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Author Bahiyyih Nakhjavani honored in Belgium




Persian Author Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and American Paul Auster join Prestigious list of Liege University's Doctorats Honoris Causa





"Mon seul rival international, c'est Tintin !" (*)

- General Charles De Gaulle -- Founded in 1817, the University of Liege is the only public Community-sponsored university in the French-speaking part of Belgium which offers a complete range of university courses at undergraduate and post-graduate levels. It is divided into seven faculties: Philosophy and Letters; Law and School of Criminology; Sciences; Medicine; Applied Sciences; Veterinary Medicine; Psychology and Educational Sciences; and three Schools : Economics and Management; Social Sciences; Criminology.


As of the 11th century, under the impetus of the prince-bishops, schools in Liege constituted a pole of attraction for students and researchers who came, either to earn their first degrees, or like Petrarch, to avail themselves of the particularly rich libraries.


The reputation of its medieval schools earned Liege the name of the 'new Athens' and the College opened its doors in 1496 on the exact spot where the main University building now stands at the Place du 20-Août.


The decree of Napoleon I of 17 March 1808, bearing on the organization of an imperial University and indicating Liege as the site of an Academy, comprising a Faculty of Arts and a Faculty of Science, was the first university charter for Liege. In the end, Liege owes its university to William I of the Netherlands, who remembered the prestigious past of teaching and culture of the City, when he decided to establish a new university on Walloon soil.

Nearly 200 years afterwards, even if it settled to some extent in Sart-Tilman, the University of Liege, which depends now on the French Community of Belgium, is located at the edge of the river Meuse, in the center of what is called the Island, Latin Quarter of Liege.


Each Year, during the First Semester, the University, delivers an Honorary Doctorate to personalities who have demonstrated remarkable achievements that can be considered as representative of the disciplines of interest belonging to one of the seven faculties cited above. Thus in previous years the University of Liege has conferred Doctorats Honoris Causa to some well known personalities of international and historical reputation and as varied as Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres in 1999 for their efforts in reaching peace between Palestinians and Israelis, British writer Salman Rushdie in 2000 for his literary works ( in the name of Freedom of Speech and by solidarity for his predicament as an intellectual threatened by Islamic fundemantalism ) or Iranian Nobel Peace Prize 2003 Shirine Ebadi in 2004 for her work as a lawyer in the service of Peace and Human Rights in her country and the Muslim World at Large.



Previous recipients of Liege University Doctorates Honoris Causa include: (Top) Shirine Ebadi (2004), (Middle) Salman Rushdie (2000). (Bottom)Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres (1999) ©ULG



Interestingly another Iranian compatriot writer Bahiyyih Nakhjavani was honored last September along with three other fellow colleagues in the field of literature American novelist Paul Auster, Canadian Novelist and essayist Nancy Huston and Argentine writer, translator, and editor Alberto Manguel.


Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is a Persian writer who grew up in Uganda (Africa) but was educated in the United Kingdom and the United States. She taught European and American literature in Belgium. She now lives in France where she teaches.


Her first novel The Saddlebag - A Fable for Doubters and Seekers was an international bestseller. It describes events set in the Najd plateau along the pilgrim route between Mecca and Medina during one day in 1844-1845, when a mysterious saddlebag passes from hand to hand, and influences the lives of each person who comes across it. The main characters are the Thief, the Bride, the Chieftain, the Moneychanger, the Slave, the Pilgrim, the Priest, the Dervish and the Corpse. The story has been inspired by chapter VII of The Dawn-breakers (book) by Nabíl-i-A`zam.


The novel Paper - The Dreams of A Scribe is an allegory centered on a Scribe who is searching for perfect paper for writing his masterpiece. It is set in Máh-Kú, a bordertown in north-west Persia, between the Summer of 1847 and the Spring of 1848. It contains 19 chapters which are structured symmetrically around five dreams. Other main characters are the Mullah, the Widow, the Warden, his Mother and his Daughter, and the Prisoner.


She has also written for documentary film, and lectures internationally on the arts and the Baha'i faith ( a branch of Islam which has been and continues to be suppressed in Iran today).


Paul Auster is a Brooklyn-based author known for works blending absurdism and crime fiction, such as The New York Trilogy (1987), Moon Palace (1989) and The Brooklyn Follies (2005). These books are not conventional detective stories organized around a mystery and a series of clues. Rather, he uses the detective form to address existential issues and questions of identity, creating his own distinctively postmodern form in the process.

