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 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)
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.