A prominent Iranologist from Sweden, Prof. Carina Jahani is vastly invested in Baluchi language and that has led to her many trips to Iran and Pakistan and years of stay in Iran’s Baluchistan. Her main field of focus hovers widely around Baluchi language which makes her efforts rather exclusive in putting on scales the similarities of the language and traditions of Iran’s Baluch population with those in the neighboring countries. She is on the belief that Baluchi language is yet to earn its real place in the modern world and as a result of the negligence toward it, a foggy future is underway for it.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Prof. Carina Jahani,
Professor of Iranian Studies, Uppsala University, Sweden
Why did you choose linguistics as your major and why did you become interested in Persian Language?
Actually I don’t have linguistics as my major; my major is Iranian languages. But how I became interested in Persian is a very long and interesting story. It started when I was sixteen. As you know I’m Christian and we were in a Christian students’ organization, where they had a lot of international contact. I liked languages and I was interested in cultures that were not really as close to my own culture like the English, German or French cultures would be. I was interested in challenges and was very adventurous. Although I was very much thinking about going to India after finishing high school but then when I was sixteen I got an opportunity to go to England for a summer and the family that I was staying with in England had planned to emigrate to Iran. This was before the revolution, around one or two years before that and they were going to go there to work in the oil industry. They kept talking about Iran for the whole month that I was in England and I became quite interested. So when I got the opportunity to choose between India and Iran to go for a year, I chose Iran and then I got stuck, I fell in love with it. Since then my whole life got into the path of Iran, Iranian languages, and Iranian culture.
As I see in your CV that was the first time you actually heard of Iran?
Yes, that was the first time. When I went to England, that’s how I really realized that there was a country in this world called Iran.
Although you somehow answered this question but let me ask you separately, how did you learn Farsi?
Well if you want to penetrate a culture, to get to know the people, and interact with them, you have to know their language; otherwise you are just a stranger to them and in those days there was little knowledge of English in Iran. By those days I mean 34 or 35 years ago. I was in love with languages. In high school I had opted for as many languages as I could. After I did away with the entire math and physics and chemistry subjects that I didn’t understand, then I could choose English, French, Latin, Greek, and German. I did all those in high school and then looked for something challenging. I wanted something a little bit different.
how and where did you learn Farsi?
Actually I started when I was in Iran; I was there for two months with this Christian organization right at the time of the revolution, which was between November 1978 and January 1979, during these days of turmoil. So in those days I started learning Persian a little bit and then we had to leave Iran because of the revolution and the foreigners such as the Americans that were with us. We went to Pakistan and stayed for 6 months in Lahore, during that time they said you have to learn Urdu instead and try to penetrate the culture of where you are now. I said that I was not interested in doing that, I was not going to learn Urdu, I was going to continue Persian studies on my own and they allowed me to do that. I had been able to grab some tapes and some books so I continued studying Persian in Pakistan. When I went back to Sweden, I got myself a student visa and came back to study at the University of Tehran in September 1979 and I was there until the war broke out. When the war started I stayed for about two more weeks but then I went back home.
How did you travel to Iran for the first time?
It was in 1978 in the autumn, I’m not exactly sure what date we arrived in Iran. We went over land from Europe and all the way through Turkey and I think we reached Iran sometime in late October or early November. I’m not definitely sure about the date but some time there.
In your first visit to Iran, how long did you stay and why did you leave Iran?
We left early January because of the revolution and basically that was one of the hardest things for me to do because I was really determined to stay in Iran. I think I was weeping for two or three days when we left. I was around 19 or 20 at the time, but then I read one verse from the Songs of David in the Old Testament that says: “The Lord will watch over your going out and coming in both now and forevermore.”
I got some comfort from that, and thought that if God is in control of my leaving Iran, he can bring me back. And if you go to the Old Testament in the Bible it is in the psalm 121, the last verse.
So why did you become interested in Balochi language among many accents and languages that were in Iran like Kurdish, Turkish or Gilaki?
I think this is also in God’s hands. When I had learned some Persian I was looking for something to write my PhD thesis on and I felt that Persian has so many scholars working on it that they didn’t need me as well. Then I thought of this language called Ossetic spoken in Georgia and in southern Russia. I was looking a little bit into this Ossetic to see if that could be challenging and interesting. It would have been challenging, but I realized that I needed to know Russian in order to get to Ossetic, since most of the research done on Ossetic had been presented in Russian by Russian scholars and I didn’t know Russian. I wanted to finish my PhD, we had a small daughter already at that time and I didn’t want to prolong my PhD studies forever and ever. I said no I need to drop Ossetic because it will take too long to first learn Russian and then get into Ossetic. I thought I needed to study something where English is helpful. I mean where most of the previous research is in English. After all English is easier for me than Persian, particularly for reading. Then memories came back of the time when I was in Pakistan, in that half year people talked to me about a language called Balochi that’s similar to Persian, spoken in Pakistan. They said that I could try to investigate that and take an interest in that. So I picked up on that tread and went to Pakistan to learn Balochi.