He is most popularily known for the screen adaptation of his novel Smoke Starring such great performers as Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, and Forest Whitaker.The film follows the lives of multiple characters, all of whom are connected by their patronage of a small Brooklyn tobacco shop managed by Auggie (Harvey Keitel).The film was followed by Blue in the Face, a sequel of sorts that continues following a few of the characters and introduces several new ones.


He is also the Vice-President of PEN American Center.




Literary works of Nakhjavani and Auster are tainted by
common questions of identity 


Alberto Manguel is a writer, translator, and editor who was born in 1948 in Buenos Aires but grew up in Israel where his father was the Argentinian ambassador.. Manguel wrote non-fiction books such as The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (co-written with Gianni Guadalupi in 1980) and A History of Reading (1996) and novels such as News From a Foreign Country Came (1991). Manguel also wrote film criticism such as Bride of Frankenstein (1997) and essays such as Into the Looking Glass Wood (1998). For over twenty years, Manguel has edited a number of literary anthologies for a variety of themes or genres ranging from erotica and gay stories to fantastic literature and mysteries.

An autodidact his education literary achievements seem strangely at odds with that of a  classical academic career.


He met and befriended Jorge Luis Borges, a renowned Argentine writer, poet, literary critic, and translator. When Manguel was sixteen years old and working during his school holidays at the Pygmalion bookshop in Buenos Aires, Borges (then 58 years old) was one of the shop's regular customers. As Borges was almost blind, he asked Manguel to read books to him in Borges' apartment, something Manguel did several times a week from 1964 to 1968.

In a 2001 interview with Robert Birnbaum, Manguel stated that he had attended a "very good high school", the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, where the teachers were university professors who were "very enthusiastic about their fields." After high school, Manguel "decided not to go to university", because "when I tried it, it didn't work for me. I tried for one year and I said, 'No, this is boring and I will just try and study on my own."


Manguel co-wrote The Dictionary of Imaginary Places with Gianni Guadalupi. The book is a catalogue of fantasy lands, islands, cities, and other locations from world literature, including Ruritania, Shangri-La, Xanadu, Atlantis, L. Frank Baum's Oz, Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, Thomas More's Utopia, Edwin Abbott's Flatland, C. S. Lewis' Narnia, and the realms of Jonathan Swift and J.R.R. Tolkien. In 1983, Manguel selected the stories for an anthology entitled Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature.

In the mid-1980s, Manguel moved to Toronto, in central Canada, where he lived for twenty years. Manguel's early impression of Canada was that it was " one of those places whose existence we assume because of a name on a sign above a platform, glimpsed at as our train stops and then rushes on." He said that "...the word "Canada" awoke no echoes, inspired no images, lent no meaning to my port of destination"(from Passages: Welcome Home to Canada (2002), with preface by Rudyard Griffiths. As well, though, Manguel noted that "When I arrived in Canada, for the first time I felt I was living in a place where I could participate actively as a writer in the running of the state."

Manguel's novel, News from a Foreign Country Came, won the McKitterick Prize in 1992. During the 1990s, Manguel contributed regularly to the Canadian national newspaper Globe & Mail (Toronto), the Times Literary Supplement (London), the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Review of Books, the New York Times, and the Svenska Dagbladet (Stockholm). He was appointed as the Distinguished Visiting Writer in the Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Program at the University of Calgary.

Doctarates Honoris Causa of Liege University Recipients for 2007. ©ULG

Nancy Louise Huston is a Canadian-born novelist and essayist who writes primarily in French and translates her own works into English. Huston was born in Calgary, Alberta, the city in which she lived until age fifteen, at which time her family moved to Wilton, New Hampshire. She studied at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she was given the opportunity to spend a year of her studies in Paris. Arriving in Paris in 1973, Huston obtained a Master's Degree from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, writing a thesis on swear words under the supervision of Roland Barthes.

Though she had not learned French before arriving in Paris, Huston found that the combination of her eventual command of the language and her distance from it as a non-native speaker helped her to find her literary voice. Since 1980, Huston has published over nineteen books of fiction and non-fiction, including the three English versions of previously published French works. Of her novels, only Histoire d'Omaya (1985) and Trois fois septembre (1989) have not been published in English.


