Gina Nahai: On being Persian

Why do they call themselves Persian? 

The first time someone asked me this was during a Harvest Day at my kids’ school. I had just been introduced to a blond, green-eyed American Jewish woman. I didn’t understand her question. 

“Why do who call themselves Persian?”

“The Iranians in L.A. When you ask them where they’re from, they don’t say they’re Iranian.”

“I just told you I’m Iranian.” 

“Yeah, but the others say they’re Persian.” 

“Persian and Iranian are the same thing.” 

“Yeah, but I think they say Persian because they don’t want people to know they’re Iranian.”

“Why not?” 

“Well … you know.” 

Oh. That

It’s been nearly 10 years, and still I feel the sting of that woman’s condescension every time the subject comes up. I’ve been asked the question a few more times since then, except now I know it’s not really a question at all; it’s just someone’s way of telling me what she thinks of us — Iranians, Persians, whatever. 

“I think they prefer ‘Persian’ because it predates the Islamic Republic,” I say. 

I’ve never had occasion to investigate the matter directly, because I don’t know any “Persians,” just “Iranians,” but I can see why some people, here in the West, may not wish to be confused, in the eyes of people they’ve just met and who are (because it’s human, no point pretending otherwise) bound to judge them by traits such as race, ethnicity and the kind of car they drive with a bunch of terror-sponsoring, Holocaust-denying, suck the country dry and wreak havoc around the world so you can make your own nukes, men in bushy beards and dirty turbans in Iran. Still, I don’t think that’s the real motivation behind choosing “Persian” over “Iranian.” 

I think “Persian” is more about what one is than about what one isn’t. 

To be Persian is to descend from the oldest civilization known to man — one that predates Egypt’s by 500 years, India’s by 1,000 years, China’s by 2,000 years. It’s to trace one’s lineage back to a culture that gave the world poetry and art, rug weaving and wine, algebra and tulips. It’s to be made of the same stock as people who invented money and anesthesia, windmills and ice cream, trigonometry and peaches, the use of alcohol in medicine. And the guitar. 

To be Persian is to be as much, probably more, a victim of the mullahs’ crimes, to be as raped and robbed and exploited by their so-called faith, as anyone else, anywhere in the world. 

Most of all, to be Persian, I believe, is to be tolerant of diversity and accepting of change, able to embrace religious and ethnic differences, to accept opposing points of view and to allow dissent. It’s to carry the legacy of the first declaration of human rights in history, issued nearly 3,000 years ago and, in many parts of the world today, still ahead of its time. 

In 600 B.C.E., the Persian king Cyrus the Great, created the largest empire the world had yet known. His rule extended from the ancient Near East to most of Asia and the Caucasus, from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indus River in the east. He governed through a centralized administration that was founded on the principle of respecting the customs and religions of its subjects. The Jewish Bible refers to him as Mashiah — anointed one. A replica of his official declaration of human rights, carved onto a clay cylinder and buried in the foundations of a Babylonian temple, is on display at the United Nations headquarters in New York. 

The original Cyrus Cylinder, discovered in 1879 by a British expedition and usually on permanent display at the British Museum, is currently on tour in the United States for the first time. This week, it went on display at the Getty Villa in Malibu, where it can be seen through Dec. 2. The cylinder, a 10-by-4-inch artifact made of baked clay, is inscribed on its surface in cuneiform script by the “Persian” emperor, Cyrus the Great. It states that all people captured and enslaved by the rulers before him should be allowed to return to their homelands and worship in whatever shrine, and to whichever god, they please. For the Jews who had been enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar and brought into Babylonian exile, this meant freedom to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. That story is told in the Book of Ezra (1-4:5). Just as significantly, for those — Jewish or other — who chose to stay in Persia, it meant they could now live and die with the same rights as any subject of the empire.

“All this,” I want to tell the politely insulting men and women who imply, with their question, that Iranians in the West are ashamed of their origins, “is as much a part of our history as the little bit that is more commonly known in our times.” The mullahs, after all, have been in power for three-and-a-half decades; what is that, really, in the context of 3,000 years? 

In the end, though, it’s not about what we call ourselves, but what we, an ancient people who endured and outlasted every natural or man-made calamity many times over, have given to the world over the millennia. It’s about what we, faithful and upstanding immigrants, grateful for this nation’s generosity and loyal to its laws and customs, are able, and eager, to give back to this country now. 

To recognize that there’s strength in diversity was the great wisdom of the empire that Cyrus built. Two thousand years later, his doctrine would be part of the education of Thomas Jefferson, who adopted its principles, along with the other Founding Fathers of the United States. At that time, the cylinder was still buried in the earth where it would remain for another century, but the ideas it embodies, the values it represents, prevailed over time and circumstance, and will continue to prevail still — beyond all the mullahs and hezbollahs and other tragic little blips in history.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

A lesson From Cyrus

Kids, young adults and ideologues of different stripes often see the world as a straight-line progression — the world gradually, but inevitably, becomes more enlightened. Martin Luther King Jr. summarized the view, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Many of us, as we get older and witness the recycling of issues and debates, are less sanguine about the course of history.

I am by nature an optimist and generally subscribe to the notion that as times change, as the benefits of tolerance and equality and liberty become obvious, more and more folks will become advocates and adherents of policies that promote those virtues.

That was what made reading a Wall Street Journal review last week so fascinating. In a museum review, Richard Holledge describes a bit of antiquity that went on display at the Smithsonian last month — the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2,600-year-old football-sized barrel of clay with cuneiform writing on it. The writing proclaimed the intention of Cyrus, the king of Persia, to allow freedom to the diverse peoples he ruled over after conquering Babylon. His realm stretched from Turkey to India.

The cylinder proclaims:

I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus — to the fury of the lord of the gods — had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk the great lord. … I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries … every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds. … I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.

Given the vastness of Cyrus’ empire, it is instructive that he decided that allowing each group to worship their own gods and to return to the lands from which they came were the best policies.

His actions inspired Jews, whom he allowed to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon, to describe him in the Book of Isaiah as “the Lord’s anointed.” Thomas Jefferson, by virtue of an ancient history of King Cyrus (Xenophon’s Cyropedia), viewed him an inspiration for the Declaration of Independence.

The Cylinder was only rediscovered in 1879, yet for over two millennia its author inspired those who sought to follow in his path.

Clearly the “arc of history” is exceptionally long — especially for the very region ruled by Cyrus, which today rejects most of the notions that prevailed over two millennia ago. When it will bend toward justice again is anyone’s guess.

The Cylinder is a reminder that history and its course are fickle, unpredictable and don’t inevitably follow a straight line upward. Progress isn’t assured, but rather is the result of leadership, determination and the willingness to protect and defend its fruits.

The Cyrus Cylinder will be coming to Los Angeles, to the Getty Villa, later this year (Oct. 2- Dec. 2). This op-ed was adapted from the blog The Wide Angle,