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I Moved To Iran To Learn The Language I Forgot

For the past eight months I have been living in Tehran, where my parents were born, and learning Farsi, the language I grew up listening to. But I’m not sure how much closer I feel to truly knowing this place, or myself.

Last updated on March 31, 2018, at 11:56 a.m. ET

Posted on March 31, 2018, at 11:56 a.m. ET

Monir Farmanfarmaian, "Gabbeh," 2009 (mirror, reverse-glass painting, and plaster on wood).
Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery

Monir Farmanfarmaian, "Gabbeh," 2009 (mirror, reverse-glass painting, and plaster on wood).

Last July, I boarded a plane to Tehran, Iran, the city where my parents were born. I walked down the aisle to my seat and tried to avoid staring openly at row after row of familiar-looking faces. Nearly everyone else on the flight was Iranian, and I quickly realized that I was not only avoiding staring at them; I was also trying not to notice them staring at me. My dark, curly hair and green eyes have always granted me an air of racial ambiguity that tends to confuse people, so that even other Iranians and Iranian Americans have trouble placing me as one of their own. And as I boarded the flight, I couldn’t help thinking that everyone was trying to determine if I was one of them. My trip had barely begun and already I felt wrong and out of place.

I’d put on a long shirt that would be appropriate both for the government’s dress code and for the hot climate I was going to, and even though I had liked the shirt when I bought it, I now felt like I was wearing a costume. (This feeling would stay with me for the next five months or so.) I wanted to be excited, but I could only feel a nauseous, gnawing ache in my stomach that wouldn’t leave me alone.

As the plane approached Tehran, I looked out the window and watched green mountains transform into sloping tan ones that I recognized from the few summer trips to Iran I’d taken with my parents. My scarf waited patiently in my bag during the flight, and when we landed, I dutifully put it on, glancing furtively around at the other women to see how they were wearing theirs, and doing my best to look unbothered by the fabric resting awkwardly on my curls. I walked off the plane and broke into a sweat — from the heat, and from the built-up anticipation of stepping into the country that, after years of being the familiar-but-distant place of my parents’ childhood, might now become a kind of home.

Many of us become trapped by the idea that we don’t have a choice when it comes to who we are

I was born in Los Angeles (also known as Tehrangeles, thanks to its large population of Iranian Americans) and grew up in the Washington, DC, area. From the time I started preschool, I spoke little to no Farsi at home — nothing beyond the standard greetings and farewells, terms of endearment, and a few curse words thrown out by my parents in bad traffic. And that never bothered me until I was a teenager, when I began to notice other Iranian American, second-generation kids who could speak Farsi, who had relationships with their grandparents beyond half-formed sentences and long-distance phone calls.

About a year ago, I decided that now was the right time to commit myself to learning my parents’ first language. I was 24, working part-time jobs that paid just enough for me to afford rent in New York City, with no concrete or even tentative plans for a career or further education. I figured I’d use this freedom to take advantage of my Iranian passport, granted to me thanks to my father’s Iranian nationality (my mother’s apparently being irrelevant). I planned to spend three months living in Tehran, where I had family, taking Farsi classes and then traveling around to explore the country I had always loved but never truly known.

Eight months after I arrived, I am still in Tehran, still taking Farsi classes. And although I have traveled to many cities and regions across Iran, some of which even my parents have not seen, I’m not sure how much closer I feel to truly knowing the place that is rooted so deeply inside of me.

We spend most of our lives not having a choice. We don’t choose to be born, or where we’re born, or who our families will be — and then many of us become trapped by the idea that we don’t have a choice when it comes to who we are. How long does it take to undo that thinking, and begin recreating yourself into the person you want to be?

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Looking out over the salt formations on Hormuz Island in the Persian Gulf.
courtesy of Niki Afsar

Looking out over the salt formations on Hormuz Island in the Persian Gulf.

