Ali Reza and Mohamed Soudavar Lecturer in Persian Studies
"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 a Trustee 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.
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, 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
At the moment, I am writing a monograph on the fifteenth century re-writing in Persian prose of the ubiquitous collection of Persian animal fables, the Kalila wa Dimna tales. 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 at Court. The thesis I am developing is that the contents and aims of this collection of fables have been misunderstood and corrupted over the centuries and I try to clean the text, in order to get to the bottom of the stories. This is also a text of immense rhetorical value. All the artifices and possibilities of Persian language are used by the author (one of the reasons why it has suffered so much criticism) and this baroque text is fascinating to unravel from a stylistics point of view. I am also writing an article which I have proudly if provisionally entitled “Why kill a blood-thirsty, stupid, gullible tyrant?” (I might still change this title if I am told by the editors that this is not striking a sufficiently serious academic note!). It is a comparative study of fifteen different versions and rewritings of the popular story of the Lion and the Hare, a Kalila wa Dimna episode, which Rumi contributed to make world-famous (meanwhile ruthlessly changing its teachings!)
Nezami Ganjavi is never far from my thoughts, naturally. I have just finished editing a volume of essays following on the Nizami conference I organised with Professor Christoph Buergel for the Iran Heritage Foundation in Cambridge in 2004.
Last summer, I co-organised with colleagues at Leiden University and with Professor Adrian Poole of the English Faculty a conference on Edward Fitzgerald (a Cambridge Trinity student), author of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Leiden University organised two days on the Persian Omar Khayyam, while the Cambridge days were focussing on the English Victorian poet. There was also an exciting evening presentation by three Cambridgeshire Secondary Schools who had been working over the whole academic year on the Rubaiyat, showing how Omar Khayyam still has as resonance in the West, in the twenty-first century!
|2011||Monograph on the Anvar-i Suhayli (forthcoming)|
|2010||Ed. (with C. Buergel) A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim: Proceedings of the September 2004 Nezami Conference, ISS, Leiden (forthcoming)|
|2010||Ed. (with A. Poole, S. Mason and W. Martin) 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.|
Articles in Journals and Books
|2011||“Why kill a stupid, blood-thirsty, gullible tyrant? Rewritings of the tale of the Lion and the Hare”, (work in progress, 2011)|
|2010||“The Kalile o Dimne and Rumi. “That was the husk and this is the kernel.”, Proceeding of the 2005 Rumi Conference, British Museum, London, (forthcoming)|
|2010||“Ou est la maison de l’ami? Deux tentatives de traduction, a la recherche d’une equivalence dans la difference. », Volume in Honour of Professeur F. Mawet, ULB (forthcoming).|
|2010||“Kashefi’s powerful metaphor: THE energizing trope», proceedings of the July 2007 Workshop on Traditions in Persian Literature and Linguistics, Depart. of Persian Language and Culture of Leiden University, (forthcoming)|
|2010||“What’s the lesson for Khosrow in the Kalila wa Dimna stories ?” in C van Ruymbeke and C Buergel, eds. Proceedings of the 2004 Nezami Conference (forthcoming)|
|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|
|2005||« La tortue et les deux canards: ou que devient un plat persan servi à la sauce française ? » Liber Amicorum Annette Donckier de Donceel, Collection Lettres Orientales de l’IPHO (Leuven)|
|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|
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.
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!).