In the History of the education in the Third World, no one has been so successful like Mohammad Bahmanbeigi. In 1921, Mohammad Bahmanbeigi was born in a nomadic but noble family into the Iranian Qashqai tribe in the southern region of Fars, namely, Chah-Kazem. As a result of continuous struggle between central governments and nomadic landlords, his father was arrested and exiled to Tehran when Mohammad was a small child. Some days later, the small Mohammad and his mother were exiled to Tehran as well. There he had chance to study. His genuine talent helped him to become a top student. He had many opportunities to become a rich, famous and successful man. But he chose to go back to his tribe and help his fellow tribespeople to read and write. This was the way his sacred campaign started. He established Talimat e Ahayer (Education of Nomads) in the late fifties to give a systematic shape to his campaign. He expanded his activities and after decades of endeavor, he educated hundreds of thousands of children of nomads in all the country and particularly among the south-western nomads. After the 1979 revolution, he was accused of collaborating to SAVAK (the Iranian Intelligence Agency of the previous regime) but later was exculpated, though he was deprived of his beloved activity, which was educating nomads. Now, it is three decades that his activities have stopped. After three decades, this study manages to give a big picture of what happened during 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s as a result of his efforts.
When Bahmanbeigi started his campaign, the land of Lor and Qashqai nomads in south-western part of Iran was suffering hundreds of years of seclusion. Surrounded by huge mountains, they were forgotten long ago even by ruthless conquers like Arabs and Mongols. Their mountainous region has made farming hard. The lack of agricultural devices, as well as the extremely unsafe sphere has exacerbated the situation. Instead, these very mountains with valuable reservoirs of water had helped them to be good stockbreeders. Each tribe had two territories, one in the heights for summer and the other in the low lands for winter. Therefore, they could enjoy a pleasant weather in all seasons and their herds also were always provided with “grass” which becomes the title of a documentary by Merian C. Cooper in 1925 recording hardships nomads had in going to their winter territory.
This has been the situation for tens of hundreds of years. The introduction of the gun to the region had helped people to defend themselves against beast animals, hunt more easily, and secure their tents. But, this technology took something else away from them: peace. Without having a clear ideological stance like what happened in Kurdistan and Azarbaijan, nomads frequently challenged the central government. They wanted nothing but food, though some of their nobility had very progressive ideas. As a result, several wars happened between tribes in the south western Iran and the central government without a meaningful victory for any of them. This is obvious that in this situation any development would be hard to achieve.
Talimat e Ashayer
Let us come back to Mohammad Bahmanbeigi and put him in this context. The exile of small Mohammad and his family to Tehran had a crucial impact on the lives of millions of people, not least the nomad themselves. Mohammad asked himself why people in the big cities enjoy good life, education and healthcare while my relatives in their territory are grappling with disease, hunger and superstitions. This question shaped Mohammad’s mind -as well as life- and he tried to think of a solution, a solution which he found later in the education and described in this poetic fashion in 1959:
The key to our problems is to be found in the alphabet and now I invite you to a new rising. After years of travelling, studying and compassion and distress, I have come to this conclusion and invite you to a sacred rising: A literacy campaign for nomad people.
In the name of these people, with these shining eyes, furrowed skins, poor cloths, hunger stomachs, with these smile-less lips… I ask you to rise up and teach day and night and every time, teach, learn, and teach, and learn…
In 1951 Bahmanbeigi established his first mobile school for some of his relative’s children in a small tent. Though this was a weak beginning, he was successful in acquiring experiences regarding his idea. He went to get the education authorities financial support but was dismissed. Then he approached the Article IV of Truman bureau. They accepted to provide tents and some other facilities provided that Bahmanbeigi accepts the responsibility of paying the salary of the teachers. Disappointed but determined, he turned to the nobility of the tribes and introduced his plan. Some of them welcomed his idea and he started to employ the few literate people in the tribes in order to teach.
After only one year, the outcome was so brilliant that Bahmanbeigi could ratify the literacy campaign program in the Ministry of Education although the article 4 of this bill had emphasized that the teachers must be paid by the nomads. Unfortunately, this success was eclipsed by the 1953 coup against the democratically elected Mosadegh. The country fell into the chaos and the long forgotten nomads were forgotten again.
Political instability of the country, famine and lack of knowledge made the project hard but Bahmanbeigi continued his campaign. In 1955, after a visit of some education authorities of the Fars province to mobile classes, Bahmanbeigi convinced them to take shoulder of paying the teachers. They gave him a small office in the department of education of Fars province which later became the supreme department of nomad education. In 1957 the first Nomad College of the country was established to provide new teachers for different tribes. After 22 years of activity, more than 9000 teachers graduated and went to teach nomad children. Bahmanbeigi knew well about the hardships of living among nomads. Therefore, only nomad’s children had right to enroll in this college. After all, the teacher would be a nomad himself.
Bahmanbeigi did not neglect women. In 1964, six girls entered the College to become teachers. Bahmanbeigi encouraged her own daughter to enroll in order to give motivation to other girls. It is estimated that between 800-900 girls graduated from this College. Also, Bahmanbeigi personally moved among tribes and encouraged families to enroll their girls in the schools, just like boys. Female teachers were very important in changing paternalistic views towards women in tribes.
