Friday, November 14, 2008

Debate and Discussion: An English translation class in Esfahan

In class at Najaf Abad University (Esfahan)
I sat down on the stage, legs akimbo, before a class of English translation students at Najaf Abad University in Esfahan. The class was split dramatically, like foreign language classes tend to be, in favor of females; in this case, about 20 women to three men. The men sat on one side, the girls on the other, and the dynamic was split into two separate spheres.

Earlier, the class had been debating when and how often to meet. This was their first time back, and I sat in the corner, observing them debate how to run their class. There were no set times, nor teacher: the entire group was self-governing. The previously established leader of the class, one of the guys, was arguing with the female students over whether lectures should be given, and how topics should be chosen.

With a host in Kashan (who I met off the street)

"But in my experience, last summer, none of the students chose to give a lecture," he lectured, rather dismissively.

One of the male students explained to me that this isn't the case in the elite universities, where attendance is compulsory. But here, most upper level students did not attend their classes, instead studying independently before showing up to take the final exam.

I gave them a little spiel about myself and why I'm in Iran, before we began to exchange questions about each other.

Emboldened after a while, the questions, asked mostly by the girls, became increasingly personal and controversial. They ranged from the commonplace and obvious: “Are Iranians like what you thought they would be before you arrived?”, to the religious: “What do you think of Hossein Ali?”, to dating preferences: “What do you look for in a woman?”

Faloodeh - vermicelli served with cardamom icecream: an absolutely delicious traditional Iranian dessert

When I asked them in return: “What do you look for in a man?”, nobody answered. I had crossed an invisible line, into the private sphere in which they weren’t willing or able to discuss, particularly in front of their male peers.

But we spoke plainly about inflation, of the difficulty involved in finding a job for college graduates, and I made references to “increasing global understanding” and “breaking down borders.”

A few days later, Ahmad, who had invited me to speak when we’d met at Fin Gardens in the city of Kashan, asked me to return.

“They want to have another class, just for you,” he gushed. “They felt, how do you say, ‘blown off’, by you!”

“Blown off?” I thought, now feeling somehow guilty.

“I mean ‘blown away!’” he laughed, before adding: “I like to use idioms! Can you teach me more American idioms?”

Retirees chat inside the calm walls of a mosque in Esfahan

1 comment:

Francisco Galárraga said...

Great story! Do you think that they would be capable of crossing the invisible line if no men where there? It must have been so awkward for you not to here their answer on a pretty common question (at least for us westerners).