Olga Davidson’s life in her own voice, as channeled by Ginan Rauf
I liked Latin. I did four years of Latin in high school. It was really fun. Then, when I went to college, my sister Lindsay—sort of as a joke and sort of as gee, she REALLY likes Latin—signed me up for a bunch of Latin classes. She got me into this class on Catullus. We were reading naughty bits in Latin. It was fun. I figured that if I majored in Latin all I’d have to do is take one Latin course a semester, then, I could do whatever the hell I wanted to. That was my thinking back then. That’s what I was like as an undergraduate at Boston University. I took a class on Horace and I got to read the text in the original. There was another class I did on Plautus and Terence. One of our assignments was to write a play in Latin. So that’s just what I did. I wrote a play in Latin. I needed a bunch of finger puppets to be my chorus for omnes, so I asked Lindsay to stick paper cutouts on her fingers so she could wave them around whenever omnes addressed the audience, while I used single fingers for the other characters. It was the most ridiculous thing ever, but it was fun. In the meantime, I figured if you’re going to do Latin, then you might as well do Greek. So, I started doing Greek for fun. I really liked Greek. I was good in it. I am good in languages.
I learned French and German as a child. I never thought about being fluent in those languages. I would just do them. It was part of life. I could get on the phone and, I don’t know, book a flight, or reserve a hotel room, or buy flowers, or, off the phone, I could have a conversation with someone in French or German. But I was told from on high that I could never do languages. My mother told me, “You cannot do languages.” But I did them. My mother and father never spoke anything other than English. They had no interest in any language other than English. I had a French nanny when I was very young. She used to speak to me in French all the time. When we first moved to Switzerland, I was very upset that people were speaking German. That’s because when I was at the Brearley School in New York, they told us that people in Switzerland speak French. Well, that was one part of Switzerland. So, now I had to learn German. Lindsay and I would go back and forth speaking German or English to each other. That’s how assimilated we were into Swiss culture at a very young age. We’d speak German to each other especially when visiting relatives in the States. It was our secret language.
In the Swiss classrooms we’d speak Hochdeutsch. Actually, the Swiss called it Schriftdeutsch—which underscores that it was not an everyday spoken language. But in the playground we spoke Schwyzerdütsch, the colloquial language. I found it really interesting. It was just part of my existence. At the Swiss public school I was sent to, I figured that if I acted really stupid and pretended not to know what Aufgabe meant, then, I wouldn’t have to do homework. I found their homework repetitive and stupid—a waste of time. There were other things I wanted to do. Lucky for me, I had this incredibly indulgent teacher. She let me get away with it. She just let me be. From first grade to the third grade I learned all I really needed to know, things like multiplication tables and all that. But I had a lot of time to read. I would read in German and in English. I did read a lot as a child. Including a ton of books by Enid Blyton. Naughtiest Girl was my all-time favorite. As a child, I had an entire Life of Enid Blyton inside my head.
At the age of thirteen we moved back to the States. The French they offered in eighth grade was rudimentary, and so I figured I’d take Latin instead. Then, in high school, I took advanced French and Latin. Then there were all those Advanced Placement language classes: I continued doing Latin—and Greek—because that’s what I did, it’s what I was used to doing. It came naturally to me. It was part of life.
During college I was reading a ton of English and Russian literature. I was especially into Russian literature. I read everything by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I’m sorry, for me it’s the most romantic literature in the world. There wasn’t a story by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that I didn’t find captivating. I was really into Russian literature for its own sake, especially Tolstoy’s descriptions of landscape, houses, war, relationships. It was all so visual. I could visualize it all in my head, and it was so beautiful.
In college I wanted to be a painter or an architect. I am a visual person. I took classes in art history. I did do math but I never took a history course, even though I love history.
It’s a weakness in me. I think it’s the way history was taught. History is technically somebody’s story but you’re supposed to take it as “the truth”—and you know it’s really somebody’s story. You have all those facts being put into history, but how can you say it’s a fact when history has to be constantly reexamined and revised? Literature was more engaging for me, since you’re aware that it’s somebody’s story. It’s somebody’s take.
Now I am about to tell you how I started taking Arabic in college. But first I have to tell you about Pakistan. This gets really interesting. In the summer of my freshman year my mother and step-father told us, “We’re going to Pakistan for the summer.” Nobody asked us if we wanted to spend the summer in Pakistan. We were basically told that we were going to Pakistan. My attitude was, cool! This sounds cool. George Harrison had just released his album, My Sweet Lord, and I had all these romantic notions in my head about India and Pakistan. My stepfather wasn’t going to take his biological children because they were too young to go to Pakistan. So, he and my mother basically abandoned them for the entire summer. I can understand why the children resented that. It was 1971. That was when East Pakistan was breaking away from West Pakistan and become Bangladesh. At the time my stepfather worked in market planning for Corning Glassware. He decided that Pakistanis needed Corning Glassware. It was the most ridiculous thing, but my stepfather had this strong desire to go back to Pakistan because he’d spent time in Afghanistan during the War.
