pioneers were art historians Arthur Pope and his wife, Phyllis Ackerman, who founded the American Institute for Persian Art in 1925. It later became the Asia Institute in New York. They are widely credited with expanding Western understanding of the richness of Persian and Iranian civilization.

Pope and Ackerman moved the Asia Institute to Shiraz in the 1960s, and they are buried in a mausoleum next to the Zayandeh River in Isfahan.

American Scholar, Dr. Richard Nelson Frye, is Aga Khan Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies at Harvard University.

Perhaps the most prominent living advocate for the historical importance of Iranian civilization is scholar Richard Nelson Frye, born in 1920, an Aga Khan Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies at Harvard University.

"In all of Eurasia, from time immemorial," he said in a CNN interview, "there have been two great cultures, two great civilizations. One is China. The other is Iran."

Frye, who is fluent in seven modern and several ancient languages in addition to Persian, helped found the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University in 1954, which launched the first modern Iranian studies in the United States. He served as director of the Asia Institute in Shiraz from 1970 to 1975. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and more than a dozen books, including a memoir, Greater Iran: A 20th-Century Odyssey.

In 2003, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called Frye "among the greatest" scholars in the field of Iranian studies. "He has acquired enormous knowledge about ancient Iranian culture, history and archaeology. ... Over the years he has trained numerous students and enlightened vast audiences."

As Frye told CNN, "I spent all my life working in Iran. I don't mean the Iran of today - I mean Greater Iran that extended all the way from China to the borders of Hungary, from Outer Mongolia to Mesopotamia. ... This is my life."

Frye, too, has asked to be buried beside the Zayandeh River in Isfahan.


Richard Davis, a British-born scholar and poet, has been instrumental in making Persian literature accessible to wider American and English-speaking audiences. Davis, chairman of Near Eastern languages and culture at Ohio State University, has translated several of the masterpieces of Persian literature, including its national epic, Ferdowsi's Shanameh (Persian Book of Kings), and the romantic medieval tale by Fakhraddin Gorgoni, Vis and Ramin.

Davis' translations have been hailed for their insight and evocative language - and for the sheer size of his undertaking. His Shanameh is more than 850 pages; Vis and Ramin is 500 pages of rhymed couplets.

In the four years it took to translate Vis and Ramin, "I was completely transported," Davis said in a 2008 interview at Stanford University. "It's one of the greatest poems ever written. ... I know of no greater love poem in any language."

Shanameh presented Davis with very different challenges, from the mystery of Ferdowsi's sources to telling a tale spanning Persian history from its mythic origins to the Arab Muslim conquest in the 7th century.

Michael Dirda, a book critic at the Washington Post newspaper, wrote that Davis' translation of the Shanameh "possesses the simplicity and elevation appropriate to an epic but never sounds grandiose; its sentences are clear, serene and musical. At various heightened moments - usually of anguish or passion - Davis will shift into aria-like verse, and the results remind us that the scholar and translator is also a noted poet." (See "A Poet Brings Persian Literature and Culture to Americans.")

Ferdowsi's accomplishment was to help preserve Persian heritage and traditions within an Islamic society, Davis said.

Although the Shanameh embodies the unique qualities of Persian civilization, it is a work of universal truths, in Davis' view. "The one quality that most of the poem has, which is absent from epics in most other cultures, is its earnestly ethical atmosphere," he said in an interview.

"The universality is everywhere evident in the poem - the concern with justice, with what it is to be a good man or woman, with the depredations of time and warfare, with the apparent unfairness of the world that so often seems to reward evil and destroy goodness ... with the nature of love and honor," Davis said.

"All these concerns can speak to almost anyone with ears to hear, from almost any culture."

About U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.

... Payvand News - 07/28/09 ... --

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