Remembering the pioneer of sign language
Baghcheban, Poetry and Stories
--by Susan Schaller, Original Story, Feb 01, 2013
Without Jabbar Asgar Zaddeh, I could not have continued writing. I am sad that he died before I had a chance to meet him, because I’m in love with him.
Jabbar was born in 1884 to an unschooled Muslim family in Erevan (Ossip Mandelstam introduced the West to this city when he wrote of Erevan: “I love the crooked Babylons of your wide-mouthed streets.”) He was raised with other Azerbaijani children, and looked the same as they, but he was not; he questioned the assumptions, traditions and conventions around him. For he was a poet and, like all good poets, his poems were dangerous. [Poets and their poems mirror reality and are therefore considered dangerous when they reveal what we wish hidden. Jabbar was arrested because of a poem. Mandelstam was killed by the Soviets. In this country, much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry was not published for decades; it was seen as unseemly from a female poet.]
His only education was the usual stern and brief religious instruction from the local mullah. Somewhere, somehow, before today’s mass media, he learned about other countries’ education for young children. He decided to start a new kind of kindergarten for Iran, his family’s home after fleeing trouble in the Caucasus. He started with the poem “Baghcheban,” which, like most of his poems, was abstract expression married to immediate action. In “Baghcheban” he both named himself and called himself to his chosen calling. Baghcheban means gardener in both Turkish (Bahcivan) and Persian. In his words: “If there must be a name for one who teaches little children, let me be called Baghcheban. For these children are my flowers, and I will help them to grow.”
After marrying and starting a family, Baghcheban started his school without resources or even an idea of what a kindergarten should be, using a corner of his family’s small apartment as the classroom. He wrote stories, songs and poems just for children—for the first time in the history of Iran. He wrote plays, made scenery and costumes, and acted them out with his students. The clergy frowned at his strange behavior, but what shocked and angered them was that Baghcheban taught girls and even put girls with boys in the same classroom.
His kindergarten, and his lectures promoting women’s rights, were not well tolerated. He was arrested repeatedly and often attacked, both physically and verbally. Each attack and each arrest fed Baghcheban’s convictions; their roots grew deeper and he acted with even greater determination.
One day three deaf boys were brought to the school. No one in all of Iran in all of its history had ever thought of educating a deaf person. Everyone believed the deaf to be uneducable; they were treated as imbeciles. But Baghcheban could not ignore these three children. He tried to make them laugh, to reach them, to connect. He went to sleep that night haunted by the confusion and loneliness he had seen in their eyes.
He worked and worked at communication, first using mime and inventing hand signals, then he developed a visual hand alphabet. Baghcheban saw these boys through the eyes of a poet, and the poet had to give language to these isolated children. He did not see their deafness; he saw their need, a human hunger for self expression—for poetry.
After one year, all three boys could read and write and had entered the world of a shared language. The community rejoiced and celebrated, but the government and religious community were furious. They accused him of not only being a radical but an obvious fraud. According to them, his claim to have educated deaf persons proved he was a charlatan, and they stormed the office of the regional chief of education demanding his expulsion. Baghcheban was forced to leave their city.
His exodus was the best thing that could have happened for Persian deaf people. Eventually he made his way to the capital, Teheran, and was permitted to start the first school for deaf children in Iran in 1924. Before Khomeini’s Iranian Revolution in 1979, over a thousand deaf students were educated at the Baghcheban Schools. The Iranian Deaf community (that is, the visual culture of signers) continues to encourage the freedom needed to bring education, society, and poetry once again to thousands more—just as Baghcheban envisioned.
They, like the Deaf I met when I was seventeen know that poetry—the expression of truth and self—is not a luxury. It is a need of all humans. Deaf people taught me how to express myself visually, after they introduced me to my face, my hands and my body. Signing is music for my eyes, a poetry that touched me deeper than any other poetry has.
Because of Baghcheban and Deaf people, I continue to tell stories about these visual people who have changed me and my life. I never imagined having no access to poetry, no access to a specific language, such as Persian, English, American Sign Language, Japanese, or Japanese Sign Language. Without a common language, they have no community, no society, until I met such a person as Baghcheban did. I, too, stayed awake haunted by humans so isolated, denied their human heritage—language.
Some of the languageless persons I have met have showed the frustration and pain of their isolation so well, that I could not write about them until I had cried. Remembering Jabbar Baghcheban’s perseverance, ideals, and his courage to act inspired me and moved me beyond my tears. Because of Baghcheban, I will keep writing their stories which have become my story.