A conversation with the Persian language professor at Sofia University about her memories of life shared between Bulgaria and Iran, the history of Iranian Studies in Bulgaria and the particularities of Bulgarian-Iranian relations
Dr. Hajar Fiouzi was a lecturer in Persian language at Sofia University, New Bulgarian University and Iranian Cultural Center. He holds a PhD in chemistry. She worked at the High Institute of Chemistry and Technologies, the Institute of Chemical Research and the Vladaya Chemical Factory, where he had a work experience of about 12 years before going to Iran between 1976 and 1984. In Iran, she worked at the Tobacco Research Institute of Iran and in Tehran at a factory as head of a chemical laboratory. In 1984, because of the Iran-Iraq war, she returned to Bulgaria. She started working at the cigarette factory in Sofia as a chemical expert. The Persian Bridge of Friendship blog talks to her about the life and work of an Iranian woman who chose to live in Bulgaria.
Mrs Fiouzi, you have a very rich professional life, divided between Iran and Bulgaria. What do we need to know about you?
I am a doctor of chemistry. I have worked in Bulgaria and Iran as a chemistry specialist. I was head of a laboratory in Iran. After I retired in Bulgaria, another phase of my life began. I worked at the Cultural Centre of Iran in Sofia. Since 1999 I started as a lecturer and taught Persian language and culture at St. Kliment Ohridski University in Sofia, majoring in Iranian Studies, at the New Bulgarian University and at the Cultural Centre of Iran.
In addition to this work, I have translated various literary works from Bulgarian into Persian and written articles in the Bulgarian press about poets such as Hafez, Sadegh Hedayat, Parvin Etesamy and numerous articles on literature, poetry, cinema, Iranian women and other topics.
When did you and your family finally settle in Bulgaria?
We lived in Iran until 1984, but the Iran-Iraq war forced us to move. Many young people died in that war. We wanted to raise our children in peace. But my relationship with Bulgaria goes back long before that – to my chess days.
Bulgaria used to trade a lot with Iran – especially tobacco and cigarettes. Many times I was posted from Iran to Bulgaria and vice versa – from Bulgaria to Iran – to check the quality of tobacco and tobacco products, especially cigarettes, that Iran received from Bulgaria.
There was another practice – some cigarettes were manufactured directly in Bulgaria. We used to go to where these cigarettes were produced and tell them what conditions they had to meet in order to be brought to Iran.
Then we did a lot of translations in chemistry. I had specialized books in Bulgarian in my library in Iran, and they helped me.
And what was your husband’s specialty?
He studied at the University of Economic Sciences (now the University of National and World Economics – an equivalent of the ASE in Bucharest) under Academician Jacques Nathan. He did his PhD here. For several years he worked at the Bulgarian University of Economics as a senior researcher and lecturer. From 1978 to 1984, he worked at Iran Tobacco in Iran as a senior economic expert. He then retired to Bulgaria. When my daughter Shari died, he could not survive the loss. He died a few years later.
Wasn’t it difficult to work in two different countries?
I had 20 years of professional experience in Bulgaria and 8-9 years in Iran, but as there was no agreement on mutual recognition of professional experience and social protection between the two countries, I retired only on the basis of professional experience in Bulgaria. I have no pension from Iran.
I like productivity. I have translated various stories into Bulgarian for Iranian cultural magazines. From Nikolai Haytov, Jordan Radicikov, Vladimir Zarev and children’s literature – “The Blue Arrow” by Italian author Gianni Rodari (I translated it from Bulgarian into Persian), also Bulgarian and Persian women’s poetry in the volume “Like a colorful dream”. And, of course, I was a Persian language teacher. I have also been invited to translate when needed. I have also translated at many Bulgarian-Iranian cultural events. I felt respected by everyone I interacted with.
You are also one of the first professors of the Iranian Studies major, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2023. What do you remember about the period 1992-1993, when the decision was made to create the aforementioned major?
At the heart of this specialisation was an associate professor, Jamshid Sayyar, who was an important personality. He was instrumental in establishing Iranian studies when it was just a field within other Oriental studies at Sofia University.
