In inviting you to “learn Farsi, the Persian language of Iran!”, the online learning platform mangolanguages commits a party foul as common and condoned as having one too many. One might even argue that calling Persian “Farsi” makes the party more fun. After all, that’s what everyone else is doing: easypersian, learnpersianonline, the Collins English Dictionary (British Entry), adult Iranian immigrants to the U.S. conversing in English, and even English textbooks being opened for the first time by 8-year olds in Iran; all would have you believing that Persian and Farsi are interchangeable terms for the same thing. Whether or not the general English-speaking public sanctions the word “Farsi” or drinking that one last Coors, trust me when I say you are always better off having your shoulder squeezed by someone sage enough to stop you (“Actually, man, it’s Persian”) and emotionally invested enough to help you break the habit.
Thank them for their intervention: the gesture of feedback alone is a more reliable guidepost than modern custom and historical research put together. Because while it’s important to know which terms are currently correct, it is perhaps more sustainable to develop a sense of why people care for the terms that they do. Decoding this emotional bias will pay more dividends than logic, a collection of cold hard facts, or (when it comes to “Farsi”) current data on what most people happen to say.
Note that if speaking English, saying “Farsi” is akin to saying “I speak Italiano!” instead of “I speak Italian”– it’s an endonym, i.e. the word for the language that speakers of that language actually use. If you’re speaking Persian, calling it “Farsi” is standard, but apparently not without baggage. Just ask Roozbeh Ghahreman of the Iranian Deaf studies foundation, whose essay “Tips for Using Idioms about Languages used by the Deaf in Iran” begins as a modest exposé on language terminology, snags on political friction, and derails into exclamation points [edit 7/2018: the referenced website has since been taken down]. Since our goal is to get a better look at the mechanism behind one word’s power to upset people, we’re fortunate that Ghahreman’s account of the “Farsi” trend, at some points, reads something like a diary entry. The driving forces behind these emotional blips lie along the path that the “Farsi” trend has taken through history. We’ll set out on that path where Ghahreman does: the moment that Iran became Iran.
The price of Persia
If like me you’ve worked for a private catholic university that hasn’t updated its library decor in 89 years, you may have also come across a map indicating present-day Iran was once called Persia. Via diplomatic order from the Persian King Reza Shah in 1934, Persia was to thenceforward be called to Iran, “the land of the Aryans” (Kuntzel, 29), and so it’s been since. Ghahreman’s first complaint is that this name change was a huge mistake, and it’s no surprise; we see from its opening chapter that the name-change story is an ideological minefield.
Sources indicate that the king made this decision amidst an overhaul of domestic and foreign policy in the period leading up to WWII, when a fever to colonize or be colonized was burning through Europe. While countries across the world were making a point of breaching foreign territories, Persian religious leaders sought to strategically modernize their public image against the influx of internationalist ideologies like Communism and the Baha’i faith. Meanwhile, non-clerics (particularly the King) sought to modernize and revive Persian nationalism, which involved drastic measures to secularize public education and spaces, even banning women from wearing chador (Kuntzel, 28-29). Also in order was a sharp pivot from their history of prohibitively costly dealings with Russia and Britain (2, pp30-31) (3). Indeed, Persia had been misplacing its trust: sources describe Russia’s politics there in aggressive* terms, recalling their successful “commercial penetration” and “encroachment” in Persian affairs, e.g. the issuing of exacting ultimatums and loans that were loaded to foster economic dependence (Clark). According to Iranian historian Rouholla K. Ramazani, these interventions managed to “destroy the foundations of the [Persian] Constitutional government twice in about four years” (Brysac).
For its part, Britain had been meddling since well before 1872, the year Baron Paul Julius von Reuter almost obtained a monopoly of Iranian resources–and their revenue–in a deal with the King Naser al-Din Shah of Iran (of no relation to Reza Shah or his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who would assume rule in the following decade). Comparably generous concessions to Britain from Persia would follow in 1890 and 1901. Though public outcry led to the cancellation of the most outrageous dealings, Britain succeeded overall in expanding its stake in the processing, sale, and profits of Persian tobacco and oil (Abrahamian, 39-41). Naser al-Din Shah had reportedly envisioned that the British would return the 1872 favor by defending an incipient Persian parliament from Russian sabotage (Brysac). The British Foreign Secretary judged that Britain had gotten the far better end of the deal, calling it:
“…the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has probably ever been dreamt of, much less accomplished, in history” (Behravesh, 389).
