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In the Iranian World, a Scholarly Guide to Everything

By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,, Washington

Ehsan Yarshater, the dean of scholars on the Iranian world, says he wanted the encyclopedia to explore beyond the usual topics of scholarship.
New York - You can't find an entry for Ehsan Yarshater in the Encyclopaedia Iranica - after all, the printed volumes have reached only up to K, and the online entries for letters farther down the alphabet are incomplete. Besides, at 90, Yarshater is very much alive, and the encyclopedia does not publish entries on living people.

But more than any other of the 1,300-plus scholars who have contributed articles for it, Yarshater, a professor emeritus at Columbia University in New York, is very much a part of this encyclopedia of everything to do with Iran; in many ways, he is the encyclopedia.

He conceived of it as a student in the 1930s when he questioned why the Encyclopaedia of Islam, then being published, was short of entries on Islam in Iran and had nothing about pre-Islamic Iran. He tried to develop a Persian-language encyclopedia of Iran, only to see the project die in the Islamic Revolution. In the three decades since, he has made his idea for an English-language encyclopedia a hardbound and online reality as the premier compendium of scholarship on the Iranian world.

His project reflects Yarshater's encyclopedic interest in the Iranian world, far beyond his own areas of expertise of Persian poetry and Iranian dialects. When the first section of the first volume came out in 1982, he said, many people expressed surprise at finding an article on abgosht (see the encyclopedia entry), a popular Iranian stew - "a poor people's dish," Yarshater said, not usually a subject of scholarship. "So that article showed, first of all, that we are not confining ourselves to traditional subjects ... but we are interested in how people live and anthropological questions. And in fact, we have covered all the Persian foods."

A friend warned him, "You have thrown your net far too wide." His encyclopedia is catching all of Iran's fish, its animals and its plants. "We have covered every single flower, every single plant that has been mentioned in Persian books on flora," Yarshater said, with articles not only about the taxonomy of each plant but also its use in medicine, its place in folklore and its appearance in literature.

The entry on the southern Afghan city of Kandahar includes not one but six articles: an overview of its political geography and five, by different scholars, on different eras of its history.

"Somehow, we started in such a detailed fashion that the length that we give to each topic does not leave anything unsaid," he said, chuckling, as he sat at his desk in the Iranica offices, part of Columbia University's Center for Iranian Studies.

Yarshater first came to Columbia as a visiting professor in 1958. He stayed for two years and returned to Iran, but Columbia soon offered him a newly endowed chair as a professor. He said the decision to settle in New York was "extremely difficult": He was happy in Tehran, where he was founding director of the Royal Institute of Translation and Publication and founder of a lending library. He left for Columbia in 1961.

While teaching, Yarshater developed his plan for the encyclopedia, forming a board with scholars from around the world and eventually hiring two part-time helpers. The project had financial support from Iran until the 1979 revolution, after which he turned to the National Endowment for the Humanities, a U.S. government agency, for help.

"Since the need for the encyclopedia was there, I could not possibly accept killing off the idea," Yarshater said.

Despite ill feelings in the United States toward Iran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis, he got what he needed from the National Endowment: first, a small amount to keep the encyclopedia alive, and then the first of a series of grants that have paid most of the encyclopedia's budget for 30 years. The encyclopedia also relies on its fundraising arm, founded in 1990, to help pay the bills and to build an endowment to support the project in the future. The encyclopedia's budget last year was $900,000.

The project needed scholars as well as dollars. "Finding the people who could write according to our standards, based on written and published works, is one of our difficulties and has been with us right from the beginning," Yarshater said.

"We usually look for the best person" to write on a given topic, he added. "Now, this best person may be in Japan, may be in Turkey, may be in Iran, may be in Canada. We give them a choice of writing in English, if possible; if not, in their own language. So a question of translating from Italian, German, French, other languages, has been always there because translating these articles is not quite easy either."

Encyclopaedia Iranica

When the encyclopedia's editors invite a scholar to write an article on a topic, they set a limit on its length. After the article is submitted and edited, it is reviewed by others in the field before being included in the encyclopedia.

"The encyclopedia, I must say, has a very good reputation, and the kind of people who have written for it are absolutely the top people," Yarshater said. It also attracts young professors and graduate students, who recognize that getting an article in the encyclopedia will enhance their professional standing.

In response to concerns that the encyclopedia never would be done, its board has decided to "rush" the first edition to completion in 2020, the year Yarshater would turn 100. The 15th volume is coming out now, and he expects the full project to span at least 35 volumes. The material also is available online.

The endowment ensures the project's survival well beyond Yarshater's lifetime. "The encyclopedia will continue indefinitely once the first edition is complete," he said. "First of all, many of the entries become dated," such as those about Afghanistan that should take into account the turmoil there. And new topics will be eligible for inclusion: "We do not write the biography of living people, but these people also keep dying," he said.

Yarshater is in no rush to become eligible for an entry. His apartment is just down the hall from the encyclopedia's office; in fact, the office took over an apartment he once rented to house his library, which he donated to become the encyclopedia's library.

Now widowed for 10 years, Yarshater said the encyclopedia is his only child.

"It has been the greatest pleasure of my life," he said. "At 91 - almost - I work between 8 and nine hours a day. ... And maybe that has helped my health, really, because I know that I have to be in the office at 9 o'clock, and I have to clear my desk, hopefully - I seldom succeed. But I think it has given meaning and purpose to my life. There has never been a day when I woke up and wondered what I have to do today, or feeling bored about anything.

"As soon as I get up, every day at 6 o'clock, sometimes a few minutes early, I know that I have to do my exercises to be at my office at 9 o'clock. The one person that, as long as I can remember, at least for the past 20 years, has not been absent from the office or has had a cold for one single day - that's me."

Yarshater is hampered by one infirmity: a hereditary problem called essential tremor, which causes his hands to shake. The tremor caused him to stop teaching in 2003, when he was merely 83.

"This has been the bane of my life because I can't write, I cannot put down a telephone number, I even have difficulty signing checks," Yarshater said. Editing scholarly articles on the computer, let alone writing them, is out of the question.

It turns out that alcohol provides temporary relief, but he does not like the flavor. "I still drink wine like a medicine, and all those people drink it for pleasure," he said.

This topic, like many others, brings to Yarshater's mind a scholarly point:

"In Persian poetry, there is a cult of wine that you wouldn't believe in an Islamic country," he said. "In Persian lyrics, the first topic is love and description of the beloved, and description of being separated or not having attained to the beloved. ... The second is the wine and drunkenness. Poets like Saadi and Hafez, the most popular of Persian poets, every second line is about wine."

The topic, needless to say, is covered in the encyclopedia.

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.

VIDEO: Profile of Ehsan Yarshater 

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