In Conversation with Polina Ivanova and Mehdi Hesamizadeh

I met historian Polina Ivanova and artist Mehdi Hesamizadeh in Yerevan, Armenia in January 2020 when I travelled there to participate in Mejlis Institute’s Persian Language and Cinema Winter Programme. Mejlis Institute was launched by Polina and Mehdi in 2019 as a non-profit organisation with the aim to bring to life the premodern meaning of the word ‘mejlis’—a social gathering for the purpose of reciting and discussing poetry, playing music and enjoying good company. In the spirit of ‘mejlis’ the principal mission of the Institute is to provide a platform for such gatherings, fostering learning through education programmes. The Institute holds summer and winter schools for an intensive study of languages, such as Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish and others, regular language courses throughout the year, lecture series, workshops, poetry readings, music performances, exhibitions, book presentations and film screenings. With its location in Yerevan, Mejlis Institute celebrates the historical position of Armenia as a contact zone between different cultures and languages, and thus, aims to strengthen the role of Yerevan as a hub of international cooperation.

Entangled in the New Year’s celebrations, my arrival to Yerevan on January 1, just as the purpose of my trip, was misunderstood by almost everyone. My Airbnb host has never heard of any institute in his historical residential neighbourhood of Aygestan. He was also convinced that no one would show up the first day of classes, scheduled at 9.00am on January 2, because people would still be celebrating New Year. Despite the forces of the New Year celebrations, the course did commence as planned. Reflecting back, I understand that the scrupulous nature of the course is an extension of the academic rigor prioritised at Mejlis Institute. Personally, my academic experience at Mejlis Institute was excellent: I achieved a tremendous progress in my language skills in Persian and was introduced to unique works of Persian cinematography. As a way of celebrating the impressive beginnings of Mejlis Institute, it is my pleasure to present the interview with Polina Ivanova and Mehdi Hesamizadeh.

The neighbourhood of Aygestan, Yerevan, Armenia.

How did you come up with the idea to found Mejlis Institute?

Polina: There is a longer story, and there is a shorter story. The longer story may not be interesting for a wider audience, because that is more of a personal story. We were gathering with friends to read poetry for informal poetry nights. Then we thought it would be great to actually formalise it, so that we can invite more people and make it into a kind of institution that would continue itself and do other sorts of things, not just reading poetry for fun, but doing all kinds of cultural programmes. So, this is kind of the long pre-story to the institute, and it was two years ago.

Was the poetry reading in Persian or in multiple languages?

Polina: Actually, we began with Greek and Romanian poetry, and it was during the night devoted Lorca’s poetry that we decided to do something larger out of these gatherings, which were around 10-15 people. Then, we began thinking of Armenia and its place. This is deeply intertwined with our personal stories. Intellectually speaking, I came to Armenia from Anatolia, because I was studying the Ottoman history, and then, medieval Anatolian history. Slowly, I became interested in Armenian culture as part of the other cultures of the Middle East. Thus, I travelled to Armenia to learn Armenian language with awareness that the country represents cultures of the broader Middle East.

Mehdi: I came here because of a different reason, but it is also a very personal story. I came here from Iran as a musician to work with the local musicians. It is not accidental that I chose Armenia, because this country is a crossing point for people from different places: Syria, Egypt, Russia, Azerbaijan and etc. Working in music, I travelled to different places, but here in Armenia I feel at home. It is a small country, but it is a point of intersection of the larger world surrounding it.

Polina: Armenia is not unique in this; these kinds of connections are an integral part of any human society. No culture is pure or isolated. It is always an amalgam. Armenia is not different. What makes Armenia in our eye special is that it is a hub geographically speaking: Iran is here; Anatolia is here; Mesopotamia, and obviously the Caucasus.

The neighbourhood of Aygestan, Yerevan, Armenia.

Did you have any reservations about choosing Armenia?

There have been some practical concerns. Armenia is still very much dealing with the legacy of the 20th-century nationalism, which is not past and is still with us now. Armenian culture remains still a very nationalistic culture. And for a good and bad reasons. Partly this has to do with the Armenian state having been built after the genocide, when celebrating anything national was a celebration of survival. Yet, despite this environment, the education that children get in schools, the kind of history that is being taught here, Armenia has quite an open society.

Doing what we are doing here, although it is in some ways may be a counter-mainstream understanding of history and culture, we do not feel threatened; we have not had any negative reactions from anyone we spoke with. We think that people here are curious. For example, people passing on the street and seeing the name of our organisation ‘Mejlis’ will say: ‘Isn’t “Mejlis” the name for the national assembly of the Crimean Tatars?’

They will be puzzled more but they will not be necessarily aggressive. They will say: ‘This sounds like something Muslim.’ We have not until today seen any aggression. So, when thinking of the original conception, we considered Armenia to be a good choice, where students from different countries can come together. It is a safe and welcoming place.

Mehdi:  After the Soviet period, it was difficult to find an institute, and place, where you can gather and have a simple intellectual conversation. And that was our initial concern. We know we can go to a different place, but here, we feel and see the positive feedback.

Why and how did you develop the format of the Institute?

