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Iranian Americans Celebrate Encyclopedia Iranica

By Burton Bollag, Special Correspondent,

1,400 scholars have contributed to the cultural and historical work

A display of Persian artifacts and the Encyclopedia Iranica at the University of Arizona.
Little Neck, New York - Some 200 Iranian Americans packed a meeting hall on Long Island, New York, just outside of New York City at the end of March to celebrate the Persian New Year, Nowruz. While a graying singer performed loud Iranian popular songs from the 1970s, participants sampled a buffet of Persian delicacies, including mashed eggplant, chicken and potato salad, melon, and pistachio pastries.

Unlike most of the hundreds of Nowruz celebrations that took place around the United States, this one had a special theme. It honored a remarkable academic project: the Encyclopedia Iranica.

Started in the mid-1970s by Ehsan Yarshater, a leading Iranian scholar working in the United States, the encyclopedia is intended as an objective and exhaustive reference work on the history and culture of Iran and the large swath of Central Asia that the Persian Empire once dominated. Since the third millennium B.C., Persia - as Iran was long called - has been home to one of the world's oldest and most flourishing civilizations. It also has a long and rich literary tradition, though most surviving works date from after the Islamic conquest of Persia, around the year 650.

With contributions from 1,400 scholars, the encyclopedia is now halfway completed. The 15th volume, containing entries up to the letter "K," has just gone to press.

Encyclopedia Iranica

Praised for its high academic standards, the project is in some ways unique. Unlike the Encyclopedia Britannica, l'Encyclopédie française, and other reference works dedicated to the history and culture of a particular nation, the Encyclopedia Iranica is produced outside the country it is documenting. Perhaps even more extraordinary, the work is published in English, and not in Persian, the language of Iran.

"The idea is to make this available to the entire world," said Yarshater, who, at 89, still heads the project based at Columbia University, in New York City. "I would never have done this in Persian. That would have addressed a very small number of people who don't particularly need it."

The encyclopedia, a nonprofit effort, contains entries written by specialists from around the world. "We always look for the best scholar for each subject, wherever they may be," Yarshater said.

This is the second year that scholars across the United States and in several foreign countries have staged events to bring attention to the encyclopedia, under the title International Week of Iranian Culture. The week was coordinated by Yarshater and his colleagues at the Center for Iranian Studies, an institute at Columbia University that he directs.

Persian studies students display items from Persian culture and the Encyclopedia Iranica at the University of Arizona

The events were characterized by the same spirit of openness that the encyclopedia editors say they strive to maintain. At the celebration on Long Island, for example, an amateur scholar presented a lecture and slide show on the historic Iranian city of Hamadan and its famous shrine to Esther, a Jewish queen, and her adoptive father, Mordechai.

According to the Old Testament of the Hebrew and Christian Bible, Esther prevailed on her husband, Persian king Ahasuerus, to prevent the massacre of the Jews of Persia in the fifth century B.C. The shrine, with its Jewish history clearly identified, is a popular attraction today.

Scholars elsewhere found other ways to celebrate the Week of Iranian Culture. At the University of Arizona, students in the Persian studies program participated in a poetry recitation contest at a foreign language fair staged by the university. They delivered verses they had memorized from the great classical poets Rumi and Ferdowsi, as well as modern Iranian poets.

At Georgetown University, in Washington, the Persian and Iranian studies departments of several area universities jointly organized a panel of undergraduate students. Each spoke about how they were using Encyclopedia Iranica for a research project.

In Chicago, Hamid Akbari, chair of the management and marketing department at Northeastern Illinois University, helped organize an off-campus production of the play Four Boxes to raise money for the encyclopedia. The play was written by popular, Iran-based filmmaker and playwright Bahram Beyzaie, some of whose works have been banned in his own country.

Akbari said the encyclopedia project is unique in garnering support from Iranians of all walks of life. "I've never seen such general support and excitement for any other project."

For three decades, the encyclopedia has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent, publicly funded agency in the United States, and in recent years, from individual Iranian Americans.

Several copies of the encyclopedia are available in Iran - at the National Library and at a few other libraries. Mohammad Tabatabai, the director of the Iranian Cultural Center in Paris, told that the project is "something that is necessary. We are completely favorable to it."

Yet scholars who have collaborated with the project say that academics in Iran who have written entries for the encyclopedia have been subject to harassment, such as being questioned by police.

"Government officials do not like the encyclopedia because it has been free of censorship," said Yashater, its director, "and because it writes about minorities." Iran's religious establishment particularly abhors references to the Bahá'ís, whom it considers heretics. Tabatabai, the Iranian cultural official in Paris, denied the allegations of harassment.

Yarshater added that unauthorized, "pirated" copies of the encyclopedia are being sold in Iran. "We can't do anything about it," he said. "But to tell you the truth, we don't mind. Our aim is to spread this knowledge."

All of the encyclopedia's content is available free at

For related information, see "For Many, Ties to Peace Corps Service in Iran Remain" and "World Digital Library Offers Cultural Treasures from Around Globe."

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 - 05/01/09 ... --

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