They are not alone
In refutation of remarks about Jews in our midst
January 10, 2006
To Guive Mirfendereski:
While I admire your daring, and at times
unorthodox, ways of delving into our memory through etymology,
I must take
of the points raised in your recent article ‘The
Ahmadinejad in Us’. My main objection is not to your version of the
Esther story, but to your allegations of Iranians being as anti-Semitic
as Ahmadinejad. While there is evidence of sporadic waves of
persecution in both the pre-Islamic and the Islamic eras, the
attacks were not targeted at the Jews alone.
It is well-known
that minority groups anywhere will be used as scapegoats for
the ills afflicting any society at any given time. The Iranian
Jews were just one of the groups who came under attack in such
circumstances, and they hardly fared worse than other groups,
which, apart from the Christians in the Sasanian period, were
all of Iranian or Irano-Islamic inspiration: Manichaeans, Mazdakites,
Ismailis, Sunnis, Sufis, Bahais. Even when a whole doctrine
was outlawed and its members were made to recant (as in the case
of the first four mentioned), persecution was hardly as consistent
or as serious as that perpetraed in some other countries.
example, China, in the 9th century AD and again in the 13th,
went on a systematic rampage against the adherents of all non-Chinese
religions. In Europe, there was worse. Already Byzantium, an early
convert to Christianity, did not tolerate the Zoroastrians nor
other ‘pagan’ groups; and the Reyes Catholicos of Spain
persecuted both Moslems and Jews after the defeat of the Andalusian
Then came medieval witch-hunting which, at its worse,
was the infamous Spanish Inquisition against ‘heresy’ or ‘deviationism’ (and
in various parts of Europe the witch-hunting went on as late as
the 19th century, as was shown in an exhibition on the Inquisition
held in Granada a decade or so ago); in 16th -century France you
had the massacre of some 20 000 Protestant Huguenots, upon the
orders of Catherine de Medici. Closer to our time, there was the
massacre of Armenians and the mass expulsion of Greeks by modern
Turkey. The Holocaust, carried out methodically (and targeting
not only the Jews), was the reprehensible culmination of such manifestations
of human intolerance in the face of a real or an imagined threat.
terms of numbers and determination, no comparable event can be
found in Iran and if at all, then only aimed at those who were
perceived as a threat from within, native ‘heretics’ like
the Manichaens, the Mazdakites and later, the Sunnis, and later
still, the Bahais. The worse pogrom committed against the Iranian
Jews was by the order of Timur (Tamerlane) whose cruelty extended
to most others as well, as rendered notorious by his pyramids of
Arguably second comes the persecution of Sunni Iranians
by Shah Ismail I for reasons of state, though fanaticism did
play its part among his followers, the extremist Shiite Turkic
tribes. Almost all the later sporadic attacks on the Jews, and
to a lesser extent, on Zoroastrians and Armenians were, insofar
as I have ascertained, carried out locally by rioting mobs who,
in times of crisis, are often provoked by petty mullas to blame
their woes on the minorities in their midst. -- and that is
by no means unique to Iran.
A few metaphors on character traits
do not add up to any generalized anti-Semitism. Jews have a long
history in Iran. Richard Foltz,
in his book ,‘Spirituality in the Land of the Noble’ quotes
H. Ebrami (in Habib Levi’s Comprehensive History of the Jews
of Iran: The Outset of the Diaspora) as saying that ‘Iran
is second only to Israel in historical importance for the Jews’.
Indeed, a considerable number of Jews have had prominent roles
at different times in Iran’s history.
Some of the best-known,
and even titled, Iranian families are converts from Judaism, and
even though most of them converted under conditions of duress,
voluntarily or not, they subsequently benefited from a meteoric
rise. Derision aiming at idiosyncracies is common in any country
with a past and with a rich variety of local cultures that have
coexisted for a very long time.
