In 1978, Carl Ernst had to cancel his trip to Iran because of the hostile political situation. This year, Ernst, Chair of religious studies, was finally able to travel to Iran, and he did see reminders of the old conflicts. But mostly he found people willing to forget politics for the sake of pursuing common interests in Persian language and literature.

Carl Ernst has waited a long time to go to Iran. In 1978, when the Iranian revolution broke out, he had already bought a ticket to fly there to do research for his dissertation in religious studies. But, like many other Americans, he canceled his travel plans because of the hostile political situation. In 1996, Ernst, Chair of Religious Studies at UNC-CH, made his trip, this time for the First International Congress of Professors of Persian Language and Literature.

He did see reminders of the political turmoil. Everywhere there were pictures of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and other leaders, and at the conference hotel these photographs were joined by signs reading “DOWN WITH USA.” As guests of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, conference participants were well-treated and well-chaperoned.

We could go anywhere we wanted, but they always wanted to accompany us to make sure everything was okay. It was a slightly mixed feeling; on the one hand, they were taking care of us, on the other hand, they just wanted to watch and make sure that we didn’t get into any trouble,” Ernst says with a laugh.

But he found that, in general, Iranians have warm feelings toward Americans as individuals. “We were treated very kindly everywhere we wenton the street, in airports, random encounters in stores,” Ernst recalls. “Iranians, like people in many countries with troubled political histories, make a distinction between the people and the government,” he says. Thousands of Iranians have studied in the United States, and about half a million Iranian immigrants live in this country now. “There are many Iranians who have a very personal connection with America in their own lives,” Ernst explains.

In fact, one day during the conference, I heard two Iranians tell me, ‘America is my second home.’”

At the conference, linguists and professors of Persian from more than 30 countries discussed the status of the Persian language. Persian is spoken today by nearly 40 million people, but only about 20 American universities teach it, Ernst says. Most of these schools include Persian as part of Middle East studies programs, which are carried out with an eye to national foreign policy and are often colored by political questions. But Ernst maintains that it’s also important to study Persian as part of the humanities.

For much of the past thousand years, Persian was the major language used in government, culture, and literature in most of West, Central, and South Asia, Ernst explains. Because of its wide use, Persian has one of the largest bodies of literature of any living language. An example is the work of Rumi, one of the most-published poets in English.

Persian is not currently taught at UNC-CH nor at nearby Duke University, but Ernst and Bruce Lawrence, professor of religion at Duke, are proposing a fundraising effort to support a collaborative program in Persian studies. Such a course would enhance Carolina’s current Curriculum on Asian Studies, Ernst says, and would help graduate students studying religion in South Asia. These students need to know Persian to study the large collections of Persian texts in India, Pakistan, and Europe.

Ernst is excited about the prospects of collaborating with Duke and working further with colleagues in Iran. “As it turns out, thanks to the contacts we’ve made, I’m going to publish some things there, and I think there’s a good possibility of going back,” he says.

Our Iranian friends feel, if we have common interests in language, culture, religion, and philosophy, why can’t we get together and pursue these topics? We should not have to depend upon getting political officials to like each other first.”