On the day I arrived, my cousin T came to get me from the airport. She’s about 10 years older than me, and although our relationship up until then hadn’t consisted of much more than the occasional social media like, I had always been a little in awe of her for her bold, unapologetic way of speaking. She didn’t wear much makeup, didn’t have a nose job (“I started the trend in our family of not getting nose jobs!” she’d brag later on), would argue with anyone who tried to tell her something she didn’t like, and would let her scarf slip off her hair and wait a few minutes before casually sweeping it back up.

We greeted each other excitedly, but politely, and I realized I was shaking. She spoke to me in Farsi, but I could only respond with a few words before having to revert back to English. Suddenly, I was crying. I kept laughing and smiling, apologizing for the tears, not quite sure what to make of the feelings rattling inside me. I could hardly believe that I’d brought myself here, that I was here without my parents to speak for me.

The afternoon sun beat down on us as we walked out into the dusty parking lot. We drove for an hour between the airport and the city, and I found myself blinking dumbly as the familiar landscape stretched out around us: the mountains hazy in the distance, the wide freeways with grassy parks between them where you would inevitably find families picnicking — Iranians will take any stretch of grass as an opportunity for a picnic — and the hodgepodge of pale, mismatched buildings rising up as we entered the city.

We arrived at T’s cozy apartment in the northern part of the city, and as I looked out the window, the thing that jarred me the most was that I had done it: I had come to Iran, like I said I would. I was struck by how easy it had all been, and maybe I was also struck by the fact that Iran had changed so much in the six years since I had been here. Iran had not been waiting patiently for me. Everyone in my family was six years older; the buildings seemed bigger and newer; I strangely felt as if I had jumped six years into the future. It was the strangeness of returning to find that the place that exists constantly in your imagination at home, the country that you always refer to whenever talking about yourself or your family, has been evolving and changing and living on its own all these years.

A mural depicting Ayatollah Khomeini overlooking an Armenian church in central Tehran.
courtesy of Niki Afsar

A mural depicting Ayatollah Khomeini overlooking an Armenian church in central Tehran.

The jet lag left me loopy for at least two weeks. In addition to the shift in hours, time is organized differently here. Iran uses a solar calendar, with its own months, and the new year begins at the spring equinox. I had to learn 12 new names for the months and their order. The week is organized differently as well, with the weekend falling on Thursday and Friday, the holy day in Islam, and workdays beginning on Saturday. While I’ve gotten the hang of the months by now, I still have trouble remembering exactly which day of the week it is. The result is that I constantly feel like I’m a few days off from reality, just another way in which I feel like I am close-but-not-quite-like other Iranians.

We tend to think of time in an Aristotelian fashion, as a linear series of moments with a beginning, middle, and end. I can’t explain my experience in Iran this way, as a line with a clear direction. Rather, I see moments cut together like a fast-moving montage, images jumbled together and flickering like a collage of television screens.

Time feels compressed, the past constantly in tandem with the present. Every city I visit is full of architectural reminders of a distant, sometimes ancient past: stone citadels; glass windows stained green yellow red and blue; towering cypress trees; intricate blue and yellow tiles spelling out the names of Allah and Ali and Mohammed in mosques; the domed roofs of bazaars and caravanserais; crumbling yellow-brick homes in Tehran with broken windows, on land that miraculously has not been sold, standing in the shade of giant, lavish high-rise apartments.

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I speak more like a child who is just learning their first words.

This same feeling of time being compressed follows me when I visit my amehs’ homes (I have seven aunts on my father’s side, four of them still in Tehran), where side tables, bookshelves, and wall space serve as surfaces for displaying vast collections of photographs, small museum exhibits of our sprawling family. I sit and drink tea with my aunts next to images of their younger selves, mixed in with the other mementos of my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins — people who have either passed or gone on to live in different parts of the world.

I myself also feel compressed, or rather, reversed. I have reverted to being a child. In the mornings I hear turtle doves outside of my room warbling and think of my cousin telling me confidently, “after two months, you will speak mesl-e bolbol!” When I give her a blank look she translates: “like a nightingale!” But over the next few months, I speak more like a child who is just learning their first words, haltingly and brokenly, with simple phrases and sometimes monosyllables.

