A Fig Leaf: Iranianess
If, in homeland Iran, the citizens make a living or simply survive the country’s shambles, by pretence and hypocrisy, adjusting as they may to the theocratic dogmas, the diasporas are masters of subterfuge, for whom the truth in the form of exposure of their divisions can be a cause of losing face. The subject is carefully avoided in public.
The diasporas have a common country they have left behind, but their attitudes towards the home country show how ambiguous and ambivalent they are.
It is the division and subdivisions that have empowered the ruling clerics and have driven us into a cul-de-sac from which escape seems impossible. Of this, every exiled Iranian is aware, if they cared to ponder. But rare are those who would admit it in public, especially when others, i.e. Westerners, are present. The subterfuge is a denial of what is happening in the Islamic Republic of Iran by hiding behind a fig leaf, Iranianess, a diasporic creation.
Iranianess (in French: Iranitude) was a word coined and used about two decades ago. Neither Iranian nor Persian identities were self-explanatory and quite a few diasporic authors felt the urge of coining a further concept: the Iranianess.
It expounds Iranians in a positive and favourable light in the writings and interviews. However, it is unclear to me what it holds or how it would collectively assemble millions of self-absorbed individuals driven by a powerful centrifugal force.
Many authors use the word as if it was a clear description of some phenomenon understood by all and sundry. A few studies in which the representation of Iran and Iranians is discussed in relation to the migrants from other countries, for example Mexicans, Turks, Iraqis…, take the word for granted with little or no exploration.
Other studies have tried to define and structure it within the Iranian context. However, the exercise is an attempt to justify something that should exist rather than enlightening the readers on the whys and wherefores of the existence of Iranianess and its finality. The acknowledgement of the concept without a critical presentation is frustratingly elusive and evasive.
However, could we understand what Iranianess may imply by the addition of information provided by the authors that includes a brief description of the methods used to construct it?
The Diasporic code
Is Iranianess a static cultural identity that cements the Iranians?
Cultural identity is never static: it certainly reflects the heritage from which it has emerged, but also holds the concept of progress and transformation. For many authors, Iranianess seems to be a static cultural identity, an immutable skeleton inherited from 2500 years of existence. In this we are back to the Iranian-Persian identities as we have already discussed.
The Iranianess presumption is unhelpful either in understanding why a nation so proud of its long history accepts the rule of a backward theocracy, deceitful through and through, or in explaining the ceaseless mistrust between Iranians and their failure of creating a national unity for betterment.
Is Iranianess an identity that defines Iranians not as they are, but how they define themselves to the others?
The Aryanblood myth, the contours of which must be taught to the others to gain respectability and consideration, is herein put forward. The following message is often conveyed, sometimes rough and ready, and often wrapped in thorny pleasantries: Respect me for my forefathers. They were great empire builders while yours were living in caves and eating lizards.
In the xenophobic Aryanblood myth, the others eat lizards, grasshoppers or some other creepy-crawly, pending on the origin of you, the other.
The centuries-old cheap propaganda and the indigence of teaching history at school have created a string of believers in a glorified asynchronous past.
Is Iranianess a digressive interpretation of the actual development of events and circumstances for a Persian narration of a romantic idyllic story?
This follows the Aryanblood myth combined with the idea of the Iranians overcoming the invaders who conquered Iran in the past. Often, it feels like a tale from One Thousand and One Nights.
One is hard-pressed to use it as an analytical tool to comprehend today’s Iran under the brutality of the theocracy, as if one wanted to lodge a square tenon in a rounded hole. History is more complex than a black and white snapshot in which one chooses the pleasant nuances, erasing the darkness.
Is Iranianess a perennial expression of duality between self and other, a form of leading a double life with double standards?
It does not take long for a foreign visitor to Iran to discover the separate lives of people in the leeway of the privacy of their home (self – internal) and in their public and professional role synchronised to the Islamic injunction and social repression (other – external). As Dale Eickelman resumed the phenomenon in his book The Middle East and Central Asia (2002):
The “architecture” of Iranian verbal interaction indicates a pervasive distinction between the “external” ظاهر), public aspects of social action and speech and an “inner” باطن) core of integrity and piety revealed only to one’s family and trusted intimates. In the “external” social world, characterized by insecurity and uncertainty, the cultural ideal is the clever dissimulator زرنگی), the shrewd and cynical manipulator capable of maintaining a “proper public face” and holding “true” feelings in check to trusted family and intimates.
The duality self – internal/other – external is part of the baggage of the Iranian migrant.
As further studies suggest, for the exiled Iranian, the privacy of home and family is considered the self, holding the positive aspects of the Iranian culture presented to the foreigners, and the truth of which must not be challenged by the outsiders: hospitality, warmth of heart, strength in family ties, depth of emotions, pride, education, and artistic tradition and creation.
The other is the questionable society that has caused them to go into exile and from which they assimilate or reject elements and usages. Despite their professional integration, with a few exceptions, the exiled Iranians of the first generation, and often in the second generation, shy away from involvement in citizens’ movements, public institutions and politics by trying to use the clever dissimulator (زرنگی) as the means of advancement, without having to answer tough questions to defend their ideas.
A man born to a Danish mother and an Iranian father, active in the Hillerød community life, had this to say: As Iranians we like to share the food and be a fine guest. But when it comes to washing the dishes and cleaning up, we are nowhere to be found, or fabricate an excuse to avoid the chore.
He added: You know what’s NOT funny? If you want to get support from the Iranians you need to boast big names (preferably foreigners) supporting your project, even to sell cakes in a charity event. In the case that you get an overwhelming verbal endorsement from the Iranian, you still can be undermined behind your back and do not see the support materialise.
In an upcoming post, we will argue that Iranianess is an alternative way of expressing one’s differences to not only justify one’s will to steer clear of collective actions, but also to conjecture on bridging the distance between oneself and Iran as a bounded nation state.