Interview with ECE Iran Book Author William Bellin

In 2015, ECE published the book, The Islamic Republic of Iran: Its Educational System and Methods of Evaluation.  We asked our author, William Bellin a few questions about his experience writing the book:

William Bellin Who would find this book useful?

I think this book should prove useful to the credential evaluator as a guide to reading documents, understanding the educational system, and feeling confident working with the original language documents.

The government and the schools do an excellent job at documentation and most of the documents are filled with artistic flair. Getting used to the language and understanding the system are the biggest hurdles.  After that, it's fairly smooth sailing with some rough waters from time to time.

Why did you want to write this book?

I started working with Iranian documents, talking to, and corresponding with Iranians and then learning some Persian. The language is beautiful, difficult, and melodic; the people I talked with were interesting and helpful. 

And as for resources there were few. The best book we had was a fine book full of highly insightful information and curriculum and educational changes that was printed in 1999.  It was already 10 years old when I started researching Iran. Then another evaluator, Tom Robinson, asked if I wanted to work on a book about Iran - we'd update the texts, illustrate the most recent changes, which there were plenty, and use Persian throughout.  That sounded great to me.  So we wrote up a proposal and it was accepted.

How long did it take?

We started working on the research in 2010. Because of time constraints, Tom eventually withdrew from the project, although he would later help annotating the first chapter. The final chapter was written in August of 2015 and published I think in September.  So the whole process took about 4 and a half years or so, maybe 5.

What was the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge was probably communication.  But it's amazing how much strangers are willing to help if some gesture of cooperation is initially met. 

I think it helped open some doors when I would begin writing letters with traditional Persian salutations.  People responded to those little details.  When I'd speak to people on the phone, I'd try to add as much Persian as I could.  That often would break the ice or trepidation either because of laughter at my failed attempt/attempts at Persian, or because I'd pronounced it just right at just the right moment.  There is one professor who I talk to still simply because when we were saying goodbye, I used the formal goodbye in Persian.  

What was the most interesting thing you learned about Iran?

This is a list as long as the Persian empire's reign.  There were so many interesting facts I learned while on this journey, but maybe one of the most delightful and troubling is the concept of ta'arof (pronounced tah-rof).  

Ta'arof is the concept of asking without asking, accepting without accepting, offering without offering.  It is best exemplified in the west with the last piece of food on an appetizer plate. No one wants to be the one to take that last piece yet everyone at the table wants to eat it. Then it goes around the table with everyone offering it to each other. 

Ta'arof is complicated. Someone might offer you a place to stay on your visit to Iran. The proper etiquette requires at least a back and forth of a few polite rejections and pious offerings.  It may turn out that the person offering the place to stay has a 400 square foot studio apartment and his three brothers staying with him so no actual room for a guest.  But ta'arof dictates that he should offer, and in turn that you should politely decline. It can be incredibly frustrating but also remarkably instructive because it's manifested in so many different behaviors and conversations. In some ways it epitomizes the Iranian spirit.


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