Mastering English in Iran: Ticket to Modernity

Or How I Came to Love English

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My mom to my right and dad. Oil Company Girls Summer Camp, on the Caspian Sea, run by mom.

I am more exposed to prejudice here in France because I speak the language like an uneducated immigrant. They even have a racist refrain about it: parler comme un Arab. By which they don’t mean Lebanese, but Maghrebin. No one is despised more than North African Arabs here. My French accent is blissfully more American than it is Arab. Who’d want an American-accented French, I used to think. But the truth is that when people think you sound American, it is a relief, if for no other reason than it cuts the conversation short and you don’t feel like you have to explain why some asshole from a Parisian ghetto cut some poor journalist’s throat with a knife on YouTube.

Yet, unless I make an effort not to, I always do tell them I’m Iranian because, of course, I’ve made it my mission to do so, every time, everywhere on an almost daily basis, deliberately, like some lone ambassador for that ancient land from which, btw, I feel hugely rejected ever since I left. In my person, I have tried for years to show everyone I encounter in the West, from the shop owner to the professor to the doctor, the depth of intelligence, the richness of culture, the generosity and the kindness of all Iranians. When you’ve lived in exile for more than 35 years, it becomes exhausting. I wish it was tax deductible — all this effort.

One of the ways we avoid exposure to prejudice is learning the language of the colonizer well. My parents knew this intuitively, for them, nothing was more important than my English. My father, a poet with a velveteen pen in his own language, who only spoke mediocre French, lamented that he never learned English. It was the only thing he ever admitted to regretting.

This insistence on learning English wasn’t because they were immigrants or exiled when I was growing up, but because even in their own country, in the sixties and seventies, speaking English meant progress and set them apart from the masses, it reaffirmed their elite status. My mother’s English was her pride. She wore it like a badge that set her above her siblings and colleagues. Those who didn’t know English were deemed provincial and outdated. In Iran at the time, knowledge of English set you above even a man who didn’t speak the foreign language. It was so important that it helped you rise above gender barriers.

My dad was convinced that if he knew English he’d have a Nobel or something by now. This was partly because he felt that the native English speakers, being more fair and objective, would appreciate him more than jealous and provincial compatriots. One of the anecdotes about his past that he often recounted was being told, by no less a person than Taghizadeh, ambassador to Britain and head of our Majlis at the time, to learn English! Alas, he never did, and he wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to me.

I remember being told to come and “speak English” when we had foreign guests. It was awkward at first, but then it became routine, “Hello, welcome, my name is… I love to ride horses… my favorite football team is Manchester United.” My parents showcased my accent-free English as the sign of their open mindedness, of having arrived at modernity.

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