A pink taxi

A pink taxi

March 31, 2011

How I Learned to Speak Farsi

Farsi is an easy language, as opposed to Arabic. I therefore picked up my mother tongue with no difficulty, albeit it being distilled by the Americanisms that have infiltrated my mother's family jargon. Her own mother tongue is English!

I learned to "understand" Farsi from the ambient family culture. We traveled to Tehran, I hung out with uncles and aunts and my mother spoke to me in Farsi if she didn't want anyone else to understand. But I rarely spoke it as the only person who was exclusively a Farsi speaker was my great grandmother, and she did most of the talking.

It was therefore logical for me to select Farsi as the Middle Eastern language requirement at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. I already spoke, wrote and read Arabic. Here I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts in a small seminar that would meet daily for two years, learning Farsi....with a Southern Gentleman with a Georgia drawl.

Professor Wheeler Thakston wasn't your ordinary American casual professor. He looked like Rhett Butler in his hairstyle, mustache and clothing, except he wasn't suave like the actor. He was rigid, cold and severe. He entered the class with a presence that called for attention and concentration. He made a few students cry and drop out. He taught in a book he had written himself and we began with the fundamentals, the alphabet, the basic vocabulary, we learned all the grammatical rules, did a multitude of exercises in a script he was very attentive to.

Perhaps I had the ear for the language and the eagerness to master a language I only knew superficially. Perhaps I worked better under duress and pressure but I certainly put my heart into the class and appreciated the professor very much. I knew that Farsi class, which is often taught "too casually" elsewhere, was my opportunity to acquire a language that wasn't very difficult but was useful and meaningful to me. In the second year, we studied Persian literature: its famous poetry of Hafez and Saadi and its modern novels.

We had exams to prepare for and for those semester end exam preparations, I flew to Salt Lake City, to bond with my grandfather. I sat with my grandfather who had otherwise always been too busy to study with his own kids, at the dinner table and we went over translations together, I recited the poetry to him, we read the modern prose. Those memories today surpass the results, which I must boast, as nothing less than excellent.

Today, I retain the fundamentals of Professor Thakston's class. I practice the language with my mother in law, I speak it to my babies in terms of endearment and converse with my husband. Indeed, I treasure Farsi as my grandfather's language.


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