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Interview with Prof. James Russell

December 12th, 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 Iranian?

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.

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