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September 10, 2001

Rumi to move

By Eric Rangus

Before Frank Lewis arrived on campus in 1997, Persian studies at Emory was … well, it was a shoestring operation. No full classes were offered, and the occasional student interested in the subject could take it only as independent study.

Considering the United States’ dicey political relationship with two of the three countries in the Persian-speakingworld (Iran and Afghanistan), the fact that students have long shied away from Persian studies is perhaps not a surprise.

The past few years, though, have seen some changes. While the U.S. and Iran are still far from chummy, the West’s view of Iran is slowly improving.

“Iran is becoming a little more interesting and the portrayal of the country in the U.S. media is becoming a bit more positive,” said Lewis, associate professor of Middle Eastern studies.

Nowhere is this more apparent than Atlanta—and Emory. Lewis estimated that between 5,000 and 8,000 people of Iranian heritage live in the metro area. The High Museum recently began an Iranian film festival, which Lewis helped create. Even closer to home, Emory has a very active Persian club on campus.

Not only are Persian-related social events increasing, but Emory’s curriculum, too, has responded to a growing interest in the subject.

First-year Persian, a class Lewis has taught for several years, was overenrolled this fall with 19 students; the first time it was offered—in 1997—the class consisted of just three students. The numbers in second- and third-year Persian top out at about a half-dozen, but according to Lewis, that compares well with similar departments at other universities. In fact, since Emory does not have a graduate program in the language, current interest in Persian is even more impressive.

“It is unusual for Middle Eastern studies departments to thrive solely as undergraduate programs,” said Lewis, who is director of undergraduate studies. “Traditionally, most students would pursue this field, especially Persian language, at the graduate level. The success of Emory’s major in Middle Eastern studies and its minor in Arabic, Hebrew and Persian language testifies to the quality and commitment of the faculty.”

Because of Persian studies’ higher profile, a new lecturer, Hossein Samai, was hired to teach classes this fall to take the pressure off Lewis and associate professor Devin Stewart, who had taught all the courses between them. But Samai, an Iranian national, is in Turkey while the U.S. State Department completes a security check, and Lewis’ and Stewart’s workload will remain high until he arrives.

In addition to helping build the Persian program, Lewis has invested his spare time wisely. Last year, he completed Rumi: Past and Present, East and West, a comprehensive work on the life, times, writings and cultural influence of the 13th century Persian poet Jalâl al-Din Rumi.

Rumi is seen as one of finest poets of the Persian language, but his influence has spread far beyond literary circles. In the 1200s his followers founded the ritual turning dance of the Mevlevi order, giving the Sufi group the name it is most commonly known as: “whirling dervishes.”

Rumi’s work—like that of William Shakespeare or Martin Luther—resonates even today. Thanks to a popular culture rebirth begun in the 1960s and brought to its zenith a few years ago, Rumi was one of the United States’ best-selling poets in 1997.

Lewis leaves few stones unturned in his painstakingly researched book. Including the index, Rumi: Past and Present, East and West is 686 pages long. Lewis began work on it in 1996, while a lecturer at the University of Chicago. While Rumi’s poems have been translated in many languages and interpreted in many ways, very little scholarly work investigated his life. Rarer still was the academic or author who placed Rumi in the context of his times.

“It’s a little surprising that that kind of work hadn’t been done,” Lewis said. “In a way, what I set out to do in this book was something that might have been expected 50 or 100 years ago. I tried to make my own contribution to the scholarly study and present side by side the different types of popular or academic discourses that exist.”

It does that and much more. Not only does Lewis delve into Rumi’s life and identify his inspirations, he tracks the poet’s influence on Eastern religion and literature, as well as his 18th century discovery by the West.

Lewis also includes Rumi’s pop-culture rebirth in the late 1990s. For instance, he offers takes on New Age guru Deepak Chopra’s CD A Gift of Love, which features readings of Rumi poetry. Lewis also lists more than a dozen Rumi- and Mevlevi-related websites. For a look at Rumi-inspired art, for example, surf to

Also included are Lewis’ new English translations and commentary on more than 50 Rumi poems. One of the most surprising anomalies of previous Rumi translations, Lewis said, was many translators did not know Persian and instead simply recycled already-translated versions of his work. This led to errors, in some cases, and a muddying of the poet’s message, in general.

“You wouldn’t image that someone could be translating from Italian or German or French into English without actually knowing the source language, but it seems that it’s OK for people to do that with Persian,” Lewis said.

Lewis, who was born in Virginia and raised in southern California, first became interested in Rumi—and Persian in general—for religious reasons. A member of the Bahá’í Faith, Lewis wanted to read the religion’s original texts, which are in Persian and Arabic.

As an undergrad, he majored in Persian and Arabic, thus becoming an expert on a country (Iran) he has never visited.

Even while researching his Rumi book, Lewis made it only as far as Turkey, which actually wasn’t a serious problem since Rumi did all of his writing in what is now Turkey, and he is buried there.

“Visiting Iran would have enabled me to talk with several of the senior scholars in the field of Persian literature, but I was in correspondence with some of them and their books and articles on the subject are published,” Lewis said. “But, obviously, the more you can travel and talk to the different people who have done research on the subject—that is certainly a better option.”

For his effort, Lewis received the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Award, handed out each year by the British Society of Middle Eastern Studies to the author of the best book on the subject published in Great Britain. Lewis picked up the prize (and the nearly $5,000 check to go with it) at a ceremony at the University of Edinburgh in July. Lewis is the first American to take home the award in its four-year history.

“Of course, I was delighted,” Lewis said of the honor. “The great thing about it is that some of the foundational work on Rumi was done by scholars at Cambridge. And some of the people who are really known in the field were involved in the prize. It was quite an honor to receive that and be recognized by the heirs of the tradition that did the really lasting work on Rumi.”


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