What’s in a name: Iran vs. Persia
A question I regularly get asked is “What is the deal with Iran’s name? Why isn’t it called Persia anymore? Isn’t that so much more beautiful?” At this point people’s eyes gaze off into the middle distance as they imagine Persian cats, heroic battles of the Persian Empire, an ornate magic carpet, the poetry of Hafez and Rumi, ancient astrologers and the three wise men, scents of rosewater and saffron, Scheherazade telling the tales of 1001 Nights, a harem of dancing women with big, almond eyes and some whirling Sufis, drunk on wine. Probably.
These evocative and enchanting images can be contrasted with the association most people have of Iran which conjures up images of angry mobs, bearded mullahs, bombs and stern-faced black chador-clad women. Its not half as beautiful as what comes up when you think of Persia is it?
Language can act as a filter to shape the emotional responses we elicit from a situation. In this context, Iran and Persia are two different names for exactly the same people, from exactly the same place, with exactly the same culture and history but with vastly different connotations. So why are the associations from each name so different and which is the right one to use?
For the last 2600 years, up until the year 1935, Iran was known in the West as Persia, a name given to it by the ancient Greeks. This meant that people outside of the country called it Persia, a place they described as being inhabited by Persians, who spoke the Persian language. However those inside the country have always referred to it as Iran. They call themselves Iranian and they speak their native language, Farsi.
It is quite common for countries to be called different names in languages that are not their own. The Germans refer to their country as “Deutchland”, the Egyptians call their land as “Missr” and the Chinese refer to their country as Zhōngguó. But in 1935, the Iranian government took issue with this and decided that the country should be called Iran by everyone outside the country too. This was supposed to symbolise a new era in Iranian history and from that moment on, all foreign embassies were requested to call the country by the name Iranians had always called it – Iran.
THE IRANIAN AGE
The problem with this name change was that whilst for Iranians, Iran refers to a rich cultural tradition, for most non-Iranians, Iran has no cultural connotations or historical association at all. In the decades after the name change, Iran’s history became less and less associated with its grand Persian past and became easy to mix up with the newly created Arab countries such as Kuwait, Jordan or Iraq. This is why some Iranians continue to refer to the country as Persia when speaking to non-Iranians in order to try and link the country back to its ancient cultural heritage.
AN ISLAMIC IDENTITY
Iran muddled along without a clear identity in the West until the 1979 revolution. The Revolution led to the first significant association with the name “Iran” – an Islamic one. Since then Islam has been the main prism through which Iran is seen, discussed and depicted in the West. This is despite the fact that many of the country’s social customs, festivals and rituals are based on Zoroastrianism, the country’s ancient religion which pre-dates Islam by at least a thousand years. As Iran became more ‘Islamic’ in the eyes of the West, many Iranian cultural icons were re-appropriated to make them for more media friendly for marketing purposes. Poets such as Rumi and Hafiz, started to be advertised as Sufi poets, as if Sufi was a nationality. We all know that Shakespeare was British and Confucius was Chinese yet that cultural attribute is denied many famous Iranian poets, which adds to the isolation of Iran from its culture and its past.
So which one to use? Iranians always use the word “Iran” when talking to each other but will often use “Persia” to try and get non-Iranians to see the country beyond a solely Islamic identity. I have mixed views on this. On the one hand, I understand the importance of getting non-Iranians to connect with a cultural history that they might not otherwise associate with – that is after all why I called this project “Tales from the Persian Kitchen”. On the other hand, I think it is important to try and reclaim “Iranian” identity away from a purely Islamic one and to show the rich and diverse historical, cultural and social contribution that Iranians have given the world over several millennia. Just as we appreciate that the Roman empire came from Italy and give an added value to Italian history and culture because of that, hopefully the positive Persian contributions to the world can be more closely connected with the reality of Iran today too. I hope that the the portraits and stories I collected on my travels around Iran go some small way towards contributing to this shift in perception. There is more to Iran then the 1979 Islamic revolution. And I aint just talking about pomegranates…