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Interview with Professor Ehsan Yarshater, the Founder and Editor of Encyclopedia Iranica


By Contributor (Source: Persian Heritage Magazine)

I want to thank you Dr. Ahkami and Persian Heritage magazine for giving me the honor to be interviewed.

No, Dr. Yarshater, it is our honor. You have done such wonderful things to preserve Persian culture and history. Please introduce yourself to our readers.

I was born in Hamadan, Iran April 3, 1920. My father Hashem Yarshater and my mother Rowhaniyeh were born in Kashan, Iran. He and his brothers were in the trade business and were stationed in different cities. My mother was tall and well shaped and had a beautiful voice, played ney, and was a good speaker. She was often invited to speak at Baha’i gatherings. My family name means an agile friend and is taken from a phrase by Sa’adi in his Golestan, where someone is quoted as saying: “I have the power to be yar-e shater, not a bar-e khater.”

Tell us about your education.

I began schooling at the Alliance elementary School, in Hamadan, a school founded by the French Jews. My second year was completed at the Tayid School, run by the Baha’is. In 1305-1306 because of the requirement of my father’s business we moved to Kermanshah and after some 13 months then to Tehran, where all my relatives gradually came to take residence. We were not very well off financially and therefore rented a house with another family. My father was a man of profound religious faith, with little interest in worldly matters.

Were there good memories?

Wonderful memories. In particular I can remember how many days I was awakened at dawn by my father saying his daily prayers. My elementary education continued in Tehran at the Tarbiat School on Kakh Avenue. My father was a believer in an international language and therefore learned and also taught Esperanto language that had been invented for the purpose by a Polish scholar. We had a collection of Esperanto books in our house and once when my mother was visiting Haifa I wrote her a letter not only in Persian but also in Esperanto.

During my youth Esperanto language had much support and was learned by many, particularly in Europe. But unfortunately it did not survive the strength and popularity of English language.

When I was in grade six we had two teachers. One day, the one who taught Persian and History, Hedayatollah Nayer-e Sina, praised me generously for my having reproduced from memory our history lesson without missing a single word. His encouragement and praise affected me deeply. From that day I changed from an ordinary student to a purposeful one, eager to learn and delighted to master my daily lessons.

When Mr. Azizollah Mesbah, the principal of Tarbiat School, who was very traditional and a believer in corporeal punishment retired, Ali Akbar Foroutan, educated in Psychology and Education in Russia, became our principal. He showed great confidence on me and I continued to be a serious student.

I had just entered the seventh grade when my mother fell ill with a kidney disease. Dialysis was not known in those days in Iran. She passed away at the young age of 33. I was barely twelve and her death devastated me. Twice I tried to kill myself with swallowing opium, but every time I was saved. I continued to mourn my mother’s death long after I was a grown up man. In my childish estimation, I believed that my naughtiness was the cause of my mother’s death and this gave me a profound sense of guilt. My father passed away a year after of my mother’s death when he was 45. His passing caused my family to split up. My elder brother, five years my senior, went to Gilan in search of work. My elder maternal uncle took me in. My sister was sent to stay with my younger maternal uncle who had three daughters, and my younger brother, five years my junior, was given to my maternal grandmother to keep.

And your memories of this period?

Despite the grief and the loneliness caused by my mother’s passing there were good memories as well. When I was in the sixth grade I began reading fiction and non-fiction books. I was fascinated by books such as Arsene Lupin’s adventures, Rocambole and Pardiyans, which were translated from French into Persian. I would rent such books from a bookshop not far from my uncle’s house to read them.

At the beginning of the eighth grade, by order of the government the Baha’i schools were closed down, among them Tarbiat, my school. The reason was that the Baha’i schools closed on Baha’i holy days and this was against the government decree that the school should close only on official and approved holidays.

I went to the Sharaf school, but again I was still depressed over the death of my mother. One day I left my uncle’s house and went to live with my elder brother who now lived in a modest place in Tehran as a paramedic. He had a heart of gold and gave me all his savings.

