May 7, 2004
After my recent piece on an imaginary coffee with Farah Pahlavi, and the expected 2 sides of the issue comments I received, being inherently sheytoon, I began thinking about what other hot topic I could exploit, I mean, explore. Sex? Too intimidating. Religion? God is dead. Politics? Boringly masturbatory.
Then out of the blue, an email buddy raised the debate of Persian vs Iranian again, and I knew I had my hot button topic!
Nothing seems to get our blood boiling more than this issue. Some yearn for the good old days of royalty, pomp and circumstance. Others are coolly modern and efficiently pragmatic about it. Some merely wish to disassociate themselves from the current image of Iran, call themselves Persian and hope no one asks the difference.
So what angle could I offer to stir up the controversy once more? What thorn could I press into our collective big toe to spark debate? After a few days of walking and thinking, I believe I have it. Here goes nothing, let the games begin!
As we all know (or do we?), Iran changed it's name in 1935 when according to noted historian and expert Prof. Ehsan Yarshater (of Columbia University no less!) “The Persian government requested countries with which it had diplomatic relations to call Persia, “Iran,””.
The good professor further explains that the suggestion for this name change was first proposed by a (curiously but wisely nameless) Persian ambassador to Germany who at the time was being wooed by members of the growing Nazi movement, eager to build relations with other nations of Aryan ancestry. Their suggestion was that with the beginning of a new era of Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had all but severed ties with Britain and Russia because of their influence and manipulation of the Qajars, would be a good time as any for a separation, by calling the country by a new more Aryan name, namely Iran. (Special thanks to Pejman A for the research help)
A PR makeover, if you will.
By the end of WWII, all remnants of the word Persia and Persian had been wiped away. And that's the story! That's how we became known as Iran, and stopped being called Persia. Now onto the fun part.
As I researched the issues of language, food, culture and other typical country named thingeys, I noticed a couple of interesting commonalities.
For example, we all know that when we refer to the language spoken in the USA, we call it “English”. We do not refer to the language as “American” or “United Sates of American”.
When we speak English, and when we refer to the language spoken in France (Francais), we call it French. Correspondingly we call the language spoken in Germany (Deutsch), German. The language of China is not Chinese but is pronounced “Go-Yiu”. China is pronounced as “Da-Lou”. The same goes for the names of countries such as; Japan (Nipon), Greece (Hellenos), Germany (Deutschland), Egypt (Mesr), Hungary (Magyar), Algeria (Aljazayer), Morocco (Maghreb), Switzerland (Helvetia) and so on, you get the idea.
So why should we be called “Iran” when speaking and writing in English? So why should our language be called “Farsi”, when speaking and writing about it in English? It starts to make sense to call it something other than “Iran” or “Farsi”, until you let the 2 sneakiest of all emotions, namely pride and ego into the conversation. Then it all flies out the window.
I don't want you to mistake the name of the country with ethnic origin. Of course many people are Kurds, Ghashghais, Baluchs, Turks, and I think at last count there are over 15 ethnic minorities. But I am more referring to the name of the nation whose borders contain the people, as spoken in English.
Also another piece of interesting information is that the word “Farsi” is in fact the Arabic pronunciation of the real name of the language which is still widely known as “Parsi”. Since Arabic has no letter “P”, they replaced it for us, during the invasion I guess. (Thanks Cameron D)
But many today consider the word “Persian” to imply a fondness for the most recent monarchy (even though we just learned Reza Shah Pahlavi changed the name), but you can pick a monarchy any monarchy, or to keep calm lets call it an “outdated ceremonial feudal system”. Nonetheless a perceived departure from the all too elusive democratic goal. Persia seems to carry with it a sense and sound of elitism and a bitter bourgeois taste left in one's mouth, a leftover sense of pretentiousness, a relic of the “Darbar” days.
But we have to look at the historical record. That fateful decision in 1935, that changed the outside name of the country, and in doing so, put us in this identity quandary. What is historically agreed upon is that throughout recent history when we spoke the name of our country in the official language () or “Farsi”, we pronounced it () or “Iran”. This internal name and pronunciation has been used as the name we speak of our country in our language going as back before the Qajars, at least as far back as the post Mongol Safavids.
So here-in lies our deklameh or should I say dilemma. (Wow I think that may just barely qualify as the first ever bi-lingual pun!)
Aren't we Persian then? Keep in mind I am writing this in English, put aside any monarchist apprehensions you may have, and let's focus people. Because if we can agree to call ourselves Persian when speaking English, we get a few interesting benefits:
- We can have a name that can actually be correctly pronounced by even the southernmost senators, who today not only butcher our name “Eye-ray-neeuns!”, But who also can't seem to say “Nuclear”, choosing the alternate more hilarious pronunciation “Nook-Yoo-Lar”. Somehow referring to it as the “Persian Nook-Yoolar” weapons program doesn't sound as harsh.
- We can get back some of the respect and prestige associated with our 2000+ year heritage as frequent rulers of the earth rather than recent rulees.
- We can fall in line with the rest of the world who has one pronunciation internally, and an often different English version.
- We can finally explain why it's called the Persian Gulf.
- Since there will be Persians roaming the face of the earth once again, maybe they will bother to teach at least some of it's history in the schools.
- Think of all the Anti Iran posters and “Yer Next Iran!” T-shirts that will have to be changed by the current right wing groups eager to invade Iran next.
Conversely keeping the words “Iran”, “Iranian”, and “Farsi”, has whatever you would agree as a negative connotation associated with it. There are so many to choose from.
So there you have it. To those of you who think that changing the name in English from “Iran” and “Farsi” to “Persia” and “Persian” is a slap in the face, sorry, but I gotta whip out the white glove. Bring on your counter arguments for keeping it the way it is now (well thought out and expressed, and no personal attacks please!).
To those of you still timid and even apologetic about who you are, hiding behind “Persia” all these years, you can come out now. Don't worry, the water's fine. You don't have to call yourself Italian (yeah right!). And please, please, you can stop getting spooked.
To all you restauranteurs, who have limped along with the flimsy explanation that your cuisine somehow passes for “Mediterranean” (what is Mediterranean food anyway?), you can relax and call it what it really is, namely “Persian Food”. You can stop camouflaging with the Babaghanoush, Hummus, and Gyros for god's sake! Proudly plop the noon-o-panir-o-sabzi, toss in some khiar-shoors and pick out a solid torshi and trust me, it will taste even better.
To the readers (and editorial staff!) of this esteemed publication, do not worry, it's our magazine, about and for us anyway, and we'll call it whatever we damn well please, but in my view, the name “The Iranian” works even better because it's kind of an “insider” name, so even cooler.
And finally, to all those non-Persians who desperately need a history lesson (No really, you do). Please note, if it wasn't for Persia, you would not be able to enjoy the following;
- indoor plumbing and air conditioning
- the domesticated apple
- ice cream
- the first verification of Christ
- proof of the existence of unicorns
- the concept of ritual gift giving
- the concept of angels, with wings, and the halo, thank you very much.
- the chariot
- the canal
- currency (hello?)
- and finally, the magical healing powers of Asheh Reshteh!