* This is the first article I ever published (2002) – anywhere. It is my homage to an early mentor.
When I was notified that Amir Jahanbani, a former professor of mine and beloved friend who taught at The New School for twenty-seven years, had passed away, I was deeply saddened. The New School had lost one of its finest, and I had lost a dear friend. Professor Jahanbani was one of those unique teachers who left an indelible impression on all who came into contact with him. His passion for his subject matter, the cultural and religious history of the Middle East, was surpassed only by his devotion to his students. In my years at the University I had not known a more dedicated, knowledgeable, or inspiring teacher.
Throughout his long career at both The New School and New York University, Professor Jahanbani taught multidisciplinary courses on the history of the Middle East. The combination of his scholarly erudition and incredible ability to capture the imagination of his listeners left scores of students with a profound appreciation for an often talked about but seldom understood region. While taking a course with Professor Jahanbani meant double the workload of your average New School class, the atmosphere of academic excellence and professional pride that he created inspired us to rise to the challenge.
Professor Jahanbani’s teaching style was a combination of traditional lecturing interspersed with the Socratic Method. Throughout his presentations, he constantly asked us questions, pushing the limits of our understanding in the hope of illuminating our ignorance and inspiring further curiosity. While at times he responded to theories that contradicted his worldview with his trademark dismissal of “absolute nonsense,” Professor Jahanbani was also exceptionally attuned to his students’ needs. On many occasions he stayed after class to talk to students about their papers and give them encouragement with their projects. He would tell his students to write the papers they wanted to read, and not the papers they thought he wanted to read.
One of Amir’s signature phrases regarding narrowing down a paper topic was “write about the button and not the shirt.” And when students turned in paper proposals that seemed halfhearted, Professor Jahanbani would remind them that their names were on their work and that they should take pride in it. When he sensed that students felt that they could not do it, he would talk to them after class, helping them to believe in themselves. Some of my greatest life and academic lessons came from his classroom.
As a friend, Amir was one of the most interesting and unusual personalities I have ever come across. He was an atheist who worshipped five gods: himself, his wife, Omar Khayyam, Charles Darwin, and Beethoven. A pessimist through and through who would often say that “Homo sapiens is the most destructive animal,” Amir nevertheless believed in humankind’s ability to transform itself. From the age of fifteen, he was a published author who did not like to publish, but was working on the monumental “History of Inhumanity.”
Amir was a compassionate man and a vegan who loved to laugh and be in the company of friends. He was a humanist who hated borders and who thought that all forms of nationalism were ridiculous and extremely dangerous. He was a true New Yorker and a citizen of the world who regarded New York as the greatest city on the planet. A maverick who slept during the daytime and was awake during the night, he questioned authority and established norms, refused to be defined by conventions, and demanded to choose his own path.
Of course, as a friend Amir continued to be my teacher— constantly engaging me with questions about the world. I remember one of my first conversations with him; he asked me what I wanted to do with my life after I graduated from The New School. I responded that I was not sure. He then asked me, “You are not going to work on Wall Street, right?” I answered that I was pretty confident that that wouldn’t happen. He said, “Good, you need to stay in the world of ideas and not become one of those Wall Street types.”
From that day onward, Amir and I would engage in a constant dialogue on what it means to stay in the world of the ideas and not become one of those “Wall Street types.” Many times after class, Amir and I would walk and talk for hours. By the time we became friends he was not young, yet had so much energy that I could barely keep up with him. In our talks, we would discuss everything possible under the sun: poetry, religion, the Arab-Israeli conflict, love, music, human nature, my life, and his life.
The last time I saw Amir was in Bryant Park. I met him there with two other students. We had a great time talking about everything possible, as usual. Before we left, Amir embraced me and gave me a hug. When I thought it was time to let go, he held on. He held on tighter and longer than usual, as if he knew that this would be the last time that we would see each other.
On November 4, 2002, Amir Jahanbani passed away after a bout with pneumonia. In characteristic fashion, his last words to his wife
were “just laugh.” On November 8, 2002, Amir’s ashes were scattered along the Hudson River. Were he to have had a grave stone, he would have undoubtedly approved of the following engraving by his favorite poet and number three god, Omar Khayyam.
Drink wine, this is life eternal,
This, all that youth will give you:
It is the season for wine, roses and friends drinking together,
Be happy for this moment – it is all life is.
Professor Amir Jahanbani will be greatly missed and always remembered.
If any of you have memories that you would like to share about
Amir Jahanbani, please leave a comment.