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Asghar Seyed Gohrab: ‘Teaching keeps me young and sharp’

Associate Professor Asghar Seyed Gohrab considers it his role to tell students about Iran, the country where he was born and raised. His research focuses on the connections between the present and the past on the basis of the ‘magical triangle’: Persian literature, politics and religion.

‘I came to the Netherlands from Iran at the end of 1986, as a refugee from the Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988). At a time of uncertainty and indecision about my future, I started to learn Dutch on my own initiative. In 1989 I enrolled on the English Language and Literature degree programme at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. It wasn’t exactly easy, because my Dutch still wasn’t very good and at the same time I was also learning another language at a very high level. I started out getting fail grades, but eventually my grades began to improve and when I got an 8.5 for Old English, I realised that things were heading in the right direction.

Later I chose to do a second degree in Persian Language and Culture at Leiden University. Back then, it was a degree programme in its own right, but now it’s a track within Middle Eastern Studies. Many of the Iranian refugees in the Netherlands took their degrees in more practical fields, such as engineering, medicine, dentistry or computer sciences, but I was one of the few to study Humanities. Even while I was still doing research for my PhD, I was offered an appointment as a university lecturer, and that’s where it all started.’

Classical poetry in contemporary media

‘I stand with one foot in the Middle Ages and with the other in the Modern times. I research how a specific concept, story or phenomenon has developed from the ninth century until today, if possible. For instance, what’s the connection between a Persian love story and a rock classic by Eric Clapton? Or conversely, how can a theme of contemporary relevance like #MeToo be connected to Medieval Persian literature?

My most recent research examines  various Social Media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) and the comments published in these media on a wide range of political issues, such as protests in Iran or the downing of the Ukrainian plane in Tehran at the beginning of January. What I find fascinating is that the Iranian community often makes comments in the form of classical poetry, whether half a line, a couplet or a ten couplets . Poetry is a very essential aspect of Persian culture, but in these Social Media contexts the poems are taken completely out of their original context. I hope to publish a book giving examples of such cases and sharing my findings with a broad public.’

Language is also knowledge transfer

‘I’ve always been interested in languages. Language is our essence as human beings; without language, we don’t amount to much. And learning a language is just knowledge transfer. While I was studying for English, I learned a great deal about English literature and culture. But it was very different when I started my degree Persian Language and Culture, where the emphasis was not only on literature but also on religion, politics and history. This is why  I like most about my work now: imparting knowledge to my students on diverse fields. I think it is important to tell them about the country where I lived for the first 18 years of my life, because due to several factors Iran has now a negative image, such as the 1979-Revolution , political Islam, and violation of human rights. But there is always another side to most of the stories. My aim isn’t to impose a particular idea or opinion about Persian culture on my students – because they should ultimately, of course, be capable to develop their own views about such events,– I just provide them with information. In this way, students can develop their own critical approach, an approach which they can always apply to any subjects and situations later in their lives.

Teaching keeps me young and sharp. The students ask critical questions or sometimes look at specific issues from a completely different angle. If you spend all your time doing research, this can naturally be quite isolated; so I find it wonderfully inspiring to have contact with people between the research.’

A small piece of Persia in the garden

‘I always loved biology, and even during my primary school I knew I wanted to be a biologist. Plants and animals have always deeply fascinated me. But things took a different turn, , because the admission procedure for biology was too complicated for someone like me, who had only just arrived in the Netherlands. But nature still plays a big part in my life at home. I spend a lot of time in the garden, even in cold weather. I’ve just started to work with grafting, from one plant to another. I have many roses, but also limes, figs and a pomegranate tree from Persia. I devote a great deal of time and attention to take care of them, and this certainly makes me feel good.’

Lieselotte van de Ven
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In the Humans of Humanities series, we will do a portrait of one of our researchers, staff members of students, every other week. What are they, and what do they do? You can find more portraits and information on this page.

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