Persian leaders of the time were not passive victims of abuse, as scholars take care to point out; high-society complicity in bad deals factored into Persia’s economic exploitation. Still, despite any and all forms of domestic corruption, Persian leaders and citizens alike were fixated on Russian/British meddling as the catalyst of that corruption, and placed hope in the idea of a new commercial ally (Behravesh, 389). Germany was to fulfill this role, and prove influential in the Shah’s ultimate decision to change Persia’s name. Persia and Germany’s ideological alliance follows an arc not unlike a love story’s: longing for a new beginning, a long-distance courtship, and the consummation of a union whose terms, in retrospect, weren’t that sustainable.
Persia and Germany: religion
The Germans had been grooming a relationship with Persia and the greater Muslim community since 1898. That year, Emperor Wilhelm II concluded his oriental tour with the declaration, “the 300 million Muslims may rest assured that the German Emperor will for all time be your friend.” To assure continued Muslim cooperation, the Emperor counted on “continually circulating colored postcards” sent to influential Muslim leaders all over the world. To these leaders Germany iterated a shared history of adversarial relations with Russia, Britain, and the US, while preparing to coax Muslim-ally affinities into a holy war that would purportedly work to everyone in their circle’s advantage (Kuntzel, 12-14).
While Germany’s interest in Persia around the time of WWI was principally intellectual and commercial, in the wake of WWII they found motives to draw more aggressively on the decades of Muslim loyalty they had obtained. Specifically, they saw an opportunity to slip the Führer’s rhetoric to Iran’s Shi’a majority, whose psychology and myths would prove key liabilities.
Critics of the Shi’as might say they have an indignant state of mind; others might ask if you can honestly blame them. Arabic for “party” or “faction,” Shi’a emerged in the 600s as a campaign for Mohammad’s explicitly chosen successor, Ali; Ali was reportedly conned out of this role and later assassinated (Shiekh, 8). One generation later, Shi’a’s renewed hopes for an elected caliph, in the form of the prophet’s grandson Hussain, were as short-lived as Hussain himself, dying with him (and his whole family) in an attack led by the son of a Sunni caliph, who “gloated over Hussain’s severed head”(Moghadam, pp 128-131). At this point — according to Sheikh’s 1981 book Islam, A Cultural Orientation — Shi’a’s “swallowed the injury” out of fears of a civil war, thus ingesting a recipe for centuries of resentment. Outnumbered by a worldwide Sunni majority of about 85% who have persecuted or “at best tolerated” their presence ever since, the Shi’a have come to know marginalization as a condition of their collective experience (Shiekh, 8, Ibid.).
Add to this frustration a distinctly Shi’a belief : that God in the year 874 took their next-in-line leader (the twelfth Imam) into protective custody, in anticipation of a comeback. “Shi’as believe that the Hidden Imam is alive and will eventually return…‘’the one guided by God’’ who will usher in the End of Days ‘’to fill the world with justice and equity.'” Until then, God has entrusted his will for the world into the hands of Shi’a believers, who never strayed from his will as communicated by the prophet. As a result, Shi’a narratives of resistance and hope have had a formative influence on the way some of them read the multivalent concept of jihad, banking it on the return of the twelfth Imam — and maybe even just deserts for Sunnis (Moghadam, pp 128-131).
In a lecture available through YouTube, Contemporary Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush decries a token victimhood that has turned Iranian religious spaces, in his words, “so culty (فرقه) that it’s painful.” He warns that a self-righteous mentality has translated into vindictive fantasy, as some Shi’a have come to imagine that Sunnis would be excluded from salvation when the Imam arrives, and that such a damnation would be a carriage of justice. Not only do such ironies run counter to the spirit of Islam, he says; they threaten the integrity of Shi’a schools of thought, communities, and by extension, Iranian society.
Soroush’s concerns seem applicable to this 1930’s period, in which Germany judged that the Shi’a fixation on suffering and resistance was ripe for exploitation. Perhaps it was Hitler’s constructed image as a powerful protector of Islam against “the West,” or perhaps their indefinite wait for the next holy figure made it easier for believers to perceive mythical vibrations in the happenings of the modern world. Whatever the reason, Germany’s historical support of Islam — combined with Hitler’s grandeur, and propaganda from Germany emphasizing Muhammad’s struggles with Jewish peoples recorded in the Koran — inspired many Persian clerics in the 30’s to openly admire Hitler, to the point of considering him a “a secret convert to Islam,” the “liberator” of the Muslim world, and even the successor of the prophet Mohammed (Kuntzel, 33-36).
