Bita Daryabari
Bita Daryabari. (Deborah Anderson)

Preserving Persia's Book of Kings

Philanthropist and Silicon Valley luminary Bita Daryabari announces a $2 million endowment for Cambridge's Shahnama project, a translation of the 1,000-year-old Farsi epic poem.

When Bita Daryabari was a little girl in Iran, she learned to paint in watercolor and oil. In school she was taught about the country's greatest poets and she memorized and recited their work. Nearly three decades after leaving Iran during the country's war with Iraq and resettling in the United States, she felt her three children lacked a similar education in Persian arts and culture. So the 44-year-old start-up-guru-turned-philanthropist decided to put her hard-earned Silicon Valley fortune towards advocating for the cultural heritage of her homeland.

Daryabari has devoted herself to furthering the Iranian arts in America and, now, the U.K. On Tuesday, she announced a $2 million endowment pledge to Cambridge University's Shahnama Project. The Shahnama, or "Book of Kings" is a 1,000-year-old Persian epic written by poet Firdawsi. The book's 50,000 verses trace Persian history from the region's first king to the collapse of the empire in the 7th century A.D., and the pure form of language it was written in has played a vital role in preserving Farsi through the centuries. At Cambridge, Professor Charles Melville has spent the past 40 years translating the massive document into English and unraveling its meaning. Daryabari, who learned read the stories of the Shahnama all through her childhood, calls Melville, "a guardian of our literature and culture."

Fleeing Iran at age 16, Daryabari was granted a visa to live with family in Missouri, then went on to earn a degree in computer science, and, along with her now ex-husband, Omid Kordestani (Google employee no. 12), made a name for herself in the early days of Silicon Valley. Then, with her high-profile position in the community, she turned her attention back toward her homeland. She started the Pars Equality Center to provide services to Iranian immigrants getting settled in the U.S., which just opened its third office in Los Angeles in September; created the Unique Zan Foundation to promote the education of women and children in Western Asia; and set up a $6.5 million fund at Stanford to build the school's Persian studies program from scratch and deliver a sought-after prize in Persian letters each November.

Daryabari hasn't been back to her homeland in seven years. She would like to return soon, but is waiting to see if the country will be destabilized by potential sanctions. She hopes her efforts to draw attention to the country's art will inspire a refocus on 7,000 years of Persian culture rather than modern-day politics.

She brings up the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan after Sept. 11, and says that learning about a country's history is paramount to peace and cultural understanding, for both locals and outsiders. "The more you're exposed to language, the more you're exposed to culture, the more you're exposed to literature, the less mistakes you will make and less war will happen," she says. Here's hoping the multi-national efforts to preserve the voluminous Shahnama, with its 1,000-year endurance, serves to show how political rivalries can be put aside for love of art.

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