Is Iran ready to present itself to the world?

Is Iran ready to present itself to the world?

An Iranian city (source: Pixabay, CC0)

Interview with the Bugarian journalist and Iranologist Vladimir Mitev on the Bulgarian Iranian Studies and the image of Iran in Bulgaria

Mohammad Asiabani

Bulgaria is located in the southeast of continental Europe and borders Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia, Romania and the Black Sea. It could be a good base for Asians to connect with other European countries. The culture of the Bulgarians has many similarities with the culture of Iran and many lexical similarities are found in the languages ​​of the two countries. The history of political relations between the two countries in the new era is 125 years old.

According to some Bulgarian Iranologists, including Professor Ivo Panov, Iranian philosophy and culture have always been of great interest to Bulgarian intellectuals. But what has Iran benefited from such capacities to expand relations between the two countries? We talked about the cultural presence of Iran in Bulgaria with Vladimir Mitev, a Bulgarian journalist and Iranologist. He is one of the editors of the Barricade website and also manages the The Persian Bridge of Friendship blog.

Mitev speaks Persian well, but for some reason preferred to have the conversation in English. You will read the text of Mehr’s conversation with him, translated by Akram Amini. This article was publilshed on 27 July 2021 at Mehr News Agency.

What is the place of the Persian and Iranian languages ​​in Bulgaria?

Persian language and literature, and Persian culture in general, have a special presence in the Bulgarian spiritual space. As an academic discipline taught in a higher education institution, the Persian language has the greatest presence at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Persian has been taught there since 1959 as an optional subject in Turkology. After the opening of the Arabic and Indology majors, Persian became an optional subject in their curricula.

During different periods, Persian was also taught at the Burgas Free University (1994-1995), the New Bulgarian University (1996-2007), and the Academy of the Ministry of the Interior (2001-2002).

At the secondary level, Persian was taught to a class at the 18th William Gladstone High School in Sofia (1991-1994).

However, I must admit that a serious and constant academic interest towards the Persian language exists only in Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Every year between 12 and 15 students are accepted in the specialty “Iranian Studies” and to date there are over 200 graduates of Iranian studies.

Persian is attractive not only to scholars and diplomats, but also to people who want to work with migrants, who are interested in history, international relations, Islam, intercultural communication and more.

In addition to Persian, Kurdish (Kurmanji) is studied as a second Iranian language at Sofia University.

Tell us about the specialties in Iranian studies in the academic system of Bulgaria. What level are they at? Who are the teachers there?

As I have already said, the only real center for Iranian studies in Bulgaria is at Sofia University. 

During the academic year 1991/1992, “Persian Philology” was opened as a second specialty, in which these disciplines were studied: “Persian language”, “Theoretical grammar of the Persian language”, “History of Persia and Iran”, “Classical Persian literature” and “Contemporary Persian Literature”. Teachers in this new second specialty were Marta Simidchieva and Ivo Panov.

“Iranian Studies” as a full-time university specialty was opened in the academic year 1993/1994 within the framework of the Center for Eastern Languages and Cultures at the Faculty for Classical and Modern Philologies. Since then, Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” annually announces a regular admission for students in the specialty. From its establishment in 1993 to 2020, the head of the specialty was Prof. Ivo Panov. And after his election as director of the Center for Eastern Languages ​​and Cultures, the management of the specialty was taken over by Dr. Sirma Kostadinova.

In addition to Prof. Ivo Panov and Dr. Sirma Kostadinova, full-time lecturers in Iranian Studies are Iliyana Bozhova and Yana Hristova. Part-time teachers are Ina Garova, Petya Gaidarska, Ilona Velikova and me. Alireza Pourmohammad teaches as a guest lecturer. Other Iranian part-time teachers include Mahsa Nourai and Zahra Molayabar.

