22 December 2003

Iranian Scholars Unite to Share Research Every Two Years

Nobel peace prize winner due to speak in Washington in May, 2004

By Phyllis McIntosh
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- Every two years upwards of 400 scholars, at least half of them from outside the United States, come to Washington, D.C. for the International Society of Iranian Studies (ISIS) biennial conference. Highlights planned for the May 2004 conference include a keynote speech by Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, recipient of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, and a closing session about the new generation of Iranian expatriates and their culture and vision of the world.

Started more than 35 years ago by a small number of elite college professors, ISIS currently counts as members about half of the 1,200 scholars around the world who specialize in Iranian studies -- ranging from the language and culture of ancient Persia to the politics and social conditions in present-day Iran. It is the largest professional organization for academics involved in such research, according to ISIS President Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak. The organization, headquartered at New York University in New York City, recently added "international" to its name to better reflect its global perspective and worldwide membership.

The society represents Iranian studies, in the "most broadly conceived" sense, Karimi-Hakkak says. "Many academics equate Iranian studies with the modern state of Iran. We have a much larger view." He notes that ISIS members study everything having to do with the Southwest, Central, and South Asia regions near Persia. "These were cultures that have been impacted by Iranian civilization and by the Persian language in particular."

Most of the society's three-day biennial conference is devoted to scholarly presentations and panel discussions on a wide range of topics, such as "Aspects of Feminism in Contemporary Iran," "The Rhetoric of Mysticism in Iranian Poetic Tradition," and "Food as a Medium of Public Policy and Popular Culture." In its call for papers for the 2004 session, the program committee emphasizes that it especially welcomes contributions in "new areas of investigation and novel approaches to traditional fields." New areas of research include such things as terrorism, Iran's integration into regional politics, and the impact of globalization on Iran and Iranian studies, Karimi-Hakkak explains. New approaches to a traditional discipline, such as Persian literature, might focus on comparing Persian lyric poetry to Western lyric traditions or how best to translate and present the work of popular Persian poet Rumi to western audiences.

Karimi-Hakkak, who grew up in Iran and came to the United States in 1968, is widely recognized as an expert in both classical and modern Persian literature. He heads the Persian Studies program at the University of Washington in Seattle, one of about 10 such programs at American universities. Once the province of Ivy League schools, Persian or Iranian studies programs are now located primarily at large state institutions, such as the University of Washington, University of Arizona, University of Michigan, University of Texas, UCLA, and the University of California at Berkeley. The focus also has shifted from viewing Asian cultures through Western eyes to more practical considerations, such as training students in Arabic, and promoting a genuine understanding of the region's languages and cultures, Karimi-Hakkak says.

"No more than half of ISIS members are located at American universities," he adds. "Many of our members are in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Japan is also well represented. We have many in Iran who are members in spirit but who have not been able to keep their memberships current because of the exchange problems between Iran and the United States."

In addition to holding its biennial conference, ISIS publishes a quarterly scholarly journal, "Iranian Studies," and a members' newsletter, "ISIS News;" cosponsors panels and meetings of the Middle East Studies Association; and joins with individual universities to present seminars or colloquia on specific topics in Iranian studies. The society also awards the annual Saidi-Sirjani Memorial Book Award to what it judges as the best book on Iranian studies published during the year anywhere in the world.

More information about the International Society for Iranian Studies is available on its website, www.iranian-studies.org.

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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