Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Persian conversion?

[Originally posted at NOW]

With Lebanese schools increasingly teaching the Persian language, NOW investigates the cultural and political implications.

The Imam al-Khomeini school, in the southeastern Beirut suburb of Hadath, is in several respects an atypical one. Two young men carrying walkie-talkies, with yellow bands bearing the Hezbollah logo strapped around their upper left arms, guard the gates, politely asking to search visitors’ bags before allowing entry. Once inside, ornately framed portraits of the school’s namesake, the late founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, adorn the walls, as does a message board smothered with photos of young “martyrs.” A chador-clad woman approaches with a length of black cloth to inform NOW that all women are required to be similarly veiled inside the premises.

NOW had come because, as of last month, the school – which is run by al-Imdad Islamic Charitable Association – is the latest of a number of private schools in Lebanon to start teaching the Persian language, al-Imdad having signed an agreement with the Cultural Chancellery of the Islamic Republic of Iran to jointly manage the program across the Association's four schools. In so doing, al-Imdad followed a path already taken by the thirteen Hezbollah-administrated al-Mahdi Schools, which have been teaching Persian throughout Lebanon since 2008.

While defenders of these initiatives point to the cultural and vocational benefits of studying a rich language of both historical and contemporary significance to the Middle East, critics argue the move is a political endeavor to expand the Islamic Republic's influence in Lebanon, particularly within the Shiite community.

In this regard, on Friday NOW met the principal of the Khomeini School, Abbas al-Dhayne, to clarify the exact nature of the new Persian program. A good-humored man with a short, greying beard, he chuckled as he gestured to the many photos of the Iranian ayatollah as well as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hanging on his office walls. “You might think I really like Sayyid Khomeini. The truth is I just have more pictures than I know what to do with.”

The new Persian classes, he explained, are taught twice a week to the approximately 720 students from the sixth to the ninth grades (nationwide, al-Imdad has over 3,000 students in four schools spanning Beirut, Keserwan and Batroun). Though he said the classes are optional, he added that “we encourage [students] to take them.” Asked whether any students are not taking them, he replied that “no one so far has asked not to.”

As for why the school decided to introduce Persian, al-Dhayne cited the educational and professional advantages afforded the students. “Our graduates are increasingly going to Iran to pursue higher studies and find employment, so of course Persian is essential for that. In the past, they would go to Europe or America, but now Iran can compete with the West in science, in engineering, in technical fields. It is replacing the West for our students,” he told NOW.

Though this does not, said al-Dhayne, constitute a political agenda, he said he wouldn't necessarily object if there were one.

“For us, it's not political, it's just to prepare our students for higher studies. Maybe Iran has a political objective, we don't know. But honestly, when we hear about the 'Iranian agenda' in the Western press, we laugh. If the Iranians are expanding, I don't mind. They're giving me a hand, while not taking anything from me in return.”

Nor does al-Dhayne deny al-Imdad's affiliation with Hezbollah.

“We feel we are tied to Hezbollah. We, as a charity, are tied to Iran. And Hezbollah has relations with Iran too. So you can say we and Hezbollah are in parallel.”

To further understand Hezbollah's role in Persian language instruction, NOW contacted the public relations officer of the party-run al-Mahdi Schools. Though he confirmed Persian was taught at the schools, the officer declined to divulge further details without formal permission from the Hezbollah Media Relations Office. On 26 September, NOW visited the office in Beirut's southern Bir al-Abed suburb and submitted a written application to this end, which was turned down the following week. The request had been deemed “invasive,” explained a party official via telephone.

NOW was, therefore, unable to establish much about al-Mahdi's Persian program, beyond what has been published in the Arabic press. At a ceremony in May 2013 at the group's Hadath school attended by dignitaries including the Iranian ambassador, al-Mahdi's supervisor for Persian studies, Amal Nasr al-Din, said over 3,700 students were being taught Persian across the group's thirteen schools. Significantly, while several speeches at the ceremony emphasized the cultural and literary merits of Persian, the ambassador's speech also touched on politics, saying the study of the language would “form a bridge” between Iran's “Islamic revolution” and Lebanon's “resistance.” Elsewhere, a 2008 news article declared the initiation of al-Mahdi's Persian program in coordination with the Iranian Cultural Chancellery – the same organization that is now assisting al-Imdad's schools in Persian instruction.

At the Cultural Chancellery's office in the south Beirut suburb of Bir Hassan, NOW met with Hajj Abu Qassem, director of Persian instruction at the Chancellery, which itself offers Persian language courses to the general public. Like al-Dhayne, Abu Qassem kept a number of framed photos of Nasrallah and Khomeini on his walls, including a large one of the latter forming the centerpiece of the wall behind his chair – a reminder that the Chancellery is, after all, an arm of the Iranian state.

“We offer classes here just as any other embassy, such as the Russian one, does,” explained Abu Qassem in effortless classical Arabic (though he later said he was Lebanese, one wouldn't know it from his accent – nor from the ease with which he answered several phone calls in Persian). Every two months, he continued, students take a 300-hour course, by the end of which they should be able to speak well, if they know Arabic. “Arabic and Persian are 60% the same. The Persian script is basically the Arabic one, plus four new letters.”

The classes attract a wide range of students, he said, from journalists to doctors, engineers, and film-makers. The Chancellery also teaches Persian teachers, who go on to give courses at several Lebanese universities including Université Saint-Joseph, Lebanese University (LU), and the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik.

Like al-Dhayne, Abu Qassem highlighted the desire of some Lebanese to study and work in Iran as the key reason for teaching Persian. “Mostly, it's the strong reputation of Iranian universities, especially in medicine and engineering, that makes Lebanese students want to continue their studies in Iran. It's also closer and less expensive than the West.”

Unlike al-Dhayne, however, Abu Qassem rejects any suggestion of the involvement of political interests.

“There have been ties between Lebanese and Iranians since the days of the Phoenicians,” he told NOW. “And in the wider Arab world, you hear many words, for example in Egyptian films, that are of Persian origin. This isn't political, it's civic.”

That is a claim disputed by critics of the way Persian instruction is being carried out in Lebanon.

“This is political, for sure,” said Dr. Mona Fayyad, professor of psychology at LU and vice-president of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. “In principle, there is nothing wrong with learning foreign languages, it's a very good thing. But it should be an optional choice for mature students, not forced on little children. There is no urgent reason to learn Persian. This is a kind of ideological steering. It's not innocent.”

Similarly, for Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, the move represents a further consolidation of Iran's grip on the Lebanese Shiite community, taking after previous historical examples of dominant foreign powers exploiting Lebanon's sectarian fragmentation to secure and advance their interests.

“Our different sects were always tied to colonial powers who had political, economic, and social influence over the country. Why do we learn French at schools? Because at one time France was the colonial power, and the Maronites were strongly linked to them and their schools were teaching French. Now the Shiites are establishing strong economic, political, and strategic relations with Iran, so it's natural that social and cultural aspects should follow.”

Indeed, said Salamey, the bond of language is an especially potent one to cultivate between hegemon and subordinate.

“Language is the ultimate kind of cultural association. This is when you start to 'Algerize' the sect; to do what the French did in Algeria. It worked with the Maronites; why shouldn't it also work for Iran and the Shiites? I think a part of the Shiite sect is going there.”

Maya Gebeily and Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

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