For Fatemeh Keshavarz, Ph.D., associate professor of Persian and of comparative literature, both in Arts & Sciences, poetry is much more than an academic discipline. It is a profoundly personal experience that requires both the poet and the reader to be fully involved in its consummation.
“Poetry is the magic we perform with language,” she says. “It is teaching our minds to enter a world of play in which the parameters are set by our imagination. When we truly read a poem, we participate in the creation of a world that comes into existence during our reading. The magic of poetry is not only presented to us, but partially performed by us.”
As chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages & Literatures in Arts & Sciences, she invites students and scholars to explore a mosaic of words and meanings that is as colorful and varied as the cultures, ethnicities and languages taught in the department.
Despite nearly two decades here in St. Louis, she continues to draw on lessons learned as a child in Shiraz, the southwest Iranian city where she was born and raised.
“All across Iran, especially in Shiraz, the lives of ordinary people revolve around love of poetry and literature,” Keshavarz says. “Where I grew up, poets don’t live just in books. They become very influential figures in your life.”
Shiraz has always been a cultural center. Known for lush rose gardens and groves of citrus and cypress trees, it was home to two of Islam’s greatest poets: Hafez (1324-91) and Sa’di (1209-91). Their influence remains strong.
“When I was little, my mother’s loving and scolding words were often quotes from popular poems by Sa’di,” she recalls. “My father was my best teacher of poetry. He worked as a bank accountant, but was very well-read and had a great love of books. My literary exchanges with him were a big part of my early education.”
Now a well-regarded literary critic, she specializes in classical and modern Persian poetry and teaches courses in Persian language, comparative literature and other interdisciplinary topics, such as family and gender issues in Islamic culture.
“Keshavarz is a multitalent,” says Gerhild Scholz Williams, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures in Arts & Sciences and the Barbara Schapps Thomas and David M. Thomas Professor in the Humanities. “She’s a gifted poet and translator of poetry, a scholar of literature, an effective and imaginative teacher, and an energetic, well-organized and congenial administrator.”
Robert E. Hegel, Ph.D., professor of Chinese and of comparative literature, both in Arts & Sciences, describes Keshavarz as an extremely capable leader known for an insightful approach and inexhaustible good humor.
“Her laughter frequently rings down the hallway,” Hegel says. “Her affection for her students and her colleagues is obvious in all that she does.”
Former students echo those sentiments.
“Professor Keshavarz is not only an erudite scholar and peerless instructor, she also is the very embodiment of dedication,” says Omid Ghaemmaghami, who is now pursuing a doctorate at Uni-versity of Toronto. “She liberally shared her wisdom, constructive criticism and guidance, always in a manner that sought to encourage.”
Anne Craver, who earned a doctorate in comparative literature with French, Persian and Arabic languages here in 2000, has known Keshavarz since taking her Persian course in 1988.
“She told us the Persian language was easy to remember and hard to forget, and that’s how I think of her now,” Craver says. “She’s one of the best teachers I’ve had in my many years of education. She’s easy to remember and hard to forget.”
Keshavarz’s interests, like her poetry, are constantly evolving.
“I began as a specialist in Persian literature, but worked hard to retool myself as a comparativist,” she says. “Comparative literature offers a great focal point for examining particular issues addressed by different cultures, different times.”
University titles: Associate professor of Persian and of comparative literature, and chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages & Literatures, all in Arts & Sciences
Degrees: B.S., Persian language and literature (1976), and M.L.S., library and information science (1979), Shiraz University, Iran; Ph.D., Near Eastern and Persian studies, London University, 1985
Family: Husband Ahmet T. Karamustafa, Ph.D., associate professor of history and of religious studies, both in Arts & Sciences; daughter Atefeh, an architect in Chicago; daughter Ayla; and son Ali, high-school students in St. Louis
Hobbies: Runs 3-4 miles daily; loves baking, spending time with friends
In her course “Lyrics of Mystical Love, East and West,” Keshavarz explores the unique perspective that mystic poets from various traditions bring to the same abstract concepts as they share the struggle to express the inexpressible.
