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Saturday, 26 July 2014

Open Letter to my Students

Dear student

It's that time of the year again. You haven't opened your study books throughout the semester, too short and disrupted by the Nowrouz holidays (which, by the way is not two weeks but one whole month long). You have suspended all normal activities of everyday life for the last couple of weeks, trying to cram into your brain material that should really have taken months to absorb, trying to keep your droopy eyes open with endless cups of tea and coffee and shoring up your flagging motivation with the mantra "It will soon be over." But will it?

In a couple of days, the first marks will appear on the university site. How will you react? Will you be pleased, disappointed, dispirited, angry with me (more likely) or yourself (less likely)? Will you accept your defeat, seeing it as a result of your actions (or lack of them) or will you pop into my office to plead/argue/wheedle/fight to the bitter end for every scrap of .25 of a mark?

In other words, which of these types do you fit in?

1. The goody two-shoes student: If only all classes were made up of the likes of you! You haven't missed one single lesson, never been late even once, have volunteered to answer most questions asked in class, handed in every written assignment, and got full marks in the exam. It was only expected, and both of us are pleased.

2. The lazy breezer student: You have a good background in the subject and/or you are good at winging the exam by using other students' notes. Despite less than impeccable attendance, punctuality and classwork, you get a mark that others less fortunate would envy, and which, considering the minimal effort you put into the subject, you do not deserve. You are pleased altogether – who wouldn't be?

3. The plodder-who-gets-there-eventually student: You are determined to get a respectable mark, no matter what it takes. You've been at every lesson, paid attention all the time, answered what questions you could. On the metro on the way to and from the university, you bury your face in vocabulary lists, while other passengers choose hairclips or stare at each other. Before the exam you fussed and fretted, only too aware of your weakness. At the exam you also scored a respectable mark, which nonetheless does not reflect the time and the effort you put into the subject. You recognize that your achievement is down to your own weakness and is nobody else's fault, least of all mine.

4. The I-couldn't-care-less student: You are also known as "the tourist": you drift occasionally into the class, stare into space or, more likely, into your mobile and have no clue about the subject. You either drop out during the term, or if you come to the exam you only write your name on the answer sheet. Or you forget to turn up at the exam.

5. The what's-the-use student: You are weak, but unlike student no. 3 above, you lack the determination to give it a go. You know you will fail, and you are resigned to your fate. You either fail the exam, or score just a pass because I feel sorry for you; at least you came to the lessons, sat quietly and had your mobile on silent.

6. The extenuating-circumstances student: You attended erratically, often came into class late, kept popping in and out of the class to answer your mobile (could it really have been that important?), occasionally paid attention and answered a couple of questions. You may have just scored a pass or failed deservedly, but you think you might as well try your chance by turning up to my office offering all sorts of tried and tested excuses, from family problems ("my father was imprisoned and I have to take care of the family"; "I got engaged during term and had to go for wedding shopping"; "I am busy with divorce proceedings") to medical issues ("I am pregnant and the doctor ordered full bed rest"; "I have chronic migraines and got an attack the night before the exam") to social duties ("my fiance's grandfather passed away and I had to travel to Qazvin for the funeral"), to emergencies (" my cat was taken to hospital";"my brother had a car accident). The list is endless. Some of these excuses are true, but, alas, they have been tried too often to bear any credibility.

7. The failed-but-I-want-my-God-given-right student: You admit that you have been (physically) absent too often and mentally even more often, you have been chatting with the student next to you throughout the lessons, haven't got a clue what the subject is about, you possibly haven't even bought the book. But, you argue, I have to give you a pass mark, or you won't be allowed more than 14 credits next semester, or you will be kicked out of the university, or won't be allowed to enrol on the MA course, or you will have to go to military service. In other words, a pass mark is your God-given right, and I, the devil of a professor dare to deny it. You huff and you puff when I explain why I won't give you what you ask, and when you leave my office I go through a severe crisis of identity: "Who am I and what am I doing here? Might I do better at hairdressing or mini-cabbing?"

