I always enjoy well-written books about the migrant experience. It’s the voice of the outsider, the fresh eyes on what is taken for granted, the challenge to othodoxy. Common themes of exclusion and racism run through stories of migration. But so do themes of survival and humour. Humour that the mainstream society of the country into which the migrant had come often do not get.
This affinity with the story of migrants probably is a result of my family history. But it is also my attraction to the underdog, the divergent, the one who challenges societal norms.
Shappi Khorsandi’s A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English has all of these themes.
You know how I love books that show me a different life, teach me about something I know little? Well that’s one reason I enjoyed this book.
I knew so little about Iran, including why we persist in calling them Persian. I confess, to my shame, I am also one who previously confused Iran and Iraq, and the religious and political philosophies that governed both countries under the various rulers: the Shah, the Ayatollah and Saddam. Nor did I know much about the Iran-Iraq War.
Reading this has been so rewarding in opening my eyes.
Another reason I enjoyed this book is the humour. It is very funny.
I love the description of the navity play Shappi was in at primary school. Being Zoroastrian, they do not celebrate Christmas. Shappi is picked as a shepherd as she’s dark, so “obviously” can’t play an angel. She tries to explain to her grandmother, Madar Jaan, about the navity play.
“So what happens? Madar Jaan asked.
“We have a doll that’s meant to be the baby Jesus'” I explained to my grandmother.
“Eisah,” Maman told her. “They pronounce it ‘Jesus’.”
“Ah! Hazrateh Eisah! Yes, I know him,” Madar Jaan said. “So, what’s a shepherd got to do with the prophet Eisah?”
“The shepherds come to see the baby Jesus and they bring him a lamb as a present.”
“What’s a baby going to do with a lamb? Does he want to make kebabs?”
Sometimes it takes an outsider to make us see the silliness or the ridiculousness of what we take as real or right or factual in our traditions.
The horror and ignorance of racism is ever present. Her family are called Pakis, the term of abuse for anyone who is a darker skinned. So telling about those who use the term! And obviously hurtful for those so insulted and all who are actually from Pakistan.