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    Forgiving Salm and Tur
    A polemic on race

    September 29, 1998
    The Iranian

    Legend has it that many millennia ago, Fereydoun, ancient and bent, stood silently on a windswept height and surveyed his realm, horizon to horizon. For some time now, the house of Fereydoun had been echoing with the whispered sounds of barely restrained bickering between his three sons. Their maneuvering for power threatened to plunge the world in the bloody abyss of disintegration. So, legend has it, Fereydoun sighed bitterly and with his gnarled fingers conjured countries and borders in the air, the imaginary expanses of air signifying more tangible tracts of land.

    Salm was given the fertile lowlands of the twin rivers crescent, Levant, and Rome to the west; Tur, the vast and endless plains of the east, the playground of fearless horsemen and even further, the mysterious land of the Chinese. And Iraj, the youngest and favorite son, became the sovereign of the mountainous and lush high plateau that lay in between the two plains. In the years that followed the division of a primitive earth into sovereign nations, destiny and lust for power drove Tur and Salm to murder Iraj, and some years later, nursed on hatred and history, Iraj's son revenged his death in a tempest of blood and fury. And henceforth, mythical and historical time of the earth was to be defined by cycles of betrayal, murder, revenge, and reconciliation.

    Some see in the legend a geopolitical parable. The eternal East/West and Iran as the bridge separating and uniting them, seems to appeal to that vision which places Iran as the center of the universe, the axis around which the inhabited world rotates. But the myth, many centuries older than the Shahnameh version, also bespeaks of a very powerful unspoken in our culture. The manner in which the brothers and their progenitors squared off against one another in malice and envy attests to the ambiguous and unspoken - yet faithfully obeyed - boundaries that sequester the ethnic groups from one another inside Iran. Salm has come to represent the Arabs and Tur the Turks, and our national psyche still bears deep wounds after so many centuries of all the times the Iranian Plateau has been overrun by conquerors from the south, the west and the north. We are particularly wounded by the invasion of the plateau by the Arabs and the Turks. In defense of our national ego and pride, however, we have translated the trauma of conquest into a groundless sense of ethnic superiority. That one of our greatest "national" poets - certainly our most important epic poet - saw Iraj as the innocent and morally superior victim of his two "foreign" brothers also affirms the feeling of suspicion and hostility we have towards the foreigners, institutionalized so long ago in our national epic poetry.

    All cultures with a continuous presence within one contiguous geographic area tend to have similar ethnic and patriotic cultural signifiers. Iran, like many other ancient lands, echoes with the sound of different languages, is animated by various religions, and is enriched by diverse traditions. The music in Iran is more complex, our fabrics and rugs are more interesting, the treasury of our folklore and our myths are more opulent, and our language has more depth as a result of cultural osmosis. This multiplicity of cultures and backgrounds in Iran, which have persisted for several millennia, has been unique to Iran in one aspect. The various ethnic groups who have lived in Iran have managed to preserve their traditions and languages in the face of dominant culture pressures and maintain clear cultural and ethnic characteristics without the foreseen assimilation that usually occurs when a given ethnic group (in this case, Persian Iranians) controls the instruments of political and economic power. However, concurrent with this coexistence of cultures, the Persian Iranian psyche harbors a covert ethnocentrism - even racism. We continue to consider ourselves - the urban Persian Iranians- as the most superior of all the people of the Third World (for we still have an inferiority complex when it comes to First Worlders), and it seems like the shattering changes of the 20th century and the persistence of socioeconomic disparity have only exacerbated our prejudices and biases.

    A friend recently asked me if I thought the changing of our country's name from Persia to Iran had anything to do with Reza Shah's sycophantic attempt to align Iran with Hitler's Germany by appealing to his insane ideas about the Aryan race, the honor of belonging to which Hitler had bestowed upon the Iranians in a carefully calculated strategic maneuver. I can not claim to know the personal and political reasons for Reza Shah's decision to change our country's name. Certainly most of the people who actually lived within those boundaries had called the country (or parts of it anyway) "Iran" for centuries, and therefore, the name was not a 20th century invention or a creation of the Shah's mind. Regardless of the national interests underlying Reza Shah's policies, however, these policies have contributed greatly to our collective ethnocentrism.