We were told that we had to dress modestly, but nobody in my family had bothered to research what that meant. My mother just said, “You cannot wear mini-skirts. You have to wear long pants.” This gets really hilarious… So, my sister Lindsay went out and bought these sleeveless Marimekko dresses and some weird polyester pants. She thought these dresses were perfectly fine to wear in Pakistan, but they were sleeveless and our arms were bare. I became intensely aware that something was wrong with our Islamically correct clothes. I remember thinking to myself, why can’t we just go to the souk to get a salwar kameez and duppata? But it just wasn’t our scene. We were busy traveling around. My stepfather wanted to go to Hunza and Gilgit. He wanted to stop in Peshawar and go up the Khyber Pass, which we did before we went to the mountains.
Somebody had invited us over for breakfast. My mother was complaining non-stop about having to go to breakfast. She was terribly upset and, sure enough, her worst nightmare came true. They ended up serving kaleh pacheh (head and hooves of a sheep) for breakfast. We ate everything we dreaded but it was the most beautiful moment. I was so loving it, sitting there in that garden eating kaleh pacheh and mangoes. I remember it all so vividly—the colors of the roses and the smell of the grass. The colors and the smells mingled. It was one of those gardens. You know how roses look when the weather is hot but they still insist on growing. It was one of those gardens. It felt very real and natural. You know when it’s early in the morning in hot countries like Egypt but everything is still cool and moist. The mist clings to the grass. That moment was the most sensuous visually gratifying experience. We previously went horseback riding in the Sind desert. There were so many other stories I could tell you about what we were doing, the bizarreness of it all, but that moment in the garden really stands out.
In Pakistan I was observing everything, taking in all the sights and sounds. The calligraphy really attracted me. I looked at all the Urdu writing. It was really beautiful. When we got back to Karachi, I contracted malaria, actually just a touch of malaria, so I had to stay in Pakistan until I got stronger. Of course, my mother had to stay with me. What was she going to do? Abandon her daughter in Karachi? Two wonderful things happened to me as a result. There was a very famous Pakistani artist name Gulgee who came to visit me. He gave me a painting of his, a drawing with Pakistani men standing on one side of the paper and a sketch of Bhutto on the other side. I still have Gulgee’s drawing. It’s hanging in Greg’s office Widener, with Bhutto’s face facing inside. I remember being very happy when Gulgee gave it to me as a present. Then I got over my malaria and we flew out of Karachi. On the way home we stopped in Zürich. My mom said, “Oh God let’s find a nice place to stay. Do you think we can do that?’’ That’s when I realized that all of my German and Swiss German were still with me. Remember, my mother had never learned German. So, I had to make all the arrangements. I found a nice place and made a reservation. I made all the calls. I walked into a living context and all the words came to life.
My mother was surprised that all my German had come back to me. That’s my thing about languages. Once you learn a language it never leaves you. That got my mother thinking. “Since your German is so good you need to do something about it to make it even better.” It was around this time, by the way, that I had started reading Russian literature. So, the summer of my sophomore year, I went to Germany.
I worked as an au pair for various German families. We also had relatives in Germany. I stayed with a Tante Gertrud. The families I stayed with talked about the War. They’d reminisce about the estates they had lost in East Germany. There was a sense of nostalgia for a united Germany, for the intellectual life before the War. I was learning about all this. For me it was also about moving further East. I saw this eastward motion through the writings of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy because I had a very romantic imagination. Tante Gertrud had a son who was planning to go to Berlin with a group of friends. “Would you like to join them?’’ she asked me. I answered immediately, “Of course I want to go. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” We drove on an Autobahn through East Germany to get to Berlin but we were not allowed to stop, get off the Autobahn. There was this great moment. I remember it to this day. While in East Berlin, we sneaked out of the city to the suburbs to visit relatives. It was even forbidden for non-East Germans to travel once in East Berlin to go to the suburbs.
My cousins and their friends were worried about taking me along to visit the relatives in the East Berlin suburbs. Did I look East German enough? Did I speak German well enough to pass as a German? An East German? Finally, they just said, “Fuck it, she can do it.” And I did. In East Germany we listened to relatives describe how Russian soldiers went about raping German women. The next day my cousins wanted to do something that sounded dull, but I had different ideas about what I wanted to do. I decided to walk from the middle of West Berlin to East Berlin, and I remember I wore a Chinese red summer coat.
