Learning Persian language and culture
February 25, 2008 -- "Sobh bexeir!" said Mitra Ara, greeting her students in the first Persian course at San Francisco State University. It was only the fifth class of the spring semester, but already the students could return their professor's good morning greeting. Open textbooks displayed the 32 intricate letters of the Persian alphabet, which the students were learning.
Ara introduced the class to the distinctions among Persian, Iranian and Farsi: "The language is Persian," she said. "The nationality is Iranian. You can be Iranian and not necessarily Persian. Iran is unique in its multiplicity of ethnicities, languages and religions." Persian language is also known as Dari in Afghanistan and Tajik in Central Asia.
The 34 students enrolled in Persian 101 include Iranian-Americans as well as a broad array of nationalities and ethnicities including American, Indian, Pakistani, Japanese, Tajik, Georgian, Afghan and Spanish. "I am glad to see so many non-Iranians in the class," said student Shiela Rahimian, a business and marketing major who is also president of the SF State Iranian Culture Club.
Rahimian is one of a handful of students who campaigned to have Persian language offered at SF State. "We've been trying to get this class up and running for two years," she said. "We invited faculty to a "Faculty for Farsi" meeting where we talked about a proposal for a Persian class. I was taken aback by the enthusiastic response from faculty across many departments including history and international relations."
Rahimian and her friends were delighted when Persian 101 was announced last fall. The first day of class in January was so popular that students had to sit on the floor."
I was thrilled when this course was announced," said international relations master’s student Suzanne Levi-Sanchez. She is concentrating her master's thesis on mythology in Iranian culture. "Until now I have been taking Persian classes outside of the University," she said,. "Persian culture is so rich and so wide -- you really can't understand it without the language."
Ara is passionate about educating her students about the connections between language, culture and history. In addition to linguistic instruction, her curriculum includes Iranian history, culture, religion, and literature.
Ara is SF State’s first lecturer in Persian Studies. She also teaches Persian language and Asian religions at CSU East Bay. A native Persian speaker, she received her Ph.D. in Asian Studies from UC Berkeley. "I see a real diplomatic and political need for the teaching of Persian language and culture," she said. "When you go beyond your comfort zone and learn another language, you no longer judge other nations from afar."
Ara makes no secret of her hopes that one day Persian teaching at SF State may develop into a minor, a major or even a Center for Iranian Studies, uniting the pockets of interest in Persian across the university.
-- Elaine Bible
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