“In some works, the concept of silence has a connotation of emptiness or loneliness. In others, it conveys serenity or anticipation. The 12th-century Persian poet Rumi has a lot to offer on silence, but the discussion gets much richer when we bring in the views of a 20th-century writer, such as Thomas Beckett, with a totally different perspective on silence.”
While much of her work involves in-depth analysis of poetry, she hopes students come away from her classes with more than a cold and empirical grasp of poetry’s nuances. She strives to instill the lesson she learned as a child in Shiraz, the realization that poetry can be an essential tool for self-understanding, for shaping the very direction and quality of a lifetime.
“Washington University has such amazingly bright and excellent students. I would be disappointed if I didn’t have a chance to share my work with them,” she says. “Even if they don’t pursue careers in the field, I want them to see literature as an ongoing and important part of their lives.”
Keshavarz’s own literary interest took her to Shiraz University, where she earned a bachelor’s in Persian language and literature in 1976, and her first collection of poems was published.
She earned a doctorate in Near Eastern and Persian Studies from London University in 1985. While there, she met her husband, Ahmet T. Karamustafa, Ph.D., a well-regarded historian of Islam. They married and moved here in 1987 after he was offered a job at WUSTL.
Karamustafa is now an associate professor of history and of religious studies, both in Arts & Sciences. Both have taken turns as director of the University’s Center for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations.
Keshavarz’s first daughter, Atefeh, attended the University and is now an architect in Chicago. They are raising two more children, a daughter, Ayla, 17, and a son, Ali, 15. Both are trilingual, speaking English, Turkish and Persian. The family is active in Muslim communities on and off campus.
“As a family, we use the experience of Muslim holy days, such as fasting together at Ramadan, as a way to think about what’s important in life,” she says. “My identity as a Muslim, and my spirituality in a general sense, are very important to me.”
Music is an integral part of the spiritual experience, a way to keep connected with the inner rhythm. Keshavarz collaborates with the Liän Ensemble, a Los Angeles-based world music group that often invites her to recite lyric poetry, such as Rumi’s ghazals, as they perform Persian music. Designed to showcase the artistic interplay of poetry and music, the performances have filled 1,200-seat auditoriums.
Rumi, a towering figure in the Persian-speaking world, was little-known in America until a couple decades ago when his lyric verses became available in translation. He is now a bestselling poet in English translations.
Keshavarz is one of few scholars to focus on the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of Rumi’s love lyrics. Her book, Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jalal al-Din Rumi, now available in paperback, is a popular text for courses in Persian literature, Islamic mysticism and mystical poetry.
Her latest book, Recite in the Name of the Red Rose, scheduled to be published in the spring, is a study of the equally diverse and colorful world of contemporary Persian literature.
Americans who think of modern Iran as a world of upheaval, revolution and hostage-taking would be surprised, she suggests, to know that the nation is home to many fine 20th-century poets who have devoted themselves to writing for the sake of art, individualism and the reenvisioning of self.
Jack Renard, a Saint Louis University professor who has followed Keshavarz’s work, credits her with two great gifts: “an unfailing sense of fairness and justice, coupled with a keen sensitivity to the countless ways in which cultural diversity enriches our world.”
These gifts, says Renard, suffuse every page of another book that Keshavarz is now working on, a collection of personal essays.
Since 9-11, Keshavarz often is called upon to lead community talks on issues related to Islam, especially the changing role of Muslim women.
“Muslim women are winning economic, political and family rights under varied political systems that use Islamic law,” Keshavarz observes. “There are many women’s movements that combine a feminist perspective with core tenets of the Muslim faith.
“I would like to see more changes in Iran. But I am hopeful,” she adds. “Iranian women have been a vital force in social change.”
Held up to gods in the palm of a giant’s hands A rare handcrafted marble cup brimming with sunshine Defined at the outer edges with tall Cyprus trees That line up at dawn reverently To interpret the horizons in their meticulous green thoughts My city is that cup of sunshine I can drink to the last drop And be thirsty for more.
— Fatemeh Keshavarz (2000)