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Cultural continuity
To keep a culture one needs to preserve its traditions

November 8, 2001
The Iranian

The IranWeb page of Payvand lists links to new Iranian web sites that is worth checking from time to time. On its current listing there is a new site called Persian Gulf Will Always Remain Persian Gulf that caught my eye. For Iranians to actually unite around an issue of common interest is such a wonder that it had to be worth checking out. Some of the Iranian-Americans seem to have woken up to the fact that outside America the term Persian Gulf is falling into misuse or abuse.

The site is in its infancy so don't expect too much. As usual we Iranians are waking up too late to what has been happening because of a lack of trust in each other or excess pride. No wonder the leaders of the constitutional movement a century ago kept using the term the awakening of Iranians, in their literature and when naming societies for promotion of democracy or political parties.

I have previously written about the struggle to keep the name Persian Gulf (mainly outside America). I don't think there should be much in a name but ever since I have become aware of Arab Nationalism, which borders on fascism, I have come to believe one must fight such tribalism. Those who accuse Iranians of the same are ignorant of historical facts.

Further whether you agree with the actions of the Islamic Republic or not, its leadership as a gesture of conciliation, or as part of their dream of leading the Moslem world, call it whatever you like, in trying to accommodate our Persian Gulf neighbours suggested using alternative names but even they were taken aback by the intransigent and fascistic attitude of the Arab countries. The Arabs showed them up by rejecting any alternatives to Arabian Gulf (which in fact historically was the name of the Red Sea).

Anyhow the significant point which unfortunately seems very difficult to get through to the Iranian diaspora in the United States -- by far the biggest and potentially most influential group of Iranian emigrant community -- is that by keeping the Persian connection, we will help keep that most difficult to appreciate cultural necessity CONTINUITY. Iranian cultural history can be summarised as a continuing struggle through cycles of destruction and rebirth. My points are very simple:

1) To keep a culture one needs to preserve its traditions and have continuity.

2) There is a wealth of Western material about Iran from ancient times till the 20th century about Persia and all things Persian.

In order to succeed in preserving our culture it would be a folly to deliberately break the link to the huge material written about us as Persians. Once the link is broken it is very hard to re-establish it. There is a misconception among some Iranian-Americans that Persia, is an ancient culture and has nothing to do with Iran, the modern country! See letters in the Iranian on the Persia versus Iran, Persian versus Farsi debates.

Those who say that using Persian is supremacist or that Persian is a racial term are also showing their ignorance of history or have other motives. They tend to be Islamists who erroneously equate Persia with Zoroastrianism. One can only think they see it as some sort of threat. The argument is simply absurd, taken literally, how can Persia be more supremacist than Iran the land of Aryans?

The aim is to simply demonstrate how wrong their argument is. Yes indeed our country has always been Iran in Persian, and the origins of Persia itself is probably Greek based on a region of Iran today called Fars in Arabic and modern Persian, Persis in Greek and Pars in Persian.

To answer both of the above one only need look at the wealth of Western literature about Persia. One can see the change from ancient writings (a minute part of the collection mainly by the Greeks), then after Islam, Persia referred to a predominantly Moslem, oriental country (look at the travel writing of Marco Polo in the middle ages or 17th century accounts left by the European travellers such as Tavernier or Chardin and there is too much to mention here for the 20th century literature).

It is simply wrong to suggest that there are racial or historical connotations in using the term Persia, it was simply a Western name for our country, if such connotations have come about it is entirely of our own making either out of ignorance or questionable motives.

Before I receive a barrage of notes, no one is suggesting that we should change the name of the country back to Persia or that the term Iran is racist. If we break the link to our past in Western culture then we have no one to blame but ourselves when Iranian artefacts are grouped under the Islamic, section in the Western museums.

One such instance of tisheh beh risheh khod zadan, as the Persian saying goes, or self-destruction in English, is the introduction of the term "Farsi" into English language. The problem is that it is now practically impossible to get organizations like Microsoft or VOA to change. Once a convention or standard is adopted it is very hard to correct it. We cannot preserve the best in our culture unless we are prepared to take care. Unaware that we are further breaking the link between all things clearly defined as Persian in Western terminology, including Persian Gulf.

The point is well made by Professor Ehsan Yarshater in an extract of his article "Farsi: Recently Appeared Language!" I quote: "If only they - Iranians in America knew by using the word 'Farsi'; which has no background in English language and its relationship to the identity of Iranian Civilisation and Culture that is reflected in phrases such as 'Persian literature' and 'Persian art' and 'Persian Poetry', is not clear at all, they would find themselves damaging irreparably the fame and cultural status of Iran."

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer A. R. Begli Beigie


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