Below please find the second blog installment by the WorldTeach Executive Director, Dr. Mitra Shavarini.
‘Love’ and ‘dance’ were censored words.
Among the blacked-out words in the book I was given to teach my English class were “love” and “dance.” The text was for an intermediate level English course and contained sample dialogues to, supposedly, guide my pedagogy. Certain words, in this monarchy-era publication, were deemed by the authorities as a threat to the doctrines of an Islamic Republic.
During the dawn of the Iranian Revolution, the newly installed government had taken upon itself to cleanse the nation of Westoxication. The anti-monarchy platform that had brought it to power rested on an ideology that Reza Shah, a monarch of Iran’s second Pahlavi dynasty, was a puppet for the West. To truly become the utopia that the clerics had promised the Iranian poor, the country had to rid itself of all things “Western.” Ergo: American. In the realm of education this effort was extensive: schools were shut for nearly three years to “clean house” by way of purges and curriculum overhaul.
It was twelve years after the Revolution when I had returned to teach. It was 1992 when the world was without internet. My decision was in response to a bid by Iran’s first president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had beseeched expats to help rebuild Iran. Driven by curiosity, idealism, adventure, and a certain need to understand my heritage, I had heeded the call by offering practically the only thing I could do: to teach English. I signed on as a language instructor at a private chain of fee-based universities known as “Azad.”
According to Azad University administrators, where I was given my teaching position, my students were grammatically advanced in the realm of English acquisition. I wasn’t sure how they had achieved proficiency. After all, English was the Great Satan’s tongue. Even more of a wonder was that these college students listed on my roster grew up in Hamadan, a city in Iran’s northwest corner. Their hometown had to bear the brunt of the country’s 9-year war with Iraq. Bomb sirens — not music — was the drumbeat of their teenage years. Since they had been inculcated throughout their Islamicized education that music interfered with the virtues of Islam, this generation – children of the Revolution – would have had little opportunity to connect to the West, much less, English. So this made me all the more curious to learn how we differed.
I had grown up on the other side of the world in Narragansett, Rhode Island, a fishing town at one time, now a haven for tourists. The story of how we ended up in Narragansett is long; I’ll save it for another time. Suffice to say that I was the only olive-skinned teenager in my high school’s 169 graduating senior class. Back then, I was referred to as an “alien” student, a term that these days has been replaced by “international.” What my peers seemed to understand of where I came from was based on the heavy media coverage of the “Hostage Crisis.” If you’re too young to remember the ‘hostage crisis’ then you need to visit a book on America’s late twentieth-century history. It’s one of those highly analyzed historical periods; I’m sure you’ll find plenty to read about. Your take-away for why I’m bringing it up now should be that both my students and I had felt the backlash of the Revolution, just on opposite ends of the world.
For my first couple of classes, I diligently tried to use my assigned censored text to guide my teaching. But I started to notice something hanging awkwardly in the air during class sessions. There would be a giggle or a clearing of one’s throat when we’d get to those blacked-out words. It was as though my students wanted me to know that they, too, recognized the absurdity of the Islamic government’s doctrine that certain words were considered devastating to the moral fiber of a true Muslim polity.
I sensed that the Children of Revolution weren’t inculcated, after all. A repressive government that had cut them off from the rest of the world, I came to realize, had not succeeded in instilling the zeal they had hoped to maintain past the generation that had brought it to power. On the contrary, these Iranian youth thirsted to learn about what lay beyond their country’s border.
We put the censored book away. We talked instead. Our dialogue topics ranged widely. Those blacked-out words had not only piqued their curiosity about the West but also sharpened their resolve to master its language. Anti-U.S. propaganda, as pervasive and sustained as it had been, had not tainted America’s allure, it seemed to me.
For me, teaching English that year was about a cultural exchange. I was learning about their culture as much as they were learning about my westernized upbringing. It was more than just teaching English.
Essentially, teaching was about human diplomacy.