The specialty was established with three full-time lecturers – Ivo Panov, Lyudmila Yaneva and Iveta Zlatarova. Hadi Azadi, Reza Mehraz, Hajar Fiyuzi (me) and Nedyalko Nedyalkov were lecturers.
We had ambitions. Then we managed to get a Persian language class at school 18.
What do you remember about the first students at the major? How dynamic were Bulgaria’s relations with Iran then?
The first students became famous. One of them is the current Bulgarian ambassador to Iran. Nowadays, the head of the Iranian studies specialisation is one of our graduates, and many of our other students hold prestigious and responsible positions.
The two countries, Iran and Bulgaria, had significant trade before EU accession, which reoriented Bulgaria’s foreign policy priorities. In the 1990s, the newly established Iranian Cultural Centre, established in 1993, was also very active. Myself and an Iranian cultural representative – Mr Hosseini Alest, as well as the late Prof. Fedotov, were involved in the discussions that led to the purchase of the current Iranian Cultural Centre building.
What kind of activities did you develop at that time?
We organized celebrations, exhibitions, various events. We used to send students from Bulgaria to Iran. We also facilitated contacts with teachers from Iran and invited them to the cultural centre.
This centre has not been very active in recent years…
The corona crisis has taken its toll. But in general, it has been active, especially in the period before EU accession. Now, again, Iran has the ambition to expand and strengthen the Cultural Centre and the specialisation in Iranian studies.
Does Iran still have a particular interest in cultural and multi-directional interaction with Bulgaria?
Yes. The establishment of a Bulgarian Studies Centre in Iran has been discussed for some time. I don’t know exactly what the issue is in this regard – it probably won’t be mentioned publicly. But there is interest in this – both among Bulgarians and Iranians. Professor Fedotov has a lot of merit in this.
Bulgarians and Iranians love each other. Every year many Iranian tourists come to Bulgaria. Cultural cooperation between the two countries is also growing.
Iran wants to develop Iranian studies in Bulgaria. To have more students, more relations with Iran. Even though Iran is under sanctions, it remains a rich country and there is money for developing cultural and academic ties. Iran offers different forms of education – intensive courses, long-term courses, opportunities to travel to the country, to learn about its culture.
Is Bulgaria interested in this?
Bulgaria is very interested, but not all politicians appreciate the potential of Bulgarian-Iranian relations. Bulgaria also has various social problems that we who live here experience. That’s why some relations are becoming more difficult. But there is an interest in both countries to develop the relationship.
Talking about social problems in our country, I remember that you translated Vladimir Zarev’s novel “Ruin” into Persian, which talks about the transitional years and the social price paid by the people of that period. Why didn’t this translation appear in Iran?
Iran has a taboo on depicting sex scenes in its literature. And the novel “Ruin” has a lot of them. I spoke to various people in Iran, including the potential publisher, who told me that if these scenes had been removed, the novel would not be the same. Zarev intentionally used them to suggest the fall of morality during the transition. They play an important role in his message. But contemporary Iranian literature cannot speak freely about sex.
You were friends with the intellectual elite of the Contemporary. Have you met Pavel Vejinov, an author who has also been translated into Romanian?
Yes, of course. A lot of people from Bulgaria’s intellectual elite in the 80s and 90s used to come and visit him at home. Later, when my very talented and capable daughter Sharare died in 1999, many of these people participated in the writing of a special book in her memory – “Shari Peacock – A tear from God’s eye”. One of these people was the late Prof. Alexander Fedotov – a long-time president of the Center for Eastern Languages and Cultures. I know the editorial staff of “The Contemporary”: Vladimir Zarev, Vladimir Minkov, Ivan Golov, Zheny Bojinova, but Pavel Vejinov, the founder of the magazine, sadly passed away.
