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U.N. volunteer recalls learning Farsi

By Chris Linney
April 26, 2000
The Iranian

I first arrived in Tehran in early January 1971 and was surprised to find snow on the ground. In my small mind anywhere south and east of England was supposed to be warm and sunny. I was a 27 year-old United Nations volunteer, full of naïve idealism, but then, that is what being 27 is all about.

We had visa problems at Mehrabad, despite being met by people from the Universal Welfare Legion. These were soon sorted out and we were taken to a hotel towards the east of Takht-e-Jamshid Avenue.

Next morning, eager to get out and about, I soon saw a sheep having it's throat cut on the street. Well, I thought, this is different from Kings Lynn; the small market town from whence I had come. I had yet to learn we had arrived in the month of Moharram around the feast of Ashura.

After a few days of formalities at the United Nations head office, we flew to Shiraz. Soon I was installed with twenty or so other volunteers in an out station of the University of Shiraz in a small village called Marvdasht. Here, for the next five weeks I was to learn Farsi!

We had lessons in the morning, lessons in the afternoon and lessons in the evening. Then, when we thought we could relax, we had tapes to listen to whilst we went to sleep.

We, the volunteers, were carefully segregated and each of us shared a bedroom with an Iranian. These men and women, whilst being perfectly fluent in English, had been instructed to speak only Farsi to us even when we thought we were "off duty". Eventually, I used to clean my teeth in Farsi!

I remember sitting on the roof of Marvdasht one afternoon, trying to write Farsi and thinking to myself: "What am I doing here at the age of 27 learning to read and write?" The most difficult word I found to pronounce was "mamoulan" meaning usually. It remained a challenge until I associated it with marmalade. Then I had no further problems.

During our sojourn in Marvdasht we had many visitors. The most relevant for me was a Dutch gentleman called Jan Marie Baijens who was the project leader of the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) project to which I would be attached for my two volunteer years.

Jan Marie had startling words to say! "If you think you have come to Iran, to teach the Iranians what you know you will be disappointed. I don't want to curb your idealistic enthusiasm but, you will learn far more from Iran and its peoples than you could ever teach them." Thirty years later those words still resonate.

At the end of our Marvdasht days our group was distributed across several UNDP projects throughout Iran. Some of us to Agricultural Extension Projects, others to Adult Literacy Projects others to more esoteric areas such as Judicial Reform Projects.

My lot was more mundane. I was assigned to work in the Markaz-e Armousesh Khademat-e Jahangardi. In Farsi it sounded very grand. In fact it was a centre for young people being trained to work in the hotel industry. Cooks, waiters, front desk people etc. The hotel industry; that was my field and still is as I write.

Setting up home in Tehran was a great adventure. As volunteers we got "only" $200 per month - 16,000 rials then. We hadn't learnt touman then. We were advised to share an apartment so that our meagre financial resources could meet our needs. However, to set us up, we were given a refrigerator (shared), a cooker (shared), a single bed (each), and some other rudimentary furniture.

My first "residence" in Tehran, was just off Avenue Villa which I shared with a Swiss volunteer called Pierre. We discovered many interesting things:- "Agha nafti", the "Ab-garm-con" and the "Kooler".

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