I began Farsi classes at Madrassah Al-Mahdi here in Qum about a week ago. Once an individual has gone through the initial administration process at Jamaitul Mustafa, they get a code number that allows them to enroll at Madrassah Al-Mahdi. This is the school where essentially most foreigners go to in order to learn Farsi and as well as to do their tamhidiyah (more on that in a few months). You go to the school with the code and once again you have to go through another set of administration work that this specific school has to do. This includes setting you up with your bank accounts, getting your iqamah sorted out (which is basically your resident visa), medical insurance coverage and various other things.
You have to get your Qur’an recitation checked as well, if it isn’t that great they will make you take a course on the side to help you improve it. Most students, they also go through an interview with the principal of the school who asks various questions – I didn’t have to do it (not sure why). While all these things are taking place, they will get you started in the Farsi classes with Book 1. I believe there are about 6 to 8 books in total (not 100% sure yet) and the course is typically made for one to finish it in 6 months. The environment at the Madrassah is interesting as well. For those who are single and not married, they have dorms on the 2nd and 3rd floors of the school. There exist many facilities for the students, including shower rooms, library, gym, leisure activities such as table tennis and foosball, a mini-store, barber and a cafeteria where food is served 3 times a day for free (if you reserve it for yourself). The population of the school consists of individuals from various different backgrounds and countries. The ages of the student also tend to vary with some very senior people and some very young; however just by looking at a sample, I would say that most of the students are in their early to mid 20s.
So far I’ve met and seen people from Japan, Sweden, Germany, Chile, Myanmar, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and many other Middle Eastern, Asian & Western countries.
In regards to Farsi, the first Book consists of 2 parts (part 1 of 2, and 2 of 2). The first part is literally just images and the teachers go through them pronouncing the words and getting you familiar with the pronunciations. There is absolutely no writing required in this first part. If you have even a half-decent Urdu background and can read and write it, this first book is a breeze. Students have the option of giving the test for any book before it officially finishes and can advance to the next book. The only catch is that you will join the next class at what ever point they are at in the book. If classes for the next book are half-way done then that is where you will join them and will have to catch up a lot. It could be risky for some, but not so much for others. I gave the test for the first part of Book 1 so I could go to the 2nd part of it. I joined the class in lesson 19, and there are only 20 lessons in the book. So there is only 1 more class left for the 2nd part (which is mostly review of the book) followed by the book test and then I will start Book 2. In the second part of Book 1, they teach you how to write the letters and start getting you used to writing Farsi. The test for the first part of Book 1 is strictly oral, and the test for the second part includes oral, written/multiple-choice and as well as dictation (the teacher says sentences or words, and the student has to write them).
Some people may find dictation (imla) a bit hard, because pronunciation in Farsi (much like Urdu) does not put much emphasis on the makhraj of the letters being used in the word. So for example, Alif and ‘Aain will sound the same; Thay, Seen and Saad will sound the same etc. So if a teacher says Man ‘ainak daaram – a student who isn’t familiar with the spelling of the word ‘ainak, could write it with an alif instead of an ‘aain.
Before I came here, I tried to get familiar with a bit of Farsi [Easy Persian is probably one of the best free sites for it], but gave up as I just didn’t have the time and also there was no one for me to speak or practice with. However, if someone is able to do that before coming (especially if they can become familiar with basic grammar), it will help them a lot and they should be able to pick it up even faster.
A typical day for a Farsi student begins with class at 7:20 AM (yes it’s brutally early, but you eventually get used to it). There are about 4-5 classes in a day I believe. I actually still don’t know what the day schedule is, since it was a bit altered for Muharram and they still have a few non-class seminars and stuff going on related to Muharram in between classes. But what I do know is that there is only one class after Dhuhr prayers and it ends by 1:30 PM (except on Thursdays where you are done after prayers). Classes are therefore 6 days a week with only Friday off. There are 3 teachers per book – so the first teacher comes and teaches the morning class (it is usually a new chapter from the book), then the second class a new teacher comes and usually goes over the same chapter and adds a bit more depth to it. In the third class the teacher also reviews the same chapter and by then the chapter is drilled into your head. The fourth class is primarily to encourage speech and you get to speak and make sentences so that your speech can improve. After the last class, lunch is served for those who eat at school, otherwise you are free to go home or eat elsewhere. Also, the classes are not all back-to-back in the morning. They do give short breaks in between classes for students to just stretch out, move around, play a game of table tennis or buy some junk from the store if you are craving it.
So far it has been a very different, yet enlightening experience. In my current class, I have 3 scholars sitting with me who have studied in the Hawzah in Pakistan and in Iraq so they are learning Farsi as well as they want to go for further studies here in Qum. It is an interesting experience to say the least and I am sure there is a lot more to come in the near future inshAllah.