Tag Archives: Iran

Iran and the US Learn How to Flirt Diplomatically

Diplomatic body language: Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat at the White House 1993

Diplomatic body language: Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat at the White House 1993

Veteran British diplomat Sherard Cowper-Coles says that handling a meeting with Iranian diplomats “after a deep chill” will require patience. Western diplomats will need to “avoid the temptation to cut straight to the chase. It’s very important to spend time on what are much more than opening courtesies.”

It would important to display a knowledge of Iranian history and civilization—but watch out for little gaffes, “like calling the [Persian] Gulf the ‘Arabian Gulf.’”

It’s also not a good idea to overpraise, especially in public. In 1977, then-president Jimmy Carter went to Tehran. At a dinner with the Shah of Iran, Carter raised a glass to his host, and then raised his rhetorical glass even higher.

“Iran—because of the great leadership of the Shah—is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” said Carter. “This is a great tribute to you, your majesty and to your leadership and to the respect and admiration and love which your people give to you.”

A few days later, street protests began in Iran, leading eventually to the revolution, and decades of enmity with the United States.

There are, though, plenty of skillful ways to send a message in a diplomatic setting.

Nancy Soderberg, a diplomat under President Bill Clinton, remembers when the Administration agreed to receive Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House. For Arafat it was big coup to get invited to the president’s home. But there were limits.

Arafat wasn’t allowed to bring his pistol, which he took everywhere with him. And then there was the hugging: Arafat was a big hugger. It just wouldn’t do to have him photographed hugging the president of the United States.

“Right before the meeting President Clinton was being taught by his aides this jujitsu move where if you grabbed Arafat’s elbow, pushed your hip out, there was no way he could hug him,” said Soderberg. “That’s exactly what Clinton did to avoid a picture of him being hugged.”

Arafat did eventually did get his man—seven years later. He and Clinton were finally captured locked in embrace, on neutral territory—Switzerland.

Not that you’d expect quite such warm body language between Obama and Rohani this week. One step at a time.


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To Change or Not to Change Script: Turkish vs Persian

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Here’s a guest post from reporter Ashley Cleek

On a Wednesday afternoon, seven students sit in a darkened classroom on the campus of Bosporus University in Istanbul. They squint up at a projection of a 100-year-old, handwritten letter.

The letter is written in Ottoman Turkish—that is, Turkish in the Arabic alphabet. Slowly, the students read the script aloud from right to left. When they get stuck, Professor Edhem Eldem writes the word on a chalkboard.
It takes the class an hour and a half to read four pages.

Ottoman Turkish looks nothing like today’s Turkish. In the Arabic script, vowels are not marked. That’s confusing enough in Turkish. But Arabic script doesn’t differentiate between consonant sounds like G and K. “You can write something in Ottoman Turkish that can be read gel, which means come or kel, meaning bald,” says Eldem.

And there are hundreds of examples like this: different words, written exactly the same in the old script.

With the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed an alphabetic revolution. The Arabic script of Ottoman Turkish was banned. And a new Turkish alphabet was invented based on Latin letters. Turkey’s population was mostly illiterate, and the story goes that Ataturk traveled the countryside with a chalkboard teaching villages to read this new Turkish.

The new alphabet is so phonetically correct that, “If it is written properly there is no where you can go wrong when reading a Turkish word,” says Eldem.

Literacy skyrocketted. But Ataturk’s alphabet revolution brought on a symbolic shift. “Arabic is the East and the Latin script is the West,” says Eldem. “It is artificial, but…people believe in it.”

Eldem says that while his rational side supports the Latin script, he also feels the cultural loss: “I am in a position to see to what extent the loss of that script has dispossessed Turks, especially students of history, with some kind of a contact with the past.”

A fountain outside of the Egyptian Bazar in Istanbul. This is one of the hundreds of Ottoman fountains around Istanbul. Only those who have learned Ottoman Turkish can read the inscriptions (Photo: Ashley Cleek)


It’s true. Unless they study Ottoman Turkish, educated Turks cannot read the inscriptions on their great grandfathers’ headstones.

What Turkey did was radical. It was not just a script change. It was a cultural shift. Only a handful of countries have attempted to remake their alphabet. Most have stuck with the script they have. Iran, for example.

This is one of the dozen or so YouTube videos explaining what Persian would look like written in the Latin alphabet. Some websites have even transliterated Persian poems into a Latin-based script.

Persian, like Ottoman Turkish, is written in a slightly modified Arabic script, adopted around the 9th century when Persia converted to Islam. And like Turkish, some say it’s not the best fit.

Vowels are not marked. There are two letters for the sound T. Three letters for S and four for Z.

As a university student in Tehran in the 1970s and 80s, Hossein Samei dreamed of revolution. He and his classmates argued for the adoption of the Latin script.

