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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 exception to some 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.

For 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 caliphs.

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.

In 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 skulls.

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 Qizilbash 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 and 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 the world. In European countries, where diversity resulting from history exists, but not in the proportions known in Iran, it is very common.

The 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 Zardosht.

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 gone.

By 1912, a few years before the events I describ above, the Russians, who broke into and bombarded the shrine, were seen as the greater 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 the shrine 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 say that persecution was non-existent, but the Sunnis, and especially, the Bahais suffered more, the former because, like the Christians of 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 as 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. See features in

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