by Bruce K. Byers
Foreign language competency and cultural understanding are acknowledged as important skills for diplomats. While many Foreign Service Officers receive such training in Washington before going to an overseas assignment, few have the opportunity for the deep cultural and language immersion that I enjoyed as part of my first assignment for the U.S. Information Agency (USIA).
In early 1972, after completing seven months of Farsi language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), I was posted to USIS Tehran. My family and I arrived shortly before the Persian new year, Now Ruz, and took up residence in an embassy apartment. Dave Dubois, the Public Affairs Officer, with the concurrence of the embassy Deputy Chief of Mission and USIA’s Office of Near East and South Asian Affairs (NEA), had arranged for me to spend some time with a host family in Isfahan. It was a “deep immersion” experience in which I would continue learning Farsi and experience life with a local family for several weeks.
In Isfahan Lonnie DelRay, the director of the Iran America Society there, had arranged with a local family to take in a paying guest. He coordinated with USIS Tehran. I would be the guest.
I was welcomed into the family and began an intense period of interaction with the six children ranging in age from twelve to eighteen and their mother. Her husband was away on business, returning occasionally to be with his family. The eldest son was head-of-household by custom. He was also my teacher. I was to help him and his younger siblings with English lessons and speaking and he would help me with Farsi and so much more.
Isfahan is a beautiful, historic city—once the capital of Persia. It was spring time and I went for daily walks with my host in the late afternoons. We visited shops, the main bazaar, the mosques, and other great buildings. I took a lot of photographs. In those days there was no problem with my being a guest in an Iranian family and moving around the city and flying to and from Tehran. In fact, once I returned to work at USIS Tehran, my family and I enjoyed freedom of movement in the city as well as on trips to other parts of Iran. In winter, we often went skiing in the mountains north of the city. The Shah was a great skier and had done much to promote skiing with new infrastructure. He also encouraged participation in international sporting events and sponsored tennis tournaments that brought American tennis players to Tehran.
My family and I visited my host family in Isfahan twice and took a long road trip to Tabriz and the Caspian Sea on a vacation during my years in Iran. This would be impossible today. Although some American and European tourists still manage to visit Iran, they are usually in groups that are accompanied by “minders” that determine itineraries and what they can see.
My host, his mother, and his siblings were curious about me and my purpose for staying with them. Lonnie had explained that I was a new arrival at the U.S. embassy in Tehran and left it up to me to talk about my work and about my life in America.
After an early morning breakfast each day, the children would leave for their respective schools: the three girls to one school, the four boys to two other schools. The school day ended just after noon and everyone returned home for the big meal of the day which their mother had prepared.
As for me, after breakfast, I would spend time in my room reading Farsi texts from typical schoolbooks that Lonnie had procured. I made notes and then discussed my questions with the eldest son, my teacher. In this way and with his explanations, I learned distinctions in the colloquial language that were not taught at FSI. I also learned the “silent” language as he and I made our rounds among different shops and other places. I learned facial expressions and some verbal cues that were part of their everyday communication. Every other weekend I would fly back to Tehran to visit my family and tell my wife about my learning experiences.
The Isfahan experience helped me to navigate across many cultural differences. I was always treated respectfully and kindly by the people I met while working in Iran. I attribute this in part to things I learned in Isfahan. Language mattered—especially the silent language that was not taught at FSI. The experience of living and interacting with my host family chastened me not to take things at face value. Not to take things for granted.
Role of Women in the Society
I also learned about gender discrimination within the family and between men and women in society as I experienced it in Isfahan and, later, in Tehran.
Pushing against gender mores, the Shah and, especially, his wife promoted the education of girls and women. They had daughters and the Shahbanu Farah Pahlavi pushed hard for women to go to college and for women graduates to enter government service including the police force and national defense forces. I had occasion to learn more about this when I interviewed candidates for Fulbright scholarships. I found that the most interesting and best prepared candidates were women. Just prior to the 1979 revolution, the number of women in many of Iran’s colleges exceeded the number of men. Much of this has been lost under the current regime. Yet, today, women are again at the forefront in the fight for human rights and personal freedom in Iran.
