Friday, January 14, 2005

What is in a name?

When I first started this blog not too long ago, many of the comments I received on my Farsi blog were in English and from people who encouraged me to use "Persian" rather than Farsi to refer to the language. The contestations over the name of the language in English are not unrelated to contestations over national identity and territory. Interestingly, many Iranians in Iran may not care whether you call them "Persian" or "Iranian," but it seems that the issue of naming has caused many debates among diasporic Iranians. Here is an interesting article that Roozbeh Shirazi has written for the Iranian. He doesn't talk about Riza Shah's change of the name (in English) from "Persia" to Iran, which took place in mid 1930s as a result of state's racial and national territorial agendas. Ironically, Riza Shah's Foreign Ministry argued that "Persia" had negative connotations in international arena, as the word evoked the "ignorance and weakness" of old Iran. "Iran," they argued, symbolized progress among other "civilized" nations (and they argued that Iran was the birthplace of Aryans). Ironically, this change of name to Iran was accompanied with a systematic "Persianization" and suppression of ethnic minorities by Riza Shah.
I think it is interesting the way names change their signification. It seems that the same kind of arguments are being made today, except that it is "Persia" and not "Iran" that holds the privileged position in this naming contest. And this, of course, has to do with the baggage that comes with "Iran"; from "axis of evil" to the "hostage crisis." After all, the violence that many Iranians experienced in 1980s made Persia a safer name than Iran (or Eye-ran!). Persia seems to take us to the times immemorial... to the glory of pre-Islamic Iran. In this journey back in time, however, big chunks of history seem to be falling into the swamps of amnesia...


The sidebar image is taken from Mahmoud Pakzad's "Old Tehran", Did Publishers, 1994. Thanks to Jahanshah Javid (www.iranian.com) for sharing it.

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