A friend recently shared two anecdotes from his trip to Iran with me that deal with race and skin color in the Iranian context. In Persepolis, which is located in southern Iran, darker features are more prevalent than in northern Iran. During a trip to the city, he and his Tehrani friends were surrounded by local schoolchildren yelling “hello!” and other basic English phrases. Even the teacher leading the group spoke to my friend in stilted English, asking where the group was from. The children were bewildered to learn that the light-skinned tourists (including one with red hair) were, in fact, Iranians and not Europeans. Conversely, the children had a darker skin tone that in Tehran might be seen as foreign or “Afghan.”
The second anecdote took place in Tehran. While walking down a busy street, my friend and his cousin noticed a man with darker skin. My friend’s cousin insisted that the man was a foreigner of African descent, but finally assented once she overheard him speaking fluent Persian. In both of these anecdotes, Iranians traveling within Iran encountered racial and ethnic others and were forced forced to confront the reality that nationalist myths of ethnic homogeneity are completely artificial.
When talking about the diversity of Iran, most people will recall the various ethno-linguistic groups that are equally native to the Iranian plateau, like Persians, Azeris, Gilakis, Baluchis, and others who have migrated to the region through the centuries. In these discussions, however, Afro-Iranians and those of African descent are often ignored. Perhaps this stems from their limited exposure in mainstream Iranian culture. Or maybe it is because the legacy of African slavery in Iran contradicts the ever-so-pervasive Aryan myth of perfection and civilization. Regardless, most Iranians forget the Afro-Iranians and their rich traditions, despite their prominent cultural influence that persists today.
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