An Iranian model of altruism, volunteerism, philanthropy and scholarship in the Diaspora
by David Rahni
Wed 1st Apr 2015
The devotion of one’s intellectual and material resources to the betterment of human society has been emphasized in Persian/Iranian literature, culture and religions since the earliest times. Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Mazdakism, Manichaeism and more recently Islam have all pursued this path. The prolific output of Persian poetry and prose is replete with recommendations to serve society as best as one can. Endowments (vaqhf) for the benefit of society have a long history in the Iranian world that preceded Islam.
Against that historical background and anchored on the prior ten thousand years of history and three thousand years of continuous governments, the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 was promulgated by various segments of society, including intellectuals who had recently returned from Europe with a baggage of modern education. The adoption of a parliamentary system and the rule of law provided the country with institutions that ideally would allow it to catch up with modernity through political, social and legal reforms. One outcome of this trend was the emergence of a new elite class of well-educated and affluent Iranians intent on achieving a harmonious balance between Western education and the concomitant desire for modernization, on the one hand, and the understanding and promotion of their national heritage, on the other.
When the 1979 revolution betrayed its motto of “sovereignty, freedom and democratic republic,” and produced a governing system far from those ideals, a mass exodus of Iranians to Europe and the Americas ensued, numbering as high as three to four million, by some estimates. Initially bitter about being uprooted from their ancestral homeland, they soon acclimatized to their adopted lands without compromising their love for their motherland, its people and culture. More than a few of them chose to defend their culture over and above the ruling systems by advocating for the preservation of ten millennia of heritage, and showcasing it to enhance global awareness of that all too often ignored past. Whereas the stewards of such endeavors are numerous both inside Iran and in the diaspora, one notable example of cultural philanthropy combined with humility is worthy of mention.
Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian has earned accolades for taking such a dual ethos to a higher level. She has for many years been a vocal advocate for the artistic and literary history of the Iranian cultural sphere which encompasses many parts of Western and Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Indian subcontinent. She is among the first scholars to have spoken up bluntly, not from an ‘orientalist’ viewpoint, but from the perspective of one deeply rooted in her culture and capable to address it from a post-colonialist rear-view lens.
Ms. Soudavar Farmanfarmaian, born in Tehran in 1940 and educated in Iran and Switzerland, is a dual Swiss-Iranian national and currently resides in Geneva and London. Fluent in Persian, English, French, German, Russian and Italian, she is an independent scholar who has written on a variety of topics which have as their background the history and culture of the Persianate sphere. Since 2001 she has served on the board of the Soudavar Memorial Foundation which supports cultural activities relating to the Greater Iranian world in its multiple facets.
True to the Persian maxim, “The pomegranate does not fall too far from her tree”, the nurturing role of her family of art lovers and benefactors exerted a strong influence on her commitment. Her mother, the late Ezzat-Malek Soudavar (1913-2014) lived through a century of unprecedented change. Following in her father’s footsteps she was above all known as a dedicated and knowledgeable patron of the arts. Appointed by her father as legal supervisor, she was the moving force behind the preservation and expansion of the Malek Museum and Library which she complemented with her own art collection in a new wing under her own name. Her initiative has been rewarded as that institution goes from strength to strength.
Ms. Soudavar Farmanfarmaian, inspired by her mother’s example, has written and spoken critically about cultural issues at a sensitive time when these have increasingly become a victim of conflict and power play. She has boldly expressed her disapproval of misguided post-colonial policies which have negatively impacted both the visible and intangible manifestations of a diversity of ancient cultures across a vast region to which her ancestry is heir.
The world has for some years witnessed unpardonable crimes committed by power politics as much as by extremist groups, such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, not only against humanity, but equally against world cultural heritage which has been irretrievably afflicted to an unprecedented degree by the burning of libraries, the looting of museums and archeological sites, and disappointingly the demolition of major UNESCO World Heritage sites in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen with their rich and varied cultural past. Paradoxically, not even monuments of the Islamic era have been spared by reactionary extremist groups. All too few voices have been raised in protest, except where it serves political propaganda, even less action has been taken to halt such heinous savagery. Most disheartening is the tacit support given to such cultural crimes by powerful elements within the Saudi hierarchy whose history of destroying heritage, including their own, remains to be loudly denounced. For the Western powers, who are far from blameless, the priority remains the provision of oil and gas supplies and the lucrative returns from weapons sales rather than a more vocal condemnation of Salafi-Wahhabi backing for the obliteration of invaluable cultural heritage in south/west Asia.
Humanitarian, environmental and cultural activities complement one’s commitments to family and work with a higher purpose in life. Ms. Fatema Soudavar-Farmanfarmaian may be seen as the epitome of such a dual purpose and as a role model for all those who share the same concerns in silence. By clicking on the links below, you can listen to her two recent interviews; one given in Persian to the World Zoroastrian Council following a conference on Iran’s cultural heritage: From Persepolis to Isfahan, held in London in January 2015 under the joint sponsorship of the Soudavar Memorial Foundation and Iran Heritage Organization (with contributions from the British Institute for Persian Studies and the Flora Family Foundation); and the second in English focusing on the destruction of cultural heritage in the wider region:
1. http://w-z-c.com/userfiles/files/Audio/31-%2001%20 %202015%20from%20Takhte%20gamshid%20to%20Isfahan%20F%20Soudavar.mp3
*Author’s note: The above article is solely based on my own independent assessment; accordingly, it does not necessarily reflect those of F SFF’s or her prior approval.