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The Rediff Interview/Philanthropist Vartan Gregorian

September 23, 2003

Vartan Gregorian sits in his spacious office at the Carnegie Corporation of New York where as its president he oversees a great amount of money given out for philanthropic causes.

It has not always been like this. Gregorian has been known for decades as one of America's most effective and gracious fundraisers for the cause of education and libraries. In the 1980s, he rescued the New York Public Library system from near extinction by raising about $400 million. As Brown University president for eight years from 1989, he upgraded the Ivy League school academically and raised $1 billion.

'Gregorian the Great Hearted… is a man I once wanted for Mayor of New York,' said novelist E L Doctorow (Ragtime). 'And I still do.'

Gregorian is the author of two books. The Road to Home traces his life from an impoverished Armenian Christian family in Iran to Lebanon, and then to America, where he has had a tremendously fulfilling life as a professor, scholar, president of an Ivy League school -- and now as a philanthropist. Published by Simon & Schuster, The Road to Home found wide support among many scholars, academics and novelists.

'In a world that forgets in order to die,' writes novelist Carols Fuentes, 'Vartan Gregorian remembers in order to live. By telling the truth of his life, he delivers from two dangerous dogmas. One is the clash of civilisations. Gregorian demonstrates civilisations do not clash: they contaminate and mutually nurture each other. And history is not over. Not yet. Because as this splendid book demonstrates, we have not yet said our last word.'

Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith questions many negative stereotypes and notions scholars and lay people have of the world's fastest growing faith. A final chapter explores the need for knowledge and understanding about Islam, which some labeled 'the green menace' that replaced 'the red menace' of the Cold War.

He spoke to Senior Editor Arthur J Pais.

You write in your memoir that one trustee told you, 'Several of us don't think you have the social graces to be University of Pennsylvania President.' Tell us more about it.

The trustees were not ready for an ethnic to be president. At the same time I am grateful to the university. I was able to accomplish much more elsewhere. I would not be here if I had become the president. It was a very traditional university.

A newspaper report said some trustees commented on your accent. Is accent a big problem in America?

I don't think so. But I will say this: I have never apologised for my accent, looks or heritage.

What advise would you give new immigrants who are worried about accent?

If you are conscious of your accent, you become defensive. When I get excited, I skip prepositions and articles (laughs).

When you arrived in America about 47 years ago from Lebanon, you studied a lot of classics?

The Bhagvad Geeta was among them. I still treasure reading it.

You had to do something very interesting as a teaching assistant when Indian monks visited Stanford.

(Laughs) The monks did not want women to come close to them. I had to draw a circle around them with chalk, telling the women they could not go beyond the circle.

You were a boy when you visited the Indian subcontinent. What do you remember most?

I mentioned the visit to Karachi when I was a boy in The Road to Home and how appalled I was to see thousands of people living in slums. I wanted to be the richest man in the world so that I could build houses for all those people.

You have been to India several times. Which is your favorite city?

Calcutta [now Kolkata]. It has some wonderful architecture. I love Calcutta because Bengalis are literary minded. I went to a book fair with my wife. There were a million people.

Who has been the most influential person in your life?

My maternal grandmother [Voski Mirzayan]. She took care of me when my mother died. I learned some of the wisest things from her.

She had many colorful sayings, isn't it?

She told me many proverbs and fables. Don't insult a crocodile before crossing a river. An unkind word is like a thrown stone -- it cannot be called back.

What are some of the more singular lessons?

She always told me not to dwell on the past. To forgive was very important to her. If you always dwell on the past, she said, someone would have you under his control.

You wrote in your autobiography, 'If somebody spits at me, I cannot pretend it is a raindrop.'

True. That doesn't mean we should hold a grudge against people who have harmed us.

What else did you learn from your grandmother?

The importance of one's integrity and reputation. She used to tell me one cannot build a reputation or make a name for oneself merely on what one was going to do. She warned against envy, how envy becomes a dehumanising element. The name and honour of one's name are the only things that can never be bargained.

There are many books on Islam. Why did you put together another book?

I wanted to tell the facts about Islam and clear misunderstandings many people have. There is no advocacy in the book except on the last page, when I say people should never kill each other in God's name. God has been cheapened, commercialized, commoditized, vulgarized and overused. We should not forget the commandment 'You shall not use my name in vain.' 

What should readers take from the book?

Among other things, Islam is a tremendously diverse religion that has changed considerably throughout its history. I show the mosaic of Islam. I ask readers not to confuse Muslim solidarity with Muslim unity and feel fearful about it [the unity]. I talk of the limitations of Islam and why the bridge between science and religion is not strong. The book tries to show that like Christianity, there is seldom any kind of unified Islam.

Unlike many books on the subject, this is slim.

It was deliberately kept that way. I was not interested in writing a book with too many footnotes and details, and source material that was not accessible easily. It is meant for ordinary people.

You attack the clash of civilisations theory propounded by the likes of Harvard historian Samuel Huntington…

I show that the entire history of Islam is that of divisiveness, internal struggles. I believe the possibility of any serious movement towards a monolithic Muslim world force seems absurd and improbable.

You write in your autobiography about not being prisoners of the present. How can any people who suffered at the hands of another people find peace and justice?

The admission of history is very important; admitting by victimisers and victims of what happened. The crux of the matter is how to forgive without forgetting. Once you undergo the fatigue of forgiving, you have already gone through the process of emancipation. Mahatma Gandhi dealt with the issue.

How can it happen in practical terms?

It happened in South Africa under Nelson Mandela. People [who perpetuated apartheid] confessed and people [victims] forgave them.

It took great courage on the part of the victimiser to confess. It took great generosity on the part of the victims to forgive, though not to forget.

Christians advocate forgiveness, too, you have pointed out but…

But they seldom practice it. There is the story of a man who was slapped once and he turned the other cheek. When he was hit the third time, he hit and tried to kill the other man. 'What are you doing? You are a Christian,' said the other man. Responded the man who was slapped, 'Christ said turn the cheek once but not the second time.'

As a person who has always been in love with books, what is the state of reading in America today?

Reading is not dead. Newer immigrants who arrive here bring with them their own passion for reading.

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