“Iranology Is a Global Phenomenon,” Believes Ashk Dahlén.

“Iranology Is a Global Phenomenon,” Believes Ashk Dahlén.

A linguist and a professor of Iranian languages at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, Ashk Peter Dahlén has translated numerous works from Farsi to Swedish. His vested interests in Farsi were sparked by his familiarity with the great Iranian Sufist, Rumi. In 2001, Ashk Dahlén found himself inspired greatly by Rumi and so, he translated a book named “the Song of the Reed (Vassflöjtens sang)”. When he was still an infant, his parents leave him in front of a door of a house in Tehran, which is when a Swedish couple adopt him and he begins his life in Sweden. For years, Ashk Dahlén viewed himself as a Swede until he found out about his Iranian roots which later had him love the Iranian culture and language so much that he would pursue his education to the fullest in an area all related to his origin. Currently, he is the President of the Scandinavian Society for Iranian Studies and a member of Research Council of the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul.

Below you may find an exclusive interview with Ashk Peter Dahlén held by AVA Diplomatic about his works, researches, experiences and memories of Iran.

Why and how did you become interested in learning Persian? Did mastering this language help to revive your past identity?

Well, I was born in Tehran and despite not knowing Persian, since my youth I was deeply attracted to things Iranian and felt I belonged to Iran and its rich culture. I began to learn Persian at high school with the help of an Iranian teacher and later, continued my studies at an academic level. At the same time I became acquainted with the social and artistic life of Iranians through my Persian friends. I realized that Iran is a very old civilization and possesses an ancient heritage of literature, art and music that has left its mark on the cultures of the East and the West. My professor in Persian used to say that language is the best means to become familiar with foreign cultures. I’m very glad that this possibility opened up for me so that I could learn Persian and read its literary classics under the supervision of my professors in Sweden. Learning Persian certainly enabled me to explore my roots in the deeper sense and to grasp the emotional nuances of the language of my biological parents. My personal experience is that I discovered my own identity when I became familiar with the luminaries of Persian literature. They somehow brought me back to my Persian roots both in the intellectual sense and in the emotional sense. When I started to read Hafez, Rumi, Khayyam and Nezami Aruzi in the original language and could reflect my existential condition in their philosophical wisdom and cultural perspectives, I perceived for the first time the deeper meaning of being Iranian. At the same time it became clear to me that Persian literature has very distinct universal and transcultural traits, and as such, it has a message for contemporary man.

When did you first travel to Iran?

The first time I visited Iran was in 1995. I was only 23 at that time. I travelled to Tehran together with three Swedish classmates to study Persian at the Dehkhoda Institute. I have many pleasant memories from that trip. Although everything and all places were new to me, I didn’t go through a hard time making friends. Iranians are extremely hospitable to foreigners and I was treated in such a way that I never felt like a fish out of the water. Nevertheless a lot of linguistic and cultural misunderstandings did arise. For instance there was a delicious fast-food shop located at Tajrish Square and I became one of their regular customers. Among many things they offered different types of Iranian sandwiches. Since sāndvich-e zabān (“lamb tongue sandwich”) was the only dish on the menu that I could understand I ordered it every time. It was first when my teacher at the Institute asked me what I have had for lunch that day that I realized that the word zabān has two meanings in Persians. It means both language and tongue. I understood that the sandwich I had been eating for a whole month was not a sandwich that happened to be called “language” but lamb tongue sandwich! However I need to add that lamb tongue with pickles and tomatoes is still my favorite sandwich. Nowhere in the world can you find such delicious sandwiches as the ones that shop offered.

My stay in Iran also coincided with the Persian New Year festivities and I recall how much I enjoyed watching the traditional sabzeh (wheat sprouts) and goldfishes on the sideways at the dull streets of central Tehran. For the weekends we used to go on excursions to outside of town and have cold watermelons under waterfalls. A man in our company had a good voice and sang Iranian folk songs for us. These are still among the most memorable moments of my life.

What impact did your first trip to Iran have on your future studies and research?

