I the Iranian

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Or, Why We Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Iran

They say Boston is a beautiful city. Beautiful or not, I couldn’t see anything but hulking mounds of white and streetlights piercing through gloomy blue hues February’s evening, as I sat aboard a coach bus en route to the Davis Museum. I had popped in from Toronto earlier that morning, as the master Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli would be exhibiting works from his illustrious oeuvre, and I, being a sucker for all things Tanavoli, just couldn’t say no to the invitation. It was a wholly Iranian affair, more or less: the artist in question was Iranian, as were the majority of the guests attending, many of whom found themselves sitting beside one another on the bus. Yet, despite this, I sensed that one particular individual felt he was out of place. During a conversation with the woman in the adjacent row, the sexagenarian was asked a rather unsettling question: ‘Where are you from?’ the woman asked. ‘Err … umm … Los Angeles’, came the response. ‘No, I mean, where are you originally from?’ ‘Oh, California, I suppose.’ She wouldn’t relent, and rightfully so; perhaps she wanted to see how pathetic things could possibly get on a bus full of Iranians; but neither would the man. If he was going down, he thought, he would do so gracefully. ‘I’m … umm … Persian.’ Insecure Iranian 1, curious Anglo-Saxon art enthusiast 0.

I could see throbbing teeth marks on my hand. I would have shrugged it off, had the individual been an anomaly, a one-off to be recounted over cocktails at the boozer; but he was anything but. Just a few days ago in Toronto, I overheard a young Iranian woman quickly mention to the dirty old man successfully picking her up that she was Persian, before going on to gloat over her father’s part-Italian ancestry (which made her, of course, Italian to the bone). Whence such shame and abashment? Why do we not all proudly refer to ourselves as Iranians (pronounced Ee-rah-niuns) from Iran? Long gone are the glory days of the Achaemenids, and I have yet to see the name ‘Persia’ on any map worth its salt.

 Telling it like it was (and is): Reza Shah Pahlavi and son Mohammad Reza at PersepolisTelling it like it was (and is): Reza Shah Pahlavi and son Mohammad Reza at Persepolis

Growing up, the word on the streets of Tehranto was that the name of our country had always been Persia, until Reza Shah came along and ‘changed’ it to Iran in 1935. Reza Shah, who gave the Qajars before him a much-needed kick in the backside, certainly did change Persia’s name to Iran on the global scene – but he only changed it back to what it should have been. Good on him, that Reza Shah, I say: the name of my country has always been Iran, and always shall be. The Sassanian monarch Shapur I – known for his capture of the Roman Emperor Valerian, and the humiliating peace treaty he forced Philip the Arab to concede to – referred to himself as ‘the King of Kings of Iran and An-Iran (lit. ‘Non-Iran’)’. Likewise, the 10th century poet Ferdowsi dedicated his magnum opus, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), not to ‘Persia’, but Iran. May I not live, he famously wrote, should Iran cease to exist. It also goes without saying (to any Iranian, at least) that in the Persian language, the name of the country is denoted by ‘Iran’ – not ‘Persia’.

'Cho Pershia nabashad, tan-e man mabad', said no one, ever (Ferdowsi's tomb in Tus, Iran)

What, the reader may rightfully ask, is the difference between the two, anyway? There certainly was – and is – a land by the name of Persia: the modern-day Pars (Old Persian: ‘Parsa’) province in southwest Iran, the epicentre of the Persian Empire during the reign of the Achaemenids and Sassanians. As Persia was the beating heart of the Empire – which stretched at its peak from Greece to India – Iran as a whole was referred to by the Greeks as ‘Persia’, and was chiefly done so by all outsiders until the ascension of Reza Shah and the Pahlavi dynasty (1925 – 1979). Therefore, Persia is only part of Iran, in the same way that London is only a fraction of Britain; and, likewise, the Persians are but only one of the many Iranian peoples inhabiting not only Iran, but also other corners of the Iranian world such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Pockets of Iranian peoples can also be found in eastern China (Kashgar), India (its Parsi pockets), parts of Uzbekistan (Samarkand and Bukhara), South Ossetia and North Ossetia-Alania in Georgia and Russia respectively, and all Kurdish communities in the Middle East.