Polina: We chose the format that we did quite consciously. At one point, we were thinking of collaborating with university. Then we thought that we wanted to go a different way. We decided to establish it as a non-profit, basically an NGO, in order to be free with our format. What does this mean? There was always this question mark: is this academic or is this not academic? Well, we then thought, we do not have to necessarily put ourselves into one frame. We can take from academia what we like—being rigorous, having high standards, having high demands—but also avoid some things we find counter-productive in terms of intellectual life and community, such as some aspects of competition and hierarchy. We wanted it to be as much as possible an open place, open to all kinds of students, not necessarily academics, but also to those who have genuine interest in learning, so that we can have people of different levels and from different places come together—that is our primary concerns. In terms of the format, we did not want to do something just academic. We wanted to be more interest oriented. Let’s say if we want to do some kind of summer school or seasonal school…Mehdi is working on cinematography for a workshop for filmmakers…why not? We can do it here, because it speaks to our goal of bringing people together, working together on interesting topics. If we want to do a workshop, like the history of the multicultural city, which is invisible today, we can do it working with students, architects, amateur historians. We are not putting ourselves into some kind of chains of how things should be done in an academic institution.

Yerevan is cosmopolitan. Here is the land of the Armenian people, but we want to make an important point about Armenian people: historically, Armenians are known to have been always multilingual, with one foot in one culture and the other foot in another culture, serving as translators. Hence, you have Armenians speaking Armenian and Persian, Russian, Turkish, French and you can continue this infinitely. We want to celebrate the role of Armenia as a hub, Armenia as crossroads, Armenians as translators.

The Blue Mosque in Yerevan, Armenia.

How did you move from the conceptual idea of the Institute into its establishment?

Mehdi: We liked the area of Aygestan, because it is part of the old Yerevan and it is close enough to the centre but secluded enough as well. We were looking for a house and this one has a garden, and as an Iranian I can tell you that this is very important for us. As metaphors in Persian poetry have it, a garden is the part of the house, where you can be the gardener of you soul. When we found this house, it was an abandoned, ruined place.

Polina: This was six-months of hard work repairing the house with our own hands and those of our friends. We are still in the process of renovating other parts of the house, but we made it ready for the summer school in 2019. At the same time, we were managing the program, writing emails to universities and etc. to invite lecturers. It was all happening at once.

Any thoughts for the future?

In terms of funding the programme, we are a non-profit, we just need money to pay the running expenses and pay the salaries, and we would like to make it free for all participants. We would like this programme to be possible not only for international students who have university support, but also for Armenian student, and specially the Iranian students, for whom it is extremely difficult to go abroad. They can come to Armenia, they don’t have a visa problem, but accommodation in Armenia, even if it is reasonably priced, is too expensive for them. Our goal is to be able to offer a simple, shared accommodation and a tuition-free study for different kinds of students. Now we do charge tuition to cover the expenses of the programme, but it is a very open policy. We ask students, who come from universities, who can support themselves or who otherwise have resources, to pay tuition to support us and make it possible. But for student who do not have the resources we offer tuition waivers, because we will never say no to anyone who would like to come. It is a good working solution for now, but of course in the future we hope we can have more sustainable funding.

Steps leading to the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, Yerevan, Armenia.

We are open to expanding in various ways. The summer course has a ‘connected histories’ component to it, and we like that our group consists of students learning Persian, Turkish and Armenian, and how they interact with each other and learn in the context of these other languages being taught next door, and how they have lectures on connected histories. We hope to add Kurdish to our list of languages, and we would be happy to accommodate larger versions of this programme. This was a pilot project and we can do a month-long course on Persian and Persian cinema, or a poetry course. One of our policies is that we try to understand what the needs of the students are and then try to shape our programmes in such a way that those needs are met.

What are your reflections on the past programmes you held? What worked? What did not work?

In the summer we admitted 15 students, but three of them cancelled, so we ended up having 12 students. I would not say that everything worked, but one thing that worked very well was the idea of connected languages and histories. We had students from Turkey learning Armenian and an Armenian student learning Turkish, and Turkish students learning Persian, multiple linguistic overlaps, and when we had our coffee break in the garden, we would speak all of these languages together and that was very sweet. This meant that students had an extra chance to practice with a native speaker and reinforce what they learned in class. That really worked very well, and we had a very interesting series of lectures and explored the notion of connected histories from archaeology, ancient history, music, medieval literature. We will repeat the course, but it will never be the same because we would invite different lecturers, and of course, students would be different, so there would be different interests and focuses. It will be the same framework, but it will take a different shape every time.

In terms of something that did not work, well, I wish that our students from Iran could come. We had a few applicants from Iran, whom we wanted to invite, but most of them even on tuition waiver, could not come here. Even though they could come here by bus, accommodation here is really expensive for them, and even life, which does not seem expensive for someone from Europe is expensive for Iranian students. For us this is really the missing link. We wish for Iranian students, teachers, scholars to come here and we hope we can find the resources to make it possible. With local students from Armenia, we would like to make ourselves more known here as an open institution, so that local students would join us. These are our goals for this year and years to come.

Mejlis Institute is holding a summer programme between July 13 – August 14, 2020, which will consist of three parallel language courses – Armenian, Persian and Turkish – and a series of seminars devoted to topics in connected histories of Armenia, Iran and Anatolia.  I encourage all interested students to check out Mejlis’ website. I thank Polina, Mehdi and Maryam (our Persian instructor) for all of their work. I personally had an amazing time and I look forward to participating in Mejlis in one capacity or another soon.