“We wanted to change the world and because we were students of linguistics, we wanted to do it in language,” Samei says, smiling.

Today, Samei is a lecturer in Persian at Emory University in Atlanta. With a soft salt and pepper mustache and a worn orange polo shirt, he doesn’t look much like a revolutionary anymore. Those were youthful ideas, Samei says. Now he thinks the Persian alphabet is fine just how it is.

The script, says Samei, links Iran east to Afghanistan and south to India. It’s a connection to history, to literature and art. Changing the script would not just mean reprinting books, it would place a barrier between the present and the past.

“We like our culture. We like our literature. We want to change, but we believe more in reform,” says Samei. “Even this recent election shows that.”

Instead, Samei says, he sees authors and bloggers reforming the Persian language. Some writers mark vowels to indicate the sound. Some add an extra letter to make a word more legible. Still it’s a real struggle to reading in Turkish. Especially for those outside Iran.

Fariz Piruzpey teaches her daughter, Wyana, to read in Persian

Every evening at their home in New Zealand, Fariz and Medio Azadi sit with their daughter, Wyana and help her sound out words in Persian. Persian is Wyana’s native tongue, but her dad says she has a hard time reading. “She’s still struggling, that’s my observation, she is struggling with connecting the words,” Medio Azadi says.

Azadi is a linguist. He’s frustrated with the Persian script. But he also sees it as an expression of national character.
“It’s like the doctors writing a prescription, it looks mysterious,” he says. “If you are able to read the text, you are an insider. If you’re not able to read it, you’re an outsider.”

Azadi wishes Iranians would get behind a few small reforms that would make the script clearer. That way, his daughter would be more likely to master it.



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A New Beginning for the Kurdish Language in Turkey?

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Taha Tursun is studying to be a Kurdish teacher at Dicle University. Changes in Turkish law have now paved the way for Kurdish language education. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Note from Patrick: Here’s a guest post from Turkey-based reporter Matthew Brunwasser.

Just 10 years ago, Professor Hasan Tanriverdi could have been arrested by security forces, blindfolded and taken to an underground prison and tortured, just for doing this.

Speaking Kurdish was banned under Turkish law.

The language challenged the national myth that all citizens of Turkey are ethnic Turks. So it was treated as a crime against the state. Repression and forced assimilation were so brutal that many Kurds in Turkey no longer speak Kurdish fluently. Today, Tanriverdi is teaching future teachers of Kurdish language at the state Dicle University.

“Our people are excited,” says Tanriverdi. “A language has just been freed. We are creating a master’s program for teaching Kurdish. For the first time, these teachers are able to learn how to teach Kurdish.”

Professor Tanriverdi says that 1,500 students applied for 150 spots in the program.

Sevet Turkoglu is a former history teacher, now a student in the Kurdish course. He says that Turkey’s government is righting the wrongs done to the Kurds by helping them learn their language. He says he’s sure that he will have a job when he graduates.

“The Prime Minister of Turkey said so,” Tukoglu says. “That’s why they made this course. Kurdish is now an elective course in schools. We hope that all subjects will be taught in Kurdish some day. But for now its most important that we focus on learning our language and culture.”

But not all students trust Ankara’s good intentions. The government introduced an elective course this year for 5th graders in public schools, to learn Kurdish two hours per week. Over the next three years it will expand to more grades – but still two hours per week. Student Adem Kurt says this means that the government policy is not serious.

“It doesn’t work with only one or two lessons,” says Kurt. “That’s how you learn a foreign language. If they are serious about giving Kurds our rights, they should open the way for mother tounge education in all subjects.”

After years of promises, many Kurds are skeptical of any offer by the Turkish government. Some say the government has no political will to really educate Kurds in Kurdish, even Taha Tursun, a student who’s enrolled in the course.

“Even though they are saying that they will hire us as teachers, it’s a lie,” says Tursun. “It’s only a red herring so they can tell society ‘look, we are training graduate students how to teach Kurdish. The Kurdish language problem is taken care of.'”

But the government has made other moves in what it calls its “Kurdish opening.” Bans on the Kurdish language have been wiped from the books. And the state created a television channel in Kurdish.

But the growing demand for teaching all subjects in the Kurdish language has still not been addressed. Didem Collinsworth, from the International Crisis Group in Istanbul, says the demand is common to Kurds from all political, regional and religious backgrounds.

“I can say that is probably the strongest demand they have,” Collinsworth says. “They see it as a recognition of their Kurdishness, of their identity, of their culture. It all culminates in being able to learn Kurdish in schools.”

Collinsworth says that generations of repression has taken its toll on the language. There aren’t many Kurds fluent in Kurdish. They are used to speaking Turkish for all official matters. Even in Diyarbakir, the capital of Kurdish nationalism, Collinsworth says that none of the newspapers are Kurdish-language only.