And yet, it takes two fallibilities to hatch a misguided joint venture. The formation of a Persian-German alliance may not have been feasible had German ideologues not been so smitten with their own projections of Persia’s oriental aesthetic, and stoked by fantasies of Persia as an “‘unspoiled,’ pre-modern domain” (Kuntzel, 33-36). This provided a convenient visual metaphor for the new world they hoped to engineer under the Third Reich, but (as we will soon discuss) would greatly trouble their dealings with real-life Persian people.
In the end, Germany did launch a propoganda campaign they called “‘made in Germany’ jihad,” portraying Germany and Persia’s common political allies as insidious threats to Muslim principles, thus moving Persia one step closer to re-inventing itself under a new name, and one stop further down the line of a regrettable train of thought (Ibid., 11).
Persia and Germany: Race
Perhaps it goes without saying that the Germans were also motivated by racial politics. If the concept of race is antiquated and vague enough for anthropological circles to have already shunned its use, the word “Aryan” is ambiguous to the point of being reckless–and yet, the concept of Aryanhood would also bring Persia and Germany together, and to Ghahreman’s chagrin, eventually make an “Iran” out of Persia.
The idea of an Aryan race has breathed life into fantastical racism since 1786, when a philologist’s research pointed to shared linguistic roots among Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Persian languages. The findings implied that the speakers of these disparate languages were once one people occupying central Asia, which in turn meant that contemporary Asian and Europeans were more alike than previously thought. This idea fell into the hands of an author who postulated that the word aria (a geographic region containing Iran) was somehow related to the German word ehre (Honor), to suggest that Aryan people were of a distinguished moral stock. Enter explorers, authors, and ideologues who ran wild with the definition of “Aryan” and the increasingly mythical status it conferred. As these men traveled, pondered, and dabbled in pseudo-science, they spurred each other on with anecdotes of light complexions and bright eyes they had spotted in Turkey and Kashmir (northern India), which seemed to fit with popular imagination of what an Aryan was supposed to look like, and helped reinforce the ballooning assumption that a master race had existed, been diluted and dispersed, and should be restored to power (Zia-Ebrahimi, 448-452).
While Germans of the time sought to construct the conditions of Aryanhood around all-that-was-not-Jewish, Persian appreciated Aryanhood as the inheritance of their ancient civilization, whose legacy of tolerance stood at odds with German prerogatives. Iran’s land was known as aria at the apogee of Persia’s greatness, the Achaemenid Empire, and leaders of the time had radically progressive decrees carved into a stone scroll that the United Nations recognizes as history’s first charter of human rights (3). Sure, Reza Shah’s son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi declared himself ariyamehr (the light of the Aryans) when he became King in 1941, and lauded Hitler’s leadership ( , 446), but he harbored no ill will for Jewish peoples; in fact, Persia was a haven for Jews fleeing Germany in the years leading up to WWII. Overall, Germans suspected from the outset that the overt racism they were trying to export was going to be a difficult sell: “the broad [Persian] masses lack a feeling for the race idea,” they griped (Kuntzel, 35). Nonetheless, both Germany and Persia were committed to brokering a narrative in which their peoples were inherently superior. There were just a few conundrums to sort through first.
Soon debate raged through German administrative offices, as influential thinkers sweated over the question of whether or not Persian Jews were “racially Persian” enough to be exempt from being racially Jewish, which would protect them from being deported to their deaths (Kuntzel, 37). In another unexpected-yet-maybe-also-predictable twist, Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenburg challenged Persia’s claim to Aryanhood, accusing them in his 1930 book The Myth of the Twentieth Century of losing connection to the cultural grandeur they had epitomized in the prehistoric period (the Shah’s new nationalism campaign did want to resurrect “glorifying links with Persia’s pre-Islamic empires” of the past).
Through these and other clashes, including unprovoked attacks on Iranian students in Germany, Persia and Germany maintained a sort of ideological alliance. “At the urging of the ambassador in Berlin” in 1934, Reza Shah Pahlavi issued the decree for Persia to be henceforth known and referred to as Iran, “the land of the Aryans” (Kuntzel, 29). Bearing a new name that faced inward toward (parts of) the country’s glorious history and onward with renewed focus on its triumphant future, Iran may have felt it was finally turning the page on a thwarted past.
The themes that gave momentum to the new nationalism of the time (religion and race) were precarious because they were subjective in nature; as they gained momentum in the national discourse, they garnered greater potential to divide Iranians, challenging their relationships to religion and country. At this point, we can make reliable sense of Ghahreman’s reaction to name changes: dropping the name “Persia” was tantamount to renouncing a well-established legacy as of one of history’s greatest civilizations, whose positive products (per his article: “poetry, literature, food, caviar, cats, illuminated manuscripts, rugs and pistachios”) were never debated, in favor of (at best) obscurity, or (at worst) embarrassing moments in history.
