We want the people to focus on Khayyam’s nationality: American curator
January 15, 2009
RASHT -- Harry Ransom Center, which is a cultural, artistic institution located in the University of Texas at Austin, announced last week that it will be inaugurating the exhibition of “Persian Sensation” from Feb 3 to Aug 2.The exhibition of 200 items from the Ransom Center’s diverse collections introduces the unique cultural phenomenon of the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”, which is a gnostic and mystical collection of Persian poems by the world renowned polymath and poem, Hakim Omar Khayyam, translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859.
In order to elicit the elaborated information on the details of exhibition, Tehran Times held an exclusive interview with Molly Schwartzburg, the Ransom Center’s curator of British and American literature and co-curator of the exhibition.
What follows is the complete text of an Internet interview with Mrs. Schwartzburg in which a variety of topics related to “Persian Sensation” and its probable impacts on public opinion and the cultural community of the U.S. is discussed.
Q: Mrs. Schwartzburg; would you please elucidate the general agenda, background and details of the “Persian Sensation” exhibition? What made you first interested in mounting such a show?
A: In 1859, the British translator Edward Fitzgerald published the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a translation of some of Omar Khayyam’s poems. His translation became extremely famous in both Britain and America by the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, its popularity continued into the 1950s.
Our library owns a collection of 1500 items representing the entire history of the Rubaiyat phenomenon in Britain and America. We decided to mount this exhibition because 2009 is both the 150th anniversary of Fitzgerald’s translation and the 200th anniversary of Fitzgerald’s birth. The first part of the exhibition includes objects that tell the story of Omar Khayyam’s life, introduces visitors to other Persian poets such as Hafez, Ferdowsi and Rumi, and explains how historical relations between Britain and Persia enabled Edward Fitzgerald to know about Omar Khayyam’s work and translate it.
At the Harry Ransom Center, we create exhibitions about all of our collections, which are particularly strong in British and American literature, the history of photography, and the performing arts. The goal of our exhibitions is to educate a general audience about our collections, in the hopes that they will be inspired to read and enjoy the works we discuss and, in some cases, be inspired to perform research on the objects they have seen in the exhibitions. This exhibition is unusual because we do not specialize in Persian or other Middle-Eastern cultural history.
Q: It seems that among all of the prominent Iranian poets, Khayyam enjoys a widespread and unprecedented popularity in the Western countries. What’s the reason in your view, and how the spiritual couplets of Khayyam have impacted the life of people in the Western community?
A: Omar Khayyam was very famous from around the 1880s to the 1950s, but today, he is not read widely. Today, Rumi and Hafez are probably the best known Persian poets in the United States. When Omar Khayyam first became popular, many British and American readers were fascinated by Eastern cultures. As the British Empire spread throughout the East, and as Persia became more and more important to the empire’s presence in India, many products of Persia were imported to Britain, and had a profound influence upon the aesthetics of the period, from architecture to textile design to poetry. Many literary historians argue that the spiritual concerns of Omar Khayyam had important parallels with the spiritual concerns of British and American readers
In the late nineteenth century, and that this was the reason that he, above all other Persian poets, became so famous at the time. As a curator of this exhibition, I hope the readers and audiences will pay a major attention to the nationality of Khayyam. One of the goals of the exhibition is to help visitors understand and think about the fact that Khayyam is from Iran, a country that we read about in the newspapers every day. I think it is important for our younger audiences to understand that Omar Khayyam’s ideas and poetry were an important part of the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents, and hence have influenced us, whether we realize it or not.
Q: Have you any sideline program in the exhibition to put a spotlight on the other dimensions of Persian culture? Which way is more effective adjust the prevalent perceptions of American citizens about Iran and its history in a correct and realistic way?
A: In the exhibition, we show how in the 18th and 19th century, British readers were fascinated by ancient Persia, especially Cyrus (the Great), Darius (the Great), and the ruins of Persepolis, which influenced their view of the day-to-day life in Persia at the time, as documented in travel memoirs displayed in the exhibition. Besides that, the exhibition does not attempt to survey the history of Persia or Iran. The emphasis is upon the place of Omar Khayyam’s poems in Britain and American culture.
Nevertheless, we want audiences to think about the ways American culture in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was influenced by Khayyam’s medieval Persian aesthetics and philosophy. We also want audiences to understand why it is important to preserve documents from popular literary phenomena such as the Omar Khayyam craze. We also want audiences to be conscious of the ways in which foreign cultural products are transformed when interpreted by Western audiences in the form of translations, scholarly editions, illustrations, etc.