Shappi Khorsandi : A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English (Ebury Press, 2009)

Shappi Khorsandi : A Beginner's Guide to Acting English (Ebury Press, 2009)

Shappi Khorsandi : A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English (Ebury Press, 2009)

Shappi Khorsandi pops up occasionally on the comedy circuit and I first saw her on Have I Got News For You on the BBC. She is a comic in touch with her Persian roots and, whilst a paid-up Anglophile (married to a Brit), her stand-up fare draws on her familial background to feed her satirical output. She always makes me giggle on TV and when I caught sight of her book – A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English – I nabbed it and read it in 3 straight sittings.

This autobiographical trawl through her childhood is a delightful (and occasionally harsh) depiction of life in Iran, contrasted with the family’s (ultimately enforced) exile to the UK. Talented family all, 4 year old Shaparak is accompanied by her father, famous Iranian writer and satirist Hadi Khorsandi, brother Peyvand and Mum Fatemeh as they get to grips with the English, the language, late 70’s racial epithets, dogs, Margaret Thatcher, fish fingers and the continuous stream of parties and callers that is Iranian society (whether home or ex-pat).

The real charm of her story is in the writing. She is almost 4 years old when the family shipped up in London and the book is written in the first person, using the child-thoughts of Shappi as she encounters England-in-the-round. It is interspersed with grown-up, almost documentary-style, narrative of life amongst her extended family back in Tehran as they struggle with the Revolution, war with Iraq and the demonising of Baba Khorsandi as a result of his comedic pops at the new Islamic regime in cartoons and writing.

This culminates in their ‘secret’ flight from Ealing to Windsor (!) to lay low, albeit for about 2 hours, after which they are joined by a risky proportion of their Iranian friends to keep them company, much to the concern of Special Branch. Dad was more outwardly relaxed about the attentions of the Iranian Security Services, but Shappi – then aged 11 – wrote directly to Khomeini asking him not to kill her father:

… I don’t want my baba to be killed because I love him very much. I know that you are angry because he wrote some jokes about you. I wanted to tell you that my baba makes jokes up about everybody, even me ! …..

.. you seem like a very nice man even though you look quite serious.”

and then proceeds to give him their London address and phone number, with an invitation for dinner sometime. Whilst there is no evidence that the Ayatollah read the letter, it is lovely to imagine the gruff, grim Supreme Leader of modern Iran warming to the antics of the precocious, witty Khorsandi girl over a glass of chai and a few cloves of pickled garlic.

You can see the shoots of her later career in the innocent ponderings of the child in this book. I have not seen her repeat the impressions that kept her parents’ circle of friends entertained – Margaret Thatcher apparently becoming her “.. best impersonation and soon I did her all the time and hardly ever bothered with anyone else.” but maybe they still feature in her stage act ?

I really love the fact that this personal, warm and amusing regaling of an unusual family life also educates. I concentrated madly to follow the names, sporadic Farsi and descriptions of family characters. I chuckled at the various acts of English stoicism in the face of Iranian nuttiness, but was most fascinated by the descriptions of Iranian courtesy rituals (like Tarofing), food and family behaviour. Always charming to ‘meet’ new cultures, especially in such a relaxed and loving form that gently nudges aside any residual “anywhere East of the Mediterranean has no culture” prejudices that one or two of us Kharejis (Westerners) may harbour.

Loved it. Recommended.