UW News

February 1, 2000

A family’s legacy to Persian studies

This is a story about a man who loved poetry, his three sons who graduated from the University of Washington, and the bonds that tie a community to a university.

The story will be retold on Feb. 12 in the introduction to the second annual Afrassiabi Memorial Lecture, which honors Hooshang Afrassiabi, a leader of the local Iranian community who died two years ago.

The story really begins in Iran, where Afrassiabi was mayor of Shiraz, known for centuries as a city of roses, nightingales and wondrous wine.

After the turmoil of the 1979 revolution sent Afrassiabi to faraway Seattle, he soothed his homesickness by listening to cassette tapes of his son Amin’s UW Persian literature classes.

Soon, Afrassiabi got to meet the man behind the voice, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, a UW professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization and author of a dozen books.

The ?gr?politician and eminent professor – and their families – became close friends.

So when the senior Afrassiabi died, another son, Ali, a physician, pledged $25,000 to create an endowed fund in his father’s name to support the study of Persian civilizations. Until the endowment becomes self-sustaining, Ali Afrassiabi also has provided more than $2,000 extra each year for activities in Near Eastern languages and civilization.

The money supports an annual essay contest in Iranian studies as well as the annual lecture, which this Feb. 12 will feature professor Peter Chelkowski from New York University discussing the Persian roots of Puccini’s opera, “Turandot” (6:30 p.m., Room 220, Kane Hall).

And Ali Afrassiabi’s gifts have inspired other donations. UW officials hope to eventually garner enough private funding for a permanent graduate fellowship in Persian and Iranian studies – the kind of support available at the few schools with which the UW competes in the field.

“If they chose to work with me,” Karimi-Hakkak said of some top-flight candidates, “they have to live with poverty.”

The UW, indeed, is one of only a handful of schools offering a comprehensive slate of Persian language and literature and Iran-related courses, said Michael Williams, chairman of the department of Near Eastern languages and civilization.

And along with its scholarly contributions, the UW program provides sustenance to Seattle’s 12,000-member Iranian-American community, part of an Iranian diaspora that numbers 3 million worldwide. The lectures and films also help spread understanding, Karimi-Hakkak said, among an American populace prone to stereotyping people from the Middle East.

And it all started with a politician who loved poetry.

“This is an excellent example of how a community can build something of interest to their own culture,” said Karimi-Hakkak, “which also creates mutual understanding and fosters goodwill.”

For more information contact Karimi-Hakkak at (206) 543-7145 or karimi@u.washington.edu.