Learning Farsi in L.A.: UCLA Opens Cultural Doors for the Children of Iranian Emigres

By Julie Ershadi

The campus at the University of California, Los Angeles hardly stirs after dark on a week night. Yet during those times, it is host to a quiet cultural phenomenon.

On the first floor of Royce Hall, in a small classroom tucked away in the back of the building, a handful of students devote themselves three times a week to the study of the language and culture of their ancestors. They are all first- or second-generation Iranian-Americans, or immigrants who came with their families at a very young age.

Their instructor, Latifeh Hagigi (pictured), is herself an immigrant, living in exile. For her, as for them, this Persian-language class is one of the strongest connections she has to a country she has otherwise left behind. It is also, at times, her opportunity to keep a younger generation of Iranian-heritage scholars on its toes.

“They come and take Persian, either just for their language requirement, or sometimes for their own interest,” said Hagigi in an interview. “Usually, after one or two quarters, they really become so interested that they decide to have Iranian Studies as their minor or double major.”

UCLA is home to the oldest Iranian studies program in the United States, according to its website. A subdivision of the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures, the program offers Bachelors and Masters degrees as well as a Ph.D. track.

Hagigi, who has taught Persian at UCLA for 29 years, said many of the program’s students come into the department through the heritage language classes, which vary in size throughout the years from 20 to 40 students.

The department has a heavy emphasis on classical scholarship, having been established in the 1960s as a doctoral program with a focus on pre-Islamic Iran. Its bachelors degree program was founded in 1989. The department continues to grow. In February, it received a gift from Anahita Naficy Lovelace, granddaughter of Ebrahim Pourdavoud, the late Iranian scholar. The Pourdavoud Center for the Study of the Iranian World will support research in the field of Iranian antiquity, further bolstering the program’s prominence in diasporic Iranian academia.

On a recent Wednesday night, Hagigi provided instruction to her class on the homework due next session. The students present went back and forth smoothly with her in spoken Persian. Their words carried a certain lighthearted respectfulness.

Shahryar, a young graduate student who very much looked the part, asked a clarification question that drew the class to a halt. It seemed to indicate that he hadn’t quite been listening.

Hagigi turned and looked directly at him, a piece of chalk dangling between her fingers. His papers were strewn all about, including on the floor. His shoe was untied. Even from a seated position, it was clear his slacks were at least three sizes too large, and he wore no belt. He adjusted his glasses, which only had one arm, with a shaky hand.

Hagigi re-explained the assignment, chiding him. She asked if there were any more questions. The other students tittered with a wave of giggles. They sensed the playfulness beneath their professor’s firmness.

“Na,” he answered. He quickly corrected himself, matching his professor’s sternness: “Nakheyr.” Aside from his classmates’ giggles, the only thing to suggest that this wasn’t a tense exchange was a mischievous smile that appeared on Shahryar’s face.

“Khob,” Hagigi answered, the same expression mirrored on hers. Everyone laughed now, including Hagigi herself.

This kind of scene is typical during sessions of Hagigi’s Accelerated Elementary Persian, a class specifically designed for heritage speakers and offered through the Program of Iranian Studies. The program faculty made the decision to separate heritage and non-native speakers several years ago when they discovered that the two types of learners’ needs are very different, Hagigi said.

Situated in Los Angeles, where more Iranians live than anywhere except Iran itself, the Program for Iranian Studies enjoys a unique relationship with the Iranian-American community. It also bears a unique responsibility to it. UCLA’s demographics data isn’t precise enough to give exact figures, but any anecdotal account will tell of the droves of Iranian and Iranian-heritage students who enroll each year. Many of them choose to declare a major or minor in Iranian studies after having contact with the department, usually through Hagigi’s heritage language classes.

“When they come, their knowledge of Iranian culture is very limited,” Hagigi said. “That is why I always try to bring in a lot of culture, history, different things to their language classes.” Hagigi holds a Ph.D. in Iranian history from the University of Utah.

For her heritage students, the classroom experience is unique from her other classes. “They tell me I am like their khaleh, or that I remind them of their mother when I tell them, ‘Do this, don’t do that,’ ” she said. “It’s nice that, here, you’re teaching them their mother language, their heritage language, their history, their culture. It’s really rewarding.”

Taraneh Jadidian, 19, is a sophomore biology major at UCLA and one of Hagigi’s students in the Wednesday night class. For her, taking Hagigi’s heritage language class is all about staying connected to the culture of her origins. “Even though technically I’m only half-Persian, I feel full-on,” she says.

Her mother is an American woman of Irish descent from Missouri who learned Persian and speaks it with her children and husband. Taraneh’s father is Iranian, originally from Shiraz. He came to the United States for college before the Revolution. He decided to stay here after those events.

Hagigi, who is Baha’i, has also not returned to Iran. Her last visit was during summer vacation while she was in graduate school in 1978. One year later, everything changed — for her, for Iran, and for the parents of the heritage students who now come under her tutelage at UCLA. Hagigi is well-established here; indeed, she is more the matron of the Program for Iranian Studies than merely a Senior Lecturer in Persian, which is her official title. “But still,” she says, “because you cannot easily go and visit and come back, you always feel that you live in exile.”

Even in exile, Hagigi’s impact on the Iranian community is substantial. Through the kindness with which she treats them, the students bond with her, and in so doing they develop a curiosity for their Iranian background. As the instructor for heritage language classes, she provides the gateway through which so many of them enter a world they may not otherwise have ever encountered – that of their origins.


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