In 1967 there were more than 550 nomad schools in different tribes. Tribes children were very good in learning but after graduation they had no option but becoming a shepherd. Only few had chance to attend a high school and make their way to a university program. Previous to 1967, Bahmanbeigi chose few of the best graduates of his school to attend a high school in Shiraz and reside in his personal house beside his family. But at this year, he could establish the first high school especially for nomad children. The entrance exam was so hard because only few of thousands of children could attend. The graduates of this high school were among the most effective people to affect the Iranian history by the coming years. Nine out of ten students of this high school could pass the cross country exam and enter the universities in their first attempt. Overall, about 97 percent of these students could enter the universities by their first or second attempt. This is a record that is hardly imagined to be broken by any high school in the future.
Thanks to Bahmanbeigi’s endeavors, the scope of Talimat e Ashayer extended to other areas of the country. The graduates of Talimat e Ashayer went to Khoozestan, Bakhtiari, Lorestan, Kurdistan, Arasbaran, and Shaahsavan to teach children with different ethnicities.
Education for nomads was now in its heyday. But, it seemed that it was not enough. An obstacle was removed to reveal other obstacles behind it. The maternal death rate was considerably high and the economic structure of the region has made it impossible for those nomads who has been recently graduated from universities to find a job in their region.
In the early 1970s, Bahmanbeigi turned to other priorities, while retaining his interest in education. In 1971 the first center of technical college of carpet twining was established for nomad girls. Two years later the first technical academy started its work with equipped labs and educational facilities. In 1975 the first institute of obstetrics started its work under the surveillance of Ministry of Health to educate midwives to work especially among tribes. Also, he frequently won grants to establish mobile libraries for nomad children. As a result of these developments, in 1974 he won the UNESCO’s Nadezhda K. Krupskaya literacy prize.
After the 1979 revolution, the Bahmanbeigi and his system were removed from the education system of newly established regime. He also was accused of being an agent of previous regime. But, he was not trialed and he lived a relatively peaceful life until his death in May 2010. He left at list half a million literate nomad behind. He also wrote several books regarding living a nomadic life and educational memoirs of more than three decades of his literacy campaign.
However, educating nomad children was not the calm of easy security. The most challenging problem on the way of Bahmanbeigi was those who were in power. In fact, the corrupt system of feudalism and disciplinary, had made the ignorance a good way to make money for those who were in power. It is obvious that educated people who are aware of their rights won’t give up against unreasonable demands of landlords and gendarmes. Therefore, these two groups were among the most immediate opponents of Bahmanbeigi, though there were exceptions, like for example in the case of colonel Tazhdeh.
Other critics say that the world in that time was in the path of development and Bahmanbeigi’s successes were only a small stream in a huge stream. Even if there was no Bahmanbeigi, the nomads would try to integrate in the global community anyway. The number of half a million literate nomads after the work of Bahmanbeigi is also contested by these group. Some claim that the number of people educated by Bhamanbeigi’s schools was not more than 200 thousands.
The third group of critics question the intentions of Bahmanbeigi. They claim that Bahmanbeigi was an American agent whose assignment was to educate people and modernize them to become consumers of American products. Education could also calm down people who lived in one of the hardest regions of the world to fight. For sure, educated people will not jeopardize their lives against a central government in which their fellow tribesmen were working as employees and even commanders. Some of members of this group go further and call him a CIA agent in the Middle East.
And, finally, the fourth group of his critics are Islamist people who believe that by enrolling children from traditionalist and religious tribes and subjecting them to Western teachings, Bahmanbeigi was trying to paganize them.
Bahmanbeigi has rarely responded to his critics. But, graduates of his schools and his associates have always tried to acquit him. They say that if Bahmanbeigi had any tie to United States officials and CIA, it would be revealed after the revolution and disclosure of official documents. They also say that process of development in the world was not something exclusive to Bahmanbeigi’s era and started much earlier. How such development, they ask, did not occur before or parallel to his efforts? They also believe that accusation of paganizing student has no ground and no record of such endeavors to attack beliefs of students is available.
What happened? Was it a unidimensional development based on education? I think no, and this was the mystery of the success of Bahmanbeigi and his Talimat e Ashayer. By the time he started his efforts, the dominant paradigm of development was ruling the development literature. It was only in 70s that critics started seriously condemning old development models like trickle down and capital intensive (see for example Melkote and Steeves, 2001). But, instead of compulsory nuance of the existing development programs of that time, he chose a participatory model. He tried to recruit his teachers, educators, midwives, physicians,… among the nomads. He also asked local people to provide initiatives for a better education.
Also, he was aware of cultural problems among nomads and prevented powerful people to examine their influence on teachers and schools. Although Bahmanbeigi was a prudent person, he never accepted any recommendation by any person. Also, he was very sensitive about graduates of his high school and continued financial as well as emotional support of them after entering the universities across the country.
The case of Bahmanbeigi could be known as one of the most -if not the most- successful cases in education in the third world. People who were kept hundreds of years behind their neighbors, only after a decade exported teachers to previously more cultured regions. This is a case in which development happened via education. Perhaps Bahmanbeigi knew that when he said “The key to our problems is to be found in the alphabet.”
Melkote, S. R., & Steeves, H. L. (2001). Communication for development in the Third World: Theory and practice for empowerment. New Delhi: Sage Publications.