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What Really Matters

By Kam Zarrabi, San Diego 


I had no idea when, last November, I submitted my article, "The Regime Change.....", that I was opening the proverbial can of worms. No, the controversy did not ensue because of the substance of my article or political views, which should be open to all kinds of counter arguments. I had very casually used the word Farsi only once in that entire article, facetiously recalling that some Tehranis back in the '70s used to call the American import, hamburger, "hamburgerd", gerd meaning round in Farsi.


Well, as we can already see among the articles posted in payvand, we may never hear the end of this. I have thus far been accused, through numerous e-letters, of different degrees of incompetence, ranging from cultural illiteracy and insensitivity, to malicious disregard for our Iranian history and heritage. How dare I, they maintain, use the word Farsi in place of Persian?


My next error was in not appreciating the seriousness of this issue in the minds of some who have apparently devoted their time and effort guarding against such, as they call it, "grave mistakes". In response to some of their objections, I had compared the debate between Farsi and Persian to arguments over which hand should be used to hold the aftabeh.  I was duly admonished for this tasteless analogy.


Unfortunately, the argument about Farsi vs. Persian is beginning to take even a wider scope: now some are even objecting to the use of the name Iran for what they believe should have remained as Persia. Apparently, quite unbeknownst to some of us, our Iranian cultural heritage is in danger of sinking into the abysmal depths of humanity's dead files. I really don't think so.


In my personal opinion, the only thing positive about this debate is that our cultural heritage seems to be such a source of pride for so many Iranians to even care about such issues. This, in spite of the fact that the particular issue in question might be regarded as trivial or irrelevant altogether. At least there are many who actually do care.


When I say that I disagree with the views of those who regard the use of the word Farsi as a "grave mistake", it is most certainly not because I don't uphold our historical and cultural heritage in the highest esteem. Actually, I find such insinuations quite insulting. What I find equally objectionable is the cavalier attitude of some self-appointed guardians of our heritage in presuming for themselves a certain literary superiority or authority over others who, quite possibly, might even have stronger backgrounds or a clearer understanding in this area.


There are many things wrong with the assertion that the use of the word Farsi or Iran is somehow "dangerously detrimental" to our national prestige or cultural integrity. When Burma officially became Myanmar, the name of the Burmese ruby did not change, and it took perhaps just a few months before the change was established and accepted globally. Siam is Thailand today, yet we still have Siamese twins. Ceylon is Sri Lanka now, although we continue to drink Ceylon tea and admire the light blue Ceylon sapphires. Peking is called Beijing today, as it sounds much closer to its ethnic pronunciation, and everybody knows what and where it is. Yes, we still order Peking duck at any Chinese restaurant in America, and the million-year-old East Asian Homo erectus is still called the Peking Man, not the Beijing Man, by anthropologists. Going from Peking to Beijing is not likely to have any negative impact on the world's oldest continuous civilization. Let us look at England: Which is more "correct"; is it England, Britain, or the United Kingdom? Is there any doubt in anybody's mind as to what country one refers to by calling it any of these names?


Now, let's get to the core issue of all these concerns.


Apparently it all began when the politically motivated name, Arabian Gulf, replaced the traditional geographic name, Persian Gulf, by the American Military Command, and only for a specific mission during the 1990-91 campaign against Iraq, and abandoned later. That was obviously to appease the Saudis who have always preferred to call that body of water Arabian Gulf. As we know, mapmakers or geographers around the world ignored that event altogether. Similarly, had the American forces been stationed in Khuzestan, with Iran's approval of course, to launch an attack on Iraq, Shat-el-Arab would have shown up as Arvand Rood on the cover of Time Magazine.


Some name changes are indeed politically motivated and, as a result, not very long-lived. Volgograd in Russia became Tsaritsyn while the Tsars ruled supreme, then Stalingrad, and now back to Volgograd. Petrograd had a short life as Leningrad before it regained its old name. Similarly, anything with Pahlavi name in Iran became either Emam, Khomeini, or some other religious name, right after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Anwar Sadaat's assassin's name was given to a Tehran street, soon to be changed because of the recently improved relations with Egypt.


There are other problems as well. We insist that Abu Ali Sina was a magnificent symbol of our Iranian heritage. Yet, Arabs claim him as one of their own, since almost all of this devout Moslem's masterpieces were written in Arabic. The Turkmen and Uzbek also claim him as their Favorite Son.  Before these former Soviet Republics claimed independence, the Soviet Union celebrated Sina's Millennial, while the same celebrations were to be carried out in Hamedan at Sina's shrine built under the tutelage of the great Sina scholar, Dr. Saddighi, a member of Prime Minister Mosaddegh's cabinet.