I find myself acting like a child as well, and being treated as one in return — people realize just how bad my Farsi is and suddenly take on a look of concern, speaking slowly and carefully to me, asking only simple questions, making simple, silly jokes, explaining simple vocabulary to me. My sister and I are the youngest of 22 cousins on my father’s side, and I sense that I am still considered the baby of the family. I visit my Ameh H for dinner and her ta’arof is so strong, she refuses to let me do anything, so I sit and make broken conversation while she brings me tea and food. I find myself becoming quiet in groups, as people around me eventually shift the conversation to talk over or around me, the way you do when you’ve grown tired of the kid in the room. I become reacquainted with that constant feeling from childhood of not knowing what exactly is going on.

The Alborz Mountains seen behind an overpass in northern Tehran.
courtesy of Niki Afsar

The Alborz Mountains seen behind an overpass in northern Tehran.

The first few months I was here, in the sweltering heat of a Tehran summer, I felt the inescapable urge to blend in. I could not bear to be seen as a tourist, to be spoken to in English as soon as my poor Farsi was made clear, to be caught trying to take pictures on the street or looking with too much wonderment at the street sellers hawking wares on the sidewalk, the wide-eyed cats that prowl every corner of the streets, the beautifully arranged displays of fruits and nuts in stands by the bazaar, the loud chaos of honking cars in a traffic circle, the murals painted on the open sides of apartment buildings, the stream of sellers in the metro walking across the cars carrying heavy loads of socks, jewelry, makeup, bras, shirts, pajamas, underwear, lavashak, fresh olives, powdered saffron, window cleaners, hair extensions, toys, books, notebooks, pens, screwdrivers, flashlights, lanterns, sleeping bags, picnic blankets, regular blankets, towels, headphones, chargers, headscarves — anything you could possibly need — loudly and elegantly proclaiming the benefits and quality of their products.

As I walked to my classes or to the metro to try to explore the city on my own, I felt eyes on me everywhere I went, the way I did walking down the aisle of the plane. Perhaps out of a mere tendency toward defensiveness, I wanted to prove myself as “full” Iranian. But, of course, I wasn’t.

All my life I had been asked that perennial question: “Where are you from?” The fantasy is that if we were to return to the motherland, if we were to “go back to where we came from,” so to speak, this question would cease and we would seamlessly blend back into our homeland’s welcoming arms. But if anything, my dismal lack of Farsi has made the question an even more constant refrain, now that I’m here.

I hear it from Snapp drivers (Snapp is a popular ridesharing app in Iran) who can’t hold back their curiosity as we sit in traffic, and shopkeepers who have watched me struggle to make a purchase, and from my cousins’ relaxed, well-dressed friends at parties in dimly lit apartments that turn hazy with cigarette smoke while we drink black-market whiskey or homemade araq mixed with juice. I hear it from train conductors checking my ticket and wondering why I speak “good Farsi for a foreigner,” from people on the street who see me talking to my obviously khareji (foreign) friends as we leave our Farsi classes and walk toward the metro, from a vendor selling me a rotisserie chicken that I then handed to two small children selling Hafez poems as fortunes near the crowded Enghelab Square. I hear it from the museum ticket sellers who can’t believe I’m asking for an Iranian-priced ticket, from cafe baristas watching me painstakingly write out my Farsi letters in chic student cafes that remind me of New York, save for the portraits of the ayatollahs looking over the cash register.

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I was so convinced that learning this language would be like unlocking a hidden puzzle buried down my throat. 

My time here could be organized by a series of questions and the many times they’ve been posed to me. “Are you here as a tourist?” No, I’m a student. “What do you study?” Farsi. “Why are you studying Farsi?” I have family here. “So you’re Iranian?” Yes. “Is your mother Iranian or your father?” Both. “Both? Then why don’t you speak Farsi? They didn’t speak Farsi with you at home?”

