Split Persianality

National Geographic has a feature this month on the continuing pull exerted on Iranian culture by the Persian Empire of 2500 years ago. Because it’s National Geographic, the pictures are wonderful. And although (or perhaps because) I know almost nothing about the ancient Persian Empire or modern Iranian culture, I found the article fascinating as well.

I had never heard, for example, of the “Cyrus Cylinder,”

a decree that has been described as the first charter of human rights—predating the Magna Carta by nearly two millennia. It can be read as a call for religious and ethnic freedom; it banned slavery and oppression of any kind, the taking of property by force or without compensation; and it gave member states the right to subject themselves to Cyrus’s crown, or not. “I never resolve on war to reign.”

Nor was I aware of the Islamic revolutionaries’ open hostility toward this past, or of the fact that modern Iranians still resent the Arab influence that is now well into its second millennium.

[A] friend I made here, an English teacher named Ali, spoke of how the loss of the empire still weighed on the national consciousness. “Before they came, we were a great and civilized power,” he said, as we drove to his home on the outskirts of Shiraz, dodging motorcycles and tailgaters. Echoing commonly stated (though disputed) lore, he added: “They burned our books and raped our women, and we couldn’t speak Farsi in public for 300 years, or they took out our tongues.”

There is some modern history here as well, including a brief discussion of the 1953 CIA-backed overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister. All in all, I’m unqualified to say whether any of it is true, but it did stretch me, which is almost always a good thing. Maybe one of my Persian friends will comment with more authority.

8 Responses to “Split Persianality”

  1. Sepehr Haddad Says:

    I’ve been meaning to write on the reasonable minds blog since its inception; however, I had never found quite a good opportunity to comment until now. Reading Mark’s summary of the National Geographic article on the Persian Empire and his offer for one of his Persian friends to comment, even though I’m not sure with the authority he may be seeking, I am glad to do so.
    Almost every Iranian friend and family of mine has either read this article or has been informed by another friend or family member that Iran had been featured in this issue. Many of my friends here in the DC area have already given me their copies to keep, especially that they know I have two young sons 12 and 9 that have heard so much about Iran, but have never visited, and even so, consider themselves Iranian-America, and besides, love the insert map which shows the glorious Persian Empire which extended from the edges of Europe to China.

    These days, its very unfortunate that Iran has become synonymous with “evil” or “terrorism” partly because of President Bush”s ill-conceived State of the Union Address a few years back where he lumped Iran with Iraq and North Korea in an “Axis of Evil”, and partly because of the misconceptions in the news media over what statements have emanated from the Iranian leadership these days. In any case, I am personally grateful for this article since many educated friends of mine here in the States have mentioned to me, such as Mark has also alluded to in his article, that there are many things about Iran and the Persian Empire that was unknown to the general public. Most importantly, these unknown facts are of a positive nature which in many ways counter the general misconception about Iranians and their culture. Perhaps if some in the current administration would actually read such articles, they may devise more appropriate ways of approaching what they consider their “arch-enemy”. Iran is the only country in the Middle East (except for Israel) where the people love the US, while the government doesn’t. You can’t say that about any of the other countries, especially the Arab countries which are supposedly allies of the U.S. Also, we tend to forget that none of the 9/11 hijackers were from Iran, but were from Saudi Arabia, and Yemen both allies of the US. So the number one mistake was to label Iran part of the axis of evil, especially when the Iranians were so instrumental in assisting the US in Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban, and also in Iraq, facts that somehow don’t make it to the front pages of any newspaper these days.

    No wonder with all the negative bias against Iran in the news these days, that a classmate of my son at Chevy Chase Elementary school called him a “terrorist” and another during an argument told him to “go back to Iran”. I read the National Geographic article for both my sons with pride, so that they understand their heritage and try to be proud of it, rather than ashamed. What disappoints me is that after the debacle of the war in Iraq, there is talk of maybe attacking Iran. Hopefully, the more people read and learn about a country before deciding to attack it, the less they will be willing to commit to acting upon it.

  2. Timothy Peach Says:


    Welcome to “Reasonable Minds”, which is often anything but!

    For what it’s worth, in my limited experience, the Iranians I’ve met in this country — varies how they referred to themselves, I’ve heard both Iranian and Persian — have been rather accomplished people (one was an ex-violinist from the Iranian Symphony Orchestra who was driving a town car for a living… amazing guy). They all loved and were proud of their homeland and heritage, but they also loved the US. It certainly wasn’t something they thought of as a “choice” they needed to make.

    I’m not surprised your kids have had some rough times…. my cousin was engaged to a Moroccan man at the time of 9/11 and the stuff he was subjected to was ugly and stupid. We have no shortage of stupid bigots here. Having said that, I know of many Americans who were very sensitive to such concerns and went out of their way to stand up for beleaguered Middle Easterners of all origins during those ugliest of days.

    It’s amazing how categorical we can be about things when we’re talking about great masses of people from a “safe” distance, but the dynamic is usually different on a personal level. When you’re actually chatting with someone and hearing their very personal story, the grand dichotomies seem to melt away and the things we all have in common come to the forefront.

    You might be surprised how many Americans take a “love the people, hate the disease” approach to our dilemma with Iran. I think folks here generally understand the difference between the Iranian people and its current government. What we’re at a loss to figure out is how to tap into that receptivity to the West and to the US.