The girls in my host family belonged to a younger generation of Iranian women that have not remained quiet over unfair treatment, brutality, arrests, and even killings suffered at the hands of police and government agents. In protests about the 2009 election outcome, philosophy student Neda Agha Soltan was shot while walking back to her car. Her killing was caught on video and released to the world. It unleashed worldwide protests.
In the most recent protests after the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16 while in custody under the notorious “morality police”, women are leading protests in cities and universities across Iran in open defiance of the strictures against them. Remembering my host family’s daughters, I support their efforts and their quest for greater freedom in support of human rights.
Learning to bargain in local shops and bazaars helped me understand interpersonal communications better. Observing the family’s dynamics, I learned a lot about the pecking order among the six children and their relationships with their mother. I learned about the differences between the boys and the girls. All of the girls and their mother wore chadors when they left the house to go to school or to local shops. The two youngest usually went together. The older daughter was in middle school and was a good student. I observed that she and her sisters were diligent about their lessons while a couple of their younger brothers were lazy and more interested in kicking a soccer ball around at a local field. My host and teacher and his younger brother were very serious in their studies and aspired to attend college.
After completing my two months with the family, I returned to Tehran shortly before a visit by President Nixon. At that time, before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran was one of our staunchest allies in the Middle East. Nixon came from Moscow to ask the Shah for help protecting U.S. security interests in the Middle East, including by opposing a Soviet-allied Iraq. In return, Nixon promised to sell Iran more high-tech weaponry. During his visit I was assigned to work with representatives from the Ministry of Information and to facilitate communication between its representatives and members of the traveling White House press that arrived with the president.
Having had the Isfahan experience, I was psychologically and mentally prepared. It was as though I had lived in the country for a long time. My Farsi was fluent, and I was able to pick up on all kinds of unspoken cues among the Iranian officials with whom I dealt. I knew how to make non-verbal responses that communicated a lot to them, and most of them accepted me as an equal because we conversed in their language and on their cultural terms.
In later work in which I traveled to other cities for cultural presentations, my Isfahan experience bolstered my ability to get right down to business with local sponsors, university officials, and local media representatives. Our cultural and educational exchanges were extensive. The number of Iranian students in the U.S. kept growing, reaching over 50,000 by 1980; at that peak point, Iran sent more students to the U.S. than any other country.
Again, the fact that I spoke their language and exhibited non-verbal behavior that they recognized meant that we more easily were able to discuss issues and agree upon further actions. My experiences in bargaining in local shops in Isfahan meant that I was ahead of the game when it came to negotiating arrangements for program events.
Later in my assignment, my host from Isfahan came to Tehran to begin his studies at a teacher training college and we met frequently. One time, I took my family on a road trip to Isfahan to meet my host family. We all went to a mountain town where the family owned a small farm. There, we spent a wonderful day and my daughter enjoyed playing with the younger girls of the family. It was a magical experience for all of us, made more so because I was able to communicate intimately with family members.
I took my experiences in Isfahan and Iran with me on other assignments—India, Afghanistan, Austria, Germany, and Poland. Language training in Farsi meant that learning other languages came easier. Polish was the most difficult to learn, but my fluency in German (I had been a student in Munich for four years) enabled me to work between the two inflected languages more quickly than between Polish and English. In my assignment in Warsaw, I felt at home conversing in Polish with many different people in cultural affairs. Once again, the fluency and the “silent” language were essential to effective communication and to the success of my assignment and work.
Bruce Byers is a retired Foreign Service officer who held assignments in Tehran, Mumbai, Kabul, and several European posts including Warsaw. He also served in Manila before returning to Washington for assignments at the Department of State. He was involved in cultural and informational affairs in the U.S. Information Agency prior to transferring to the State Department when USIA was consolidated into State in 1999. He retired in 2000 and worked part-time for several years in the International Visitor Leadership Program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at State.