IRAN

How it became cool to order in English in Iranian restaurants

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Across Iran, more and more bars, restaurants and fast-food outlets are using the English translations of drinks and dishes, but written in Farsi. As what’s been called ‘Persinglish’ takes hold, critics have taken to social media to express outrage at a growing trend that some restaurants have also used as a pretext to jack up prices.

On menus in many Iranian bars and restaurants, the names of dishes have been translated into English but written using the Farsi alphabet. So it’s no longer surprising to see ‘onion’ instead of the Farsi word ‘piaz’, ‘mushroom’ in the place of ‘ghargh’, or ‘strawberry mint’ instead of ‘Tootfarangi Na’na’.

Critics of the trend have taken to social media to protest the new norm. Our Observer, Shabnam, is one of them. She studies sociology at the University of Tehran and often spends her time in bars and cafés in the Iranian capital.

Fast food menu in Tehran. Circled in red from left to right: ‘chubby fries’, ‘onion rings’, ‘crispy potatoes’ and ‘crispy mushrooms’.

A bar menu in Tehran, from top to bottom: ‘Cucumber’, ‘Red Mojito’, ‘Punch’. Drinks cost between 14,000 and 35,000 tomans – between 4.30 and 10 euros – which is expensive in Iran.

'Even writing the name of a product in English triples the price!'

At first, I didn’t find the whole ‘Persinglish’ tendency all that bad. I thought it was actually quite interesting, even funny. But after a while I started to get fed up. What’s wrong with writing ‘cucumber’ or ‘potato’ in Farsi? I saw that lots of young people shared my opinion and were also poking fun at the new trend, so I joined the movement on Twitter.

“I don’t know about you, but personally, when I see a café menu written in Persinglish, I head for the exit.”

“The situation is so bad that even saying ‘sibzamini sorkh karde’ instead of ‘French fries’ is interpreted as defending the Farsi language.”

Making fun of English words written in Farsi script isn’t only a criticism of the translation. It’s also a way of taking a stand against this culture of the ‘nouveau riche’, who are using more and more English words in their daily lives. Lots of young people from Iran’s middle classes are doing the same thing.

'Iranian society is becoming increasingly westernised'

Over the last few decades, Iranian society has been steadily succumbing to western influences. People have a tendency to find everything American cool and sophisticated. We’re starting to adopt more aspects of American culture, and bars have jumped on the bandwagon in the hope of turning a profit.

In many places, rewriting an item and translating it into English can triple its price! But it hasn’t put people off. When my boyfriend takes me to one of these kinds of cafés, it feels like we’re in a classy establishment. But the bill is very steep. It’s ridiculous, no one would pay 15,000 tomans [4.50 euros] for a ‘Shirmoz’. But if it’s for a ‘Banana smoothie’, people seem ready to pay.

                              

Both of these menus offer fruit juices, but the first one has been written using English names (for example, the third drink is called ‘Skywalker’), and the prices are between two to three times more expensive than those on the second menu.

'Young people use English to show off'

It’s not just happening in Tehran. The same thing is happening across the country, and not just in cafés and restaurants. Young people use English expressions in their everyday language, mainly to show off and prove that they’re well-educated, as well as to show that they speak fluent English.

For some people, the use of English is a way of saying, "I’m not part of Iran’s conservative fringe, I’m cool, I’m an intellectual, and I’m open-minded". I think it’s a ridiculous way of responding to Iran’s official posture towards the West. People who behave like that often act as if everything that comes from the US and the West in general is overwhelmingly positive. To be friends with these people, you have to act the same way.

Like those protesting online, I don’t have anything against the English language. I’m just against those who twist reality. Most people who use English expressions don’t even speak the language fluently. It’s ridiculous.

Iranian linguist Reza Shokrollahi has coined the phrase "linguistic fraud" to describe the phenomenon of expressing something in English in an effort to make it sound hip and modern.

Half of Iran’s population is under the age of 30, and many young people meet in cafés, bars and restaurants to hang out and flirt. In the last 10 years, trendy bars have exploded in popularity across the Iranian capital. Officially, Tehran is home to 500 such establishments, but it’s likely that, unofficially, far more exist.

Some supermarkets have even begun writing the names of products in English using the Latin alphabet.