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Commencement Speech at Queens College Class of 2013, Thursday, May 30

President James Muyskens Introduction of Nasser David Khalili at Commencement:

And now I would like to introduce the recipient of this year’s Queens College President’s Medal, Nasser David Khalili, a member of the Queens College class of 1974. Professor Khalili is not only one of our most distinguished graduates, but he also has been a good friend and frequent visitor to our campus and a most gracious host when I have visited him in London and Oxford.

I will now read excerpts from the citation for Professor Khalil; the complete text of this is in your program.

Though religious conflict and intolerance often claim center stage, throughout the world there are people working tirelessly for interfaith peace and understanding. Nasser David Khalili is a leader among them. Born in Iran in 1945, he came to the United States in 1967, where he continued his education at Queens College. Professor Khalili is an accomplished scholar, art collector, and philanthropist. Holder of a PhD from the University of London, he has assembled eight of the world’s finest and most comprehensive art collections, which include the largest private collection of Islamic art. Combined, the Khalili Collections comprise some 25,000 works of art. 

Professor Khalili lectures widely on the works he has collected. He has endowed the first-ever university chair in Islamic art at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and, at the University of Oxford, he endowed the Khalili Research Centre for the Art and Material Culture of the Middle East. He has been a generous alumnus of Queens College, where he funds the Nasser D. Khalili Visiting Professorship in Islamic Studies. Through his efforts, many students have been exposed to a culture they might otherwise have known only poorly or through a distorted lens.

One of Professor Khalili’s major commitments is the Maimonides Foundation, which he founded to promote dialogue and cultural exchange among the three Abrahamic faiths.

Among Professor Khalili’s many honors, he is a trustee of the City of Jerusalem, Honorary Fellow of Wolfson College, and member of the Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors at the University of Oxford. He has received knighthoods from two Popes and has been named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

In recognition of his service to humanity through art, culture, and philanthropy, we are proud to present Nasser David Khalili with the Queens College President’s Medal.

Professor Nasser David Khalili PhD KCSS KCFO

I am so happy to receive this wonderful honour.  Queens College is where the seeds of my success were sown, so I am enormously grateful to this great institution, which welcomes students from all over the world and gives them a solid foundation for life.
It is a particular privilege to be here today to share this milestone in your lives.  This is where my own adult life began — and I remember with great happiness that day nearly 40 years ago, when I stood where you are standing now.  When I look back on those days, I am amazed at how my life has panned out.  How did I get from there to here?
Allow me to share a few humble lessons and principles that have served me well and may give some insight into how that journey took place.   I hope they will also help you as you set sail on your own journey.
I was born in Iran in 1945.  At the age of 21, I came to New York with only $750, which were the royalties I had earned from a book I wrote when I was 14.  

I immediately headed to Queens, which was then, like now, one of the world’s greatest melting pots.

I rented a tiny room on Woodside Avenue which was 3 by 4 metres – just big enough for a chest of drawers and a bed.  My landlady’s cat, Minnie, was my alarm clock, waking me up at 4 a.m. each day by licking my face.  The room cost $8 a week.

I could not afford to be lazy as my savings would only last for a few months.  So, within hours of arriving in New York, I walked into a diner on Queens Boulevard and got a job flipping burgers for a couple of dollars an hour.  I showed up at 5 a.m. the next day and started work.

My father, who was still in Iran, was concerned when he discovered a few months later that I was waiting tables to pay for my education.  He offered to send me money, but I had promised myself from the moment I left home that I would make it on my own.  I reassured him that working in a restaurant was just the first step. Everyone has to start somewhere.  The important thing is not to get stuck there or lose sight of your dreams.

Every afternoon, I studied at an English language school and, a year later, I enrolled here as a night student, having been told by the Dean that if I achieved top grades I would be allowed to become a day student.  So, I studied like crazy.  I slept only four hours a night, a habit that has stayed with me ever since, and did well enough academically that I was finally able to enroll as a regular day student.

During the course of my education I also began to buy and sell works of art, harnessing the knowledge I had first acquired from my father, who was an art dealer in Tehran.  Unbeknownst to him, that knowledge was far more valuable than any financial aid he could ever have offered me.

When I was not in class, I was regularly visiting museums, auction houses and art galleries so I could deepen this knowledge. By the time I graduated, I no longer needed to count my pennies.  More importantly, I kept the best works of art for myself, thereby building the foundations for my family’s collections.

