September 10, 2001
Before Frank Lewis arrived on campus in 1997, Persian studies at Emory
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 Wests view of Iran is slowly
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 Atlantaand 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
Not only are Persian-related social events increasing, but Emorys
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 offeredin 1997the
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 Emorys major in Middle Eastern studies and its minor in Arabic,
Hebrew and Persian language testifies to the quality and commitment of
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 Stewarts
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 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.
Rumis worklike that of William Shakespeare or Martin Lutherresonates
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 Rumis 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.
Its a little surprising that that kind of work hadnt
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
It does that and much more. Not only does Lewis delve into Rumis
life and identify his inspirations, he tracks the poets influence
on Eastern religion and literature, as well as his 18th century discovery
by the West.
Lewis also includes Rumis pop-culture rebirth in the late 1990s.
For instance, he offers takes on New Age guru Deepak Chopras 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 www.rassouli.com/rumi.htm.
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 poets message,
You wouldnt image that someone could be translating from
Italian or German or French into English without actually knowing the
source language, but it seems that its 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 Rumiand Persian in generalfor religious
reasons. A member of the Baháí Faith, Lewis wanted
to read the religions 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 wasnt 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 subjectthat 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.