Sometimes people are impressed and supportive of my project. Most of the time, they laugh and say, “You know everyone’s trying to go there, right? And you come here?” I give a weak, somewhat ashamed smile when they say this. Not because I feel guilty or wrong, but because they have pointed out the privilege I am currently indulging in by being able to return to my parents’ country alone. I have a passport here, and a large, loving network of relatives who can host me and support me, and American dollars saved up that can buy me most things at a shamefully cheap price, thanks to the continually plummeting value of Iranian currency. I have the privilege to be sheltered in the richer northern part of the city, almost completely segregated from the protests that flared up over the winter. None of this escapes my notice. The only privilege I lack is the ability to express myself precisely in Farsi, the language I’ve spent my whole life hearing and not speaking.

I wanted to believe that the language was already inside of me, like a sleeping djinn just waiting to be awoken. I was so convinced that learning this language would be like unlocking a hidden puzzle buried down my throat, waiting patiently in the fleshy space between my heart and my stomach. But learning Farsi, which I thought would be so simple to pick up, has only served to stress the great distances that still exist between me and Iran, between my knowledge of this place and the vast history, culture, literature, and vocabulary that remain far beyond my grasp.

It’s as if I had forgotten how languages work, that they are worlds in themselves. Despite the fact that I studied comparative literature, I found myself stupidly surprised to discover so many synonyms, each with their own nuance; as soon as I felt I had gotten a grasp of one word, 10 others would appear. There are thousands of idioms and proverbs woven beautifully into Farsi, and so these also blossom out, waiting to be explored. As I traveled to cities from the far north to the far south, I discovered different dialects and accents that then confounded the sounds I had been learning, so that in the end I am left with the same feeling I had looking up at the stars from the Kaluts in the Lut desert: that there is so much to learn, so much I will never know.

Sitting on one the dunes of the Rig-e Jenn desert in central Iran.
courtesy of Niki Afsar

Sitting on one the dunes of the Rig-e Jenn desert in central Iran.

Over the past eight months, I’ve learned to ignore the stares on the street, to meet people’s curious questions with a patient smile; and yet the deep desire to blend in, to be seen as a natural member of this society, has never left. I tried to walk with the same determination I saw in my cousin. I learned to wade bravely through the chaotic traffic, crossing streets while staring down oncoming drivers. I learned not to try standing in a line, a useless concept here, and shove my way up to a counter with the rest of the crowd. I practiced shopping, confidently demanding what I needed and even succeeding a few times at haggling the prices down. I memorized how to say “It’s my natural hair,” for all the times women asked me about my curls. One day, my cousin heard me talking on the phone and said, “Cheghadr khub harf mizani, I couldn’t even hear your accent!”

Slowly, the language begins to fill itself in. I now walk through Tajrish bazaar and can understand most of the bits of conversation and shouts flying through the air; I can watch a movie and get the general storyline; I can carry on a very simple conversation with my younger second cousins; I can actually give people directions when they ask. But it’s as if I am trying to paint a giant canvas and have only succeeded in sketching out a small corner of it.

There are days when it is enough to see the snow melting on the Alborz mountains in the distance, the woman selling jewelry on the sidewalk by my school who always says hello, the vendors selling fresh walnuts in the summertime, fresh pistachios in the fall, steaming beets and lima beans in the winter, and salted green almonds in the spring; to have a brief, stumbling conversation with my aunt, to whom I’d never spoken more than a few words before.

And then there are days when I feel that all I have succeeded in doing is seeing how far this bridge I’m trying to build will actually need to go, the end hidden in mist. On those days, I feel distant from everything: from home, from my friends, from my goals and dreams, from the person I once was, from the people around me, from my own relatives here who I’m only just beginning to know, from — and this hurts the most — the person I want to be. To learn a new language is to be constantly misunderstood, and there are so many days when it feels as though no one, not even the friends I’ve made here, knows who I really am.

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The Alborz Mountains in the summer.
courtesy of Niki Afsar

The Alborz Mountains in the summer.

“Do you like it here?” “Which one do you like better, America or Iran?” “Are you happy here?” “Is it easy to learn Farsi?” These are the questions I get from taxi drivers, from women on the metro or on the bus who compliment my curls and then try to make conversation, from my aunts and cousins and second cousins. “Do you want to stay here?” is the question my family poses to me, unable to hide a ripple of confusion in their eyes.