At Dehkhoda Institute, there were a number of prominent professors, including Professor Seyed Jafar Shahidi, who taught Iranian philosophy and mysticism. He used to be a student of luminaries such as Ali Akbar Dehkhoda and Badiozaman Foruzanfar, and was an exceptionally humble and kind person. Shahidi was well versed in Persian literature and an exemplary teacher. Attending his classes was a complete new experience for me. From his humane conduct and profound personality I realized that spirituality or theosophy (erfān) was not a dead phenomenon in Iran but instead I learned that it has theoretical as well as practical dimensions. Shahidi showed me much kindness and directed me in my studies and guided me in the large secondary literature, especially on the great poet and mystic Jalaloddin Rumi. My trip to Iran opened my eyes to the intellectual wisdom and artistic genius of Rumi. When I returned to Sweden, my bag was full with books on Iranian poetry and mysticism, and a few years later, I published my first translation, which was a selection of Rumi’s poems into Swedish. I also completed my MA thesis in which I discussed the doctrinal relationship between Sufism and Shi’ism in post-Mongol Iran. During my second trip to Iran, I visited some Sufi cloisters (khāneqāh) in Tehran and Shiraz and participated in their sacred rituals as an observer on a number of occasions.

Which non-Iranian Iranologists’ works on Persian culture and literature have inspired you and influenced your research and studies most?

Iranian Studies is an interdisciplinary that primarily deals with the study of the languages, literatures and history of the Iranian peoples. I have conducted research in different areas of Iranian Studies, such as literature, history and religious thought. However I am most interested in classical Persian literature and the cultural and philosophical continuities between ancient and medieval Iran. I have learned a lot about Persian literature from my professor and present colleague Professor Bo Utas. He transmitted his passion for classical Persian poetry to me and initiated me into the philological study of Persian literary traditions and various aspects of literary composition, such as rhetoric, stylistics and genre. Also, I have enjoyed the expertise and knowledge of Professor Finn Thiesen in the field of classical Persian prosody and rhyme. Thiesen taught Oriental languages at the University of Oslo for almost 30 years and is an expert on Hafez. He knows the complete Divān of Hafez by heart and he is capable of reciting a verse of this remarkable poet for every condition and event. In the sphere of Sufi mystical literature, I have benefited a lot from the work of Professor J.T.P de Bruijn and have also enjoyed many insightful discussions with him on different topics of Persian literature. Apart from these scholars, I am very much inspired by Professor Arthur Christensen in the field of Persian mythology and epic literature as well as his writings on the literary milieu of medieval Iran. In terms of the originality and the scope of his studies, I still believe Christensen to be the greatest Western Iranologist of all times.

While intrigued to know more about Iran, how much access did you have to sources on Iranian culture and civilization in Sweden?

I studied humanities at high school and at that time the libraries of Stockholm had very little to offer on Iranian history and culture. The subject of my high school thesis was the role of Cyrus the Great in Near Eastern history. I couldn’t find any other sources except those written by ancient Greek historians. So I concluded by writing my thesis exclusively based on the stories of Herodotus. Due to the Islamic Revolution and political developments in Iran in the 1980s, you could find a lot of articles and books about contemporary Iranian politics and history in Western languages. But the majority of these sources were written by journalists or political analysts and not by Iranologists. The works of Iranologists were only accessible in a few university libraries. For a high school student like me to get access and select among the various types of sources demanded exceptional enthusiasm and intellectual discernment. Fortunately, the situation is much better nowadays and there is a wealth of useful sources to resort to, especially in the field of Persian literature. Many Persian literary works have been translated into Swedish. For instance Bo Utas recently published a general introduction to the subject in two volumes entitled Persiska litteraturen: Essäer och översättningar (Persian Literature: Essays and Translations). However no standard work on the cultural history of Iran still exists in Swedish and this is a topic that I hope to explore in my future publications.

To what extent do students have access to new sources in Iranian Studies?

In Sweden there exist a national search service that provides information on all titles held by university and research libraries and which is accessible for the public and especially for students and researchers. This search service provides access to the most recent printed and electronic sources on Iranian Studies. Having access to a wide range of analytic and critical sources is a democratic issue. In recent decades, the number of books in Iranian Studies has increased remarkably and it is no longer difficult for the public to gain access to these sources and thus also to pick up their scientific results. Since the large majority of Swedes are not familiar with Persian and other Near Eastern languages, I believe it is the duty for academic scholars in disciplines such as Iranian Studies to communicate their own research results to the general public through various means such as media, publications and public seminars.

