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The dual language
Personality: Being raised in Iran and abroad

Orkideh Behrouzan
August 5,2004

This is what I learnt when I was six: Lying. We did lie however, because we had to. At school you were supposed to cover your hair with tiny scarves (black in my time,and white or in bright colours nowadays ), and at home you could easily have access to Videos - considered illegal then - containing musical stuff.

However, this article is not focusing on the funny or rather unbelievable - as it is to foreigners - issue of restrictions in my country. I am not talking about the basic rights of human beings to live their personal lives - about which too much has been said -, nor am I pointing to a regime or a government who imposes these restrictions. In contrast, I want to point my finger to people, and to the culture which has been there for several decades, if not centuries.

However, one can't deny that the socio-political situation in the last 30 years or so ,has magnified this bitter feature, and has merely created a new Language which I call "Dual Language". The dual culture in which little kids learn to lie at school about their moms wearing or not wearing a scarf in front of men, to lie in high school about their ideal writer or favorite book, to lie in the uni about their activities, and to lie at home to their parents about their friends and relationships.

The pressure of unauthorized investigations in people's personal lives and the consequent discrimination based on personal judgments, ends up in formation of a language in which things have dual meanings. Before exploring the idea, I would rather have a quick glance at the Persian's interaction with religion as the ruling power for the time being.

Back in the last century, Persia, being a constitutional state, has had more similarities rather than differences to the western countries. On the other hand, the religious establishment of Islam has provided moral and religious bases for the community for centuries.

Presumably, there are no known societies that do not have some form of religion, although religious beliefs and practices vary from culture to culture. All religions involve a set of symbols, linked to rituals practiced by a community of believers. However, what happened in Persia in the last century, was an abrupt change of values, in a system based on a revolution.

Religion was the key point of this power shift, however this was only the cover of the book. Having read the entire book of life in Iran, I can claim that in this system, religion could have more than one meaning, if you know the dual language which was initially based on religion and then developed as a means of communication.

In the dual language ,one can live two lives and speak two tones. You can be religious at school, take part in the prayers held in the school yard, celebrate the anniversary of the revolution ,and call the previous regime names in your history text books at school. Then you can get home, get changed, dress up, attend a party, drink and dance.

All you need is a fraction of a second to forget about school or your work place, and to cope with the new situation. All you need is a few minutes to switch you mind to another channel. In my personal opinion, this practice activates an area in the brain, an area well-developed in the Persian, at least in the past 30 years.

One can't be proud of this ability though, which is based on pretending to be what others want you to be. This "Other You", is your key to survival, or in simple words, is your way to get accepted by the rulers as a citizen. Let alone the political labels which are developed in the recent decades - such as Degar Andishaan ( meaning Strangers in general ) which is applied to journalists, writers and intellectuals who from the main body of the government, evolved as protesting minds -, there has also been created a rather new set of social vocabulary, which is unique to this specific location and this specific era.

I am trying to draw attention to another aspect of this phenomenon: The mental and psychological development of a trait which is basically far from healthy models of human behavior, and is yet inevitable: Learning this language and practicing it unintentionally through everyday's life.

Looking at history, one can realise that unlike Europe where the church was replaced by impersonalized state, Islamic clergies enjoyed the wide range of political and social power through informal religious corners such as Mosques and Howzeh. On this basis, the seeds of Islamic Republic were planted in Iran during 1970s by Islamists discourse which was basically against westernization.

Contrary to the discourse of modernity which was the basis for constitutional revolution of 1906 and followed by Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1926), Islamist discourse aimed at constructing an Islamic version of modernity which defends Iran "Cultural Invasion of the West" and "Cultural Imperialism of the United States". With the rise of political Islam in 1970s, the legitimacy of religious regulations - which were not necessarily based on Islam itself - imposed additional pressure on people's lives in terms of freedom of speech and the ordinary life styles by which people had lived for years.

At this point, one had to either cope with the abrupt change in values,or leave the country. Among people who stayed ,was crawling a new form of language and behavior which included survival codes. Codes were devided into good and bad, and the young generation was the target of this new education : they had to learn the rules, which even included the body language.

To understand the subtlety and specificity of the spoken language in Persia,one needs to develop an ear for the whisperings of irony and an eye for the traces of paradox. The fundamental cultural, economic, and social transformations of the post-revolutionary era have provided the Persian with a degree of sophistication and at the same time untruthfulness previously unimaginable.

The young generation who has been brought up in Persia after the revolution of 1979, has merely developed this delicate sense of picking up unordinary meanings from ordinary words, using the expected vocabulary at the right time, and shifting from one type of Persian language to another as quickly as necessary.

Being used to this imposed pun in the language ,one simply neglects the complicated mental processing which is happening every single moment. It might be easier to notice it when you step out of that land, and realize there should normally be no such a pressure and complexity in a healthy society.

For this generation, it is usually through immigration where comes up this ironic observation in which one has to make an effort to think simply, interpret simply and speak simply. Speaking out of experience, I reckon it is such a relief, combined with sorrow.

This together with many other dilemmas such as personal family restrictions, cultural conflicts with the media, political insecurity at school and university, financial problems, flaws in values and so on, makes me wonder about any possible significant difference between the young generation aged 20-30 who have been raised in Persia, and the one raised abroad, in terms of mental health and personality types.

It would of course require ample investigation and research,as well as broad knowledge about the details of this very true experience which can only be gained through that society at this very moment of frustration in Persia.

To what extent this experience has affected the young generation's mental health, and at what price one can get over the social and behavioral consequences of this experience, are questions for professionals to answer. One can only hope that the price would be lower than what has been paid so far.

Orkideh Behrouzan is a medical doctor doing a PhD at Oxford Univeristy in the UK. She has also studied literature . See her weblog at:

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Orkideh Behrouzan

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