Now these are options that everyone might want to consider.

Sunday, 24 March 2013


I gave myself an absence mark from the blog last week, the last week of the Iranian year 1391 which ended on Wednesday 20 March at 14:31:47 hrs Iranian time at the precise moment when the sun’s movement marks the beginning of spring. As always, I had left all the cleaning and tidying up for the last minute (in the hope that someone else would do it, which they did – eventually), so the last days of the year were a marathon of scrubbing, cleaning, washing, folding, ironing and a thousand other things that should have been done much earlier.
On the first day of the New Year (Noruz) festival younger people visit the elders of the family, starting from the parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts. It is customary for the elders to give children and newly married couples an eidi, a present of money in the form of newly minted banknotes that have been kept between the Quran pages. This need not be a large sum, its significance being the blessing bestowed by the old upon the young. […] For the next twelve days short visits are exchanged among family and friends, the idea being that relatives should see each other at least once a year, if everyday life doesn’t let this happen more often. The younger visit the older people first, and towards the end of the twelve days, the older people reciprocate those visits.
During the Noruz visits, apart from the staples of tea and fruit, other compulsory items are on offer: several kinds of sweetmeats, sometimes homemade, nowadays mostly shop-bought, boiled sweets or chocolates, a mixture of seeds and nuts containing pistachios, almonds, dried chickpeas, pumpkin and watermelon seeds and other nuts. All these, and sometimes more, will be pressed upon you during a Noruz visit, so you will need a lot of stamina (to keep refusing) or a strong stomach; or both.
(the second and third paragraphs extracted and adapted from my Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran’s Culture and Customs, Intercultural Press, Boston, Mass. 2010)

Saturday, 9 March 2013


A few days ago I received a text message from one of the students I taught last term at Ulum Hadith University. In a class of thirty-one, she had been one of those who either chatted or daydreamed during lessons, and mostly smiled cheekily.

She was in Mashhad, the burial place of the eighth Shi’a Imam and a favourite pilgrimage destination in Iran. The text message read, “I am standing by the mausoleum of the Holy Imam Reza (peace be upon him) praying for you.”

Another heart-warming gesture by a student that made me appreciate teaching once more. The funny thing is, she was one of the nine students who failed the exam.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Childish Joy

This is not the first time I write about experiences I have had on the way to, from, or actually in Shahrerey. Sitting on the back seat of the taxi, I usually glance at the city scenes that drift past the windows: only last Monday morning, as I got off the taxi just before Hazrat Abd ol-Azim’s Shrine, a group of nine-year-old girls, dressed in white chadors decorated with pink flowers got off a minibus. This visit must have been part of the celebration of their ‘coming of age’ in terms of religious duties (jashn-e taklif), something like the Catholic First Communion. They were all excited, milling around like kittens, until the stern voice of their teacher brought them into line.

On the same day, on the way back to the metro station, the taxi stopped at a red light in front of a greengrocer’s. A couple of people with their back turned to me were doing their shopping, while two schoolboys a short distance ahead held two wooden sticks and rolled around a rotten apple in place of a ball. Their faces were bright with childish excitement, at trying, at having a good game, at changing the world around them with whatever is at hand.

Their smiles brought me back to one summer in Kassos, my native island, when my cousin Manolis shaped little doll chairs and tables from the metallic stoppers of glass Coke bottles. He had used a long stone with a flattish end to straighten them and had managed to make the pieces stick together (I never worked out how.) When he finished, he gave the same kind of smile that has the warmth of the sun coming out from behind the clouds.

Saturday, 23 February 2013


Sometimes when I get tired of teaching, I wonder whether the whole thing is worth it. In every class the back row is filled with students (“tourists” as we called them when I was a student in Greece) who play games on their mobiles, chat in whispers or simply daydream, thinking that I have never been a student myself and that I am so old that I can’t see them or hear them. On days like these I wonder whether I should give up.

