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The last word
When you are an Iranian, talking becomes your main vital sign



August 7, 2006 

Back in my younger days, my siblings criticized me for always wanting to have the last word. But they were wrong. To have the last word wouldn’t begin to compensate for all the times my brothers and sisters shut me up just because they were older. I wanted to have the first, the last, and any words in between as I raised my voice and just stood shy of asking for a microphone!

My grandmother would recite this poem as a subtle advice, “Say little and select your words as if they were jewels; and may what you say echo throughout the universe!”

But I was a child and not only oblivious to the value of jewels but uninterested in the world’s opinion. Looking back, I tend to attribute my verbal-ness to being the youngest of seven, but what’s everyone else’s excuse?

We are indeed a talkative nation whose gatherings don’t suffer the boredom of silence and, regardless of the subject; we are not usually lost for words.

Listening to the Iranian radio out of LA, I smile at callers’ casual chitchat and their disregard for the cost. “Hello, doctor, how are you? May you not be tired! I want to thank you for letting me speak to you and for being there and listening to our problems. I know that if you had not spoken with such wisdom, the world would not be the same. Allow me to thank you for solving the problems of the universe! But I am calling you because I have a problem.” At which point, even I know that the caller has a problem, but the exchange of pleasantries goes on long before a true discussion begins and I wonder if she has any clue as to the cost of such a chat on the air.

During years of practice, I noticed that among my patients, fellow Iranians exhibited a flare for unrelated chatter. Not only did they talk excessively -- while numb and with sharp instruments in their mouths -- but also supporting the “conspiracy theory,” they managed to find a correlation between the treatments they had received and other ailments. “Doctor, ever since you did that root canal, my right toe has been numb!”

When you are an Iranian, talking becomes your main vital sign -- a fact that unfortunately is unknown to medicine. Go to any hospital in Iran and while you may not hear any beeping of machines and there won’t be too many nurses running around, you’d know you’re in a hospital from the chorus of complaints and moans that echo down the block. Some patients do not suffice to simply state their discomfort; they deem it necessary to philosophize, analyze, and even offer resolutions. A few may go a step further and come up with their own diagnosis and treatment plan.

“The pain is shooting from my heart to the right knee, I am going to faint, nurse, please give me an injection!” And when no one pays attention, it is time to raise the voice, “My heart is about to stop; help me oh you Moslems of the world!” Should the staff continue to ignore them -- and they often do -- the patient turns to the holy saints. “Ya hazrat-e Abbas, have mercy on my children!” This saint is by far the most popular, but there are enough saints for everyone to pick a favorite and sometimes a metaphor may replace the proper name. Such a switch can be confusing because to this day, I am not quite clear on who “The Moon of Bani Hashem” is or why he has more clout than others.

Finally, as no one rushes over and the saints fail to offer immediate assistance, the patient decides to go directly to the boss, “Dear God, either save me or kill me!” Which is precisely what He does.

Such extrovert behavior presents a huge contrast to, let’s say, the Brits, Scandinavians, or Japanese, who are so quiet that a monitor is needed to confirm that they are alive. Please don’t misunderstand me; for I have all the compassion for anyone stuck in a hospital that may not be fully equipped. In a way, the Iranian patient may have found a way to not only cut down on expenses, but also lend a hand by  reporting the changes from one minute to the next.

We are not just chatty; we also possess a remarkable talent for drama. In times of crisis, some Iranians may hesitate to take action, but verbally we are invincible. Perhaps the root of such talent lies in a childhood of being unjustly hushed by grownups. Or maybe we are making up for all the times that fear of secret police made us avoid “sensitive” discussions. Whatever the reason, when it comes to self-expression, we use our vocal cords with admirable efficacy, utilize unbelievable vocabulary, and enhance our meaning with a variety of hand gestures. All one has to do is listen to our debates on international politics to hear how we borrow words from a variety of languages and drive our point home. In short, you name the predicament, Iranians will have the solution!

Take the crisis in the Middle East, for example. While most of us keep a safe distance and do our best to remain uninvolved, verbally we have more suggestions than the United Nation could dream of! True that we have our own set of problems, but that’s irrelevant because we are still waiting for a hero to come and solve them. Indeed history shows that the Persians have always had a hero, even though some of them did far less than they promised. The West will never understand our way. Heroism is an ancient tradition and we’re not about to let a silly thing, like democracy, break it. Being born in the Middle East may have its disadvantages, but let’s not overlook its huge advantage because when it comes to political commentaries each and every one of us is an expert.

Listening to the political comments of my fellow countrymen, I am horrified to notice that slowly but surely we are using words to draw a line and build a wall between our own people. Perhaps the “Divide and conquer” policy is finally going to work. People’s persistence on the use of words such as Azerbaijani or Kurd, not to mention the different religious groups, makes me wonder what became of the good old Iranian? I’m sure there are those who would love to see Iran divided, much in the same way the Soviet Union disintegrated, but we are all too busy talking and too preoccupied with others’ wars to hear the sound of an alarm.

I sit back at the dinner table and listen to my children as they fight over who gets the last word. While admiring their concern for international problems, I am tempted to tell them to “Be brief and be selective, as if words were jewels,” but decide not to. I serve tea as my daughters propose ideas to save the planet and wonder if anyone would agree to banish Air-conditioning in such a hot world just to prevent further global warming. Comment

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani gave up dentistry to be a full-time writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e Gham" (see excerpt). Visit her site

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Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani



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