Yes, yes, for now, I like it here. I like having all the familiar foods of home, having my family nearby, watching my cousins’ little children grow up, slowly understanding a few more words of Farsi each day. Yes, the scarf is annoying, yes, the pollution is bad, yes, politics is politics, yes, people stare. But then a kind of film reel flashes through my mind, like the city rapidly moving past the car window: the tall chenar trees and their wide green leaves that shade Valiasr, the striking murals and mosaics that appear magically and suddenly on expressway underpasses, the blue tiles lining the hoz that runs down the center of gardens and parks, the street performers strumming a sitar or drumming a tombak, the mountains looking down on me wherever I go.

Recently, I found myself crying in front of my cousin again. Having lived with each other for eight months, we’ve become something between cousins, friends, and sisters. “Why do you want to stay here, really?” she asked me. And as I tried to piece together my answer, the tears came, just as suddenly as on the day I arrived at the airport. “Why are you crying?” she said, a look of panic on her face. “I don’t know!” I said. And I realized I still didn’t have answers to so many questions.

I understood very early on that whatever plan I had coming here had been a very naive one, that learning a language is actually a lifelong process and any sense of fulfillment I had imagined gaining from this experience had to come from me. What exactly was the plan — to connect with my family and my culture? To validate myself as an Iranian? To shed some of the embarrassing mundanity of my suburban, upper-middle-class American upbringing and replace it with what I thought of as a more beautiful, deeper cultural heritage?

All of these reasons point to the same hope: that I would remake myself by coming here. By delving into my history, I thought I could reforge myself for the future. I would go back in time, I would learn to read and write from right to left, I would set everything in reverse and thus open up the possibility of moving forward. But what I had to accept is that I cannot hold two worlds inside of me at once — that, at best, one will always be shaped by the winds of the other, like a continuously shifting pattern in the sands. I have to learn to let them both move through me, just as we all learn to balance and play with and grow from the many facets of ourselves.

Chehel Sotoun in the city of Esfahan.
courtesy of Niki Afsar

Chehel Sotoun in the city of Esfahan.

A common artistic practice in Iran is mirror work, ayeneh-kari, taking small mirrored pieces and constructing intricate geometric patterns out of them to decorate walls, doorways, and ceilings. The result is that when you walk into a room covered in tiny mirrors, you see yourself split apart and reflected back in countless ways. It is not a proper or even useful reflection: The art is there for decoration, you are simply moving opposite it, and the fragmentation of yourself is just a consequence.

Sometimes I think that split reflection, beautiful in itself, is what this trip has been for me. In Shiraz, the city where my mother’s father was born, I went into the famous shrine Shah-e-Cheragh, and although my grandfather was not a religious man, I thought of him and felt a calm as I walked through the splendid, illuminated interior, covered with thousands if not millions of tiny mirrors. In Esfahan, where my father’s father was born, I went to the famous palace Chehel Sotoun, and looked up to find myself reflected on the beautifully decorated ceiling there. In both places, I thought of how desperately I wish to see myself — how, like a child, I seek out my image in all these old and beautiful places.

As the fractured mirrors show, I will never see myself as a whole here, as much as I try. But even if it is not clear, the reflection is still beautiful, still full of light — and anyway, isn't it closer to the truth? Not to see things as a whole, but as a myriad? To see the many small and varied ways we can find ourselves reflected in a thing of beauty, in a language we barely understand, in a place we love?

I didn’t choose to be raised in the United States, just as I didn’t choose to forget Farsi. I love my home in America, and I miss my family and friends there. But it wasn’t until recently that I even considered this trip a possibility, that I could even imagine being able to learn Farsi, to make up for lost time, to learn about Iran by experiencing it, to begin creating the person I want to be. How many years will it take? How many years does it take to learn a language, even one you’ve heard your whole life? ●

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The mirrored ceiling in Chehel Sotoun.
courtesy of Niki Afsar

The mirrored ceiling in Chehel Sotoun.

Niki Afsar is an Iranian American student living in Tehran, taking Persian language courses and working on some personal writing projects.


This essay is part of a series of stories on travel.

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