A Lifetime Quest to Finish a Monumental Encyclopedia of Iran


August 16, 2011

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History | Iran

Ralph Ellison wrote for 40 years without finishing his novel “Juneteenth.” Antoni Gaudí labored 43 years on the Sagrada Família basilica in Barcelona, but construction continues today. And in the annals of grand quixotica, Ehsan Yarshater also deserves a prominent chapter.

By PATRICIA COHEN | New York Times

At 53, he embarked on his magnum opus, a definitive encyclopedia of Iranian history and culture. At 75, he started looking for a successor. He didn’t find one so he kept going himself. Now he’s 91. He’s up to “K.”

“My mission is to finish the encyclopedia,” he said recently from his office at Columbia University’s Center for Iranian Studies. He knows he won’t be able to do it personally, especially since the task keeps expanding as progress is made. There are topics to be added and entries to be updated. So Mr. Yarshater has tried to make sure the work will continue by establishing a private foundation with a $12 million endowment and finally choosing three scholars to replace him as general editor.

The sheer ambition of Mr. Yarshater’s vision is daunting. With money from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he has worked to create the most comprehensive account of several millenniums of Iranian history, language and culture in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia.

“There is nothing like it” in scope or quality, said Ali Banuazizi, a professor at Boston College and a former president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.

Unlike a conventional encyclopedia, which briefly summarizes existing knowledge, Mr. Yarshater’s work, Encyclopedia Iranica, is producing original scholarship. “Most of the articles require research,” said Mr. Banuazizi, because they are topics no one has studied in much depth.

Mr. Yarshater has raised the bar further. “Our aim is that for each subject,” he said, “we should find the best person in the entire world.” With that in mind, he has been searching two and a half years for an expert to write about Sirjan and Rafsanjan, townships in the south of Iran.

Mr. Yarshater has not been back to Iran in 32 years, ever since the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah of Iran and established an Islamic republic in 1979. “The encyclopedia’s impartiality does not please the current Persian government,” Mr. Yarshater said in a low, breathy voice. A troublesome tremor that started in his hand several years ago has moved to his knees and vocal cords, slowing him down and compelling him to use an assistant. But otherwise he feels healthy. “My immune system is excellent,” he boasted.

For years Mr. Yarshater’s routine was to work late into the night, coming home only when his wife walked down the hallway from their apartment to the Iranian center to fetch him. “I don’t know many wives who would tolerate that,” he said appreciatively. (She died in 1999; the couple had no children.)

“I’ve seen him work 12 hours without a break,” said Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, director of the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, who has known Mr. Yarshater for more than 40 years. He remembers a visit when Mr. Yarshater stayed up until 3 a.m. editing. Three hours later, he was in the shower, getting ready to return to work.

Mr. Yarshater expects others to have equal enthusiasm for the task. It took him 17 years to choose his replacements, rejecting one potential successor when he concluded that the man was “too concerned about the number of holidays he could take and the number of hours he would work.”

Now Mr. Yarshater works only until 9 p.m., staying long after his colleagues have turned off their lights. When he returns home, he indulges in his latest hobby: learning Russian.

The 1,480 contributors from around the world who, so far, have composed 6,500 entries are familiar with Mr. Yarshater’s relentlessness. “By hook or by crook, he gets you to do what he wants you to do,” Mr. Karimi-Hakkak said. (Eight hundred entries out of alphabetical order are posted in an online version.)

The managing editor, Ahmad Ashraf, said he spent a year working on an entry on social class. He received a $1,000 honorarium for his effort. “We are working here on half salary,” he said. “This is just a love of the work.”

Editing can be brutal. Until recently Mr. Yarshater meticulously checked and revised every entry. “Maybe I’m a faultfinder,” he conceded. He tries to praise colleagues and assistants, but said “it is not in my nature.”

Because the encyclopedia is primarily a scholarly reference tool, every fact must have multiple sources. “He wanted me to write several hundred entries,” said Roy Mottahedeh, a professor at Harvard. “I wrote one.”

As Mr. Mottahedeh noted, Mr. Yarshater is the last of a generation of scholars who believed it possible to master the grand sweep of human history, along with several languages.

Before Mr. Yarshater embarked on the encyclopedia, he traveled throughout Iran, studying obscure dialects, and wrote a groundbreaking work in linguistics. In the 1950s he took Western classics to his countrymen by establishing a translation and publishing institute.

“I remember growing up in Iran and reading these books,” Mr. Banuazizi said.

In 1961 Mr. Yarshater was appointed to teach Iranian studies at Columbia, the first full-time professor of Persian at an American university since World War II. He is known for a series of immense undertakings: He was the general editor of a 40-volume translation of al-Tabari’s 10th-century history of the world; editor of some of the Cambridge History of Iran; and the founding editor of a classic multivolume series on Persian history and language. In the mid-1990s he was troubled that Persian poetry — in his view, his people’s greatest cultural contribution — was being ignored. Most English speakers are familiar with Omar Khayyam, but they do not know about the 13th-century Rumi or the 10th-century Ferdowsi, who wrote “Shahnameh,” a national epic of 50,000 couplets.

So he embarked on a new 20-volume collection of Persian literature. “That was when I realized I was suffering from a kind of disease,” he said with a smile. “If something is to be done, I have a feeling that I should start doing it.”