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07/30/09

Iranian-American Community Vital to Advance of Persian Studies

Academic programs demonstrate different ways to explore the field


Royce Hall, completed in 1929, is one of the four original buildings on UCLA's Westwood campus.
Washington - Once relegated to ancient languages and civilizations, the field of Persian and Iranian studies has evolved rapidly in recent decades toward teaching Persian as a living, modern - and international - language and culture.

PERSIAN STUDIES LANDSCAPE

The diversity and range of Persian programs in the United States today reflect a variety of factors, including the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the end of the Cold War and the impact of a large and active Iranian-American community.

Although most Persian studies programs, especially at state universities, offer the same basic curriculum of language, history and literature courses, many institutions have areas of particular academic focus or strength.

Harvard University offers two Persian-Iranian programs of study, according to a survey conducted by the California-based PARSA Community Foundation. One covers the New Persian language and literature and Islamic studies spanning Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Ottoman Empire from the 10th century to the present. The second encompasses pre-Islamic languages and literature, ancient religions and comparative linguistics.

Stanford University and the University of California at Irvine emphasize interdisciplinary studies in which students of Iranian and Persian culture take courses in different departments, such as comparative literature, classics, history, archeology and even music.

A distinctive strength of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), according to the PARSA foundation, "is the focus on medieval and Arabic philosophy." Professor Hossein Ziai, director of Iranian studies at UCLA, points to courses that allow students to read classical Persian texts dealing not only with literature, but also history and science.

"For example, pre-med students can study the corpus of medical writings and pharmacopeia, and see how people dealt with the same medical issues 1,000 years ago," Ziai said.

The Persian studies program at the University of Texas offers courses on classical Persia, but it focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries, and especially on the post-World War II era.

The Association for the Study of Persianate Societies, founded in 1998 at the University of Minnesota and now based at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, regularly brings visitors from Iran and Central Asia to conferences and conventions in the United States. It publishes a newsletter and has launched an annual publication of scholarly articles in the Journal of Persianate Studies.

The association has branch offices located at international institutions and academic centers in Iran, Tajikistan, India, Pakistan, Armenia, Georgia and Austria.

Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, director of Persian studies at the University of Maryland, sees a shift in Middle Eastern studies away from treating the region as a single entity and toward the study of individual nation-states. "There is no monolithic Islam today," he said, "especially at a time when every country is forging its own fate with Islam. The examples of Turkey, Iran and Egypt point to the divergences in their responses."

The end of the Cold War has brought wider recognition that Persian language, literature and culture - past and present - extend far beyond the boundaries of Iran. Much of Persian literature was not written in what is now Iran but in Central Asia, Karimi-Hakkak said. Persian language and culture flourished on the Indian subcontinent for five centuries.

Karimi-Hakkak also said the eastward advance of Islam through Asia followed a Persian model, not an Arabic model, a fact not widely understood in the West.

"Persian is an international language spoken in at least four different sites," he said. "Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and the very sizeable Iranian and Afghan diaspora."

For Karimi-Hakkak, diaspora studies may well be one of the future directions for Persian studies at a time of large-scale national diasporas, whether Korean, South Asian or Latin American.

"In an age where almost no one dies where they were born, there is a need to study diaspora communities - and what better place to study them than in the United States, which has made a community of such groups?" he said.

ENDOWMENTS AND IRANIAN AMERICANS

The most pronounced feature of contemporary Persian studies today may be the role of the Iranian-American community at a time of shrinking budgets for most universities in the United States.

Among large donors, the nonprofit Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute has provided grants totaling $3 million to the University of Maryland to endow what is now called the Roshan Institute Center for Persian Studies. The endowment supports a chair in Persian language and linguistics along with graduate and undergraduate fellowships.

The Roshan Institute has also provided grants and fellowships to the University of Washington, the University of Arizona, Pennsylvania State University, UCLA, and California State University at Fresno.

UCLA now has two endowed chairs in Iranian studies along with several named graduate fellowships, according to  Ziai, director of Iranian studies there. "And we are continuing to look for support to keep our program growing," he added.

In 2005, technology entrepreneur Fariborz Maseeh pledged $2 million from his foundation to establish an interdisciplinary center for Persian studies and culture at the University of California at Irvine.

Large numbers of Iranian Americans continue to support conferences and lecture series, fund undergraduate and graduate scholarships, and endow professorial chairs for Persian programs at universities across the country.

Even the Encyclopaedia Iranica is now largely supported by private individual and institutional donors.

This community support may help ensure that Persian and Iranian studies - from the archaeology and cultures of ancient Persia to the cultural and political dynamics of contemporary Iran - will continue to flourish and grow in the United States.

For more information, see the following Web sites:


Part one: "Persian Studies in United States Reflects Dynamism and Growth"

Part three: "Iranian-American Community Vital to Advance of Persian Studies"

Read more on Americ.gov

About America.gov: 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.

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