    Early 20th century saw the irreversible and sometimes arbitrary division of the world into nation states. Boundaries were sometimes drawn on European maps by European emissaries without regard to ethnic or cultural or linguistic cohesion within those boundaries, and often on the basis of the national interests of the empires. As a result of these international conventions and regional treaties, Iran became a gigantic cartographic cat within whose belly a veritable Babel of ethnic groups had to coexist. Meanwhile, as the Great Games of geopolitics were being played for power, markets, trade routes, and natural resources (at the time, oil was not the geopolitical determinant that it is today), the foreign powers activated their old alliances within the new nations for getting a foothold. While British intervention in the south and Russian meddling in the north of Iran threatened the interests of the central government of Iran, Reza Shah's program of Persianization was far more sinister than a simple attempt at unifying a nation. He had to disintegrate the distributed loci of power within Iran to consolidate his hegemony over the country. Greed, ruthlessness, an infatuation with the idea of empire, and a crude ethnocentrism fueled his lust for power.

    Our history books are devastatingly devoid of the story of Arab rebels who were quashed by Reza Shah. We know little about the long march of the vanquished on foot from Khuzestan to the Caspian coast where they were to be forcibly resettled, and there are few statistics about how many of them died on the way from disease, malnutrition, exhaustion and maltreatment. We do not hear about the Turkman, Kurdish, Bakhtiari and Qashqai tribes that fell victim to starvation brought on by forced settlements. So much of our modern history is about how successive governments in Iran have overcome the misguided rebellion of "foreign agents" in different corners of Iran. The attempts of various ethnic groups to assert their cultural rights has for the last 100 years been met with violent repression, public hangings and hostilities which sometimes have escalated into contained and isolated versions of civil wars. The history has been re-written in most instances to distort the rebellions as either the intransigence of backward tribes who do not know what is good for them or as the conscious efforts of traitors to the motherland. I do not intend to glorify Iran's ethnic minorities or celebrate their victimhood. In the first few decades of this century there was enough violence, self-interest, and brutality to go around. In a number of instances, the great powers DID exploit the ethnic minorities of Iran to divide-and-conquer and to further their national interests in Iran. But ultimately, the urban Shi'i Persian Iranians have controlled all institutions of power in Iran for almost all of the 20th century, and victories are seldom procured without subjugation of the vanquished.

    The repression has not been limited to physical subjugation of tangible rebellions. Perhaps the most devastating and durable effect of Reza Shah's program of Persianization has been the perpetuation of a specious national myth about who we are, where we have come from, and our relative position in the world. Our history, our identity, and our understanding of ourselves have all been contaminated by a prejudice that elevates the Persian Iranian to an Olympian position, all the while reducing all other ethnic groups in Iran to producers of ethnic handicrafts, objects of sentimental photo opportunities, commodities targeted at international and domestic tourists, and a source of electronic entertainment.

    It surprises us when we realize that just barely over half of all Iranians are actually ethnic Persians, whatever that means. Ethnicity in that part of the world can really only be defined by acquired traits, such as language or religion, rather than any genetic preponderance. We, who pride ourselves for being so closely related to the Hansels and Gretels of Europe, after all look too suspiciously similar to our Arab conquerors and brothers and cousins to the south, dark hair, dark eyes, big noses and all. We act indignant when a Westerner makes the mistake of calling Iranians Arabs. We defend our "Aryan" blood vociferously, perhaps wounded still by the Arab invasion some 1,400 years ago. But we were invaded and buggered by Alexander and his army and we still love the Greeks (or the Macedonians if we want to nit-pick) even though they burnt our pride and joy, Takht-e-Jamshid (Persepolis), down to the ground and looted and murdered and raped afterwards. We forgave Alexander for bedding our women and drafting our men into his military, but have never quite forgiven the Arabs for the same sins. The disparity of our response can be either chalked up to the legitimacy we bestow on Alexander because he is one of the most glorified conquerors of the Western world or perhaps simply because we are - as a nation - infatuated with the idea of empire.

