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    Drawing by Morteza Jalali Farahani

    It's all a myth
    A response to Laleh Khalili's "Forgiving Salm and Tur: A polemic on race"

    By Asghar Massombagi
    October 23, 1998
    The Iranian

    Recently in the course of preparing a proposal for a documentary, I ventured into the local Iranian community in my city and conducted informational interviews. The main question I put to my subjects was "What does it mean to be Iranian?" Having been away from the physical boundaries of the homeland, free of its day to day realities, looking back from this vantage point, suddenly the question in itself did not seem absurd, neither was the answer clear.

    I grew up in Tehran in the ethnically mixed working class neighborhood of Javadieh, where one out of three families were either Azari or Kurdish, or Khuzestani, and a host of languages and dialects flew in the air. Sunnis lived alongside shi'ites albeit tensely at times. I, like most people, simply assumed that that was what Iran was. Ethnicity did matter and tensions were always there, still my mother's best friend was an Azari neighbor housewife and she as well as my sisters and brother spoke pretty good Azari.

    However once in a while one heard the expression "Turk-e khar" (Turkish ass = idiot) uttered in the household. And I still remember the childhood chant "Omar omaroo, sag pedaroo" ("Omar, the one whose father was a dog") that was a taunting call against Sunnis. It seems to me now, even though I didn't live in Terhan's privileged north, being a Tehrani rather than being from Bandar Lengeh, or Tabriz, or Kamranieh, gave me an advantage: I was part of a majority, I was not a member of an ethnic minority.

    What I found interesting in my encounter with the local Iranian community in Canada was the stand-offish resistance to any notion of division in the Iranian identity, especially on the part of the so-called ethnic Farsis; I was told again and again of the joy of every Iranian upon the performance of Iran's national football team, that no matter if one was a Kurd or an Azari or a Shomali, or hailed from Tehran, they all cheered in the streets overcome with pride and happiness. And I am sure they were. After all looking at the team members, one could see the chimera Iran is: An Azari striker, a Khorasani halfback, an Abadani goalie, etc.

    But the question of Ethnicity or "Melliyat", as some Iranian political groups are fond of describing it, is still there; it has always been there and the decades of centralized dictatorship has simply pushed it to the background, with ruptures once every thirty years or so during temporary political crises. You have to commend anybody who openly challenges a community to air out the skeletons in its closet, but to call this a polemic on race is to transpose the dynamics of the host society onto the history of the home country.

    Race as a socio-political and cultural concept has developed as the result of inception and evolution of Western nationalism and colonialism. The myth of a common origin was central in the development of European nationalism; one was either German or French or English. In medieval Europe under the influence of the church, the borders of countries were often undefined and kingdoms surpassed boundaries of language and Ethnicity. As the Reformation enabled European monarchs to break away from Rome, and Enlightenment and age of Reason ushered in Western Humanism, national cultures and languages emerged. Along with this and expansion of European colonialism in Asia, Africa and Americas and development of natural sciences came the development of ideas on race (The raciaology of Nazis had its roots in the natural sciences of Eighteen century).

    One might say European ideas on race were developed to justify slavery and subjugation of peoples of Asia and Americas. But what separates modern racism from say tribalism and religious chauvinism of ancient and medieval slavery and expansionism is nationalism and its need to define the specialness of a group of people based on a common origin other than religion or tribal association. If it is special to be German and Aryan, then mixing one's blood with inferior blood is a sin and there you have miscegenation. But can we really talk about a race of Iranians or for that matter that old chestnut Persians?

    For the longest time Iran existed as an empire extending to borders of India, engulfing all of present day Afghanistan and central Asia. Iran has been ruled more years by Central Asian and Turkish dynasties than so-called Persian rulers. Centuries of rule by Slajughian, Safavids, and various Mongol dynasties have marked Iran and Iranians forever. And let's not forget that the last dynasty before the Pahlavis, was the Turkish Qajar. In recent history Azarbaijan had an essential role in the inception and development of the Constitutional Revolution and two of Iran's greatest heroes, Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan just happened to be Azaris.

    Race has never been a native cultural and social question in Iran. Yes, tribalism and ethnic rivalry and chauvinism have always been present and the Iranian elite did keep African slaves in their courts (terms like Gholam , Kaniz and Kaka Siah are all remnants of that aspect of Iran's history). But there has been mixing of blood and cultural intercourse going on in Iran for centuries. The nonsensical concept of Iran being the land of Aryans was an ideology brought down from above, similar to Islamization in Pakistan, where an emerging state decided to manufacture an ideology from a grab bag of old myths and fraudulent history to justify its separation from India.