My German cousins understood my desire to be a tourist and advised me to eat lunch in East Berlin, since the food there was excellent. “It’ll only cost you a mark fifty,” they added. I wanted to know what it would feel like to go from a capitalist to a socialist country. Now what do you think I was going to do in East Berlin by myself? I’ve always loved walking around, taking public transportation and discovering cities for myself. I decided to go the Pergamon Museum. The Pergamon is not especially known for its Islamic art, but it has a pretty decent collection. I was looking at all the calligraphy, and it transported me back to Pakistan. I started to realize that I needed to know more about this world and mused about that over an excellent lunch for just one mark fifty.
The following semester, during my junior year at BU, I started to branch out of the world of Latin and Greek and get into Arabic and Persian. I started with Arabic. It was presented to us as classical studies, not area studies. So, to me it was a matter of looking at Arabic as one more classical language. Are you ready to hear about how we learned Arabic? We studied it as a system, not as a living language. I couldn’t pronounce it. We learned all the grammar in one semester, the broken plurals and the verb forms. All that stuff. The following semester we were given verb charts, told to memorize them and given quizzes. From there we went straight to reading A Thousand and One Nights. That’s what’s so good about being trained in the classics. You get used to really thinking through and puzzling out what a text means.
I was able to use a dictionary and translate these texts because that’s how we learned Greek and Latin. I would go and learn very carefully how to put a sentence together. We never learned how to do scansion or read aloud. We never learned the musicality of the language. It was all about having control of the text and being able to translate it. The attitude at the time was that you’d learn classical Arabic and then you’d go to an Arab country to learn how to speak. I wanted to do Persian at BU as well but it didn’t fit into my schedule.
The person who taught Persian was very insulted when I asked her to change the time of the class. That year during Thanksgiving vacation I went home to Corning in Upstate New York. There was this wealthy businessman and patron of the arts named Arthur Houghton, who had purchased an illustrated manuscript of the Shahnameh. To the horror of many, Houghton had disassembled the manuscript of the Tahmasp Shahnameh. The disassembled folios of the Shahnameh were put on display at the Corning Glass Museum. They were stunningly beautiful. I remember thinking to myself… any text that generates such exquisite illustrations deserves to be read in the original. That left a lasting impression on me. I still couldn’t read Persian at that point.
In the meantime, I met my future husband Greg Nagy. I was taking summer courses at Harvard, reading Petronius in Latin and doing Arabic with Mahmud Ghul and Sari Nusseiba, the TA. Isn’t that hilarious? We were reading one of Tawfik al Hakim’s plays we and we had to act it out. I graduated from Boston University, got into graduate school at Princeton and deferred for a year since I was marrying Greg. I was a special student at Harvard where I started studying Persian. It was the same approach. We did Persian grammar in one semester. The next semester we started reading Sa‘adi, a classical Persian master of poetry and prose. We were taught how to scan a poem. You needed to check your scansion against the grammar, because Persian prosody is quite complex.
This experience had really prepared me for graduate school. At Princeton I jumped straight into advanced Arabic and Persian. Persian became for me a language I could read and write, but I did not know anything practical such as “where is the airport?”
I had to decide whether I wanted to do my doctoral dissertation on the Mu‘allaqat (pre-Islamic poetry) or on the Shahnameh. Secretly, I wanted to write on the Shahnameh because I am a very visual person and the illustrations continued to attract me. I knew exactly how I wanted to work on the Shahnameh. It was very different from the work other specialists in Persian had done before. I had a hard time convincing my directors that this kind of work should be done on the Shahnameh. But I managed to do it. I basically applied the methods of two scholars, Albert Lord and Georges Dumézil, to the Shahnameh. Dumézil had never really dealt with classical Persian material. He had dealt with Indic and Greek material, but he really liked what I was doing. At the time Dumézil was a huge figure in Paris. You are going to die when you hear this story. It’s a great story. I was finishing up my dissertation, and Greg had been invited to run a seminar for a month in Paris. All four of us went. Toni and Lazlo were still very young.
I wanted to have a talk with Georges Dumézil. I was told that the only way to do that was first to write him a letter introducing myself, explaining why I wanted to talk with him. So, I wrote him a letter in French. Now I need to backtrack for a moment.
