The manuscript turned out to be a copy of The Prince and the Sufi, an adaptation of the life of Gautama Buddha that for centuries existed only in manuscript form. The author, Elisha ben Shemuel, was a Jew living in 17th-century Persia, a poet writing the Persian language using Hebrew script and addressing a Jewish audience.
Yasharpour’s dissertation topic focuses on a literary analysis and translation to English of the work. The prince of the title is, as Yasharpour puts it, “extraordinary in every sense” in his quest to understand the meaning of life. A Sufi, or Muslim mystic, seeks him out and enlightens him with an array of anecdotes that convey moral, theological, and philosophical values.
Ben Shemuel was clearly quite familiar with the Persian literary styles of his time, Yasharpour says, and “he was unabashed about seeing Jewish elements integrated with the Muslim.” At one point, the mystical Muslim master expounds on Maimonides’ thirteen principles of the Jewish faith.
“Judeo-Persian authors judged the quality of their work by the degree to which they successfully integrated Jewish with Iranian and Muslim elements,” says Yasharpour, who finds it “amazing how interdisciplinary” her dissertation topic is. To pursue a doctorate in Near Eastern languages and cultures, she had to become expert in Islamic, Jewish, and Iranian studies and learn the Persian, Hebrew, and Arabic languages. Then, she could begin to examine the linguistic, literary, and intellectual features of Judeo-Persian literature.
However, her extraordinary scholarly journey began at her grandmother’s knee, listening to stories about the family, Jews who had lived in Iran until the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “I wanted to understand what my connection was to Iran and to being Jewish,” she says. With her BA in English achieved, Yasharpour began to sit in on Persian language classes at UCLA. She earned a diploma at Oxford University’s Center for Jewish Studies, writing a thesis on Iranian-Jewish history. She spent the following summer at Hebrew University.
Upon discovering Judeo-Persian literature, she began looking for scholarly mentors. “I had to find scholars specializing in Judeo-Persian studies and convince them I wasn’t dabbling.” One of those scholarly mentors brought her back to UCLA. Hossein Ziai, director of Iranian Studies, “knew that what I wanted to do was difficult, that it required extensive research abroad,” and yet, she says, “he was enthusiastic and encouraging.”
Indeed, Ziai believes that Yasharpour’s work will make an important contribution to scholarship on “the highly positive symbiosis of the Judaic and the Iranian framework,” as the two cultural threads “merge and inform a uniquely harmonious view of fundamental issues relating to knowledge and experience.” Judeo-Persian literature is not widely studied, and just one article has previously been written about Ben Shemuel’s work.
In continuing her research, Yasharpour will benefit from the extensive experience she’s acquired drafting proposals that win grants and fellowships—including a Skirball, Fulbright and most recently, a Dissertation Year Fellowship—to support her graduate work. With a subject that is relatively unknown in the academic world, “one needs to be able to communicate one’s research objectives clearly and succinctly,” she says, “to write proposals that are engaging for people who read them and put one’s case across well.”
Yasharpour believes that a passion for one’s work is the key to success. “If you’re passionate about your work,” she says, “irrespective of how obscure the field, you will engage people. They will want to listen.”