    The ideas of Reza Shah on so-called Iranian nationalism however did not emerge with him and were not without precedent. One need only to go back a few years prior to Reza Khan taking the reigns of power to the years of the Constitutional Revolution to find all the antecedents. As a matter of fact one can find all the archetypes of modern Iranian history present in the theater of the Constitutional Revolution. At the time there were those who advocated the Europeanization of Iran and Iranians from head to toe in order to modernize the backward Iranian society and its dilapidated state apparatus. For these elements (as well a good portion of more progressive forces) reactionary Islam, as represented by dominance of the clergy and Arabic language was the main obstacle in the way of modernization and creation of a modern civil society and the rule of law as opposed to traditional dominance of the Sharia. In other words, to create the modern Iranian society and state, they copied a European model based on defining nationalism against an "otherness" and the myth of a common origin, one separate from the reactionary Islam and Arabism it implied.

    At the outset of that revolution, of course, it wasn't at all clear what this new Iran was supposed to be. The rise to power of a Northern Cossack, with his connection to the Russians and Georgians tipped the balance of power towards the ethnic Farsis. However, all attempts by the Pahlavis in engendering the Aryan myth, Persianization of Iran and the Farsi language (there is an irony for you, Farsi being the Arabicized Parsi) through the various cultural foundations such as University of Tehran's department of Farsi Literature, were attempts from the top, lacking any real popular foundations. Except for a group of upper middle-class and descendants of a cluster of feudal families, Pahlavism was a joke, especially the theater of spectacle that the Shah put on to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of Achamenid dynasty. There were no celebrations taking place in the streets of Tehran, although middle-class families, especially young ones started naming their kids Kambiz and Ardalan rather than Saeed or Abdollah.

    The much beleaguered Shahnameh of course was one of the cultural icons that the Pahlavis sought out in their nationalistic propaganda. And they weren't the only ones who saw in Ferdosi's Wagnerian (oops, Freudian slip) myth regeneration of a fertile ground for their nationalistic imagination. Intellectuals as varied as Hedayat, Chubak, and Akhavan Saales (especially his book Aakhar-e Shahnameh) associated anything corrupt, medieval and reactionary with Islam and Arabism, and sought a sort of pure untouched Iranian identity predating the invasion of Iran by the Arabs. However as much as portions of Shahnameh may lend themselves to Farsi chauvinism, the idea of "we" not having forgiven Salm and Tur, but somehow seeing Alexander as a good conqueror doesn't quite work here. Alexander conquering Iran, in the larger context of Iran's history, was rather a passing affair and didn't really transform the country in any profound way. Arabs however brought Islam and stayed for several centuries. The Mongols and Turks ruled the land for hundreds of years and were deeply absorbed into the fabric of the Iranian society.

    The fact is that any nation as traumatized and conquered as Iran has been in the past 2000 years by invaders from all directions will engender mythology to exert its existence. The real question hence facing any future democratic government in Iran is not the question of race but ethnic self-determination. What does it mean to be an Iranian? Is there a common national identity that binds various peoples who live within the boundaries of present day Iran. Can Iran accommodate Kurdish demands for autonomy, and what if Iran's Kurdistan wants to join a greater Kurdistan? These are the urgent questions to be contemplated if the futile cycle of violence is to be avoided.

    The question of the Iranian diaspora, however, is a different matter. I think the monolithic "we" the writer addresses is very much the "we" who bought into Pahlavism in the first place. They are in fact often Shi'ite, upper-class urbanites from major cities, specifically Tehran who are very class and status conscious. This "we" is the Los Angeles crowd of cheesy videos and blue contact lenses and phony blond hair. None of this of course makes them un-Iranian but I do not think they can represent all Iranians now living abroad. Race is the host society's skeleton in the closet and Iranians like all other immigrant groups have no choice but to deal with it. The approach amongst the Iranian community has often depended on one's politics rather than any other factor.

    Let's be blunt: The Aryan lovers are more often than not upper class monarchists. This doesn't of course get the rest off the hook; there are all kinds of prejudices in this community -- like any other community -- and need to be addressed.


    * Laleh Khalili's Forgiving Salm and Tur: A polemic on race

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