The Balochi people consider you their step sister, how did this rapport form between you and the Balochi people?
I have not done research on Balochi for 30 years on end without an interruption. If I had, I would have produced many more articles, learned Balochi much better than I do know now and done many more things. But we had three children and both my parents were elderly, both of them are now in heaven, there were many family issues, my husband’s family came to Sweden and there were other problems to take care of as well. Moreover, I’ve always been busy teaching Persian at Uppsala University, but when I started research on Balochi I stuck with it. I have always been in touch with the Baloch and I have never dropped the issue, I have always tried to be active as much as I could. Despite my time constraints I’ve always tried to keep in touch with the Baloch and for them there aren’t many international scholars who take deep interest in their language. There is a difference if I had done it for my own purposes, tried to advance academically and tried to use it for my own progress. Rather than that, I’m trying to have a relationship with my friends because we work mutually for a common goal which is the development of the Balochi language. You know Kurdish is a language that has found very much of its identity in the world, Balochi has not yet found such identity in the modern world. One of my main interests is to work with the literary Baloch figures to form and find that identity in the modern world.
So one of the reasons for you to go for Balochi was that it wasn’t as frequently studied as many other languages in Iran?
Yes, there would have been many languages to pick. The same applies to other languages such as Lori, Bakhtiari, or Turkmen, although Turkmen is of course from another family of languages.
Who are the most significant figures and professors you worked with when you studied in Iran?
When I was a student 32 -33 years ago, at the department of Persian literature at Tehran University there was a certain professor Hakemi. I don’t know if he’s still alive or not. He then later became the chief of the university library. He was outstanding in helping me.
It was so long ago I can’t clearly remember. I remember Dr. Zarinkoob, who taught European literature. And I remember very well one incident about his class. I had taken the European literature course because I thought it would be much easier for me than Persian literature. This professor gave all of us the task of making an oral presentation. By then I had been studying Persian for maybe a year or slightly less than a year. Nobody volunteered, so I said I would do the presentation the first week; this presentation was on the Middle Ages. I had of course only read about “the Middle Ages in the books and I thought it was pronounced “ghorune vasati” (average ages) so I pronounced it ghorune vasati in the class and everybody started laughing. Actually, the professor told everybody off. That was quite funny actually and I tell my students this story every time I teach them the term “the Middle Ages”.
Do you have any other memories with other teachers or professors you have?
I have another very strange memory, when we had our written exams in this big hall of University of Tehran at a certain time all the supervisors disappeared and I couldn’t understand why until I realized it was something planned for the students to be able to cheat formally. When the supervisors disappeared, the students started exchanging papers with each other and walking all around asking questions. Twenty minutes later the supervisors came back and everybody stopped and got back to their seats. It was very odd.
You have held many conferences and workshops on investigating the impacts of socio-linguistics developments on minority languages of Iran specially Balochi. Where do you think the Balochi language stands in Iran?
It is standing at very crucial cross-roads that can either lead to its death or strengthened identity. By its death I mean if the Baloch cannot embrace their language as a written language, if the Baloch cannot unite, discuss and come to an agreement among themselves to develop Balochi into some kind of written language together with the Baloch in Pakistan and across Oman, then Balochi will most certainly be lost as a language. I believe, that would happen within two or three generations; as it is being lost in Iran particularly among the young people with higher education. The Baloch are acquiring more and more education even in the villages of Iran. The language of the education is Persian; the language of the media is Persian, particularly the TV. What happens is that the children who are still interacting in Balochi in the first few years of their lives, start school and what happens to them is that when they come home they do their homework and watch TV in Persian. And their Balochi becomes as they say in Iran more and more âbaki (thin, weak) until if they want to try to speak Balochi at all only maybe the verb at the end of the sentence remains in Balochi. The young people will be much more comfortable in Persian and when they have their own families and their children, they will probably choose to speak Persian with them rather than Balochi. This is happening in Iran but it has not happened to a large extent in Pakistan yet which is due to the lower education rate and the much more rural character of Pakistani Baluchistan. Of course, Government support is also crucial in this linguistic development and one of the key issues is that there should be provision for primary education in the regional language. The Baloch do want to save their language like our Sami people. We have linguistic minorities in Sweden as well. We have these Sami people who live in the north and until recently mainly used to do reindeer nomadism. When their children started school in Swedish and gradually also got higher education many of these Sami people lost their Sami language and turned to Swedish, it has left a big scar in the heart of the Sami and many are now trying to fix this. Now we have a policy in Sweden about minority linguistic rights and now Sami is taught in schools. In Norway there is even a Sami university where you can study certain university subjects in Sami. So the Sami language was not totally lost and some young people are really keen on reclaiming their Sami language. Of course they learn Swedish as well. It is not in opposition to Swedish, we as human beings have the capacity to learn at least 2 or 3 languages as a child. My own children are bilingual in Armenian and Swedish, they learned both from childhood. My husband is an Armenian from Iran. They had the full capacity of learning Armenian and Swedish. It’s just that for the language that is not widely used in the society you have to strengthen that language. In our case it was Armenian and we didn’t put our children in daycare at all, they were with grandma and grandpa (my husband’s parents) until they had to go to school; so they spent at least two or three days a week with them. And they learned good Armenian. They learned Persian later.
