Who We Were & Who We Are: Iran in 2008

Sanaz Toossi’s English takes place in 2008 Iran, where four students study relentlessly for the upcoming TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). While this engaging comedy focuses on the inside of the classroom, these students are learning English within the context of their country’s history and political climate. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, the rise of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 2005 election of a hardline conservative President, increasingly violent censorship of opposing political groups, and a shrinking economy led to an increasing number of everyday Iranians who were looking to learn English to emigrate.  

Quick disclaimer: While having the political context of English may enrich your experience, Sanaz Toossi is explicit in allowing the story to exist as a comedy. In the playwright’s words, “Writing a trauma play makes me want to dry heave. Do people think that Middle Eastern women are huddled under a chador, bemoaning our oppressions? Pain looks different than how we think it looks and also joy is always there. Kindness is always there. There’s so much laughter through it.” 

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 established a republic which rejected Western allyship in favor of hardline Islamic ideals. The revolution’s mission was to overthrow the sovereign ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was widely criticized for his American-inspired principles. In what was called the Shah’s White Revolution (1963—1978), Pahlavi implemented an aggressive urbanization program that took land from the rural populations of land and disproportionately distributed benefits to the upper class. In response to the rapid inflation that followed, Iranians hosted overwhelmingly nonviolent demonstrations and strikes until the Shah eventually fled into exile in January 1979. 

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a prominent figure in the Revolution who had previously been exiled for dissent by the Shah, took power as Supreme Leader in 1979. Khomeini believed that political change should be led by religious scholars, and—with a nationwide referendum—established Iran as an Islamic Republic. This republic was run by a mix of elected parliamentary representatives and an Islamized judicial system with certain public offices reserved for clerics. While he initially campaigned peacefully against brutal repression to achieve economic equality, Khomeini continued a cycle of censorship by closing non-Islamic newspapers, banning dissident political groups, and executing protestors and prisoners. Amnesty International documented nearly 3,000 people sentenced to death through the Islamic Revolutionary Court.  

After his death in 1989, Khomeini was succeeded by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Like his predecessor, Khamenei adhered strictly to fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic ideals and enacted policies that silenced dissenting voices and reinforced conservative values. From his position, Khamenei vetted electoral candidates, screened parliamentary decisions, decided how oil revenue was spent, and maintained a state-controlled media. From 1997—2005, a Reformist movement made legislative gains under President Mohammad Khatami, passing laws to shift more power toward popularly elected offices. However, in 2005, Iranians elected hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the country’s President. Ahmadinejad ran on a platform to return to the core values of the Iranian Revolution; under his rule, the nation saw a critical rise in the arrests of peaceful protesters. According to the 2009 World Report from Human Rights Watch, in 2005, Iran saw “a dramatic rise in arrests of political activists, academics, and others for peacefully exercising their rights of free expression and association in Iran.” 

In response to government violence, Iranian activists and the educated middle-class alike began to flee the country en masse to avoid imprisonment. Students who stayed were prevented from class registration; educators who remained were forced to retire early. For those without the privilege of higher education, unemployment rates skyrocketed, causing many to leave the country as well. Simultaneously, the international community tightened sanctions on Iran for pursuing a nuclear weapons program. By March 2008, inflation had risen to 30% while the income of the top 20% quadrupled. 

For Iranian citizens looking to leave Iran’s political and economic crises in 2008, learning English was an essential first step. Though the process of picking it up can be a fraught one, it can also be joyful—and, despite the contexts in which it is learned, bring hope and connection. Amidst violence and dread, Sanaz Toossi reminds us of who we were, who we are, and who we can become—should we choose to speak to each other. 

 Dom Ocampo