When I was an undergraduate student, I had read Dumézil in preparation for writing my undergraduate thesis on Herakles in the Iliad. Most of the thesis was eventually published in a classics journal called Arethusa. I had used Dumézil’s methodology to write on Herakles in a way that he really liked. He wrote back telling me that he was aware of the work I had done on Herakles and that he was interested in the work I was now doing on the Shahnameh. Long story short, George Dumézil wrote back to say he wanted to see me. Greg couldn’t believe how calm and nonchalant I was about the whole thing. “Holly, people would kill to get an audience with Georges Dumézil.” Greg was pretty nervous about how it would go. Anyway, I went to a florist in Paris and bought this gigantic bouquet of flowers that I would take to Dumézil. I arrived at his apartment and presented it to him. He looked at the bouquet and said, “I’m not dead yet.” I thought it was pretty funny. His apartment was crammed with books lying around everywhere. We sat down and talked, surrounded by all the books. Dumézil was genuinely interested in my work. “What is your thesis about? Let me know what you did. I saw the article you published in Arethusa.” He was really nice to me. I was so relieved after it was all over that I went over to La Coupole, had a huge lunch, and drank lots of wine. Then, I felt I needed to take a nap, but I knew that this wouldn’t be possible with two young children running around in the apartment. I figured, why not go and get a soin du visage, where I could completely pass out?
That’s exactly what I did. Then I went on my merry way, met Greg back at the apartment, and told him what it was like to meet with Dumézil. Then the phone rang. It was Dumézil. “Okay, you need to come back. I read what you wrote, and it’s very interesting.” I went to see him again. “Ça c’est chouette,” he said. “Don’t expect an old man like Dumézil to say things like that.” I started laughing. “Leave the text with me. I’m going to get it published for you.’’ He sent it to Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, who was editing a Festschrift for Mary Boyce. My thesis ended up getting published there, taking up 80 pages in her Festschrift. It was a completely wonderful thing that happened to me, and a real blessing.
After I got my PhD from Princeton I started teaching at Brandeis and Holy Cross. At the time I was still living in Currier House at Harvard. One of my courses, Mirrors of Princes, was becoming really popular at Brandeis, if I may say so myself. I really wanted to teach Persian at Brandeis. I even offered to teach Persian for free as long as they’d let me do it. It was a great experience. I started teaching Persian to Persian students at Brandeis. They were legacy learners who could speak Persian but didn’t know how to read or write it. I could read and write Persian but couldn’t speak it. We had a great arrangement. I taught them how to become more literate in Persian and they taught me how to become more verbal, including “Where is the airport?” It worked out beautifully.
It was around this time that I started taking Persian lessons with this woman, a Persian instructor for the children of the Iranian community in Boston. She was very funny about the whole thing. “How can I teach somebody who’s written about the Shahnameh and reads Sa‘adi to speak Persian?” I explained to her that I wanted to be able to say things like “pass the salt.” Then I figured could get more competent in Persian by talking to everyone’s mother who were visiting from Iran and needed to be entertained. It was a perfect arrangement. I’d ask their mothers to read poetry with me, cook with me, and socialize with me so I could improve my conversational skills while trying to keep them entertained. They became my living context. That’s how I ingratiated myself to the Iranian community in Boston, by being nice to everyone’s mother. I’d go to these endless parties (mehmuni). The conversations in Persian were limited because everybody was trying to speak English, but I still learned a lot.
The Iranian American Association of Boston put me on its shura or council. I remember they’d spend hours arguing back and forth about what kind of music to play during Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. I sat there thinking to myself, God, why can’t you do something more serious? The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston wanted to host an Iranian Film Festival. The only problem was that Iranians wouldn’t go to their own film festival because they thought everything about Iran was terrible. They were busy being self-hating Iranians at that point. It was very frustrating. This was in the 1990s. Iranian cinema was becoming big. The guy organizing the film festival at the MFA loved Iranian cinema, I mean, he was crazy about it. He had heard from someone about my involvement with the Iranian community in Boston and asked for help.
So, I got back to the Shura council. “I think everybody should go to the film festival and bring an American friend along.” The idea was to keep the festival going by cultivating an audience for it. The MFA need money to make sure that the series didn’t get canceled, so I donated five thousand dollars.
In the meantime, a couple of things happened at Harvard that started to politicize me. There was this very sweet Iranian student. He had been sent to America to live with his aunt when he was only fourteen years old. His Iranian parents wanted to give him an American education and also wanted to protect him from being enlisted in the army during the Iran-Iraq war. So many young people were being killed in that war. The kid was adorable, but, at Halloween, he want around glaring at people, saying things like “I’m a terrorist.” This saddened me enormously. You are playing into the worst stereotype, even though it is a Halloween costume.
Then we had the first Gulf War, that stupid war against Iraq. The level of racism at Harvard was disgusting. The hypocrisy was appalling. I remember it so vividly. During the buildup to the first Gulf War in 1990 I was walking past this costume shop. They had this awful costume of a generic Arab. So, instead of dressing up as Yasser Arafat or Saddam Hussein, you could literally dress up as a generic Arab. You might as well do blackface. That’s how bad it was. I walked into the store and had a shit fit. I told them, “This is the most disgusting racist thing in the world.” They thought I was crazy. They had no idea what I was talking about.