We had a lot of church interactions with Iranians and my children learned Persian very well. But they didn’t learn Balochi, they never went on to learn Balochi and I think they didn’t really like it. They thought it had somehow encroached on a little bit of their territory; that their mom is too interested in Balochi!!!
Maybe they learned Farsi to speak with their Iranian friends?
At one time also we had a little boy staying with us for a year, he was Persian speaking. His mother was ill and in hospital so we had him in our home for one year. That’s when my children really started speaking Persian with this little boy. I think they always felt that their mom was very preoccupied with Balochi. They still joke about me. They say mom has invented a language and she is a bit crazy and now she is trying to teach people her language.
But to answer your question, yes, the language is at a crossroads. If it chooses the road of fragmentation Balochi is probably a dead language within the next two or three generations. If on the other hand, the Baloch start interacting with each other, they can start developing a written standard. At the moment and further work together towards a common goal, there is much hope because the young people don’t want to lose their language; it’s just that they don’t have the tools to keep it. It is also very important that they feel that the Government is WITH them, not against them in their efforts to strengthen their language. The Governments, both in Iran and Pakistan, should consider measures to be taken to preserve and promote regional languages. A policy of suppressing regional languages and cultures will not help integrating the Kurds, Baloch, Turkmen and other ethnic groups.
We are hoping that they practice it more and it becomes a written language not a forgotten one.
Yes, that’s crucial for it to become a written standard language with a developed written literature because today is the day of reading and writing and literacy, so any language that is limited to non-written (oral) domains is regarded as substandard but Balochi is NOT a substandard language. However unfortunately this is the way it is regarded. So we need TV in Balochi, we need children’s programs, we need children’s books, we need all sorts of things for the children to acquire a strong Balochi language and to keep it.
How do you see the position of Balochi language in Iran’s literature?
The Balochi language has a rich oral literature, just as Persian had a thousand years ago when Ferdowsi started writing down the Shahname. Of course when he started writing Shahname he also relied on written sources, but it is likely that he also drew heavily on the oral legends that were preserved and we know that in Iran oral story telling has been an important part of the culture until 40 or 50 years back because a large percentage of the population was illiterate and storytelling in teahouses etc. were part of the tradition. That’s available in Balochi we have all these oral accounts we have all this oral poetry about these legendary Baloch Khans and their wars and love stories etc.
Yes, the literature is available. There is also a lot of written poetry and there is quite a bit of modern literature being developed, including short stories and novels but poetry is of course the leading art still.
When you were in Iran, what activities did you carry out with Iranian students and Universities, Sistan and Baluchistan University for example?
There I basically taught linguistics, we taught different courses in the MA linguistics program such as Semantics, Phonology, Grammar, Discourse Analysis and different subjects.
So how do you evaluate the activities of your Iranian students and Iranian colleagues?
Very good. Actually one of my students came to Uppsala for her PhD and then returned. I have supervised some MA theses in Iran as well.
After years of teaching in Uppsala University have you been successful in providing a clear and precise account or image of Iran?
I would say that we have had at least a thousand students studying Persian or taking some courses in Persian. As you know there are many Iranians in Sweden and there is a great interest in the Persian language both among the young Iranians that were raised in Sweden and among Swedish people interacting with Iranians like those who have Iranian wives, husbands and friends and so they become interested. And then there are the Iranian young people themselves who have been raised in Sweden. We also have a distance learning course every year where students can learn the basic Persian grammar and we have at least 50 students enrolling every year. I would say even more than a thousand; perhaps around two thousand students have passed some courses here. At one time we had summer courses about life and culture in Iran and we could have up to 100 students.
