Saturday, 5 October 2013

Book of the Month: A Beginner's Guide to Acting English (Shappi Khorasandi)

Hadi Khorsandi was a well-known Iranian political journalist. His satirical political columns for an Iranian newspaper were very popular. He was their rising star. In 1976 Khorsandi was posted by the newspaper to London. He arrived in London with his wife and two children: his son, Peyvand, and three-year old daughter, Shaparak. This was supposed to be a two-year posting, at the end of which Khorsandi was intending to return to Iran. Little did he know at the time that what was supposed to be a time-limited stay would extend to a life-long exile.

Hadi Khorsandi had socialistic leanings. Coming as he did from an impoverished background, he held the then ruler of Iran, the Shah (whom he lampooned mercilessly in his columns), in withering contempt for various reasons, the prominent amongst which were the Shah’s Sybaritic lifestyle (even as much of the population led an hand-to-mouth existence) and the Shah being a stooge of the Imperialist Western (America and Britain) powers. Around the time of Hadi Khorsandi’s posting in London the winds of revolution began to blow in Iran. The revolution had a spiritual leader, whom the Shah had exiled to France: Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeni. Hadi Khorsandi was overjoyed when the Shah was finally thrown out of power. However, his joy turned to horror when the revolution that had overthrown the Shah came more and more to be dominated by religious zealots. It seemed that Khomeni was not content in being merely a spiritual leader of the country; he was not prepared to do the decent thing and step aside once the Shah abdicated—as Hadi Khorsandi had hoped—; he wanted to actually lead the country, and take it away from the corrupting influence of the decadent West  (which had given him a sanctuary during his years in exile) towards pure Islamic ideals. The revolution was an Islamic revolution. This was not something Hadi Khorsandi, the satirist, was expecting. And he soon found out that the new rulers were far less tolerant of the opposing views than the regime of the much-maligned Shah. Fast becoming disillusioned with the new Iranian regime and the direction in which it was forcing the country, Khorsandi started satirising the new rulers in his columns. When, after two years, he returned to Iran, he discovered that there was a mob of two hundred people wanting to lynch him for his unpatriotic, anti-Islamic columns. Khorsandi managed to avoid the baying mob and returned to the UK, where he applied for a refugee status. The UK would become the adopted home of his family.

Almost three decades after the Islamic revolution that swept Iran and consigned the Khorsandi family to the life of exile, comes the bitter-sweet memoir of Shappi Khorsandi, the younger daughter of Hadi, who came to this country when she was three.

A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English is an engaging, affectionate, and heart-warming account of growing up as a stranger in a strange land. With great eloquence and (you suspect creativity) Shappi Khorsandi describes the goings on in the extended family of her maternal grandmother and the life in the lower middle class area of Tehran where the family resided, a life full of doting relatives—Shappi Khorsandi had several maternal uncles and aunts, the youngest of whom was only ten days older than she—she left behind, when at the age of three she came to England. In England, her family, it would appear, immersed itself totally in the treacly world of the Iranian Diaspora. Not an evening went by when Shappi’s parents were either not entertaining a minimum of fifty guests or were not being entertained (along with hundred other guests) by family friends and acquaintance. The men discussed, loudly and passionately, politics—that is Iranian politics—and, at times, had violent disagreements as to whether Shah was a menace, a saviour or lesser of the evils; the women cooked scrumptious and tasty Iranian dishes in the kitchen that would send your cholesterol levels surging into outer stratosphere; and the children played games in the bedrooms.  The children—this will come as a shock to the English—had no set bed-time and frequently played with other children late into the night, for as long as the get-togethers went on. The family might be physically living in London, but they might as well have been in Tehran. The emotional links to the mother-country were strong. They were living an Iranian life in England.

The family’s fortunes changed after Hadi Khorsandi lost his job with the newspaper for his anti-Ayatollaha views. Not being very fluent in English and unwilling to pursue anything other than a journalistic profession, his job opportunities were always going to be limited. He decided to publish his own paper—which he called ‘Asghar Agah’, the name being representative of the common man (‘Asghar Agah is everybody and nobody’, Hadi Khorsandi explained to his young daughter)—in exile, in which, he reasoned, he would be able to publish his poems—which no newspaper in Tehran was willing to print—on his own terms. This paper, which Hadi Khorsandi produced in the living room of his flat, would then be posted to its subscribers in England and America. The family moved from their rented flat in Kensington—this was when Hadi Khorsandi still had a job—to Ealing, and then to a rented flat near Ealing Broadway. With great warmth Shappi Khorsandi describes the lives the family led in these rented accommodations. Hadi Khorsandi, her father, would appear to have a great knack for accumulating friends. He was a generous and hospitable man, and did not let the decline in the family’s wealth and fortune—of which the reader gets an occasional hint—to come in the way of his socializing lifestyle—the evening entertainments continued. Blessed with vivid memory and imagination, Shappi Khorsandi describes the play-ground intrigues at school, the neighbourhoods where they lived, the two-yearly visits of their Iranian relatives, the growing pains of teenage years in a foreign country (which would appear to have resulted in her elder brother going a tad wild in his adolescence) and the ever-increasing friend circles of their parents. She imbues these quotidian happenings with magic.