Ghahreman makes clear which of these two he would have preferred. Iran and Iraq (which came into political existence only 2 years prior to the name change) only differ by one letter, he sighs; this causes foreigners two conflate the two, and even leads confused Americans to believe that the US invaded Iran, not Iraq, in 2003. Sources confirm at least that when Westerners heard talk of “Iran” in the forties and fifties, few if any realized its connection to Persia, and figured it was “…perhaps one of the new countries like Iraq and Jordan carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, or a country in Africa or Southeast Asia that had just been granted independence…” (3).
We are without a wider poll to assess how much the average American citizen’s knowledge base has improved over the past 70 years, but Ghahreman’s anecdote is telling of a social reality that doesn’t need numbers to back it up: worse than being regarded for what you used to be, or a bunch of things you would rather forget, is to not be regarded at all. Persia has claimed monumental achievements in every discipline, and Ghahreman’s tone reflects the sentiment that any name that leaves these achievements unclaimed, or overlooked by even one person, is a travesty. He asserts that the King himself grew to regret it:
“In fact, Reza Pahlavi…who was the first to order the use of the [country name] Iran instead of Persia [sic] in English conversation and written correspondence, according to historical accounts regretted his action but out of hubris (!) would not retract his decree.”در واقع ، رضا پهلوی – پدر محمد رضا پهلوی – که برای اولین بار دستور کاربرد واژه ایران به جای واژهپرشین در مکاتبات و گفتگوها به زبان انگلیسی را داده بود ، بنا به مدارک و اسناد تاریخی بعدها از کار غلط خودش ، خیلی پشیمان گردید اما حاضر نشد که غرور شاهانه (!) خود را زیر پا بگذارد و چنین دستور اشتباه گونه را لغو نماید
Not Farsi, please.
We now arrive at Ghahreman’s principal beef, the term “Farsi” being used in place of “Persian.”
In English, this is a trend that arose around the late 20th century at a time that native-English speaking presence in Iran would reached a scale “for which there was no precedent” (Spooner). Many of these transplants came from non-academic disciplines who may not have made the connection between the country they were in (Iran) and well-known Persia. Zia-Ebrahimi describes these exchanges with Western culture as “traumatic” (446), presumably due to encroachments and cultural influences that were destabilizing enough to wedge social divides in which radicalism took root, helping to precipitate the 1979 Islamic Revolution (while the Revolution is far from the root cause of US-Iranian tensions, it is one of the most oft-cited explanations for it).
In addition to that, these cross-cultural encounters brought together people who Ghahreman groups into 4 categories of patient zeroes responsible for the “Farsi” contagion:
- Iran’s political leaders following the 1979 revolution who called it “Farsi” instead of “Persian” on English-language news broadcasts (possibly in response to a growing international familiarity with this term);
- News correspondents traveling to Iran, who during their short visit with country officials never heard the word “Persian,” adopted the word the leaders were using, and with their subsequent publications propagated its use; (Spooner suggests that some Anglophone tourists and transplant workers also felt that, relative to Persian, Farsi sounded more “patently modern, perhaps even postmodern,” while retaining an attractive ring of exoticism) (93);
- Iranian immigrants to western countries who, unaware of how to say “Farsi” in the host language, defaulted to writing “Farsi” in the blanks of visa and travel documents asking them their native language, influencing the anglophones and francophones who processed their paperwork;
- Second-generation Iranians, whose parents emigrated to the US and around the house continued to call the familial language “Farsi.” These parents, hoping to solidify their childrens’ ties to home, enrolled them in language and culture schools, where Persian is spoken and for that reason is always referred to as “Farsi.”
Recall on that note that Ghahreman disapproves of saying “Farsi” in Persian, too. He feels the word snubs Iranian minorities in the same way the name “Iran” snubs Persia’s legacy and accomplishments:
“…the word Farsi has been imposed on Iranians, and this imposition will have a negative impact on the formation of their identities. Farsi is not the native language of certain Iranian peoples, such as Kurds, Turks, Lors, Baluchis, and Turkomen. On that note, I’ve heard more than once from my Western friends that with the word “Farsi” we are [committing linguistic and even racial discrimination against these peoples]. Meanwhile, all languages currently spoken in Iran by its diverse peoples are included in the term “Persian,” and by that name are granted equal linguistic and racial privilege.”
