Ali Reza and Mohamed Soudavar Senior Lecturer in Persian Studies
Fellow and Praelector at Darwin College
Exterior Director of Studies at Sidney Sussex College
"Study Classical Persian? Vous êtes sure? Totalement et complètement pointless. You'd better choose something useful. Economics, perhaps?"
This was the advice I received from the Secretariat at Brussels’ Université Libre, where I wanted to enrol as an undergraduate, back then. But I stuck to my guns and enjoyed to the full four perfect years of being regarded as a nutcase by outsiders who did not know the exhilaration of studying an extraordinary subject that grows more gripping as it unfolds. We read the rock inscriptions of Darius, the King of Kings, dabbled in Zoroaster’s Avesta, discovered the Islamic world empires, the terrifying Turcs and the mind-boggling Mongols. We fell in love with Timur and his extremely sophisticated lineage but the crème de la crème for me were the classes in codicology (study of manuscripts in all their component parts) and those in Persian literature and especially in classical Persian poetry. The antics, tantrums and sometimes heroic deeds of the Shahnama heroes, the tongue-in-cheek humour of Sa’di, Hafez’ incomparable elegance and wit…the oh! so depressing nightmares of Sadeq Hedayat. What an opening to Persian culture and to world wisdom!
A few years later, I came back to Persian studies and started a PhD, still in French, still at Brussels. A mad topic: the botanical references within the giant work of the twelfth-century Persian poet, Nizami of Ganja. But the man was so great a poet, so wise a thinker that he filled the five years of my research with more delight than exasperation and sweat. I still consider him a boy-friend to this day! At the end of this research, I was granted a Wiener Anspach postdoctoral fellowship to spend a year at Oxford, following on which I was offered a part-time position as assistant researcher to the big Cambridge Shahnama project (www.ames.cam.ac.uk/shah/) while being also appointed lecturer in Persian language, literature and art history at my home university in Brussels. I moved to Cambridge as full-time lecturer in Persian in 2002, when the post was created with the generous endowment of the Soudavar family. Never looked back since!
At the beginning of 2010, I became Trustee and Honorary Secretary of the Ancient India and Iran Trust, 23 Brooklands Avenue, Cambridge (www.indiran.org). Anyone who has ever been at the Trust will agree that it is a unique place in Cambridge. Set in a lovely garden (frothing with old roses in May and June!), this gentleman’s house, once home to Professor Harold Bailey, has become a centre for scholarly research and for the promotion of popular interest in the Indian Subcontinent, Iran and Central Asia. The AIIT houses a unique collection of books mainly centred on these domains, but spilling over into many neighbouring cultures. It also has a collection of manuscripts well worth perusing and holds Friday-evening talks on cognate subjects as well as seminars and conferences.
I am also Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 14, Stephenson Way, London (www.royalasiaticsociety.org), member of the Academic Committee of Iran Heritage Foundation, (www.iranheritage.org) and member of the Management Committee of the Centre for Islamic Studies at Cambridge (www.cis.cam.ac.uk). In 2017, I became Tutor at the Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education, giving a Summer Course entitled "Jewelled Pages. The art of the Book in Persia and Japan" with Dr Laura Moretti. We hope to pass on our enthusiasm to a wider audience.
Subject groups/Research projects
I welcome approaches from potential MPhil and PhD students with research interests relevant to my academic profile and research interests. Please contact me by email to discuss your research project before sending in an application well in time before the deadlines (see the page GRADUATE STUDIES, Applying for Graduate Studies).
Classical Persian Literature, Modern Persian poetry, Poetics and Rhetorics, Science and poetry, Nezami Ganjavi, Persian Animal Fables as Mirror for Princes, Kalila wa Dimna, Anvar-i Sohayli, ‘Iyar-e Danesh, Khamriyya, Eskandar, Politics and poetry, Comparative literature, Persia’ s presence in the European world, Codicology, Persian manuscripts and paintings, Botanical representations in classical Persian paintings, Iranian cinema, Rewritings
I have just completed a monograph on the fifteenth century re-writing in Persian prose of the ubiquitous collection of Persian animal fables, the Kalila wa Dimna tales (Kashefi's Anvar-e Sohayli. Rewriting Kalila-Dimna in Timurid Herat). My fifteenth-century work, named Anvar-i Suhayli, has suffered virulent criticism both in Iran and in the West and was virtually put in the dustbin of Persian studies. I am thus – how exciting ! – reviving and studying what is tantamount to a forgotten text. It is a Mirror for Princes, containing advice for youths (aged from 7 to 77!) at Court. I have also worked on a series of essays related to this research (“Dimna’s Apologia. The Place of Morality in the Trial of a Rhetorical Genius”).