    The country of Iran is now home to some 15 million Turks, eight million Kurds, three million Arabs, two million Afghans of various ethnic backgrounds, around one million people of Baluch descent, and a melange of various other ethnic groups. In this great melting pot, we, the Persian Iranians strive to assert our superiority in all possible ways. Despite our reputation for being gracious hosts and despite generous kudos from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Afghan refugees in Iran are treated with the most reprehensible disdain, condescension and injustice. All instances of murder, drug-dealing, and violence are blamed on Afghan refugees, who quietly and stoically accept any menial job in order to support their existence. The Khuzestani Arab refugees who were forced into internal displacement as a result of the war with Iraq, have suffered unspeakable humiliation and bias in the very hospitable province of Fars and elsewhere in Iran. Distribution of government funds for improving the quality of life for Iranians are quite skewed toward Persian Iranians. Children's education is only conducted in Persian, even in areas where they will perhaps never speak Persian in their entire lives. Even our official history really is detailed and embellished from that single point in time, 2,500 years ago, when a Persian dynasty overcame various other ethnic groups and established Takht- e-Jamshid as its seat of government. We are infatuated with the idea of the Persian Empire, at the expense of a rich and varied history that predates the establishment of Hakhamaneshi (Achamenid) dynasty by some 5,000 years. We ignore the fact that the most ancient inhabitants within the geographic area that is now Iran were the Ilamites who were perhaps the inventors of written language, and were ethnically non-Persian. But we treat our various ethnic groups differently also, and this is where class affects ethnicity. Iran being an industrializing nation, those ethnic minorities that have managed to control trade or capital have also procured more power and privileges.

    The Islamic Republic of Iran has in some ways addressed some of these disparities. The Iranian cabinet for the first time in the last 50 years has an Arab member. The Islamic government has provided far more access to electricity and roads and healthcare to far-flung ethnic minorities than the previous regime. Local governments have a much more pronounced presence in the Islamic regime than they did before the revolution. But one must also note the bloody way in which the infant Islamic Republic quashed ethnic revolts (which were about cultural rights and local political control as well as land rights) among Iranian Turkmens, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, and Turks. Nor can we forget the persecution of religious minorities, particularly the Baha'is.

    Some of us unfortunately have carried a number of these ethnocentric prejudices with us as we have scattered across the world. In the West, some of us introduce ourselves as descendants of a race of Indo-Europeans (or Indo- Aryans) - whatever that is - who came across the Eastern planes to Iran and who are the ethnic cousins of those healthy and strapping blond-and-blue-eyed Germanic people populating Central Europe. We seldom pay any attention to the fact that there are no Indo-European (or Indo-Aryan) races, but rather languages. We prize pale skin and lighter color hair and eyes. We take it as an affront when we are lumped together with "those Arabs" or "those Pakistanis." If our children fall in love with black men or women, we are horrified, though we sometimes conceal our fear in the guise of "You will have such a hard life" homilies. We stratify the world into ranked and carefully separated categories of people based on the color of their skin, the size of their nose (plastic surgery notwithstanding), the color of their hair and their geographic origin. We, the Persian Iranians, assume that we fall somewhere close to the top, far superior to our Semite brothers (especially if they are Arabs) and inferior to the Europeans.

    In the United States, by most estimation, the majority of Iranians belong to the middle and upper middle class. The variable of socioeconomic status whenever introduced into the equation of race only makes the whole picture that much more unsightly. We, the diasporan Iranians, draw lines of segregation along class lines as frequently or more often than we do along color lines. Aside from political suspicion and paranoia, transplanted class and ethnic prejudices prevent broad attempts at community-building among Iranians. Through fierce adherence to outdated traditions and beliefs we attempt to limit intermarriage or socialization between our peers and those we consider inferior - whether in wealth or appearance. Even the most open-minded intellectuals among us are wont to succumb to subtle prejudices when discussing progress and prosperity of the Iranian community in the United States.

    In order for any sociopolitical organization of Iranians in the diaspora to succeed, we need to critically examine our beliefs and our identity. Class divisions are not easily and peacefully overcome, but racial and ethnic bias can be conscientiously confronted. Deeply ingrained prejudices and historical falsehoods only invalidate our collective goals and cast long shadows on our future aspirations. We have to question and reassess our assumptions about who we are and where we come from. We have to realize that an history of infamy and defeat and exploitation actually creates the grounds for a more natural alignment of Iranian interests with people of the Third World rather than with the United States or Europe. And as immigrants and exiles in our new society, to have any political voice or influence, we need to shed our counterfeit sense of superiority and groundless snobbery. We have to realize that in a world of dark-haired people, our dark hair, our dark eyes, and the darker shade of our skin are not liabilities, but assets.

    I would like to thank Sussan Tahmasebi whose comments on the coexistence of tolerance and prejudice within the Iranian psyche has added dimension to this piece. All shortcomings of this piece, however, are my own.


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