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Bad English bad for your health
Iranian passenger on Air Canada busted for poor choice of words

February 7, 2003
The Iranian

In Terry Gilliam's mid 80's dystopian fantasy, Brazil, a lowly bureaucrat played by Jonathan Price is mistaken, in an absurd twist of fate, for an anarchist terrorist and thus enters a labyrinthine and seemingly non-ending phantasmagoric hell of interrogation, torture and madcap car chases involving wily terrorists and ruthless state security agents.

The poor chap has the misfortune of sharing a few letters in his last name with the notorious terrorist so that in a cosmic mishap a T is typed in place of a B, Buttle becomes Tuttle, the horrific wheels of destiny are set to motion and the little bureaucrat's fate is changed forever.

Zoom forward to October 10th, 2002 and the paranoid atmosphere of post 9/11 when to be a Middle Eastern man is to have a bull's eye painted on one's forehead, to a certain Mr. Norouz Barghi, Iranian Law professor en route to Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, to attend an English language course (you shall see the irony) with a stop in Montreal.

The prematurely aged 35-year-old, dressed in a conservative suite, feeling disoriented after an epic 20-hour flight from Baku (victim of a discount flight no doubt), happy that the end is finally near, hugged his overstuffed handbag and awaited take off. As the perky, bossy, flight attendant commenced the announcement of the safety procedure, the little dark man was heard to have uttered the following ominous phrase: "Don't worry about it. We are all in God's hand."

Moments later upon the flight attendant's insistence that Mr. Barghi put his briefcase under his seat or in the overhead compartment, an argument ensued, the flight attendant proceeded to rather curtly shove the handbag under the seat (as flight attendants are known to do) and Mr. Barghi sealed his fate by saying "No, no. Be careful or it might explode."

As Mr. Barghi proceeded to doze off thinking nothing of his remark, unbeknown to him the plane was taxied back to the terminal and Mr. Barghi was escorted off the plane and put under arrest. After spending one night in jail, Mr. Barghi was granted bail the next day. His legal-aid lawyer withdrew from the case because Mr. Barghi claimed he had enough cash in his luggage to hire a lawyer and post the $3,000 bail. However, since he had no idea where his luggage was, he was sent back to jail without knowing how to reach another lawyer.

After 26 days behind bars, Mr. Barghi finally got out, but having the incredible bad luck of being released on a Friday afternoon after the detention centre's cashier had left for the weekend, without money, papers or proper clothes, he begged the officers to let him back in. He was eventually placed in a homeless shelter for the weekend. In his trial, the judge found Mr. Barghi guilty of mischief because in his opinion, anyone with a basic knowledge of English should have known of the implication of using the word "explode". Norouz Barghi is currently awaiting sentencing.(1)

Any Farsi-speaker would immediately grasp the absurdity of Norouz Barghi's situation. Those who have learned to speak English (or French or any other language for that matter) as a second language know the awkwardness of verbatim translation of phrases, the traps of slang, the missteps of similar sounding words.(2)

Of course, the poor sod must have thought "movaazeb baash, mitterekeh" and had translated the phrase verbatim to "Be careful or it might explode". Norouz Barghi was apparently neither jovial when he uttered the phrase, nor did he display premeditated hostile behavior. Being most likely not quite in tune with the current supercharged paranoid atmosphere in North America, the worst one can accuse him of is disregarding air travel etiquette or challenging the all mighty flight attendants. Stupidity maybe but mischief?

Couldn't the judge, a French-Canadian himself, understand the innocent twist of tongue on Barghi's part, that a rudimentary command of another language doesn't make you an expert, especially not in slang? Canada's prime minister, a French-Canadian is notorious for slaying the English language on the national television on a nightly basis. Couldn't the court have bothered consulting a Farsi speaker to help clarify the situation?(3)

Let's be clear. The question of air travel security is a matter that everyone is concerned about. Fanatical terrorists don't particularly discriminate among their victims based on ethnic and religious background. Once you set foot in an airplane everyone is in the same boat so to speak. The security rules are set up to protect all passengers but like it or not there is a de facto racial profiling in place, even though the non-Middle Eastern passengers are not exempt from random searches and occasional harassment.

None of this of course is of any comfort to Norouz Barghi. He simply had the misfortune of saying the wrong word at the wrong time and the wrong place. Being a citizen of a so-called pariah nation didn't help either. Just imagine, had he said instead "it might bust open" or "it might burst", or just shut his mouth and be a good boy, he would be sitting in a clean spacious classroom overlooking the Atlantic ocean in the morning learning to speak proper English, strolling in the waterfront in the afternoon and sampling the world famous Nova Scotia smoked salmon at night. Oh cruel fate, thou art most treacherous.


1. The Globe and Mail, Thursday January 23, 2003

2. I still blush in embarrassment myself whenever I remember the gaffe I committed one evening in my late teens when, along with a couple of other Iranian friends neither of whom spoke English. I was the guest of an American couple. Just as we were about to leave, speaking on behalf of others, in my too formal and bookish English, I thanked the bewildered Americans for their "hostility", rather than "hospitality". No Freudian slip, just bad conversational English.

3. My guess is that the mischief charge may be an attempt to recoup the $6,500 the flight delay cost Air Canada.

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