In a number of recent articles I have alluded to a national or ethnic group called Saka, a grouping of Iranian-speaking horsemen who entered the west-central regions of present-day Iran and eventually became a part of the very many nations that made up the Achaemenian Empire [Of Wine and War, Homavarka, The Saka Legacy, Done and Buried]. My interest in Saka derived from the anthropological context of the place-name “Fenderesk” that I was researching a while back and which I reported on in [Plain of Paradise].
Among the several feedbacks that I received recently one letter in particular has haunted me for the better part of the month because it asked a gut-wrenching question about national identity — if there can ever be one answer to it among Iranians. “Whom do you consider to be the original Iranians?” he queried, and “Why did the Qajar Tork did so much wrong to the Lors?” he lamented.
I have always skirted issues of ethnic diversity and national identity because I did not think I could possibly answer them with any degree of self-satisfaction. So I now ask myself for the first time at the start of my second half-century why I consider myself to be Iranian — that is all I can do, but I hope that somehow in my answer for me the troubled reader can find an answer to his satisfaction.
The laws that govern nationality have been handed down to us from antiquity. They are in the form of concepts of identity based on the place of birth and blood. If one is born in Iran, one is Iranian. If one is born from an Iranian, natural or naturalized, one is Iranian or is legible to become an Iranian. If one is born of an Iranian father anywhere in the world, one is Iranian. If one is born of an Iranian mother anywhere in the world, one could become Iranian. I think it cannot be left to the institutes of government, caprice of the legislator or politics of division practiced by ethnic purist to define anyone’s identity. Anyone who wishes to be an Iranian, is.
Naturally, to be an Iranian means that on some existential level one has experienced Iran. However, there cannot be a minimum requirement in quantity or quality or duration for being Iranian by way of language, blood, shape, geography, history, residence, religion or observance of rituals. Because the notion of Iran as a country or polity is not static or homogenous then any attempt at assigning a definitive meaning to the term “Iranian” is futile.
The deficiency with defining the state of being Iranian on the part of “Iranians” so far has been in the restrictive nature of the exercise. Invariably any group that tries to define “Iranian” does so in order to exclude some other group from the definition. This exclusionary exercise seeks to locate the “seed” or the “acorn” that sprang the Iranian nation at the exclusion of the roots, trunk, branches, leaves, fruit and shade that emanates from it. While many “purists” take refuge in Cyrus the Great’s semen as the well of all things ”Persian,” they forget conveniently that the seed that sprang Cyrus himself grew in the womb of a Median maiden.
One might as well declare Adam as the original Iranian and move on therefore to seek the meaning of “Iranian” in the sons and daughters who sprang from Adam in an empire that Darius the Great described as extending from the Saka who were beyond Sugda to Ethiopia and from India to Sardis in Asia Minor.
The definition of Iran that I like is the one that includes all the 30 lands and nations and languages and religions that made up Darius the Great’s empire. Under this definition, the Egyptian, Ionian, Hindi, Carian or Arabian was for example no less Iranian than the Persian, Median or Saka. To understand this concept, imagine Iran under Fathali Shah Qajar in 1800, when Iran was also the sovereign authority in the Caucasus. A person born in Baku would have been Iranian. Would he have been a lesser Iranian a few decades later because Baku was ceded to Russia? Or would one born in Eravan and of Christian roots have been a lesser Iranian when Eravan passed under Russian sovereignty? Would one from Harat who escaped the ravages of his birthland 2500 years after Darius the Great and settled as an Afghan refugee in Tehran or Mashad be any less an Iranian? An Iranian cannot therefore shun those who are born in lands or from lineage that in the present do not fit within the geographical boundary of the country called Iran. Anyone who has been a part of the Iranian experience no matter how distant in the past or place is an Iranian. Likewise, an Iranian cannot shun those who have resettled from one part of their Iranian experience to another as refugees.
I read every now and then some comment about how the Parthians and others from the northeast corners of Iran were Turkic invaders and ruined “our” beloved Persia! The same is said at times about the Torkic Qajar. The Qajar settled in Iran before being shooed off to Syria and then forced to relocate back to Central Asia, but stopped in the Caucasus before moving out and settling in the Astarabad (Gorgan) region of northern Iran. On could equally argue that the Gilani who usurped the government of Iran was not really one of us “Persian” folks! I have in mind Izzad ad-Dowleh Dailami? Who did you think? Well, enough said.
With the exception of the Mongols, who were not a part of the Iranian experience before invading Iran, all others who “invaded” Iran were at some time a part Darius the Great’s family of nations. I view the various groups that ruled Iran after Darius as being merely different branches of the Iranian household gaining mastery of the house. To me, therefore, the Arab invasion from Hejaz, too, was just another part of Darius’ empire rising to control the center, as did others before and after. So when the Qajar Tork suppresses the Lor it is the nature of centralized and oppressive government that is at fault: to put the blame on some sort of ethnic antipathy is convenient but wrong.
The family of nations that make up the Iranian experience may not always be a territorial part of the country that was or is called Iran. The parts of Iran that are not a part of Iran are many but this separation along political-geographical lines is meaningless. A Parsee who resettled in India is an Iranian. A Bahraini is an Iranian. An Egyptian is an Iranian, as is an Ionian (Yuna, Greek). Is not then one who died Iranian still an Iranian?
To be Iranian means never having to say another is not. If anything, to be Iranian means to claim everyone as Iranian. This is the essence of being Iranian and one who possesses it is an original and uncompromising Iranian.
Guive Mirfendereski is VP and GC at Virtual Telemetry Corporation since 2004 and is the artisan doing business as Guy vanDeresk (trapworks.com). Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences (BA), Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston College Law School (JD). He is the author of A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea (2001) >>> Features in iranian.com