Initially I did not go to school, but then I began to feel guilty, remembering how much my mother believed in education and wanted me to study. But I did not have money either to live or to pay for my school tuition.

I found my way to the Ministry of Education and was led to see a Mr. Yazdanfar, one of the directors of the Ministry. I stood before his desk and when he asked me what I wanted, I said I wanted to study. I was thirteen.

He asked me about my parents. I said they were dead. He asked whether I have any uncles or relatives. I said none. He said there was no rule in the Ministry for helping a student like me. I insisted that I needed to study. In the end he wrote a note and gave it to me to take it to a Mr. Mehmandust who headed a boarding school for the tribal children: Kurds, Lors and Turkmens whose fathers Reza Shah had subdued, but had sent their sons to Tehran to study. Each morning they would leave the boarding house to go to their schools and would return for lunch and again for dinner. Mr. Mehmandust did not know what to do with me. He said: you are not ashayer, are you? I said no. He thought for a long time and at the end he said I would give you a bed for tonight, but I am not sure that we could keep you here.

It happened that the Ministry had just opened the first Normal School in Tehran. Its graduates would become elementary school teachers. As the school did not have yet a place of its own, the first year students were given room in the ashayer boarding school. I was sent to the director of that school.

He was a good man and happened to know my father. He explained to me that in order to be accepted as a student to the normal school one need to have a certificate that he had passed the ninth grade. I did not. As he was thinking of what to do with me, I said if you give me sixth months, I would sit for the exam of the ninth grade. If I passed, you could register me; if I didn’t, I shall be on my own. He said this required permission from the Ministry of Education. Come back tomorrow.

When I went to him the next day, he told me that the Ministry had agreed that I be examined at the end of sixth months for the ninth grade. If I passed, I could continue to be a student at the Normal School. The Normal School of Tehran was being built on a large plot of land on Roosevelt Avenue south of Amjadiyyeh. It was to be the most modern school in Iran, equipped with a library, a laboratory, a gymnasium, a dining room, and soccer, basketball and volleyball fields and equipments for handicrafts. When it was completed my class was transferred from the Ashayer boarding house to this location.

One of the memories that I have of the Normal School is that when I was student there the ceremony for unveiling of women took place at our school. Reza Shah together with the Queen and his two elder daughters, Princesses Shams and Ashraf, all dressed in long dark coats and wearing hats, and a number of high ranking members of the government attended the ceremony. As students, we were standing in a row, listening to all the speeches that were made.

Were you a good student?

At graduation from the Normal School I ended up being on top of the class. There was a rule the top two students would receive scholarships for continuing their study at Tehran Teachers’ College. I became a recipient of this scholarship. At the Teachers’ College after much hesitation as to whether I should go for the humanities or the sciences, I eventually chose the Department of Persian Language and Literature. The graduates of the Teachers’ College were to teach in one of the provinces at least for several years. But I very much wanted to continue my studies and follow the doctorate courses. Therefore I refused to accept a teaching assignment in the provinces and for six months I had practically to go hungry until finally Dr. Mahmud Mehran who headed the Department of the Secondary Education allowed me to stay in Tehran and teach at the Elmieh High School, one of the oldest high schools in Tehran. I had taught barely two years at Elmieh when Hussein Gunili who had been Assistant Principal of the Normal School when I was studying there and was now its Principal, persuaded the Principal of Elmieh that I be transferred to the Normal School as its Vice-Principal.

Who were your instructors at the Teachers’ College?

They were B. Foruszanfar, M. T. Bahar, E. Purdavoud, Ali-Asghar Hekmat, Ahmad Bahmanyar, Abbas Eghbal-Ashtyani, Amineh Pakravan (for French), Sayyed Kazem Assar, Dr. Rezazadeh Shafagh and Fazel Tuni. All of these teachers were prominent scholars or poets. While I was serving at the Normal School I also studied at the Law School and received a BA in the juridical section. As my English was minimal, I attended English classes at the British Council. My studying there paid off as I received a scholarship from the British Council in 1347 to study Education in England for one year. This was very exciting. When I arrived in England I found out that the great German scholar in Iranian philology, Walter Bruno Henning, was teaching in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies. I decided to study with him rather than studying education, if possible. I asked for an appointment, but as my spoken English was minimal, I asked my friend, Dr. Mahmud Sanai, who was studying psychoanalysis after having received a doctorate in psychology, to accompany me.