The curriculum of the bachelor’s degree in the specialty includes 29 compulsory and over 40 optional subjects. From the academic year 2008/2009 classes are also held at the interdisciplinary master’s program “Indian and Iranian cultural and social studies”.

In the curriculum of the specialty “Iranian Studies” together with the theoretical disciplines of Persian – Phonetics, Lexicology, Morphology and Syntax, is intensively taught Theoretical Persian language. The course has a schedule of 14 hours per week for the first two years of study and 10 hours per week for the second two years. Third- and fourth-year students study Kurdish as a second Iranian language four hours a week.

Today, graduates of the Iranian Studies major are more than 200 Iranian graduates, realizing their knowledge and skills in various spheres of public life. Today the staff of the specialty works in a number of state institutions related to diplomacy, security, culture, science, tourism and trade, as well as abroad. The current ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to Iran is one of the best graduates of the Iraniain Studies – Nikolina Kuneva. And the Bulgarian ambassador to Tunisia Slavena Gergova is one of the best students in Iranian Studies from the times, when it was second major.

A detailed presentation of the specialty can be found in the interview with its former head prof. Ivo Panov at the blog “The Persian Bridge of Friendship”.

For the past twenty-seven years, the scientific output of the lecturers in the specialty has exceeded 50 translated and over 20 original books, four of which have been published in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thanks to the efforts and talent of teachers and graduates of the specialty the poetry of Omar Khayyam – translated by Ivo Panov, of “Golestan” by Saadi – translated by Hatije Berber, of “Shah-name” by Ferdousi – translated by Ivo Panov and Alireza Pourmohammad, are available to the Bulgarian readers. The Bulgarian readers are also familiar with contemporary Iranian prose and poetry. Among the most famous translated titles are: “The Head Master” by Jalal al-Ahmad – translated by Marta Simidchieva; the poetry of Malek-Ol-Shoara Bahar – translated by Nikolina Kuneva and Dimitar Milov; collection of short stories and short stories by Sadegh Hedayat “Light and Shadow” – translated by Lyudmila Yaneva, who published stories of Goli Taragi, Roya Shapurian, Moniru Ravanipur, Fariba Wafi, Mahbube Mirgadiri, Zahre Khatami, Shahrnush Parspour Molavi and other contemporary Iranian prose writers. In 2014, she translated Parinush Saniee’s novel The Book of Fate.

Currently, the speciality “Iranian Studies” is part of the Department of Classical East at The Center for Eastern Languages and Cultures at The Faculty of Classical and Modern Philology and trains students in the three educational degrees – bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral. 

As I have already noted, at present the director of the Center for Eastern Languages and Cultures is former head of the specialty “Iranian Studies” prof. dr. Ivo Panov. He is a specialist in Persian classical literature. He has published over 80 scientific articles, and is the author of several books on Omar Khayyam and Persian classical literature.

The Bulgarian-Iranian “Center for the Study of Iran, the Balkans and Central Europe”, headed by Alireza Purmohammad, has an important presence in the field of Iranian studies in Bulgaria. The center is based in Sofia and promotes academic cooperation in Central Europe and the Balkans. For the last 10 years, the Center, together with the speciality “Iranian Studies” and The Society of Friends of the Persian Language and Culture in the Republic of Bulgaria, has organized a series of international scientific conferences.

We can judge the level of Bulgarian Iranian studies internationally by several facts. Bulgarian lecturers are welcome participants with reports at international scientific forums. In 2014, the two-volume Bulgarian-Persian Dictionary received the Grand International Book of the Year Award in Tehran in the Iranian Studies category. This dictionary is the result of 20 years of work of the team, comprised of Evche Pesheva, Abbas Mehdavi, Dr. Hadjar Fiuzi, associate professor Dr. Reza Mehraz. The dictionary was finalized under the scientific editorship of prof. dr. Ivo Panov, for which he needed another 6 years of work. 

