In these halls, you can breath history
this is Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Near East Department
many artifacts from ancient Persia are kept here
together with much information about these works, and their classification
but this is just one piece of the complex puzzle that is Iran's History
here lives a man
who has worked tirelessly for more than 30 years
trying to register a complete picture of this grave and fascinating civilization
glitter and grime
but I'm here to visit a man who
in the middle of all this commotion is only concerned with Iranian history
in this quiet corner of New York
in an unmarked building
it's been over 30 years
that the greatest encycloaedia of Iranian history and culture
lives on and grows
This is the Center for Iranian Studies at Columbia University
we're here to see Ehsan Yarshater
founder of Encyclopaedia Iranica
Please have a seat Mr. Basmenji
this is my office
please .. please ..
how many years in this office?
we've been here more than 40 years
meaning in this building
this is my own office
my colleagues are in other rooms
downstairs is a big room where our editors sit
Isn't it rather a small office for the great work that you do?
well ... first we had this office
they gave us .. the university did
then as our space became tighter
they gave us another apartment
but ... well, over the years our work has expanded
and still our space is extremely cramped
and .. we're hoping the University will give us more space soon
so far, 13 volumes have been published
and it is estimated
by the time the last letter of English alphabet is published
it will be 40 volumes
for the past few years, an online version of encyclopaedia has also been made available
for 40 years ... Ehsan Yarshater has been working tirelessly
even despite his affliction with tremors
which started with his hands
advanced in the past few years
and now affects his vocal cords as well
before I know it, it's 1:00-1:30 in the afternoon
then I go have lunch
my eating lunch takes longer than normal
reason is this tremor I have in my hands
in a tight space, divided by walls of books
editors of Iranica are busy
these editors .. who are first rate Iranian Studies researchers
have been carefully picked by Yarshater himself
with his strict scholarly sensibility
Yarshater's residence is just a few steps away from his office
but heavy schedule doesn't even allow time to watch television
where is that famous TV of yours? The one that's never been turned on?
yes ... the TV that's been bought, but never been used
this! What's the story here?
I knew I'd never get to watch TV programs
but since some friends send me CD's, DVD's and other such
I thought if it's ever necessary
I shall have something
they keep sending CD's ... but unfortunately I still have no time to watch or hear them
now let's see what's on
yes ... maybe you can get it to work
well, this is the ON button I hope it turns on
channel one ... and ...
yes .. static
other channels ...
looks like it's never been hooked up ...
Yarshater was born in 1920 in Hamedan
at the age of 5 he moved to Kermanshah with his family
little Ehsan lost both mother and father at an early age
mother's memory has a special place in his heart
they say: [adage] sparrow has to have seven chicks before one of them becomes a warbler
it was said my mother was that warbler ... because
she had a nice figure, she was beautiful ... I submit .. had a very fine voice
and .. played the flute too
Ehsan grew up with his uncle in Tehran
after finishing high school, he studied Persian literature at the University
Until completion of his PhD
His doctoral thesis was a revolutionary and provocative argument:
that lover in Persian literature can not be female
there are poems that scream they're about young men
like Hafez, "[poem]"
now imagine, can this be a woman?
obvious it's a young man; drunk, bottle in hand, singing and having fun
in the same years, he translated Avicenna's treatise and five other essays into Persian
but, it wasn't philosophy he had in mind
he pursued the study of ancient Persian languages
this passion came to him through Ibrahim Pour-Davood
Pour-Davood ... he hadn't had formal college education
because of this he didn't know how he was supposed to teach
but, he had translated the entire Avesta,
with the most complete and clearest anotations
in the classroom .. firstly, he was the perfect gentleman
had the remnants of a Rashti accent, and
appreciated satire and jokes too
He won a scholarship from Council of British Culture in Tehran in order to continue studies in "Education"
once in London, he met Walter Henning Professor of ancient Iranian languages
what a genius, Henning was
really! his articles ... shall never get old
such a deep, precise scholar
I was studying Avestan with Henning
and with Mary Boyce
who later became perhaps the utmost authority on Zartoshti religion
she was also teaching me ... what ... Pahlavi language
in London, a love that once appeared simple to Yarshater gave him trouble
look now what book I had picked:
it was a book in the German language
Pahlavi text therein had been transcribed in Hebrew
translation was in German!
I knew neither German, nor Hebrew script, nor Pahlavi
this was a third degree equation
right away I registered for courses in German.. courses in English
[adage] wondering who is more miserable: me or the book?
then I got this strange headache and eye-ache
finally, in 1953, he chose a topic for his Ph.D. dissertation
this study, following up on Henning's work
was again a provocative topic:
that the ancient language of Azerbaijan
had not been Turkish, but a language known as "Tati"
my thesis was about the Southern Tati language
which has to do with villages around Ghazvin
there are five or six dialects for which I recorded the grammer
back in Iran he taught ancient Iranian languages
language of Darius and Xerxes
meanwhile, Columbia University in New York invited him to teach
Yarshater accepted Columbia's invitation and went to New York
his stay was extended for another year until he returned to Tehran
his favorite professor Pour-Davood had retired
and Yarshater replaced him
but Columbia was calling again
then, Columbia University asked me to take over this seat
and ... help grow Iranian Studies
back in Tehran, Yarshater, with his boundless energy and insatible drive
was busy introducing Iranians to cultures and knowledge beyond Iran's borders
one was starting the Center for Translation and Publication of Books
where important works of world literature were translated into Persian
also, a quarterly Book Review
here's a list of their latest publications from a 1971 catalogue
some of the names whose works had been translated into Persian at this Center:
Schiller ... Balzac ... Turgenev ... Shakespeare Gothe ... Oscar Wilde ... Victor Hugo .. Sofokle ... Standhal
the list is a long one
Ehsan Yarshater was among the first generation of educated, progressive Persian Studies scholars
who lead the way in connecting their field to world cultures
a generation that included Parviz Natel-Khanlari ... Mohammad Moin ... and Abdol-Hossein Zarrinkoob
meanwhile a woman stepped into Yarshater's life
a woman named Latifeh, whose memory, like mother's
still brings tears to Yarshater's eyes and makes his quivering voice quiver even more
my partner was an extraordinary partner: loving ... graceful ... faithful ...