Then there was another incident that occurred at Harvard. They had something called Cultural Rhythms at Harvard, an event for all hyphenated American. It was a celebration of different cultures, except that Arab students at Harvard weren’t allowed to participate or do anything. They were going to be “exempted” from participating in Cultural Rhythms. Arab students were literally not allowed to represent their cultures. Can you imagine that? The university finally agreed to let them do a dabka dance. That was it. I kid you not. They weren’t allowed to do anything because we were at war with the Arabs.
Then Harvard goes and invites Raphael Patai, who wrote a book called The Arab Mind. “Holly, doesn’t that sound like the academic equivalent of the generic Halloween Arab costume?” I agreed with my interlocutor. “Can you imagine that?”—the interlocutor continued, “He said the most disgusting racist things, like Arabs are too ashamed to masturbate, that Arab mothers play with their sons’ penises. All these crude orientalist fantasies. I remember Sandra Naddaff, a Harvard faculty member, being very upset about this. ‘I’m an Arab’, Sandy said’, and, ‘If you want to know what I think, why don’t you just ask me what I’m thinking about?’.” I loved that. I was getting really politicized.
Then I decided I am not going to be an armchair intellectual. I knew that I had to learn how to speak Persian and Arabic as living languages. The person who was teaching Arabic at Brandeis, I cannot remember her name right now, decided to quit. Just like that. So they didn’t have anybody to teach Arabic.
Jonathan Sarna looked at my cv and asked me to teach Arabic. I hadn’t touched Arabic for a long time. Sure, I’ll teach Arabic. I had to teach baby Arabic and intermediate Arabic. I knew all about diptotes, nunation, and broken plurals. I felt really comfortable teaching Arabic grammar, knew all my roots. But I wanted to be able to say happy birthday in Arabic. I decided that I had to do something about it. So, that summer, I went to Middlebury College. It put me in a very weird position. I had zero capacity to speak Arabic or to understand spoken Arabic. But I could write it. Remember I had translated Lawrence Durrell into Arabic for a take-home exam at Princeton. I could pronounce any word, and, after all, I had taking a class in advanced Arabic composition at Princeton. The atmosphere at Middlebury was very nationalistic. Some despised me because they saw me as the worst type of orientalist who taught at a supposedly Zionist university. I thought to myself, Jesus this really sucks. I just want to learn how to speak Arabic. I want to be able to follow a conversation.
I got pretty good at conversational Arabic in Middlebury. But that wasn’t enough for me. I then went and spent two summers in Egypt, living with a nice Egyptian family. I did a little bit of colloquial Egyptian and Modern Standard Arabic. Moving from one to the other wasn’t always easy but I got pretty good at it.
I had basically experienced everything I wanted to in Egypt. I had gone to Sufi zikrs, smoked a lot of shisha, eaten weird food—like “offal”—, and ridden Arab horses. Naturally, I traveled everywhere else and took side-trips to Lebanon and Syria. Now it was time to revisit Iran. I had gone there for my honeymoon in 1975, but now I was dying to go back. This was around 1998.
“Wow, that’s pretty gutsy, Holly. I mean this, is after the revolution.” Wait. Let me go back for a moment. This gets really interesting. I had started a Persian club at Harvard with the help of this adorable girl who has half Greek and half Iranian. The Iranian students would go to Sanders Theater and watch Persian films. We had Nowruz parties. There was this terrible earthquake in Iran. The Iranian students at Brandeis donated two hundred dollars to help the victims. I think that’s what did it. The Iranians at the U.N. heard about my work. They started sending me these random cards without signing them. Cards for my birthday. Word had gotten out about this American woman doing all this stuff with the Iranian students at Brandeis. Thanks to all these relationships I had with the Iranian community, I was able to get a visa to go to Iran.
My pretext was that I’d go to the Dehkhoda Institute to study the Persian language. It was a fabulously strange place full of diplomats living in Tehran or people from post-Soviet satellites—you know, students from Kazakhstan, Syrian diplomats, and so on and so on. There was this one American kid who always sat at the back of the classroom. He and I tried not to speak to each other because we were both Americans. We tried to avoid each other. But then I found out that he was an Iranian American student who was in Iran on a Fulbright scholarship to study Persian. This guy had been an undergraduate at Dartmouth, where he’d read my work. That really surprised me. We became friends. I told him that I needed a wali because I wanted to travel around the country and do stuff. I couldn’t do that without a male guardian. Remember, I had gone to Iran by myself. So, we struck up this alliance. It worked out really well. We got ourselves an Iranian driver who had a yellow Mercedes complete with peacock feather and fake Persian rugs. This driver would go anywhere we asked him to. He was always hovering, was always mindful of me. That’s how we got around.
