Arabic and Persian: Language, Food, and History

Several Fridays ago I attended an incredible event that was a joint effort between the Persian and Arabic language studies programs, in which professors from both departments spoke about their respective language and its role in the history and culture of the Middle Eastern region. I had no idea that both languages used the same alphabet; this seemed incredibly strange to me until I realized that the romance languages share a common alphabet, so why shouldn’t languages from another region draw their words from the same letters?

My interest was definitely piqued in wanting to learn and understand these beautiful languages. I speak somewhat fluent Spanish, and it was interesting to learn that many words in Spanish actually derive from Arabic. I am also learning Hebrew, and can hear similarities between the Hebrew and Arabic languages when I listen to spoken Arabic.

Another element of the lecture was food; there was a delicious array of dishes from both Arabic and Persian culture. Mediterranean cuisine is my all time favorite, so I was familiar with many of the foods laid out. However, one that I had never tried before was a Persian saffron pudding, which was tinted yellow and had hints of rose in its complex flavor array. The head of the Iranian Studies Department spoke on the topic of food from the Middle Eastern region, and about some of the eating habits that differ from our habits in the Western world. She highlighted the importance of community in Arabic and Persian-speaking countries, where people really take the time to sit down together to share a meal. And although in the West we are big on sitting in chairs around a proper table, it turns out there are many health benefits to eating on the floor, which is typical of how people eat in the Middle East.

The final topic talked about was tea. I was fascinated to learn that Middle Easterners were originally religious coffee drinkers; however, with the advent of the silk road, tea became a very common and important commodity in peoples’ lives. When I was in Israel this past December, I often drank black tea with fresh mint. I was delighted when I saw a table with pots of tea and a fresh bowl of the fragrant herb, as it transported me back to my own journey to a country of the Middle East.