Community Member Bio: Sara Karami

This week on the ELAR Blog, ELDP grantee Yassaman Choubsaz interviews her research assistant Sara Karami about her collaboration on the project “Western ZEI – Iranian Sign Language in Kermanshah“. A Persian version of the interview is available here.

The gathering in commemoration of Emam Reza’s martyrdom, 29 October 2019. From right to left: Yassaman Choubsaz (the principal investigator), Sara Karami (the researcher’s assistant), Fatemeh Amiri (ZEI interpreter). Photo by Leila Marivani

Yassaman: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your language?

Sara: I was weak in signing at childhood and I couldn’t understand anything. I learned sign language after I went to school. When I went to school I was really scared. I was always worried that my teacher might punish me. My teacher told me: “Stay calm. Don’t be scared”. She began to teach me the (sign) alphabet. I knew nothing about sign language. I could only say: “Mom, I want food” (with gestures). Then, our teacher began to teach us sign language. For instance, she ate Cheetos and said: Look! This is how we sign “eating Cheetos”. Or as another example, she said: This is how we sign “laying a carpet”. And I learned from her.

Yassaman: So, did you learn more sign language from your teacher than from your classmates?

Sara: First, I learned some signs from my school teacher. Then I began to see other deaf children and I learned some signs from them. I also added to those signs and our signs began to mix together. We learned from each other. For instance, they’d sign “TV” one way and I’d sign it in another way. We’d sign in different ways. We learned from each other.

Yassaman: Which school did you go to?

Sara: I think it was “Golestan”. Then I went to “Behdari” and I was there from the seventh grade to ninth grade. Later, I went to “Sepide Nowruzi” school. (All of them are Deaf schools.)

Yassaman: How would you communicate with others before you attended school?

Sara: Not at all. I didn’t know anything at all. I could not understand anything either. For instance, my mom would say: Don’t touch anything or I will hit you. I only knew that I was scared. Or she would say: Don’t go out (pointing to the door). She wouldn’t let me go to the supermarket or store.

Yassaman: Hadn’t you seen any Deaf people before you attended school?

Sara: No. I began to make friends at school. I saw Deaf children at school and I made friends there.

Yassaman: Did you feel better? Were you happier?

Sara: I felt very bad in the beginning when I didn’t know anyone. Since the second year, I have met Deaf children and made friends and we have become close friends. I’ve been great since then, thank God.

Yassaman: Do the Deaf people in your community still use sign language?

Sara: Yes, most of them use the sign language and lipreading. If we see each other in the park, the market or on the street, we communicate with sign language. But we (have to) use lipreading in university. My (hearing) friends (at university) speak slowly and I should notice their lip movements to understand what they say. Hearing people usually don’t know any sign language. I ask them to speak slowly. Then they do so and use some hand gestures which makes it easier for me to understand.

Recording session with Sara Karami (the researcher’s assistant), and participants (from front to back): Samira  Esmaeili, Zeinab Piri, 28 November 2019. Photo by Yassaman Choubsaz.

Yassaman: How did the ZEI documentation project start in Kermanshah?

Sara: First, you came to the Deaf Center. I didn’t know you at the beginning. You wanted to find an assistant to help you to do the project. I was selected and the next day you taught me some new things so that I could guide participants in the recording sessions and ask them questions. It was hard for me at first but I began to get the hang of things.

Yassaman: Please explain about your role in the project.

Sara: I was responsible for explaining the questions (subjects) to participants. I was also responsible for explaining the contents of the consent form to participants. We’d invite two people each session. I’d explain how they should fill the form. Then, I’d explain how to do different tasks.

Yassaman: So, you managed the whole session?

Sara: Yes, that’s right. I tried to invite those who were friends or had almost the same age.

Yassaman: So, based on your knowledge of Deaf people, you contacted with them yourself, you conducted the session, you also controlled the camera, with a little help from me, right?

Sara: Yes, you taught me how to zoom and set angles and frames with the camera. You also taught me to work with the camera’s tripod and I learned and did what you taught me.

Yassaman: Were you trained when the projected started and we decided to start recording?

Sara: Yes, I mentioned some of those trainings in answering the previous question. I also asked Fatemeh Amiri (sign language interpreter in Kermanshah) some questions about subjects I had to discuss with participants in the conversation (interview) task. I needed to understand those subjects because they were written in Farsi.

Yassaman: Do you remember that we recorded one or two session, then we asked Fatemeh to join us and we had a meeting to talk about those two sessions and our mistakes? We talked about what we can do to improve our work. Do you remember?

Sara: Yes, we agreed that it is better if you stay out of the room so that the participants can feel more comfortable and sign more naturally.

Yassaman: Do you remember that we didn’t use to pay attention to how the participant were sitting but after reviewing the videos we decided it would be better if they changed their sitting angle a little?

Sara: Yes, I remember that when we saw the videos, we realized that some of the signs are not very clear. For instances, the hand movement was not clear. We decided to ask them to ask directly in front of the camera and keep their head towards each other. I also remember that after reviewing the videos, in order for the signs to be clearer, we decided to ask the participants to wear light-colored and short-sleeved clothes.