And another detail. Only the fact that Sofia is the seat of the “Center for the Study of Iran, the Balkans and Central Europe” suggests the importance of Bulgarian Iranian studies at the international level.

What are the activities of the Bulgarian Iranologues? Did their work bring the cultures of the two countries closer?

I already spoke about some of the activities of the Bulgarian Iranologists in my previous answer. 

As I mentioned, graduates of the specialty work in a number of state institutions related to bilateral relations. Some of the leading Bulgarian diplomats – such as the ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to the Islamic Republic of Iran Nikolina Kuneva and the Bulgarian ambassador to Tunisia Slavena Gergova are Iranologists. A prominent Bulgarian Iranian literary critic is Marta Simidchieva, who lives and teaches in Canada.

A great example of activity, which has brought about approximation between the two nations is

Dr. Hajar Fiuzi’s book on Persian loan words in Bulgarian language. It has been a huge success on the Bulgarian book market. If you search for “Persian words in the Bulgarian language” (in Bulgarian) on Google, you will find a number of blog posts, interviews, forum comments and reports on this issue. Bulgarian society is now much better informed about the historical ties between the Bulgarian and Iranian people.

In addition, if someone searches for information about Bulgaria in the Iranian media, as I sometimes do, they will probably find information about the large number of Persian words in the Bulgarian language. There are different hypotheses about the number of Persian words in the Bulgarian language. According to some they are 500, according to others they are 600, others put the number at 1000 and above. The determining of the exact number of Persian loans requires serious long-term work of a serious scientific team. And the very interest in Persian vocabulary in our native language demonstrates the closeness of our two peoples. It is a closeness, which goes beyond political, geopolitical or business reasons – it is existential. 

However, I must note that the crisis situation, which affects Iran and Iran-related international relations, is being transferred to Iranian studies in Bulgaria. Within Sofia University, for a number of reasons, students focus mainly on Korean studies, Japanese studies, Chinese studies or other Eastern studies. I believe that our society, which has undergone rapid Westernization over the last three or four decades, must develop concepts and understandings that will help it to strengthen communication with Iran with a greater level of understanding and confidence. And here my colleagues are making an effort.

Iranian studies in Bulgaria go through the change of generations – today most of the teachers are under 40 years old. New disciplines are being prepared and proposed. It is important that professors understand that the specialty should be more actively promoted in the media and on social networks. That’s why an Iranian studies website was created. It is actively collaborating with my blog, called the “Persian Bridge of Friendship”, which has a similar goal – to promote Iranian Studies research in Bulgaria and the region. I think the path taken is the right one. I am convinced that over time, through greater use of technology and greater accumulation of knowledge and experience, we will be able to contribute to even greater mutual knowledge between our peoples. And this will lead to their true rapprochement.

How do you assess the activity of the Iranian cultural center in Bulgaria? Do you have a relationship with him? What is your criticism of their activities?

The Iranian Cultural Center in Sofia supports the specialty “Iranian Studies” both morally and financially. As a result of this cooperation, the Iranian Studies speciality already has sufficient technical tools for academic work. The Iranian Cultural Center actively assists teachers and students in their travels in Iran, in publishing Iranian translated books, dictionaries and original books. With his help, joint celebrations of Iranian holidays are organized, various cultural events are held – exhibitions, film festivals, visits to Iranian music groups.

More about the ways in which the Iranian Cultural Center supports Bulgarian Iranian research can be learned from this interview with the last cultural adviser, Mr. Azadi, for Farhang Radio.