The first place I wanted to go to was the Toopkhaneh Museum in Tehran, featuring life-size figures of Balzac and Mark Twain. It was basically a museum about the oppressed and those who tried to elevate them. Okay, I’m being a bit silly. The best thing about this place was that you could get a glimpse of heaven and a glimpse of hell. Heaven was a bunch of dusty plastic flowers and Hell looked was bunch of dusty plastic or rubber snakes and spiders. It was the most ridiculous thing. I was dying.
We couldn’t stop laughing. That’s how I remember it. Then we went off to Qom, because I really wanted to see the holy shrine and we stopped to visit Khomeini’s Tomb on the way back to Tehran. I had to be careful in Qom and not come across as a tourist. I pretended to be very depressed, and clung to the gratings of an icon of sorts and pretended to seek comfort while I looked around. If anybody asked me where I was from, I’d say I was from Bosnia. That seemed better than actually misrepresenting my religion. When we got to Khomeini’s tomb, this guy asked me whether the fact that I was wearing a chador was a good thing and whether I thought it was a good idea. I answered in Persian that I have no choice. It’s compulsory. How would you feel if you were required to wear Lederhosen because you were visiting Germany?’
A group of really loud Saudis with endless demands showed up at Khomeini’s tomb. The Iranian guy looked at and said, “Can you imagine? Our poor Prophet had to live among these people!’’ It was really funny. I couldn’t stop laughing. I have all these hilarious stories. I could go on forever. In the meantime, I was invited to give a talk at Tehran University. I had to do it in Persian. I was determined to do it in Persian with the help of someone who could help me think academically in Persian. I did it. I really enjoyed giving the entire talk in Persian. And I even sort-of managed Q&A in Persian. After that talk at Tehran University I wanted to continue my joy ride and keep on traveling in Iran, but my visa was about to expire. I had been told that the only way to renew a visa in Iran was to do it at the very last minute and create an emergency to avoid being sent away and told to come another day. So, I went to this government office to get my visa renewed. This guy said it would take about two hours to renew my visa. He asked me what I had done in Tehran and whether I had been up the funicular. I told him that I had grown up in Switzerland and cable cars were not a novelty to me. But what was I going to do for two hours? This was in March, during the muddy season. So, I went up the funicular and watched a couple of people enjoying spring skiing and then walk down the mountain to kill time. It was muddy at the bottom. I walked into the government office with mud clinging to my jeans and the hem of my chador. The guy looked at me in shock and asked what happened to me. I replied that I took his advice and went up the funicular and then walked down. He gave me my visa so now I could travel all around Iran. I smoked opium in Isfahan because I wanted to see what it was like to smoke opium. I was really into experiencing as much as I could in Iran. I went to Kerman and Bam, travelled everywhere by car, and then I flew back to Tehran and went to Ahvaz.
I wanted to see everything in Iran that I hadn’t seen on my honeymoon. There was a house party in Ahvaz. Now, Ahvaz is near the Iraq border. And there was a really beautiful country path in Ahvaz. This woman friend and I were walking arm in arm along that path, chatting away. It was lovely. But there were all these people. They just kept shouting at us and we sort-of ignored them, not figuring out why the hell they were yelling at us. Then we realized they were yelling that we were walking where there were still lots of IEDs on the ground. We tip-toed back very carefully. At the time, I thought it was hilarious, but now, looking back, I am very glad we made it back safely.
There were other wonderful experiences. I went to the Fajr Film Festival. It was a breakthrough moment in Iranian cinema. A female actor touched a male actor on screen—in the story, the situation was innocent enough, showing a mother touching her teenage son. It was considered very risqué at the time, since an unrelated female was touching an unrelated male “in real life,” and the censors had allowed that to happen. This was in 1998. Khatami had just been elected President of the country. Iranians were very optimistic and hopeful about the future.
After this unforgettable trip to Iran where I had seen so much and done so much, I was determined to do something to change American perceptions of Iran. I had been treated so well by Iranians that I wanted to recreate my impressions and experiences. A lot of people at Harvard were fascinated by the fact that I had gone to Iran by myself. One of those people was Marvin Kalb. He suggested that I set myself up as a consultant to the Clinton administration. But I wanted to do more.
While I was in Iran there had been this group called Search for Common Ground. They had done some interesting work. For example, they brought American wrestlers to Iran to compete in matches against Iranian wrestlers. I thought to myself: this is brilliant because wrestling is such a huge thing in Iran. I noticed this when I was in Iran. So, I found out who these people were and reached out to them.
Then there was this other great moment at the Asia Society in New York. My mother and stepfather were members. They invited me down for the annual dinner. They had heard that the Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was going to give the keynote address at the Asia Society. In her address to the Society, she said it was time to reach out to Iran. Just like that. I remember this moment so well. There was stunned silence in the room as Albright spoke. Then I felt the wonderful distinction of being the first person to start clapping. Other people started clapping. And, soon thereafter, the Clinton administration did go ahead and make its first overture to Iran.