Was Mowlana Jajal-ed-Din really a Rumi or was he a Balkhi, or both? Was he an Afghan, Persian, or a Turk? When the Afghani poets and mystics celebrate him, should they be paying homage to us Iranians or ask our permission to do so? Aren't Afghans Iranians, too? What about the Turks? Weren't the Seljuqs also Turks. Aren't the Ghashgha'is who speak Turkish real Iranians with lineages that go back to Cyrus and Darius?


Was Albert Einstein a credit to the German culture, or was he a product of the American academic society where he made his greatest contributions to science?  Igor Stravinsky lived and worked in France, not Russia, where he created his avant-garde musical masterpieces; he was a product of the French musical culture, not Russian, even though he was originally from Russia. His Le Sacre du Printemp was, as the name clearly indicates, a French creation, musically unrelated to anything Russian. What difference does it really make whether we regard Stravinsky as a Russian, French, or American, since he also lived and worked in America? 


Not all the products of any given ethnicity or culture turn out heroes and champions. Many great scientists and musical geniuses of the Classical and Romantic eras were of German or Austrian descent, and so was Adolph Hitler. And, for every Rustam in our Iranian folk tales there was a Zahhak or Aji Dahaka, as well. 


Is it required of the oil tankers or other ships that navigate the waters of the Persian Gulf to receive clearance from the "Persian" authorities, or at least for their crew to recite the declaration of human rights of Cyrus the Great? Can we Iranians take the name, Persian Gulf, to the supermarket and purchase groceries for it, or pawn it for cash credit?  Does the United States need approval from the Mexican government to drill oil wells offshore Texas or Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico just because it is called the Gulf of Mexico?


There is a lot more that I find quite problematic with the misuse of all this heritage stuff.


Some years ago, paleo-anthropologists uncovered early Homo sapience or possibly Neanderthal artifacts in the Zagros Mountains of Iran and Shanidar cave in Iraq. I remember the claim made in those days that those prehistoric humans were our oldest Iranians! Those artifacts, of course, date to at least fifty thousand years before there ever was an Iran. In the beautiful coffee-table pictorial book, "Iran, Elements of Destiny", there is a photograph of some animal fossils that were dug up in Iran. The caption states that this find "..expands the horizon of Iranian prehistory ten million years." Well, there are rock outcrops in Iran today that contain Devonian age fossils, dating back 450,000,000 years. Does this have anything to do with Iranian prehistory? What if the Ottoman Turks had conquered and held on to post-Safavid Iran? Would Turkey be then claiming the Neanderthal artifacts or the above-mentioned fossils as evidence of Turkish prehistory?


The Elamites who inhabited much of the land we now call Iran long before the Iranian tribes moved in to integrate with them, left behind a substantial treasury of artifacts, architecture and cuneiform writings. They were not Iranians as such, but shouldn't they also be part of our cultural heritage?


We know that sometime around four to five thousand years ago, proto- Iranian ancestral tribes began moving southward from the Siberian Steppes around the Aral Sea to inhabit what is today the Iranian plateau and northern India. Now, if we choose to trace our heritage to our distant Iranian or Aryan ancestors, we must set claim to the Steppes of Central Asia as well.


A children's cartoon-like story that would simplify this complex picture would unfold as follows:

Once upon a time there existed a vast landmass empty of human inhabitants. There existed, also, somewhere to the north of that land, a tribe of noble people who called themselves the Aryans. This noble tribe came down and occupied the land to the south and created for itself a magnificent culture. For a long time these Aryans remained racially, ethnically and culturally pure, even though they conquered other peoples, and were in turn conquered by others. But this cultural or racial purity was polluted by the invasion of the conquering barbarian Semites from the Arabian lands, who forced their language and religion upon the noble Aryans. For the past thirteen centuries the Iranian people have been trying to recover from the Arab influence and regain the splendor of their Aryan cultural heritage and glorious past.


Such na´ve symbolisms are not exclusive to the Nouveau Persians; In Western Europe and America there are individuals, groups, and even cults, who fantasize about a euphoric pre-Christian, Celtic pagan past, where brave, yet peaceful and noble, men and women venerated nature in all its glories and lived blissful lives. Needless to say, such world never existed.