So do you think that based on these courses in Uppsala University, the students now have the right image about Iran?
What is the right image? It depends on what glasses we put on. You can see many different images of Iran and I think it is hard to say that there is one correct image and all other images are wrong. I would say that each person depending on their own experience and their life makes up their own image. I have an image of Iran and my husband has a quite similar but slightly different image of Iran, our Iranian guest lecturers here have totally different images of Iran, the students who go to Iran get their own images of Iran. We don’t want to teach an image, we want to teach Persian. We do send our students to Iran and they will form their own image.
When your students travel to Iran to finish their courses, how long do they stay?
Our students usually spend up to 6 months in Iran and they become very fluent in Persian once they return. After studying for one year or one and a half years here and after some 6 months in Iran they get very good at Persian.
As a professor who made a lot of effort to contribute to the progress of Iranian languages, how do you evaluate the prospects and future of this language among foreign students?
I see a good future for Persian language courses in Sweden. There is great interest among Swedish students and the Swedish-Iranian students, or the Iranian generations that were raised in Sweden to learn this language and they travel to Iran a lot and in 6 months or a year, they become quite fluent in Persian. They are also good in subjects such as modern literary theories and postmodern literary theories and grammar. At the moment we have 4 PhD candidates here and we are accepting new students for Master’s Degree every year, for example in MA level right now we have more than 10 candidates, 5 or 6 of them are remarkably active. For Ph.D. studies we have a new position about once every two years. So far as I know the Swedish government is going to financially support us for the time being, meaning that these courses are not going to be closed down. There have also been Persian courses given in Stockholm.
In the southern parts of Sweden in the city of Malmo, some are looking for ways to establish or set up at least one or a couple of courses in this language.
So you believe that the most significant challenge ahead of you in the field of Iranian Studies is the lack of financial support from the government?
Of course it is. This is our main problem. If the government limits our budget we would have to let some of our instructors go. Fortunately the Swedish government is still allowing a budget for this field of study considering the fact that maybe as many as 100,000 Iranian are living in Sweden.
Have you ever had any publications in Farsi or one that has been translated into Farsi?
I have no publications in Farsi, I think there was someone who wanted to translate a book on Balochi but I have no idea if it ever got published.
Do you have any plans for future publications in Farsi or translating your works to Farsi?
I cannot translate academic work into Farsi myself but if there is anyone who might want to do that I would be more than happy.
You have traveled to Iran many times, when and how was your best and most memorable trip to Iran?
It was the same year that we went through Baluchistan by land. It was really exciting. We traveled from Zahedan to Chabahar. There is a report of that trip on my web page. On February 22nd , 2005 we arrived at Zahedan airport and were greeted by a few of the professors of the University of Sistan and Baluchistan, we had two lectures in there and later on we traveled towards Zabol. It was fascinating especially when we went on to see the Hamun Lake. I remember that the lake was absolutely dry; there was not a drop of water in it. One of the professors with us was Dr. Ahangar and he recalled that in his youth the lake was filled to the rim with water and they would go over it on boat and he had this bitter sweet longing for the old days. According to them it had been seven years that they had absolutely no rain and a long time of draught from 1996 until 2005 which was the time we were there. That was when the rain started. They kept telling us that we had brought blessings to them. Little kids did not know what rain was because it hadn’t rained there for seven years and they had never seen water falling from the skies.
After that we traveled by car toward Iranshahr and had a couple of speeches there and then we continued towards the south; however there was so much rain that the bridge over the river on the road to Sarbaz was washed away. There was another way through Espakke, Fannuj, and Bent. Since the bridge was destroyed we could not take the Sarbaz road, so we took the Bent and Fannuj road. In Espakke we consulted the municipality to find which roads were open and I believe they wanted to take the Champ road but it was closed. So we took the Bent, Fannuj road to Nikshahr, once we got close to Nikshahr we saw that the road was swept away by rain, the river was two meters deep and we could not pass it with the car. We waited until they found another passage that was much less deep and we passed the river by car and got to Nikshahr. We had friends there so we stayed overnight. We had a meeting there. Afterwards we went to Chabahar from there we flew to Tehran via Bandar Abbas.
If you have noticed in the recent months, the traveling conditions of scholars and foreigners and tourists in Iran were facilitated. Do you have any plans to travel to Iran again?
I am always thinking of traveling to Iran if God is watching over my coming and going.