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Raising Neem-Roonis- An Interview with Shabnam Rezaei

Leyla Shams
May 26, 2020

When I first envisioned the Raising Neem-Roonis project, one of the first people I knew I had to interview was Shabnam Rezaei, co founder of Big Bad Boo, a production company that specializes in animated series that showcase different cultures and languages. I actually met Shabnam many, many years ago in New York. I was working on a board game that teaches kids the Persian language and Shabnam interviewed me for a really successful blog she had at the time called Persian Mirror, in which she wrote about Iranian culture. We've kept in touch throughout the years, and it's been incredible to see her develop and grow as a successful Iranian business woman, and to be doing such incredible and impactful work.

And amazingly, she is the first person that I interviewed for the series that has been successful in teaching her children fluent Persian. She has very strong opinions about the importance of speaking Persian with her kids, and she follows through with her philosophies with specific actions. Listen to the interview to hear how she does it, or read the transcript below (edited for clarity and length):




(a photo of Shabnam with her two Neem-Roonis)

Leyla Shams: I wanted to start off by saying this year my older son turned three and a half and I showed him Bobak's First Norooz for the first time. It was a lot of fun to watch. I hadn't seen it in a long time. But it really helped to get him in the norooz spirit. I actually tried to sign up for a subscription to Oznoz after that, and I was surprised that you guys have unlocked it during this period of time. So thank you so much for doing that.

Shabnam Rezaei: Absolutely. I went through the same thing. Just a couple of weeks ago, we had a really tough time trying to get into the norooz mood because of Corona. My four year old for the first time I let her watch Bobak's First Norooz and I went through the exact same thing. It was just revisiting the show from a long time ago. I hadn't seen it myself in a couple of years. And, of course, I know every frame of it and every line of dialogue by heart, so it was really nice to see it again.

L: And it's actually aged so well, and I feel like it's even more applicable now than it was back when I saw it. I mean, obviously, the first time was before I had kids, but I feel like it's aged really well.

S: I think it's a very universal, timeless story for sure. Like that struggle of am I Iranian, am I American? Where do I belong? What do I celebrate? I think for as long as you're going to have immigrants and people coming from one country to another, that feeling of being left out is a universal feeling. And we're all going to kind of empathize with Bobak when we watch that show.

L: Definitely. Well, you started Oznoz before you had kids, and even before that you started with a blog called Persian Mirror. Is that right?

S: Yes.

L: And you talked about Iranian topics and I think that's how you and I first met many, many years ago. Can you tell us a little about your professional background? And what made you interested in making this type of content?

S: Sure. I studied computer science, engineering and German literature at University of Pennsylvania and started working on Wall Street at a boutique financial software company in New York right after college. And it was a great career. I was moving up the ranks. I lived in London and opened the London office, then came back to New York and when September 11th happened in New York, I was living across the street from the World Trade Center. And it was a huge shock to my system. It was reminiscent of living through the Iran Iraq war and the revolution when I was a child in Iran, and it really had an effect on me. All the negative stereotyping of Iranians being terrorists in the media shook me to the core and I wanted to do something to change the narrative around Iran, Persian culture, and language. So I started Persian Mirror on the side as an effort to try and change that narrative. And it was through Persian Mirror that I came across an aspiring writer director by the name of Dustin Ellis, who had written this script for Bobak and Friends, a First Norooz. And that's the show we were talking about. We decided to produce that cartoon so that we could show everyone the positive side of nowruz, which is the most celebrated holiday in my home growing up and even now, I try and keep those traditions for my kids. But that was the beginning of Big Bad Boo. We decided that using media to positively influence how children think about the world, about world cultures and languages is a good thing and trying to create media that is inclusive and representative of the types of kids out there. And now about 10 years later, having started the company and created a proper production company with an animation studio in Vancouver in New York and a distribution arm, and also reaching out to relief organizations like UNICEF for kids. We are here now doing all those things until our mission has grown to be all encompassing.

L: Wow, wonderful. So this podcast series is about people who are married to non Iranians and raising half Iranian children. So can you tell me about your husband and his cultural background?

