Professor Profile: Farhang Erfani
Professor Farhang Erfani teaches philosophy at American University. Born and raised in Iran, Erfani and his family fled the country during the Iranian Revolution, forced out as exiles. They lived in France before moving to the US to open a French bakery, Le Caprice DC in Columbia Heights. Erfani studies and teaches about the philosophy of Iranian film. He explains that because of the country’s “barbaric” censorship, women cannot be touched on-screen. Since laws regarding children are less restrictive, Iranian directors often rely on child actors to portray complicated situations.
So do you have a particular example from a film that has sparked these kind of discussions?
The one that we use at the beginning of the semester is called Children of Heaven, and it’s about a brother and sister who end up sharing one pair of shoes because they lost one, and they actually schedule in a way that one wears the pair of shoes then comes home, the other one gets to wear it. Even though it’s a brother and sister they become a proxy of a husband and wife practically, that have to organize their lives around conditions that exist in order to make life work. A lot of it in film theory, or philosophy of film, is about is the situation believable? For you to start saying, 'I’m putting myself in their shoes.' There is a gap there with the children. You don’t get to say, ‘Oh yeah, when I was eight I did that too.' So it forces you to force yourself to identify with them because you know what they’re trying to do. So it’s more than suspension of disbelief. But it challenges the commonplace assumption that in order for identification to work, that you need to have something that’s readily recognizable as ‘normal.’ Well this is evidently not the case. As in, the assumption that in order for you to believe it, you say, ‘I’m kind of like this.’ You have to put yourself in their shoes. And I picked that in part because literally...
There are shoes...
What was it like, growing up and leaving [Iran]?
The way I left...I was about nine, so it’s been a while. Some of my first memories are of the Iranian Revolution and being on my father’s shoulders, just seeing the sea of people and seeing the society turn upside down. My parents were lawyers, and they refused to practice the Islamic law that they found unfair, so they were disbarred and eventually became dissidents and exiled. Like all other exiles, they were literally shooting at us as we were fleeing the country. When you leave on those terms, there’s always a sense that you can’t look back. Iran always stays there for me because it’s a not a sense that I left that behind. We were forced out.
So you consider yourself part of that second wave (of immigrants)?
I would be in a sense because I was not kicked out as an adult but as a child. So it’s different, but my consciousness was shaped by that experience. My parents will only say they’re Iranian. At best, I would say Iranian American, but without the hyphen. The hyphen has a fusion that I don’t sense. A gluing together of the two.
What about French, do you consider yourself French at all?
I have citizenship, but no. France is always part of me in a sense. The French language very much is part of me. I read it daily. It was a country where I spent about a third of my life, so it’s important to me. In France, they have what they call the law of assimilation.
“I would say [I'm] Iranian American, but without the hyphen. The hyphen has a fusion that I don't sense. A gluing together of the two.”
They have no hyphens. You are purely French. Regardless of what you do, they remind you that you’re not it. So the forms of racism and discrimination were overwhelming. Here you just take it as a fact of life, and you deal with it. There it was crushing. Because there was no real future.
What sort of things did you face there?
Oh all kinds of discrimination, but the issue was actually the future. As in, I could have never become a university professor there. Or almost impossible.
Tell me a little about your bakery.
Actually it goes with the same identity issue. The bakery was a family dream nearly two decades in the making. At the end of high school, when I came to the US, the idea was they would follow not long after. My brother came to the US; my sister then moved, but [my parents] still weren’t done in France. They had a tiny little business. It wasn’t a bakery, and my mother always liked being a baker. She was always a good amateur one so she started training there.
What was their business?
Just a small retail shop in northeast France, and by the time they could sell it and come here, it turned out to be 2009. It was 14 years after I came. It was supposed to be almost immediately after I came. Even when it came to looking for jobs after grad school, I only looked for big cities, not only for my own sake but because I knew sooner or later this bakery would come, and I needed to be in a place where it could support a bakery of this kind, and DC was perfect for it in some ways. When they came, it took another two years before the opening, and it’s, you know, it’s been I want to say just as hard as I expected but harder. It’s wonderful because it’s home. I didn’t see them except for visits for many many years, and then now they live a block away, and I get to see them daily.
Do you bake?
Thankfully, no. It’s better for the bakery if I don’t, and there are enough other tasks at which I’m better suited than baking.
All the dealing with the world outside the kitchen. Starting from building the website, being there to deal with vendors, anything that it takes. And just helping like going to do the big wholesale shopping to going to lift the 50 pound bags of flour. Because if it’s not me my father does it, and during the school year he does most of it, cause I don’t have as much time.
My students come there all the time.There’s a long standing tradition of philosophy in cafes. The French like that. That part of France I like.
I like students. This is what I love about AU most. I would never trade this student body for anything else I ever had.
Why are we the best?
I would say these students may not be at times on paper the most interesting, but they are always the most interested students I’ve ever seen. The issue is not, who are you already? Because that’s why you’re in college, you got to form that. What I found amazing about AU is that they are interested in everything. So if you pitch it right, they will go as far as possible. There have been times when I thought, okay, they are just going to start throwing books at me because it’s too hard. But I kept raising the bar, and I’m floored by how students follow everything.
For me in a sense philosophy saved my life because when I was a refugee, I was so confused. I grew up on Erfani Street. That’s how privileged we were. Going from there to being a refugee and lost in camps, it’s a long journey. When everybody was in absolute agony and pain of exile, my parents asked questions, and we didn’t have answers but they kept asking questions, and asking questions even though there are no answers. A lot of other people I grew up with, other very intelligent people my age, or who would be my age, many of them didn’t survive the experience, and I recognize that I am unusually lucky for a refugee. Days that I teach I wear black, not as in mourning, but as a remembrance of all the other ones who were as smart if not smarter than me but didn’t make it. So it humbles me. It sort of brings me back to the obligation or I survived it. I got so lucky. It is the cliché that the journey matters, not the destination, but for me it was truly the space that allowed me to work through not knowing who I am anymore.
I never think of it as, “This is abstract and not practical.” It was the most practical thing for me in the world. It saved my life. In Iran, it is considered one of the highest pursuits. Here it’s sometimes been dismissed. I don’t get it.