You have two children – both with outstanding abilities in their domains…
My son is a cardiac surgeon working in Italy. He graduated in medicine in Sofia and took up his profession in Bulgaria. He and his wife are university colleagues, she is an ophthalmologist and Bulgarian. He is constantly striving to develop, and this has taken him abroad. But he returns often and one of his roles is to train other doctors in our country.
The loss of my daughter is the great pain of my life. She was very capable as a student. She graduated from a Russian high school. She then studied architecture, but continued her studies in this field in England. There she became part of the British cultural elite. She had exhibitions. Wrote the novel English as a Foreign Language. She was a ballerina. Married an Englishman.
Her talents could not remain hidden and constantly pushed her on. But she hid her health problem from us for a long time. She died in Germany.
She left many things behind. Her husband was an Englishman who had been a colleague of hers at university. In a famous south London park, he regularly leaves her a flower by their tree. Intellectuals in England planted a tree in her memory.
You had a moment of great recognition for your work – when the team that worked for 20 years to create the Persian dictionary of over 55,000 words received the World Book Award at a special event in Tehran. How did all this happen?
I received an official invitation from Iran to attend the event. I received it in my capacity as compiler. Prof. Dr. Ivo Panov as editor. There were a total of four of us working on the dictionary. The handing over took place in the presence of the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. The event was extremely solemn and showed the great respect Iranians have for books in general. In the great hall Talar Vahdat.
To what extent have you faced not only recognition in Bulgaria but also prejudice and disrespect for being Iranian?
There are some stupid thoughts that people sometimes express. For example, they consider Iranians as Arabs. This is quite offensive to us. Our language is Indo-European. But I think this is changing because now there are more Iranians in Sofia and people are getting to know us. The Iranian Cultural Centre and, if you don’t consider that among Iranian teachers there are also braggarts, I also have a lot to do with knowing Iran and ancient culture. For example, I wrote the book “Persian Words in Bulgarian” , which Bulgarians are very much looking for.
As a translator, I have come across cases where a bad or ill-intentioned translation can ruin the lives of young Iranians who are wrongly accused of a crime. It is important to see the human in everyone – regardless of language, colour. I believe that, in time, these problems will be overcome.
Iran relies heavily on foreign tourists precisely because it is convinced that real, direct contact with them can help overcome stereotypes and clichés.
I understand that Mr Reza Mehraz died a year ago. What do you remember about him?
He was an agronomy graduate. He worked constantly and was physically active even long after he retired. His family and sons were very decent people. He taught first at the 18th school and then Iranian Studies.
He came to Bulgaria, like me, in the second half of the 1950s.
How do you assess the development of Iranian Studies with the new generation of teachers, who were actually still students 12-13 years ago?
I am convinced that the generations of teachers and former and new students will make an effort for the development of Iranian studies, because Bulgarians are very intelligent and curious, which will bear fruit for the future development of relations between the two nations. Soon we will celebrate the 125th anniversary of diplomatic and cultural relations between Iran and Bulgaria.
You mentioned to me some time ago a gazelle of Hafez, which you associate with Sharare. Could you also share it with readers now, instead of ending the interview?
The great Hafez had a son who died prematurely, and Hafez was not himself for a while due to grief. He wrote a gazelle in memory of his son, who was “the fruit of his heart”. After several centuries, I, an insignificant person, became a partner in Hafez’s grief, losing my daughter. This is the gazelle:
The gazelle suffered from her – a created flower.
The wind of jealousy covered the heart with thorns.
With beautiful illusions the parrot is happy,
But, for a moment, the flood fatally hid her hopes.
May the memory of my offspring burn in me forever
The grief that he left and did not hear that I cried: Stop!
Lord, behold, my burden has fallen, but bark me not,
but for God’s sake, help me to keep my hopes good,
see the dust from my face, with tears wipe it away,
with this turquoise clay make me a merry inn.
O, the envious eye of the moon returns,
The tender eyebrows in the grave scratch, who in the dust planted them?
Eh, Hafez, don’t tip your scythe and lose yourself,
But what can I do, when time has tricked me! (translation: Dimitar Hristov)
Photo: Dr. Hajar Fiouzi