S: Yes, my husband's name is Ali Jetta. His great grandparents went from India to Africa and for a couple of generations they lived in Tanzania. They are Ismailis and Ismailis were given a hard time in Tanzania right around the time Ali's mom was pregnant with Ali. So they fleed to Zambia where Ali was born and Dola, the capital of Zambia. When Ali was two, they ended up in Vancouver, Canada. So Ali, much like me has been through many different places and languages and cultures. And I think that's where we have a commonality. I was born in Iran. I grew up in Australia, and then came to the states for college. So he's Canadian, of Indian descent and having been born in Africa, we both feel we feel like we have the whole world covered. He's a lawyer by training. He's an entrepreneur, business person and a brilliant mind and we'd love to get together and talk about different types of businesses. We would start to change the world and it was one of those dinner conversations that got us to start Big Bad Boo. So he's my business partner as well now and we have two kids. And that's us.

L: So then between the two of you what languages do you speak?

S: I speak Persian and German because I grew up in Vienna. And in school in Vienna, I took up French as a second language. I did a summer in France as a very young high school student. And then when I came to the states for university, I took up Spanish in college, so I speak five languages, and he speaks English and he also speaks Kutchi, which is an Ismaili language. And Kutchi is an interesting language because the Ismaili's went from Gujrath to East Africa, and in East Africa, his parents learn Swahili. And so the language that he and his mom would speak is a combination of English, Swahili and Kutchi and so today bastardized language, and doesn't have proper grammar and doesn't have proper schooling. So it's a difficult language for us to teach and pass on to our kids.

I wanted to raise them with more than two languages just because I felt like it's such a good opportunity to capture their brain when they're growing up and make their mother tongue in these two languages, if we have that ability, which we do, and so it's a really rich gift that you can give to your kids. So Ali and I decided that we would raise them trilingual in English, Persian and German.

L: How are you doing that? First, what is your proficiency with Persian? Can you read and write? Did you grow up speaking it?

S: Yeah, I am. I studied until fifth grade in Tehran so I have a I have an a fifth graders level of reading. So I can read stuff. If you gave me a thick academic book, it would take me years and years to read it because I'm slow. I can't scan the way I would scan English or German, obviously, like a fluent reader would, but more like a child. So children's books I'm really good with, I can teach my kids the alphabet and read them books at night in Farsi. So that's really fun. My other two languages that are fluent I would say are German and English.

L: What has been the strategy for passing on the languages to the kids?

S: I'm glad you used the word strategy, because it is a strategy and it's definitely an everyday battle. It's almost like an hourly battle. And I think both partners have to be on board with what that strategy is. So when Eliana my first daughter was born, we had a conversation around it. The minute she was born, I decided I'm only going to speak Persian to her. So I started that right away. The challenge for me in the beginning, I remember when she was very little, because I hadn't spoken Persian on a regular basis to anyone for years and years and years. All these words started to come back to me that were stuck in the back of my head that I'd never used. So that was really interesting. And then the decision to only speak a certain language to the kids is challenging because when we're sitting at the dinner table, I would turn to Eliana and speak Persian and then turn to Ali and speak English. And then when Eliana at a very young age would say something to me in English, I would either not respond or I would say I'm sorry, I don't speak English to her in Persian. And she was young enough to believe it. And so that became the way that we were and then she no longer questioned that to the point where I didn't have to say I don't speak English.

L: But then would you speak to your husband in English at the same dinner table?

S: Yes. And then little kid doesn't doesn't process that.

L: It's just a suspension of disbelief, right?

S: Yeah, it is. And I think in a way, it's also that to kids, languages are not languages the way we know them in categories. When I speak Persian to her, and Ali speaks English to her, they're just words that we're using. So, I would call bread noon, and Ali calls it bread. And my kids says, they're just two ways to call this thing bread- mom calls at noon and dad calls a bread. And I can call it by both things and depending on the context, I would call it noon or bread. So for kids, the unfortunate cemented categories that adults have, which are barriers to learning don't exist.

L: What happened when your second daughter Mila came along? That's a game changer when she came onto the scene. Did things change or did you keep the same strategy?

S: Well, I was really happy when I came away. Because now It meant that I had we had a majority trilingual speakers in the house. We could overpower Ali. It's so much fun because we have two secret languages where he doesn't understand anything. I use Eliana as a teacher to teach Mila. And having the majority language is helpful because when you live in any country, that country's language is the primary language no matter how hard you try. So for us living in New York, the majority language is English, and the minority languages are German and Persian. And so those minority languages are always fighting to get airtime with my kids, because they hear English on the radio, on television, in their environments, on the street, from the nanny, from their father. It's the winner language. The brain, the human brain is an incredible thing. It wants to take the easy way out and be lazy. So, by that what I mean is, if I'm looking at the bread and the word bread comes to mind and not the word noon, I'm going to use the word word bread if I know the person that's listening to me speaks both languages, right? It's the reason I don't speak English to my kids, because they will not get a response from me and it forces them to think of the word noon, as opposed to the word bread and it makes their brain think and it makes their brain form a different way because now they are forced to use those words.