I was very excited about this. A couple of months later, a response came from the Iranian side. “No Dice.”
But, this gets really interesting. There was this guy at the Asia Society meeting named Mohammed Mahallati, you know that’s Amir, who had been told to watch out for somebody who was interested in Iran. He came up to me at that time and told me, “Don’t leave this gathering without talking to me first.” Eventually, we had dinner at this restaurant called East Meets West near the Paris Theater. That’s when Amir said that we needed an institute to do something about US-Iranian relations. “There is nothing out there,” he told me. I was then invited to meet his sister Amineh, who is married to Hossein Modaressi, a Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Amir himself was affiliated with Princeton at the time.
We talked, Amir and I. That’s when I decided to start a foundation to promote US-Iran relations. I wanted to call the foundation Haft Khwān, in an allusion to the ordeals that the Persian hero Rostam had to go through in the Shahnameh, but that did not pass the focus group. So, what do we call it? I think it was my lawyer who came up with the name Ilex, which is the scientific Latin name for the plant holly, which is just my nickname, Holly. We created a logo and printed it on a tile because it looked good in Kufic calligraphy and it sounded serious, as if ILEX were an acronym for something. You can see it on our Ilex website. What I wanted to do was recreate the beauty I had seen in Iran to the best of my ability and to do it in the most affordable way possible.
Remember, I am a very visual person. One of the first things I did in Iran was to visit the Museum of Qajar Art. Nobody was there. It was a rather dusty place. During that time Qajar art was considered decadent. Nobody cared very much about it. I found this diary of mine that I had kept when I was in Iran. I couldn’t believe how much I had written about Qajar art. I was very taken by it.
Later on, Qajar art became very buzz. They had this exhibit of Qajar paintings in the V & A in London and then another one at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Qajar paintings were still relatively inexpensive to acquire at that time. With some help from the Iranian Association of Boston, I bought a few Persian silk carpets that were beautiful and quite affordable, also a Qajar lacquer painting. A young woman at the sale was observing all this and put me in contact with her mother, who knew who was selling what and understood exactly what I was trying to do with the house on Beacon Hill that I had just bought as headquarters for the Ilex Foundation.
I’ve got to tell you about the house at 82 Revere Street in Beacon Hill. It’s a great story. My husband Greg has a real horror of mice and rats. Well, he found out that the house next door from our home at 84 Revere street was up for sale. And he found out because of his interest in mice and rats. Greg knew that the only way to get rid of mice and rats in our Beacon Hill neighborhood was to talk to all the neighbors. So, he had everybody’s number. “Guess what?’’ he said to me one day, “The house next door to us is for sale. Here’s the neighbor’s number. Call them right away because you could buy that house.” That’s exactly what I did. I called the neighbor right away. “I understand you are putting up your house for sale.” My neighbor explained to me that somebody was already looking at the house. “They’re sending their architect over to take a look at the place,” she added. I immediately told her that I’d sign a P&S by noon.
“Let me call my husband and get back to you.’’ Meanwhile, I went to my friend and neighbor Peter Thomson, who set me up with a lawyer for signing a P&S agreement. I put the money in the bank and bought the house.
In the meantime, the Ilex Foundation was preparing to have its first conference on Ferdowsi at Harvard. We invited all these scholars from Iran to come and give talks. Everything had to be arranged very quickly. We couldn’t have pulled it off without Niloo Fotouhi, our Executive Director at the Ilex Foundation. She knows how to get things done. We were going to have a reception at the Fogg Museum. This was just before spring break so it was really easy to get a space at Harvard. But We didn’t have possession of the house at 82 Revere Street until a day or two before the conference. Can you believe that? And Amir in the meantime had been telling everybody that this was going to be the most important conference put together by the most important organization ever known to humankind.
At that point, of course, the Ilex Foundation was a one-woman show. She was Niloo Fotouhi, our Executive Director, working from her car with a cell phone. But, boy, did she know how to get people to do things! She was completely in command. As soon as we got possession of the house at 82 Revere Street, I rushed off to the Design Center and bought all these showpieces for 82 Revere. I bought anything that looked decent. It was all very affordable, but I did buy a nice dining room table that I really liked. The lovely art dealer came over to the house with all these fabulous fabrics. “I have these fabrics. I’m trying to sell them.” She took these fabrics, and started throwing them all over the house. It looked really beautiful. It looked very Persian. “We need these things very badly,” I told her. Let’s Persianize this place. It was almost like getting Persian culture in a box. The theme was East meets West.
