Farsi, is this a New Language?

by Amir Rostam Beglie Beigie, January 2002.

The IranWeb page of Payvand links to new Iranian web sites which is worth checking from time to time. On its current listing there is a new site called Persian Gulf Will Always Remain Persian Gulf that caught my eye. For Iranians to actually unite around an issue of common interest is such a wonder that it had to be worth checking out. Some of the Iranian-Americans seem to have woken up to the fact that outside America the term ‘Persian Gulf’ is falling into misuse or abuse. The site is in its infancy so don’t expect too much. As usual we Iranians are waking up too late to what has been happening because of a lack of trust in each other or excess pride. No wonder the leaders of the constitutional movement a century ago kept using the term ‘the awakening of Iranians’ in their literature and when naming societies for promotion of democracy or political parties.

Witnessing the success of Arabs in using economic pressure to change the name of the Persian Gulf to an incorrect name, Iranians in the West, particularly those in America, are gradually realizing how important it is to preserve the Gulf’s original and historical name, “Persian Gulf”.

There shouldn’t be much in a name, but that would be ignoring the reality of Arab Nationalism, which borders on hegemony. It is in the spirit of disputing such tribalism that this article was written. Those who accuse Iranians of the same tribalism are unaware of historical facts about Persian Gulf and the current situation of this region. Whether you agree with the policies of the Islamic Republic or not, the truth is that its leadership, in trying to accommodate our Persian Gulf neighbors, and as a gesture of reconciliation or as part of their dream of leading the Muslim world (call it whatever), initially suggested using alternative names for the Persian Gulf. But even they were taken back by the intransigent and inflexible attitude of the Arab world. Arabs rejected any alternatives to the incorrect term (which in fact historically was the name of the Red Sea).

The significant point which unfortunately seems very difficult to get through to the Iranian Diaspora, specially those residing in the United States – by far the biggest and potentially most influential group of Iranian √©migr√© community – is that by keeping the term ‘Persian’, we help preserve a ‘CONTINUITY’ which is an important cultural necessity. Iranian cultural history can be summarized as a continuing struggle in cycles of destruction and rebirth.

My points are very simple:

1) to keep a culture, one needs to preserve its traditions and maintain continuity.
2) There is a wealth of western material about Iran from ancient times to the 20th century about Persia and all things Persian.

In order to succeed in preserving our culture, it would be a folly to deliberately break the link to the huge material written about us as ‘Persians.’ Once the link is broken, it is very hard to re-establish it.

There is a misconception among some Iranians that ‘Persia’ is an ancient culture and has nothing to do with ‘Iran’ the modern country! See letters in The Iranian and other Iranian publications for Persia versus Iran and Persian versus Farsi debates.
Those who say that using Persian is supremacist or that Persian is a racial term are also showing their lack of understanding of history or have other motives. They tend to be Islamists who erroneously equate Persia with Zoroastrianism. One can only think they see it as some sort of threat. The argument is simply absurd, taken literally, how can Persia be more supremacist than Iran the land of Aryans? (Follow the hyperlink to an article on the this subject published by the School of Oriental and African Studies explaining the German influence on the name change.)

Before there are massive objections or a barrage of e-mails to the writer, no one is suggesting that we should change the name of the country back to Persia. The purpose of this article is simply to demonstrate a historical fact. Yes indeed our country has always been called Iran in ‘Persian’ language. The origins of the western word ‘Persia’ itself is probably Greek based on a region of Iran today called ‘Fars’ in Arabic & modern Persian, ‘Persis’ in Greek and ‘Pars’ in Persian.

To trace the origins of the word, one needs to only look at the wealth of western literature about Persia. One can go back as far as the ancient writings (a minute part of the collection mainly by the Greeks) and then after Islam, by referring to Marco Polo’s travel accounts or the 17th century’s travelers such as Tavernier or later on Chardin and many others ( beyond the scope of this writing to explore ). It is simply wrong to suggest that there are racial connotations in using the term Persia. ‘Persia’ is simply a western name for our country.

By ignoring such important historical facts and by further breaking the link to our past and all things clearly defined as ‘Persian’ in western terminology, including Persian Gulf, we should have been prepared for the consequences. Thus, for instance, we have no one to blame but ourselves when Iranian artifacts are grouped under the ‘Islamic’ section in the western museums.

One such instance of ’tisheh beh risheh khod zadan’ as the Persian saying goes or self-destruction, is the introduction of the term ‘Farsi’ into English language. The problem is that it is now practically impossible to get organizations like Microsoft or VOA to change. Once a convention or standard is adopted it is very hard to correct. We cannot preserve the best in our culture unless we are prepared to take care of them.