While Huston's often controversial works of non-fiction have been well-received, her fiction has earned her the most critical acclaim. Her first novel, Les variations Goldberg (1981), was awarded the Prix Contrepoint and was shortlisted for the Prix Femina. She translated this novel into English as The Goldberg Variations (1996).

Her next major award came in 1993 when she was received the Canadian Governor General's Award for Fiction in French for Cantique des Plaines. Huston's win caused some controversy among Quebec literati, as the author was not a French-Canadian. Furthermore, her critics argued, the work was apparently written first in English and that version of the novel did not even make the shortlist for the same award for English-language fiction. A subsequent novel, La virevolte (1994), won the Prix "L" and the Prix Louis-Hémon. It was published in English in 1996 as Slow Emergencies. Huston's novel, Instruments des ténebres, has been her most successful novel yet, being shortlisted for the Prix Fémina, and the Governor General's Award. It was awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens.


In 1998, she was nominated for a Governor General's Award for her novel L'Empreinte de l'ange. The next year she was nominated for a Governor General's Award for translating the work into English as The Mark of the Angel.


In 1999, she appeared in the film Emporte-moi, which she collaborated on the screenplay for. Her works have been translated into many languages from Chinese to Russian.

In 2005, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and she received the Prix Femina in 2006 for the novel Lignes de faille.



Historical / Constitutional Ties between Belgium and Iran:


Very Much like France, Belgium has often drawn Iranian nationals (**) to its territory ever since the Treaty of Friendship signed between Belgium and Persia on May 23rd, 1929 the protocol of which was signed in Tehran. The Qajar rulers Nasseredin Shah and his son Muzzaferedin were particularly Francophile and were to equally visit both France and Belgium on there numerous European tours. In their eyes Belgium and its political system however represented a particularly interesting counterpoint and role model to follow rather than the French secular Republic. The reason was that the old and crumbling Persian monarchy had given rise to a new middle class and intelligentsia that was questioning the authoritarian and divine rule of their Kings. At the turn of the century revolutionary ideas and thoughts coexisted with claims for equal justice for all classes and the intelligentsia were to seek inspiration amongst French Philosophers as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau who had greatly shaped the ideals of the French Revolution. The Qajar Kings and Royal establishment were aware of this mounting threat to their rule but were also eager to open Persia to Foreign technology and progressive ideas without undermining their own legitimacy. Thus Belgium was seen as a model for the Persian Monarchs for it offered the advantage of being Francophile yet remaining a monarchy albeit with a constitution that preserved the countries traditions while functioning in practice as the secular republic in neighboring France. It was not before the reign of Muzzaferedin Shah ( already an ageing monarch )and the advent of the 1906 Constitutional Revolution that the Persian Monarchy was to transform itself under the will and demand of the people.


The Shah's birthday on the 5th of August 1906 became the pretext for Qajar King to sign a decree that gave the Iranian people a Constitution. A group of lawyers and jurists were this sent to Belgium. Since the Persian administration was already considerably organized upon the Belgian model it was decided to "copy" the same constitution too.


It was decided that the Power of the Shah was no more "divine" but delivered from the People ( although essentially the elite of the time ) themselves to their king. An addition however was made to this constitution called "motta-mem" which gave the clergy the right to control and Veto, if necessary, the laws submitted  by the government to the parliament. Thus the Parliament could not vote laws which were deemed as contrary to Islam and the foundations of Shiite doctrines. This was a major shortcoming that would prove fatal to Iran's monarchs and was to have far reaching consequences when the Pahlavi Kings (particularly Mohamed Reza Shah )when they tried to "secularize" Iran's constitution and lost the support of the countries clerical aristocracy.


Debate in Iranian Parliament, 1937
© Photo by Atlantis Verlag (pictory


On the 18th of August 1906, In a rare gesture from a Persian Monarch in the entire history of the Iranian monarchy, a commission of 300 members was put together and drafted the electoral procedure. A law was voted on the 9th of September which presented the following characteristics:


The capital Tehran was over represented with 60 deputies out of a total of 156.


