The people of Iran are among the most ancient and diverse people of the world. Their continuous presence of government, absolute monarchy for the most part, goes back to over 2,500 years ago; it was reigned by Cyrus the Great of Achaemenian Dynasty and only preceded by the Elamite (3200-539 BCE) headed by Shutruk-Nakhkhunte, in southwestern Iran. More importantly, their archeological artifacts showcased in renowned museums worldwide and on historic sites in Iran, go back to well over 10,000 years. In fact, and despite the Persian language as a distinct member of the Indo-European linguistic family, the latest genetic discoveries support the majority of Iranians and the neighboring inhabitants not to be of Aryan race, but belonging to earlier indigenous people in southwestern Iran since Neolithic era. Human activity in one form or the other on the Iranian Plateau stretching from the Caucuses Mountains and the Caspian Sea and the Aral Lake to the north, and the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean to the south, has flourished over millennia. The multitudinous contributions of people of Iran to civilization (arts and architecture, science and mathematics, technology and medicine, religion, culture and literature) toward the advancement of life and humanity, is historically recorded. Iran is the only country in the South/southwest Asia still using the solar based calendar and celebrating the New Year at vernal equinox for millennia.
Throughout their long history and development, Iranians made up of the indigenous and a few Aryan tribes which arrived later on the Iranian plateau from central Asia and the Caucuses regions 3,500 years ago, mixed with the earlier brethrens of the Medes, the Partians and other indigenous inhabitants. They have interacted, been invaded and occupied, exchanged cultural traits and a way of life with their neighbors in the vast Asiatic region. Iranian language, culture and norms, and lifelong aspirations have been markedly influenced by interactions with the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Phoenicians, Indians, Greeks, Mongols, Chinese, Arabs, Egyptians, Zanzibaris, Romans, and lastly, with the Russian-British-Americans and other Europeans during the last two hundred years. Thus, their ethnicity and culture are highly diverse due to such intermingling with so many others over time. Many people from Iranian plateau have immigrated to other adjacent regions because of religious persecutions, to support military and political expansionism of their central government, or simply for better opportunities for survival. In fact, many Afghanis, Albanians, Armenians, Croatians, People from the central Caucuses and central Asia like Ossetians of Georgia and the Chechnyans, the Tajiks, the Uyghurs from the northwest Chinese province of Xinxiang, the Kashmiris of the Himalayan foothills, people of Jewish descent, the Kurds and most Shiites in Iraq, Kuwait, the UAE, and those along the southern edge of the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman, are of partial if not total Iranian descent or from the same ancestral stock. In addition, there are currently up to three million Iranians in the western Diaspora, one million in the U.S. alone, who have mostly emigrated after the 1979 revolution and are recognized among the most educated and highly affluent citizens in their adopted countries. Some historians have concluded that the main reason why Iranians were not entirely dissolved into the numerous invaders’ cultures as the Egyptians did, and somehow conserved their Persian language and pre-Islamic culture and heritage, is due to their sense of accommodation or even because they appeased to invading enemies and in so doing, they have transformed the intruders to look and act more like Iranians rather than the other way around!
As almost all people of the world have now fading or preserved tribal or clan identities, so do the Iranians. There are diverse Iranians of Guilaki, Mazadndarani, Taleshi, Kurdish, Luri, Persian, Azari, Khorasani, Kermani, Shirazi, Belucchi, Kashani, Esfahani, Bandari, Turkmen, and Khouzestani ethnicities. Iranians of the past and the present have co-founded and/or practiced diverse religions and beliefs as Sol invictism, Mazdakism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Mithraism, Christianity, Judaism, Gnosticism, Agnosticism, Mysticism, Atheism, and Baha’ism. In fact, Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenian Dynasty, circa 550 BCE, is credited as having enacted the First Declaration of Human Rights. So, each of these clans of Iranian stocks, are comprised of major family units, have their own dialects and special dishes and staples, cultures and rituals. They all are, nonetheless, united by the practice of a set of social activities and norms, a mother language, Persian, and cultural ritual commonalities that transcend their tribal or regional identifies and provide a common uniting basis for Iran as a whole nation. Iranian philosophers, scholars and poets of the past one thousand years as Omer Khayyam, Rumi, Ferdowsi, Hafez, Sa’adi, Avicenna, and Razes among others are renowned worldwide.
