A replica of the world’s first charter of human rights sits at the United Nations headquarters, an emblem of the organization’s cause.
The writer of the ancient clay cylinder was Persian king Cyrus the Great, who hailed from present-day Iran—a region that remains greatly misunderstood despite the blinding political limelight that surrounds it.
This fall, Portland State launched Oregon’s first minor in Persian, offering students a chance to acquaint themselves with the culture, literature and language of the region.
“Persian culture is one of the glories of antiquity, and the Persian language is one of its defining aspects,” said Jennifer Perlmutter, chair of the Department of World Languages and Literatures at PSU.
The minor encompasses courses in language, literature and culture and comes at a time when the university is expanding its internationalization efforts. Before this fall, PSU’s language-only Persian program fulfilled undergraduate foreign language requirements but did not lead to a degree or certificate.
Persian, along with Arabic and Turkish, will be PSU’s third minor in a Middle Eastern language.
“Iran is one of the least understood countries in the world,” said Anousha Sedighi, an associate professor of Persian who leads the program. “And that’s really a pity because knowing about, say, the history of Iran really helps people to open their eyes about the current situation.”
Along with Sedighi, spearheading the program in its inaugural year is renowned Persian scholar Dick Davis, who will be a visiting scholar this winter and spring. Credited with translating the Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”)—a seminal work of Persian literature—into English, Davis is a best-selling author and a poet in his own right. He will teach three new courses, including classes titled “Persian Folklore and Mythology” and “Iranian Women Writers.”
“[Davis] is a very important pillar in Persian literature,” Sedighi said. “He’s really going to be important for the visibility of the program.”
Students at PSU have been collaborating to promote Persian cultural and artistic heritage for years. With the addition of the minor, they will be able to formally align their Persian studies with their career goals.
Victor Mena, a criminal justice major, hopes his chances of joining a governmental organization will be boosted by his language skills. “Persian is one of the government’s wanted languages,” said Mena, who received a scholarship from the Persia House organization. “Personally, I think Persian should be a major.”
Also enrolled in the minor is Jon Vance, a recipient of the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship who aspires to work in the foreign service and nurture relations between Iran and the United States. Vance, an international studies major, credits his education at PSU with preparing him for his professional goals.
“Iran has become one of the most geopolitically significant countries in the world,” Vance said. “The establishment of PSU’s Persian minor coincides with critical bilateral tension between the U.S. and Iran.”
Vance intends to take all the courses offered by Davis, even though he will have completed his minor requirements before then. “I cannot ignore such an invaluable learning opportunity, ” he said.
Mena concurs, seeing Davis as a noteworthy example of tackling and mastering an unfamiliar language.
“I’m Mexican, and I’m trying to learn this difficult new language. Dr. Davis is not [of Persian heritage] but has built 30 years of knowledge,” said Mena, who is taking on Persian as a third language.
“I also know a couple of U.S. army veterans who have served in Afghanistan and become acquainted with Persian,” said Parisa Ghafoori, president of the Iranian Students Association. “They were interested in learning it better and thus attended PSU.”
Moreover, Portland is home to a sizable Iranian and Persian-speaking community, said Ghafoori, a graduate student born and raised in Iran who has taught a 300-level Persian course at PSU. Many children learn Persian from their families at an early age, but forget much of it as they grow up, Ghafoori explained.
“Having Persian as a minor offers a great deal of value to these families,” Ghafoori said. “Students can not only learn and work on their mother tongue, but can also gain credit and a degree for it.”
Supplementing academia with cultural activities has been a continual focus of the program. The $150,000 Parsa Community Foundation grant that brought in Davis also helped organize a concert by an Iranian musician, provided Persian music course-offerings at PSU, and will fund and an upcoming lecture series about Iranian women in Spring 2013.
“[The Iranian Students Association] has been collaborating with the Persian program since the start of the student club. We believe that the two entities will continue to work together to be better and better in presenting and celebrating the region’s rich cultural and artistic heritage,” Ghafoori said.
The program offers critical language scholarships to Tajikistan and elsewhere but does not currently offer opportunities to study in Iran.
“At this point, we are not there yet. But that would be a goal in the future, for sure,” Sedighi said.
Sedighi, who is currently the only regular, tenured Persian Studies faculty member, hopes to bring more professors into the program.
“If we had professors in history, sociology and so on, then that would enable us to offer a Persian Studies degree—and that’s part of the internationalization goals of the university,” she said.