Earlier this month, when the Iranian government announced that it had hanged the 23-year-old protester Mohsen Shekari, Leyla Shams appeared in an Instagram video, wearing a shirt bearing the name of her country, and translated the protest cry that erupted in response to the execution: “I will kill, I will kill, he/she who killed my brother.”
For Shams, the Austin-based creator of Chai & Conversation, founding a Persian-language class always felt like a political act. She started the program in 2010, shortly after Iran’s Green Movement, the massive protest effort spurred by what many thought to be fraudulent presidential elections. Protesters demanded the removal of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which resulted in hundreds of arrests and several deaths. At that time, Shams looked to her friends in the diaspora, many of whom had found ways to contribute remotely to the movement. Her artist friends in Austin were making music, art, and T-shirts in support of protesters on the ground. Shams, an immigrant from Iran who’d worked as an architect, had always felt like a cultural liaison to Iran. She loved Persian culture, often misunderstood and misrepresented by the West, and was eager to shed light on its nuances with Iranians in the diaspora and non-Iranians alike. “It’s harder to want to see someone as an enemy if you understand their culture,” she said.
At the same time, she recognized the risk of alienating a broader audience by engaging directly with politics. She started a podcast in 2010 modeled on the popular language show Coffee Break Spanish, and made it accessible to the masses. With the help of a non-Iranian friend who acted as her student and co-host, she would record short, simple lessons in conversational Persian, which she posted onto her website, freely available for anyone to use. Students could access a PDF guide for each lesson for a dollar via PayPal. “It was very low tech,” Shams said, speaking on a Zoom call.
Over the next decade, Chai & Conversation evolved into an online subscription service with comprehensive lesson plans serving a range of levels, and membership tiers that span $20–30 per month. In the past four years, Shams accrued more than 10,000 subscribers, most of whom are Iranian-heritage speakers or non-Iranians who are either dating or married to Iranians, as well as a small percentage of non-Iranians who came to the program out of sheer interest in Persian culture. Shams also created an Instagram page to post short, instructive videos, where she built an audience of more than 44,000 followers. She stuck to material that was accessible and fun: Videos teaching students what to say when someone sneezes (“aafeyat bashid”), or the “correct” way to pronounce American names like McDonald’s and Starbucks when you’re Persian. She kept her podcast as a platform to interview Iranians in the diaspora, such as Zahra Tabatabai, the founder of the Brooklyn-based brewery Back Home Beer.
That all changed on September 16, 2022, the day that Mahsa (Jina) Amini died in custody after being arrested by the Islamic Republic’s so-called “morality police” for allegedly wearing hijab improperly, sparking months of countrywide protests calling for an end to Iran’s violent and oppressive regime. Shams was due to give birth to her second child days later, and she had queued up pre-recorded lessons in preparation for having her hands full with the baby. With the Islamic Republic’s violent crackdown on protesters, Shams realized she couldn’t release those same lighthearted lessons while Iranians were putting their lives at risk on the ground. “All of a sudden it was like, whoa—this is much bigger than one person,” she said. “We can’t just go about our business as usual.” She took her Instagram page dark. Then, she shifted course.
Diverging from her normal lessons, she began using her Instagram page as a place to broadcast information about what was going on abroad—reposting videos that had been shared via social media by folks on the ground in Iran. Instead of teaching the names of colors, she took to translating protest slogans, posting videos of protesters on Iranian streets chanting those same lines. “I felt like I had a duty to support people in Iran and to amplify their messages through our platform,” she said.
In one of her courses, Shams teaches conversational Persian through Iran’s classical poetry, which is deeply rooted in the language and culture of Iran. Much like the modern Persian language itself, these political slogans are often infused with metaphor and layers of meaning. One of her favorites, “heez toyee, harzé toyee, zané azadé manam,” takes words weaponized by the Islamic Republic against women—heez and harzé, which mean “slut” and “pervert”—and re-appropriates them. Translated, the line means: “You’re the pervert, you’re the slut. I’m a liberated woman.” Said Shams, “I like that a lot: taking the language of oppression and turning it around.”
The main rallying cry of the ongoing protest movement, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” derived from a popular Kurdish political slogan, underscores the fact that the current fight for freedom and equality in Iran is a women-led movement. Sham recalled a recent interview she’d seen between CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour and Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, in which Satrapi echoed a commonly cited sentiment—that a society can be judged by how it treats its women. “Women’s rights and human rights are the same thing,” Satrapi said in the interview. “As someone who lives in Texas, who sees how women are being oppressed here, I do think that women’s rights are at the forefront of the issue,” Shams said. “The way a society treats women really says a lot about how they treat all humans in their society.”
There’s a saying in Persian, “Inja Texas nist,” which literally translates to “This isn’t Texas.” The expression is used when trying to convey to someone that they’re not in a lawless land. They can’t just do whatever they want. They’re not in Texas. But Shams contends that Iran and Texas have a lot more in common than meets the eye, and has written about their similarities for her blog. Chief among them, she writes, is that both Texas and Iran are broadly misunderstood and stereotyped, reduced to their politics rather than their people.
Shams immigrated to Texas when she was just shy of four years old, in 1986. Her uncle pioneered the way for her family when he moved there prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, to study structural engineering at Cisco College. The rest of her family felt pressure to move in the years following the revolution due to their political involvement. Her aunt, who was only a teenager at the time, had been arrested and imprisoned for two weeks. “She’s never talked about what happened to her in prison,” Shams said. “Afterwards the family said, ‘Let’s get out of here. We need to get her out.’ ”
Shams’ family made their new home in Dallas, though the past would come to haunt them in spite of the physical distance. Another of her uncles was the victim of a car bombing in Dallas, and died of burns on his body three days later. While they don’t know the motive or who did it, her family suspects it was tied to his political activities in Iran. Nevertheless, Shams said she had an overwhelmingly positive immigration experience. “[The city] was very accepting of immigrant communities,” she said, adding, “I’ve always seen Texas as a place of being very ‘live and let live.’ ”
Her mother became the first Persian teacher in the Dallas area, teaching part-time to a group of elementary school-age students while she worked full-time as an accountant for Southwest Airlines. At the peak of her teaching, she had two classes serving two age groups and some 20 students. It was a convenient way for her to expose Shams to Iranian culture and to other kids like her. “It was really important for her that we study the Persian language and learn how to read and write,” Shams said. In her own teaching, Shams has taken a more unconventional approach by focusing on conversational Persian, which departs from the more formal written language. She even ditched the Persian script in favor of phonetic English, which inspired some raised eyebrows from family members. But the point, she said, is to give students the confidence to communicate.
Owing to strained political relations between the United States and Iran, and widespread economic sanctions that have impeded trade relations between the two countries, the Persian language doesn’t really have a clear business application for her students. In Shams’ experience, most of the people who come to class do it for love—for love of their heritage, love of an Iranian partner, or love of the culture. One of her former students, who had married into an Iranian family, sent her a video in which he’d recited a poem by Sohrab Sepehri for his in-laws at their retirement party, bringing them to tears. “Poetry is such an inherent part of Iranian culture and it’s so touching when someone learns original poetry,” Shams said.
Since the beginning of Iran’s current protest movement—what many are now referring to as a revolution—interest in her program has shot up. “I was getting several messages a day of people saying, ‘Okay, now I’m really ready to learn the Persian language because I’m hearing all this stuff that’s coming out of Iran and I want to understand it,’ ” she said. “I realized I could do the same thing as I’d done with poetry. I could teach the language through protest slogans.”