Oxford Demystified- PersianWatch
Why did you want to study your subject?
So, I applied for Classics with Persian. Basically for all the three languages: Latin, Greek and Persian. The idea felt a bit mad in the beginning, considering I have no experience with any of the three languages. And I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to get an offer having not done any of the languages at school.
There are lots of reason I applied for the course. Firstly, I have always been interested in languages and literature. And particularly good at learning languages. I grew up trilingual: Haryanvi, Hindi and English. Later on, I picked up Urdu, Punjabi and French. I believe I can work all six of these modern languages quite close to the native speaker level. I have also done some ancient languages, just not Latin, Greek and Persian.
Currently, I am in my final year of BA in English Literature. So, the decision to study Classics was more of an extension, a gradual progression in the western literary tradition. I have always been a voracious reader of classical literature in any language. So, frankly, I have already read most of the western literary canon and I wanted to expand upon my subjects and opportunities of doing research. Hence, learning Greek and Latin languages seemed definitely worth it.
Doing Persian along with Classics is a much recent decision. Recently, I started reading Persian literature in translation in both English and Urdu, and my intrigue in the subject kept on increasing. So, finally, I decided to apply for the joint course. The opportunity to read about three distinct civilisations, their culture, history, languages and literary canons seemed particularly amazing. It is wide enough that it will retain the interest throughout and yet, it offers an opportunity to specialise in very unique and niche fields of research.
Applying to Oxford was more of a technical decision rather than sheer excitement. I have been thinking of applying to Cambridge up until quite late. But Cambridge did not offer the opportunity to study all three languages. And not knowing Latin and Greek adds one extra year to the course at Cambridge, so, that felt a bit mean, haha.
I think Oxford has a much more unique nature in this regard, the courses are all highly flexible and customisable according to personal needs.
Did any of your teachers inspire you? Or any other expert (TV presenter etc)
As I didn’t do any Persian at school, and I doubt most of the people have the chance to do any of the subjects in Oriental Studies at school, the ‘direct’ role of teachers has been quite minimal.
I once attended a lecture on Persian literature by Di ck Davis at SOAS, and it presented a sort of very different version of Iran/Persia that was both reminiscent of old Romantic Persia of Edward FitzGerald and the much more realist version of Iranian writers of fin-de-siecle Paris who were inspired by the French Modernists. It did interest me to look at the Persian literature through a much wider lens and more diverse works than the old masters of Farsi.
Which resources did you use (please name as many as possible) Which books/journals did you read? Which did you like best, and why? What did they teach you?
Considering Goethe once called Persian one of the four main bodies of the World Literature, astonishingly, the resources about Persian in Western languages are really scarce. But I did find some very interesting stuff. It might be a bit long.
There are some really good lectures by D ick Davis, the most famous Iranologist and translator of Persian in the Anglophone world and rightly so, available on Youtube which offers some amazing insight in medieval Persian literature:
Dr D ick Davis, "Warriors, Sufis, Princesses, Dervishes: The Complexities of Persian Culture.": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbA2tZXtGyE
Kamran Djam Annual Lecture 2013, The Perils of Persian Princesses, Lecture 1 at SOAS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcjv8Bo3dEQ
"'She Can't Be Kept Locked Up': The Forgotten Women of Medieval Persian Poetry," D ick Davis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MiG4L_0-WA&t=908s
It is also a quite good idea to go through a couple of anthologies. Do have a look at:
Classical Persian literature by A.J. Arberry
An introduction to Persian literature by the famous Cambridge scholar Reuben Levy
And then on, you can decide what intrigue you the most and you’d like to work on and read on the topic.
Shahnameh is the must of Persian literature. It is to Persian as Iliad and Odyssey are to Greek, and Aeneid is to Latin. So, basically, we have three ‘proper’ translations in English:
- 1) By Warner Brothers in intentionally pastiche English, most of the translation was done in colonial India between 1905 and 1925. There are 9 volumes (somewhere around 3600 haunting pages). It is out of print now and quite hard to find even in libraries. But you can find scanned pdfs at https://archive.org/search.php?query=shahnama%20warner
- 2) Reuben Levy one (1966) is quite abridged and probably a much easier read.
- 3) D ick Davis recently translated it in 2006. This is a mixed translation of prose and verse. Davis adopted a style of traditional Persian theatre naqqal. It is quite exciting and probably the most famous translation.
