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On Journalism

02 May 2009 14:011 Comment

Photo/David Yaghoobi

Criticism is an act of love. It's time we learned to take it. Befarmaid!

On Journalism: Why saying what we don't mean is destroying the written word.

[Tehran Bureau] I am sometimes critical of the things I love. On the list of things I love, Iran ranks very high. So it is in that spirit that I offer this criticism.

Iran has given the world some of the greatest literature and poetry of all time. That intellectualism should be reflected in our journalism. But it is not.

A Western editor recently asked me to clarify something I had translated: The movement for enlightened thinking in Iran failed to find its niche. "What does that mean?" he asked.

I returned to the original Persian version to see what it said: Jonbeshe roshanfekri dar Iran jaaygahe khod ra peyda nakard. Rereading the line, I was a bit surprised. I didn't know what it meant in Farsi either--but it had not bothered me!

The fact that it had not bothered me, and that I had translated it anyway, is the product of having lived in Iran for 16 years. I lived there before moving back to the United States. From 1994 to 1997, I was even a newspaper editor at one of Tehran's dailies.

In the beginning I was very concerned about what went to print. It had to have meaning and it had to be "true." But gradually I learned that in Iran people do not say what they mean, they do not care whether what they say is true, and in fact they would prefer to have a sentence whose meaning is not clear published. That way they would not get in trouble with the authorities!

Ambiguity--or ebhaam--is actually a 'value' in Iran. If you say something clearly, your publication is shut down and your employees go jobless. If you leave it ambiguous, you can go to work the next day and say more meaningless things and pick up a paycheck.

Typically, when I fussed over the grammar of a sentence, or questioned the validity of an article, the executive editor would tell me, "Let it go!"

After about five years, "Let it go!" became my slogan too.

If something is badly written, let it go!

If something is said that is not true, let it go!

If this word is the wrong word, let it go!

People would tell me: "What do you care what is said, or whether it is true... Just translate it and get the money!"

In all fairness, the authorities are not entirely to blame. In Iran, people are used to saying things--even publishing things--irresponsibly, without bothering to find out what it means. As a consequence, the listener and reader have become accustomed to hearing or reading what does not make sense to them. And it never crosses anyone's mind to hold the speaker or writer responsible.

So there is collusion between speakers and listeners, writers and readers. "These are just words," we seem to agree. "We know what the reality is, so let's not pay much attention to words..."

The practice may be rooted in our culture. Everyday words do not mean what they mean. For example, if you look at the word "befarmaid!" and its usage, you will see that it is almost always used when it is not meant.

I walk into the editorial room of the paper at 12:30 p.m. and the executive editor has just begun a lunch of chelo kabab at his desk. "Befarmaid!" he tells me.

There is only one knife, one fork and one plate. He is hungry and it is clear that he has already started to eat. I have just eaten at home and arrived at work. But it is an Iranian custom never to eat by yourself without offering the food to whoever is near you. A genteel custom, but it hardly ever makes sense.

He says, "Befarmaid," but he doesn't really mean it.

And you say, "Nooshe jaan," while putting your hand on your chest and slightly bowing, and the moment passes.

A colleague and I are leaving work. He lives in Karaj and has a one hour drive ahead of him. I live within a 17-minute walking distance from work. As he boards a shared taxi, he tells me, "Befarmaid!" What this means is that he is going to his home, and he must invite his friend to enter his home. But it is 10 p.m. and his home is an hour's drive away!

He still says, "Befarmaid!"

He doesn't mean it, but it's all right; we all say what we don't mean here.

One word that has turned me upside down and inside out for sixteen years is the word "roshanfekr."

What does it mean? How do you translate it? Why did I never hear this word in English while living in the United States?

One young Iranian man told me in a cafe in Tehran: "If you keep saying that so and so is a roshanfekr, it means the rest of us are not!" That is precisely why the word has evolved in Iranian culture. Since most people are not roshanfekr--they are dark thinkers or small thinkers--the word has evolved in order to describe those who are.

So for the first time, I finally translated this as "an enlightened thinker," and was so happy about the translation that I neglected to focus on the rest of the title: "Jonbeshe roshanfekri dar Iran jaaygahe khod ra peyda nakard."

Now, let us look at just the first two words: "jonbeshe roshanfekri"!

Not only do we have "enlightened thinkers," but we have a "movement for enlightened thinking."

In 18th century Europe there was a period that was called "The Enlightenment." Is this an indication of how far behind we are in Iran? I hope not. But I am looking at an article about Ayatollah Montazeri. It says a "pressure group" holding "chomagh" seizes his office, beats people, welds the doors and the ventilation canals shut, all because Montzaeri has defended the rights of the political opposition!