Actual historical realities do not corroborate such narratives. Archaeological data and historical records do indicate that a tribe of Indo-European-speaking people (Indo-European refers to a linguistic grouping, and has no racial connotations) who lived around the Caspian and the Black Sea began to extend their domain around five or six thousand years ago. One large tribe, referred to as the Indo Aryans or Indo-Iranians, headed south along the eastern side of the Caspian Sea and slowly entered the Iranian Plateau. During their two thousand-year migratory path they encountered and mixed with various other migratory, as well as indigenous, tribes, from the Turko-Mongols of Asia to the Semites and Dravidians of the southern latitudes. So much for racial purity, as though it were of some anthropological value in the first place.


Regarding culture or habits of civilization and religious beliefs, Zoroastrianism was a variant or a branch of the older tribal Indo-Iranian religion or religions, that gradually took root in areas that already had a related "Iranian" type religion such as the sect represented by the Moghan (the Biblical Magi) or the sect of Mithra. Their god was called Bagh or Bogh, as in Baghdad, the same word that means god in Russian mythology.


In the Book of Genesis of the Torah we notice the pantheon of older Near Eastern gods having been reduced to the Eluhim (a plural for, of Eluh in Hebrew) and Yahweh, and finally only Yahweh. Similarly, the Zoroastrian religion's Ahura Mazda overarched all other Indo-Iranian deities and even reduced some of the older Hindu sacred figures to demons subjugated by the Iranian god, Ahura Mazda. These developments indicate the level of cultural intermixtures and exchanges between rival and competing tribes and varied traditions. For example, the very concept of monotheism and the Messianic prophesies as reflected in the Book of Isaiah in the Torah, were ideas adopted by the Judaic tribes from the Zoroastrian traditions sometime around two to four centuries BC. Cultures and traditions owe their strength and longevity to diversity, exchange, and adaptation, and certainly not through isolation and "purity". Purity in a racial sense results in a biological dead-end, as the science of genetics clearly indicates. Purity in a cultural sense is just as fruitless and futile.


The scientific and technological exchanges and economic interactions between various cultures in today's world have been responsible for the exponential growth and spread of all that we regard as modernity. We can recall the invasion and conquest of the Assyrian empire, and later Egypt, by the Iranian armies, Alexander of Macedon's conquest of the Achaemenian Iran, the Islamic conquest of the region, the Turko-Mongol dominance, the collapse of the Turkic Ottoman empire, and finally, the influence of the post-Renaissance European cultures, that have all helped shape the current civilizations of our world.


The philosophy and world view of the ancient Greece, as well as the science and mathematics of old India, were borrowed, interpreted, elaborated, and finally disseminated to Europe by many Iranian scholars who used the powerful vehicle of Arabic language they had adopted and improved upon.


Similarly, benefits of technological progress in the modern West, from advancements in public health, to the exploitation of natural resources, transportation, information technology, etc., have reached global dimensions. The wheel was invented some four thousand years ago by the peoples of the Siberian Steppes north of the Caspian Sea. The wheel led to the creation of chariots and wheeled wagons. The invention of the internal combustion engine in Western Europe a little over a hundred years ago put that same wheel concept into rapid motion, to gradually replace donkeys, horses and camels as modes of transportation. The fuel-burning engine technology led to the invention of airplanes and jet engines that carry us across the planet in hours, rather than weeks, months or years.


Are we supposed to pay homage to and acknowledge the Indo-European nomads of four thousand years ago for inventing the wheel, every time we board a plane or ride a car? Would it be an unforgivable insult to the Aryan name if the people of Syria or Iraq claimed that the chariot was an ancient Assyrian invention. Would it not be just as silly if the same Syrians or Iraqis were to claim some historical connection to the advent of jet travel today? Well, there are some who believe that the idea of television was an Iranian concept, as the famous legend of Jaam-e-Jam, attests. 


Second or third generation Americans take pride in the great wisdom and foresight of America's Founding Fathers, and refer to them as their forebears, even though for them there are no ancestral or even cultural connections to America's past. People, by nature, do take on the cultural traditions and assume the identity of their adopted homeland. What is implied in this is manifold: Among other things, it implies that, by taking pride in a heritage, they show an awareness of certain historical and cultural narratives that represent values worthy of praise and association.


We Iranians take great pride in calling ourselves the descendents of Cyrus and Darius, and take pride in the vast empire of the early Achaemenians. This, in spite the fact that the greatness we are so proud of lasted a relatively short time, historically speaking, before it fell into disarray over twenty-three centuries ago. We also disclaim or prefer to ignore the long periods of not so glorious history when the country was fragmented, kings were tyrants or inept, or long episodes of domination by non-Iranian tribes over the Iranian Plateau. While that is also understandable, such eclecticisms do raise major questions about the validity of certain claims to ancestral celebrity or continuity.


