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Pure as a mutt
Was there ever a "pure" Iranian-ness that belonged to a glorious past?

By Choob Dosar-Gohi
August 11, 2003
The Iranian

As a Tehran-born and bred Turk who can barely speak Turkish but gets nostalgic listening to Turkish songs, I found the three articles (Azeri Nationalism..., We Deserve..., and Are There Any Questions) quite fascinating. Let me clarify... My fascination wasn't because I got in touch with my lost "roots" after reading these articles, nor was I amazed by the wealth of information presented in them (and I am not being sarcastic).

I was fascinated, because I read these articles only hours after having a conversation with my long-lost cousin, whom I had the pleasure to see in the City of Angels, after many years of separation. Earlier today, my also Tehran-born and bred Turkish cousin had jokingly accused me of not being Turkish enough. Her playfully put reasons were simple: First, I and the rest of my siblings were born in Tehran; second, I refused to accept that "we", Turks, are smarter than the rest of Iranians! Third, I didn't find Googoosh, our fellow Turkish diva, to be my idol!

My beloved cousin expressed that most successful Iranians are Turks. After asking her what success meant, I learned that her definition only included people in sciences and business. While I did not want to ruin our reunion after many years of estrangement with my anti-essentialism, I had to remind her of our (often stereotyped in movies) fellow Turkish construction workers who seem to be forgotten in "our" class-based national (or dare I say, ethnic) pride. "But," she smiled, "in general, we are better, aren't we now?"

This wasn't news to me. I have been hearing and feeling this "we are better" mantra in its many forms and shapes from many fellow Iranians in my encounters in Irangeles for the past month of my temporary residence here. It wasn't too long ago that in a small party of educated young Iranians, I heard a pregnant woman say that she had to rethink the intended name for her unborn baby, because someone had informed her that the name she had chosen was common among Black Americans! ("I don't want my kid to have a Black name," she said with a facial expression that made her look like she had smelled something foul. God forbid! What an insult to the whole "original Aryan" race would that be!)

It was only a week ago that I overheard an Iranian business man yell at someone on the phone during a business dispute. My jaw dropped as our fellow Iranian businessman told the other party that s/he is "nothing" because s/he is Chinese! His vulgar arrogance became even more pronounced as he threatened the person by yelling: "I'm stronger than you! I'll make you go out of business. You're nothing! I'm an American!"

As a "good" Iranian woman, I kept my mouth shut and stopped myself from reminding my fellow compatriot that the history of Chinese immigration goes as far as the migration of Europeans to the U.S., and that he need not repeat the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act!

It was less than two weeks ago when a Khuzestani spoke Arabic to his friend in a shop in Westwood, a young Iranian man asked with much surprise, "mageh shomaa Irani neesteen?" This young man didn't seem to comprehend that one can be an Arab and an Iranian at the same time! As a cultural anthropologist who watches TV (a habit I would like to call "research" rather than "tanazzol-e farhangi!"), everyday I hear the word, "Arab-parast" thrown around like "noghl-o-nabaat" on many satellite television networks.

It was only yesterday that I was watching satellite TV in my favorite café in Westwood, when I heard a caller defame Khomeini by "revealing" that his father was an Indian. This "important fact," which the T.V. host repeated as if uncovering the reason behind all of Khomeini's misconducts, proved to us, bewildered viewers, that Khomeini was nobody! (Whatever happened to critiquing one based on writings and actions, and not race or nationhood?)

And this brings me back to our three articles about being Turk/Azeri/Iranian. While I enjoyed reading Salman Borhani's account of Azeris of modern Iran [Are there any questions?], I was surprised that he failed to mention Qajars in his version of history. I wonder if one could effectively discuss the history of Azeris in modern Iran without exploring the tension between Pahlavi and Qajar dynasties. Borhani's point is well-taken that the emergence of modern nation-states and the centralization of government changed the national imaginary, but his analysis seems to overlook that it was not just Persians who acted as the ruling class, as the Turk Qajars also ruled modern Iran.

Despite this criticism, I don't find Irani's response to Borhani to be anything more than blind nationalism. Baraitna Irani's critique of Borhani, while reminds us that there is a history prior to European colonialism and colonial encounters, is itself very selective in its narration. What makes a historical event for Irani, is the "Arab invasion," which seems to have contaminated a glorious and timeless all-Iranian past! So, while Kurds, Lurs, Azeris, Persians, etc. are included in Irani's version of a multicultural transhistorical nation, and while his token Azeris are praised as "purest Iranians," most Qumis are excluded and labeled as non-Iranian Arabs!

Was there ever a "pure" Iranian-ness that belonged to a glorious past? What if there was no such purity? What if our history of bastardry started even before Arabs attacked Iran? What if "we" were never pure? Hasn't this nostalgic desire to return to an imagined purity caused numerous bloody civil wars all over the world?

I am tired of seeing statutes, posters, calling cards, television logos, gold chains, book covers, restaurant menu covers, T-shirts, (you name it, I've seen it), with images of "ancient Persia!" Do we not have a history beyond and after this glorious past in which we seem to be frozen?

And what is the point of looking for a pure origin? Why do we insist on selectively forgetting huge parts of the history of Iran (call it the Persian Empire if you wish)? For how long are we going to "re-member" a nation that is " pure" and at what cost? How far back in history do we dig to conjure up an ideal past? Where is the point where history begins and why? Who is included and who stays out of history?

There are those who write history. There are those who live it. There are those who forget it and remember it again, and then there are those who have no history.

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By Coob Dosar-Gohi




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