Friday, May 19, 2006
by TAREK AL-ISSAWI EHRAN, Iran - Setting aside its fierce anti-Americanism, Iran has honored a U.S. national who spent 30 years translating the legendary 13th century Persian poet Rumi into English. Coleman Barks is a "great poet, professor and scholar," said the chancellor of Tehran University, Ayatollah Abbasali Amid Zanjani, as he awarded an honorary doctorate in Persian language and literature to the retired English teacher from the University of Georgia. "You did a great job - magnificent," Zanjani told Barks in front of more than 100 professors and students who packed a university hall for the ceremony Wednesday. "You have introduced Rumi to English speakers around the world and we appreciate that very much." Tehran University honored a second American poet, Robert Bly, who introduced Barks to Rumi's poetry in 1976, encouraging him to retranslate the poems to bring them alive. Bly, who lives in Minneapolis, received a certificate of appreciation. Clearly moved by the award, Barks, 69, was almost reduced to tears as he recited a verse by Molana Jalaluddin Rumi that he had chosen to reflect his love for Iran: "What was said to the rose that made it open, Was said to me, here in my chest." Sitting beneath pictures of the founding father of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Barks said: "I love this country. I love this country. It feels like home." The difference between Barks' view and that of the U.S. government, which brands Iran a major sponsor of terrorism, was not lost on the audience, which gave Barks several standing ovations. "This is a good omen at a black time, when history is drawing an untrue picture of Iran," literature professor Ali Mohammad Haghshenas said during the ceremony. Haghshenas added Barks "should be considered at home in Iran because of his work." Bestowing such a prestigious award on an American is extremely rare for Iran. It is particularly significant in that since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office last year, he has hardened the country's international positions, deepening the confrontation with the West over Iran's nuclear program and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map. Ahmadinejad's predecessor, former President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate, had encouraged cultural and sporting exchanges with the United States as part of his policy of dialogue between civilizations. But, in the past two years in Iran, hard-liners have defeated reformists in parliament, as well as for the presidency, and imposed conservative policies on all the major state institutions. Barks said Rumi has been the most read poet in the United States during the past 10 years. "Rumi has given Americans a way to love Islam," he said. Barks, who lives in Athens, Ga., told the audience he had long felt that he was "secretly connected" to their culture. He said the state of Georgia was known as the Peach state in the United States. "Peach in Latin is "persica," meaning from Persia," he added.
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