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Deal with it
To az maa behtaraans: You hate it, but you're Iranian too

By Ali Tsvetanovian, Toronto
January 18, 2003
The Iranian

Having traveled across the globe for more than twenty-five years, from the tender age of twelve, I hace come to discover a new breed of people. In this article, you will learn how I came to this discovery and how I have struggled to classify this amazing find.

The day started in a seemingly innocent manner. I had bought a beautiful leather jacket from a department store a day earlier and had found a somewhat large tear in one of the sleeves. It was almost lunch hour when I finally got into my car, driving to the mall. In the course of the events that followed I met a couple of "az maa behtaraan"-- the privileged, or literally translated: "those better than us." Let me tell you how I came to discover this new creed, before I tell you about my recent dealings with them.

I first met this kind in the Foreign Ministry of the Islamic Republic in 1990. Returning after a decade of living abroad, I was trying to find my way through the beaurocracy, get a passport and leave Tehran for my home in Toronto, Canada. A young woman from Ottawa, Ontario (also in Canada) sat beside me, quietly waiting until her name was called. Eventually it became obvious she had committed the same balsphamous crime as myself, letting her passport expire while living in Canada and the States.

The bearded man, a low-level clerk with way too much power, tried to ascertain how she had let her passport expire, asking her questions in Persian about her whereabouts. Each time the official asked a question, the young woman responded in English, arguing that she was a landed immigrant and thus did not really need her Iranian passport.

As this weird and commical exchanges of Persian questions followed by English responses continued, it was obvious the bearded clerk was losing his patience. The bearded man politely asked the young woman to respond in Persian; that she was in Tehran and not in Ottawa; and that he found it very offensive when she refused to speak Persian.

In a soft, gentle, yet sarcastic tone, this time with an awkward and obviously faked mix of English and Persian words she argued that she had been abroad for too long and had forgotten Persian.

As I tried to figure out why she was actually trying to create a situation for herself, with every fake accent and mispronounced word, I watched the bushy eyebrows of the bearded man raise high; actually so high that I thought they were going to fly off of his face. Nevertheless, the official composed himself and shouted my name, affixing it with a polite gesture of civility and professionalism calling me "Mister" and "Sir" or "Aaghaa" and "Jenaab".

I approached his desk and greeted him with a simple "Salam".

After replying to my greetings, in perfect English he asked: "How long have you been living in Canada, sir?"

"About ten years, sir," I replied in Persian.

"With all due apologies," he continued in Persian, "how old were you when you first left Iran?" Again, addressing me as "Aaghaa".

"I was only twelve, sir," I replied, adding that I had lived elsewhere before migrating to Canada.

Still continuing his civil manner through which he addressed both of us, he asked the young lady in English: "And how old, prey tell, were you madam when you first left Iran and how long have you been out of the country that you have forgotten Persian?" reminding me of something you would see in a Samad script.

Still maintaining her grounds, she replied in a definitely Persian accented and broken English that she had been out of the country for five years and was only sixteen when she first left the country. Yet still she had lost her Persian in that short period of time. There was absolutely no shame in her, she maintained her position, with no regard for the relentless pleas of the government official.

The bearded man rose from his seat in respect, pointed to a seat on the other side of the room and in a gentle whisper of Azari Persian said to me, "Do please have seat. As soon as I am finished with 'Khaanem az maa behtaraan' I will be sure to call your name and see what we can do for you."

That was the first time I met this breed of self-loathing, pretentious individuals. For the first time since the revolution, I was in complete agreement with someone on the "right" side of Iranian politics.

Sometime later I was back in Toronto, the most wonderful and beautiful city I have ever seen, meeting with a second specimen of "az maa behtaraan". It was the second year of my graduate school; I was young, athletic, smart enough to have made it to grad school; and still had all of my hair on my head, instead of it migrating to unpleasant areas around my shoulder and back.

Across the table, was an Italian beauty, who later on became a model. Right beside her was the woman of my dreams, a smart Iranian woman aspiring to be a civil rights lawyer! I could not ask for a better combination in my dreams: beautiful, smart and interested in civil liberties. I sat there salivating and cherishing every word she uttered. Unfortunately, just like my dreams, the euphoric joy wasn't meant to last long.

Soon the conversation turned towards race, language and culture. There was a great deal of Muslim bashing at first, slowly turning to male bashing and finally it was exclusively about each and every problem with "Iranian men". There was a lot of negative descriptions and, let's face it, hatred of Iranian culture and men; and, all of it was coming from the beautiful and smart Iranian woman!

My Italian friend tried to stop her, finally arguing that she could not put all Iranian men in the same basket. "After all," she argued, "look at Ali. Isn't he an educated, progressive, liberal man from Iran?"

I wish I had never heard the answer: "Yes," she declared, "but Ali's domesticated now!"

She exclaimed this utterance of nonsense and insult sarcastically, as if we should have been well aware of that fact. In response, all I could do was to imitate the sounds of a farm animal; I think it was a goat, but it could have been a cow too.