The seats were distributed between 6 social categories:


  • The Members of the Qajar tribe
  • The Religious authorities
  • The Aristocracy and commoners
  • The Merchants
  • The Land Lords and the Peasants
  • The various corporations of craftsmen


A Secret Ballot was restricted nevertheless to Only Men over the Age of 25 ( This right was to be extended to Women under the more progressive Pahlavi Dynasty).


Thus on the 8th of October, 1906  the first Persian Parliament- the Majlis- was assembled. Given the voted law of the time, the parliament was essentially dominated by the upper classes but Muzzaferedin Shah will publicly recognize the Parliament and the Constitution during his inaugurating speech.


Thus the Iran entered a New Era in its political arena and the Constitutional Revolution became a milestone and recurrent historical reminder of the Iranian people's struggle for Democracy and Equal Rights throughout the 20th century but which was radically interrupted by the 1953 Coup as well as the Islamic Revolution of 1979.


Belgium's Constitution served as a Model in shaping Iran's Monarchy (equally under the Qajar as well as the Pahlavi dynasty) and modern political institutions throughout the 20th century. The Tintin anology does not seem that far-fetched after all when referring to Iran's Constitutional Revolution.

©Hergé & pictory ( & 30 Birds Productions 


The Belgian historical Analogy has interestingly prevailed to this day when describing the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906. In recent years a popular play has been performing around Europe and North America but which was performed for the first time in 2006 in the UK for the 100th anniversary of the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. Titled The Persian Revolution and co-produced by 30 Birds Productions  and  the Iran Heritage Foundation. Surreal and darkly comic, The Persian Revolution puts a contemporary spin on the gripping events surrounding the establishment of the Middle East's first secular parliament.

The play got some very positive reviews in the British and American Press such as:


"An enjoyable romp through revolutionary Persia" Metro

"Inventive and very funny" Financial Times


"Using just five brilliantly blue-suited actors on Leslie Travers's slick, uber-cool set, 30 Bird have turned out a gorgeous-looking piece of serious fun." Glasgow Herald


It also uses references to one of Belgium's most famous and popular comic book icons: Tintin, which was particularly popular in Iran, in the 1960's and 1970's (and also to this day), to illustrate the culture and generational clash, contradictions but also paradoxical development of Iran's intelligentsia throughout the 20th century. Given the historical interactions between Belgium and Iran as illustrated above this analogy seems to be an interesting metaphor on a people's aspirations, often in advance on its times, very much like the adventures of Hergé's comic book hero, but which may very well serve as an inspiration for building a better future but this time FULLY DEMOCRATIC Iran.



Left to Right: Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Alberto Manguel,
Nancy Louise Huston, Paul Auster, 


It may therefore be an interesting coincidence but also a blessing that along with other major international personalities, two Iranian Women, nearly of the same generation, yet one belonging to the Diaspora, Mrs. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, and the other living and working in Iran that is Mrs. Shirine Ebadi have both been recognized as crucial thinkers of our times and well deserved recipients of the honorary Doctorates of one of Belgium's oldest and most prestigious Universities.





Authors Notes :

Official Website of the Université de Liege


Official Website of Iranian Online Community in Belgium


(*) "My only International Rival is Tintin" famous quote by France's late President and Liberator Charles De Gaulle also a Great fan of Belgian comic book author Hergé.


(**) Many future diplomats and ministers such as the late Prime Minister if Iran, Amir Abbas Hoveyda and his brother Fereydoune were to attend Belgium's universities before pursuing further education in French universities. Former Chair of the university of Shiraz (1968-1971) and Tehran (1971-1977)  Dr. Houshang Nahavandi was also educated in Belgium and France.


Recommended Readings :


A Daughter of Kermanshah Nobelized by Darius KADIVAR

Seducer or Seduced? Yasmina Reza and Nicholas Sarkozy By Darius KADIVAR
Iranian Expat Celebrities get passionate over French Presidential Elections
by Darius KADIVAR

New Faces in French Politics of Persian Heritage by Darius KADIVAR

Fereydoune Hoveyda (1924-2006): A Class Apart by Darius KADIVAR
Persian History Inspires French Comic Book Masters by Darius KADIVAR 



About the Author: Darius KADIVAR is a Freelance Journalist, Film Historian, and Media Consultant. He is international Correspondent for OCPC Magazine and contributes to the IC publications of The Middle East. and Persian Heritage.

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