L: How does it work practically- if you're all sitting at dinner, are you having two conversations, and is everybody having two conversations all the time?

S: Yeah, it's a real challenge. And yes, we're having multiple conversations. Sometimes I'll turn to Ali and say one thing and alternative Eliana and speak in Persian and then if it's a communal conversation, I'll have to translate to Ali what I just told Eliana. It is a definite challenge. And I think once they're older, we're going to come out of the forced language, because they'll have something formed in their in their brain. But you know, a language can't be a luxury item, it needs to be a necessity in order for someone to use it. So for example, when my father is able to visit us from Iran, which is very rare, but when he does and the kids are with him, they have to use Persian to communicate with him because his English is not that great. And so that language is being used out of necessity. And that's the time when you really learn it. So whenever you can create situations for your kids when they have to use that second or third language as a necessity. That's when you know you're truly winning.

L: Well, you're the first person out of the six that I've interviewed so far who has been successful at speaking to their kids in Persian.

S: Very excited to hear this. Maybe my strategy's working.

L: everybody else so far has had challenges with it. Because everyone I've interviewed has been married to non Iranian who can't speak the Persian language. And so the family language is default, English and everyone, even if they've had some success with the first kid, as soon as the second kid comes in, they start speaking English together and then that's it. It's over.

S: So I'll ask you this like does the Persian speaking parent refuse to answer or do they answer in English?

L: They eventually answer in English.

S: See, I think that's the one rule if you can stick to it. And I know it's not easy. Like I said, it's a daily challenge for us. If you can stick to it, I think you'll see incredible results.

L: So you've answered this a little bit, but why is it so important for them to be able to speak Persian? Like you said, it is a challenge, like you've you've had to work on it every single day. So what keeps you motivated?

S: So first of all, just from a science perspective, we know that bilingual or multilingual kids, their brain is formed in a different way. It helps them in their critical thinking capacity. And also, later in life, it can have effects like delay diseases like Alzheimer's. So from a scientific perspective, there are many, many benefits to being bilingual and multilingual. The other reason I would say is that it's very difficult for adults or people beyond the age of 15 to learn a language like a fluent native speaker. You have a much better capacity of hearing and formulating the tone and the sounds of a foreign language or another language, not a foreign language, another language if you do it very early on. So for me the motivation is to get them to speak like a fluent speaker and be able to converse in these other languages so that they have that ability. Why is it important that they speak a second language? Obviously, there are many other reasons. One of them being you know that it gives them a skill set that will set them apart from other people, when they're competing in the workplace. Or one day when they're going to go to college and write on their resume, what are the things that sets them apart?

But for me, the most important reason for teaching my kids Persian In particular, also German, is that it creates a sense of identity for them as to who they are, and where they belong. And the sense of identity that you give to your children builds in them self confidence. And having that self confidence will take them through life like you wouldn't believe. The sense of identity of who you are and knowing that you are loved, knowing that you have a heritage and a background and a family and roots, gives you self confidence. And to me, that's one of the most important gifts I can give to my kids.

L: That's wonderful. What do your daughters speak to each other?

S: So they speak in a jumble of three languages much like my brother and I did when we were growing up in Vienna. And this goes back to the convenience of the word that's in front of your visual brain when you go to speak. So if I'm with my brother, and I'm like, hey, pass me the bread, and I can't think of 'the bread', and all the words that I know how to say, bread, I'll just say the first one that comes to my mind, because I'm lazy. And because I know my listener, my brother, speaks all the languages that I do. So it's the same with my kids when they're talking. As they get older as I know they have mastered these other languages, I'm going to loosen up the rules a little bit because the first seven to 10 years I would think are critical in making sure those languages are have reached a level of fluency that will never leave them. I think of myself- I left Iran when I was 10. And even though growing up after that, I pretty much didn't use for Persian very much, it has stayed with me to my core. So if I can get my kids to that age, like to ten speaking fluently, I think it'll stay with them. And obviously it helps to read books and have media and shows and family to talk to, so that you're reminded of it all the time. But that's kind of how I see it.

L: Can they read and write too?