Many contemporary Iranians have certain positive qualities and behaviors in common, some are universal, and some unique to them alone. They are conscious of the three commandments in life, namely, good thoughts, good words and good deeds that can be traced back to Zoroastrianism of the first millennium BCE. If they themselves are the actual practitioners of these three mottos, or, if they expect others to abide by them, is a different story, however. Their Persian language and their manner of narrating stories, reciting poetry passed on heart to heart, or describing a phenomenon are poetic and intertwined with metaphors, exaggerated fables, and figurative statements. They are hospitable to strangers in particular, and will share their own sustenance or even endanger their security to appease, please and protect non-Iranians or non-family members. Iranians rank very high among the ancient non-violent nations who live and let live. As if they partake in popularity contest, and when in particular dealing with a new acquaintance, they portray humbleness, but wish to receive praises and trust instantaneously. They tackle this by patronizing acts and complimentary remarks (Taarofaat)! And if that did not work out in their favor, you would be blacklisted to them for life. They may love their own family members, although they rarely express it, and have a high expectation of perfectionism from others, especially from family members. Throughout life, Iranians think and strategize of saving not for themselves per se, but for their children, since their children’s education and secure future, is extremely important, and, given top priority.
Iranians nostalgically revere their pre-Islamic culture as still exhilaratingly commemorated by vernal equinox Nowruz, bonfire jumping, Sizdah Bedar Picnic, Mehregan, Tirgan’s and Yalda’s summer and winter solstices, Sadeh, and ancient poetry, songs, dances and melodies; this sets a stark contrast to the observance of more somber Islamic conformities. Religious or not, most Iranians are spiritual nostalgically speaking, reminiscing about their glorious past but with a shallow and somewhat superficial knowledge of history, and the direction of the future. They are poetically literate, and are informed and opinionated about current domestic and international affairs. Iranians are generally tolerant of the religion and beliefs of other than their own families or clans. Throughout its history, Iran has never for the most part suffered or imposed any state sponsored systematic racism against racial or religious minority. However, a certain degree of caste system, based on piety, zealousness, wealth, tribal or family name or education, but not as regressively entrenched as the social caste hierarchy in India, remains pervasive. White haired seniors achieve a special stature in families or social circles. The above notwithstanding, there is no Iranian, despite his or her ethnic or religious affiliation, who does not carry almost the same genomic profile as every other Iranian in Iran, and, this even applies to the immediate regional neighbors from eastern Mediterranean Sea to the Ganji River and northern India on the East.
Notwithstanding, and like any other nation on earth, there are a myriad of other not so positive behavioral or psychological traits that are attributed to Iranians, which need much reforming, both at the individual as well as societal levels, if Iran is to move itself out of a feudal, medieval mindset and into a progressive 21st century forward.
Iranians in general, are spiritual and introspective in their approach to daily life routines and their purpose now and in the afterlife. Religious or not, they are mostly superstitious, especially during such desperate moments as when victimized, sickness, family death, divorce and marriage, and financial crisis. While they perceive what the future will bring with a degree of cautious cynical skepticism and thus noncommittally remain on the side lines, they constantly reminisce about the “glorious” past with nostalgia, be it personal or the nation as a whole. Most Iranians, especially men, expect perfection from others, especially from siblings, children, spouses, families or even friends; nonetheless, they hold themselves at a higher alter from such prophetical high expectations. With the entry of new ideas or paradigm shifts in life, Iranians anxiously look to the arrival of a “savior” to sort things out and to establish the just “Kingdom of God!” For those with religious convictions, this takes the form of expecting “hidden” Mehdi, the 12th Shiite Imam and Mohammad’s tenth generation grandson, to return (he is said to have mysteriously disappeared and will return from occultation on the Day of Judgment). For Westernophiles this takes the form of expecting the British or the Americans to arrive and bring them “justice”, freedom and fortune. And for nationalists, they yearn for a national warrior of magnanimous proportion, a Rostam, Kaveh, Arash or Syavash as majestically revered in Shahnameh, to re-appear and save the nation.
