The Harvard Iranian gala, last Friday evening, began with an ode to Howard Baskerville, a young American, who over a century ago, sacrificed his life for Iran’s chance at democracy. Speaking at the Harvard Club of Boston, Iranian-American philanthropist Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani recalled how Baskerville graduated from Princeton and moved to Iran in 1907 to teach at the American Presbyterian Mission’s Memorial School in Tabriz, northwestern Iran.
Soon after his arrival, the city became the center of resistance to royalist forces seeking to crush Iran’s Constitutional movement. Baskerville, who had become an ardent supporter of the Persian people’s desire for democracy, enlisted in their ranks and commanded 150 men defending the city. He was 24-years-old when he was killed on a battlefield in Tabriz on April 19, 1909. For decades, this Princetonian was remembered as a national hero by Iranians.
This history lesson offered a vivid portrait of the early intersections between the two countries’ citizens, and the unexpected places where American and Iranian history and tradition have embraced one another.
Comedian and Actor Maz Jobrani, who also attended the gala, pointed to the transformative scientific and technological contributions Iranians are making in America today noting that the rise of Iranian-Americans in the domain of science and technology, business, journalism, medicine, law and almost every other industry is a testament to a proud tradition of learning that extends back to Iran’s finest institutions.
“I feel we have an innate drive that comes from somewhere back in the old country,” Jobrani said. “I hope summits like this weekend’s continue to shed light on the great work Iranian-Americans are doing and to inspire us all. I’m very optimistic about our future after meeting all the young people (and some of the older folks) and seeing what they have accomplished and what they strive to accomplish.”
Pianist and composer Tara Kamangar mesmerized the sold out crowd with performances by composers Aminollah Hossein and Sergei Rachmaninoff, as well as her compositions East of Melancholy and Once There Was and Once There Wasn’t — the latter incorporating Iranian-Kurdish rhythmic motifs.
Tara was born in California but her ancestry is Iranian and Kurdish. In the 1970s, back in Iran, Tara’s father was a pioneering orthopedic surgeon and her mother was a fashion designer, but increasing turmoil in pre-revolutionary Iran pushed the Kamangars to leave Iran. They eventually settled in rural California where her father managed fruit orchards, and for years, they were the only Iranian family in their town.
Tara started piano lessons at age three, and violin lessons at age four. She recalls that practicing felt like a chore to her until she was a teenager, when she began to use music as a vehicle of self-expression. Today Tara Kamangar is a renowned pianist and honors graduate of Harvard College.
“As an immigrant community,” Tara says, “I think our collective purpose should be twofold: to actively participate in American civic and political society, and to embrace those aspects of our ancestral culture that we find meaningful, as they will further beautify the American tapestry.”
Sherry Hakimi is co-chair of the Iranian Summit at Harvard, “Advancing and enhancing the understanding of how multifaceted Iran and Iranians really are is the most meaningful and sustainable way we can resolve many of the challenges between Iran and the West,” Hakimi says. “What’s beautiful about this collective purpose is that every Iranian and Iranian American can meaningfully and positively be part of its attainment.”
The weekend included panel discussions on scientific breakthroughs in medicine, engineering and the latest in artificial intelligence applications in business and storytelling. Panelists talked about building satellites capable of imaging earth in all weather and light conditions, building intelligent wearable systems for people with brain differences and disorders, and the challenging nuances of documentary filmmaking in post-revolutionary Iran.
Shaz Sajadi is a first year PhD student at UMass Boston studying Global Inclusion and Social Development focusing on social justice reform and disability rights in developing countries. Shaz says coming together in this way can be an excellent way of showing future generations that success that can take many forms. “It was an empowering experience to attend this summit and to feel part of a vibrant and active community. Being part of a community is a reciprocal relationship and we should all remember that even though we all may have individual aspirations that we do in some way represent our community and are in some ways responsible for one another.” Sajadi said.
The moderator for the Storytelling panel was Justine Landau, assistant professor of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations at Harvard. Channeling stories from the past, present and future, the audience was once again reminded that Iranians have an older and richer footprint in America than they might think. In April 1858 — that’s 160 years ago — philosopher poet Ralph Waldo Emerson introduced the broader American public to Persian Poetry in the Atlantic Monthly. Emerson called Ferdowsi “the Persian Homer” for his epic Shahnameh, ”Book of Kings,” which recounts Iran’s mythical history from creation through to the 7th century Islamic conquest.
The 2018 Iranian Summit at Harvard drew some 600 people to the event in Boston and a group of Iranian fashion designers also joined via video-conferencing from Iran. Their dynamic designs combine ancient Persian motifs with popular trends for both Iranians and non-Iranians.
Closing remarks came by way of Hollywood actor Navid Negahban who, according to one of his own instagram posts, appeared in his very first play at the age of 8 but noted in a recent interview that his career began when he was a refugee in Germany. In 2018, Negahban is one of America’s most dynamic character actors having just finished starring as the Sultan opposite Will Smith in the live-action remake of “Aladdin” and fans will see him soon as an X-Men villain, the Shadow King, in Legion Season Two.
“I am grateful to Sherry Hakimi and Arta Tabaee for having me at Harvard,” Negahban says “Getting to know each of these individuals, the panelists and attendees and what they have accomplished and what they are driving toward was truly inspiring!”
For his part, co-chair Arta Tabaee noted the importance of strengthening the fabric that binds Iranian people. “By highlighting the many ways that Iranians globally and Iranian culture alike are positively contributing to our society, and cultivating a stronger sense of community, we can begin to change the dialogue around Iranians globally.”
Summit organizers also launched the Mirzakhani Legacy Fund in honor of the late mathematician who lost her battle to cancer in 2017.
“We can think of no better way to honor her legacy than to promote academics at Harvard in her name,” said Hakimi and Tabaee. The Maryam Mirzakhani Legacy Fund will support scholarships and fellowships at Harvard University and was created as a joint partnership between Harvard Iranian Alumni (HIA) and the Harvard College Iranian Association (HCIA).
Davar Ardalan is the founder and storyteller in chief of IVOW, an AI-powered storytelling agency and Stanford Affiliate. Ardalan co-chairs the Stories and Audiences Committee of the VR/AR Association, and has been recognized with a 2017 NASA Team Leadership award for Space Apps, a Gracie Award from the American Women in Radio and Television and a shout-out in the popular comic strip Zippy. In May 2014, she was the recipient of an Ellis Island Medal of Honor, for individual achievement and for promoting cultural unity.