By Roxanne Naseem Rashedi,
Aslan Media Contributing Arts Writer
Kids today seem to have it all, especially when it comes to new and innovative educational toys. Language learning games seem to be popping up every day, yet especially in this country, their scope is limiting in that they really only cater to the more widelyspoken languages in the United States. Remember playing with woodblocks to learn the alphabet? This wasn’t a reality for Iranian-American children whose parents wanted to raise them to speak fluently in Farsi. That is, until now.
Enter Dr. Golbarg Bashi, an internationally-recognized photographer and Columbiaeducated expert on feminist critiques of human rights discourses in Iran. Until recently, she taught Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University, but left her position to start Dr. Bashi Toys and Fashion, a “small Mom-owned multilingual, gender-conscious, ecofriendly and socially-responsible toy and fashion company based in New York City.” In collaboration with prolific designer and calligrapher Kourosh Beigpour, Dr. Bashi has been making a splash with her debut of the world’s first Persian-language wood blocks made of sustainable materials and produced entirely in the USA.
Her colorful 32-piece lacquered woodblock set is a piece of art in of itself, but look past its beautifully etched letters and whimsical art, and it’s easy to see that the blocks teach young children more than just the Persian alphabet along with the language’s letters and vowels, the set also teaches the numbers 020, basic math symbols and basic geometric shapes, all tied together with colorful artwork of everyday objects that start with the letter featured on the block.
“I thrive on my commitment to making learning a fun, beautiful and enduring experience,” Dr. Bashi explains. “I love toys and our environment. I want to live through our craft, make my children proud and offer heirlooms to our multilingual community. That’s the essence of my business.”
Aslan Media Contributing Arts Writer Roxanne Naseem Rashedi had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Golbarg Bashi and learn more about her educational, child-specific Persian language (Farsi) wood alphabet blocks.
Aslan Media: What inspired you to create ecofriendly woodblocks?
Golbarg Bashi: I live in cosmopolitan New York where the city is filled with unique children’s venues. My two children were born here when I was still a graduate student, so I had more time to take them out to libraries, bookstores, museums, and art galleries.
AM: And that was when the spark was ignited?
GB: Yes, it definitely was during the time when my kids were young. I was inspired by the abundance of children's books and educational toys, but I had a hard time finding any Persian children’s books, let alone educational toys.
AM: I see. So you wanted to fill that gap, right?
GB: I am certainly trying to bridge the gap. As an Iranian scholar and playful spirit, I was always on the lookout for educational materials for my own children but had little to no luck finding any materials, so I decided to make them myself!
AM: Why create ecofriendly toys?
GB: The human environmental footprint is already weighing too heavily on our planet (remember WALLE) and I was brought up in Sweden, so my unwavering commitment to ecofriendliness comes from learning early on the 3 R’s: Reuse, Reduce, and Recycle. I made the wood blocks so they could be passed on from one generation to another, and to be natural and 100% biodegradable.
AM: What is your creative process like when you create a woodblock? How are they designed?
GB: I am a visual learner. My mother Oranus Dabestani is a talented painter and as a young child, she taught my sisters and I how to sew, paint, and collect wood, rocks, leaves and flowers and make something new with them.
AM: Interesting. How so?
GB: Like my mother, I am inspired by colors and textures and wanted to create educational materials that conveyed the natural beauty around me.
AM: Were there other family members who inspire your creative process?
GB: So many that I couldn’t even give justice to all! But my cousin Parsua Bashi definitely comes to mind. She is one of Iran’s most preeminent graphic designers and ranks among the country’s most respected and prolific artists. But unlike my cousin, I ignored my basic instincts and went a different route.
AM: Which was…?
GB: While I was always very good in art and took photography, pottery, ceramics and industrial arts (wood) courses throughout my school years both in Iran and in Sweden, I decided to study Persian and Arabic languages and literatures, and immersed myself in transnational Iranian history, gender theories and went into academia. For some reason, I never thought one could be a photographer or painter, for a living. My overwhelming curiosity and love for Iran and my quest to understand its challenges (especially issues pertaining to democracy and civil rights), and to learn about its triumphs (in art, literature, culture) in particular was also a domineering factor.
AM: What shifted? What changed?
GB: When I became a mother, I rediscovered my creative and artistic side after years of travel, research and writing on Iran. My imagination, coupled with my children’s, helped me produce and create works of art. Whether it is a drawing, sculpture, painting on wood or making a snow globe from scratch, I am constantly inspired to bring our dreams to real life. Motherhood made me a better scholar and artist!
AM: How do your children keep you going?
GB: A memorable moment was when my children and I were watching the British film series Wallace and Gromit, and my kids were intrigued by how the clay models could move. So we started making clay models and learned about “stop motion” animation techniques on YouTube, which in this day and age is not that hard to do. You put the clay figure in front of your computer and turn on photobooth and do some editing and Voilà!
AM: And this is what sparked the wood block project?