Nezami Ganjavi is never far from my thoughts, naturally. In 2011, I edited a volume of essays (A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim. Artistic and Humanistic Aspects of Nizami Ganjavi's Khamsa) following on the Nizami conference I organised with Professor Christoph Buergel for the Iran Heritage Foundation in Cambridge in 2004. You will find on my Academia.edu page several further essays (or abstracts of forthcoming essays) dedicated to Nezami.
News and Events
I am delighted that my new book is now published (Oct 2016).
Khamriyya is a joint research project on wine poetry, organised with my colleague Dr K. Dimitriev who is based in the University of St Andrews. The project started in 2014 with a two-year series of talks held in St Andrews, thanks to a generous endowment from the Honeyman Foundation. In June 2016, we held a second workshop in Cambridge, continuing the examination of wine-poetry in the literary traditions of the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern worlds. And we hope to crown this with a publication.
Other Professional Activities
For prospective graduate students in Persian studies at the Faculty, don’t forget to apply to the Soudavar Memorial Research Studentships in Persian Studies (see the Faculty’s Postgraduate, Funding Possibilities link!).
|2016||Monograph on the Anvar-i Suhayli (Brill, OCtober 2016 - http://www.brill.com/products/book/kashefis-anvar-e-sohayli)|
|2011||Ed. (with C. Buergel) A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim. Artistic and Humanistic Aspects of Nizami Ganjavi's Khamsa, ISS, LUP|
|2011||Ed. (with A. Poole, S. Mason and W. Martin) The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Popularity and Neglect. Proceedings of the July 2009 FitzGerald Conference at Trinity, Cambridge|
|2007||Science and Poetry in Medieval Persia - The Botany of Nizami's Khamsa (Cambridge University Press)|
|2007||"The Middle-Eastern illustrated manuscripts", The Fitzwilliam Museum’s catalogue of the Spittle Grandchildren settlement temporary exhibition (in press)|
|2007||"The Hellenistic influences in Classical Persian literature", J.T.P. de Bruijn ed., History of Persian Literature, vol I, Persian Heritage Foundation (20 pp., New York, in press)|
|2004||Liber Amicorum Annette Donckier de Donceel, C van Ruymbeke ed., Collection Lettres Orientales de l’IPHO, (Peeters) 151 pp.|
Selected Articles in Journals and Books
|2015||"Sir William Jones and the Anvar-i Suhayli. Containing a fortuitous but nevertheless essential note on the "Orient Pearls", in I. Szanto (ed.). From Asl to Za'id: Essays in Honour of Eva M. Jeremias, Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, Piliscsaba (Hungary), 2015.|
|2016||“Dimna’s Apologia. The Place of Morality in the Corrupt Trial of a Dialectical and Rhetorical Genius”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, FirstView, vol 26/4 Oct. 2016, pp. 549-583.|
|2016||“Nezami’s Giant Brain tackles Eskandar’s Sharafnāmeh: The authorial voice of the poet-scholar-rewriter”, The Idea of Iran Series, (forthcoming)|
|2014||“Persian Medieval Rewriters between Auctoritas and Authorship: the Story of Khosrow and Shīrīn as a case-study”, Papers of the Leiden Shah Nama workshop (forthcoming)|
|2013||“Iskandar’s Bibulous Business: Wine, drunkenness and the Calls to the Saqi in Nizami Ganjavi's Sharaf Nama.”, Iranian Studies vol. 46/2 (March 2013), pp. 251-272.|
|2013||"The Kalile o Dimne and Rumi. "That was the husk and this is the kernel", Mawlana Rumi Review, 2013/14.|
|2012||“Murder in the Forest. Celebrating Misreadings and Rewritings of the Kalila-Dimna Tale of the Lion and the Hare”, Studia Iranica 41 (2012), pp. 1-69.|
|2011||“What is it that Khusraw learns from the Kalila wa Dimna stories ?” in C. van Ruymbeke and C. Buergel, eds. A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim. Artistic and Humanistic Aspect of Nizami Ganjavi's Khamsa, LUP, 2011.|
|2008||« L’histoire du Concours des peintres Rumis et Chinis chez Nizami et Rumi. Deux aspects du miroir », D. De Smet, M. Sebti & G. de Callataÿ (éds.),Miroir et Savoir. La transmission d'un thème platonicien, des Alexandrins à la philosophie arabo-musulmane. Actes du colloque international tenu à Leuven et Louvain-la-Neuve, les 17 et 18 novembre 2005 (Ancient and Medieval Philosophy. De Wulf-Mansion Centre. Series), (Leuven), pp. 273-291|