Professor Henning asked what I knew of ancient Iranian languages. I said not a word and I wanted to start from the scratch. Nonetheless, he agreed that I study with him. The British Council gave its consent when I pointed out that there was a great need in Iran for instructors of these languages.

My studying with Henning took five years. Mary Boyce was Henning’s assistant. She both studied with him and taught Middle Persian. She was my teacher for Manichean Middle Persian. When Professor Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin of Belgium came to London as a Visiting Professor, he, Mary Boyce and I attended a class where Henning taught the Paikuli Pahlavi inscription.

They are all gone now. Professor Henning died at the early age of 59, one of the great blows to Iranian Studies. Mary Boyce passed away at 86, and Duchesne-Guillemin at 102 in February of this year. I thankfully am still alive.

How long did you stay in England?

In 1953 after getting a Master’s degree in ancient Iranian languages and finishing the courses of a doctorate degree in the same field and choosing the topic of my dissertation I returned to Tehran and resumed my teaching at the University of Tehran, my specific field now being Old Persian inscription.

You eventually ended up at Columbia University in New York, how did that happen?

Five years later I received an invitation to teach Indo-Iranian Languages as a Visiting Associate Professor at Columbia University in New York. Columbia University was looking for somebody to teach Persian language and literature and they were trying various professors from abroad. Several professors from Germany, Sweden, Belgium and Professor Suratgar from Iran had been invited in turn. My teaching at Columbia University was extended for a second year and returned to Tehran in early 1960.

You then returned to Iran?

In the meantime, a wealthy Armenian art collector who had friendly relations with some of the Iranian statesmen endowed a Chair at Columbia University for Iranian Studies. I had been barely six months in Tehran, when I received an invitation from Columbia to return and occupy this Chair and promote Iranian Studies. I had mixed feelings about accepting the position, as I was very happy with my teaching and my other activities in Tehran. I had founded a few years earlier the Institute for Translation and Publication to which I became greatly attached. I created this Institute first in order to translate foreign classics into Persian methodically with the help of capable translators and able editors. Almost none of the great world classics had been translated into Persian. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and one or two Shakespeare’s plays being the only exceptions.

How was this institute financed?

My plans, however, needed a financial base. It happened that for a couple of years Dr. Parviz Natel Khanlari and I were having a dowreh with Asadollah Alam, then the Director of the Royal Properties, Rasul Parvizi, writer of fiction and an entertaining conversationalist, and Ja’far Behbahanian, Deputy Director of the Royal Properties. Money for the kind of cultural and literary activities I had in mind was scarce. I approached Alam, explained my plans, and convinced him that it would be a good idea if the Royal Properties financed the program. He obtained the Shah’s permission and the Institute was in business.

I was sensitive to the fact that once people realized that the publishing institute is supported by money from the Royal Properties it would be flooded by opportunists who came to the Institute with their books about the great services which had been rendered to Iran by the Shah and his father and recommendations from the Royal Court to publish such books.

About this time Alam was looking for some activity in which Queen Soraya could become interested. Alam suggested that we report now and then the activities of the Institute to the Queen. I agreed, but made two conditions: One was that the Institute should be left totally and absolutely free to choose what it wanted to publish and no recommendation from the Royal Court or people connected with it should be made for publishing books not chosen by the Institute; and the second that Alam himself should agree to be the Chair of the Institute’s Board of Directors so that he could safeguard the Institute against opportunistic proposals and saw to it that the Royal Property commitments for the payment of the necessary capital to the Institute was met. He agreed. I must say that both he and Ja’afar Sharif-Emami, who much later replaced him, observed this condition.