Because Iran, for most its history, has endured an absolute feudal driven monarchy where the people have, by and large, served or felt as serfs, the people expect handouts, gifts (padash, hedyeh, shirini, poole chai) from the central government or the family patriarch for personal sustenance, influence, jobs and even managing all the daily affairs of the society. With such a non-self reliant attitude, a typical Iranian does not necessarily consider himself to be the guardian of the nation and its human and natural resources. In fact, on a recent hiking trip to Tochal Summit (elev. 14,000 ft) in the Elburz Mountain Range north of the capital Tehran, my wife and I were baffled to witness the uninhibited routine trashing of the otherwise breathtaking natural scenery by the so-called intellectual and elite hikers, never mind the ordinary people in slumps. When descending, we each collected two full trash bags of empty bottles and cans, while the slickly dressed hikers with sophisticated make up frowned upon us condescendingly; it was as if the hikers were to attend a slumber balmaske (masquerade) party in the nightly sky or act in a movie being taped! The pristine white water brooks flowing down from the snow-capped peaks that we as children enjoyed bathing in and drinking from, now carried tons of plastic bottles and disposable Styrofoam food containers and debris. It was as if Mother Nature was an orphan on the block to be beaten up by every bully, another trait of many Iranians who tend to repress defenseless subordinates but patronize authority and power. Another attribute of most Iranians, detrimental to the notion of owning, embracing and shaping their own destiny, both at the personal and family levels as well as the nation as a whole, is to fabricate, propagate, and believe in conspiracy theories. It is always someone else’s fault but “I am innocent and the victim”, while making innuendoes which look and feel surreal, and having a sense of self-victimization and self-mutilations inflicted through self-flagellations, both physical and psychological. This is truly manifested at Ashoora, the tenth day of Moharam when Hossein, the most beloved grandson of Mohammad is said to have been martyred. Somber processions of mourners, beating themselves on the chest or with chain on the back, or even cutting their skulls with sword in the public, choir sing the incident of martyrdom.
In Iran, Taarof, a social expression of formal compliment, of offering something or insisting to do some “favors” for someone else, is deeply rooted in everyone’s psyche. However, taarof, depending on how uttered strongly or weakly, positively stated or ambiguously expressed, the tone high pitched or low pitched, will have a different level of depth and breadth in the intention or ulterior motive of the speaker. Add to that the ambiguous facial expressions or bodily postures, the best indigenous Iranian expert interpreting taarof would be confused, let alone the outside visitors. Whether genuinely offered or artificially faked, taarof is never clearly delineated or communicated, and some is said to intentionally and/or intuitively make it ambiguous. Taarof, as genuinely sincere as it may seem on the surface, is usually entwined with an underpinning of quid pro quo or tit for tat anchored on bartering that drives the long-standing relationships between individuals, clans and increasingly family members in Iran. In fact, one might argue that taarof has become the underpinning of carrying foreign policy and strategic negations of the government as well. Iranians try to create or find creative ways of beating the municipal, utilities, tax or government system through payoffs and connections, pretend to be pious to exploit religious or legal loopholes in order to achieve their ulterior motives. Patronizing an authority (tamallogh/chaploosi/khaye mali/majiz goftan/dastmal abrishami/long yazdi/tosieh) to charm the authority figure and get what one desires is more the norm than the exception.
Iranians throughout history have had a knack for accommodating external invaders and imparting their influence on others. Accordingly, Iranians have relinquished their destiny and the future of their nation to key outside or inside figureheads for survival. Simply put, the Iranians, megalomaniac by posture, are masters of lamenting, complaining, bluffing, exaggerating, understanding and articulating their ordeals, injustices and predicaments as manifested through their rich literature and poetry. Yet when it comes to relieving themselves of such miseries by proposing alternative solutions, building consensus and dedicated teams to tackle issues, they have very rarely come up with transformative strategies and the tactics necessary to realize such dreams. It is as if they are always awaiting the arrival of a messiah to establish justice at their behest. For instance, take the immediate past or the current regime of Iran, where a large cohort of the Iranian population may privately complain about the myriad shortcomings and wrongdoings of the government forces and their linchpins, lackeys and cronies. However, such complaining will not lead to articulate organizing, or to come up with alternatives through the code of law for transformations. In fact, each individual only sees a certain pragmatic self-serving agenda, a special socio-economic privilege, to avoid disrupting the status quo at its foundation.