I can't think of any good qualities that weren't found in her
1999, when my partner, unfortunately had cancer and passed away
now that she's gone, least I can do is
to gaze at her pictures once in a while
of course it revives my loss, but ... I'm just happy to spend a few comfortable minutes with her memory ... yes
eventually he moved to New York later ... he founded the Center for Iranian Studies there
he bought Saeed Nafisi's library and donated it to the Center, together with his own
in the U.S., Yarshater did what was an opposite and a compliment to his work in Iran
meaning: translating classic Persian literature into Western languages and Japanese
among the fifty titles published in this series:
Divan Hafez' and Khosrow-Shirin into Japanese Beyhaghi Histories and Vis-o-Ramin into English
then it was contemporary litrature's turn
he published works by Bozorg Alavi, Sadegh Hedayat, and a sampling of modern Persian poetry in Western languages
in 1974, with a $2 million grant from the Iranian government
the grave work of Encyclopaedia Iranica began
after ten volumes, Iranian revolution happened and all work stopped
but Yarshater was determined to carry on
his perseverance eventually paid off
and the United States National Endowment for Humanities agreed to fund the Encyclopaedia
New York passes another day into the night
but Yarshater is still at work
tonight, the annual meeting of Encyclopaedia's Board of Trustees is being held at the University
members have come from all corners of North America and Europe
but these days, news is not so good
in the wake of a global economic crisis
Encyclopaedi Iranica which is funded solely by the NEH and individual Iranian donors
is not doing so well
there's room for regret when a project this grand
and this important
which comprises our very cultural identity
and ... one that represents our collective national memory
hasn't been recognized enough
to attract Iranians from all over the world .. all these Iranians
just in these United States, we have about a million Iranians
not to receive even the smallest donations from them
Yarshater but just won't give up
every day .. every hour .. he is looking for new ways to fund Iranica
discussions continue afterwards .. and even during dinner time
even just ten thousand of them, each gave $1 a day
which won't even buy a cup of coffee these days
to Iranica ..
right there .. it's more than $3 million a year
and it can easily solve all Iranica's financial problems
over the past 40 years .. Yarshater
has sold some of his own personal art collection to fund Iranica
some of these effects are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
well ... encycloaedia needed money
thought to myself: 'for some time now .. I've worked .. I've taught .. I've been paid ...
put together a relatively nice collection and brought them to America ..
thought to myself: well .. I've enjoyed these for a while ..'
as they say: [adage] there's a time to earn .. and a time to spend ..
these .. antiques that I have
of course .. many belong to the Islamic period
like pottery and earth jugs .. and such
and all kinds of ewers ..
to take these to London .. and auction off
these .. altogether .. brought in .. nearly ... $300 thousand ..
pardon me .. $3 million dollars
came to $3 million
Yarshater is about to turn 90 years old
in the autumn of life
his tremors get worse by the day
yet he's a stranger to fatigue and despair
he knows Iranica won't be finished anytime soon
Iranica must become a permanent endowment
because, as yourself just mentioned, new books get published new things get discovered
then some people who are alive today and we can't publish their biographies
after they pass away, we have to enter these biographies
and many of the articles that are being written .. with new defintions .. new discoveries.. must be kept up-to-date, so to speak
ever miss Iran?
not so much these days
reason is .. I've never been away from Iranian works
since all my work is related to Iran ..
also .. as you know .. home is more than just .. soil valleys rivers mountains and buildings ...
it really is culture
for me .. home is where there's Persian language .. Persian literature .. Persian poems .. Pers.. culture .. Iranian culture ..
and I've never been away from this home
how long do you think you'd have to live to finish Iranica?
if I live any longer than this I'd be the example in that famous verse:
no .. thank god.. I've lived long enough .. full enough ..
and .. whenever I reach the end point I won't be dis-satisfied at all
Ehsan Yarshater .. reflection of 70 years of scholarship to know .. and to teach the world .. about a grand and an amazing civilization
this project, I dare say, could be the greatest work I've ever seen on art history culture heritage and legacy of us Iranians
Dr. Yarshater's personal sacrifice and selflessness .. who has really dedicated all his life to this project
be it financially .. as well as his time .. his health .. his whole life
if the Book of Kings revived our language .. Persian .. after the Arabs Yarshater has defined our national identity with Iranica
these titles they give him .. "Professor" .. is absolutely wrong
his breadth of knowledge .. his intellect .. intelligence his command of all areas of Iranian culture ...
is such that Ehsan Yarshater can only be called: Ehsan Yarshater
by God ... this decison ... in a way ... under an assault of insanity once ..
i took on this work .. so as a result .. in the throes of my 90th birthdate .. I find myself working .. between 8 and 9 hours a day .. 365 days a year
isn't it insanity then, to start something you know, first, won't finish in your own lifetime? .. then demands you work 8-9 hours every day? ..