I planned for five books to be published all together and on the same day, with a uniform design and the logo of the Institute, which was an ibex adopted from an ancient pottery found in Susa. The five books were the romance of Tristan and Iseult, edited by Joseph Bedier and translated by Dr. Parviz Natel Khanlary; Wilhelm Tell, a play by Schiller, translated from German by Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh, Five Treatises from Plato, translated from English by Dr. Mahmud Sanai, Pere Goriot by Balzac translated by Edward Joseph (an Assyrian conversant with Persian) and Fathers and Sons by Turgenev translated by Dr. Mehri Ahi.

The Institute became the best-known publishing house in Iran. It began by publishing methodical translations of foreign classics, such as Iliad’s Homer, Plutartch’s Lives and some of Shakespeare’s plays, but later it expanded the field of its activity by publishing several other series, such as critical edition of Persian texts, series of books for teenagers, pre-teenagers, and children, and a number of other series, including Mirror of Iran (Ayeneh-e Iran), which aimed at making the different parts of the country known to young readers in a very attractive way by well-known writers such as Jamalzadeh, Sa’id Nafisi and Karim Keshavarz. By 1979 it had published 500 titles.

If our readers would like more information on this, where can they find it?

In the Encyclopedia Iranica:

Encyclopedia Iranica


Can we get back to your coming to America?

Of course as I said earlier, when I left to come to the States I thought I would be here for only one year. I really did not want to leave my work in Iran, I loved what I was doing. But, it happened that I had some differences whith Dr. Jahanshah Saleh, the President of Tehran University and this encouraged me to respond positively to Columbia University’s invitation.I left Iraj Afshar, a close colleague of mine and the Editor of my journal Rahnama-ye ketab in charge of the Institute as my deputy.

Were you married when you came to the US?

Just prior to my leaving Iran, in 1960 to settle in New York, I married Latifeh Alvieh, a wonderful lady whom I had met in 1956, when I had received a Leader’s Grant to visit the United States for six month. She was Cultural Advisor at the American Embassy’s Information Bureau. She was so perfect in all respects that I did not believe I deserved her. And this is not false modesty. As a bad luck would have it in 1998 she fell victim to cancer and passed away in May 1999. Two of her sisters who live in Westchester, the suburb of New York, have been extremely kind to me. The third sister is married to an English man and lives in Canada.

Were you happy with your decision to come to the United States?

Initially no, but a good deal of my time was being spent on administrative activities at the Institute and the Book Society of Persia, I thought a relief from these duties would be helpful to my research. However, I did not take the decision without serious doubts. But life in New York proved interesting. The first thing I did was to register for courses, which were not yet available in Iran, such as anthropology and linguistics.

Earlier when I was still in Iran I wrote to Professor Bernard Lewis, one of the main editors of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, asking why Iran was not covered the way it deserved. For instance whereas 59 Ahmads are treated in separate articles Ahmad Shah Qajar is not one of them. He wrote back it is not that we do no cover Iran more extensively, but we suffer from the paucity of authors on Iran. I supposed he meant that scholars who could write in French or in English, otherwise, Iran did have great scholars at the time such as Foruzanfar, Minavi, Eghbal Ashtiany, Bahar, Bahmanyar, and some younger scholar like Mo’in, Safa, and Natel Khanlari.

In the second year of my teaching at Columbia University I thought that the time had come to realize one of my oldest dreams: an encyclopedia in English and in adequate details to make Persian culture and history, its languages and its religions known to the civilized world by founding a detailed accurate and totally reliable and impartial encyclopedia. No such work existed.

Of course there was the Encyclopaedia of Islam, an excellent encyclopedia, which also covered Iran, but not as extensively as it covered the Arab countries and Turkey. Furthermore, a major part of Iranian history and culture, namely pre-Islamic Iran was absent from the Encyclopaedia of Islam.

I was aiming at an encyclopedia that would fully cover all aspects of Iranian civilization, in fact the culture and history of Iranian world not only the present country of Iran.