Such differences can sometimes
clash with mainstream values, but when matters take a serious
turn, the jokes and metaphors give way to abuse. Indeed metaphors
jokes are indicative of familiarity more than of hostility and
more often than not they tend to cut across the religious divide
to target a region, a dialect, a tribe, a trade or a craft, but
most of all accents which can most readily be imitated for fun.
After all, none of us make fun of the Chinese or the Polynesians.
They are too distant and too unfamiliar to become the subject
of any metaphors or jokes.
Nor is the characterization of the ‘other’ in
our midst specific to Iran, you find it just about everywhere in
In European countries, where diversity resulting from history exists,
but not in the proportions known in Iran, it is very common.
Wallons in Belgium poke fun at the Flamands and vice-versa, Indian
friends tell me that the Kashmiris tend to lie, the English considered
the Scots ‘stingy’. In tiny Switzerland, the German
speakers make fun of their French-speaking compatriots and the
Genevese make fun of the neighbouring Vaudois, even though both
share the same language with a different accent. I could cite many
more. The more the variety, the more the tendency to characterize
groups. In Iran, the range and the length of coexistence means
that characterizations will sometimes overlap or no longer apply.
Cowardice is just as frequently equated with Kashis as with Jews.
If the Turks are called ‘dumb’, it goes back to the
days when their tribal hordes formed the backbone of the army and
thus integrated less than their acculturated chiefs. When the term
was extended to Turkish speakers in an urban milieu, the attribute
turned into an affectionate joke, with a hint of envy for the business
acumen of Azarbaijanis (it is unfortunate that this perennial joke
has been taken up by some separatist groups to tell Azaris how
the Persians hate them).
The Rashtis, by virtue of living in a
different climate and having an accent that lends itself to imitation,
are frequent subjects of jokes; their women are said to be light
of mores and a Rashti husband is a cuckold-to-be. Tribal nomads,
be they Turk or Iranian, who speak old dialects, are called kaj-zaban
by town-dwellers who, in turn, are derogatorily known as shahris
by the tribes.
Topping them all, are the mullas who, apart from
being tight-fisted, self-serving hypocrites, are compared to foxes
in popular literature
and children’s stories.
No one fares worse than the Arabs,
without any hint of humour. With a sense of arrogance, rooted in
history, we call them malakh-khors
(locust-eaters), susmar-khor (lizard-eaters), pa-berehneh (barefoot),
and expressions such as ‘az bikh Arab-e’ for someone
who is perceived to be an ignorant lout were only matched in the
Caucasus by the expression ‘bolghar’ for the same condition.
That is why we had to marry Imam Hossein, in defiance of historical
logic, to a mythical daughter of the last Sasanian: to make the
religion of the Arab invaders more palatable to our sense of attachment
to an empire that was no more.
Nor are Moslems spared by Moslems,
at least in Iran, though the jibes against them (up to the Islamic
revolution) were restricted mainly to the educated upper class,
including some who made a point of observing their daily rituals.
I have heard some distinguished people assert, as though in despair; ‘Mosalman
keh hargez adam nemisheh’, meaning that Moslems are intrinsically
unable to learn and progress.
The late Khorasani poet, Farrokh,
who was reputed to be of seyyed origin, has a poem in which he
declares his contempt for the ancestral
link, no matter how prestigious, and in the process, he viciously
longs for all hell to break loose on Arabs and their lands, including
Karbala and Najaf and beyond. (It begins with ‘Ya rab, Arab
mabad o diar-e Arab mabad and gets more vicious with every line,
until, puzzled by why the petty conflicts of one small Arab tribe
against another should be his business, he claims that the only
faith that becomes the Ajam (of whom he has become) is that of
Ali Dashti, who began his career as a seminarist and
moved on to become an author-politician, wrote a scathing critique
of Islam, the famous ‘23 Years’, which, though not
very profound, is still avidly read, as is Sadegh Hedayat’s
satirical attack against the mullas, which circulated widely a
few years ago in a hand-printed version that was never published.
Dashti used to tease the little girl I was as a ‘Fatmeh Arab’,
because I happen to have a darker complexion than the rest of my
family, and coming from him, that was not a compliment at all.
