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Of Loos and Language (The Iranian Version)

28 May 2009 17:542 Comments

Photo/David Yaghoobi

Of Loos and Language: the Iranian version

By M.E. DABIRI in Tehran

I have the dubious distinction of having always lived in a country whose language I did not know well enough.

In the winter of 1954, at the age of seven, I went with my parents to England, where I was placed in first grade without knowing a word of English. Age seven may be young, but it is old enough to know one's mother tongue and to be able to start school; but not in my case. I was starting school in a language I did not know.

By age 11, I knew English well enough at a fourth-grade level, when my parents and I returned to Iran, where my knowledge of the Persian language was colloquial, having spoken Persian only at home.

In 1957, my father took me to an elementary school in Tehran. To gauge my grade level, a teacher asked me to write down "Zaminist..." He wanted to test me in geometry. "Zaminist..." means "There is a land..." He wanted to say, "with a certain area," or "in a certain shape," and have me perform geometric calculations, but he noticed that I stopped dead in my tracks and couldn't even begin to write.

The problem, as he discovered, was not geometry -- this kid couldn't write in Farsi.*

After much consultation and many calculations, the school administrators decided to place me in fifth grade regardless, because, they told my father, "He must really begin in first grade, but his sheer size does not allow us to put him in first grade; the first-graders would laugh at him."

Quite.

. . .

In Iran in 1993, at the age of 47, I was working as an editor for college textbooks written in English and used in schools in the international language. This is done mostly for scientific textbooks; medicine, for example, as medical language should be global. Every medical student who has studied in Iran should understand "systolic" and "diastolic" -- in English. He should be able to read current literature in medicine and understand it.

The editor-in-chief of the government organization was Dr. Rohani, a famous poet in her own right. She had studied at a popular writer's workshop in the United States for one year, and had high claims to not only being a writer, but having a depth of understanding in the English language.

"I have worked in this language for thirty years," she once said to me in her private office.

What she didn't understand was that no matter how much you work on a language, if you do it from Iran, with only one year in the United States, you will not know it like someone who has lived in an English-speaking country for more than thirty years, especially during childhood.

One study indicated that the crucial age for learning a new language is seven. If one begins to learn later than that age, it will always be a "foreign" language to that person.

Dr. Rohani was happy to meet and then hire me. She had lived through the revolution; she was "Islamic" herself, wearing a maghna'eh and abiding by religious principles. She was glad to meet someone with a happier nature, from America, for everyone around her had been dour since the revolution.

One day, Khanomeh [Frau] Dr. Rohani mentioned mab'as. This was an upcoming national holiday, and since I was curious about why I was getting a day off, I asked her what mab'as meant.

She was shocked.

"Mab'as is the day the Prophet Mohammad was chosen as Prophet! How can you not know what it means? Your father has not given you a proper religious training. Fathers like that should be punished. They are not aware of what they are doing to their children by placing them in one culture, and then another..."

This comment was due not only to my lack of religious training, but also to my lack of knowledge in the Persian language, as she gradually discovered.

After about one year of working with Khanomeh Dr. Rohani, I could no longer cope. We were editing a textbook on dentistry, and the subject was patients who could not cope.

"Dental patients are the most difficult of any patients, to the point that they unconsciously miss their dental appointments."

Khanomeh Dr. Rohani thought that "coping" was a dental term, meaning a certain action performed upon a tooth (such as capping).

"No," I said. "It does not mean that. It means dealing successfully with something difficult," which was clear from the context.

Dr. Rohani insisted that it had a meaning rooted in dentistry. As the tension between us escalated, as to who had a better grasp of the English language, she ordered her American-educated assistant, Dr. Amoozegar, to look up "coping" in a fat dental English dictionary.

By Jove, it turned out that 'coping' did have a specialized meaning [which confirmed her view], but it nevertheless meant what I said it meant; it was quite obvious from the context.

"Dabiri, do you now understand what coping means?" she asked disdainfully.

"No Ma'am... I do not understand," I said, and walked out of the room, and the building, and the job.

Of course, under the present economic circumstances, I would have coped.

Although I have been constantly humiliated in Persian by erudite Persian speakers, I could not allow myself to be humiliated in English by those who thought they knew English better than I did -- not even a poet who wrote poetry in Persian.

Furthermore, she was a religious, Islamic poet, who I looked upon disdainfully, because I believe poetry should be "human," not "Islamic."

As I was working with Khanomeh Dr. Rohani, I was not aware of her stature in society. On the one hand, she was drawn to me because I was not kowtowing to her (as most Iranians do to people who are famous or socially above them); while, on the other hand, it offended her, for I was not paying her sufficient respect.

She later translated the Qur'an into English, and won an award for a "most distinguished translation."

. . .

Having quit the job, I made a journey to Cyprus, Greece, and New York in 1993. Unable to get even an interview for a job in New York, I returned to Tehran and, due to the grace of Dr. Amoozegar, was introduced to the executive editor of one of Iran's daily newspapers.

The only way to land a job in Iran is to know someone. Well practically, anyway.

On my first day at the newspaper, I sat on a stiff, upright chair in the editorial room from 1 in the afternoon to 7 in the evening before anyone bothered to acknowledge my existence. The executive editor had simply told me to "sit down!" and forgotten about me.

