Violence and war have become a normal part of life in the Middle East. Typically portrayed in a negative light, the Middle East is often scrutinized by people throughout the world for its differences in religious and political views. This has contributed to a general lack of understanding of the cultures, practices, and languages that exist in the Middle East.
The University of Utah has championed Middle Eastern studies for many years in hopes of providing opportunities to better understand the Middle East. From learning new languages to gaining an appreciation for other cultures, Middle Eastern studies at the University of Utah have provided opportunities for new perspectives and a deeper understanding of the Middle East. But, it wasn’t always this way. It took the efforts of prominent figures to establish this curriculum—people like Dr. Khosrow Mostofi.
Mostofi’s unique story began 7,000 miles away in Tehran, Iran, where he was born in 1921. He attended the University of Tehran, where he received his B.A. in English literature. His language skills were in high demand, and he taught English for the Ministry of Education at several institutions in Iran. (Bean, p. 306; Mostofi interview, p. 3)
In 1949, Mostofi immigrated to the United States. By this time, World War II had ended. But prior to leaving Tehran, he had met a U.S. officer from the Persian Gulf command. Mostofi and the officer stayed in touch after the war, and he told the officer of his plans to attend Columbia University. The officer informed him of the “cultural shock” that he would experience in New York City. Having been a student at the University of Utah, the officer suggested that Mostofi attend school in Salt Lake City—a place he had never even heard of. (Mostofi interview, pp. 3-4)
Mostofi quickly immersed himself into his graduate studies. He received a Ph.D. in Political Science four years later. Bothered by the lack of diversity in the curriculum, Mostofi proposed that three courses on the Middle East be implemented—an idea originally met with skepticism by administrators. Eventually, courses were added, and the University of Utah qualified for its first grant for the Middle East Center. (Mostofi interview, pp. 4-5)
After a two-year teaching stint at Portland State College, Mostofi returned to the University of Utah in 1960 when he was named the assistant director of the center—working alongside then-director and founder of the Middle East Center, Aziz Atiya. There were no formal degree programs and the only staff was Mostofi, Atiya, and one secretary. (Mostofi interview, pp. 6, 19)
While the addition of the Middle East Center was a step in the right direction, it wasn’t embraced by everyone. In an interview with Everett L. Cooley, Mostofi spoke about the “outright hostility in some circles” that the program was met with on campus. Some faculty felt that funding should be spent elsewhere, and not on a new, unproven program.
In 1966, Mostofi resigned his position to pursue full time teaching and research. His resignation was brief, as Atiya fell ill, and Mostofi took over. The Daily Utah Chronicle highlighted this change in its July 1967 issue, which commemorated Atiya and introduced Mostofi as the new director. (Mostofi interview, p. 18)
Mostofi introduced reforms for the center, citing a lack of performance. He reached an agreement with the U.S. Office of Education that allowed the center to host professors from Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and Israel for three-month intervals. Mostofi improved curriculum by forming strong relations with Iran—as evidenced in the August 1966 issue of The Daily Utah Chronicle. The center’s funding increased, and graduate and undergraduate programs were approved. Seven graduate degree programs emerged for Middle East Studies: Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Anthropology, History and Political Science. (Mostofi interview, pp. 18-20)
After receiving little support from the federal government, Mostofi secured grants from major organizations—changing the entire outlook on the Middle East Center. He also formed relationships with the public-school system, as well as the local community, beginning a “grass roots support” for the center. This was illustrated in the February 1971 issue of The Daily Utah Chronicle, when Mostofi organized a cultural exchange program for U.S. students in Tunisia. (Mostofi interview, pp. 24, 27)
In his interview with Everett L. Cooley, Mostofi made it clear what his mission had been throughout this entire process: “Changing attitudes and outlooks.” Mostofi did this by instilling the Middle East’s proud and expansive history in higher education’s curriculum. It was about shifting the misperceptions associated with the Middle East, and bringing to awareness the richness of its culture.
Mostofi etched his mark on students at the University of Utah. The April 1964 issue of The Daily Utah Chronicle drew attention to Mostofi’s efforts in bringing thousands of Persian books to the library. His prominent role in the development of the Middle East Center left a lasting impact, and it most likely wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for his contributions.
Mostofi retired from the Department of Political Science in 1987, but remained a Middle East Center consultant until 1991. He was honored with the Distinguished Service Award and acknowledged as “an internationally recognized scholar of Iranian culture, history, and politics,” according to the August 1992 issue of The Daily Utah Chronicle.
Today, the Middle East Center stands strong—empowering students to enact change and become global citizens. It offers graduate and undergraduate programs that provide students with dynamic skills in language and cultural comprehension in the Middle East. For students today, the center serves as a stepping stone for potential careers in public affairs, public service, business, and several other fields. Opportunities now exist for students to participate in conferences, workshops, and outreach activities to further their understanding of the Middle East, and shed the stereotypes that are still prevalent in today’s society.
Christian Gomez is a junior at the University of Utah. He is studying strategic communication with a minor in writing in rhetoric.
“Former Middle East Center director dies,” Daily Utah Chronicle, August 12, 1992, 3.
“Intercultural Center Gains 3,000 Volumes,” Daily Utah Chronicle, August 16, 1966, 3.
“Iran Embassy Honors Prof For Writings,” Daily Utah Chronicle, April 10, 1964, 4.
“Mid East program okayed,” Daily Utah Chronicle, February 25, 1971, 5.
“Profs Gain Posts,” Daily Utah Chronicle, July 14, 1967, 1.
Transcript, interview with Khosrow Mostofi, conducted September 17, 1985, by Everett L. Cooley, Everett L. Colley Oral History Collection, J Willard Marriott Library Special Collections, The University of Utah.
Bean, Lee L. “Khosrow Mostofi.” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 26, no. 2 (1992): 306-07.