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Iranica unites Iranians--for an evening

12 Mar 2009 12:32No Comments
Photo/Nousha Salimi

Shohreh Aghdashloo at the Iranica Gala in Dubai. May 2, 2008.

By GOLNOUSH NIKNEJAD in Dubai

[Tehran Bureau] archives May 2, 2008 -- Before many schools and universities were turning to the United Arab Emirates for funding, Manouchehr Houshmand started a grassroots effort in Dubai to help raise money for Columbia University's Encyclopaedia Iranica.

The massive scholarly project, whose primary support comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, published its first volume in 1982 with 285 contributors from around the world. It covers what is present day Iran, but also other countries where Persian was spoken. So while it may span thousands of years of culture, art and history, it is topical, and the first place many scholars and journalists turned to learn about Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion there in 2003. Other countries covered include Tajikistan, Baluchistan, Kurdistan, and parts of Pakistan, India and the Caucuses.

In 2002, prompted in part by the loss of three Iranists in the span of six months, Iranica changed strategies and began soliciting submissions irrespective of the alphabet. These entries are first published online -- and searchable at Iranica.com -- and later when their turn comes, in print editions. The first fascicle, or part, of Volume 14 was recently sent to the printers, according to Houra Yavari, an assistant editor at Iranica in New York City.

She was in Dubai for a fundraiser last weekend at the Grand Hyatt. "It was one of the most memorable that I've participated in 20 years of my involvement with Iranica," Ms. Yavari said, referring to the program.

Mr. Houshmand, an entrepreneur, said until now fundraisers had been increasingly successful since he started the Dubai association to help Iranica five years ago. Though the final tally was not in, it was not expected to reach last year's more than USD $100,000 raised.

"Service is the priority, the amount we raise is secondary," Mr. Houshman said Wednesday night at a lecture series on Iranica at Knowledge Village. "When we started, 99 percent of Iranians hadn't heard about Iranica. My goal is to educate people about it."

Timing may have played a role. It did not appear to help that the fundraiser came at the heel's of an auction at Christie's in which wealthy Iranians paid record prices for works of art from Iranian artists. But prospects were expected to improve, especially with a little help from Hollywood -- and perhaps one of Dubai's newest residents.

Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Saddam Hussein's wife in an upcoming television drama from the BBC and HBO, "Between Two Rivers," made her first trip to the U.A.E. with her husband, Houshang Tozie, a theater director. She was nominated for an Oscar in 2003, for her supporting role as Ben Kingsly's wife in House of Sand and Fog.

"I have turned Iranica into a cause for myself," said Ms. Aghdashloo. "I've been chasing around day and night trying to make sure the last word of the encyclopedia is written before I leave this earth."

Ms. Aghdashloo said she was eying Dubai as a second home. "I love it, love it, love it," she said. "The people are very warm-hearted. It's very clean. And it's geographic location is great." Asked whether she was referring to Dubai's proximity to Iran, Ms. Agdashloo's smile grew even bigger.

Philippe Welti, Switzerland's Ambassador to Iran, flew in from Tehran to support the project as well.

"I have a lifelong passion for encyclopedias," Mr. Welti said. "I have Encyclopedia Britannica, and an Islamic one that I can't read. I'm excited this is in English. It adds to Iran's globalization and is an indication of Iran's potential."


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