16 June 2004

Roshan Institute Aims to Preserve Persian Heritage, Promote Understanding

Profile of Roshan Institute head Elahe Omidyar Mir-Djalali

By Phyllis McIntosh
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- Whether through support of Persian scholars at U.S. universities, cultural events at leading museums or an annual art exhibition at a suburban Washington school, the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute is dedicated to preserving Persian culture and promoting understanding among people of different backgrounds.

The founder and moving force behind the institute is Dr. Elahe Omidyar Mir-Djalali, an Iranian-American with a lifelong interest in Persian language, literature, history, and culture. A linguist by profession, Mir-Djalali was born in Iran and educated in Iran, France and the United States, earning a master's degree from Georgetown University in Washington and a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris. She taught most recently at the University of California at Berkeley but now devotes full time to the institute, which she established in 2000.

Mir-Djalali chose the name Roshan, which means clear or bright in Persian, to reflect the institute's mission "of bringing to light the importance of Persian culture and achieving enlightenment through community involvement and education." This goal is especially important "at a time when unfortunately politics are clouding the image of certain areas of the Middle East," she said in an exclusive interview with the Washington File.

The institute practices what Mir-Djalali calls proactive philanthropy. "It's a positive approach to philanthropy, which means that you don't just give out money, but you follow up, you stay in touch, you work with people you give grants to, and you expect results," she explained. The most productive philanthropy, she believes, is not simply charity but rather "a partnership with involvement and accountability and working together hand in hand to produce effective results."

In its brief history so far, the institute has bestowed grants on an eclectic array of programs, organizations and institutions. Three universities -- the University of Arizona, the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Washington -- have received grants of up to $350,000 to establish Roshan Institute Fellowships for Excellence in Persian Studies. The fellowships are earmarked for doctoral students who are writing their dissertations on any aspect of Persian language and literature or Iranian culture and civilization.

Although the Institute is not geared to giving individual fellowships, Mir-Djalali has made a few rare exceptions in cases where a doctoral dissertation is hanging in the balance and the student does not have funds to continue. "We are very selective," she said, "but if it is an excellent student, recommended by professors and advisors, and enrolled at a university highly recognized for the subject at hand, we are inclined to provide the necessary fellowship to allow a student to finalize a degree."

The Roshan Institute has provided support for exhibitions ranging from "Love and Yearning: Mystic and Moral Themes in Persian Poetry and Painting" at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery in Washington to an annual art exhibition at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland, just outside Washington. Mir-Djalali's only son, Pierre Omidyar, famous in his own right as founder of the online auction site e-Bay, is an alumnus of the school, which initially led to her involvement. But she said she is proud of the way St. Andrew's has integrated the art -- Persian the first year, Chinese the second -- into its curriculum and hopes eventually to fund additional school projects. "It is important for the youth to learn that people are the same but not the same all over the world," she noted.

At the Asia Society and Museum in New York City, the institute funded four months of public programs and cultural events, including Iranian films, musical and dramatic performances, lectures about modern art, and panel discussions about current issues in Iran.

The institute also has helped support scholarly conferences, such as "The Study of Persian Culture in the West from the 15th to Early 19th Century," at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the "Sadeq Hedayat Centenary Conference," celebrating the work of a noted Iranian writer, at Oxford University in England. Roshan also provided funding for the 2002 conference of the International Society for Iranian Studies, which brought together hundreds of Iranian scholars from all over the world to discuss their research.

Some other grant recipients defy categorization. For example, the institute has provided major support for Volume XII of the Encyclopedia Iranica, a massive project by Iran scholars at New York's Columbia University to chronicle the history and culture of the Persian world from the Stone Age to the present.

The Iranian Association of Boston received a grant after impressing the institute with its steady record of providing social and cultural activities and its ability to find support within the Boston Iranian community. "I pledged $100,000 at the beginning if they could raise another $100,000 themselves," says Mir-Djalai. "They went out and raised $130,000. Community involvement for us is the most important issue, to get as many people as possible involved to understand and to learn."

The institute also awarded a small grant to two graduate students from the University of Virginia to study some elements of the Dari language. With a linguist's precision, Mir-Djalali explained to a reporter that Farsi and Dari are exactly the same language, which in Iran is called Farsi and in Afghanistan is known as Dari. "We are very sensitive to supporting language research," she added, "because language is the first foundation of culture and the oldest instrument of communication, and if we do not encourage communication between people, we cannot have an effectively working community."

In the future, Mir-Djalali hopes the institute may award annual prizes for outstanding achievement by Iranians and perhaps help establish new Persian Studies programs at U.S. universities. Beyond that, she is open to anything that helps fulfill the vision and mission of the institute.

Mir-Djalali is proud of the fact that the institute is "totally apolitical." Her goal, she said, is to work with academia to "dissipate the misconceptions and misunderstandings" inspired by political motivations and "clear the dust for us to see clearly within a culture."

For more information on the Roshan Institute, consult its web site,

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

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