What goes into learning a foreign language for your livelihood? How do you prepare to become a foreigner in an unknown country? Encapsulating the experience of migrants through the microcosm of a TOEFL class in 2008 Karaj, Iran, the dazzlingly beautiful play by Sanaz Toosi Englishdirected by Knud Adams, answers all that and more, performing at the Atlantic Theater in New York to critical acclaim.
The characters are Iranian and speak Farsi, and have their own cultural specificities, but their experiences are universal for any western immigrant community. Toosi’s lyrics and the actors’ compelling performances convey the lingering anxieties and shame that American and Western societies have constantly imposed on Iranian communities who simply seek to make a living elsewhere. The belittlement for not speaking a different language perfectly, for having an accent to ridicule and for having the constant label of “foreigner”, and an Iranian or Muslim to boot, takes its toll on anyone. English points out that perhaps it is these new countries that should change to welcome, rather than forcibly assimilate migrants to minimize their culture and languages.
Toosi’s piece is a gift for those of us of South West Asian and North African (SWANA) descent, and of course specifically for those of Iranian descent. Racism and demonization against Iranians remains at a constant level in the West, as warmongering politicians salivate at the prospect of deteriorating diplomacy and renewed conflict with the Iranian government and further suffering of its innocent people. . Corn English is an astonishing humanization of the Iranian people that is still rarely seen in Western media, conveying the universality of their experiences through its well-focused specificity.
In his heart, English deals with how humans are able to relate to each other and how they will struggle to establish new homes in new places. It’s about how they will always take their home with them, creating particularly poignant moments during the play. From Elham’s (Tala Ashe) anxieties about taking the exam, Goli’s (Ava Lalezarzadeh) fascination with learning a new language, Omid’s (Hadi Tabbal) difficulties finding his place, of Grandmother Roya (Pooya Mohseni) eager to be with her family in Canada, and the struggles of Marjan (Marjan Neshat) to meet the needs of each of her students, audiences will easily identify with all English’characters and their emotional journeys.
The story resonates with the children of migrants who have watched, or perhaps not thought enough, of their parents’ struggles to create a new home for their family while doing their best to retain their culture for themselves and their families. children. In this, English opens up these emotional bridges for migrant families to better understand each other and perhaps offers a pathway to heal from any lingering wounds resulting from this misunderstanding. Ultimately, it’s about honoring the struggles and sacrifices our families have made to leave their home countries to better the lives of their children. It’s not hard to imagine that the Iranian-American cast members played with this exact intention of honoring their parents and what they did for them.
I have never seen an Iranian-American, or even any other SWANA, produced like this in the United States. Although I am not Iranian, but Kurdish, English mesmerized me with the beautiful intensity of his storytelling and made me reflect on the struggles and emotional turmoil of my own family members and relatives who had made the journey here and to the UK from Kurdistan. I could see my aunts, my cousins, my parents, myself, my siblings, and my cousins in this cast of characters, with so many of these overlapping anxieties, insecurities, joys, and differences of being a family. of immigrants. English makes me want to improve my Kurdish even more now, to strengthen the links with my roots, and also makes me want to learn Farsi. As the play shows, it’s never too late to learn a language in both directions of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
English is a gift. Although it has a limited run at the Atlantic Theater, it deserves longer runs nationally and internationally. And we need a lot more Iranian stories in theatre, movies, TV, books and all other Western media, and SWANA stories wholesale. The production I attended last weekend received a standing ovation. The words of Sanaz Toosi and their powerful interpreters deserve many more.