Personally, I am biased towards Warner translation because it is unabridged verse translation. The only of its kind. It tells more about me really as I prefer poetry to prose and archaic language to modern. The classicist touch, haha.
Do read as many Penguin Classics editions as many you can of the Persian works. Most of the canonical Persian has a poet specific tradition: Rumi, Nizami, Khusrow, Sa’di, Hafiz and others. So, try to read as much as you can and choose a few specific poets and read their entire literary corpus.
As for the history bit, most of my readings were from Greek and Latin Historians: Herodotus for Achaemenid Empire and the Greco-Persian Wars. There are some good bits from Thucydides as well. Cassius Dio and Plutarch have stuff about the Parthian Empire. Basically, most of the pre-Islamic history of Iran/Persia comes from either the Greco-Roman sources or Firdausi’s Shahnameh. Greco-Roman sources have more credos precisely because these are histories in the traditional sense and Shahnameh is an epic poem.
Post-Islamic history can be done in two ways:
- 1) Read literary anthologies and you will cover it with literature
- 2) Or, find specific books about the parts that specifically intrigue you
My interest is primarily in literature, so, I went with anthologies.
What did you mention in your personal statement and why?
It is a bit hard. My personal statement has to be divided into three parts, one for each language. So, Persian only got like 130 words. It is so little space to say and yet, one must. I basically mentioned that I speak 6 modern languages fluently plus I can do with three ancient languages as well. It was more to show that doing three more languages won’t be as much a new and haunting experience for me, I will enjoy it.
I mentioned the relationship between Urdu and Persian since they use the same script and share some lexicon and Urdu poetry is an extension of Persian literary traditions in the Indian Subcontinent. It was to show that I am connected with Persian literature and language, and this connection is part of my motivation for the course.
I think it is quite necessary to show some sort of engagement with the language. And it is really impressive to do anything in that regard. After all, you’ll be starting a completely new language out of scratch. You must show your personal, individual engagement as well as motivation.
Then, I talked a bit about the translations of Shahnameh, and how much I love the Warner Brothers translation. It was to show that I am highly invested in the subject.
Which techniques did you use for the entrance test?
I sat for the Classics Admission Test (CAT) because classics form the major part of my course and wasn’t required to sit for OLAT. But OLAT is quite like the CLAT (Classics Language Aptitude Test) part. Compared to tests like HAT and ELAT that wants you to write full-on essays it is quite fun. It is basically coding-decoding a con/obscure language.
The only advice I can give is- do the past papers as much as you can. Do both of the CLAT ones and OLAT ones since they are quite same.
Manage time: the only main problem is that time runs out. So, definitely plan it out. Different schemes work for different people, so try a few papers and make a plan on how much time you will be spending on each section/exercise in the test.
If you are looking for some more sample practice papers, you can have a look at the past papers at UK Linguists Olympiad: https://www.uklo.org/previous-years
How did you choose your college? Did you go to an open day and if so, did it help you to decide?
I was originally stuck between Wadham and St John’s. Wadham has a very strong Persian background with Firdausi Library and John’s has a very generous financial support. But in the end, I applied to St John’s.
I couldn’t go for an open day because of the pandemic raging, haha. But I saw a few videos on Youtube and the digital tours on the college websites. In the end, it feels that the colleges have more in common than different. So, it is really hard to choose a college.
The only advice I think I can give is just look for the things that matter to you: full course accommodation, large/small college, financial support, specific tutor… it just clicks sometimes.
How did you find the interview process?
The whole process was quite stressful for me, to be honest. I had seven interviews: 4 for Classics, 2 for Persian and 1 was a technical interview about the joint course.
The first interview was at the college, it was mostly about my written work and how the arguments, I made in an English lit essay apply to Persian literature. It was pretty intense and I thought I have messed it up. I know I was sweating, lol.
The second interview was at Oriental faculty, it was specifically about Persian. This one went quite well. We talked about Shahnameh, something I absolutely adore. And then, the similarities between Urdu and Persian. I was quite comfortable during this one.
Any interview tips?
I have this strange habit of taking notes of literally everything I read, do, schedule with pencil on blank a4 sheet (It helps me with my anxieties and other issues). So, I just went through these notes about the original texts.
- Do read as much as you can and take at least some notes, coz you won’t have much time before interviews.
