Why Some Iranians Call Themselves ‘Persians’: UC Irvine’s Rahimieh Offers Clues

By Peyman Pejman

What is Iranian ‘culture,’ and how has it evolved as people’s lives, views, and perceptions of their homeland have changed over the years? Those and many other questions came up at a February 9 lecture by Nasrin Rahimieh, Howard Baskerville Professor in Humanities and Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California in Irvine.

Titled “Contested Terrain of Iranian Culture,” the lecture was based on Prof. Rahimieh’s 2015 book, “Iranian Culture: Representation and Identity.” Kayhan London caught up with Prof. Rahimieh after the talk.

What was the essence of your lecture?

[My] recent book, “Iranian Culture”, was inspired by my work at the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine. I found that many Iranian-Americans refer to themselves as “Persian,” [something] that I had not found across the spectrum before. It was also interesting that there was a certain distancing from contemporary or modern Iran.

I also found that for many of my compatriots, culture was something more removed from daily politics or other forms of cultural expression. In other words, culture was something that belonged more to the past.

I was puzzled by this, because I was trying to find out what it was that we were trying to avoid by moving to a more distant past. In our field of comparative literature in cultural studies, we always found culture to be fluid and dynamic. I wanted to understand how we had these modes of cultural expression. So my book is about looking at works of literature, cinema, and photography.

Do Iranian-Americans identify their culture in terms of the distant past – i.e. when they were in Iran – or have they readjusted their cultural definition to include more of their present life?

Both. I am not claiming that all Iranian-Americans are doing this. I am saying that there is a tendency to not just necessarily look at the time before they left Iran, but also to more ancient Iranian history. By referring to themselves as ‘Persian,’ they sometimes express the desire to look at the segment of history – the ancient empires, for instance – that makes them proud. Why is it, for example, that they identify more readily with Cyrus the Great than with figures in contemporary culture?

Do you think the majority identify themselves with ancient times?

Yes, I think they identify more readily with ancient culture. I think it’s true to say that Iranians who grew up with the idea of ancient Iran as the source of our civilization are more likely to consider themselves the inheritors of that legacy.

Have you noticed a timeframe in which a person might refer to himself or herself more as ‘Persian’ rather than ‘Iranian’?

Yes. It is very much generational and depends on when a person left Iran. Those who have migrated more recently are not necessarily as preoccupied with identifying themselves with ancient Iran. They may have difficulties, and they might try to challenge Iranian culture as it is seen, but they have lived a different reality than those who came at the time of the Revolution or just before. Also, we are a product of what we grew up with. We attempt to recreate a modern Iran that could trace its own legacy back to Cyrus the Great.

So is the Revolution the demarcation point?

It is, in some ways. I would say yes.

If a person in their 20’s and a person in their 70’s left Iran at the same time, would their reaction in terms of cultural definition change or be the same?

Those who have grown up in Iran in more recent times have had to grapple with an education system that imposes itself in a certain way. I cannot prove it empirically, but I think the younger generation would see themselves differently, even today. The older generation will insist more on the older concept of Iran. The younger generation would have no difficulty seeing themselves as ‘Iranians.’

How does belonging to a certain political and economic class influence culture identification?

A lot! Politics has a major role, as Iran has gone from seeing itself as a modernized and secularized society to an Islamic Republic. Economics does as well. There is a certain concept that Iran as a modern nation was class-based, which in some ways left out the representation of those who did not fit the model of the progressive elite.

Does that cultural definition vary based on how people now fare since leaving Iran?

It really does. When one looks at the Iranian-American Cultural Association and other foundations and associations, they have been created by people who have been successful in the States, [who] are in a position to mobilize and talk about Iranian identity, and who want to preserve their culture.

For lack of a better term, would a ‘poor’ Iranian or a ‘rich’ Iranian identify themselves differently as ‘Iranian’ or ‘Persian’?

I think so. I think class has very much to do with influencing how we see ourselves as part of history. That goes back to the history of modern Iran. I would not say that it is a rigid distinction, but those Iranians who come from a lower class, or who have struggled economically, have less trouble identifying themselves as “Iranian,” whereas the more affluent they are, the more they tend to want to see themselves as part of this longer history that goes back to ancient times.

What about whether the person has kept more, or less, in touch with family and friends back in Iran? Does that influence cultural identification?

Definitely. Those who travel back to Iran more frequently have a much more palpable notion of Iranian culture. One of the phenomena that I observe in my book is that how we represent Iran depends on what experiences we have of Iran. The more opportunities we have to deal with the complexities and conflicts in Iranian culture, the less inclined we are to want to fit it into narrow definitions.

Does where you live now influence your cultural definition as ‘Iranian’ or ‘Persian’ – be it California or the Bible Belt?

I cannot say definitively, because I am not a sociologist. But look at the phenomenon we call ‘Irangeles’ – the climate, the sense of possibilities and openness for the Iranian community. I assume people living in some other areas might find it more difficult to talk about contemporary Iran or identify themselves with it. If you live in a more traditionalist area, you might identify yourself with a more traditional cultural definition of Iran.

Is there a difference in between Iranian-Americans and Canadian-Americans?

There are differences, but it’s a different legacy for Iranian-Americans because of what happened at the time of the Revolution with the hostage crisis. Many Iranians who were living here or studying here at the time found themselves the target of a certain kind of discrimination and hate. So referring to themselves as ‘Persian’ was a kind of refuge.

There are more differences and nuances among Iranian-Canadians. They don’t necessarily all call themselves ‘Persians.’ They are perhaps from more recent times, so their sense of separation from Iran is not as set.