After consulting a number of colleagues I prepared a plan for a new, original, and detailed encyclopedia to cover the Iranian world, its history and culture. The next summer when I went to Tehran, I went to see Amir Abbas Hoveyda, then the Prime Minister and mentioned to him in passing my plan for the Encyclopaedia Iranica. He showed interest and asked who is paying its expenses; I said I was planning to apply to the National Endowment for the Humanities in the US. He sat up in his chair and said: Why should the Americans should pay for such a project? I said because this was an expensive project. He said when you go back to the States send me a detailed plan of the Encyclopaedia.

When summer came and I returned to Iran, hardly a month had gone by when Sharif-Emami, the Head of Pahlavi Foundation, sent me a letter that Abbas Hoveyda had addressed to him, saying that his Majesty approved the plan for the Encyclopaedia Iranica. Yarshater should propose a budget to the Plan Organization for the Encyclopaedia Iranica. I did and was approved.

When I returned to New York I set up a small office at the Center for Iranian Studies with a part-time editor and a part-time secretary and the work on the Encyclopaedia began in earnest.

The funding from the Plan Organization ended with the Revolution in 1979. I was left with a number of articles, which we had received, and commitment to publish a larger number of articles that we had invited. There was no other way, but to revive my original plan and asked for assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which is the largest organizations in the US that supports research plans in Humanities, such as history and literature.

It was during the hostage crisis when I asked for an appointment from the Director of the National Endowment and “Iran” had become a hated word in the US. Nonetheless, the Director of the National Endowment listened to me carefully and eventually said: Well, your project is the kind of projects that we support, but you need to send a detailed plan with a budget. If our Council approved of the project, will help you, if not there is nothing we can do for you. When I told him about our small office, he even agreed to place $17,500 at my disposal to pay the salary of our two part-time employees until our budget was studied and a decision was made. Our three-year frugal budget was approved and we were in business. The support of the National Endowment for the Humanities has continued until today. It is the longest in duration and highest in grants that the National Endowment had supported.

How many volumes of the Encyclopaedia Iranica have been published and when is it going to be completed. ?

To date fifteen volumes have been published in large bound volumes. These are also published online, but there are a large number of entries published online, whose turn has not come yet for being published in alphabetical order. The Encyclopaedia Iranica is aiming at finishing its first edition in 2020. However, this does not mean that the Encyclopaedia Iranica will stop growing, in fact Iranica will never end, but will continue to provide reliable up-to-date information about Iranian civilization and history as archeological and other discoveries are constantly made. Furthermore, we do not publish the biography of the living people, but in the course of time scholars and other worthy people pass away and then their biography needs to be commissioned and published. Thus the Encyclopaedia Iranica is a permanent work of reference.

Are you working on any other projects?

Yes, we have several other projects. which are going on parallel to the Encyclopaedia Iranica. First of all there is A History of Persian Literature in 20 volumes of which four volumes have already been published. Then there is the Persian Heritage Series which consists of translation of Persian classic into some of the European languages and Japanese, but mainly in English. The latest in this series is the three volumes annotated History of Beyhaqi by E. C. Bosworth and Mohsen Ashtiany. Then there are Persian Studies Series dedicated mostly to translation of Persian scientific works, the Art Series, and Modern Persian Literature Series.

You are a great success!

Am I crazy? With the Encyclopaedia Iranica being more than a full-time job, one may ask why should I start more time consuming projects, such as A History of Persian Literature. Well, I suffer from an ailment and that is whenever something cultural needs to be done, I think it is my duty to do it. That is why I am the General Editor of several series of books, without receiving a salary. Were it not for this craze I should not be working 11 hours a day from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM with an hour for lunch, including all weekends and holiday, at the age of 93. It is a long time that I have given up a number of things that I like, but there is no time in my life for them. I do not read any magazine or newspaper (except Dr. Sadreddin Elahi’s page and Ahmad Ahrar’s lead articles in Kayhan of London), don’t listen to radio, don’t watch TV, and hardly ever go to see a movie or a play.

Besides your projects do you have any other enjoyments?

I used to ski, but stopped in 2003 before I broke my neck. I used to go to Columbia gym for exercises every morning as long as my wife was alive and would accompany me. Now I do the same exercises designed by an expert Ukrainian teacher at home.