Uppsala University Library moreover holds a valuable collection of Persian manuscripts and hand-written books that have been brought to Sweden by Scandinavian travellers to the East. The Persian collection has recently been classified by Dr. Ali Muhaddis and the catalogue was published two years ago. Some of the Persian manuscripts, such as Jamāl and Jalāl and Dorr-e Najaf, have been published in printed form as well as electronic form thanks to the efforts of Dr. Muhaddis. The Iranian Studies section at Uppsala University Library also harbors a collection of scarce Persian books from the mid-twentieth century that has been collected by Swedish Iranologists such as Henrik Samuel Nyberg, Geo Widengren and Bo Utas. Nyberg was a specialist on Avestan and Middle Persian languages, wrote scholarly works on the history of ancient Iranian religions, especially Zoroastrianism, and became a member of the Swedish Academy. In the 1960s and 70s he made a great effort to introduce the Swedish public to the history and culture of Iran through the media and popular science publications. Thereby he performed a major cultural service not only to his own country but also to his beloved Iran. Needless to say his contributions have been widely acknowledged and highly esteemed in Sweden. Hopefully we will bear witness to more influential and prominent Iranologists like Nyberg and Widengren in the future too.

You have conducted research at the University of Tehran as well. What was the aim and subject of your research at that time?

In 2002-2003 I conducted a research project at Tehran University and the Iranian Academy of Philosophy on a scholarship grant by the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education. The aim of the project was to examine the literary works and the mystical worldview of Fakhroddin Araqi, a well-known Sufi writer of the thirteenth century. For this purpose I made a systematic literary and theoretical analysis of Araqi’s Lama’āt (Divine Flashes). I focused especially on his theosophical ideas that are influenced by Ibn Arabi and Sadroddin Qunavi but was deeply attracted also by his hagiography, presumably written by one of his disciples, and the influence of the holy fools (the Qalandariyeh sect) on his religious ideas and practice. The Lama’āt is the earliest example of doctrinal synthesis between the systematic theoretical wisdom of Ibn Arabi on the one hand and Persian love and debauchery mysticism on the other. Before Araqi, we encounter love mysticism in the works of Sanai and Ahmad Ghazali but Araqi differed from them in that he rendered an intellectual or rational dimension to this form of mysticism. Some of your readers are perhaps familiar with some of his well-known short lyrical poems (ghazals), but Araqi is not only a brilliant poet. He is an innovative and creative thinker who unfortunately has not been as acclaimed as he should be. In my view, he even excels Rumi in some aspects such as sincerity, bravery and truthfulness.

At the Iranian Academy of Philosophy I had intellectual exchanges with Iranian scholars, philosophers and sages. I benefited from cooperating with colleagues such as Nasrollah Pourjavadi, Gholamreza A’vani, Gholam Hossein Dinani and Pari Riahi. At Uppsala, only a handful of people were acquainted with Iranian philosophy and mysticism, but in Tehran, I could bring up complicated literary and philosophical questions not only with academics but also when interacting with ordinary people from various walks of society. I discovered that Persian literature, especially poetry, also regardless of the person’s social background, is an expression of every Iranian’s national identity, that is, his or her sense of belonging to a common society and culture. This was a totally new experience to me. Persian classical poetry, in fact, is a mirror of the souls and psyches of Iranians and it connects their past to their present and future. The nature of this unique relationship, in my view, is based on a form of love that is both mundane and spiritual. As Hafez puts it,

“He whose heart has been revived by love will never die.

Our eternity has been written in the record of the world.”

In promulgating this concept of universal love Iranian philosophers, poets and mystics have performed a great service to humankind. In this regard I know personally of no Persian poet who is as sincere and daring as Araqi who once wrote:

“What kind of culture is this? What kind of religion is this?

They kill a lover and then ask why he or she is in love.”

What are your suggestions to those interested in studying Persian in Iran?

Among the three Persian-speaking countries in the world, Iran is the most important as regards both political influence and economical development. Iran is the seventeenth largest economy and the fourth biggest oil producer in the world. It has the largest industrial production in the Middle East and the Northern Africa. There is no doubt that the historical and archeological importance of Tajikistan and Afghanistan is no less than Iran and that many Persian writers hailed from Central Asia and present-day Afghanistan. Yet Iran’s central position within the discipline of Iranian Studies is to a large extent motivated by socio-political as well as academic reasons. The large majority of Swedish students in Persian language literature are hence naturally interested in continuing a part of their education in Iran.