If I were to think about these pressure groups, if I were to think about the serial murders of 1998, if I were to think about the student uprising of 18 Tir 1999, if I were to think about how President Ahmadinejad got elected... (According to Mehdi Karrubi, "Among five candidates, I was No. 2 when I settled into a one-hour nap. When I woke up, I was No. 5!") If I were to think too much about these things, I would go out of my mind!

One survival technique I resorted to in those years was not to not think about these matters. I did not read newspapers and magazines. I did not go to bad Iranian films, and I did not concern myself with what was happening in my own country.

Back to that sentence: "The movement for enlightened thinking in Iran failed to find its niche."

Say that to an American, and he will not know what the hell you are talking about!

Say that to an Iranian, and he will have a 'sixth sense' of what you are talking about: That former president Khatami, who said "Enough of saying death to someone. It is time to say life to someone!", brought new "enlightened" thinking to our country, but this new movement did not take hold. (For example, we are still offering five million dollars to anyone who brings us the head of Salman Rushdie. We have even raised the reward!) This reminds me of John the Baptist, whose head was offered on a silver platter.

Does the title of this article mean to imply Iranians are still living in the Dark Ages? Because someone has written something, we want to behead him? 'Roshanfekr' means not thinking like that. It means freedom of speech. It means not being afraid of criticism. It means allowing people to talk and write, and not trying to kill someone just because he has said something.

Take the following paragraph: [note to reader: this template does not support Farsi or Persian! ed]

Sanad-e een hokm ham beh vozooh dar nameh mazkoor zekr shodeh ast keh "masalaan dar hameen ghaziyeh akheereh edamha, tedadeh besiar madoodi az koshteh" shodegaaneh akheer ra monafegheen va doshmanaan az zaban shoma beh alaaf o oloof resandehand.

Would you please translate that for me! Or tell me what it means.

Frankly, I do not know what alaaf o oloof means. And even if I knew what it meant, I don't think I could translate it into English.

And this is given as a 'sanad,' a document!

Vaghti keh dar aan joo, goroohayeh siasi tavanestand nashreeyeh dashteh bashand va barkhi az nashriat omoomi keh sahebaneshaan az keshvar rafteh va mosadereh shodeh boodand, nevisandeganeh aanha beh bahseh hoghoogheh bashaar va mofadeh een manshoor pardakhtand.

I translated this as, "When in that atmosphere political groups were able to have publications, and some of the publishers had fled the country and had their publications confiscated, their writers covered the topic of human rights and the articles of this charter."

I had no problem with it myself because in my view I had translated what the writer had written. Then an e-mail comes from a Western editor.

"What charter?" he asks. "The last two sentences contradict each other."

Then I went back and re-read the Persian: nashriate omoomi ke sahebaneshan az keshvar rafteh va mosadereh shodeh boodand...

Saheban ham rafteh boodand va ham mosadereh shodeh boodand...

Did they have publications or did they flee the country? Were their publications confiscated or were the writers covering the topic of human rights and the articles of this charter?

This charter.

Which charter?

I read the sentence forward and backward a few times, and I could no longer make heads or tails of it!

Now, an Iranian who lives in Iran and is working for the press would say, "Good! This sentence doesn't make sense, so no one can blame me for saying anything against the system!"

But now I have an editor in the West who wants a sentence to make sense!

Once, about five years ago, while working for another newspaper, I published an article by AFP which stated that "the ceremony of Yalda predates Islam."

The next day the Ministry of Ershad (Guidance) called the newspaper: "Why have you said that Yalda pre-dates Islam?"

First of all, I didn't say it; AFP said it!

Second, I am sorry, nothing pre-dates Islam! I should have known better!

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1 Comment

I believe your problem has more to do with English than Farsi

"The movement for enlightened thinking in Iran failed to find its niche"?

Jonbeshe roshanfekri dar Iran jaaygahe khod ra peyda nakard?


What does enlightened thinking even mean?

Are you referring to the enlightenment movement of the 16th and 17th centuries, because there was no enlightenment in Iran, the enlightenment was a European phenomena. It would be anachronistic for you to translate it as such. Maybe there is a historical context to the wording, maybe the wording to which you are so hastily translating as "enlightened thinking" has deeper historical roots, maybe an allusion to the Iranian Illuminationist philosophical movement of the 12th century. The point is, things can not be translated literally, your problem is that you do not grasp the fundamentals. You could have easily translated that sentence to read "progressives failed to find their place in Iranian politics".


Your problem is not that the Iranian newspaper language is vague, more correctly your mind is convoluted. I recommend you brush up on your fundamentals.

Shaheen Mersavi / August 10, 2009 11:29 PM