The People's Voice hp/2008/12/12/interview-with-prof-james-russell
De c 12 2008

Interview by Kourosh Ziabari

Nowadays, you hear the name of Iran for the most catastrophic
reasons in the global media headlines. Nuclear weapons, terrorism,
mass destruction, violation of human rights, abduction of freedom
activists etc. Such hostile approach for the coverage of Iran news
which has been taking by the corporation media since long times ago
would easily sequence to an international pessimism toward the people
of Iran, the culture of Iran and the history of Iran. That's why,
Iran is somehow interpreted as the most misrepresented, misunderstood
country in the world that is being distorted by image despite of its
richness of civilization.

Speaking to an American scholar of Persian Culture who has devoted
almost 15 years of his lifetime to studying the furthest angels and
brinks of Persian culture and Iranian lifestyle is worth reading at
least once for it gives a clarified and impartial viewpoint of Iran,
what the outgoing President of US calls the "Axis of Evil".

James Russell is a world-distinguished figure, a well-known name
for those interested in Persian culture, Persian civilization and
Iranian studies. He is a Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard
University and the a former Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian
studies at Columbia University while teaching at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem priorly.

At the time being, Professor James Russell of the Harvard University
is writing a book on a medieval Armenian collection of tales whose
source he believes to be the Buddhist Lotus Sutra, an important
scripture written by and for the Silk Road peoples, most of whom
spoke Iranian languages.

I conducted an interview with Prof. James Russell with the aim of
learning more about the viewpoints of an American university professor
about Iran, the misrepresented and misinterpreted country that you
can not discover its truths and realities, unless you travel and
sense it face-to-face.

In the brief debate, we talked about various topics such as the life
of Persian poet Mowlana, the customs and rituals of Iranian people,
the history of Persian Gulf and the richness of Persian literature.

I invite you to come with us to walk you through the corridors of
7500 years history of Greater Persia; certainly you would learn more
things, knowing not before!

Q: Prof. Russell, Why and how did you get involved in Persian
language? What happened for the first time that attracted you to this
ancient language and what efforts did you take to become a professional
speaker and teacher of Persian language?

A: I became interested in the culture of Iran because of the very great
importance of its spiritual and material culture across all Eurasia,
from ancient times to the present day. Persian art and music were
in fashion in medieval Japan; and speakers of Alan, a North Iranian
language, contributed to the shaping of the epic of king Arthur in
Britain. Zoroastrian ideas helped to mold Judaism, Christianity,
and Platonic philosophy.

Because of the tense relations between America and Iran, I've only
been to Iran once, in 2000. I loved every minute of it: the warmth
of people, their hospitality and sense of humor, the wonderful good
taste of everything, from the cuisine to the printed tablecloths and
metalwork, the sense of peace in coffeehouses when you smoke kalyun,
drink tea, and talk. When I was in Shah-e Cheragh mosque I felt as
though I were within a diamond.

Q: You are an American scholar yourself, but devoted your studies and
life to Persian culture which made you entirely familiar with the ways
of "oriental living" in Iran. Now you can feel the apparent differences
between the life of Iranian people and the lifestyles in American or
European societies. What are the main differences, in your view?

A: You ask about Persians vs. Americans and Europeans. I do not think
there has to be a difference between people. We are related, because
we were created. The Persian word darvish goes back to Avestan dregu,
"a poor man", that is, one who knows God is rich and relies upon him.

The only real war is the one that a person wages within himself
against his own evil inclinations; and as Hafez taught, kindness
with friends and courtesy with enemies is the secret of both the
worlds. The purpose of culture is to make all this part of our lives.

Iran was the France and Italy of the Near East and Central Asia, a
source of culture and literature. These terms are equivalent to Greek
paideia and mean the range of learning, taste, thought, and behavior
that define a civilized person. The word farhang (culture) comes from
Old Iranian fra-thanja, to draw forth, that is, to cultivate what is
already in existence within. The same as the Latin word educere from
which the term education comes.

I would like to see Iran play this role again as a secure and
prosperous regional power, but also as a peacemaker in a difficult
region. I think the idea of the "bridge of civilizations" advocated
by President Khatami was a move in that direction and I'm sorry events
have carried us the other way of late.

