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Speaking Persian—to Myself

Why I’m learning a language I’ll probably never get to use

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim
January 04, 2022
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
A young student at a Farsi language class, Pakistan, 2001Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
A young student at a Farsi language class, Pakistan, 2001Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Alone in my car, I talk to myself in Persian. Kashan carpets are more expensive than Kerman carpets, I announce loudly, while I glide down I-684, my eyes scanning the rear mirror. Next week my cousin is coming to Tehran, I add as I flip on the indicator and merge onto the Saw Mill Parkway. I remember to use the correct term to denote the daughter of my maternal aunt. I tap the brakes just before passing the police car that always lurks in the next bend and declare, magnanimously: Go ahead, I can wait a minute. I’m getting better with that tricky dry-gurgling consonant that occurs—not once, but twice—in the word “minute.” Da-ghi-ghe.

Forty lessons into my Persian audio course I still speak in non sequiturs. But I’ve been there before and I trust the process. Farsi (as it is called in Persian) will be my eighth language. Some of these I virtually absorbed by osmosis growing up German in a Flemish village outside of Brussels. Other languages I acquired in classrooms in Florence, Salamanca, and Jerusalem, where I earnestly traded pedestrian statements with fellow learners.

This time, the absurdity is heightened by my surroundings. I haggle over souvenirs in a school parking lot surrounded by towering SUVs. Pulling out of the Home Depot, I ask for directions to Persepolis. As I creep into the Starbucks drive-thru, I rehearse the ritual refusal—three times to be polite—of an offer of tea, before graciously accepting with an oblique if you would be so kind.

My new placid surroundings are one reason I’ve taken up a new language now, in the midst of a pandemic that has nixed virtually all travel. After years in Manhattan we moved into an old farmhouse an hour north of the city. I love the wild patches of nature up here, the privacy and the space. But I also feel newly domesticated. Sometimes the yearning for radical change—new surroundings, new sounds—takes hold of me like an itch.

Until I got married I country-surfed much of the Old World soaking up languages. Usually there was a boyfriend to provide motivation and target practice. Like many fellow graduates of the European schools system, I’m wired to learn languages with ease. It took me three months to become fully conversant in Italian, building on a smattering of swear words picked up in the school yard and the libretto to Don Giovanni. Spanish took just five weeks.

My conquest of Persian won’t be anywhere near as swift. Because this time, I’m learning a language without any hope of using it where it’s at home.

It’s true, Iran is open to tourists. Germans in particular have been flocking in growing numbers to its archeological sites and bazaars. But the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic are unpredictable. Visiting journalists and academics have been arrested and imprisoned on spurious espionage charges.

And I fit the type. I lived in Jerusalem for four years and worked for an Israeli newspaper. I converted to Judaism. Since moving to the States (where I have since gained citizenship), I have continued to work as a journalist. My husband is a New York Times columnist known for his hard line on Iran.

In the age of Google, these facts are easily found. If I were hauled in for questioning, it might count for little that I nurture a romantic attachment to the poems of Hafez and Rumi, that Asghar Farhadi is my favorite film director, or that I ogle antique Persian rugs the way others browse real estate porn.

The family connection probably won’t help, either.

From 1928-30 my paternal grandfather, Hermann da Fonseca-Wollheim, lived in Persia. He had fought for Germany in WWI, then traveled the world as a ship doctor before setting up a practice in Sultanabad, a sleepy town in western Persia that had become a production center for carpets made for Western tastes.

In his letters home, he described the rugged landscape, the tinkling of caravan bells, dawn rides into the desert on his Arabian thoroughbred, and hunting expeditions into the mountains. Whenever he could, he traveled: to Isfahan, Tehran, Kashan. He scandalized his parents by spending much of his money on carpets. He insisted they were a good investment and, with the world sliding into a Depression, he wasn’t all wrong.

In October 1930 my grandfather returned to Hamburg and fell in love with a young married dancer. Once her divorce had come through he tied the knot and—to the relief of the clan—settled down. When the Nazis came to power he took over the practice of his father who, as a half-Jew, was no longer allowed to treat Germans. He moved into the family villa, adorning its prim Biedermeier interior with the carved wooden statuettes he had brought back from Africa and all those Persian rugs.

In 1943 my grandfather was arrested for being too close to some Ukrainian forced laborers who were in his care. He was eventually deported to Buchenwald where he succumbed to dysentery. On the camp intake form the SS noted the cause of arrest as Ausländerfreundlichkeit, or “friendliness to foreigners,” and listed his languages: English, French, Spanish—and Persian.

I grew up enthralled with my globetrotting grandfather. At first, it was his tragic end that haunted me. Later, after my own Middle Eastern adventure had ended and I was a reluctant work-from-home mother of young children, I discovered his Sultanabad letters. Reading them, I thought I recognized something of myself in him: the wanderlust, the restlessness, the thirst for new cultural encounters. If I was honest, I could also detect in us both a bit of colonialist posturing, the breezy desire to self-actualize with an “exotic” new culture providing the props. But there was also a very real sense of received identities starting to chafe: “I don’t even know whether I still fit in back home,” my grandfather wrote to his parents toward the end of his time in Persia. Decades later, in Jerusalem, I asked myself the same question.

I’ve dreamed of retracing my grandfather’s travels, starting with his overland journey from Berlin to Moscow and onward to Baku, before crossing the Caspian Sea.

Since reading the letters, I’ve dreamed of retracing my grandfather’s travels, starting with his overland journey from Berlin to Moscow and onward to Baku, before crossing the Caspian Sea. I’d love to see the gardens of Isfahan through his eyes and hike the mountains where he stalked ibex and leopards. I fantasize of reenacting the flights he took when he was flush with cash. My uncle still has some of the handwritten tickets: Isfahan to Tehran. Bushehr to Shiraz.

But today, some of these places are points of contention in the tug-of-war over Iran’s nuclear program. Bushehr, the site of a nuclear power plant, recently reported an unexplained fire that may have been Israeli sabotage. Sultanabad, now called Arak, is home to a nuclear reactor that will set many Western observers on edge if it is reactivated this year for what the regime claims are “research” purposes. For an Israeli-trained journalist from America to traipse around, poke into archives, and charter a plane just to see that salt steppe that her grandfather had once described so poetically seems—well, unwise.

So I continue to plod through my audio course, my car a bubble of Iranian words, place names, and social codes completely detached from my surroundings. Yet inside of me, something falls into place: the familiar mechanics of committing new words to memory, the arranging of grammatical furniture in a new mental room marked “Farsi,” the methodical activation of hitherto unused muscles to form certain sounds. Like the guttural stop at the beginning of qahve, or “coffee.” In the privacy of my car I get to practice it in little choked clicks, without any concerned stranger lunging to administer the Heimlich maneuver.

The word shirini, however, for pastries or sweets, gives me no trouble. Shirin was the name my grandfather gave my grandmother when they first became lovers. Somewhere in the cardboard box that contains photos of him and his horse in the desert there’s a note that he scrawled on a prescription pad. It’s from the early stage of their courtship and it reads

For: Shirin.

Prescription: A trip. Whenever she wants. Wherever she wants.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim is a music critic and writer living in Westchester.