January 13, 2005
I don't call myself 'Persian.' I refer to myself
as Iranian, but recognize that the circumstances of being Iranian
in the United States are nuanced. There is a range of
attitudes towards both Iran and the United States that uneasily
coexist within our ranks. Notions of how to look homeward and how
best to be American, what we choose to identify with and against
vary from person to person -- we all think according to our socialization
and diversity is to be expected here.
We have those who have forsaken all that was once associated with
their past and have been reborn here, and we also have those who
stubbornly cling to nostalgia and maintain loyalty to a place that
no longer exists. I fall under the wide swath of gray in between
those points. For the most part, I am fascinated and surprised
by just how many forms 'we' come in -- we are both well
off and struggling to make it; we are poets, doctors, liars, housewives,
adulterers, Republicans, and Democrats, among many other things.
Just like any other immigrant community, we have also experienced
and continue to experience the growing pains that accompany becoming
part of this society. Many communities have struggled to define
themselves. I have friends who define themselves as Puerto Rican,
Boricua, Hispanic, and Latino -- and yet their grandparents all
emigrated from Puerto Rico.
During the course of several years
and many conversations, I learned that these terms are usually
loaded with hierarchical, political, social, economic, and historical
meanings, and bespeak volumes about the person who uses them. They
function as symbols of identity and in some ways can serve as a
glimpse into a person's worldview. Among those who have some
sort of tie to the country Iran, it seems that the identity debate
has fallen on being 'Iranian' vs. 'Persian',
hyphenated American optional on both.
These names also serve the purpose of signifying identity in our
own community-they refer to something deeper than just ethnicity.
I have had a difficult time understanding the fixation of some
Iranian-Americans with the identifying themselves as 'Persian.'
I appreciate that name can be attractive and desirable for many
reasons -- one
can argue that 'Persian' is a term of resistance, a
political symbol that emphatically places distance between the
speaker and the current socio-political realities of Iran and the
popular (and not usually fair) media image of what it is to be
For others it can be a way to associate with a period of Iranian
history that many see as a Golden Age and the zenith of our importance
and power in the world, complete with lush gardens, renowned architecture,
sensual poetry, and an influential culture. Being 'Persian' is
a way to help ignorant and clueless Americans distinguish between
Arab and non-Arab peoples in the Middle East and that we aren't
all the same 'over there.' And it is understood by many
though unspoken by most that the term 'Persian' evokes
an exotic mystique -- a sense of permanence and grandeur associated
with an elite number of ancient societies-Chinese, Roman, Aztec,
Greek, and Egyptian, to name a few.
But this is problematic. Many people use the term 'Persian' to
deny the other half of our history and escape Iran's current
problems. Iran's history extends beyond the pre-Islamic Achaemenid,
Parthian, and Sassanian dynasties, and much of its fame comes from
beyond the Iranian Plateau. So there is a certain degree of chauvinism
to the term 'Persian' in this context, because it implies
that there are none but Persians in Iran, and that Persian culture
is the only noteworthy one in Iran.
It is also disturbing to hear those who use 'Persian' as
a tool to reclaim their 'true' heritage while denying
the realities of history and the absurdity of pretending to be
pure 'Persian' seems to be lost on them. These people
exhibit a xenophobic mentality that seems comfortable attributing
all of Iran's ills and misfortune to the Arabs and Islam,
while forgetting that the hybridization of different cultures created
new scientific advances, art, and literature. Such people remember
only that Iran is a land that has given birth to several great
civilizations and empires but forget that it has been repeatedly
conquered, sacked, and pitifully emasculated-possibly more convincing
as a victim than as a champion.
This can be partly attributed to the legacy of the Pahlavi educational
system, in which pre-Islamic Persian culture was championed, especially
the symbols of imperial power that served to legitimize the Shah.
Non-Persians in Iran were silenced, despite constituting nearly
half of the population, and did not have their own language of
instruction in schools (see David Menashri's "Education
and the Making of Modern Iran" and Hamid Dabashi and Peter
with Cyrus the Great and the Achaemenid Dynasty, the outlandishly
expensive celebrations of monarchy, the longing to put Iran on
par with the contemporary powers in Europe and America, and the
overemphasis on Persian identity, has created a strange dichotomy
in our collective psyche.
We believe we are superior to all
around us, yet our egos are fragile around Westerners. It is a
phenomenon that allows 'Persians' to
cloak racism and bigotry into a nobler mantle of national pride.
It allows those inclined to make Turkish jokes, condescend
Indians, resent Arabs, and deride Jews, despite the fact
is a great probability that blood also flows in their veins. Unfortunately,
these complexes have in turn been provided to a new generation
which has been raised out of Iran.
Ultimately, I believe that the pride that comes with being 'Persian'
masks the more tragic embarrassment that currently comes with being
11th, the stakes are higher to willingly identify oneself as Iranian-the
popular line on Iran is that Iran is in some Axis of Evil, that
Iran seeks weapons of mass destruction, Iran oppresses women, and
Iran is a fundamentalist Islamic state we must suffer because of
our thirst for oil.
By being 'Persian,' the speaker removes attachment to
a country and places it on a cultural concept that is attractively
exotic and vague. The desire for cultural vagueness is understandable
given the last 25 years in the American public eye. They have left
us with very few reasons to celebrate being Iranian-a hostage crisis
here, a fatwa there, a film called 'Not Without My Daughter',
and the few celebrities among us that bristle at being associated
with Iran (Agassi, the Soup
Perhaps we sacrifice being 'Iranian' because being 'Persian' is
easier, more glamorous, less painful and provocative in these times
were we face an alleged war on terror and stupidly simplistic logic
that divides the world into good and bad, and has little patience
for details. We may sacrifice being 'Iranian' because
women can still be stoned to death in Iran, and its people seems
so outlandishly oppressed that it is alien and unnerving.
Perhaps we choose to be 'Persian' because we are
embittered with all the messy connotations of being Iranian and
allows us to exist here without feeling bad or attracting unwanted
attention. We can construct the title of 'Persian' to
mean political resistance or symbolic speech but in the end, maybe
calling ourselves 'Iranian' would force us to rethink
our own role as a diaspora community and feel a greater sense of
responsibility and attachment to a place we have become comfortable
avoiding. That would be an act with implications that move beyond