TEHRAN, Iran – Maybe in Quebec, Star Burger would get into trouble for choosing an English name.
Here in Tehran, the fast food joint not only gets away with an English name, it pours salt on the wounds of the pure-Persianist by phonetically writing the name in Farsi script.
Never mind that most people wouldn’t know exactly where the words “estar” or “berger” come from. Quickly and happily they add them to today’s vernacular Persian, a potpourri of classical Farsi (rest in peace), Arabic, French, English and other tongues.
In Iran, deciphering store signs requires the art of simultaneously reading Persian and some other language phonetically written in Farsi.
Even reading the newspaper has become a chore, my father tells me.
“I kept seeing this word that looked like ‘consel’ or ‘conosel’ and kept wondering what is it. Finally, I realized they’ve written ‘cancel’, like such and such concert was cancelled. They could’ve used many Persian words to say the same thing.”
Samsung, Panasonic, Toyota, Coca Cola, every world brand has its own countenance in Farsi script.
But brands aside, Iranians go out of their way to mix in anything else they can get their mouths around. People who couldn’t speak a complete English sentence to save their own life pepper everyday conversation with foreign words.
“Maan voicemaileh shomah-roh beh mobilam deerooz divert kardam,” an acquaintance casually informs me.
He is saying: “Yesterday I diverted your voicemail to my mobile.”
Iranians are enamored with all things foreign, particularly anything Western. Tourists quickly discover that from the way the locals greet them in the streets and boldly initiate conversation, even if they don’t speak a foreign language. Sometimes total strangers ask to have selfies taken with tourists they met seconds earlier.
The furnishing of their homes, the pictures they put on their walls, the luxury brands they put on display at every opportunity, the media they consume, even television news on state networks – much of life here one way or another originates outside Iran.
Yet Iranians can also be embarrassed of being fond of the West. Gharbzadegi (Persian: غربزدگی) is a pejorative Persian term variously translated as “Westernized” or “West-struck-ness”. Twentieth-century writer Seyyed Jalāl Āl-e-Ahmad wrote that Iranians are struck from within with “the disease” of being obsessed with Westernization. He likened it to wheat infested with sawflies.
You know, sometimes I wonder why I’m labeled as a foreigner here. At least one guy thinks I’m more Iranian than most Tehranis because of the way I speak.
“Every word you speak is actually Persian,” he tells me, “which is a rarity now. Most young people in Tehran are constantly trying to pepper in foreign words.”
The government has tried and tried to cleanup the language, a la Québécois. Businesses were fined, store signs smashed, countless man-hours spent by eminent linguists dreaming up Persian equivalents to foreign terms.
The computer is a RAW-yaw-neh in the government’s tongue. A drone is BEH-pod. Pasta is KHA-me-rock. Potato chips is BAR-gak. A toilet siphon is AAB-shoe-yeh. A helicopter is a CHARKH-ball.
All media and school texts have to use the state’s terminology by law. But it hasn’t made a difference. I’ve yet to hear someone say they browse the Internet on their RAW-yaw-neh or it would be cool to ride a CHARKH-bawl. Social media posts frequently lampoon the government’s terminology.
Officials took solemn vows to fight to death the tahajomeh farhangi [cultural invasion] beamed into satellite dishes, “metastasizing” through one of the world’s youngest society’s. Half of Iran’s 81 million people are under 30.
Regardless, satellite dishes are present even in tiny villages and at least in the big cities businesses seem to go out of their way to choose foreign names, script it Persian and sometimes mix in some Persian history too – presumably to appeal to every possible customer.
Like Tourist Burger in Isfahan, with its depiction of the ancient Persian Empire next to Farsi and English of its name. See photo below. Cyrus the Great would roll in his grave – although he might be doing a lot of rolling these days with American evangelical Christians labeling Donald Trump as a modern Cyrus.
“One thing you should know about the Iranian,” a friend tells me. “It’s that they are the absolute experts at destroying the system.”
He means that no matter who happens to be lording over them at the time—the Greek, the Arab, the Mongol, or today’s Islamic regime—Iranians are specialists at disobeying the rules set by the conqueror, to eventually make mince meat of the culture of the ruler, to the point of co-opting the master.