The fact that I live not in Sofia, but in the city of Rousse, which is the fifth largest city in Bulgaria, makes me hope that the geography of Iranian cultural events in Bulgaria will expand beyond the biggest cities. I am informed that the Iranian Cultural Center intends to hold days of Iranian cinema outside Sofia. I am also aware that there have been discussions in this sense between the Iranian Ambassador to Bulgaria, His Excellency Seyed Mohammad Javad Rasuli, and the Mayor of Ruse Pencho Milkov. I hope everything ends with the realization of this project! Because people outside the three largest cities would be interested in getting involved in Iranian cultural events. In this regard, I am also in talks with my colleagues in the field of Iranian studies, because in the current times of the Covid-19 pandemic, online events can and should be held more often. We Iranians need to think about how to reach the new generations who live through their smartphones on social networks, which we may not have heard of, and who like to explore the outside world at their own pace and agenda. Today, countries such as China, Japan and South Korea easily impress young people, exporting their non-traditional culture, cartoons, film series, music groups. I think that the Iranian Cultural Center rightly feels that visual arts, such as Iranian cinema, can be an excellent opportunity to promote Iranian culture in Bulgaria.

Tell us a little about the image of Iran in the Bulgarian media. What components do Bulgarians know about Iran and what do they don’t know about Iran?

I think that Iran is present in the Bulgarian media through several major topics. One is related to international relations, the nuclear agreement, the confrontation in the Middle East, the axis of resistance. I do not approve of the tendency of some Bulgarian analysts, visible during the Trump era, to portray Iran as a villain. This tendency serves the forces that oppose the interaction between our countries and regions. 

Iran is known as a country with stronger traditions, with stricter social control, a country with the death penalty. In addition, the international and Bulgarian media are leaking information about the difficult health and economic situation of ordinary Iranians at a time when their country is under severe sanctions. But there is another trend, various people admire Iran for having its own foreign policy.

The other big topic with regards to Iran has to do with the richness of Iranian culture – especially Iranian cinema, which many admire at major international film festivals in Bulgaria. I believe that Iranian cinema is especially fascinating for Bulgarian younger and more intellectual circles, because it is modern and puts the country on the international map in a sophisticated way.

Also, Iran is present in the Bulgarian media mostly online – e.g. on YouTube or in blogs, with stories, photos and videos from trips of Bulgarians to Iran. They all note that the Iranians are very hospitable and willingly invite strangers to their table. I also read memories of Bulgarians who were in provincial areas of Iran, where they felt as if they had returned to Bulgaria in the 1980s and 1990s.

I don’t think our peoples know each other well enough yet. They are not to blame for this, because that is the international situation. Over the last 30 years, Bulgaria has undergone Westernization and Europeanization and for years has neglected its non-European partners.

Bulgarians know that Iran is an ancient country with a rich culture. I know that many of my compatriots are interested in Bulgarian-Iranian historical and cultural ties. Articles are published about Iranian athletes or Bulgarian athletes and coaches operating in Iran, reports from concerts of Iranian traditional music in Bulgaria, about famous Iranian film directors and films are broadcast. Bulgarians know the tales of 1001 Nights, they captivate their imagination and create a positive and exotic image of the Middle East and Iran.

In my opinion, it is not so important how Bulgarians look at Iran at the moment, because the image is not something static, but dynamic. An interesting question is whether Iran is ready and able to promote a more complex and truthful image of itself. For example, it has created a large scientific and engineering expert base and developed modern technologies. Here is an aspect of Iranian society that is little known in our country.

I see my Persian blog as a contribution to a better understanding of Iran in Bulgaria and Romania – whose languages ​​I speak. I also believe that anyone who wants to influence Iran’s public image and relations with the country must think long-term. Iranians must also make efforts to get to know our countries better. And this process is not easy. Because it is easier to express good intentions than to realize them.

There are common words in Persian and Bulgarian. Have studies been done on these words in Bulgaria? How do you see the research in Persian in Bulgaria in general?

I have already mentioned Hajar Fiuzi’s book. It has been republished several times and is already a classic book about the Bulgarian-Iranian cultural exchange.

My colleagues have also studied various aspects of the Persian language. Eg. this interview at Mehr News Agency is about Sirma Kostadinova’s publication on the ability of the Persian language to form metaphorical phrases using body parts. Sirma Kostadinova also implemented a project on “Metaphors in the modern Persian language – origin, current status and classification.”