When I look back now on those early years, I see a number of lessons that I would like to share with you:

First, there is very little in life that you cannot achieve if you dream, plan and pursue.  These are the three components in the triangle of success.  So, do not hesitate to have big dreams.  This is especially relevant to you who are entering the world of business in these difficult times.  You may say there are not that many opportunities anymore, but the same was true for me all those years ago.  I cannot tell you it is going to be a bed of roses – but you have no idea what you are truly capable of until you try.

Second, it is important to understand that you need to pursue everything in life with passion.  Life without passion is like a fire without a flame.  Every night I go to sleep and dream of my passion, and every morning I wake up pursuing it.  For many years, only a few museums or collectors shared my interest in the areas of my collecting.  But, for me, these objects of beauty were a joy forever.  Eventually, more and more people came to share this passion of mine, and today our collections are world-renowned.  

Third, never be afraid to be yourself and forge your own path.  As the saying goes, “Do not try to be somebody else because that position has already been taken.”  Rely on your own instincts: you should never underestimate their power.  Of course, you will encounter setbacks but, over time, you will find out that every one of them happened for a very good reason.  If you learn from your mistakes, they will become a cornerstone of your success.  Two things are the enemies of success: greed and fear.  If you are greedy, you lose your way and if you are fearful you do not take risks.

Fourth, be patient.  We are living in a quick-fix generation in which everybody wants to be rich and famous overnight.  My advice to you is: stay focused and concentrate on your goal, persevering even when the summit seems out of reach. 

For example, in the early 1970s, when I was just starting out as a collector in New York, I bought a rare and precious 14th-century holy Qur’an, but it was missing a major page, which I was determined to find.  In the 1990s, a dealer in London showed me a pile of loose pages from many different manuscripts and, amongst them, I thought I had discovered that missing page.  When I told him, he laughed and said: “That is like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Sure enough, when we brought the page and the Qur’an together, we realised that it really was the missing page.  So they were reunited after what may have been 500 years of separation.
The reason I have devoted decades of my life to art is that it transcends nationalism and cultural borders.  People are often surprised that I have focused so much on collecting Islamic treasures, given that I am Jewish.  But remember, first we are born human beings and our religion is secondary.

I grew up in a Muslim country with Muslim friends, and I understood even as a boy that we are cousins.  The more I studied Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths and ways of life, the more I discovered that there is far more that unites us than divides us. 

In every case, the key messages are the same: love, compassion, peace, harmony, unity and respect.  As the great Persian poet and philosopher Jami once wrote: “Each tinted fragment sparkles in the sun, A thousand colours but the light is one.”
So many misconceptions exist about different faiths and cultures, but the differences between us are not so great.   The biggest weapon of mass destruction is ignorance — and, if ignorance is the problem, education must be the solution.  To defend a nation, you need soldiers; to build a nation, you need education.  

You have been blessed with a fine education so I hope you will lead by example, spreading this understanding and building bridges wherever you go.   

People often speak of the need to show tolerance for others.  But tolerance may not be the right word because it suggests that we are putting up with something we do not like.  Surely we should replace the word tolerance with the word respect.  Our responsibility is not to change other people’s minds, but to respect their beliefs and their ways of life, and to treat them with dignity.  

The key is to listen to others with an open mind and an open heart, always willing to learn from them.  Perhaps this is why we have two ears and only one mouth: maybe this was the Creator’s way of telling us to listen more and speak less.

If each of you decides today to live in this spirit of harmony, just imagine the effect you will have.

As you begin this new chapter in your lives, I ask you to consider this important question: what is success?  Is it money, prestige, fame?  I have been blessed with success in the world of business, and this has enabled me to pursue my passion for collecting.  But the truth is that money counts for little compared with the fact that I have been married for 35 years to someone I love and have three caring sons whom we cherish.  The house of Khalili has four pillars: me and our three sons. But what is a house without a roof?  The roof over our house is my beloved wife. 

For me, there is a huge difference between being rich and being wealthy.  Being rich is just a matter of money.  Being wealthy is about family, friendship, love, spirituality, charity, good health, and making a contribution to humanity.  What I wish for all of you is an abundance of wealth.

After all, we are only temporary custodians of what we think we own.  Ownership is a myth.  The only legacy we truly leave behind is the impact that we have on other peoples’ lives. 

As a collector, philanthropist and writer, I have tried to use art and education to draw people together, creating harmony instead of mistrust.  This has been a much greater source of satisfaction to me than any material success I have ever achieved.  Ultimately, the question is not how much you make, but howmuch difference you make in the lives of others.
Always ask yourself this: what am I doing to help my family, my friends, my community, and the world?  If you live this way, you will discover that the more you share with others, the more the universe will share with you, bringing you endless joy and fulfilment. 
So, I leave you with this suggestion, which I hope will bring you great happiness: be selfish — get out there and help someone.


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