|2006||“Firdausi’s Dastan-i Khusrau va Shirin: not much of a love story !”, Proceedings of the Shah Nama conference held in Cambridge, November 2003, Ch. Melville, ed., Pembroke Papers, 5, (Cambridge), 125-47|
|2003||“Kashefi’s forgotten Masterpiece: Why rediscover the Anvar-i Suhayli?”, Iranian Studies, vol 36/4, pp. 571-588, Dec. 2003|
|2002||"From culinary recipe to pharmacological secret for a successful wedding night : the scientific background of two images related to fruit in the Xamse of Nezâmi Ganjavi", Festschrift in honour of Professor J.T.P. de Bruijn, Persica, Annual of the Dutch-Iranian Society, (Leiden), pp. 127-136|
|2002||“The Application of Scientific Knowledge in Mediaeval Persian poetry: Nezami’s Sandal Tree”, in Iran, Questions et Connaissances. Actes du IVe Congres Européen des Etudes Iraniennes Organisé par la Societeas Iranologica Europaea, vol. ii, Périodes Médievale et Moderne, textes réunis par M. Szuppe, (Paris), 141-51|
Three books by friends
Daughter of Persia: A Woman's Journey from Her Father's Harem Through the Islamic Revolution by Sattareh Farman-Farmaian and Dona Munker, paperback, 544 pages, Corgi Books. ISBN-10 0552139289; ISBN-13: 978-0552139281.
This is an outstanding introduction on Iran in the twentieth century! It shows the two poles of modernity and tradition between which the present-day Iranians try to find their identity. I greatly admire and respect the author, whom I am fortunate to know, for her courage, intelligence and vision.
Sattareh Farman Farmaian, the daughter of a once-powerful and wealthy Iranian prince, was raised and educated in the 1920s and 1930s in a Persian harem compound, along with numerous mothers and more than 30 brothers and sisters. As a young woman, she broke with Muslim tradition and travelled to America, where she became the first Persian to study at the University of Southern California. Her new life in the West fired a vision to lift her own people out of backwardness and poverty, and she returned to Iran to found the Tehran School of Social Work. For more than 20 years, Sattareh and her students waged a war against poverty, disease and overcrowding, and then, soon after the collapse of the Shah's regime, she was forced to flee the country in fear of her life. In this account of her experiences, she provides an insider's view of Iran's journey through the 20th century and of the events which led up to, and followed, the Islamic revolution.
The Spirit Of Iran: A History of Achievement from Adversity by Peter Avery, Paperback, 695 pages, Mazda Publishers, ISBN-10: 1568590776; ISB-13: 978-1568591285.
Peter Avery was teaching Persian here at Cambridge from 1958 till his retirement in 1990. He was a Fellow of King’s College Cambridge. He welcomed me warmly on my appointment at Cambridge and remained a trusted and lovely friend till he passed away in October 2008.
This book came out in 2007 and represents the results of a lifelong study and love of Iran. Peter was an expert on the history of Iran and in this work, which is an overview of the ancient and medieval history of the country, he often muses on misconceptions or misunderstood historical details. I also love the elegant way in which he expresses himself. The book will provide an excellent introduction to the history of Iran as well as being a fascinating sum of love and of patient life-long research.
Kalila and Dimna. Fables of Friendship and Betrayal, retold by Ramsay Wood, paperback, 301 pages, Saqi, London, (1980) repr. 2008 ISBN 978-0-86356-661-5; and Kalila and Dimna 2, Fables of Conflict and Intrigue, retold by Ramsay Wood, paperback, 256 pages, Medina Publishing London, 2011 ISBN 978-0956708106.
Ramsay is a very special friend and we met over our shared love for Kalila and Dimna. In these two books, tackling two chapters of the collection, Ramsay rewrites the text for a wide audience; his own special blend of delicate humour increases the readers’ pleasure in their discovery of the baffling millennium-old stories. Ramsay is a founding member of the College of Storytellers, and his delight and talent in presenting us with his English version of the fables deserves a special note within the line of illustrious Kalila-Dimna rewriters! And I have done just that by including my analysis of aspects of his rewriting in my “Murder in the Forest” essay. The delicate illustrations by Margaret Kilrenny that pepper the pages add delight and joy to the reading experience!