First Person

Learning Persian

A lapsed polyglot reclaims her childhood

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

“Why are you learning my language? ”

At the Whole Foods coffee bar in my Vancouver neighbourhood, a young man stares at a sheet of paper I’ve covered in Persian handwriting. My assignment was to use words related to taste: hot, cold, fresh, stale, salty, sweet, bitter, sour.

“Do you speak Farsi? ” I ask. When the stranger nods, I hand him my homework. “Are there any mistakes? I have class in half an hour.”

He scans the page and thrusts it back, his face expressing a curiosity that verges on entitlement. “Your handwriting is good, but you can’t be from Iran. Where are you from? ”

“I have one parent from Kashmir, the other from Pakistan,” I say.

“So why are you learning Farsi? ”

Who is this punk? He’s just spotted my sad beginner’s exercise—This green apple is sour; That bread is fresh—and already it’s war. We aren’t even talking across an East-West divide. Mentioning my ancestry ought to have shifted the axis of this conversation toward friendlier terrain (“Ah!” a delighted hotel concierge once said to me on the Persian Gulf coast. “Kashmir ees the leetle brother of Iran!”), but it has only reinforced my inquisitor’s territoriality.

“I like languages,” I hedge, then add, even more blandly, “I’m a writer.”

What I actually want to achieve by learning Farsi is probably impossible. As a child, growing up among the sprawl of my extended family in southern Ontario, I was expected to excel in English at school, recite in formal Arabic at the mosque, and speak fluent Urdu and Punjabi at home, where Kashmiri also made frequent visits. Family life felt like being stuck in currents of fast-flowing adult conversation that could swerve into laughter or founder on sharp disagreements. Rippling through these polyglot exchanges were a number of silences, hinting at the sorrows of India’s partition and other old mysteries: national and sectarian lines ruling which language to speak, to whom, when; the private resentments of some toward the cross-border fluencies of others. I absorbed them all unconsciously. Out in the world of serene Canadian English, my acts of simultaneous translation remained invisible, and when I left home for university I didn’t give them another thought.

I moved to Vancouver when I was nearly thirty. Over the next decade, I hardly noticed the slow monolingual wash draining my life of its subtleties. But when I saw my six-year-old son thrive in French immersion, I wanted them back. The satisfying exactness of French prepositions made me crave the melancholy refinements of Urdu and the democratic hilarity of Punjabi.

Now I work to hold onto languages I once took for granted. I use online dictionaries to teach my son the Urdu alphabet, and he memorizes Koran verses the old-fashioned way: by hearing me recite them first. I have weekly Skype readings of Urdu poetry with my mother, and my father explains old Punjabi Sufi lyrics to me over the phone. Since I can’t recapture the multilingual environment I grew up in, I have decided to make one up, based on the Persian literature Urdu poets would have studied before partition.

So here I am in Farsi class, in the mad hope that This green apple is sour will eventually open up the Divan of Hafez, Iran’s beloved fourteenth-century poet. One evening, we talk about ustad, which means “master” or “guru.” I can’t resist asking my teacher if ustad is ever used as an honorific title for musicians, which is how we use it in Urdu—like “maestro.”

“We do,” he replies. On formal occasions, he adds, instead of the regular plural ustadan, Farsi reaches over to Arabic grammar, to formulate asateed.

“We use many Arabic words in Farsi,” he says. “But, historically, our relationship with Arabic has been very complicated.” The simple vocabulary lesson turns into the kind of digression I adore, opening up the secret histories of words and the intricate liaisons between them, as stormy as any love affair. The tenth-century poet Ferdowsi, for instance, is believed to have written Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, to protect Persian from the influence of Arabic after Islam’s advent in the seventh century. Whether or not Ferdowsi really resented the prevalence of Arabic in Iran, the invaders’ tongue still lurks in his celebrated verses.

If Farsi’s ties to other languages have become obscured, it’s no wonder the young man at Whole Foods thought I was odd. But I no longer care what battles caused these estrangements. Urdu and Arabic are the keys I inherited in childhood; Farsi is the treasure they are helping me unlock. Their common words are indelible proof of connection.

On the whiteboard, using Persian letters, my teacher writes dil. “Here is the Farsi word for ‘heart,’ ” he says. It’s the same word in Urdu, but I stifle the urge to wave my hand.

This appeared in the October 2014 issue.

Rahat Kurd was honoured as an emerging literary artist at the 2013 Mayor’s Arts Awards in Vancouver.

Hanna Barczyk is a former art intern at The Walrus, and contributor to the New York Times and This Magazine.

THEWALRUS.CA IS FREE. If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a donation to the charitable, non-profit Walrus Foundation. Learn More »

SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER. Get the weekly roundup from The Walrus, a collection of our best stories, delivered to your inbox. Learn More »