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Lettori per l’italiano #2. Tehran
Portal of the Italian language

Lettori per l’italiano #2. Tehran

Categories: Uncategorized -Culture and creativity -Language and education

Interview with Italian language assistant Rosalia Gambatesa

Lettori per l'italiano
Lettori per l’italiano

Edited by Margherita Marziali, Ilaria Taddeo and Annarita Guidi

Our ‘Lettori per l’italiano’ column continues with the Italian language assistant at Tehran State University.

Rosalia Gambatesa, graduate in Classics from the University of Bari and PhD in Langues, Littératures et Civilizations at the University of Lorraine and a Membre Associé of the LIS, Université de Lorainne, is a lecturer in literature, Latin and Greek, an expert in language education and a trainer for the Centro Democratico degli Insegnanti. Since 2020, she has been an Italian language assistant at the State University of Tehran. Her main interests include textual linguistics and epistemological research in the field of language education.


In the 2020/2021 academic year, the MAECI Tehran 1 language assistant position was reactivated after a year-long hiatus. Despite the pandemic, the number of students enrolled at the University has continued to grow. Can you tell us about the context of teaching Italian in Iran and the main motivations students have for studying Italian?

Iranians are very interested in the Italian language and Italian culture. During this year in Tehran, I came to realize that there were a number of reasons for their interests.  While it is possible to observe a keen admiration for the the Italian way of life amongst Iranians, the language also serves a general source of self-improvement for them, and it also presents real opportunities for strengthening their positions in the world of work.

Of course, one can also recognize a certain similarity between the two cultures. While the Iranians are Middle Eastern, they are not Arabs, but Persians. Their language and culture belongs to the category of Indo-European languages and cultures: many loan-words from Persian can be found in Italian, such as ‘scacco matto’, from ‘shah mât’, meaning ‘stunned king’, or the more famous ‘paradiso’, from ‘pairidaēza’, meaning ‘walled garden’. Professor Basiri of the University of Tehran has explained to me that our Provençal poetry and the Stilnovo took influence from Persian mystical poetry in interesting ways. Michele Amari, in his ‘Storia dei Musulmani in Sicilia’ (History of Muslims in Sicily), notes that, in 1200, under Frederick II, thirty thousand Persian soldiers on the island lead to the introduction of rhyme schemes in courtly love poetry.

It is therefore not surprising that there is significant demand for Italian in Iran.

The ‘Pietro Della Valle’ Italian state-authorized private school in Tehran offers pre-school, primary and secondary school courses. Iranian universities, both public and private, as well as private language schools, including the ‘Pietro della Valle’ school, which are linked to Italian bodies qualified for certification, enable adults to reach even higher levels of proficiency in our language. Last year, more than 1,200 students attended in various capacities. Around one hundred and sixty students enrolled in the two Iranian universities with Italian language departments. Both in Tehran, one is the Tehran State University and the other the Azad Islamic University. Until a few years ago, there was a MAECI Tehran 2 Lectureship at the Islamic University. The absence of this position is now being felt strongly. Several Iranian adults and young people, in many cases with the intention of attending university in Italy, attended courses at schools in Tehran and in the rest of the country.

There is therefore a significant demand for Italian in Iran. The ‘Pietro Della Valle’ Italian state-authorized private school in Tehran offers pre-school, primary and secondary school courses. Iranian universities, both public and private, as well as private language schools, including the ‘Pietro della Valle’ school, which are linked to Italian bodies qualified for certification, enable adults to reach even higher levels of proficiency in our language. Last year, more than 1,200 students attended in various capacities. Around one hundred and sixty students enrolled in the two Iranian universities with Italian language departments. Both in Tehran, one is at the Tehran State University and the other at the Azad Islamic University. Until a few years ago, there was a MAECI Tehran 2 Lectureship at the Islamic University. The absence of this position is now being felt strongly. Several Iranian adults and young people, in many cases with the intention of attending university in Italy, attended courses at schools in Tehran and in the rest of the country.