After that day, I was aware of a special breed of peoples among the rest of "us" -- domesticated and free range Iranians alike. They don't like us and don't want to be associated with us. They tend to shy away from our brutish and unsophisticated tongue, be it the provincial Dari, little known Tajik, or even worse: the age-old uncivilized Persian. They brush their hair and squeal with disgust at those who do not wipe, but rather wash their bums after defecation.

But, the irony is that this poor, unfortunate creed will always bear the burden of being one of us, the provincials, the uncivilized, and the ever-so-lacking-of civility, domesticity and culture.

They come in both sexes; they might be from Bukhara or Samarqand; but don't be surprised if you hear them say they were born in Kabul, Tehran, or even the twin sisters of Iranian culture, Shiraz and Isfahan, whispering in shame, so no cultured person might hear them.

For some reason -- no doubt completely due to some fault and shortcoming of mine -- I meet this breed of people all the time, but rarely have I had the pleasure of meeting two of them within the same hour.

As I drove towards the mall, one of my domesticated stomachs pleaded for lunch.

"No hamburgers, I have had enough of them," I could swear hearing my stomach declare.

"Something a little more gentle. Perhaps a vegeterian dish!" it continued in its seemingly tired and frightened manner.

I drove to the mall and sought the little restaurant that had just opened, proudly displaying a large neon sign advertising "Persian Food".

I went to the counter and gently offered my greetings in Persian.

The man responded in English, "Can I help you, sir?"

Thinking he had not heard me, I replied in Persian, "Yes sir. What are you serving today?" But, he stood there, with an unbelievably lost look on his face.

He looked a little more like our Afghan cousins, so I thought perhaps he did not speak Persian and started to speak English. He carefully and politely took my order and told me to wait, while he went to the back of his restaurant.

As soon as he came back, I knew he was an "az maa behtaraan."

In broken English he explained: "This type of food takes a while to cook sir. You may have to wait ten to fifteen minutes. Is that ok?"

Shrugging my shoulder I showed him no objection and turned towards the eating area of the mall, looking for a clean table to sit. That was until, I heard him in perfect Persian dictate my order to his wife, at the back of his tiny restaurant, through a microphone: "Yek joojeh kabaab, ba saalaad o dogh. Lotfan kabaab raa well-done dorost konid."

I didn't even try to figure this one out; just went to the first table, waited for my lunch, and left bewildered after finishing. There was no explanation, other than he was one of them "az maa behtaraan."

At the large department store, with at least five locations in Toronto, I slowly made my way through the bra sale, wondering how I would choose a bra, if I had to. The answer came as I found customer service: "It would be the same as buying an underwear - a combination of comfort, price and how it would make me feel," I assured myself.

A young woman greeted me from behind the counter. I showed her the small incision in my jacket and apologized for having missed it while buying it the day before. "Of course," I explained, "I would like to exchange it."

She looked at me, smiled, and politely pointed out a young man in a dashing suit and said: "Hamid will be glad to help you sir."

As I waited for Hamid to tend to my needs, I read the most customer-friendly return policy I have ever seen, printed in large, bold letters and plastered throughout the customer service area.

When Hamid finally got to me and noticed the cut in the jacket, he raised his head and declared sarcastically: "Sir, you did not see this cut when you bought the product?"

Then, without waiting for a response, he continued with his sarcasm, asking "And how long have you been wearing this it," suggesting some kind of impropriety.

I was thinking how to protest when he continued in his Persian accent, "I need to see your receipt, sir."

As he closely examined the receipt, he found the date (previous day's date) along with my name. Uttering an inaudible "Hmmm" and ending it with a "Pffff" he then proceeded to examine the Visa Card receipt as if it may be fake. Then, first looking closely at me, he turned to another cashier and asked him to verify the receipt with Visa.

"Do you speak Persian, by any chance?" I asked.

"No!," he replied abruptly.

Thinking he might be an Arab or a Pakistani, I offered an apology and explanation. "I am sorry, you do look Iranian and your name is Hamid, a popular Shi'ite Iranian name."

"I guess I am. Sort of! I was born there, but left while I was young," the young twenty-something replied.

"When did you leave?"

"Nineteen," he said, again, in an abrupt manner, as if he didn't want anyone else to hear him.

At this time his manager had responded to my request and approved the exchange for a new jacket.

I wanted to tell him that I too had left at a tender age, and lived in several different countries by the time I was twenty; and that, throughout every embarrassing ordeal -- be it the hostage-taking saga or the unfortunate violence that followed the revolution -- I maintained that I could live in Paris and even become a citizen of Canada, but I would never forget my Persian. Then, I realized he was "az maa behtaraan"!

As I started to write, I was stricken with the fear that I perhaps have become one of them by writing my piece in English. But then I realized that I don't have a Persian word processor. And besides, the "az maa behtaraan" might not be able to read it, lest I write in English.

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