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June 6, 2002 Umberto Cicchetti goes to the source — Tehran and Damascus



Frank Kuin

To say Umberto Cicchetti has a knack for learning languages is an understatement. The undergraduate from the Department of Religious Studies became fluent in Persian while spending a year in Iran; for the last six months, he has been brushing up his classical Arabic at the University of Damascus, Syria.

For Cicchetti, these language skills are part of an effort to study Islam with an Arabic perspective. Thus, he studied theology at the University of Tehran, taking classes in Persian, taping lectures and then replaying them afterwards. He even received a bursary from the Iranian government. “There are lots of people doing Islamic studies who don’t know Arabic, so they have to read translations,” Cicchetti said. “When you know Arabic, you’re going to have access to the primary sources and you have the original text. I think you can do much better work that way.”

Cicchetti, who will graduate this fall, became interested in Islam when he travelled to Pakistan and several countries in the Middle East. He is particularly attracted by the mystical and philosophical aspects of the religion. “It was something very different,” he said.

He abandoned his studies in nutrition at the Université de Montréal to join Religious Studies at Concordia. According to Professor Lynda Clarke, his willingness to travel to Tehran and Damascus for part of his studies has set him apart. In Damascus, Cicchetti has been living in a former refugee camp on the outskirts of town, a Palestinian area which has turned into a rickety suburb.

He wants to specialize in Shi’ism, the sect of Islam that is mostly practiced in Iran and Iraq. He feels that the people of those countries are often misunderstood and misrepresented in Western nations, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11. “It’s sad that Islam has to suffer because of this,” he said. “Right now the dialogue between Islam and the West, between Islam and Christianity, is very important. I definitely want to help Islam.”

After his return from Syria and his graduation from Concordia, he hopes to pursue a master’s degree in Paris at the Sorbonne.