Kurds celebrating Norooz, the Iranian New Year, in Akra, Iraq, 2016 (photo via Reuters)Kurds celebrating Norooz, the Iranian New Year, in Akra, Iraq, 2016 (photo via Reuters)

As mentioned, the true and historical name of the cat-shaped country resting beside the Caucasus, the Middle East, and South Asia has always been Iran. Iran literally means ‘Land of the Aryans’, and was named thus by the ancient Aryan nomads (now often referred to as Indo-Iranians, as ‘Aryan’ has become a sensitive term – even though the Nazis weren’t Aryans) who, unlike their cousins who went on to settle in India, conquered Iran in the second millennium B.C. Unfortunately, amongst both Iranians and non-Iranians today, Iran has become something of a dirty word. While Persia evokes images of poets, nightingales, fluffy cats, and world-conquerors, Iran has come to become associated with mullahs, burning flags, and religion. Not only are many from Iran trying to disassociate themselves from the name, but other Iranian peoples as well. Even though Afghans and Kurds are amongst the foremost Iranian peoples, ethnically speaking, many dislike the term being applied to them. Strangely, one Kurdish individual once implored me to refer to Kurds as Persian speakers (they in fact speak Kurdish, another Iranian language), and not Iranians – so great was her abhorrence for the term ‘Iranian’.

Eey-reynian? I am Pershhhian!

While the name of the country is Iran, there are instances when using ‘Persian’ is correct and/or more appropriate. The language predominantly spoken in Iran is Persian (Parsi), not ‘Iranian’. Therefore, one can certainly refer to things such as literature, music, and cinema as Persian. As well, Persian can refer to Iranians of Persian stock, and/or those who speak Persian (e.g. Tajiks), in contrast with Iranians of other backgrounds (e.g. Gilakis) and those who speak other languages (e.g. Armenian, Assyrian, etc.). Accordingly, I can certainly refer to myself as Persian, but I seldom do. Why? Not because ‘Persian’, as some have argued, is particular to one ethnicity (‘Iranian’ is just as ethnically exclusive), or because I have anything against the term; I do so simply because I will never downplay my identity and censor the ancient, indigenous name of my country in an effort to appear more ‘civilised’ and agreeable.

Regardless of whatever happened, is happening, or will happen, I will always be an Iranian from Iran – and nothing can ever change that. 


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Parsa Parsa (@Parsa) Pinned comment
Identity is a complex one. The ancient Greek said, character is destiny. What Ferdowsi says in Shahnameh is that identity is the foundation of character. And identity is pointed at in the four questions that Freydoun asks from his mother Faranak: “Who was my father? Who am I? What family am I from? Who can I tell people I am?” It is interesting to note that Freydoun asks these questions when he is sixteen. He is ready to enter the world. Sixteen or around that age is also a dangerous time for any teenager. Some call it the opting out age. Suicide, overdose, car accident and many other self-inflicted wounds happen around that age. Faranak knows it, so when Freydoun says I am now ready for action, she says, don’t be foolish:

Whoever drinks the wine of youth can see
Only himself, and in that stupor he
Will throw away his life. I seek for you
Joy and prosperity in all you do.

Ferdowis is a realist. He doesn’t say whenever we are ready to enter the world and leave our mark the red carpet is going to roll out before us, instead danger lurks in every corner. And sometimes evil people are in power and the odds are stacked up against you.

The same old question of ‘what’s all about? what am I suppose to do and what’s the meaning of it all?’ will forever nag us, regardless what kind of a world we would live in. Ferdowsi with those four questions that Freydoun investigates begs us to consider our family and ethnic history and once those questions are answered and we are satisfied, listen to people whom we trust and want the best for us because peril is in every corner whether we are sixteen or sixty, male or female etc…

Identity ultimately belongs to the interior of our being that’s where the most difficult battles are won or lost.
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ChamoshChamoshvnd ChamoshChamoshvnd (@ChamoshChamoshvnd) replied to Parsa (@Parsa) Pinned comment
Parsa jan your thoughtful comment and especially your conclusion on the significance of the battle within each of us in determining our beings and identities reminded me of this poem by Moshiri:

