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Who are we and What do we Speak?

By Massud Alemi

Since the 1979 revolution, there seems to have appeared a grave confusion among the expatriate Iranians as to the proper category under which they might find themselves in reference books and atlases. The abundance of variety in the names to which things Iranian have been referred has not exactly been a help either.

We are Middle-Easterners. We are Persians. We are Iranians. Years ago it would not have been considered grossly ignorant if someone said Iranians are Arabs. Go figure!

We speak Persian. We speak Iranian. We speak Farsi. I once saw it somewhere written that we speak Irani. Imagine that! The West has come a long way. The enormity of confusion, and lack of common sense not only confounds our hosts in the West, but also has created a heartbreaking literature of whining and finger-pointing pseudo-critiques that instead of clarification adds to the muddle.

The latest confusion of the kind described above came to us in an article in the July issue of The Iranian ("Persian NOT Farsi"). If we agree with Mr. Parandeh, then the problem will become this: How do you distinguish between Persian (meaning a person who is of Persian ancestry) and Persian (as Mr. Parandeh suggests, to mean Farsi)? Do we say Americans speak American, or do we say, Americans speak English?

I do not pretend to know the genesis of the government's preference of the name Iran over Persia, but I can surmise a little scenario that goes something like this: As the relations between Persia and Germany were warming up in 1933, Reza Shah found the courage to propose the renegotiation of the terms of D'Arcy's oil concession of 1901.

It was a matter of course that the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the patron of the concession, would decline the proposal. It assumed the access to Persian oil its natural right. When its ambassador conveyed the Company's unequivocal rejection of the Persian demand, it caused a clamor in the Palace.

Thumb in belt, Reza Shah tramped the length of his office bellowing with anger, hardly containing himself from yelling profanity at the Englishman. His orderly called the doctor lest the Shah fall ill from the intensity of his rage.

"The British treat us as if we're their puppet," said the angry monarch to his doctor. "What they don,t know is that they're mistaken in their calculations. They shall see that we're not an ignorant partner who's to be humored from time to time."

There and then he picked up the phone and called his Minister of Justice, Mr. Ali Akbar Dauvar, to bring in the text of the treaty, and when that was done twenty minutes later, Reza Shah rolled up the paper, and in front of the doctor, Mr. Dauvar and the skeptical Britisher, threw it in the hearth saying: "There, it's revoked, gentlemen. I revoked the D'Arcy Concession and there is no return."

The patriotic papers went wild. One of them editorialized: "Let's be clear on one thing: the D'Arcy Concession is an instrument of British colonialism. . . Are we to be jolly happy with a measly £20,000 in cash and 16 percent of the royalties, while the company is paying a lot more just in Royal taxes?"

Two weeks later, the Majles approved Reza Shah's unilateral decision while in Great Britain Mr. Robert Anthony Eden, Earl of Avon, called the Persian practice "against the international law," and proposed to take the British protest to the Permanent Court of International Justice, an establishment under the Covenant of the League of Nations.

The British press loved the fracas, fanning it by publishing exaggerated stories from both sides. Reza Shah, however, was adamant to show the world that the British had made a mistake in their calculations by complaining to the Permanent Court of International Justice, an auxiliary body of the League of Nations. In clear terms he sent his minister of justice, Mr. Ali Akbar Dauvar on a mission to defend the motherland.

Thus the duty to defend Persia's unilateral nullification of the oil concession before the world tribunal fell into Mr. Dauvar's lap. "Mr. Dauvar," the Shah's voice crackled on the phone, "prepare for a trip to Switzerland and a meeting with Destiny."

Short notice, but who else was versant enough in international law to do a better job than Mr. Dauvar? How could have he demurred? Disgruntled, Mr. Dauvar went to the plenary session of the Permanent Court of International Justice at the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, with a team of diplomats and legal scholars.

Upon his arrival, Mr. Dauvar conducted himself skillfully in press conferences and released position papers that fueled the ongoing hubbub concerning the claims of the parties involved. Two months after the yellow flames of the royal fireplace had devoured the treaty, Sir John Simon delivered the text of the British complaint against the hand that had fed it to the open fire, a speech to which it would take a figure like Dauvar, with all his reasoning power and learned ability, to respond.

The Permanent Court of International Justice, the significant extension of the League of Nations, ruled for the two sides to resolve their disputes, which they did in the following year when the Anglo-Persian Oil Company reached a concession with the Persian government at a meeting in the Shah's presence.

In the intense surge of nationalism that followed the recent victories, the country decided to pick a new name for itself, one that would mirror this greatest of victories. Massive history books were sifted through, and thick dusty volumes of yellowed documents were consulted. After months of soul-searching, it was settled that the same ancient name already in domestic use should be adopted in the international arena.

After all, what is in a name beside the history of a long gone era anyway? Thus, Persia was cast aside as the concoction of Western romanticism, which did not reflect the realities of Iranian life, and in its place the name Iran was adopted, the Land of the Aryans. This was officially wired to all the foreign embassies and released at the following session of the League of Nations.

Take note, all ye historians! That's how Persia became Iran!

But on a serious level, some clear thinking and levelheadedness is in order. As a first step, we should have clear definitions. Iran is the country and the nation, which consists of different races and tribes: Persians, Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Baluchis, Turkmans, Jews, Armenians, Zoroastrians, Assurians etc. Farsi is the name of the official language in which these ethnic groups relate to one another.

It has been the official language of that land for centuries, even under the rule of Turkish dynasties such as Kharazmshahian, Ogh Quyunloo, Ghara Quyunloo, Safavids, Nader Shah, the Qajars. In other words, we are all Iranians, whether we speak Turkish, Kurdish or Farsi, but the one language that links us all is Farsi.

Having said all that, does not an emphasis on "Persian" and "Persian-hood" smack of ignorance of history? To me it brings back an image that is not particularly flattering. Just flip through the 19th century British papers such as The Times, available in most college libraries.

There, you'll observe all the derogatory references to "Persians" you would ever want to read about. You'll read how lazy the Persians are, and how mendacious, dishonest, cowardly and so on.

No wonder the Iranian government in 1935 decided to revert to the same name in English that had been in circulation in Farsi for thousands of years: Iran. Since then we became Iranians, instead of Persians.

In a wise, this was to disarm the Englishmen of a powerful tool of humiliation. It redefined the Iranians as a nation, and as a people. The language, which is Farsi, should also follow the same logic. No duality; no misunderstanding.

If the Western dictionaries have so far failed to reflect that fact, it is due to the effect of a lingering colonialist spirit. If I am correct in that, then we have to stand on our ground until they cave in. That's all.

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Last Updated: 30-Sep-96
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