I always liked hiking and mountain climbing. I ascended the Demavand summit and when I was a college student and years later I used to clime Towchal several times a year.

What about the arts and music?

Music has been one of my hobbies more than anything else I love traditional Persian music, particularly its unmeasured part (Avaz) section. As long as Gholam-Hossein Banan was alive, he was my favorite signer. During the summers when I went to Tehran to take care of some of my undertakings I arranged for musical evening with Banan and Lotfi Majd, my favorite Tar player. When these two joined together and challenged each other, you couldn’t ask for more. Now for many years Mohammad Reza Shajarian has been the leading vocalist of Persian music. He knows Persian poetry and is an expert calligrapher. In a concert he gave recently in New York I noticed that he had invented two new musical instruments: one is a string instrument as large as a cello with its metal bar resting on the ground as in a kamancheh; the second is a bass santur (a kind of dulcimer). Later I heard from him that the number of new instruments he has invented is much more.

It is a long time since I had the pleasure of listening to Shahram Nazeri, another master of Persian singing. His son, Hafez Nazeri has studied music in the West and is showing signs of creative talent. In the US the only lady I know who is capable to signing Avaz is Shahla Sarshar. Other singers can sing songs (tasnif), but when it comes to unmeasured singing (Avaz) they falter.

Of the Persian instrument players, my favorite was Lotfi Majd. Next to him I liked the playing of Farhang Sharif and Hushang Zarif; in santur Payvar had no match; Varzandeh who came to Tehran with his father who played tombak (Persian drum), used to play at friendly gatherings, he did not mind whether people spoke or ate while he was playing. In Persian flute (ney), I appreciate Kasa’i’s playing and in tombak Siamak Puyan has no match. A combination of singing and playing on tombak in a musical performance by Ardalan Mofid fascinated me.

My acquaintance with Western music began when I was a college student and used to listen to Western music together with my friends Parviz Marzban and Mahmud Sana’i. I joined the Persian Philharmonic Society, directed by Fo’ad Rohani, Reza Na’ini, and his Executive Committee included also Hasan Azinfar and Edward Joseph.

Among my favorites have been some of Chopin’s Nocturnes, Mendelssohn’s symphonies and Tchaikovsky Nutcracker suite. I tremendously enjoy Beethoven Fifth and Ninth symphonies. His inclusion of human voice in the last movement of the Ninth symphony shows his creative talent at best.

Of the branches of knowledge I like History the best and the work which I have admired more in this field is The Story of Civilization in eleven volumes by Will and Ariel Durant, which I have read and listen to on tape mostly when I was having my meals.

Of my other serious interests is painting and museum hopping. When I was a younger man and went to England to continue my studies during my travel in Christmas and Easter holidays or summer vacations I never travel without a good guidebook, which showed where the interesting buildings and paintings were located.

I used to write articles about Western modern paintings and occasionally critique of painting exhibitions in Tehran. I also collected modern Persian paintings. By and by what I published in Sokhan on painting and on art in general amounted to a volume. I decided to expand them, edit them and publish them. The result was a two-volume book called Modern Painting (Naqashi-ye novin, Tehran, 1966) with color illustrations attached to various pages of the book. The volumes were very well received and soon Amir Kabir publishers brought out a reprint. This was the first book in Persian to treat Western modern paintings in adequate details and very good illustrations. The volumes are out of stock.

What are your views on what will happen in the world?

Your question reminds me of the French saying: “the more changes the more it is the same thing”. The countries of the Middle and Near East like Iraq, Syria and Egypt, (although not part of the Near East but culturally a part of it) all have had a brilliant past and they have contributed to world culture.

However, from about the 13th century when Baghdad fell to the invading Mongols hoards they have all entered a period of decline and when Western civilization and Western imperialism found their way to the Near and Middle East, they became either the possessions of the West or it imitators without much initiative with occasional falling back on their traditional way of life only to going back and continue to adopt Western ways and Western technologies.

I believe this trend by and large will continue until such time either a new civilization arises and establishes its hegemony or at least the Western civilization ceases to be a source of inspiration.

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