Iran has a modern academic tradition of Iranian Studies that dates back to the 1920s and was founded by and flourished thanks to the dedication of a few prominent scholars such as Ebrahim Purdavud, Ali Akbar Dehkhoda, Mohammad Moin, Ahmad Tafazzoli, etc. All of these scholars loved Iran; they were irāndust as the Persians say. They devoted their whole lives to the study of the history, the languages and the culture of the Iranian Plateau (falāt-e Irān), and, of course, to fostering and strengthening Iranian Studies. Today, Iranian Studies is a global phenomenon, but Swedish students who travel to Iran not only encounter the academic environment of the university departments, but more importantly, they get in touch with a lively and dynamic culture. And they have a lot to learn from this culture, things that cannot be studied in books. Therefore, as a word of advice to students who are interested in acquiring a better knowledge of Persian language and literature as well as Iranian culture and history, I always recommend that they travel to Iran and visit the country’s cultural places, historical monuments and archaeological sites. From my own experience I know that a three-month stay in Iran can have a considerably positive effect on language learning. When my students return from Iran after their first visit, I usually tell them, “Welcome, now you’re in the garden!” (based on a Persian expression equal to “You found your way to awareness!”), since they have truly stepped into the garden of Persian language and literature.

Do you read contemporary Persian literature? What is your view on contemporary poetry?

I enjoy reading the poetry of some contemporary Iranian poets such as Farrokh Tamimi and Faridun Moshiri, but classical poetry surely appeal to me more; perhaps because classical poems to a larger extent are based on rhyme and prosody. The rhyme of poetry is intimately connected to music and most classic poems possess a musical rhythm. Hence classical poets have to pay more attention to syntax and semantics. The mythological and symbolic language of classic poetry also connects us to imaginative levels that transcend ourselves, what the mystics call the ‘ālam-e khayāl (world of imagination). Whether we speak of epic poetry, panegyrics, mystical verse or love poetry, this creative quality makes classical poetry highly inspirational.

Of course this doesn’t mean that modern poetry cannot be symbolic or powerful. On the contrary, I believe that contemporary poetry clearly has demonstrated its capability in expressing the existential conditions and dilemmas of contemporary man. But it still has a long way to go to be able to surpass the rich and varied aesthetics and literary compositions of classical poetry. So far I haven’t encountered a modern poem that can rival its classical predecessors in depicting topics such as spring and autumn, wine and drunkenness, intimacy and friendship, etc. It suffices to say that it is not without reason that J.W. von Goethe resembled Persian poetry to a finely woven Iranian carpet or to a traditional Oriental bazaar. The classical literary tradition exhibits potentials and capacities that run beyond any observation.

Which author is your favorite among the Persian literary classics?

That’s a tough question to answer. As I mentioned earlier, the literary tradition of (New) Persian goes back to more than 1200 years. It has flourished and reached its perfection in a rich variety of literary forms and genres. As a translator, I am fortunate to have immersed myself in some of the masterpieces of this tradition. In the process of translating a literary work, not only do I read the original text many times, but through the author’s use of literary devices and choice of words I also enter his or her intellectual and artistic world. In my opinion, translating is basically an emotional activity, or even an act of love. The translator embarks on a very close relationship with the author both mentally and spiritually. Based on my own experience I think you can say that you know a literary work first when you have had many inner dialogues with the author, when you have inhabited the cultural, intellectual and geographical setting of his or her time and place, and finally, when you have recited parts of the text aloud and by heart.

Undoubtedly, in terms of lyrical verse, Hafez is my favorite. He is the master of a literary device called ihām (ambiguity). Every time I read his poems, I discover new and deeper dimensions of his words and phrases. When I first came to know Hafez’s poems through English translations, I interpreted him as a mystical and, to some extent, imaginative poet, but as time went by, I read him in Persian and understood how realistic and penetrating his viewpoints are. In prose, my favorite is Chahār maqāle (Four Discourses) of Nezami Aruzi, a well-known twelfth century writer. To my belief Nezami Aruzi is the epitome of an Iranian intellectual and litterateur. He was a professional scribe by profession and a master of poetry. He had a good acquaintance with most sciences of his own day, including medicine and astronomy. He was a great cultivator of ancient Iranian traditions such as horse riding, hunting and drinking wine. Literarily speaking, his style is simple and fluent, and it is not surprising that the pioneers of modern Iranian prose, among them Mohammad Taqi-Bahar and Ali Akbar Dehkhoda, were highly inspired by him.

Given that most of your activities have been in the field of classical Persian literature, how do you consider its position on an international level?

Persian literature has played a significant role in the invention of the concept of world literature (Weltliteratur), that is the international circulation and reception of literary works. The German translation of Hafez’s Divān (collection of lyrical poetry) by J. Hammer Purgstall received an outstanding reception during the Age of Romanticism. Perhaps more importantly, it opened Goethe’s eyes to the prestige of literature beyond the borders of Europe. Hafez exhibited the artistic depth and force of Persian verse to Goethe and inspired him to write the West-östlicher Divan. Goethe understood indeed that the new conditions of modern literature are dependent on the global literary market. A century after Hafez achieved fame in Germany-speaking countries, another Persian poet, Omar Khayyam rose to unprecedented fame all over Europe and especially in England. In recent decades, Rumi has turned into a global icon and his poems have left their impact on contemporary art and music especially in the United States. The translators and the global literary market played pivotal roles in the success of all of these literary works. Another factor behind their success is, in my view, also the exceptional ways in which they reflect the cultural and intellectual preoccupations of their own time. If we want to assess the present status of Persian literature on an international level, we should hence pay close attention to the competency of the translators, the conditions of the global literary market and the ways contemporary Persian works reflect the cultural and intellectual preoccupations of our time.

To my view, contemporary Persian literature ought to be in a much better position in terms of global influence than it is today, not at least because of its long historical reputation and Iran’s economic and political potentials. Today more than 120 million people speak Persian across the globe but the cultural impact of Swedish literature (Swedish is spoken by less than 10 million people) is far superior on an international level. The cultural authorities in Iran have to pay serious attention to the status of Persian literature internationally and take action. Measures must be taken to the issue of translating and introducing contemporary works of literature into other languages and especially into European languages. At the present, the translation effort is done almost exclusively by Iranologists on an individual initiative, while it is my belief that this is a task that primarily should to be encouraged and sponsored by the government of Iran. As long as the cultural authorities in Iran don’t have an accurate understanding of the global literary market and don’t give priority to the introduction of contemporary Persian literary works on an internationally, the present status quo will not change.

Persian for Beginners (Persiska för nybörjare) is one of your most important works. What did chiefly motivate you to write this textbook?

I recall the time when I embarked on learning Persian, I went to every one of Stockholm’s bookstores and libraries, but couldn’t find anything except a Swedish-Persian dictionary. There were no Persian language textbooks and I couldn’t either find any scientific and authoritative educational material. This dates back to 25 years ago, but the situation actually remained the same until a couple of years ago. Meanwhile, the interest in learning Persian has increased noticeably among the Swedes. Authoritative reference and educational sources are of crucial importance for the process of language learning. In the Scandinavian countries we felt the lack of reliable and practical material both at the universities and at private language institutes. In 2007-2009, I lectured a beginner’s course in Persian at Stockholm University and decided to prepare new teaching material for this course, which annually was attended by more than sixty students. I further developed this material during my three years in Oslo and revised it continually in interaction with the students and after considering their priorities and needs. Afterwards, I gathered the material and published it in two books: Modern persisk grammatik (“Modern Persian Grammar”, 2010) and Persiska för nybörjare (2012). Because of the positive reception on the part of my readers, the grammar appeared in a second and revised edition this year. There is no need for any prior knowledge to learn Persian through these two books. They can also be used for self-study purposes. In preparing the materials for the publications, I gave priority to colloquial and everyday language and using current and attractive topics. Special attention has also been placed on idiomatic words and expressions. I am glad to say that students, not only in Sweden, but also in Norway and Denmark, have received both books enthusiastically.

How did having an Iranian spouse help you get a realistic view of Iranians?

