When I translate 200-year-old English
Persian, the strangeness disappears
By Mahin Bahrami
February 12, 2004
I had just finished watching a great movie and was
about to retire. No doubt to give myself ample time to reflect
on the scenes leftover in my mind, when I noticed another DVD on
my desk. For months, a man and a woman clad in Victorian dress
had been staring at me. Beckoning to at least release them from
the cellophane wrapper. My usual sense of curiosity kicked in and
I opened the cover, inserted the disc and pressed the play button.
By the time 2 am rolled around, some 8 hours later,
I had finished watching one of the most stupendous TV miniseries,
by the BBC. Full of gorgeous scenery, superb acting and of course,
a fine plot. Adapted from Jane Austen's novel "Pride
and Prejudice", the BBC had brought to life one of its finest
television productions ever.
The story takes place in Hertfordshire, England,
in the early 1800's.
Elizabeth Bennet, a clever and captivating twenty-year old and
the second of five daughters of a retired English man, is offended
by a well to do yet arrogant and selfish Mr. Darcy who refuses
to dance with her at a local ball.
Various side stories are drawn
which include the other sisters and her friend, however, the tension
and the intrigue is essentially developed around Elizabeth and
Mr. Darcy's unintended meetings and witty conversation. It
ends happily ever after when the two reconcile and get married.
What struck me the most, was the couple's interaction
and the path taken to reconciliation. It's a story of first impressions,
of vanity, of truth and falsehoods, of re-evaluations, of love
and of unyielding pride and blinding prejudice. Character development
is perfect and I must admit that some of the characters are not
easily forgotten, especially Mr. Darcy. ;-)
One can't say that very often about most movie or
TV characters these days.
Aside from the fact that it takes one on a voyage
into the peaceful serenity of the English countryside in an era
when Victorian elegance
is ubiquitous, the captivating plot together with the wonderful
and convincing acting abilities of the cast mesmerize the viewer
continuously up until the end.
That all said, what persuaded me
into directing the review towards an Iranian audience was that
as the plot unraveled I noticed that many of the cultural values
of that era, while embedded within the story, were identical to
modern day Iranian culture or more generally the present day Middle
The family's main problem stemmed from the father's
lack of an heir. He had five daughters but no hiers. After the
death of the father, the estate would be inherited by a male cousin.
At the time females had no inheritance rights. The daughters' financial
future and hence "happiness" hinged on finding suitable
providers, i.e. rich and connected husbands for each and everyone
one of them as soon as possible. The daughters age ranged from
15 to 21.
In those days chastity was of utmost importance.
A wayward daughter reflected badly on the family's reputation.
demonstrated in the part where the youngest of the daughters
runs away with a seducing soldier. The parents are upset because
misbehaving daughters have got the whole town talking. The mother
won't allow the youngest daughter to return unless she marries
the young soldier, thus saving the family's face. Sound familiar?
The young girl's misbehavior caused her sisters a
lot of anguish. The sister's were worried it would diminish their
chances at obtaining good husbands. To stir the pot even
the chronological order of the marriages had to be from the
eldest to the youngest. I should also mention that marriage between
cousins was common practice, as well as arranged marriages
That story is almost 200 years and so is the cultural
setting. The people who lived in that era are long gone. So are
of their cultural values. I live in the Middle East, but
I grew up in the West. To hear and see these concepts acted out
seemed rather odd but when I translated them into Persian
mind the strangeness disappeared. At the end it made me
how much longer Middle Easterners will continue acting
like Victorians and hold on to the very same values that the Victorians'
abandoned decades ago?
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