    I would be really curious to hear from a Iranian in America what the best way would be to cultivate an alliance with the Iranian people while staring down an Iranian government that hates personal liberty and wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.


  3. Sepehr Haddad Says:

    Hi Tim, thank you for replying to my comments and also for the warm welcome to reasonable minds. You make some great points which I agree with, especially about the greatness of the US and the American people in general, which I find to be one of, if not, the kindest people of any nation. During my years as a student at UC Davis, there were numerous times that if it wasn’t for the thoughfulness and kindness of my fellow students and their families, I would have totally been lost.

    In response to your question as to what is the best way to cultivate an alliance with the Iranian people, I would say by not attacking. If anything, an attack by either the US or Israel on Iran would undue the goodwill that has been building over the past 30 years between the peoples of the US and Iran, due to Iranians deep sense of nationalism. You know how it is, if you have a quarrel with a family member and some outsider gets involved, you and the family member unite to get rid of the outsider, etc. Same thing with the Iranian people and the government. An attack will only increase support for the government.

    I think if the situation mellows a bit, there can be a transformation a la China in Iran, where you could some years down the road have an Iran that is still an “Islamic Republic” just as China is still “Communist” even though its really not anymore. Shanghai now rivals cities such as New York and fancy European cities in terms of style and wealth, and I never thought I would see so many BMW’s and Mercedes Benz’s in a communist country owned by ordinary citizens.

    Since the Iranian people such have goodwill towards the US, any gesture of friendship or openness towards Iran in general may pave the way for opening up of diplomatic relations which would lessen Iran’s sense of isolationism, and self-defensiveness, and therefore, in my humble opinion, allow the regime to feel more secure in that “regime change” is not in the cards. Once they feel that all this rhetoric the government uses will also die down.

    You know, you mention “wiping Israel off the map”, and I read the direct quote that Ahmadinejad made in Persian, which wasn’t as has been translated and repeated time and again in the press. I’m not trying to defend him, since he has said some very inflammatory things, no doubt. Just trying to state how the statements were written in the original Persian and then translated. When asked what he meant by those statements, he said, he was comparing the Israeli regime (not the people) to the South African regime during the apartheid system, or the Soviet Regime (USSR), and that now, these regimes don’t exist anymore, but the physical countries and peoples of South Africa and Russia still exist. I guess he was also talking about “regime change” rather than destroying a whole nation. The good thing is, he isn’t really running things anyway, and is more of a figurehead, since the Supreme leader which seems to be more pragmatic is the real power behind the scenes.

    In any case, my hope, even though, I may be naive, is that there be peace between all, especially between Iran and the US since I love both countries so much, and especially a general peace in the Middle East, with Arabs and Israelis living side by side as neighbours in peace.


  4. Timothy Peach Says:


    Thanks for that thoughtful response, and here’s to a peaceful Middle East — the Impossible Dream. I’m a fan of Don Quixote myself, and it’s important to believe in ideal outcomes, their unlikelihood notwithstanding.

    No rational person wants to see an attack on Iran (or any nation). The real dilemma is if it becomes clear that nuclear weaponry is proximately within the current regime’s grasp. Then Israel’s hand is forced. I think it is too much to ask for complete restraint when an adversary obtains the means to execute on threats made publicly and serially — metaphorically or otherwise.

    But let’s hope for a more sublime outcome.

    Visited your website, and listened to some “samples”. Sublime stuff, would go nicely with “sublime outcomes”.

    Hope you’re enjoying the lazy days of late August.


  5. Sepehr Haddad Says:

    Thanks again Tim for your comments. Also, glad you had a chance to listen to some of the music. It has been a pleasure reading your posts. This reasonable minds is a fun place to hang out (:


  6. Mark Esswein Says:


    I heartily second Tim’s welcome to Reasonable Minds.

    Do you have any idea what the state of amateur radio is in Iran these days? I surfed the web a bit and the most recent activity I could find was in the late 90’s. Is it still legal? I personally don’t recall ever hear an Iranian station.

    Ham radio, quaint as it seems is, still a great bridger of cultural divides. There is nothing quite like the magic of calling CQ and having someone on the other side of the planet answer. Also there is an unwritten rule about discussing politics on air, so the discussions tend toward shared interests be they technical or cultural.


  7. Sepehr Haddad Says:

    Hi Mark, thank you also for the warm welcome. You know its funny you ask, back in the 70’s when there wasn’t any internet and phone calls back to Iran were like 4 dollars a minute, i did look into it. I think its out of fashion now, since blogging has taken its place, with Iran being one of the top blogging countries in the world, if you can believe that. However, your questions did bring back memories of my old shortwave Grundig and trying to use copper wire on a bunch of trees as an antenna.


  8. Mark Esswein Says:

    Hey! Wires in trees make great antennas – without, I wouldn’t have a station ;-)

    From my limited research, it looks as if amateur radio ceased with the Islamic Revolution and was revived sometime in the 90’s (with only a handful of operators.) As I said earlier, it doesn’t look like much has happened since.

    Blogging is great, but I still argue that the personal, one-on-one (and often random) contact that characterizes amateur radio is a unique opportunity for cross-cultural contact.



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