It is obvious that, even among the most secluded small tribes south of the Caspian Sea, or the remotest regions of the Zagros Range, there remain no such groups as thoroughbred Aryans. We are all a blend of various ethnic and "racial" backgrounds. This was also true as far back as we would like to explore. The same Cyrus who rightfully symbolizes Iran's ancient glory, owes his greatness to his attitude of tolerant pluralism and acceptance of alien peoples, cultures and belief systems. The Persian Empire included peoples of great racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity, very much like America today. Even twenty-six centuries ago the concept of racial "purity" was meaningless.


This brings me to the singular most troubling issue; namely, the misinterpretation of what constitutes a people's cultural heritage worthy of preservation and promotion.


Even in the present geographically smaller Iran, the population of nearly seventy million consists of a dozen or so peoples of varied ethnic and linguistic backgrounds; Mongols have mixed with the Semitic Tazi, and the Baluchi with the Turk, and all with the "Persian", each constituent, in turn, itself a composite of several other ethnic and cultural admixtures.


Iranians adopted the art of the Greeks and the Assyrians, and used foreign architects and craftsmen to build the enormous palaces at Shush and Apadana  (Persepolis).  The great kingdoms of the post-Alexander Seleucid and Ashkani eras were, as seen on their coinage, Philhelene, or the friends of the Greeks. The Greeks, Romans, and Iranians borrowed from each other whatever they found useful, from tools to agricultural practices and even folklore, vocabulary and religion. As an example, in Old Greek alphabet the name of Kurush was phonetically transliterated as Cyrus, which is an indication of how the name sounded in Old Persian as well; C being equivalent to K, the first vowel sounding as in the French language or German U Umlaut, the second vowel as a short U in English pronunciation, and the final S pronounced as sh. In other words, an old Greek would read pronounce Cyrus as Kurush. The Romans borrowed that alphabetic form and transposed it on Latin alphabet, pronouncing it as Seeroos. Iranians, then, borrowed it back from Latin and adopted this adulterated form of the original name that has lasted to this day. My own name, Kambiz, has gone through the exact same process; it has long lost its original "Persian" character. It may not be too unusual to find an Iranian family with two boys, one Sirus (Cyrus) and the other Kurush!


To the great empire of the Iranians, Arabs introduced Islam and the Arabic language. The Arab's physical domination didn't last very long, just as Alexander's empire had not, some centuries before that. But, the cultural influences of the Arab conquest were adopted, modified to taste, and blended with indigenous Iranian worldviews, and preserved to this day. The contributions that Iranian scholars made to the Arabic language and grammar, and to the world of the Middle Ages of Europe through the literary vehicle of that same Arabic language, cannot be over exaggerated.


What we regard as Iran's Islamic art, architecture, and science, have very little if anything to do with Islam's Arab origins, but are the products of the Islam that evolved and developed in the Iranian society. Similarly, the art and architecture of the Byzantium, the Vatican, or the European cathedrals, had nothing to do with the original roots of Christianity in the Holy Land. To consider Sufism, for example, as an Arab or even purely an Islamic concept is a mistake. That would be like considering the automobile as a byproduct of the wheeled chariot of the Plains Scythians. Sina's masha'i or Aristotelian peripatetic philosophy did not arise from Islamic or Arab cultural roots, but was rather an Iranian adaptation and elaboration of the Greek philosophical thought.


The Old Persian language of the Achaemenian period and the Middle Persian Pahlavi and Dari of the Sassanians, along with their styles of writing, did not last very long or leave significant literary records outside of certain liturgical texts and few manuscripts, such as Khodai Naamag, in mythology and poetry. Iranian science, philosophy, prose and poetry began to flourish very rapidly in the second and third centuries of the Islamic period. This was not only due to the inherent suitability of the Arabic language as a powerful vehicle of technical and philosophical thought, but also because of the rapid expansion of Islam from India to Spain that facilitated communications and cultural exchanges. The Arabic language during the Middle Ages was what English language is today in a global context.


