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Identity politics
Being Iranian vs. Persian

January 13, 2005

I don't call myself 'Persian.' I refer to myself as Iranian, but recognize that the circumstances of being Iranian in the United States are nuanced. There is a range of attitudes towards both Iran and the United States that uneasily coexist within our ranks. Notions of how to look homeward and how best to be American, what we choose to identify with and against vary from person to person -- we all think according to our socialization and diversity is to be expected here. 

We have those who have forsaken all that was once associated with their past and have been reborn here, and we also have those who stubbornly cling to nostalgia and maintain loyalty to a place that no longer exists. I fall under the wide swath of gray in between those points. For the most part, I am fascinated and surprised by just how many forms 'we' come in -- we are both well off and struggling to make it; we are poets, doctors, liars, housewives, adulterers, Republicans, and Democrats, among many other things.

Just like any other immigrant community, we have also experienced and continue to experience the growing pains that accompany becoming part of this society. Many communities have struggled to define themselves. I have friends who define themselves as Puerto Rican, Boricua, Hispanic, and Latino -- and yet their grandparents all emigrated from Puerto Rico.

During the course of several years and many conversations, I learned that these terms are usually loaded with hierarchical, political, social, economic, and historical meanings, and bespeak volumes about the person who uses them. They function as symbols of identity and in some ways can serve as a glimpse into a person's worldview. Among those who have some sort of tie to the country Iran, it seems that the identity debate has fallen on being 'Iranian' vs. 'Persian', hyphenated American optional on both.

These names also serve the purpose of signifying identity in our own community-they refer to something deeper than just ethnicity. I have had a difficult time understanding the fixation of some Iranian-Americans with the identifying themselves as 'Persian.' I appreciate that name can be attractive and desirable for many reasons -- one can argue that 'Persian' is a term of resistance, a political symbol that emphatically places distance between the speaker and the current socio-political realities of Iran and the popular (and not usually fair) media image of what it is to be an 'Iranian.' 

For others it can be a way to associate with a period of Iranian history that many see as a Golden Age and the zenith of our importance and power in the world, complete with lush gardens, renowned architecture, sensual poetry, and an influential culture. Being 'Persian' is a way to help ignorant and clueless Americans distinguish between Arab and non-Arab peoples in the Middle East and that we aren't all the same 'over there.' And it is understood by many though unspoken by most that the term 'Persian' evokes an exotic mystique -- a sense of permanence and grandeur associated with an elite number of ancient societies-Chinese, Roman, Aztec, Greek, and Egyptian, to name a few.   

But this is problematic. Many people use the term 'Persian' to deny the other half of our history and escape Iran's current problems. Iran's history extends beyond the pre-Islamic Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sassanian dynasties, and much of its fame comes from beyond the Iranian Plateau. So there is a certain degree of chauvinism to the term 'Persian' in this context, because it implies that there are none but Persians in Iran, and that Persian culture is the only noteworthy one in Iran.  

It is also disturbing to hear those who use 'Persian' as a tool to reclaim their 'true' heritage while denying the realities of history and the absurdity of pretending to be pure 'Persian' seems to be lost on them. These people exhibit a xenophobic mentality that seems comfortable attributing all of Iran's ills and misfortune to the Arabs and Islam, while forgetting that the hybridization of different cultures created new scientific advances, art, and literature. Such people remember only that Iran is a land that has given birth to several great civilizations and empires but forget that it has been repeatedly conquered, sacked, and pitifully emasculated-possibly more convincing as a victim than as a champion. 

This can be partly attributed to the legacy of the Pahlavi educational system, in which pre-Islamic Persian culture was championed, especially the symbols of imperial power that served to legitimize the Shah. Non-Persians in Iran were silenced, despite constituting nearly half of the population, and did not have their own language of instruction in schools (see David Menashri's "Education and the Making of Modern Iran" and Hamid Dabashi and Peter Chelkowski's "Staging a Revolution").

The fascination with Cyrus the Great and the Achaemenid Dynasty, the outlandishly expensive celebrations of monarchy, the longing to put Iran on par with the contemporary powers in Europe and America, and the overemphasis on Persian identity, has created a strange dichotomy in our collective psyche. 

We believe we are superior to all around us, yet our egos are fragile around Westerners. It is a phenomenon that allows 'Persians' to cloak racism and bigotry into a nobler mantle of national pride. It allows those inclined to make Turkish jokes, condescend Indians, resent Arabs, and deride Jews, despite the fact that there is a great probability that blood also flows in their veins. Unfortunately, these complexes have in turn been provided to a new generation which has been raised out of Iran.

Ultimately, I believe that the pride that comes with being 'Persian' masks the more tragic embarrassment that currently comes with being 'Iranian.' Post-September 11th, the stakes are higher to willingly identify oneself as Iranian-the popular line on Iran is that Iran is in some Axis of Evil, that Iran seeks weapons of mass destruction, Iran oppresses women, and Iran is a fundamentalist Islamic state we must suffer because of our thirst for oil. 

By being 'Persian,' the speaker removes attachment to a country and places it on a cultural concept that is attractively exotic and vague. The desire for cultural vagueness is understandable given the last 25 years in the American public eye. They have left us with very few reasons to celebrate being Iranian-a hostage crisis here, a fatwa there, a film called 'Not Without My Daughter', and the few celebrities among us that bristle at being associated with Iran (Agassi, the Soup Nazi, etc).

Perhaps we sacrifice being 'Iranian' because being 'Persian' is easier, more glamorous, less painful and provocative in these times were we face an alleged war on terror and stupidly simplistic logic that divides the world into good and bad, and has little patience for details. We may sacrifice being 'Iranian' because women can still be stoned to death in Iran, and its people seems so outlandishly oppressed that it is alien and unnerving. 

Perhaps we choose to be 'Persian' because we are embittered with all the messy connotations of being Iranian and being Persian allows us to exist here without feeling bad or attracting unwanted attention. We can construct the title of 'Persian' to mean political resistance or symbolic speech but in the end, maybe calling ourselves 'Iranian' would force us to rethink our own role as a diaspora community and feel a greater sense of responsibility and attachment to a place we have become comfortable avoiding. That would be an act with implications that move beyond symbolism. 

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The Legend of Seyavash
Translated by Dick Davis

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