In spite of the shared roots in the Indo-European language, many difficulties arise when a language without word endings and articles such as Iranian is confronted with Italian, which is based on the concordance between gender and number and on the centrality of articles.

Persian is a language without gender and article markers. On the other hand, in Italian these markers play an essential role in expressing meaning. This is a situation that generates specific expressive difficulties for Iranian students. And not just for students.

Mastering the linguistic chain of a thought in Italian, for Persian speakers, who number about 120 million worldwide, requires a double effort of conceptualization: the modulation of the gender of nouns, most of which are ‘inexplicable’, even for native speakers, and the use of the article, which is also very complex. It is a huge commitment that leads students in particularly stressful situations to make quite a few errors in textual consistency. The crucial chain of concordances requires the memorization not only of the new nominal lemmas, but also of their gender, which is no easy task, especially for those of the third group, indifferently masculine and feminine. The communicative pact between speaker and listener imposes, instead, the complex modulation of the article which, according to the definition of the linguist Weinrich, is an obstinate sign in Italian.

The expressive difficulties linked to these major differences between the two languages do not depend on a lack of application or willingness. These are being worked on carefully at the University of Tehran. I discovered this during a conversation with Professor Sheikoleislami, who, like me, was looking for an untraceable dissertation on this subject by a candidate from the University for Foreigners in Pisa. In particular, attention is being paid not only to the analysis of errors, but also to the evaluation and feedback to be used to activate linguistic reflection processes in the students, which, Professor Basiri emphasizes, must always be developed in parallel in both the native language and Italian. Given the interest in the comparative study of the communicative systems of two Indo-European languages such as Persian and Italian, it would be desirable for a study centre specializing in the teaching of Italian to be set up here.

Apart from language problems, what consequences has the pandemic generated in terms of the availability of technological equipment, connectivity and interpersonal relations needed to support distance learning?

I arrived in Tehran on November 23, 2020. The whole world was in the red zone while for seven hours, in a deserted and ghostly Malpensa airport, I worked at the table of the only open bar, waiting to board the Iran Air flight that would land at Imam Khomeini airport at dawn the next day. The day-after climate in which I arrived made me agree to start my work as a lecturer on WhatsApp, despite the fact that it was, in effect, an essentially oxymoronic practice. A lecturer using chat app! But there it was.  There were always well over eight students and it was not possible to make video calls.  The university’s administrative offices, like everywhere else, were running on a shoestring, and it took a while to get the credentials to access the e-learning platform.

Necessity, as you know, sharpens the wit. In this situation, faced with an extraordinary lack of resources, I became aware of the potential of voice messages. While it is true that voice messages do not restore the immediacy of interaction, it is an oral form that that lasts longer than the moment of speaking, unlike in person. For language teaching and learning, being able to save oral material is a significant advantage: it can be replayed multiple times, as with written texts.

In Iran, university teaching is still online. The University of Tehran, where I teach, has not yet reopened and courses continue on the e-learning platform. Distance teaching is not easy and being able to follow along is very complicated, especially for less solid students. The network connection here often drops in strength and does not allow for the use of video or screen sharing, just the audio channel. To involve a good number of them you need activities that continually challenge them. Students have adapted to distance learning so far, even although they miss university life a lot. Many have had a hard time coping with the pandemic and are only now beginning to think of a return to normalcy, provided that security measures are guaranteed. Coming from all over Iran, they are frightened by what has happened and worried about the return to attending classes in person, especially because of the the dormitories, which are not always big enough to accommodate them during class periods.

Iran is currently still under embargo and trade with foreign countries is very limited. It is not possible to buy foreign products such as Italian books, not even online.  The drive for education research and methodological changes obviously suffers as a result of this. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation offers universities and Italian language schools the opportunity to receive books and new publications through it. This is a excellent initiative but it does entail some extra work, in some ways involving having to replace the usual promotion from publishers.

