Professor Preserves Cultural Heritage Manuscripts to Combat Radicalism in Middle East
This article first appeared on kentwired.com on Oct. 10, 2016. It is reprinted here with permission.
Emad Khazraee, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Kent State's School of Library and Information Science, presented a report on the digitization of manuscripts from the National Archive of Afghanistan to the Librarian of Congress late last month.
For the past year, Khazraee has been working with and organizing a team of international scholars to preserve and digitize manuscripts from the NAA.
The team was sent to Afghanistan in April to train NAA staff on basic preserving and cataloging. They also completed the first curatorial evaluation and conservation assessment of the 7,000-plus manuscripts housed in the archives.
Khazraee presented these findings to Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, and Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, on Sept. 21.
“They were very excited about it because we were the first group of people to send people inside Afghanistan to do this and do training,” Khazraee said.
Khazraee was initially able to mobilize the team with a £5,000 emergency fund from the University of Cambridge. The Persian Manuscript Initiative, as the project came to be called, was done in partnership with the Roshan Institute of Persian Studies at the University of Maryland and the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.
“So far it’s been a fantastic, collaborative effort,” Khazraee said.
Although the project was initially estimated to take three to five years, Khazraee said that the initial estimate is now a conservative approximation.
Complications with permissions from the Afghan government, turbulent political landscape and limited funds have shifted the time frame.
The NAA is among other government buildings close to where a suicide bombing occurred during the team’s month-long stay. Although no one was hurt, the team had to recess as a safety precaution.
The Afghanistan curatorial and training team, led by Francis Richard of Sorbonne University in Paris, also doesn’t have Internet access while at the archives. Lack of basic resources, along with the difficulty of finding experts who also speak the language, drew out the process.
“The project must be carried out by Afghans, but it cannot be realized without foreign support,” Richard said. “The Afghan archive proposal is very difficult enterprise, but it can be a very great service to Afghan people and Persian culture.”
The initiative is Khazraee’s brainchild, and came about after an article about the conditions of the NAA piqued his interest.
“The National Archive of Afghanistan, which magically survived four decades of war, was in dire need of preservation and conservation,” Khazraee said.
As an Iran native, Khazraee recognizes the importance of preserving the region’s history.
“I very well know the value of those cultural assets,” Kahzraee said. “Before moving to the field of information science, I used to be an architect working on cultural heritage. I was familiar with the value of cultural heritage and the importance of that for a nation in a lot of stress like Afghanistan.”
Matthew Miller, co-coordinator of the Persian Manuscript Initiative, said that Khazraee’s knowledge of infomation science and love for cultural preservation makes him an invaluable scholar.
“We need more scholar-scientists like him,” Miller said. “We both love Afghanistan, and we just wanted to find a way to help the brilliant and very hard-working director of NAA, Mrs. Masuma Nazari, and her staff (while they) preserve the incredibly rich collection of Afghanistan's cultural history that they protect there.”
As a data scientist, Khazraee often gets asked why he has taken this project on. Aside from his roots, he cites a broader reason for wanting to preserve NAA manuscripts.
“We are on the front line of fighting ISIS through our work,” Kahzraee said. “Cultural heritage interacts with social memory and helps us to shape our sense of identity. We are in era of conflicted, troubled identities.
"You see all this fear and terror going around and one of the threats that radical groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda present is that they are erasing history.”
Khazraee emphasized that the erasure of cultural history by terrorist organizations is done intentionally to rewrite the narrative and to create enemies out of those who are different. The recorded history shows that people of the region with different backgrounds did, in fact, live in harmony in the past, he said.
“Those resources have a message from the past that shows we can live together respecting our differences, so that is very central,” Khazraee said. “The heritage interacts with social memory to help us shape our sense of identity and for that specific region; it’s very important that people can understand their shared heritage and to understand that heritage, we must first preserve it and make it accessible to study. That’s where we as information scientists can do our service.”
Khazraee believes that the project is well in line with Kent State’s strategic plan to have a more meaningful social impact and global presence. He proposed the idea of SLIS’ involvement because of the program’s cultural heritage informatics focus.
“Library and information science aims to help preserve identity and cultural memory, so the work that Dr. Khazraee is doing is important in two ways," said Kendra Albright, Ph.D., SLIS director. "First, it provides support to identity resilience of a nation in turmoil; second, it makes these manuscripts accessible to people all over the world, and contributes to global understanding. Both of these support Kent State University’s goal of global engagement.”
The Persian Manuscript Initiative continues to grow, with various scholars and institutions — from Georgia to India — expressing interest in having their manuscript collections digitized.
Plans for the next phase of the Persian Manuscript Initiative are already laid out. The team is now seeking funding to continue the project.