But then I remember the good things. After the first lesson of the new term four weeks ago, a young man whom I have taught for the last three terms came over to my office. He had been depressed throughout last year, attended erratically, did only the absolute minimum of written work and had repeatedly told me how he felt that there was no point in studying and that the whole of life was a dead-end. I had tried to help him be more positive, as had many counsellors, but without success.

He looked changed now. He came in smiling brightly, saying that he had got a job teaching English, was preparing for an international exam and had never felt so positive in his life before! Although I hadn’t had anything to do with his transformation, the fact that he came to share it with me reminded me that I should count myself lucky to have witnessed one of the many miracles that can, and do, happen.

Maybe teaching is worth it after all.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

How lives end

The bizarre process of dementia is taking my father on a reverse journey: from independent adulthood he progressed to childhood, when he clapped his hands, delighted at watching movies of animals and playing games. About two years ago, he took his last steps and slipped into bed-ridden infancy. He is now past the babbling stage, only smiling when he hears a familiar voice. We can only observe and feel helpless.

A few days ago I got out of the underground station at Shahrerey, where a number of taxi drivers usually stand around calling out for passengers. One of them, holding a small glass of tea, came up to me.
“Where are you going, haj khanum? The university?”

He was dishevelled and untidy, but I didn’t have the nerve to ignore him. I followed him to his car. He finished off his tea, opened the boot and put the empty glass in it.

The rear windscreen bore a funeral announcement like the ones stuck on walls. I sat in the rear seat. The driver wore a black shirt, had a grey, untidy beard. After a couple of minutes of silence, he mused, “When one’s wife is alive, one doesn’t appreciate her. She used to prepare some breakfast at least; now I have breakfast in the car, and go home all alone in the evenings, no-one to talk to…”

“May God grant her peace,” I whispered. “Was she old?”

“Only forty-five, but she had had a stroke and a heart attack. She had survived the bombing during the Iran-Iraq War. Our house fell on her and she was rescued after two hours. I was at the war front then. Out two-month old baby had been with her too, but he died under the rubble. This affected her speech, and gradually she spoke less and less, until her heart gave way.”

“May this be the last of your sorrows,” I said, finding refuge from my feelings of inadequacy in the conventional formula.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Twenty four years ago

Twenty-four years ago, on the second of February 1989, I arrived in Iran for the very first time. That was six months after the end of the Iran-Iraq War and during the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution. I worked for Iran Air at Heathrow Airport at the time, and I had been sent to Iran as an official guest for the festivities, along with other non-Iranian colleagues from other stations. My in-laws, who could not wait to meet me, were at the Homa Hotel almost as soon as I was shown into my room and got my tour guide’s permission to spend the night in their house. I took a black chador I had borrowed from a friend in London out of my suitcase. My friend had explained that Shahr-e Rey, or Shabdolazim, Hossein’s home town in the south of Tehran, is a pilgrimage destination, so a chador is always to be worn in the street (I have written more details about Shabdolazim in a previous post; for the record, the convention of wearing black chador everywhere in Shabdolazim only now applies within the shrine compound and not to the whole town). I found the idea of wearing a chador exciting, like a child dressing up. The trouble was that I was one hand short: overnight bag in one hand, bag with presents in the other, and the missing one to hold the chador in place. I must have been a ridiculous sight as I stumbled out of the lift to meet my father-in-law and sister-in-law. Haj Nasser the Blacksmith, as he introduced himself, was shorter and stockier than Hossein, but had the same endearing smile. Sister-in-law Mansoureh, a primary school teacher, was the same age as me and single, with eyebrows still unspoilt by the beautician’s hand over hazelnut-coloured, almond-shaped eyes. This was the first time I ever travelled outside Europe: I felt as if I had stepped into another, magical world. Everything seemed strange, exhilarating and yet familiar, as if I had come home to a place I had never seen before. I had not realised it then, but now whenever I am asked why I love Iran, I say I suppose it’s the people. (Except for the last paragraph, this text is adapted from Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran’s Culture and Customs, Intercultural Press, Boston, Mass, 2010)