Ginan, do you remember all those Qajar paintings I told you about? The incredibly fun pictures of Qajar women wearing European attire? We started building up this incredibly funky art collection. As soon as you walked into the house, you’d see a qahveh khaneh painting of a woman smoking a water pipe with droopy eyes and hennaed hands. There was a water pipe between her knees. This water pipe had an image of a shah with this droopy mustache. I mean, it was prominently displayed. This painting was flanked by two other Qajar paintings, so exquisite, of two courtesans. The one on the left was a lady doing acrobatics. The one on the right was smoking a water pipe, holding a deer on a leash. I would mix these pictures on the wall exactly as I pleased. I figured if Isabella Stewart Gardner can do whatever she wants with her eclectic art, then, why can’t I? To the left of the acrobat lady, on the opposite wall, there was another qahveh khaneh painting by a famous artist, depicting major heroes of the Shahnameh.
Iranians who came to the house probably thought I couldn’t tell the difference between good art and bad art. One time an art historian, Rebecca Nemsler, came to the house to look at our art collection. “You really have a good sense of humor,’’, she said. “I love the way all this stuff you put together looks.’’ To me it was the Persian dream house. We’d use 82 Revere Street for small events, and we’d throw these fabulous parties. One time somebody did a talk on the art and calligraphy of Persian wedding contracts. Somebody something on photography. The Iranians kept sending us artists, musicians, actors, filmmakers, and writers who were coming to the States. Their interest in Washington and the U.N. continued to grow. They’d always give us first dibs if anything was happening or anybody was passing through. We didn’t have to get visas for them or anything. We just provided room and board, and that was easy.
We figured out a really good formula to make our parties and other events especially interesting. You know what we would do, Ginan? We’d invite people from the Iranian community in Boston, people from Beacon Hill and people from Harvard University. It was the one third rule, and it worked beautifully. It was a really good combination of people and it made for some really lively conversations. So, we’d just do this stuff. We also had really great Persian food. There was always a reception of some sort or the other. There was always Persian music in the background. When the Persians came to our parties they’d say this is the Persian party to end all parties. Everybody else would say oh my God I love this Persian food. I love this Persian art. I love the smells. The silk carpets are so soft. There was always Persian music in the background. It was a re-creation of the sensuous. We engaged all the senses to get people to like Persian art and culture. And it worked! People associated us with all that was Persian.
We took over the MFA film festival from the get-go. And people came to see Iranian films. The Ilex foundation started to give an award for excellence in Iranian filmmaking. La crème de la crème of Iranian cinema accepted Ilex awards. Our reputation continued to grow. People knew they could go to Boston for really intelligent conversations about Iranian cinema as opposed to going to Los Angeles and being insulted for remaining in Iran, for being traitors.
I am proud to say that I had successfully cultivated an audience for Iranian cinema. Even today when you go the Iranian Film Festival at the MFA it’s packed. And it’s not just Iranians. It’s a mix of people going to see Iranian films. It makes me really proud. One time we had this Kurdish Iranian film that we wanted to show. We took it to the MFA and asked them if we could show it. They told us we only had two weeks. “Can you get an audience for the film in two weeks?” We said, oh we can get an audience. And it was packed. Then there was another time when we showed a documentary film by Maziar Bahari on Mosaddegh, on the coup in 1952. There was such a big crowd at the MFA that they had to turn two hundred people away. That’s how much people wanted to see this film. That’s the part that made me really happy.
There was another film screening of which I am really proud. A couple of years ago we showed a very compelling Iranian film that was done in a single shot. It was a slasher movie without any blood. Really interesting. People loved it. The Q&A went past midnight. The filmmaker couldn’t speak English, so Niloo was the one doing the translation. And she was absolutely brilliant. She was going back and forth from Persian to English, and she never faltered for a second. Niloo was fantastic. It was one of my proudest moments.
We had done so much, but the house at 82 Revere Street was no longer affordable. It just wasn’t sustainable. The house has been sold, but, to compensate for the loss of physical space, Ilex has put all the Qajar art in our collection on line.
We had done our job at 82 Revere Street. Everybody was now doing what we had been doing to promote Iranian art and culture, so we didn’t have to do it anymore. The physical space was no longer needed for the tasks that lay ahead, what we call a further dissemination of Persian culture.
Meanwhile, Ilex continues to organize conferences. I no longer have to beg people to come to such events. People automatically come because we have such a good reputation academically. We are also really good at organizing things in general, at making things happen. Again, this is all Niloo. She is fabulous at getting people organized. It comes so naturally to her. She can make travel arrangements and book really fun hotels. There were always these moments on our panels when we’d become a sort of fun club. Our panels were always very interesting. We knew how to be really intellectual and have fun doing it. That’s how I made so many friends.
Now Ilex is concentrating on its publication series, distributed by Harvard University Press. This way, we are continuing the “dissemination of Persian culture” more than ever before.