Online teaching has created the conditions for an increase in enrolments in Italian language schools attended by adults, students and workers. It allows them both to attend courses far from their own place of residence, where there may be nothing available, and also in their own city without having to commit time to travel, which in Tehran can take hours on busy days.

So, in the chaos of the pandemic crisis, it seems that this distance has made it possible to experiment with new methodologies and to work on the four learning skills, through the adoption of innovative and up-to-date approaches to teaching.

Considering that in Iran Italian is taught in a Persian-speaking context, in order to create teaching courses that are as authentic as possible, I decided to make use of the vast reservoir of linguistic material on the Internet. On the basis of teaching experiences gained during the DAD (didattica a distanza – distance learning) in Italy, I prepared itineraries for learning the Italian language and discovering the Italian system that would make use of the idea of Italy and the Italian language imagined by the students and their personal horizons of expectation and meaning.

The pandemic, which has done so much harm to people’s lives, has at the same time forced education to come to terms with the extraordinary potential of digital platforms and the internet. In particular, online resources prove very useful for teaching Italian to students such as Iranians for whom it is not easy to travel to Italy and get to know our country directly. In this context, exploring forms and lexicon means a strong focus of those images related to culture and social and economic situations that Iranian students have long imagined and enjoyed.

In the second semester of last year, I designed a course on reading comprehension aimed at A1/A2 level students, i.e. beginners in the first semester of the four-year BA preparatory course. The intention was to guide their first steps in understanding by getting them to take part in an experience involving discovering Italian cuisine. To do this, I selected specific linguistic, iconic, audiovisual and audio materials suited to their level of knowledge of the language and to the skills to be practised, as well as new sites and texts offered by the web. The students, supported in their efforts by the directness of the materials on offer, responded by really bringing their own horizons of meaning into play. The active presence of such a horizon frees the study of a language from normative abstractness and, at the same time, allows for greater insight into the diversity and uniqueness of linguistic varieties and their fascinating expressions.

Along the way I proposed forms of the written language that represent the Italian gastronomic tradition, which are very much alive in the linguistic existence of an Italian. Serving a variety of purposes, with texts that are always different, but on the same theme (menus, nursery rhymes about food, recipes, restaurant reviews, descriptions of cities linked to gastronomic excellence, extracts from the song Pappa col pomodoro and the screenplay of the spaghetti scene from Miseria e nobiltà), they have gradually facilitated processes of understanding, balanced between the two languages, real life and the imaginary. Alternating between the two registers helps the the students to get involved and allows them to experience the referential and connotative meaning of the same semantic field on different levels of the language, to widen the scope of the lexicon and to focus better on the pronunciation. Although with students at an earlier stage of their studies I used texts with no literary pretensions, with those at a more advanced level, for a similar approach, I could choose more literary texts, such as those from the extraordinary gastronomic journey of Manzoni’s The Betrothed.

One last thing to note. After I started with e-learning at the University of Tehran, I never stopped using the Whatsapp group. Carefully managed, the group became the space in which, during the semester, the living ‘book’ of the course took shape. With everyone’s contribution, it was made up of everything that could be useful for the linguistic and cultural journey from Iran to Italy. Lesson by lesson, the students share their written and spoken work and their corrections and self-corrections with each other and with me. I share the teaching material, the theoretical content, the lesson notes, the texts for study and support, both literary and non-literary, and graphic and audiovisual material. From time to time, to serve as commentary and clarification, I provide multimedia materials and screenshots of websites or Google Maps.

In 2017, Marina Forti wrote in her article in the Internazionale magazine, ‘Leggere e tradurre L’Italia a Teheran’ (Reading and Translating Italy in Tehran), that ‘the surprising thing is to discover that in Iran there is a lot of translation going on and that every self-respecting publishing house has at least a few Italian authors from the twentieth century in its catalog [ …] on the desks of Qoqnoos and Cheshmeh, two of the five or six major publishers in Iran, I see Italo Calvino and Antonio Tabucchi. There is even a publishing company that thrives on translations from Italian and little else’. This voracity for reading must be met with events and projects that satisfy the desire for Italian. How do you, who also hold non-academic posts, collaborate with local authorities and institutions to promote the Italian language and culture outside the university?