Q: If we consider the history and the language of each country as its
cultural heritage, then we can conclude that Iran has a treasured
and rich heritage with more than 15.000 years of age. Do you think
that Iranians are meritorious enough to preserve their historical
heritage of culture and arts?

A: It is not for me to say whether any people is a deserving heir
of its past. I'm just a man. But I do think that the Islamic world
needs to reject suicide bombing, hijacking, and the general sense of
grievance towards Israel, America, and the West in general. Most of
this is a problem specifically of the Arab countries and secondarily
of unsettled countries like Pakistan. But since Iran was the first
Near Eastern country to have a successful revolution that claimed
Islamic foundations, others who link Islam to various political
programs do look to its authority. So in view of that role I would
hope Iran served as a moderating and civilizing influence, as it has
done so often in the past.

How does one preserve a culture seven thousand years old? Well,
by living it and cherishing it, by teaching it to one's children,
and also by supporting museums, archaeologists, libraries. By
welcoming visitors and showing the cultural treasures to them. How
about summer programs in Persian language & travel for high school
kids from all countries and I mean all. It also means talking about
cultural values, through new literary, musical, and artistic forms,
through open and free debate about the relationship between tradition
and innovation. But you know all this without my saying it.

Q: I know that most of those who are acquainted with Persian culture
are the regular Mowlana enthusiasts, too. So let's talk about Mevlana
as an outstanding medieval ages spiritual poet whose nationality is
being called into questione by the Turkish scholars. Have you ever
read the Persian-English translation of Mevlana's poems? They seem
not to be professional enough.

Mevlana was of course a writer of Persian, and his family was from
Balkh. Since he lived in Konya, I do not begrudge our Turkish friends
their love for him. There is a recent translation in the Penguin
Classics from Persian by my classmate and friend Dr. Alan Williams
of Manchester University in Britain. Obviously I do not approve of
poets who produce translations of the Masnavi or Divan-e Shams and
boast that they do so without knowing a word of Persian. It is silly,
and at worst betrays an unbecoming cultural bias.

Q: The world-renowned Persian culture scholar Professor Richard Nelson
Frye has written a letter to Iranian president and requested to be
entombed near the Central Iranian city of Isfahan after his death. It
was a shocking headline for all of us. What is your estimation?

A: I think Professor Frye's desire to be buried in Iran is a sign
of his affection for the country. Richard Frye was instrumental in
establishing the chair in Armenian studies that I occupy at Harvard. He
is a strong proponent of peace and reconciliation between the Arabs
and Israel. He is also a loyal American. There is life before death,
though. I am more interested in people living in Iran than where
their bodies lie after the soul passes through the veil.

Q: Assume that you were born non-American again, but had the
opportunity to choose your nationality yourself. Would you select

A: You ask what my citizenship would be if not American, my answer
would be probably Israeli since I'm a Jew and I love the city of
Jerusalem. I hope for peace for my own people and all other people
there and if ever I do go to the holy city to live, any Iranian would
be an honored guest in my home and I would cook Persian cuisine
for them. And I guarantee that Mr. Ahmadinejad would be welcomed
with kindness and courtesy if he came and not in the uncivilized way
Columbia University received him, which was a disgrace. So that's my
contribution to the Middle East peace process. Probably I'm being too
idealistic, but the dinner invitation is real. I extend my hand, and I
know the Iranian nation are basically kind and noble and will take it.

Born in 1991, Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian freelance journalist
and writer, the author of book "7+1", which is collection of his
interviews with 7 contemporary Iranian authors. He is a contributing
writer for websites and magazines of Netherlands, Canada, Italy,
Hong Kong, Bulgaria, South Korea, Belgium, Germany, UK and the US. A
number of Kourosh's articles and blog posts have been translated into
Spanish, German and French languages; moreover he appeared twice in
BBC World service programs and PBS Media Shift as well. He is Persian
and lives in Rasht, in Northern Iran. Kourosh was selected as the
world's youngest journalist by the Association of Young Journalists
and Writers in 2005, He is acquainted with five world languages and is
also a web and graphic designer for Persian web portals and magazines.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress