07 May 2003

Ibrahim Pourhadi: A Passion for Learning

Librarian and Iranian Specialist Pourhadi Supervises Expansion of Persian Collection

By Susan Domowitz
Washington File Staff Writer

At the Library of Congress, Ibrahim Pourhadi tells a story that illustrates the traditional love of learning in Persian culture.

When Alexander the Great conquered Persia, he journeyed from Persepolis to the summer palace of Darius the Great in Hamadan. Passing by a graveyard, he noticed that the life spans recorded on the grave markers seemed unusually short. He called an old man to explain to him why the life spans all were limited to two or three years, and in response, the old man read aloud an epitaph on one of the stones:

Mankind has sought peace of mind since creation;
So shall be the longing of each coming generation;
The wise man seeking out this prize is he
Who finds it in the corner of the library.

The meaning of the epitaph is that the number of years spent in the pursuit of knowledge is the real life span of a human being, and this idea apparently impressed Alexander, Pourhadi says. This love of learning continues to be tremendously important in Persian history and culture, he adds.

Ibrahim Pourhadi's own life has been shaped by a love of learning. He came to the U.S. as a student a half century ago, headed for the University of Michigan. Born in Pahlavi (now called Anzali), in northern Iran, he went to school in Tabriz and Tehran, before attending the American University of Beirut for a time.

From the University of Michigan and Andrew University in Michigan, where he earned a Master's Degree, Pourhadi went to work for the U.S. Navy, teaching Middle Eastern studies and languages. He then went to Princeton University, first as a student, and then as an instructor in what was then called the "Oriental Department."

It was at Princeton that Pourhadi made the acquaintance of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Douglas, who was interested in Sufism, and Persian philosophy, asked Pourhadi to teach him Persian, so that he could read Rumi's poetry in the original Persian. For the next two years, Pourhadi met regularly with the Supreme Court Justice to give Persian lessons. For part of that period, Pourhadi traveled down to Washington by train from Princeton every weekend, then continued as Justice Douglas' teacher for two years.

Douglas, he says, was an avid student, a renaissance man who loved learning and travel. It was Douglas who recommended Pourhadi for a position at the Library of Congress in 1959. As a speaker of some half-dozen Central Asian languages in addition to Persian, Pourhadi was perfectly suited to building the Persian, Afghan, and Central Asian collections. He now oversees the library's collections from Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Pourhadi is justifiably proud of the growth of the Persian collection from three or four thousand volumes in 1959 to a collection that now numbers over 600,000 documents. The collection contains a vast range of Persian materials -- from original calligraphy, and illuminated manuscripts, classical Persian poets, and the Shahnameh, to recent Persian newspapers and political tracts.

He has written numerous articles, including annotated inventories of libraries in Iran, and of Muslim libraries in the Middle Ages. As he gently opens an ancient book of Saadi's poetry, with beautiful calligraphy and illuminated illustrations, Pourhadi's face is luminous with delight. "Never forget your past," he says.

Pourhadi welcomes scholars and students to use the materials at the Library of Congress. He also has close professional contacts with libraries and librarians in Iran. He is able to acquire Iranian libraries' duplicate materials for the Library of Congress, and he often is able to furnish more recent documents, published in Persian, to librarians in Iran. It's a fruitful two-way exchange that Pourhadi hopes will keep alive the love of learning in both the United States and Iran.

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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