It was also a surprise for me to discover how much Italian is translated in Iran.  This brief and incomplete survey only partly illustrates the lively publishing efforts of Iranian publishers and their translators, despite the current severe paper crisis. Three books by the publisher Fuorilinea, translated by Massud Hatami for Ketap-e Khorshid and Hoonar, have recently been published, with the special contribution of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. A few days ago I saw the one by Maurizio Carletti on display in the bookshop of the Casa degli Artisti. Also, an anthology of fundamental texts in Italian literature, from chivalric poetry to Pascoli, and Sandro Veronesi’s Colibrì were published with a grant from the Ministry. The first was translated by Iman M. Basiri for the University of Tehran Publishing House, one of the most prestigious in the Middle East. The other was translated for Ketap-e Khorshid by Mehdi Mousavi who also translated Elena Ferrante’s latest book The Lying Life of Adults for the same publishing house during the first lockdown. During an initiative of the Embassy of Italy, organized for the centenary of the birth of Leonardo Sciascia, Giacomo Longhi presented the Persian version of Sicilian Uncles edited by Sanam Ghiaei. The translator spoke, at times in a very moving way, about how, for her, translating the book meant experiencing something already known, distant relatives, emigration, the inquisitive gaze of the children that was so similar to that of Kiarostami’s children. It must be said that it is not just works of Italian literature that are being translated in Iran. An important work of literary criticism, Giulio Ferroni’s Letteratura italiana contemporanea, is about to be published by Hermes.

Such ferment is a good basis for the promotion of the Italian language. So far, however, it has not been possible to organize events open to the public. The pandemic prevented more than twenty people from gathering in one place. It is hoped that this year we will be able to get back to organizing larger events. In the meantime, we are promoting the Campiello Giovani Prize among Italian students and fine-tuning our programming.

Iran is experiencing a cultural renaissance. Tehran, above all, is a driving force behind new artistic experiments and a creative hotbed of great filmmakers and musicians. In this context, we have seen how Bowland, an electronic group with refined musical vision, chose Florence and Italy as the place to develop their artistic talent. Then there is director Asghar Farahdi, who won the Oscar for best foreign film, who has made it clear that Italian neo-realism inspired him and his generation of directors. Do you perceive an underlying affinity between the attraction to Italy and the cultural reawakening in the capital in your students?

Iran is a country with a very long and remarkable cultural history, which has never really been interrupted. Its exchanges with Italy, and the West in general, have been long-standing and fruitful. It is no coincidence that the Victoria and Albert Museum dedicated an important exhibition to epic Iran this year. You only have to walk around Tehran to realize this. Just as traditional brick buildings coexist with other equally elegant rationalist buildings, so contemporary painting, literature and cinema express the contradictions both of the situation in Iran and, symbolically, of global modernity, caught between a receding past and a future that is hard to imagine.

Contradiction, which in Iran never seems to be something to be resolved, but rather a constitutive condition of life, drives the work of local artists and gives life to works that stubbornly investigate the complexity of existence, beyond appearances. In this regard, I would like to mention a recent film, a beautiful and important one, which a few days ago won the prize of the Middle East Now Festival in Florence, awarded in memory of Felicetta Ferraro. Radiograph of a Family by Firouzeh Khosrovani tells the story of the revolution through that of the director’s non-religious father and practising religious mother. The film, as Khosrovani puts it, tries to overcome stereotypes and tackle the feminist perspective on the Iranian revolution, the neglected issue of the emancipation of revolutionary women who gained a social and professional identity thanks to the Islamic Revolution.

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