It's an interesting question if you think about it and the answer isn't as obvious as you think. What has kept us and makes us Iranian? Is it because of our language? Well, not exactly, dialects of Farsi are spoken in Tajikstan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. You don't even have to go that far, Farsi, or Persian as it is known in the West, is the native language of more than half of Iran's population, with many different dialects spoken. Azari, Kurdish, Arabic and a number of other languages are spoken in Iran as well. Therefore, you can't just say that the Persian language makes us distinct, because half of Iran speaks a language other than Persian.
Is it our religion? I would argue no again. Although most Iranians are of the Shia Islam background, not all Iranians are Muslims. Besides, Shia Islam is far from unique to Iranians. There are about 120-150 million Shia Muslims in the Islamic World; Iranians only make up a small portion of that number.
Is it because we all look the same? Far from it, Iranians come from all shades of color. Our culture? You're getting warmer.
Throughout the centuries, Iran has been continuously invaded and cultures have been meshed together. The Arab invasion posed the most serious challenge to the Iranian identity. How did the Iranians of the 7th century keep their identity and character during the Arab conquests that Arabized the Middle East and North Africa? Contrary to common belief, Bernard Lewis argued that this was not a result of the strength of the Persian language or their dominant religion of the time. (article: "Persian Nevertheless," 10.30.03) Many Iranians didn't speak Persian and nevertheless, the language was ultimately highly influenced by Arabic. Additionally, Iranians were either forced to or willingly embraced a form of the conquerors religion (initially Sunni Islam, but in 1500s Safavid Shah Ismail forced Shia Islam as the state religion and made conversion compulsory). The question remains, how did they maintain their distinct identity while absorbing certain elements of the occupier?
Lewis argued that while Egypt, Iraq, and other contemporary Arab countries shed their ancient identities and culture and became Arabized, Iranians, after three centuries of Arab occupation, resisted this transition because of their sense of history. Iranians always knew they belonged to a distinct history, part of something big - a glorious past. As romanticized as it may sound, they always knew they were different because of their monumental past. My point is Iranian history is very important to our character and in preserving our Iranian identity. It would assist the generation who grew up away from the homeland in maintaining or discovering their roots by being better versed in their own history.
As students at UC Berkeley, Hoda Fahimi and I have been teaching a two-unit course on Iran's 20th century political history with an emphasis on the last twenty-five years on behalf of our student group ISAA. We have addressed historic events like the coup of 1953, the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War and social and cultural issues as well. As Iranians in the 21st century, this contemporary history is what we experienced. What happened within those borders was for us to experience alone. Chinese lives didn't get turned upside down by the Iranian Revolution. We are not nationalists, but Iranians who are addressing the history that makes us distinct and has affected our lives so drastically, instead of ignoring it because it was too traumatic.
After visiting Iran, some Iranians have come back stating that such events are not important to the youth in Iran, which constitutes more than half of the population, and that they never talk about such issues. First and foremost, Iranians who haven't been back to the homeland in years tend to fall in what I call the "Iran generalizing trap." Many go back and create or attend to an environment that suits their interests, and then come back to the states and say all of Iran is this or that. For example, a party-goer Iranian-American visits only northern Tehran and comes back talking about how all of Iran is materialistic, superficial, and a party zone. Or better yet, a devout Iranian Muslim only goes to Qom and Mashhad and then talks about how all of Iran is so deeply religious and conservative. Accordingly, from recent travelers who just returned from the homeland, Iran is: a big prostitution ring, party, highly religious, radically political, vehemently apathetic, boring, exciting, a whorehouse, conservative, liberal, western, traditional, etc. Like all countries, I'm sure all of these elements exist in Iran.
Back to the topic at hand, I assume much, not most, not all, but much of the Iranian youth are not concerned enough with Iran's contemporary history to enroll in such a class. Unfortunately, this is completely understandable given that they witnessed the war and therefore know about why it started and what episodes occurred during that painful war, and have had themes from the revolution glorified and shoved down their throats as propaganda. Therefore, they probably wouldn't be too excited about enrolling in class on contemporary Iranian history.
We, on the other hand, a generation who grew up in the States but were deeply affected one way or another by such historic events, are for the most part, oblivious of our own contemporary history. Interestingly enough, a couple of recent Iranian immigrants have taken our class because they never bothered learning for themselves while in Iran, or simply didn't trust the curriculum. Either way, they're not to blame, after all, how much U.S. history do we Iranian-Americans know? I admittedly will state that I don't know much.
Iranian history is a major component to our identity, especially contemporary history, because it addresses those episodes that impacted our own lives. After all, most of us are here in the United States because of the revolution and the war. For these reasons, we have continuously taught a class that brings these recent Iranian issues to the forefront to a generation searching to discover themselves. We hope that through obtaining some awareness on their own history, it will assist them in their discovery. A bonus to the class is the fact that in the fall of 2003, a little more than half of the class was American. You'd be surprised about how much their perception of Iran has changed in a more positive direction (source: papers they wrote on the topic of how their perceptions of Iran have changed since they took the course).
As I near the end of my college career, I would like to take this time to encourage Iranian-Americans, and Iranians who never cared much for Iranian history, to pay due attention to such matters. I myself have much homework left to do. Additionally, I would like to thank all those students who took us, inexperienced student instructors, and our class seriously. I would also like to thank all the members of the community who would audit the class and offer their experienced wisdom and powerful stories. Lastly, thank you Hoda for being my partner in teaching this past semester. It has been my honor to work with you and to represent our homeland, Iran, together.
About the author:
Pouya Alimagham is a senior at UC Berkeley studying Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. He is the president of the Iranian Student Alliance in America (ISAA).
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