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Diaspora

Persian is our secret
The power of language and its effects on the lives of Iranians in the West

By Arash Emamzadeh
May 7, 3003
The Iranian

Long time ago, I had the pleasure (and pain) of staying in Germany for a brief period of time, at a relative's house, for what was my first trip outside of my native country, Persia. Other than getting lost several times, getting a really bad hair cut, and getting arrested for shoplifting (I thought they were samples!), we had a very good time. My friend, however, had the time of his life.

Of course, we did not speak much German which made things a little difficult. The only thing my friend knew how to say was, "Darf ich Sie zu einem Glas Wein einladen?", which means can I invite you for a glass of wine? and "Sind Sie verheiratet?" meaning are you married? All I knew was, "Ich spreche nur ein biBchen Deutsch": I speak only a little German. I did try to pick up German by listening to conversations, radio, TV, but I found it very difficult and did not have much success.

Years later, when I came to North America, I had to go through the same thing again, that is, I had to learn a new language. This time, however, my life depended on it. I was not here to spend my holidays and go back. No, I was here to stay. I had to learn. I had to speak. It was not easy. In fact, in the beginning, I felt that there was no break in people's speech. That is, I could not decide when a sentence had started or finished.

Someone would ask me, "howyadoingsir?", or "howcanIhelpya?", and I would stare at him, squinting, as if I were trying to solve an algebra equation. I usually ended what seemed to be a never-ending monologue, by a smile and a nod, and a second nod if the guy would not shut up. In fact, I had become an expert at this and I learned to time my nod and smile perfectly, and was able to effectively end the continuous string of words that came at me like bullets in the dark.

The English words were indeed bullets that continuously shattered my now fragile sense of self-esteem, and put big holes in the fabric of my social façade, holes so big that I have not been able to cover up yet.

In Persia, I had been a well-respected man, not particularly a man of words but a man of knowledge. I had a certain standing in my social circle, and as I went about my day-to-day living, I always felt a sense of pride and self-confidence. Going to a supermarket here to buy fruits and having difficulty communicating, feeling like a babbling idiot, contrasted sharply with my life in Persia.

In a sense, I was an adult who had suddenly become an infant, pointing to things instead of naming them, like an infant pointing to a colorful toy and making noises, meaning, "Give me the toy." I learned to say "How are you?" like an infant learning to say "mama", and I was so happy that I was finally communicating, that I was finally making some sense in this nonsensical and foreign world.

Language, in some ways, is similar to love: we do not realize its importance until it has been taken away from us. Like the first time we fall in love, it feels wonderful when we learn to speak as children. We can finally connect to others. Instead of bullets, words become like an outstretched hand, inviting you to connect, to share, and to relate.

Like some loveless marriages, however, language loses its importance and we take it for granted, becoming too lazy to learn new vocabulary. The once thirsty and curious little minds now have become satiated and indifferent. We are even too lazy to speak. In fact, personally, email has become my favorite mode of communication. Why talk when you can write, right?

As if replacing spoken communication with written messages was not bad enough, we are now losing our native language as well. More than we need ESL (English as a Secondary Language), it seems that we now need PSL (Persian as a Secondary Language). Because let us admit that Persian has become a second language to many of us.

For instance, for me, it is easier to write in English, no matter how deficient it may be, than to write in Persian which has become nearly a foreign language. Even in speaking Persian, I have become impatient with finding the correct translation for a word, and instead, use English equivalents.

What amuses me, however, is watching other Iranians speak their version of Persian. At the one end are those who speak Persian 99% of the time, and throw in an English word like "oh my God" when appropriate. And at the opposite end are those who speak English most of the time with a random and rare use of Persian words.

Like this girl I knew who suddenly in the middle of the conversation said, "baraa-ye chi?" It took me half a minute (having mentally searched for any English words that sounded like "baraa-ye chi?") to realize she had said a Persian word. Although some may see this as being completely normal, to me this looks like a big problem.

Unfortunately, in this fast-paced-eat-what-you-kill life, we are ill-equipped to come to grips even with the problem, let alone the solution. Even though helping the new comers with English and preserving the Persian language do not top anybody's daily to-do-lists, I still believe that this issue demands a considerable part of our attention and is certainly not a trivial matter.

I have made it my responsibility to be the beam of light that shines on issues that should be attended to (what a crappy metaphor!), including this problem of language. Writing short stories has been a hobby of mine, and I have made an effort to deal with this issue in my stories.

I have always been interested in the power of language. In "Black Apple", in comparing prose and poetry, I try to deconstruct the language, to strip away the rules and commas and periods, to see if language can ever allow us to fully and freely express ourselves. In "Flushing sabze down the toilet", my most entertaining story so far, I deal directly with Persian language.

The female character in the story rarely speaks. When she does, however, she speaks a combination of English and Persian. Although the story is about the relationship between a man and a woman, on a deeper level the story demonstrates the power of language and the destruction of Persian language and culture.

In "Where's the Firrrrrrrrrrre?" the narrator and the old man seem to share a special bond which may be a language long forgotten.

In many of my stories you will see nonsensical words (usually in context of strange chaotic dreams), and many characters who do not speak much, characters who may be Iranian but we do not know. The threat of becoming mute, becoming a babbling idiot, is always lurking in the dark. Language always struggles to make sense of things, to give meaning to a world on the verge of chaos.

If there is one thing that I want the readers to take away from this essay is -- the paper it has been written on (just kidding) -- to recognize the power of language, to learn new ones, to be proud of the ones they already know. To speak Persian, is like having a secret hand shake, a unique way to communicate with people. Persian is our secret. It is what makes us different. Learn it, improve your understanding of it.

If you have become lazy, like my friend in Germany who learned only a few sentences that he felt he needed, and like those people who do not speak Persian and yet know Persian swear words, you are not alone. But we can do something about it. Let us all acknowledge the importance of saving the river of Persian language from getting lost in the ocean of English. Be omide fardaaie behtar.

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