Most families in Iran although residing in major cities, and the capital Tehran with a current population of nearly 20 million, have a not too distant agricultural heritage; most Iranians feel connected to land and agricultural way of life. Accordingly, they expect their children to start working around the house or outside trade from early childhood and excel in school, a rather new phenomenon only a hundred years old, as well. Children are, therefore, perceived as assets from that particular perspective as they add to the immediate family’s wealth or societal status and thus are expected to attend to parental needs when old. The first child, especially if the eldest son, is expected serve as the bridge among three generations by carrying the lifelong burden of lifting subsequent siblings, nephews and nieces as well as caring for parents. Again, although there is an immense amount of taarof among children, siblings and parents, unreasonable high expectations and criticism of others, while at the same time patronizing (Chaploosi) each other when physically present, remains high. This at times leads to egregious interference by mother in-laws or siblings in the internal affairs of family members, yielding altercations, nervous breakdowns, fatal threats, battering and abuse, divorce or infrequently fatal consequences. It’s as if the religious alms (khoms, zakat, sahme emam and sahme sadaat) and modern taxes, accounting respectively for 10% and 25% of a family’s budget are not enough, gifts, donations, extortions and embezzlements by family members and municipal ordinances add an additional layer of unnecessary expenditures to the strained budget. What is most baffling is the depth and breadth of astuteness of a family member’s ability to nitpick and amplify another family member’s shortcomings or imperfections, while tactfully discounting or masking many self-imperfections and inadequacies. The lines between emerging families from a previous generation, is neither consciously defined nor is it respected. The lingering sense of entitlement from family members, close friends and even government staff have only intensified in recent few decades, as the myriad traditional values have been mixed with modern expectations. The situation is such as if the whole world, beginning from immediate family members on, must feel eternally indebted and reciprocate to certain family members, friends or even acquaintances who act as instigators.
Party bazi, a settled method of nepotism or cronyism for employment, securing concessions from government, the private sector or even family, is entrenched in Iranian society. The word “Yes” or “No” has multiple levels of intensity and ramifications. Simply put, yes may actually mean maybe, conditional yes, or even no! Hypocrisy or imposter acts, pretending something or someone it is not what it seems, is present in every aspect of culture. Gossip and defamation of character and smearing of others, are ubiquitously practiced by many as inalienable “pontiff” rights to dos so. Iranians, especially men are “Jacks of all trades and masters of none!” Yet, they consider themselves as Masters of ALL knowledge. Highly opinionated they know a little but not a whole lot about a subject; they, nevertheless, portray themselves as the authority. If you enter a government building to resolve certain legal issue, you should be well prepared to grease many palms, from the gateman and janitor who ask to hear the details of your case and review your records, whether they can actually read or not, to the one at the helm. A typical Iranian is never wrong, as he should not lose his face and honor (aberou), even if in reality he is deeply flawed.
For starters, bad social and cultural traits and practices as tamallohgh, chaploosi, parti bazi, reshveh, baj sibil, dozdi, taghallob, do roui, tavagho bija, entzare bi had, fozouli, enteghde bimored, dekhalte bija, oghdeh khod bozor bini, kolllli goui, hame fan harif nemoodan, tahdie bija, eftera va tohmat, gheybat, kahli bastan, motch gereftan, taaneh, gooshe va kenayeh, majiz gooeyi…. MUST BE IMMEDIATELY ELIMINATED.
Iranians in Diaspora have one or both ways of life and expectations, modern and/or traditional, as they adopt certain aspects of the culture of their adopted home. The Iranians in Iran have also adopted some of these attributes as broadcast through Satellites and internet, while they retain or pretend to have a religious traditional, or a western modern version of life, subject to audience present or circumstances.
Individual Iranians, both in Diaspora but in particular in Iran, and the Iranian society as a whole must first articulate and implement a set of reform norms of fundamental paradigms, anchored on education and empowerment, if Iran and Iranians are to move beyond the lingering stalemate. This, at its foundation, requires an honest sense of self-reflection and appreciation of others, self-actualization and societal realizations. A forthright direct, nonetheless, respectful approach to debate issues rather than personal attacks or slanderous remarks behind someone’s back are the prerequisites for a civil discourse. This requires the elimination of endemic justification of judgment calls, while one retains the privilege of immunity from the same (mis-)treatment, by others. Modernization in the context of such culture and reformed will lead the citizenry and the nation as a whole forward. A truly genuine national campaign to instill educational and cultural advancement for the populace, and a progressive degree of socio-economic reforms would yield the transparency and justice that are essential to sustain a just, tranquil and peaceful society that the nation as a whole could sustainably enjoy and impart on others in the region.
Disclaimer: The author Davood Rahni (firstname.lastname@example.org ), an American professor of proud Iranian heritage based in New York, who has endeavored to reform himself from the many of the social-ills as stated above, acknowledges that he still has a very long way to achieving half of what he has prescribed in this essay, himself.
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