Are you Persian? Asked the lady bank teller with dyed blond hair and otherwise very Iranian complexion. I answered “Baale Khanoom, Haletoon Khoobeh?”. Other times I have been asked “Are you Iranian?” It kind of dawned on me that as Iranians living in America, we might be facing an ‘identity’ crisis. Are we Persians, Iranians, Iranian Americans, Persian Americans, or Americans? I have seen all variations used many times. With our beloved homeland country Iran being in the news so often and almost always negatively, perhaps we want to somehow disassociate our selves from anything Iranian thus referring to ourselves as Persians or Persian Americans.
How we got to this point might not seem obvious to all, but in a nutshell we have an image problem. Most ordinary Americans know very little of ancient Persia's proud and cultured history, but they've heard a lot about Iran's radical leaders and nuclear ambitions. Things were ok up until a few years ago when events in the United States and abroad begun to crash in on our adopted homeland. The terrorist attacks of New York and Washington, election of Ahmadinejad in Iran and his provocative speeches, and President Bush labeling Iran part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea made being Iranian in America seem so difficult. As a result, many of us Iranians who had long viewed ourselves as respected, assimilated Americans began to feel the heat of hostility. So when it came down to it, some felt we are not exactly cradle of civilization; rather axis of evil. So we decided to introduce ourselves as “Persians” as well as “Persian Americans” and the creation of heated disputes in the exile community that we cannot even agree on whether to call ourselves Persian or Iranian.
If you think this is confusing consider the fact that there is even a dispute on the country’s name change in1935 from “Persia” to “Iran”. According to Wikipedia, the name "Persia" until 1935 was the "official" name of Iran in the Western world, but Persian people inside their country since the Sassanid period (226–651 A.D.) have called it "Iran" meaning "the land of Aryans". In 1935 Reza Shah asked foreign countries to use "Iran" in other languages as well. Some believe he made this decision in order to be closer to Germany, by trying to emphasize the Aryan connection between Hitler's idealistic German Aryan race and the Persian Aryan race, given that "Iran" means "land of Aryans", at a time where the German empire was slowly becoming an unstoppable superpower.
Then there are others who believed he changed "Persia" to "Iran" to present a new and modern face of the country in the world. During World War II, Winston Churchill ordered that the name "Persia" be used in all British government documents to avoid confusion. Interestingly in 1959 Mohammad Reza Shah announced that both "Persia" and "Iran" could officially be used interchangeably. Now both terms are common; "Persia" mostly for historical and cultural texts, "Iran" mostly for political texts. In modern times, many of those exiled or alienated by the post-revolution Iranian government often refer to themselves as Persians. This is done to distance themselves from the current government of Iran.
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. There are those who define themselves as Mexicans, Hispanic, and Latino -- and yet their grandparents all emigrated from Mexico. All these terms in my mind function as symbols of identity and in some ways can serve as a glimpse into a person's worldview. I still have a difficult time understanding the fixation of some Iranians living in America with identifying themselves as 'Persian.' The name is obviously attractive and desirable for many reasons and there are those, mostly in the Monarchist camp, for whom it can be a way to associate with a period of Iranian history that many see as a Golden Age and symbol of our importance and power in the world.
For some, being 'Persian' maybe a way to help some clueless Americans distinguish between Arab and non-Arab peoples in the Middle East and that we aren't all the same 'over there.' Then again for the clueless and lay person, I submit it really does not matter. There is a segment that will always refer to “African Americans” as “blacks”, to Mexican Americans as “Mexicans” or “Latinos” and to Persian or Iranian Americans as “Eye-ranians”; you get the point. I can see that at times we sacrifice being 'Iranian' because being 'Persian' is easier, more glamorous, less painful and provocative in these hard times. Besides, being 'Persian' allows us to exist here without feeling bad or attracting unwanted attention. Please do not get me wrong, there are many great things that are associated with the word “Persia” and “Persian” the least of which is our proud history and civilization. Who can not accept that “Persian Rugs” are still the best in the world, that Persian Food is now well accepted here in America? I am only suggesting that the time has come for us, to accept the fact and start calling ourselves 'Iranian'. This might even force us to rethink our own role as a community and feel a greater sense of responsibility and attachment to a place we have become comfortable avoiding.
So finally who are we? The best scientific answer I could find for you was the result of a survey of Iranian Americans done by Iranian Studies Group at MIT in 2004. This is how we described ourselves: Iranian (44%), Persian (26%), Iranian American (13%), Persian American (5%), American (2%), and 10% said “Depends on the Situation”. The fact is that my generation might never settle the “Persian” vs. “Iranian” debate, but I think my children will. I am guessing that if someone asks my children where they are from, their answer might be “I am American of Iranian Descent”. If probed to explain their background and heritage, they should know enough about their parents ‘home’ country to explain the glory of Persia and the land it occupied in History. If all else failed, they might even show the pictures they took at Pasargad and the ruins of Persepolis last year when they visited their grand mother in Shiraz. Just remember, no matter who we think we are, we still love “Persian Food” adore “Persian Rugs” and at least among our own people we are “Iranians and proud of it”.
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