Congress’ Hidden Treasure: Vafai Is Library’s Go-To Man On Iran
March 19, 2009
By Jude O. Marfil
Roll Call Staff
Gholam Vafai, 86, the oldest employee at the Law Library of Congress, is the library’s point man on the laws of Iran and Afghanistan. He has answered questions varying from family law to asylum and children’s rights.
His expertise? Vafai is a former Supreme Court justice of Iran.
“Dr. Vafai is our hidden treasure. I feel very humbled to be working with him,” said Vafai’s boss, Hongxia Liu, head of the Directorate of Legal Research. “Dr. Vafai is already in his 80s, but his mind is still very sharp. His reports are very thorough and accurate.”
Vafai is a specialist in Islamic and comparative law, and at the DLR helps advise Members of Congress and their staffs on foreign, comparative, international and U.S. laws.
Vafai first came to the U.S in 1959, when he received a scholarship to study at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. After finishing a graduate degree in comparative law, he returned to Tehran to resume his work as a judge. Then Vafai got a doctorate degree in civil law and Islamic law at the Tehran University School of Law, which earned him a promotion to assistant attorney general.
In 1979, he was named a justice of the country’s Supreme Court. During his tenure at Tehran’s high court, Vafai heard cases on criminal law and land ownership.
Vafai retired in 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution that transformed Iran into an Islamic republic.
A year later, Vafai migrated to the U.S. Asked if his decision to leave Tehran was to escape the new political regime, Vafai replied: “No. I decided to quit and come to the U.S., where my son was studying at the George Mason University.”
In the U.S., Vafai got a job in New York at Oceana Publications Inc., a publisher of international law and transnational commercial law. His task was to make a compendium of commercial laws of Iran and translate them into English. In the course of this work, Vafai would travel to Washington, D.C., to do research at the Law Library of Congress.
“I became familiar with the law librarian and he asked me to join the law library on a part-time basis in the beginning, and I accepted his offer,” said Vafai, who has been a full-time employee of the law library since 1989. Next month, he celebrates his 20th anniversary at the law library.
Vafai said there are many things he admires about the U.S. “But the main thing is, perhaps at the beginning, was respect for law. The legal system in this country enjoys the trust and respect of the people.”
“The Constitution is the yardstick, the main pillar of all the laws in this country. And that is special to me,” Vafai said. “I have very much respect for that when I see that the Constitution is the basis for every judgment. Whereas in other countries where I had been, it revolves around their religion.”
During his nearly 30 years in the U.S., Vafai has returned to Tehran only once, four years ago, to attend the wedding of a close relative. “I have been so busy that I don’t have time to go anywhere.”
Vafai said he would also rather spend time with family. Vafai has been married to his wife for 59 years. He has two sons, two daughters and six grandchildren. “That’s my great pleasure: to stay with my wife … to socialize with [my family]. They are the fruits of my life.”
Another fascination is his work at the law library. “I love my field of work because it requires a lot of study and I am used to study the laws of different countries, which are my jurisdiction.” He’s also fascinated by the questions raised by Members of Congress, he said.
The multilingual foreign law specialist said he always wanted to become a legal expert. “In the field of law I realized the value of a lawful society. And if any society wanted to have peace and security, they must observe and respect the law,” said Vafai, who also speaks Farsi, Dari, French, Arabic and Pashto.
Vafai said he has no plans to retire just yet. “My field of thought has very much broadened. I have some new ideas … and I want to publish the result of my new studies,” he said.
Retirement would also depend on his health. “If my health stays in the same position as it is now, of course I would continue.”