I met my spouse, Mana, during my high-school years, and later we enrolled in the same program at the university. Her father was a poet and researcher on Iran’s national history and culture. Mana and I got married about a year after we entered university. Indeed, I am very lucky to have met my spouse at a young age, and even luckier because she is a poet and has a lot of interest in Persian language and literature. Thanks to her, now I have an Iranian family. Her mother and sisters are so close and dear to me that sometimes it makes me feel we are biologically related. My mother-in-law considers me as her own son and her kindness is a source of happiness for me. Unlike previous generations of Iranologists who seldom travelled to the Orient and were less familiar with the social life of the people of Iran, I have been blessed with the opportunity to discover Iran from within. This reality becomes more apparent to me when I travel to Iran. I believe that someone who hasn’t lived with an Iranian family and experienced the atmosphere in Iran as an insider cannot consider himself or herself a true Iranologist. One reason for this is that the private culture, which in some cases virtually is restricted to the andaruni or the private space of the home, differs so much from the public culture of society. For those who are married to an Iranian spouse like me, the Persian language also often becomes the “language of the heart” or zabān-e del as the Sufi mystics call it.

Considering your field of expertise, do you have any suggestions on how to better provide people around the world with a more realistic image of contemporary Iran?

An important feature of contemporary scientific knowledge is its specialty-oriented nature, and Iranian Studies is no exception to this rule. For instance, those who specialize in the contemporary political history of Iran usually have very little competence in Persian literature and language or even ancient Iranian history for that matter, whereas this was not the case only one or two generations ago. Iranian Studies is an interdisciplinary field of research and those who conduct research in this field are for natural reasons nonetheless familiar with a range of topics, theories and methods in different disciplines. To my belief this characteristic is the very raison d’être of Iranian Studies.

In addition to establishing and developing Iranian Studies departments, there are a numerous ways to strengthen Iranian Studies and to encourage exchange of viewpoints on various aspects of contemporary Iran, such as network activities, forming associations, founding scientific journals and convoking scientific conferences. In my view, developing a multitude of critical approaches plays a crucial role in providing a more realistic image of contemporary Iran to non-specialists. Another necessity is endorsing and supporting foreign Iranologists who are interested in field research in Iran and developing cooperation between scientific centers inside and outside of the country. Every year, numerous international Iranian Studies conferences are held in various parts of the world. Yet, it is unfortunate that no international conference has been held in Iran with a large presence of Western Iranologists after the revolution. Personally, however, I am optimistic that the conditions for humanities will improve in Iran in the future and that the scientific atmosphere will attain more autonomy and transparency, thus putting an end to the current critical situation.

After years of experience in Iranian Studies, what do you think so far has been neglected within this field?

Research in Iranian Studies has expanded significantly during the last fifty years, in such a way that its main subjects (i.e. archeology, language and literature) at least empirically have been well studied in their essentials. There are of course a lot of topics that have been neglected and many more issues that will be discovered in the future. As regards neglected topics I can refer, for instance, to the impact of the Persian culture on ancient Egypt and Greece, the linguistic features of the dialect of Bukhara, the historic evolution of Persian literature in the Ottoman Empire, etc. Also, in the fields of archeology and general history, discussions on material culture have been less focused on, whereas material objects such as clothes, foods, furniture and other daily objects certainly play a decisive role in the evolution of culture, morality, power, etc. The relations between Iranian Zoroastrians and the emigrants who left Iran for China in the early centuries of Islam and the role these emigrants played in the political developments of China have only been studied fragmentarily so far and without taking into account the Chinese sources.

The economic and social history of the Iranian Plateau is a subject that generally has been disregarded in Iranian Studies. For instance, there is no systematic study on the economic and social ties between different Persian-speaking groups in Iran, the Caucasus and Central Asia from the fall of the Timurids to creation of modern nation states. Regarding the most recent period, the socio-political conditions for Persian-speaking Afghan refugees in Iran and especially the plight of the second generation, has been so far neglected by Iranologists. Due to the dominant trend in humanities in the recent decades, Iranian Studies has been heavily influenced by the new theories that have emerged in interaction with the social sciences. It has openly embraced this diversity and thus expanded beyond its previous ramifications and boundaries. Today, we are witnessing innovative trends and dynamic exchanges in international studies, and I presume that the most intriguing research of the future will take place in the interdisciplinary fields. Hence, I’m fairly hopeful about the future of Iranian Studies.

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