S: Eliana is learning Parisian writing right now. she goes to Pardis, which is a great school here in New York on Sunday. I'm really encouraging the reading and writing because that to me, that's a huge part of the language.

L: In what other ways are you passing on the Persian culture? Do you guys do nowruz? Do you do all the holidays?

S: Yes, we're really big on naruse. My mom was really big on nowruz when we were kids in Iran, she would set up the biggest haftseen tables. So we do that big time now with my kids. And one of the things I've loved is having her friends over neighbors to find school and then she takes pride in explaining the haftseen to them. It's super cute.

L: Are there other ways that you pass on the culture?

S: We keep in touch with my dad in Iran a lot. Every weekend we FaceTime or WhatsApp with him. He is always talking about different cities. He's a very well traveled, well read proud Iranian. Also, we love Persian food. So that's a huge part. We usually order from Taste of Persia, which is a New York restaurant.

L: Well, Shabnam, thank you so much for answering these questions. I really am very refreshed by this conversation. Like I said, you're the only one who's been able to do it. So I think a lot of people get a lot of good strategizing out of this conversation.

S: Oh, I hope so. Just stick to your guns, don't answer in anything other than the language you're trying to teach them, whether it's French or German or Persian, don't speak English. Don't speak the majority language.

L: And obviously, you've created so many resources for people. Another big part of it is for them to be able to see themselves represented in cartoons and be able to hear their language on cartoons and obviously, you have all these resources available. Where can our audience find them?

S: I'm glad you mentioned that we make cartoons and a lot of them are culturally based so that kids can stay connected to their culture. For the older age group kids, we have Mixed Nuts, a series that the continuation of Bobak and Friends. Episode Seven, which is a Persian adventure takes them back to Iran. So that's a particularly Iranian episode with visits to all the beautiful sites all around Iran. Then we have 1001 nights, which is for the six to nine age group that is on PBS. All of the shows are mentioning right now on Oznoz, which is our platform that we've removed the paywall for Corona and parents can access all the content for free. 1001 nights and Mixed Nutz are also on amazon prime video if you're an Amazon Prime customer. But all of this is on Big Bad Boo dot com if people want to see what other properties we make, or want to learn more about the shows or have feedback for us. I love hear from people if they want to write in and tell us what worked, what didn't work. What did the kids love those at the end of the day, our critics and I want to hear from the kids.

L: We've been having a great time watching all these cartoons in the Persian language. It's a very easy way for parents to have an immersive experience for their kids in the Persian language.

S: You would be so surprised how much they can learn from media in terms of their second language learning ability. So while studies have shown that maybe there isn't that much influence, I know my kids after they watch a show, they start using that vocabulary right away in our daily conversation. So I try and get him at least half of 50% of their screen time for an hour half has to be the other language, either German and Persian, and I let them choose.

L: Exactly. I think that's a great tip. Because, for me, living in Austin, we don't have this big community of Iranians around us. We'll go on Oznoz and I'll put that Persian filter on and we'll watch some of these cartoons. And there's a huge difference afterwards. My son is a lot more eager to speak Persian with me because he's seen it on the TV, which is something he loves, it's a big treat for him. And when he sees that language on the TV, then he's a lot more eager to to speak with me, which I find very helpful. So thank you so much for all the content that you've produced.

S: Oh, I love to hear that. Thank you so much for letting me know. Yeah, I, I don't know how many people are out there trying to do what we're trying to do. My feeling is there are a lot, but we're not connected in a proper way. And I'm really hoping if you keep doing what you're doing, which is so wonderful, and we just put our head down and keep making content that's culturally relevant and inclusive and in multiple languages, we can create a world that is filled with cosmopolitan, internationally aware kids that will hopefully in future avoid having the kinds of diplomatic problems that our generation has had to deal with. So that's ultimately the goal for me.

L: Well, that gave me chills, I definitely agree and, and it is really the best content. I look for this stuff all the time and it really is such wonderful work that you do. I really appreciate it. I appreciate it even more now that I have kids. I've always been a big, big admirer of your work, obviously.

S: I'm 100% a big fan of yours too. So it goes both ways. Thank you for doing what you do.

L: Well, thank you so much for talking with me today. And, and I know it's very trying times. Hopefully we'll be out of this soon and better days ahead.

S: That's right to better days ahead. Thanks for having me.

Resource List:

And as Shabnam said, much of the work she produces is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime. Check out Big Bad Boo for more information.