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Dispatch | Learning Farsi in Tehran

by CONTRIBUTOR in Tehran

23 Dec 2011 21:02Comments
WMarijnissenlanguageschool.jpg[ dispatch ] The school bell rang early one morning at the International Center for Persian Studies, the renowned go-to institution for foreigners wishing to learn Farsi in Iran. An unsmiling teacher in her early 30s ushered her motley group of unsuspecting elementary-level students into the auditorium. At the conclusion of an eight-week course, in which they had learned basic sentences and the mysteries of the Farsi alphabet, the students were required to attend an elaborate graduation ceremony. Aside from student presentations and self-praising speeches by the administration, the one-hour program featured a malfunctioning film that began with the national anthem, climaxed with shots of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, and finished with bucolic scenes showcasing Iranian landscapes and various other sources of nationalist pride.

Pupils reacted to the festivities with disparate degrees of complacency and cynicism. Some quietly sipped cheap Sundis juices from the boxed snacks they were handed upon arrival. Others clapped dutifully, apparently moved by their classmates' ability to pass an intensive language course. The beginners were, without fail, utterly confused, as they could not make sense of a single sentence. Upstairs on the school terrace, a truant advanced-level student scowled and lit up a Bahman-e-kouchak cigarette. "This place is such a bubble," he said.

The daily life of a typical student at the ICPS (better known as simply Dehkhoda after the famous linguist) takes place inside a microcosm. From the instant a public shuttle chugs up to their mountainside dormitory to the moment they finish their homework after lunching at the school canteen, pupils cease to be aspiring engineers, executives, embassy workers and PhD candidates. Instead, they become pliable schoolchildren, needy of initiation into an officially prescribed Iranian language and culture.

The universe of Dehkhoda deviates from the reality outside its gates. As students soon learn from taxi drivers inquisitive about why any foreigner would voluntarily choose to live in such a God-forsaken country, Iran, with its esoteric charm, does not abide by the catechisms they recite from textbooks. The greengrocer across the street mouths off in a language different from the proper Persian they are taught. After work, the schoolmarms transform into vibrant, intellectual women dreaming of life abroad. The rigidness of officially prescribed social norms gives way to a world in which everyone searches for a way to break the rules.

At times, the pupils, most of them students and young professionals aged 20-35, internalize this duality in striking ways, particularly regarding choice of dress. Some wholeheartedly embrace the conservatism -- one female student from the Balkans did this by coming to class each day in an elaborately embroidered chador. Others succumb to the folkloric: A Swedish doctorate student once shocked the lunch crowd in a brand-new set of wide, richly colored pants he'd purchased on his travels through Kurdistan. Another time, a leather-clad linguist waltzed into the building in a traditional Qashkai felt hat.

Such reactions, though not always this extreme, can be seen as manifestations of the novices' struggle to cope with an unchartered reality. The Dehkhoda student body has a diverse and transient demographic: There is an ever-present mass of Chinese technicians and engineers sent to work here on various infrastructure, as well as a smaller group of Russian-speaking women with new Iranian husbands. Academics from West Europe come here to enhance their degrees in Islamic and Middle East studies. On occasion, there is also an ambiguous all-male group of young Lebanese who receive private instruction. Advanced levels are typically dominated by foreign-raised Iranians who come here to become literate in their mother tongue.

Ironically, it is the latter group that is most sheltered from "real" Iranian life, protected as they are by anxious relatives. "This is the most fun I have all day," a 25-year-old Iranian-American once complained during break time. "When I am at my aunt's house, all I do is drink tea and eat fruit. They don't allow me to go out by myself at all." Even unsupervised students often lead isolated existences. At one time, I befriended a Turkish sociologist who spent the entire term napping, smoking cigarettes and ruminating about the little she saw of Tehran life through her window, which faced directly into a mountain.

When language skills are limited, it takes nerve -- and, in some cases, sheer recklessness -- to face the chaos of the city. If they have no other connections in Iran, Dehkhoda students are usually accommodated at a Shahid Beheshti University dormitory for researchers, located in the northernmost points of Tehran. Here, they live surrounded by pedantic academics and monitored by doormen who keep track not only of their passports, but also of their comings and goings. On some, the strict oversight has an exhilarating effect: One resident, a thirty-year-old lawyer, would slip out of the dormitory each weekend to attend late-night drinking parties or meet her boyfriend. Much to the affront of the patriarchal doormen, she would come back in the wee hours, giggling like a schoolgirl.

While three hours of the day are taken up by class-time, plenty of time remains to explore Iran. Students hike, ski and travel extensively to places outside of the typical tourist triangle of Esfahan, Yazd and Shiraz. On weekday afternoons, they visit cafes, bazaars and museums. They make local friends and one-up each other with insights into Persian culture. One student even braved the pitfalls of local traffic by purchasing a motorbike. He spent the term taxiing squealing female classmates around the city and throwing parties at a flat he rented in a conservative middle-class neighborhood.

The line between boldness and recklessness is thin, however, and most cross it at least once. While most pragmatically choose to stay oblivious to intermittent rises in Tehran's political temperature, there are those who view the occasional demonstration as yet another tourist attraction. A European student once told me he'd gotten arrested in the middle of a protest, and was only released because he held a passport from an Arab country. More eyebrow-raising was the claim of an Iranian-American who said he attended a demonstration disguised as a Basiji. "I could see that people were really scared of me," he told his classmates.

Meanwhile, daily lessons continue to follow their internal order, and the world of Dehkhoda remains oblivious to its pupils' extracurricular activities. Despite many inconsistencies in teaching style, the immersive, "Farsi in Farsi" approach allows persevering students to learn the language at breakneck speed. As they progress, pupils are filmed for national TV or invited to weekly radio shows. (Good PR, after all, is one of the pillars of the institute's existence.) At the conclusion of each term, when a majority of students return to their respective countries, the center puts on an identical graduation ceremony. Many of those who receive diplomas have not yet fully grasped the language. Most have progressed significantly, however, and some make plans to come back. With any luck, they have all had enough time to look outside the bubble.

Photo by Wendy Marijnissen. Two beauticians and a housewife take English lessons in a private class. Tehran, Iran, 2007

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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