Shappi Khorsandi is particularly deft at portraying lineaments with acuity, and depicts memorable characters. Of these, the most unforgettable is her father, Hadi Khorsandi, who emerges from these memoirs as a gregarious, larger-than-life person I would love to spend an evening with (although not several evenings in a row, which would tire me out), guffawing over, I don’t know what—my knowledge of Iranian politics is about as deep as that of the young Shappi Khorsandi of these memoirs—; but I wouldn’t worry about it; Hadi Khorsandi is bound to think of something to bring a smile to my face. In a particularly hilarious episode—hilarious because it is described in the memoirs in that way; it must have been very tense for the elders in the family—the Scotland Yard detectives contact Hadi Khorsandi, as they have been made aware of a threat to his life, posed by the mercenaries paid (allegedly) by the extremist regime in Iran. The Khorsandi family is advised to go underground for a while and lie low. Hadi Khorsandi takes his family to a B & B in Windsor, where, over the next week, to the bemusement of his English landlady, he proceeds to invite all of his friends, who convert the B & B into an Iranian courtyard. When a week later, the detective from the Scotland Yard turn up to see how he is getting on, they find him going out on a picnic with several dozen friends. Khorsandi not only assures the concerned detectives that they are his friends who, he is sure, are not going to kill him, he also inveigles them into joining the picnic!  Another memorable character is Shappi’s paternal grandmother, ‘Moderjaan’, who comes across as a woman of great, sardonic wit whose worldview is infused with a healthy dose of scepticism.

I have reviewed earlier on this blog Becoming British: the Making of Mr Hai’s Daughter, the memoir of television presenter, Yasmin Hai, the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant to England. Hai, who was born in England, grew up in the same decades—the 1970s and 1980s—as Shappi Khorsandi. While the experiences of the two girls, as they grew up in the multicultural, multiracial Britain, couldn’t have been more different, there is one common link: the casual racism to which they and their families were subjected in this country. Both were routinely called ‘Pakis’, a diminutive of ‘Pakistani’, which was used (and is still used) to refer to, with racist connotations, anyone who had brown skin. Hadi Khorsandi might have been an erudite journalist in Iran and a respected member of the Iranian Diaspora in London; but to those who are inclined to view other races with disdain, he was just a ‘Paki’. It is to the credit to both Shappi Khorsandi and Yasmin Hai that they did not allow these repeated unpleasant experiences to which they were subjected to engender bitterness. Indeed Shappi Khorsandi describes them with a degree of humour.

It is the good temper of the narrative together with acute observations and the ability to perceive and express the humour in seemingly disparate situations that makes this memoir eminently readable. At times, though, the attempt to bring forth the innocence of young Shappi does not quite work as well as that. For example the letters (printed in italics) that Shappi writes to Ayatollah Khomeni come across as self-consciously ingenuous, thereby detracting from the emotions (presumably sympathy) Shappi Khorsandi is hoping to get out of her readers.

The title of the book seems to have been thought of with tongue firmly lodged in cheek (Shappi Khorsandi is a well-known stand-up comedian in Britain). Although the book is titled A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English, throughout the length of the book neither Shappi nor her convivial family makes any efforts to fit in with the main-stream culture. True, the children force their mother to give them neatly cut ham sandwiches and fish-fingers (instead of the delicious Iranian food, which the other children in their classes think is smelly) in their lunch boxes; but these are superficial adjustments. In their hearts, with regard to their leisure activities, dealings with the extended families, celebration of festivals, the family remains staunchly Iranian. And that is how it should be. Incorporation of different influences will make a culture broader and richer; the bedevilment of other cultures and practices is a symptom primarily of peoples’ own insecurities.

Both Shappi Khorsandi and Yasmin Hai did not have religion (in both their cases Islam) central to their lives when they grew up; but there was a difference. Islam was very prominent in the milieu in which Yasmin Hai grew up, and her father, who once upon a time was a member of a Communist party, felt he had to take special steps to banish it from the life of his daughter. With Shappi Khorsandi, one gets the impression after reading her memoir, that the process was perhaps simpler not only because her immediate family was not religious, but also because the Iranian Diaspora which formed a big part of her life when she grew up, viewed themselves as Iranians first and foremost, and not Muslims. Both her father and his friends would appear to have been cognisant and respectful and even proud of the pre-Islamic past of Iran. This is what Shappi Khorsandi, you get the impression, is repeatedly trying to convey in her memoirs. At a time when Toni Blair, the ex-British prime minister, identified radical Islam as the biggest threat to the world peace (a bit rich, this, from a war criminal) and Iran as the country exporting fundamentalism, it is worth keeping in mind that it would be a grave folly to paint almost a billion people with the same broad brush. If there is a message at all in this very entertaining and  gratifying memoir, it is that.