The point is well made by Professor Ehsan Yarshater in an extract of his article “FARSI” Recently Appeared Language!. I quote: ‘If only they ‘– Iranians in America – ‘knew by using the word “Farsi”; which has no background in English language and its relationship to the identity of Iranian Civilization and Culture that is reflected in phrases such as ” Persian Literature” and “Persian art” and “Persian Poetry”, is not clear at all, they would find themselves damaging irreparably the fame and cultural status of Iran”.

The English name for our language is Persian. Yet because of our blind patriotism or lack of unity, we have confused the people in the West by imposing the word Farsi which in reality is not even Persian but the Arabic name for our language. If we want to insist on educating westerners then we should seek a change to the proper Persian name for our language which is Parsi. As others have pointed out when conversing in English we do not ask someone if they speak “Deutsch” when we are enquiring whether they speak German.

If the reader is not convinced of the case made, then consider what is happening in Europe where Arab countries’ economical pressure has been very successful. The Tanker industry has completely switched, the media use ‘The Gulf’ refusing completely to correct their deliberate error and the term Persian Gulf is slipping out of general use. A friend who lives in the UK recently sent me an e-mail saying that he recently purchased a globe from W H Smith, which is a large chain of stationary stores, for his son’s school project, had Arabian Gulf instead of Persian Gulf. We were aware that the English unlike the Americans (you have to give credit where it’s due) or the United Nations had not resisted the name change in their commercial circles but this was the first time we observed a cartographic source using Arabian Gulf.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, the British have always used any chance to divide and rule. One such tactic had been to encourage the Arab countries of the Gulf to take up the call of Arab Nationalism and support the term Arabian Gulf. But we Iranians do not help our cause either. As someone who has spent most of his adult life in the West, I believe we Iranians have succeeded in confusing everyone about our identity and culture, ourselves included. We have diluted our identity by overeducating foreigners. We are so eager to defend the Iranian image outside of Iran that we have created confusion about the name of our country, the name of our people, the name of our seas and the name of our language. Typical questions asked by western friends are: Is the country Iran or Persia? Are we Persians or Iranians? Farsi or Persian?

When in the middle of the 20th century our forefathers asked westerners to change the name of our country from Persian to Iran, they were so eager to escape the colonial powers’ influence and establish the Iranians’ rights over their own affairs that they did not think about the consequences. One consequence is that because of the phonetic inadequacies of the English Alphabet Iran and Iraq sounds the same. This may seem insignificant. However it has made it very easy for average westerner who is very provincial and has very little knowledge outside his small sphere to consider Iran as part of the Arab world. By calling the country Iran, we broke the link between the country name and Persian Gulf. The Brits cleverly refused to accept Iranian Gulf and it provided them with the perfect divide and rule tactic between the Arabs and us.

After the 1979 revolution, in their eagerness to take the lead in the Muslim world, the Islamic Republic forgot the very basic historical fact that Iranians chose the Shiite sect of Islam on purpose; mainly as a means to protect their cultural identity from Arab domination. Indeed by pretending to be more Arab than the Arabs, the Islamic government did not care enough to defend the rights of Iranians at the time. It was only during and after Iran/Iraq war that the Islamic Republic was rudely awakened when its friends in the Arab world switched their support to their Arab brother. But, by then it was too late.

The Arab countries around the Persian Gulf intensified their efforts by putting severe economic pressure on western companies. You only need to look at the language used in the Oil industry and its derivative or ancillary industries such as Shipping and Reporting Services. Most of the international oil companies and tanker brokers had to use the term Arabian Gulf and would not dare use the historical name Persian Gulf (see the relevant Internet sites for shipbrokers). Same applies to trade journals in the oil industry (look at the Internet sites for McGraw Hill’s Platts or Petroleum Argus or Reuters). Olympic Airlines and British Airways are openly using the incorrect name in thier literature. The use of this term is spilling into less specialist areas and general use. Actions by Iranians in exile and the Islamic Republic representatives have now caused some commercial organizations to drop the term imposed by Arabian countries, inventing the term ‘Middle East Gulf!’

It is unlikely that we Iranians agree on this issue, as we are often incapable of reaching consensus either organizing or lobbying effectively. Yet every one of us is proud of our history and is aware of our constant struggle against the Arab influence. Please beware that our blind patriotism on one side and our lack of knowledge about historical facts on the other, are directly leading to a dilution of our identity. In order to keep the links to our past and heritage, it does not do us any harm to leave the English name for our language as ‘Persian’ and its equivalent in German, French and other European languages.

Amir Rostam Beglie Beigie

Bio: I am a shipping industry professional living and working in Houston, Texas. My work is 70% travel so it doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else.