- Read the written work you have sent as well as you PS. And underline all the bits you have claimed to have done and remember there will definitely be questions about it.
- Relax, I was quite tense and I think that’s quite normal. But the interviews were much less haunting than I had imagined
How did you feel after the interviews?
I was quite ambiguous. A lot of questions could have gone better. But I was just glad it was over. For me, it lasted the whole week and it is very daunting going through 7 interviews.
Where were you when you got your offer? How did you react?
I was at home. I thought the email will come around 9 but it didn’t so I went for a walk to clear my head and when I came back there it was. I sat down and read the whole thing a few times just to confirm lol.
Are you looking forward to coming up to Oxford?
Ahh… I haven’t accepted my offer yet. I am not sure as the decision to come to Oxford will depend on a lot of personal factors. But I am just happy at the moment that I could get in. And if I decide to come to Oxford, it will really be a dream. Quoting from a film- It’s like getting invited to a hundred parties at the same time!
Another amazing addition to the book
A little information of what Persian has to offer, here from Pembroke
Information about the course
Every person who writes a chapter for Oxford Demystified is a hero to me. This is doubly so with Wanirre, because unlike law or medicine, there are not vast arrays of Oxford sample questions, youtubes etc and people talking about the subject on TSR. In fact, ironically, I spotted you on another TSR thread, asking a question about which books to read. You only got one answer, and that was, it seems not a student of Persian.
At last, now we have this chapter, a prospective applicant can have some REAL help.
Reading Latin, Greek and Persian - wow! I am a linguist myself but boy, would I shy away from that! I'll stick to French!
Plus you had never learnt any of the three subjects at school. Normally this would be a disadvantage, but like all talented and keen Oxford offer holders, this did not deter you.
The great thing about you is that you already have the makings of a good student. You speak 6 languages to near native level, and have a BA in literature (and this is key). In fact, you also add that you are a "voracious reader of classical literature" You are keen to pursue the unfamiliar and are interested in research.
Furthermore, you already engaged with Persian literature by reading some with translations in English and Urdu on the other page. This is a great way to learn a language, so you can see the vocabulary and language and grammatical patterns.
Everyone thinks that Oxford and Cambridge courses are exactly the same. They are not, so it's worth looking at both syllabuses to see which course appeals to you more. This is especially true of the sciences at both universities.
My own children chose Oxford over Cambridge by default. My elder son only wanted to study one language (you need two at Cambridge).
Younger son, a medic, was not certain he would get the grades for Cambridge (their offer is A*A*A, and sure enough he did not get those grades). Also there was the research project at Oxford, and this was his favourite part of the course.
So here we are at **** Davis' lecture about Persian literature.
Now look at the detail and skill in these words
it presented a sort of very different version of Iran/Persia that was both reminiscent of old Romantic Persia of Edward FitzGerald and the much more realist version of Iranian writers of fin-de-siecle Paris who were inspired by the French Modernists. It did interest me to look at the Persian literature through a much wider lens and more diverse works than the old masters of Farsi.
You are not just saying you like it, but sounding like an Oxford professor already, frankly!
There's even a shout out to Goethe here.
You seem to really admire **** Davis. I know there are many opportunities to meet famous experts at Oxford. I wonder if you can ask the tutors if he can come up to Oxford for a talk. I really like the idea that you may get the chance to meet in person and have a very interesting chat!
Certainly when you provided these detailed resources you must have been thinking of the former you, wondering what to read on that TSR thread.
Problem solved for future students now, eh?
You referred to your mastery of six languages and how three more won't be daunting. You made an effort to engage with Persian literature, and especially referred to one book. You even compared two translations, which means you must have read and analysed both versions. Tutors are looking for keenness like this, plus your undoubted analytical skills.
It's amazing how many Oxford Demystified chapter writers (and you included) have a "battle plan" for the admissions test. You have all done lots of past papers and checking the timings. This is very important, because candidates tend to run out of time, so you have calculated how much time you will spend on each section.
Admissions tests are of vital importance, so it's important not to ignore the tests, go into the exam room, see the paper for the first time and think OMG.
I am very pleased you got to speak about your favourite books. When they see you at your most relaxed, that's when you can be yourself and really shine.
Again with interview stuff you are organised and have read through your submitted work. Be prepared.
I also note that you may not take up your Oxford offer. I really hope you do, as Oxford needs you.