Bridge-building is what’s most important, Keshavarz tells U.N.

Professor joins panel on cultural challenges to peace

Speaking before a recent United Nation’s General Assembly on “Civilizations and the Challenge for Peace: Obstacles and Opportunities,” the University’s Fatemeh Keshavarz told global diplomats that academic communities have a special duty to help dispel the cultural misunderstandings that so often fuel clashes between nations.

“After many, many years of being in (the) classroom, I firmly believe that you cannot separate knowing and respect from each other — that they are highly and deeply interdependent,” said Keshavarz, Ph.D., professor of Persian and of comparative literature, and chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, all in Arts & Sciences.

“You cannot know another culture or know about another culture without respecting it enough to see how that culture knows itself and speaks about itself,” she said. “And you cannot respect a culture without coming close to it to know it.”

Keshavarz was among a small group of scholars, cultural ministers and high-ranking religious leaders invited to take part in the U.N.’s third annual informal thematic discussion on cultural issues affecting world peace. Held May 10-11 in the U.N.’s Trusteeship Council Chamber, the program was designed to help diplomats switch their focus from purely political issues to the cultural matters at the roots of political conflict.

Keshavarz spoke as part of a panel on “Respect for Cultural Diversity is a Prerequisite for Dialogue,” which included Ghassan Salame, professor of international relations at Sciences Po University and former minister of culture for Lebanon; the Rev. Canon Dr. Trond Bakkevig, pastor of the Lutheran Church of Norway; and Regine Boucard, moderator of the West African Museum Program and former president of the World Bank Art Society.

Kesahavarz, a native of Shiraz, Iran, spoke of her experiences as an Iranian-American and Muslim, and how this background contributes to her work in the classroom, in her research and writing. She pointed out that we are often exposed to popular books and news accounts that try to tell us about other cultures without bothering to let the people of these cultures speak for themselves.

“You can read entire books about what is wrong with Islam, what is the trouble with Islam, but you do not hear actual voices from that part of the world speaking about themselves,” Keshavarz said.

If we truly wish to understand another culture, she argued, we must adhere to the basic principle of “interactive manners.”

“When we respect someone, in interaction, we allow that person to speak for himself or herself,” she said. “When we respect another person we do not interrupt that person when he or she is trying to speak. When we respect a person we don’t hide that person behind a curtain, or behind a door or in another room — we give them a very visible spot in that environment that is given to us. Beings who exist but are not visible — are ghosts.”

Keshavarz then suggested that academics have a special duty to ensure that the voices of real people are not lost in the discussion of cultural differences.

“My suggestion to the academics, before anyone else, is that we have to come out of the classroom and write for the broader public,” she said. “We can no longer only teach a crowd of 12 or 15 or 20 at most and speak in a highly specialized language. Yes, we have to do that, of course — on the side, that’s how we further our own field, our own discipline — but we also have to come out and speak to the broader public.

“We have to make our own voices vehicles to carry the indigenous voices of the peoples and the cultures whom we represent and bring it into the other culture in which we teach and write. And we cannot do that unless our institutions, our cultures, our governments, our societies, support us to do that — to create opportunities for us to do that.”

Keshavarz also called for academics to translate the works of other cultures, to make sure that the writer who writes in Lebanon, in Iran, in Norway, in some other part of the world, is heard and read in other cultures.

“We must strive for classes that go for world history or world literature much more than focusing on the narrow definition of national cultures,” she continued. “Yes, we are all still very proud of the languages in which we speak and cultures in which we write, but we have to study them in the bigger more global context.”

Keshavarz encouraged the diplomats to support programs that encourage travel to and from their countries by students and scholars and to ensure that cultural interaction remains high on their agenda.

“Make sure that that stays a part of the education in the classroom, whether it’s traveling or translation it doesn’t make any difference, it’s bridge-building that’s important to us,” she said.