Why Care about Persians and Arabs?

The Persian Empire, 500 B.C.

As a Caucasian, average American student living the first 22 years of my life in the United States, it would be unusual for me to know a great deal about Persians, Arabs, or any other ethnicity that thrives outside our borders. No doubt the school board never planned to keep me sheltered from the Middle East, but a shortage of cultural understanding may have led to some of our greatest wrong-turns as the global police. An “over there” mentality has been born of a lack of exposure to their ways, acceptance of hyperbole in the mass media;  and the apathetic response of an educated public.

That is why I chose to learn more about these differences by sitting down for an hour with my new colleague, Shirin; an Iranian-American who is my mother’s age. Her two children are about my age; one teaches dance in Chicago while the other works making documentaries in LA. While speaking to her I felt as though I was speaking with my dear Aunt Gloria. There is a warmth about her personality and comfort in the way she speaks. She emits a glow which makes her a delight to work with in school.

I asked her first. “I know Persians are not the same as Arabs, but what can you tell me about the differences?” It was obvious that she had explained this many times before. Her jokes about misspellings of Persian writing were perfectly rehearsed! She made a point to mention that “60% of university students in Iran are women.” Women’s rights seem to be more universal, although I still wouldn’t consider them to be as liberal as Western countries. Also, as the center of Persian history and modern culture, Iran maintains the greatest number of Persian speakers and writers. I had no idea before today that Persian was its own language separate from Arabic. Spoken Persian is also called Farsi, not Arabic. The writing looks similar, but it is as different as English and French.

Persia, a suitable name which I think has less stigma attached to it than greater “Iran”, has over 2500 years of recorded history, my colleague said. Second to the Chinese in length of history. They first lost ground to Arabic invaders around 600 AD and hundreds of battles since then have left the modern borders we adhere to today. Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Iran have the largest populations of Persian people to date.

So, again, why should we draw a line between these two groups of people? Because there is a line and calling them all “Arabs”, which is a common slip-up by North Americans, causes them strong resentment and even anger. They have different languages, different past, different food, and different religions. Although we disagree with their politics, it’s much more useful to learn from their ancient culture than to dig up reasons for fighting with them.