Over the years, because of differences in the backgrounds and the experiences of the categories and waves of migrants, only one shared characteristic among the diasporas was noticeable.
The migrants were slowly alienated from the domestic Iranian political, cultural, and social realities. Further, they transmitted to their offspring their personal vision of Iranian Culture or Persian Culture as representing the only way of life in the homeland.
In Tehran, the middle class coined a word to show what was acceptable and truly nationalist, but it differed from the fast and forced Islamisation: traditional/سنتی. Whatever worthy of being called traditional was believed to be far from Islamic dogmatism.
By way of examples, a cup of tea brewed using a samovar was traditional, but a tea made with a tea bag was not, and viewed as a thing advocated by the Islamists. A designer’s hijab outfit with folkloric accessories, open to feminine coquetry, was traditional. It differentiated the wearers of colourful clothing from the lot of revolutionary sisters (خواهران انقلابی) wrapped in black hijabs from head to toes. To many families, these little acts of passive expression of moods were truly nationalist feelings vs Islamisation, albeit neither socially nor politically were they game-changers.
The word “traditional/سنتی” travelled with the migrants to become Iranian Culture for the benefit of Westerners, thus occulting the depressing and oppressing Islamic social rituals at home. Pushed further, with the new migrants’ awareness of the origin of the word “Persian” as it had travelled through time with Greek and Latin, Persian Culture became emblematic of a victorious millennial civilisation, and a synonym for Iranian Culture.
Over the years, in the minds of many in the diasporas, the Persian Culture subtly changed its stance to denote a superiority over the Iranian Culture.
A Voyage in Search of Confusing Identities
Ambivalent in their feelings, adepts in Iranian Culture, viewed as equal to or less than Persian Culture, hardly question the millennial civilisation they advocate, and have only learned bits of it by heart from family and oral stories heard.
To all intents and purposes, Persian Culture has never been more than a domineering flag signalling the symptoms of a divided and dividing past and present.
With a ratio of 6 Persians to 4 non-Persians in the country, careful attention is needed to label a country’s cultural diversity with the one word “Persian”.
There is a wealth of literary oeuvres, philosophical treatises, and historical narratives chiefly published in Farsi, rarely in Arabic, and hardly ever in other vernacular languages (most were forbidden from publication). This despite the fact that the majority of classics were bilingual in their writings.
To all intents and purposes, if respecting the freedom of thoughts and expression were paramount to the Farsi speakers – which has never been the case – the kernel of truth should put back the bulk of classics in their contexts, then they can be debated and analysed among the Iranians.
Throughout centuries, the accepted historical narratives are heavily tainted by the common practices of rewriting history to please the Prince, the trumpeted propaganda of the despot of the time, and the verses written by poets beating the drums for his glory.
The use of Persian instead of Iranian by an exiled Iranian addressing a Western audience is an intellectual fraud. It draws a line between the self-standards and the others’ political and social clout.
The self-standards, as expressed in Persian, imply beauty, poetry, music, literature, respect for traditions and family cohesion. The mellow, personal narratives of the homeland, usually expunged from the narrator’s own experiences of violence, have silenced the dreadful accounts of the hard lives in Iran, far less glamorous and certainly not poetic, but down to earth.
In the same context, resorting to the Iranian adjective often suggests the ugly and negative influences and the behaviours believed to be learned from the Arabs and the Western colonialists, the others’ political clout, today institutionalised and encouraged by the Islamic Republic: greed, self-conceit, bigotry, self-aggrandisement, xenophobia, and corruption.
By playing with words, the narrator instils a dichotomy between a loathsome regime and a gracious population.
However, things are much more complex. A bunch of clerics alone could not have run the country without the population’s tacit endorsement and the complacency of the Iranian culture–Persian culture chasm in the background.
For centuries, the systemic despotism/ زورگویی , on domestic and socio-political levels, has been accepted as the backbone of relationships in families and the regime in place. It has only worn different garments and changed its pomp, but never has been reformed in view of constructional processes by breaking free from the underlying tyranny.
Despotism is a human drama and it is all the more ugly when it is attributed to the will of Allah. It creates an emotional bond with a steely edge between the tyrant who resolves to enslave the people and the people who accept the enslavement.
