Quiet genius who brought the East to the West
By Marge Tubalkain-Trell with additional reporting by Vincent Freeman
First published April 9, 2008
TALLINN - The Koran is undoubtedly one of the most important texts in world culture, so it’s maybe not so surprising that the book is selling well in Estonia. No one thought, however, it would sell as well as it did. The truly astonishing thing is that it took until December 2007 for the book to be published in Estonian. There is no doubt the Koran would not have been translated at all if weren’t for the work of one remarkable man, Haljand Udam – geologist, scientist, linguist, translator, writer, and genius.
The Baltic Times spoke to the friends and family of the man who single-handedly made the most important cultural event of the year in Estonia possible, including his widow who has never spoken to the press before.
“It was his life’s work and his last work,” said Aivar Lestsinski, editor in chief of the Avita publishing company. Udam died soon after completing the work in 2005.
Udam had a phenomenal command of languages. He mastered Arabic, Farsi, Tajiki, Hindi, Urdu and Uzbek. He could also speak a number of European languages, including French (which he also translated from), English, Russian and Finnish. It is worthwhile to note that he always translated directly from the original language, not from English.
He has left his mark with a long list of high-profile translated works, along with a number of his own essays, articles and research articles. He original works include “Read and Written” (1998), “Itinerary of the Orient” (2001) and “Magi-cians, Philosophers, Politicians” (2003).
Udam was also an Estonian patriot. “Itinerary of the Orient ” are a series of discourses mainly based on books he’d read. In it, he surreptitiously criticized the Soviet regime he had to labor under.
His friends and family described him as an honest and sincere person who avoided the pleasures of life. He understood that truth and wisdom are not private property – they don’t serve individual self-expression and are not meant to be hoarded. His spirit expressed itself best in the written word.
Despite his interest in Islam and Middle Eastern culture, Udam remained a committed Christian.
“Haljand Udam was a Christian who construed his role as uniting different cultures and religions – like a person to whom the Higher Dimension is more important than it is sensing different dogmatic ways,” said Toomas Haug, a friend, editor and fellow writer.
His wife characterised her husband as a simple, good natured and very erudite man.
“Haljand was a quiet man with strong words. He didn’t talk much, but when he said something it was so. He did what he thought was important and he always had lots of work to do. His great love was Oriental countries and traditions. He looked at things in a general way and details made him nervous,” she said. Despite the remarkable work he has done in bringing the East closer to Estonia, most Estonians hadn’t heard of him until the Koran was published last December.
Udam was born in 1936 in Rakvere to a family of farmers. He went to Tartu University and became a geologist in 1959. He started studying languages there also. His interest in nature started in his childhood. He chose geology as his field of study because it was most suitable for the times. It also helped that geology was one of the areas not dominated by Soviet propaganda.
He studied Persian in 1964 at the National University of Tashkent. He continued studying the languages in Moscow, at the Soviet Academy of Sciences at the Institute of the peoples of Asia and did his postgraduate work in Iranian philology. Two years after going to Russia, in 1971, he wrote his thesis on “Semantic features of Sufi terminology in Persian.”
His interest in the cultures of the Perssia, Central Asia and Turkey was sparked when he went on holiday to Tajikistan while studying for his first degree. He first went there in 1957 and was enthralled by the region’s traditions and culture.
Working conditions in the ‘70s and ‘80s weren’t easy for most scholars. During that time, Cold War propaganda was stepped up a notch and the ideological pressure began to impinge upon their work. Writers had to show that they were loyal to the regime, which meant everything that they wrote had to be ideologically sound.
Historical books were freer from these restrictions, the further back in time the better. Udam worked quietly at the Estonian encyclopedia house. He was a sort of spiritual exile and writing about medieval Persia or the Ottoman Empire gave him a creative freedom that others didn’t have without becoming a dissenter. Translating the Koran proved to be Udam’s last work. He passed away on December 17, 2005, due to an unexpected ailment.
The Koran has become an instant best seller. Its first print sold out before it came out and then, at the end of February, the next print run came out and launched the book to the best seller list for the two biggest bookshops – Apollo and Rahva Raamat.
Both his family, friends, and colleagues supposed that he had the idea in the early ‘90s. “This thought came to his mind more than ten years ago,” Ulle Udam said.
It is nice to know that now, after he is gone, we can still remember the great scientist who shared his love and knowledge with the world through memoirs and translations. People today cannot really know him, but can still admire the work he’s done through decades.