Recently, I had occasion to visit a toy store in Isfahan to buy a present for my seven-year-old cousin, who had invited me to his birthday party. Grand, impressive and splendid, the store in question offered a variety of products, from children stationeries and toys of different shapes and colours to XBOX games.
My original intention was to buy something of the Dara & Sara brand, an Iranian line of dolls, books and audio materials. Yet, to my surprise, the store had almost no trace of local toys such as these. I left the shop in disappointment hoping to find something more ‘culturally relevant’ in another shop but I failed again. Eventually, I gave up and bought a Ben 10 watch and a Ben 10 backpack as gifts.
The majority of the products in these toy stores had English messages or expressions and were clearly coded as “global” rather than “Iranian.” The prestige, the price and the quality of imported toys have consigned local products to a marginal role such that I, the customer, was just a passive and helpless recipient and left without any choice. Unsurprisingly then, it turned out that I was not the only one without a choice: at the birthday party, I was disappointed to find out that almost all the guests had brought more or less similar presents.
However, there is a further twist to this story: A few days after the birthday party, I met my little cousin again at yet another family gathering. He was wearing one of his birthday presents, a Spiderman t-shirt, which was emblazoned with the slogan “The Amazing Spiderman.”
As members of my extending family were spending time together, the TV was on in the background. The channel was set to one of the Iranian national TV channels and the program that was running was an episode in a crime series featuring the Iranian police, which in Persian is called naja. In one of the scenes a group of naja commandos raided a building and arrested the bad guys.
The word naja was printed in bold letters on the back of their uniforms and my little cousin obviously made a connection between the uniform of these TV heroes and his own T-shirt: he shouted in amazement: “The amazing naja!”
When I had started my quest for a toy that was culturally relevant, I had been disappointed. However, my cousin’s reaction demonstrates that global, cultural symbols are always appropriated locally – often in unexpected ways. The episode throws into question the long-established assumption that linguistic and cultural hegemonies always work in a top-down manner and paves the way for a totally different interpretation: the spread of English and its related cultural products operate in complex and at times contradictory ways. Ultimately, Spiderman t-shirts display their own ‘local’ orders of indexicality.