No matter the level of education, gained in a free country or in an Iranian academy, the Iranians still believe that discussing these issues is a personal attack on them and intended as a rebuff. Unless cornered, the exiled Iranian refuses to consider the entanglements, thus withholding the analysis of the consequences in an impersonal and impartial fashion.
A remark from a she-refugee conveys the feelings commonly shared and believed among the diasporas: It’s tiresome when you have to explain everything again and again. But, whenever I want to have an open and fair conversation without all the Islamic baggage, I tell people that I’m Persian. That gives a completely different perception: the Shahs, nobility and wealth, princesses and the Arabian Nights. If I tell them that I’m Iranian, I always have to explain that I do not pray five times a day, I do eat pork and enjoy a drink. There are other women like me in Iran who would bin the hijab without a second thought; they attend university, drive a car and work.
This twisted argument in such declaration comes from projecting on the other what cannot be discussed among all Iranians, freely and serenely.
Exonym, Endonym and Prattle
The interchangeable use of Iranian or Persian in Western minds is common. Parsi, Pars, from Pahlavi (Middle Persian language descended from Old Persian), is the linguistic ancestor of Modern Persian. Later the endonym Farsi, Fars was widely used by the Iranians.
The Persian, Persia pair travelled in the Western world as exonyms of Parsi, Pars.
They are still used in the contemporary vocabulary of the West and in reputable news sources, as synonyms of Iranian, Iran. They should not.
Nearly 40% of people living in Iran are NOT Persian. To have a feeling of it, imagine calling the French, Parisians, or the British, Scots.
Bewildering as it might be for a foreigner, an Iranian national would not call himself a Persian unless he really is a Fars (Pars) from Fars Province.
However, in the complex labyrinth of the fragmented Iranian mentality, in the propagated and maintained simplistic faery tales, the first rate Iranian citizen is a man who speaks Farsi, can be identified as Shiite and his ancestors can be found on a map of the central provinces of present day Iran, preferably Tehran.
As we reviewed the references, and published materials from the centres, faculties, and institutions that bear some form of the descriptive Iranian Studies, we guesstimated a 99% publication of Persian stuff. We drew a blank when we searched for Azari, Kurdish, Baluch mentions and studies. Who has heard of Gilaki?
We only found mentions of the Arabic, as in the anti-Arab representations in the Persian literature. As a reminder, and examples, the histories of Khouzestan or Kermanshah provinces are revealing, if we cared to include them in our understanding of Iran as a whole nation with its diversities.
Therefore, about 40% of the Iranians disqualify as being Iranians if they are not Persians. On a map, they populate the poor and underdeveloped provincial borders to the neighbouring countries (Khorasan-e Razavi Province is an exception since the shrine of the eighth Imam of the Shiites makes it a holy land). People living in the beltway provinces fail to be Iranian as their first language is not Farsi and not all of them are Shiites.
Who are you then if you speak Azari, Arabic or Kurdish at home? Or are a Sunni Baloutch, an Armenian, an Assourian or a Baha’i from Shiraz? We can make a long list of the Iranians falling short in obtaining the certificate of authenticity from the enthusiast advocates of the Iranian/Persian Identity. The propaganda instilled by the official chronicles throughout centuries is now internalised by the unalloyed Farsi speakers.
The children born to mixed families are often mocked by the unalloyed adepts of the Iranian equals Persian belief. The latter smile at the mixed blood, hang them garlands of Ta’arofs as one does for a Christmas tree, wish them well, and go away sniggering behind their back: She is not Iranian – that is why she does not understand us and speaks Farsi with her accented patois from [a given provincial town].
For the followers of Iranian equals Persian, only what glitters and can be stamped Made in Tehran is superior … to what?
I still have to find out.
More often than not, in the rosy and colourful diasporic narrative, what forms the Persian/Iranian culture is a kit of embellished, cherry-picked historical episodes, oral stories, and family memories, together with a set of kinsfolk customs adapted to the emigrant’s personal ways of life in the harbouring country. These stories take place in Tehran, as if Tehran represented the whole country, and is its soul.
Paradoxically, but not surprisingly, the kit, increasingly detached from the homeland, is often regarded by their families in Iran as a strange, even eccentric and amusing lifestyle.
No matter what the Iranian equals Persian propaganda of our modern times, all the Iranians born and bred in the physical area called today’s Iran and their offspring are Iranians, whatever their beliefs, their mother tongue and ethnicity.
