Issue Thirty-Two - Summer 2018

Persian Lessons

By Ellen Estilai

Lesson I: The Indefinite –i
(Persian Grammar, A.K.S. Lambton, p. 3)

It was my need to belong that drove me to learn Persian. I prided myself on my command of the idiom. The secret to my steep learning curve was pretending. Make-believe was my major strategy. I was not content to merely memorize verb conjugations and the uses of the subjunctive. My tactic early on was to convince myself that I was Iranian. Even before I had the vocabulary, I had mastered the cadence of a Persian sentence. I watched other women carefully and adopted their subtle body language. That first month in Tehran, I willed myself to dream in Persian. Leaving Iran nine years later, after the revolution, I felt like a foreigner, but I also felt like a displaced Iranian.

Lesson VI: The Passive Voice (p. 53)
Formation of the negative:
Koshte nashodam
I was not killed
Koshte nashode am
I have not been killed
Koshte nakhaham shod
I shall not be killed

I had formed a special bond with Salman, the neighborhood grocer. I was his only foreign customer. I think he liked me because I had bothered to learn Persian. He also seemed to appreciate my childishly scrawled Persian shopping lists. So even when there were shortages -— and there were many -— he managed to set something aside for me -— a few eggs or a small box of laundry detergent. If other people were in the store, he would scratch his stubbly beard and say, “Nah, Khanum (madam). We’re out of detergent today.” But he would fix his gaze at me just a second longer than necessary and raise one eyebrow almost imperceptibly. I would know then that I should come back when the other customers had gone, and he would have ready a small box of Tide neatly wrapped in brown paper.

As anti-American sentiment increased, others had become less accepting. The usually friendly woman across the street suddenly stopped returning my salaam. And one day, when I called the Butane Gas Company to order another canister for the stove, the agent taking my order interrupted me to ask, “Khanum, are you a foreigner?”

At the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, where I worked, I answered a phone call one day from an Iranian woman who wanted some information about current exhibitions. Before hanging up, she asked, “Is this a museum for foreigners?”

“Not at all,” I assured her. “It’s Iranian. “Manzel-e khodetoon-e.” This is your home.

The museum did belong to the people, but in reality it housed two cultures existing side by side. It was not just a matter of Iranian artists sharing space on the walls with their European and American counterparts; it was also the museum’s western-educated administrative and curatorial staff working among the more traditional and religious support staff. Soon I would see that, for those in the latter group, the museum, in its current form, would never be their home.

One afternoon, a museum guard found a note stuck in the frame of Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude, a stylized painting of a big, blowsy blonde whose most predominate feature was bright pink nipples. The note said, “Next time, this will be a bomb.”

Lesson VI: The Subjunctive Present after certain conjunctions (p.60)

Translation exercise 1. As long as the children are here, you must stay. 2. In spite of the fact that he wanted to go, he was unable to do so. 3. It is impossible to go. 4. He ought to have gone yesterday. 6. We ought to have gone the day before yesterday.

One night I dreamed that Ali and I were sitting in a quintessential New Yorker cartoon living room: matching stodgy armchairs, a floor lamp casting a pale golden light, French doors leading to a terrace—a comfy, middle-class tableau. We sat facing each other, engrossed in our newspapers. Just outside the French doors, I could hear our daughters screaming. People were beating them, but Ali and I paid no attention. We continued to read as their screams grew louder. “Should we do something?” I asked. “There is nothing we can do,” he said.

Lesson XIII: Uses of the Subjunctive

in kar ra hala bekonid ta zudtar tamam shavad (p. 151)
Do this now so that it will be finished sooner

ta doulat ha in tour bashand ouza khub namishavad
As long as the governments are like this conditions will not improve. (p. 159)

After dessert, while the children played indoors, we sat outside on the terrace of our friends’ house drinking tea and enjoying the soft, balmy night, bright with shooting stars. The shortwave radio was playing in the background, tuned to the BBC World Service—its tinny, bottom-of-the-well sound offering a familiar counterpoint to our conversation. As we frequently did that summer, we talked about leaving: Do we really have to leave? For how long? What will happen to our lives here? What if we were to stay?

We were only half-listening to the radio when we heard, “Today in Kerman….” We all leaned closer. “…four people were stoned to death.” We stared at the radio in disbelief. Hangings and firing squads were becoming everyday occurrences, but stoning?

“Sexual offences…prostitution… two men and two women.”After a summary trial, the prisoners were placed in holes dug expressly for their execution and buried up to their chests. Sacks were placed over their heads, and five especially chosen people—one of them the presiding judge of a revolutionary court–began throwing stones. We heard later from a nephew in Kerman that one of these five executioners was the son of one of the women.

In my dream, Ali had said there was nothing we could do. But Iranians say that women dream the opposite of reality. If we were not convinced before that we needed to leave Iran, we were certain now.

Lesson XIV: Polite Conversation(p. 169)

A variety of expressions are used upon taking leave. On wishing to terminate a meeting or visit it is customary to ask one’s host‘s permission to leave by some such phrase as morrakhas mifarmaid or ejaze mifarmaid, “do you give me permission to depart” or by indicating that one has troubled one’s host long enough by a phrase such as zahmat kamkonam, “let me make the trouble (given by me) less.”

At Mehrabad Airport, the officer behind the counter hands Ali my and our children’s passport. Then he disappears into an adjoining room to look for Ali’s. He comes back empty-handed, except for an official-looking envelope that he gives to Ali. Ali is very quiet. I move over to the counter and stand next to him as the officer leafs through a huge ledger with neatly handwritten entries. “You’re on the list, sir,” he says to Ali.“OK, that’s great,” I say.

Ali is very pale. He doesn’t look at me as he says, “That’s the mamnou’ol khorouj list.” Mamnou’ol khorouj. Exit prohibited.

Copyright 2018 Estilai