گرگ درون/ شعری از فریدون مشیری

گفت دانایى که گرگى خیره سر
هست پنهان در نهاد هر بشر

... لاجرم جارى است پیکارى بزرگ
روز و شب مابین این انسان و گرگ

زور بازو چاره این گرگ نیست
صاحب اندیشه داند چاره چیست

اى بسا انسان رنجور و پریش
سخت پیچیده گلوى گرگ خویش

اى بسا زور آفرین مردِ دلیر
مانده در چنگال گرگ خود اسیر

هرکه گرگش را دراندازد به خاک
رفته رفته مى‌شود انسان پاک

هرکه با گرگش مدارا مى‌کند
خلق و خوى گرگ پیدا مى‌کند

هرکه از گرگش خورد دائم شکست
گرچه انسان مى‌نماید، گرگ هست

در جوانى جان گرگت را بگیر
واى اگر این گرگ گردد با تو پیر

روز پیرى گرکه باشى همچو شیر
ناتوانى در مصاف گرگ پیر

اینکه مردم یکدگر را مى‌درند
گرگهاشان رهنما و رهبرند

اینکه انسان هست این سان دردمند
گرگها فرمان روایى مى‌کنند

این ستمکاران که با هم همرهند
گرگهاشان آشنایان همند

گرگها همراه و انسانها غریب
با که باید گفت این حال عجیب
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ChamoshChamoshvnd ChamoshChamoshvnd (@ChamoshChamoshvnd) Pinned comment
Joobin jan thanx for this essay and all your other contribution through "REORIENT".
The issue which is always raised for me whenever a group, party or an individual declares they're Iranian (as if to finalize the discussion) is the fact that such declarations often create more questions and queries than providing answers.
What does it mean for us (at the early decades of 21st century) to consider ourselves Iranians? and how is this similar or different from Iranians of the past twenty five centuries?
Keeping in mind that all identity politics and cultures are constantly evolving phenomenons and always changes according to transformed circumstances.
Monarchy in Iran put a premium on building a national identity built upon Iranian nationalism, and it basically blew in its face.
Islamic Republic has been hell bent on denying our pre-Islamic history and culture while imposing a Shia-Islam identity on the population and so far it has only been able to create two generations of most irreligious Iranians in our history.
Since 150 years ago or so Iran has been exposed to Modernity and Modernism and ever since we have had an incredibly hard time coming to terms with the challenges of Modernity and Modernism.
It just might be the case that our future will be a lot more shaped by advent of Capitalism and Globalization rather than Shia-Islam or Iranian-Nationalism.
And thanx again for all your artful presentations. Keep up the good work.
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ashianeh ashianeh (@ashianeh) Pinned comment
There is an ongoing debate, and often heated disagreement, about the use of Farsi versus Persian in English. I am wondering what your take is on that.
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joobin joobin (@joobin) replied to ashianeh (@ashianeh) Pinned comment
Persian. The endonym of our language is Parsi, and as such, its English exonym should be nothing other than Persian. Just because others are unable to pronounce the true name of our language, it doesn't mean that we should do the same so as to not 'rock the boat'. Two wrongs don't make a right.
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ashianeh ashianeh (@ashianeh) replied to joobin (@joobin) Pinned comment
Thanks for your response.
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AmirJaan Amir (@AmirJaan) Pinned comment
This is such an enlightening & thoughtful article!
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Siavash Siavash (@Siavash) Pinned comment
All the issue of "Persian" versus "Iranian" started with the time criminal Mullahs took power in Iran in 1979.
Criminal Mullahs brought disgrace to Iran and Iranians. Iranians who were highly respected among international community during shah days, all the sudden, turned to be stigmatized as "Terrorists". All the sudden, International community and western world change their attitude toward Iran and Iranians. As a result, discrimination, harassment against Iranians started to show up in every segment of western society. A nation who were pride in some days, started to carry the feeling of disgrace and humiliation. They felt humiliated since a bunch of the stinky rag heads took control of their country.
In order to dissociate themselves from criminal mullahs, Iranians started to hide their nationality. They started to claim they were Persian, NOT Iranian. Media referred to criminal mullahs as "Iranians" so people of Iran tried to dissociate themselves from them by saying they were Persian, NOT Iranian. They did it to gateway from hate by westerners. A hate that was initially caused by ruling criminal mullahs in Iran. "Dissociation mechanism" was in full swing. Iranians started to realize they have lost a precious leader. A leader who brought them dignity, pride and international prestige by calling them "Light of Aryan". A leader who have had over 5000 years glorious history of Monarchy behind him. A leader whom we called PADESHAH and the westerners called Monarch.
During shah days, Iranians didn't have any problem to call themselves Iranians. We were proud nation. We were proud of our nationality and proud of our race or ethnicity, but criminal Mullahs put a big stigma on every single Iranian. Every Iranian felt that stigma. If anyone denies it, he/she is lying. Criminal Mullahs made every Iranian hate his/her ethnicity. So Iranians preferred to hide in order to avoid stigma of terrorism. Persian versus Iranian is one of the thousand crimes which was committed by ruling criminal mullahs in Iran. Common knowledge.
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