Today, we Iranians can read and understand the language of Ferdowsi, Rudaki, Sana'i, Khayyam, Sa'adi, Hafez, etc., as though these great poets were our contemporaries. Few English-speaking people could go back more than three hundred years and understand the language of Chaucer. So, how has the infusion of Arabic into Persian hurt our Iranian literary heritage? Similarly, how has the infusion of Latin or German hurt the English language? To carry this a bit farther, would the European nations be culturally better off today had their ancient paganism, witchcraft, or Mithraism not been replaced by Christianity? What would have been the chances of Iran remaining a Zoroastrian culture against the pressures of the Christian Byzantium from the west, or the pagan Mongols from the east?


We have been witnessing New Year's Eve celebrations around the globe every year at this time, from Tokyo, Beijing and Bangkok to Moscow, Paris and Los Angeles. Dollar and Euro are accepted currencies in the streets and banks, from Nairobi to Tehran, and Irkutsk to Lima. Aren't the Japanese or the Chinese interested in or concerned about their respective cultural heritage when they openly celebrate the advent of January 1, each year? Don't they also celebrate, and with much more fanfare, their own national holidays or the arrival of their respective traditional New Year?


Those diehards who believe that referring to the Persian Gulf as Arabian Gulf in some British newspaper or in a tourist hotel advertisement is endangering Iran's historical grandeur or cultural integrity, show how little faith they have in the strength of that same grandeur and integrity. The Iranian national pride, cultural heritage and historical integrity will not suffer catastrophic harm and fade away into oblivion if I use the word Farsi interchangeably with Persian, if Mowlana Jalal-ed-Din is considered an Afghani in Afghanistan, or if the Saudis call a body of water Arabian, rather than Persian, Gulf.


Pride in a national identity or heritage is as instinctive a human emotion as the love for one's next of kin, desire for joy, and the fear of death. Rootedness, the privilege of being able to trace one's cultural heritage back several thousand years in the continuum of historical archives, is a significant Iranian trait. The giant tree of our Iranian heritage has roots that have drawn nourishment from a variety of soils, watered by the cultural streams flowing from diverse civilizations of the East, West, North and South. What or who we are is the end product, at this time and place, of all the cultural elements that have influenced and shaped our character and worldview, positive as well as negative. That's who we are.


We Iranians are part Turkmen, part Azeri, Baluch, Arab, Kurd, Bakhtiari, Ghashghai, Lor, Bakhtyari, Hindu, Gilaki, Uzbek, etc., etc, etc. Our cultural makeup consists of all the traditions that date back as far as our historical memories can be traced, forming our collective consciousness. We still carry in our personality profiles traces of our ancient nomadic ancestors of the great plains, we remember the exuberance of the grand empires of the Achaemenians and Sassanians, the grandeur of our Islamic civilization, the endurance and flexibility our forbears experienced under the Mongol influence, the resilience and resurgence of the glorious Safavid period that regrouped the fragments into another whole. We bear the influences of the fledgling empires of the West who ultimately failed to partition our society under the Qajars, and we are the products of the twentieth century modernization and industrialization and, yes, the Westernization, of the Pahlavi era. And, today, we are at the crossroads of history, caught between the forces of hegemonic power, globalization, modernization, religion and traditionalism. Somehow, through the synthesis of all that we face, we shall emerge again as an Iranian nation.


This Rock of Gibraltar has weathered many storms in the past. Hurricanes blow, waters rise, and waves crash with thunderous splash against the Rock. At the end, when the storm ends and the waters recede, the Rock still stands. The strength and integrity of the Rock, whether we call it Gibraltar or Jabal-ut-Tarreq, will not be diminished at all if someone uses spray-paint to write their own name on it like graffiti on a highway overpass.


I am not objecting to the creation of a Task Force or many such organizations for the propagation of knowledge of our history and culture among our fellow Iranians, especially the young, and particularly those today in diaspora. Promoting a sense of pride in being Iranians, even when being identified as such may not appear as politically correct, will prove ultimately productive and conducive to improved political, economic and social conditions for our nation.


But, why waste time and energy in directions that at the very best can only serve aesthetic concerns of dubious socio-economic value for our people? Why aren't our intellectuals more concerned with the title of "Axis of Evil", or "The Number-One Supporter of International Terrorism", labels that actually do a great deal of harm to our global image, economic prosperity, and our very national security? Why not create a Task Force to confront the ill wishers of our honor, national integrity and prosperity, with well orchestrated, purposeful and meaningful strategies.


This is the kind of Task Force we need. This is the kind of Task Force Iran and Iranians need.


By the way, how much money did you donate for the earthquake stricken Bam; or, did you come up with a variety of creative excuses for doing very little or nothing at all? Remember, true generosity and compassion is in giving when you can least afford to give.

... Payvand News - 1/6/04 ... --

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