“We were told by a Kurdish TV host that they had a hard time finding people to speak on their shows because no one spoke Kurdish that well anymore, good enough to be on TV,” says Collinsworth.

The attempt to crush the Kurdish language is now a dark chapter of Turkey’s history. But the battle for making Kurdish a second official language lies ahead. As Turkey struggles to become a more open society, its Kurdish-speaking citizens may continue to provide the biggest push.

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

Medya Ormek teaching Kurdish in her class. (Photo: Jodi Hilton)

[Patrick adds: Also included in the podcast is a report on Diyarbakir-based Kurdish language teacher Medya Ormek, who is all of 13 years old.

Also, here’s a previous pod on the letters Q, W and X: they appear in the Kurdish alphabet, but not in the Turkish one.]



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Five Foreign Language Films You Might’ve Missed

Still from Germany's "Barbara"

Nina Hoss in Germany’s “Barbara” (2012)

A guest post today from the Big Show’s Nina Porzucki…

It’s Oscar time and we called on Matt Holzman host of KCRW’s film series, Matt’s Movies to bring us five foreign language films that didn’t make the final five Oscar nominees:

Les Intouchables,” Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, directors, France

“Polisse,” Maiwenn, director, France

Beyond the Hills,” Cristian Mungiu, director, Romania

Barbara,” Christian Petzold, director, Germany (Also a favorite pick from World in Words editor Patrick Cox.)

This Is Not a Film,” directors Jafar Ranahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran

Word of warning, says Holzman, the foreign language category can be somewhat bleak.

Here’s the trailer for Polisse, Holzman’s foreign language pick — that won’t win, but he wishes that it could — film of the year.



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The Voice of Iran in Spanish

In early 2011, the BBC announced massive cuts in its foreign language services. We devoted an entire pod episode to that decision and its implications.

At the time, London-based journalism professor George Brock warned of an imminent deluge of government-run foreign language broadcast channels. That’s certainly playing out. The Chinese and Russian government-run TV companies have fast-growing foreign language services. China’s CCTV now broadcasts in English, French, Russian and Arabic. And the Kremlin’s mutilingual network RT, recently made a splash when it announced that it would broadcast a 10-part series interview show hosted by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Now, Iran has got in on the act. In late January, it launched Hispan TV, a Spanish language service aimed at Latin America. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed up at the launch, making it clear that there would be no arm’s length policy between the politicians and the journalists on this project. He even uttered a few Spanish words: “Viva España , viva America Latina.”  He also said, according to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting that Hispan TV “is expected to convey a message of peace, friendship and freedom for all human beings, and at the same time to block or squeeze ways through which the global arrogance tried to dominate others.”

Also in the pod this week:

  • The origins of an oft-used Hebrew expression to describe the segregation of women favored by some ultra-Orthodox Jews.
  • Scientists at UC Berkeley unveil technology that seeks to put words to our thoughts.
  • Why songs get stuck in our heads.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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A Persian insult, a northern dialect, and Urdu directions

Iran’s leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Photo: Daniella Zalcman) is known for his fruity prose. This month he outdid himself with a new anti-American insult . In a speech to Iranian expats, he  used the expression the bogeyman snatched the boob. It’s old Persian saying that mothers use when they’re trying to wean their babies off breast milk. But what’s acceptable for mothers to say in the privacy of their homes is considered über-coarse in a public setting. Some Iranians are astonished that their President would use the phrase. Their President, though, is a man who likes to show he has the common touch, especially when dissing the United States.  He appeared quite full of himself  too, in a recent interview with John Lee Anderson of the New Yorker.

Also, we hear from Cambridge University linguistic anthropologist Stephen Leonard who’s spending a year in Northwest Greenland, documenting the planet’s northernmost dialect. That dialect, or language — it’s been classified both ways — is called Inuktun, and it’s spoken by the Polar Inuit, or Inughuit of Northwest Greenland. Leonard doesn’t have much to go on. He speaks Danish and has been learning Standard West Greenlandic, both of which are understood by many of the Polar Inuit. But he only has a word list for Inuktun. The Inughuit’s way of life is severely threatened by global warming: the giant block of ice that recently broke off a glacier is close to their hunting grounds. As for cameraderie, this photo of a groups of Inuits near Cape Dorset, Canada (photo credit: Ansgar Walk) may paint too rosy a picture; also, people generally use snowmobiles these days, not dogsleds. Not many people. Not many dogs. Not much warmth. It may be a very long year.

Also in this week’s podcast, we have a report on how foreign language movies in the United States are seeking new ways of finding their audiences.  And World in Words listener and self-professed language nerd Sofia Javed tells us about the difficulties of getting from Point A to Point B in Urdu, a language that has the same word for go straight and turn right.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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