In my own family, examples aplenty illustrate my point that derogatory
comments against minority groups were random and not consistent.
My mother, who was born in Mashad of a mixed parentage, attributes
all kinds of vices to fellow Khorasanis, mainly due to direct experience
of traits she would no doubt have found in other regions as well.
Her lineage includes the formerly top clerical family of Mashad
who are traced back to the Arab Imams, as well as Azarbaijani merchants
transplanted to the Qajar court in Tehran and later, as landlords,
to Khorasan, in addition to Qajars and Ali-allahi Kurds, to cite
only the main veins.
This did not always go very smoothly, but
somehow it always tended to work out. When the Kurdish relatives
of the Qajar grandmother, visited their kin in Mashad, the clerical
family, to one of whose sons she had been betrothed, would not
allow them to use the same dishes as the rest of the household
and the dishes they used were thoroughly rinsed. Yet the Kurdish
connection was continued within the family by even more intermarriage.
Later, when my grandfather moved to Mashad, he requested the hand
of the girl born to the princess and the priest, but was sent away
for being an ahl-e kolah (hat-wearing) while the bride’s
family were ahl-e ammameh and therefore different from him (though
insistence paid off).
In an environment that frowned on visits
to the farm of a Sunni, reputed to grow the best kharbuzeh melons
in Khorasan, for fear
of negative repercussions on the status of my grandfather (also
true of my time), nobody objected to my mother’s best friends
in her youth being Manya and Esya, the daughters of the Franks,
Russian Jews who, after their escape from the Bolshevik revolution,
had settled down in Mashad.
Nor did the family relations with the
Jews stop at that, for a second cousin eloped with a Jew, and although
the union was initially disapproved of by the parents of both the
groom and the bride, soon the latter’s family came to admit
that ‘Jews are the best husbands in the world’. Recently
it happened again in the case of a younger cousin, and this time
without the need to elope. True, in Mashad, less than a century
before there had been a persecution of Jews, but it had come and
By 1912, a few years before the events I describ above, the
Russians, who broke into and bombarded the shrine, were seen as
enemies of Iran and of Shiite Islam. Back to the clerical side
of the family, when Imam Musa Sadr, the late half-Iranian head
of the Shiites of the Lebanon (the one who disappeared mysteriously
on his way to Libya) asked for the hand of my mother’s cousin,
he was rejected on the grounds that, as an ‘Arab’,
he was culturally apart.
This is all the more telling that his
request had been made on the basis of a lineage that went back
to Mirza Mehdi Shahid-e Thaleth, who earned the posthumous title
of the third Shia [i.e. clerical] martyr (the first and the second
having been medieval theologians in the Lebanon), when he was
killed by the grandsons of Nader Shah while he was at prayer in
of Imam Reza.
Such contradictions abound in Iran. A few samples
suffice to show a more complex picture than you would have us
believe, and in which
the limited worldview of the likes of Ahmadinejad is an aberrant
one. The anti-Semitic strain that you wish to see in us all us
limited to classes who have been subjected (often for lack of
better) to the influence of the pettiest mullas. This is not to
persecution was non-existent, but the Sunnis, and especially,
the Bahais suffered more, the former because, like the Christians
the Sasanian period, they were perceived as being sympathetic
to neighbours who threatened the integrity of Iran, and the latter
because, as a break-away group (amongst whom there were Jews
well as mollas), they threatened the hold of the clercial hierarchy
on the silent masses. Reprehensible as these or for that matter,
any persecutions may be, they do not have much to do with anti-Semitism
(even the opposition to the burial of Abdol-Baha in Haifa was
more anti-British than anti-Jewish).
The tactless and tasteless views
of the ‘president’ of
Iran must be placed within a context of quite recent date, with
which I will deal in a forthcoming sequel to my reply to Guive >>> Part 2
Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian was born in Tehran in 1940 and studied in Iran and Switzerland. In Iran she was on the committe of a number of organizations, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Women's University.
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