However, after I was asked to translate something, there was a bit of a commotion in the office; my new colleagues were making a fuss, but I didn't know what about. Soon it became apparent that the staff was astonished that I could write up a half-page in correct English!

Much of the wonderment was emanating from Manouchehr, who had a bachelor's degree in Modern Middle Eastern History from the University of California at Santa Cruz; and from Zahra, who was from Southern California. She had married an Iranian Muslim, converted to Islam, and adopted an Islamic name.

People like Zahra and I can quickly pick each other out. "Hey, this dude can speak English!"

And it is not only English, the language; it is also the culture. We can talk about the University of California, Berkeley and Davis (both of which I attended), and Santa Cruz (where I have the distinction of not having been admitted to graduate school in the History of Consciousness in 1974). We can talk about bagels and cream cheese and the fat Sunday newspaper. We can talk about jogging in Golden Gate Park and on the beach in Santa Monica.

One of these people was Ramin, though he was not quite like us. He wanted to go to "the loo."

Microsoft Word just underlined the word "loo" in red, because it does not recognize it. Let me try the Oxford Dictionary: a toilet/bathroom. She's gone to the loo. Can I use your loo, please?

My what?

When the new female art page editor asked me for directions to the dastshooie, I directed her to the "bathroom," which she thought was rather funny, for she had no intention of taking a bath in the office.

This way we can quickly tell whether someone is coming from England or America.

Being very "proper," Persians have difficulty calling a toilet by its name. (After all, a rose is a rose is a rose.) When I was a child in Iran, it was called a mostarah. This word has its root in esterahat (to rest), which makes it very similar to the American restroom. But there are words which were used before the revolution that are no longer used after the revolution. Contemporary Iranians understand the words toilet (pronounced twa-let) and W.C. (water closet) better than they understand the word mostarah, especially if they are under 30.

I recently told a 23-year-old friend that I had set the shamateh (alarm clock) to wake up and meet her. She started to snicker.

"What's so funny?" I asked.

"No one says that anymore. It's an ancient word."

Which, of course, made me feel like an Ancient Man, talking to the New Woman.

I have forgotten what word she suggested to use instead.

Walking in the streets of Tehran one night, I saw an elegant lady entering what appeared to be her home, with her husband and child.

"Why are you wiggling so much?" she asked her daughter. "Dastshooie dari?" (Do you have hand-washing?)

As I was walking in the park just a few days ago, a man who seemed to have entered the park for a specific reason asked where the servise behdashti was (the health service).

In America, I would have directed him to a clinic. In Iran, I directed him to the public restroom. Wearing a suit without a tie and carrying a briefcase, he was also on the verge of wiggling and obviously had no intension of walking in the park.

Iranians understand the word 'park', meaning, as a noun, a green area with trees, flowers and fountains; and, as a verb, to park a car.

They understand 'parking' to mean a parking lot; but they do not understand 'parking lot'.

Speaking to a friend one day, she said that she was not in the "mood" to do something. Although speaking in Farsi, she used the word 'mood.'

"What is 'mood' in Farsi?" I asked her.

"I thought 'mood' was Farsi!" she said.

Since she is 30 years old, she has grown up hearing and using the word 'mood,' unaware that it is English.

The Islamic Republic has tried hard to eliminate 'foreign' words from the Persian language, for to be attracted to anything foreign is 'gharbzadegi' (Westernization, Westoxification).

A helicopter has officially become 'baalgard'; a computer has become 'rayaneh'; a cell phone (mobile) has become 'telefone hamrah'; and a pizza is 'kesh-loghmeh'.

But Iranians still see helicopters hovering overhead, work at computers, use mobiles, and go out for pizza.

When a student in Michigan, I was married to an American. One night, as my ex-wife and I sat in a restaurant for dinner, in the course of the conversation, I said, "as best as I can."

My wife laughed.

"As best I can," she corrected me.

I was using the expression "as well as I can" as my model. But it didn't work. I still don't quite understand why. "As best as I can" sounds more correct to me. But I didn't argue with a wife who was a native speaker and had a master's in literature. I learned from her.

________________________________________________________________________________________

*A note to the Farsi-phobe: My 28-year-old friend says that 'Farsi' is not the correct term to use in English. The English word for 'Farsi' is 'Persian'. Just as in English they refer to the German language as German, not Deutsch, they should also say Persian, not Farsi.

Although I agree with him, I also say to him that language evolves. Especially after the emigration of Persians (Iranians) to America after the Islamic revolution in Iran (Persia). The Iranians kept saying Farsi, and Americans also began to say Farsi... so that the word 'Farsi' is becoming (or has become) an English word for what used to be 'Persian'. Whatever is in the common vernacular is best, and that's Farsi now).

** The names have been changed.
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2 Comments

I enjoyed this. I can relate ... indirectly but I can relate. Thanks.

Gary Barlettano / November 13, 2009 4:45 PM

This is exactly what I get in Iran as well. I found your article while looking for a Persian dental dictionary to translate a dental article from Persian into English and I'm thinking way bother to put in 100% since no one really appreciates it; but at the same time its my American type A personality that makes me do my best.
The best way to deal with all the negativity is to simply laugh it off. I'm sure that I can write a great comedy on my life in Iran.

Zahra G. / December 25, 2009 8:13 PM