They must be included in the vision of building a country not on Death to … – a Farsi speaker’s habit – but on Vivas …
Aryanblood, the Myth
To make matters more confusing, the watermark in shaping the paradoxical narratives of Iran, is the myth of Aryanblood bundled together with the Persian by an overenthusiastic speaker.
In this line of thinking, the Aryanblood mellowed the brutality of Islamic invasion in the 7th century, and kept the country together when it became the battleground of 18th to 20th century colonial powers. The Aryanblood is never far, and even closely associated with Zoroastrianism.
The Aryanblood draws a solid line between the Persian above Iranian self and the other. The self is heir to a glorious pre-Islamic past, almost the sole architect of the Islamic golden age through a Persianisation process, and the ultimate victor of the succeeding invaders, Arabs, Mongols and Turco-Mongols. Thus, the Persian self-moulds the other as a barbarian, by stating to no end lines similar to: Look! The first human rights charter was immortalised in the Cyrus Cylinder while Europeans were living in caves.
One can hear this argument from a bigoted bassiji in Iran or a chic exiled Iranian in Los Angeles. Therefore, it is not surprising that the divide between Persian self and other is also a trademark of the Islamic Republic rhetoric: the real Islam is ours [by being Shiites] and other (non-Shiite Muslims, the West or anything considered as an enemy) is irremediably corrupt.
From the myth of Aryanblood, Self and Others stems the aroma of xenophobia and racism, acceptable and justified openly in Iran, especially when it is mixed with Shiite catechism and propaganda.
Abroad it is well kept under wraps, but it inadvertently pops up in conversations arising from the innermost beliefs and convictions of the diasporas who only feel safe and secure in the net of the Persian discourses.
The juxtaposition of Self and Other not only influences the relationship between the diaspora and the population of their harbouring land, but also relationships among the diaspora themselves: is the Self an Iranian from every conceivable corner of Iran or just the Iranian from the central regions with Farsi as their first language?
Like any other nation with a great history, Iran and its people are self-centred in believing that their history dims other nations’ narratives. Perhaps this is why the Iranians, wherever they are, exhibit little curiosity in understanding the lifestyles and behaviour of the Other. This is all the more excruciating when it concerns turning one’s back on learning and understanding the history of the minorities in Iran.
The Identities Shaping a Mille-feuille
Today’s social catastrophe and our handicaps from the poor cultural baggage we carry stem from disjointing the mille-feuille of our history and social mixes made in layers. Historically, the sharp divisions and juxtaposition of the Pre-Islamic, Islamic and modern eras wipe out the transitional periods. Socially, the failure to recognise and to include the contributions and the eagerness of non-Persians in constructing Iran as a nation locks us all up in a cage in which despotism rules, but in which we as Persians feel safe.
The redneck Shiites by spitting on the Pre-Islamic era cannot have it removed from our past.
Disregard for the Islamic era and the desire to obliterate mosques and Islamic philosophy and mysticism is madness.
The course of history over the last part of the 19th century and the largest part of the 20th century needs more intellectually honest studies than the revised versions that suit our personal national pride, whatever it is. The cherry-picking from today’s high-tech global world, convenient for the corrupt ambitions of the backward Iranian theocracy, and our complacency are ruining us.
In rewriting our history and showing our hyper-inflated national pride, we are still blaming the Western colonialism for our social and political miseries and failures in the 20th century. We have seldom thought of seeing the role we played in the events, compromising with the usurper and keeping a guilty silence for personal benefits when we should have shouted.
This issue needs to be pondered upon. How would we rewrite and square the brutalities of the Islamic Republic of Iran, advertised today as being an Iranian equals being Persian, with our national pride?
During the forty years of Islam Shiite tyranny, I have heard, more than I could ever count, that the mullahs are Arabs and have nothing to do with Iranian culture …
Could the perception of Iran change someday toward a coherent assimilation of not only the confusing cognisance of ourselves, but also others’ history and stories?
In other words, could we contemplate the mille-feuille of our history and social mixes and enjoy them all without fragmenting, disjointing and eating only what we please? Could we bring under control the self-aggrandisement that only flatters the ego but is the source of bitterness and disunion? Could we iron out the kinks and smooth angles till “joy opens its wings” [sic, V. Hugo]?