واژه فارسی به آنها تحمیل شده است و این تحمیل در بازشکل گیری هویت ایرانیان تاثیری منفی خواهد گذاشت. چون مردمان اقوام مختلف ایرانی همچون کردی ، ترکی ، لری ، بلوچی و ترکمنی ، زبان فارسی را به عنوان زبان مادری شان نمی دانند. اینجانب بارها از زبان دوستان غربی شنیدم که می گویند: شما با کاربرد واژه ” فارسی ” دارید تمام سایر زبانهای موجود در کشورتان ” ایران ” مانند: کردی ، ترکی و غیره را نادیده می گیرید و نوعی سیستم تبعیض زبانی و حتی تبعیض نژادی را برپا می کنید. در حالیکه تمام زبانهای مورد استفاده توسط اقوام گوناگون ایرانی زیر نام واژه ” پرشین ” جمع می شوند و از برابری حقوق زبانی و نژادی برخوردار می شوند
In all this talk of identity, Ghahreman doesn’t address how the word “Farsi” actually hails from the Arab conquest of Persia. Farsi derives from Parsi, of a region once called Pars, surrounding the ruins of Persepolis on the southwest corner of the above map. If the region is today known as Fars, it’s because the Arabs have no “P” in their alphabet, and in taking over Persia Arabisized its name into one they could pronounce (Spooner). (Ghahreman uses not Farsi, nor Parsi, but the adjective پرشین (pronounced “pershian”). پرشین is the product of Parsi being passed through Greek (Persis), then Latin (Persia), then English (Persian) language pronunciations, only to be transcribed back into Persian letters and virtually never used again outside of Ghahreman’s article and the name of a theatre in Karaj).
More embittering to Ghahreman than the Arab invasion is the way “Farsi” marginalizes roughly half of his countrymen who don’t originate from Fars and/or don’t speak “Farsi” as their first language. As it happens, there is a historically ethnic bent to modern Iranian nationalism: past government initiatives have disenfranchised minority activism, and all but standardized reverence for particular language and cultural forms over others (Elling, 2012). Iran’s Islamic leaders may denounce its territories and ethnic diversity as so many arbitrary borders marring a more deeply heterogeneous Muslim world; but some actions of the nation-state, including its name, have led many to accuse the regime of discrimination. Deference to Islamic universals has yet to solve this problem. As articulated by Saleh in Ethnic Identity and the State in Iran, this point is
“…an important dimension of Iranian politics that is often neglected in the international focus on Iran as a nuclear threat to threat to ‘the West’—i.e. the Islamic Republic as a threat to itself.” (Elling and Saleh, 2016).”
With a culture going back 2,000+ years, and an ethnic diversity that’s both unknown to most laymen in the West and painted with a clumsy brush of domestic rhetoric, Persians suffer from two vulnerabilities that help us to empathize with Ghahreman’s grief.
First, they may struggle to reach their full political potential as a collective, or struggle on a personal level with how to define themselves as citizens. Second, they are uniquely exposed to the indignity of being overlooked, or looked at in a reductive way. Two studies from an inventory of research on microaggressions (gestures that negate the identity or experiences of marginalized groups) support this, in their suggestion that a strong sense of cultural identity makes microaggressions more perceptible, while a weak sense of ethnic identity worsens their psychological impact. Could these processes explain the frustration of an Iranian who relates to the progressive legacy of Persia, yet whose land and language now bear names subsuming half of the country’s linguistic and ethnic makeup? Either way, the facts objectively lay grounds for feeling that “Farsi” is inherently non-Persian, when you consider that Persia epitomized diversity and inclusion 2,500 years before it was trendy.
Like works of contemporary art, the names for places, peoples, and languages conflate form and function into messages we don’t realize we’re getting, leaving observers with the icky sensation of being moved against their will. You might say that Ghahreman’s arguments against “Farsi” lack scholarly rigor, as he anecdotally recounts friends’ claims that “Farsi” conjures vulgar unmentionables in French — without saying which — or when in passing he seems to equate the prominence of Persian literature with that of its nuts or its cats. But his visceral delivery ultimately illustrates the capacity of one oft-used term to pique tensions between nation and self.
Would-be Persian speakers: if the peer pressure to say “Farsi” proves too great, consider yourself warned of its potential side effects.
19. Spooner, Brian, 2011: “Persian, Farsi, Dari, Tajiki: Language Names and Language Policies“.
21. Added 2/2019: Abrahamian, Ervand, 2018: A History of Modern Iran (Revised and Updated). Cambridge University Press.