GB: Definitely. The wood blocks come from this same pool of creativity. But I wasn’t an expert in advanced graphic design and was fortunate enough to collaborate with one of the very best graphic designers: Kourosh Beigpour. Kourosh is my right hand and specializes in working with wood and fabric. He’s also a master calligrapher and leading Persian and Arabic typographer, so I asked him to design a brand new font for the blocks.
AM: How did you and Kourosh collaborate on this project?
GB: We had countless hours of Skype conversations about the fonts and what should go on each six sides of the cube. We decided to go with all the shapes, forms, and letters.
AM: How were these decisions made? Can you describe the process?
GB: As for the colors, I asked my children. We chose bold colors that they love and which children of all ages are instinctively attracted to. The choosing of the words for each letter of the alphabet was particularly fun! All my old Persian dictionaries came out, even Steingass’ classical PersianEnglish dictionary. I chose each object, such as derakht (tree) for [the letter] dal or parvaneh (butterfly) for [the letter] pe, very carefully to ensure that they won’t change with technological advancements like cameras or phones do, are visually appealing and phonetically exciting to children, are commonly used in everyday conversation socks, dish, tree, apple and are genderequal, peaceful and fun.
As a graduate of Iran’s prestigious Tehran University of Art, Koroush is insanely creative and prodigious. So, we work really well together and communicate intuitively. He understands exactly what I am trying to achieve and we can bring our imaginations to the creative level. I send him my own sketches and images, and he brings them to life on the digital level with his own unique touch. I also have to add that it wasn’t easy finding a wood factory that was willing to manufacture our blocks. I was adamant that the blocks be made ethically here in the United States by workers who are insured and paid a living wage, and for the wood to come from certified sustainably sourced local forests. I was elated when I finally managed to convince a small but preeminent familyowned wood factory and awardwinning green business in the Northeast to manufacture our blocks! I oversaw every step of our blocks’ “birth” which was very precious and reassuring.
AM: Why woodblocks? What’s the advantage?
GB: Great question. My research and understanding of this is that ABC wood blocks became popular around the time of Enlightenment (18th Century CE) and its aftermath in Europe. This is the time when languages were simplified by intellectuals for the masses and education systems were established in nascent European nations states, leading and sustaining their social revolutions. Playing with blocks the process of picking, stacking and building with large cubes is known to advance children’s motor skills, and it is something babies and toddlers love to do over and over again exercising their ability to work with their fingers and hands which is eventually the key skill to being able to hold a pen to write and draw, brush teeth, put on clothes, tie shoes and so on.
AM: So you wanted to create a playful, more entertaining educational product?
GB: Yes! Woodblocks help develop children’s motor skills, and our blocks are made with natural maple wood, the number one choice for toy makers since time immemorial, and because of its availability and antibacterial properties. Wood blocks are truly an ingenious idea! I’d also like to add that we chose maple hardwood because unlike the softer basswood, commonly used to make ABC blocks by “leading” brands, maple wood does not splinter, and our lacquered blocks will not fade either. So they are suitable and safe for children as young as 12 months and will last forever, literally.
AM: Fascinating. Are there other factors that make blocks more effective in language instruction?
GB: Apart from the entertainment factor and physical benefits, my understanding is also that if children are visually introduced to letters, shapes and colors, they will memorize them through play and thus the learning of reading and writing will not be such an alien and frightening experience. We all remember and cherish our very first toys, right?
I realized that the reason immigrant kids sometimes are reluctant to learn their mother tongue is because their mother tongue doesn't have the same appeal due to lack of quality toys and media. With English for instance, they are exposed to movies and great toys, including the ABC blocks which is a staple in any home, toy store or museum. They are also exposed to many notso great toys, like Barbie, Bratz, toy soldiers... So it’s not all rosy on the mainstream global toy spectrum. So I decided to make Persian as cool, as fun, and as colorful and MORE thoughtful than English. I wanted to make the best ABC block ever madesurpassing 300 years of experimentation with English or French blocks. With our blocks, kids will not only learn all forms of the Persian letters and numbers 020, they will also become familiarized with geometric shapes and what they are named in Persian.
AM: Have there been any challenges with this project? How have you worked through them?
GB: Time and capital—both are scarce. I have never been good about asking for money from others. I have been told about Kickstarter but just couldn't get myself to ask my friends, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet in a city like New York. So I decided to leave my academic career behind and risk itmy husband (Middle East studies scholar Hamid Dabashi) is technically the only investor
I have. Kourosh and I work for “free” until we make enough profit. We are also donating 10% of our online sales to a community in need through a charitable partner.
AM: When will your woodblocks go out on the market?
GB: The blocks are already in the online market. They can be purchased via our own website. The first shipping batch went out last week and we have a fabulous inaugural launch party scheduled for midDecember here in New York.
AM: What projects are you working on now?
GB: We are working on Persian language wood puzzles, Persian-English bilingual children's books and an amazing fashion line!
By Roxanne Naseem Rashedi, Aslan Media Contributing Arts Writer
Photo Credit: Golbarg Bashi, all photos courtesy of Dr. Bashi Toys and Fashion