There is also research on Iranian language policy.

Are there Iranian restaurants in Bulgaria? How about a bookstore? Where do you get Persian books?

There used to be a wonderful Iranian restaurant in Sofia that offered the most delicious Iranian dishes. On several occasions, the former Iranian ambassador, Dr. Abdollah Norousi, invited Iranian professors and students to important meetings. And everyone was fascinated by the Iranian atmosphere, cuisine and hospitality. Unfortunately, for reasons inexplicable to me, it was closed.

CARITAS, a major NGO, recently launched a program to promote refugee entrepreneurship, and a number of supported projects are for Iranian restaurants.

There is no Iranian bookstore in Sofia or any other city in Bulgaria. It would be great if it was opened and became economically viable.

I myself download a number of articles and books in Persian and other languages ​​from the Internet. I am amazed at the “book-loving” characteristic of Iranians. And I believe I share it, given that my small apartment is full of books in a number of languages. Dozens of them are in Persian. I bought them during my only visit to Iran, which took place during my student years.

You are the editor of a site called The Barricade, and you also manage trilingual media in Persian, Bulgarian and Romanian. Tell us about your experience on this site and in the media. What do you do with them and how does it help bring cultures together?

It all started as a Bulgarian-Romanian blog in both languages, which aimed to make my articles beyond the border between the two countries better known. Over time, this blog became a real “Bridge of Friendship”, as it is called, because it began to write about the Bulgarian issues in Romanian and about the Romanian issues in Bulgarian. Its articles were honest and overcame prejudices and clichés about nations. Gradually, it began to have many of his articles in English.

I did it with great enthusiasm because I felt that cross-border relationships were empowering me. And the blog was greeted with support and respect by both Bulgarians and Romanians, although the two nations also have historical differences and skepticism about each other. Thus, a community appeared around the blog, there was a certain reconciliation between the Bulgarian and Romanian readers, the attitudes changed.

The blog is made for non-commercial purposes. Shortly after its creation in 2015, a Bulgarian cross-border media called The Barricade was founded, and I was initially hired to manage its website in Romanian. Over time, I became the manager of publications and social media for the Romanian and English sections of the media. Today “Barricade” is in many respects not only Bulgarian, but also Romanian and Central and Eastern European media with authors and articles from our region and beyond.

The Barricade publishes articles with a certain left or progressive orientation. But it is also interested in international relations, cross-border cooperation and aims to explain Central and Eastern Europe to outsiders, given that there is also an English section. In recent years, it has gone through a number of trials and is still struggling to survive, but it has also evolved a lot and attracted international attention. I see that it provides quality, offers original content, makes the countries of our region more understandable to each other. And sometimes I publish articles about Iran there.

Based on this experience, after I started my Ph.D. research in Iranian literature at Sofia University, I created  in the summer of 2020 the media you are talking about, where articles appear in English, Romanian, Bulgarian and sometimes in other languages ​​such as Persian. It is called ”The Persian Bridge of Friendship” and is something like a little brother of the Bulgarian-Romanian blog.

This is another initiative that does not seek rapid or large-scale achievements. It is important that it exists. In this way, it allows Iranians and other people around the world to get to know me, the issues I am writing about, and our regions to become a little more understandable to each other.

In our part of the world there are many walls of mistrust and doubt in international and interpersonal relations. In the message of the Persian blog, I say that I want to do something new, not just reproduce the main contradictions in our part of the world – between the West or the East, or between some international billionaires who are fighting for influence globally and the whole world is a stage for them. I feel free to develop these projects when I have the resources to do so, and I hope your readers find meaning in them.

Read in Romanian language!

Read in Bulgarian language!

Read in Persian language!

Follow the channel of the blog “The Persian Bridge of Friendship in YouTube! The blog can also be followed in Facebook and Twitter.


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