Yassaman: Yes, excellent point. We learned this over time. Do you remember the participants used to sign “shoe” (in one of the stories) and we couldn’t capture it because they used to sign downward and it was out of focus and we had to ask them to sign a bit higher?

Sara: Yes, that’s right. It was outside the framing. Or I remember we had “picking fruits” in the other story and we asked them to sign downward a bit.

 Yassaman: If you remember, in the beginning when we asked participants to sit in front of the camera, we used to say: “We want to ask you a question”. Then we saw that when we asked the question, they thought they had to answer correctly and were afraid they might give the wrong answer. Then we decided to say “topic” instead of the word “question”. We said: “Let’s say we want to talk about a few things that you can talk about”.

Sara: That’s right. We said: “Don’t be nervous. Answer the way you like”. They felt more comfortable when we told them that the videos are not supposed to be accessible to everyone on ELAR website and they were not fussy anymore.

Yassaman: Do you remember when you were raising a topic, you were worried about reading the next topic and seeing what the next topic was? I told you: “Do not worry when you raise a topic, look at the participants to understand what they are saying so that you can enter their discussion and ask them more questions so that they talk more”.

Sara: Yes, I remember. Right.

Yassaman: I mean, we learned what to do in this project over the course of time. All of us. At first, we were unaware of the challenges and inexperienced. Over time, we learned a lot and got better. Maybe our first videos were not good and the last ones got better.

Sara: Yes, I was in a state of panic for some time but I began to get the hang of things and got more comfortable. Thank God.

Recording session with Sara Karami (the researcher’s assistant), and participants (from left to right): Morteza Amiri, Kambiz Zhaleh, 10 December 2019. Photo by Yassaman Choubsaz.

Yassaman: What is your general opinion about this project? Do you think it was important or useful?

Sara: I think it was great. We learned about many things. What upset me was the memories that the deaf participants shared. For instance, they told me about being mocked by hearing people. Overall, it was great.

Yassaman: In your opinion, did this project have an effect on the mindset of those who sign? What did they use to think about sign language? Did they change their opinion about it?

Sara: I think they didn’t have enough information about sign language before this project. Now, they have more information. Before this project, they used to think that sign language is not very important. They even used to think that ZEI is signed Farsi, but after the meeting we had with Farzaneh Soleimanbeigi, we learned that ZEI is language which is different from Farsi.

Yassaman: Is there a word or sentence in ZEI that you like very much?

Sara: I like the word “hello” very much. It is very beautiful. I like all ZEI words but this one is my favorite.

Yassaman: What did you like about this project?

Sara: I like our recording. I also liked seeing the deaf people. I wish all of them can see the videos.

Yassaman: What do you think about the future of ZEI? Will you teach ZEI to your child? Will you try to preserve the language?

Sara: I hope sign language will improve in the future. All people know about sign language, use it and pay attention to deaf people. I want people to respect sign language and not make fun of it. I will definitely teach my child sign language. I do not want them to lipread. I want to communicate with them in sign language. I would like to take them to the market and the doctor. I do not like them speaking to me. I would like them to sign and tell me what others are saying.

Yassaman: Do you remember that when we talked to the participants, we asked them if one day you get married and have children, would you like that child to be Deaf or hearing? Do you remember how most participants answered this question?

Sara: Some said Deaf, some said hearing. Those who said that we want our child to be hearing believed that it is difficult to take a Deaf child to the market and to the doctor. We do not understand anything at all. They could make calls here and there for us if they were hearing.

Yassaman: How about those who wanted a Deaf child?

Sara: They said: ” We like it this way, we feel more comfortable if they were Deaf”. If they were hearing, they wouldn’t think about me in the future and they would leave me.

Yassaman: This is the last question. Can you tell me about the people who collaborated in this project?

Sara: First you suggested doing this project and you started it. Then you arranged a meeting with the Deaf Center. Then Fatemeh Amiri gave more explanations and translated the interview questions (topics) for me and guided me. It was my responsibility to select the Deaf participants. Mr. Tahmasebi who is the director of the Deaf Center, helped us a lot and sometimes introduced the (male) participants.

Yassaman: Yes, you are absolutely right. And after the data collection phase, from March, we started watching the videos to see which videos to choose for translation and coding. First, Fatemeh and I started coding together, and since the pandemic had started, we had to talk to each other via WhatsApp and annotate the videos. Fatemeh would tell me the meaning of the signs and the starting point and the end of each sign, and I would annotate the signs in ELAN. After annotating about 10 minutes of the videos, we sent them to Sara Siyavashi and Farzaneh Soleiman Beigi, who were our colleagues in the project. They said that the result of our work is acceptable, but it took a long time to check these ten minutes. Therefore, we decided that one person should do the annotation, (meaning Farzaneh, who herself is Deaf), and Sara should check the annotations and translate the glosses into English, and I should translate the sentences into English. Thank God we were able to collect data and record videos before the pandemic.

Recording session with Sara Karami (the researcher’s assistant), and participants (from front to back): Sadegh Yavari, Yazdan Siyahkamari, 21 November 2019. Photo by Yassaman Choubsaz.

The original Persian version of this blog post was published on 29 April 2021.

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