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Breaking the Stereotypes of Persia and Iran

by RICK ZAND

12 Mar 2010 22:08Comments
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[ comment ] The West has constructed the dual identities of Persia and Iran as alter egos, the former the ancient civilization, the latter the modern one. Persia is rendered now as a precious artifact, and Iran as a terrorist state. It has been difficult for many in the West to see beyond these identities perpetrated by politicians, the news media, and popular culture. Over the past eight months, however, the Green Movement has done much to dismantle this façade. Protests, demonstrations, and the price paid by many Iranians in liberty and life has broken through the cultural barrier and allowed, or perhaps forced, Westerners to peer past the romanticized Persia and the vilified Iran to see the humanity of the country's people. If the movement perseveres, it may provide the opportunity for Iran to redefine itself to the West.

In her essay "How Can One Be Persian?", Persepolis author and illustrator Marjane Satrapi explores the linguistic symbolism of two terms that serve conflicting representations: Persia, the Greek-named, romanticized land of Persis and its people; and Iran, the native name of the same land, which has assumed new meaning in contemporary society. The two names define very different identities according to the Western perspective. The study of Persia as an Oriental culture is drawn from aesthetics and the exotic, as Satrapi describes in her essay: "By way of flattery, we are told that we are Persians and that Persia was a great empire.... The Persians are in Montesquieu's writings, in Delacroix's paintings, and they smoke opium with Victor Hugo."

Iran, by contrast, has become demonized by a Western media and polity through the use of epithets similar to those employed against Japan during World War II. George W. Bush's declaration that Iran was part of an "axis of evil" specifically evoked Ronald Reagan's reference to the Soviet Union as "the evil empire." Such language is essential to creating what scholars of propaganda refer to as the "mask of the enemy." Meanwhile, the West ignored friendly gestures during Iran's reform movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when then-president Khatami reached out to the United States, only to be snubbed. However, the spontaneous protests following the June election and the solidarity subsequently demonstrated by the Green Movement have not been so easily ignored by the Western press. The world has awakened to the Iran that always existed beneath the Western-manufactured veneer.

The relations between the United States and Iran continually reaffirm the Western construct of Iran as the aggressive manifestation of Persia, its evil twin. If Persia represents the feminine -- rosewater and wine, the poetry of Hafez and Rumi, the stories of Scheherazade -- then Iran represents the masculine -- rebellion and revolution, threat and terror; in short, those things which must be aggressively subdued. These contrasting images are reflected in the respective responses: historically, the West subjugated Persia through economic and cultural exploitation, while today the West deals with Iran in terms of threats, confrontation, and violence. Obama claims that if Iran unclenches its fist, an open hand is prepared to receive it, but this statement falsely presupposes that the United States has had an open hand all along, and not a clenched fist of its own.

Satrapi notes the art-and-opium-induced exoticism of the Persian Orient, portrayed through the eyes of the West, particularly the French during the eras of Enlightenment and Romanticism. Persia was studied, interpreted, and allegorized by European artists in order to construct an image of a culture that required domination by an imperialist, Western power. Montesquieu's Letters depicted Oriental impressions of Persian society. Delacroix, similarly, created impressions of Persia by freely imitating miniatures, so that the art of the East became Oriental art as reflected back by the West. European annexation of Oriental culture continued as curators confiscated artifacts from Persia. The Golden Age of Persian art is most fully represented in the British Museum in London, not in the historical art institutions of Tehran.

Satrapi demonstrates how the portrayal of Persian culture exemplifies the ways in which Western power creates Eastern identity. Persia is an easily available metaphor, sustaining persistent depictions of the Orient through literature, art, theory, and travel guides. As Edward Said described in his seminal work Orientalism, "The Orient...existed as a set of values attached, not to its modern realities, but to a series of valorized contacts it had had with a distant European past." Such is the construct of Persia that it exists not even as a representation of its own past, but as a European cultural artifact.

A central aspect of the dynamic is the valuation of Western logic over what is perceived as the Middle East's incapacity for self-government. As Said describes, "On the one hand, there are Westerners, and on the other there are Arab-Orientals [in Satrapi's case, Persians]; the former are...rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion; the latter are none of these things." Both Satrapi and Said explain how the West's perception is of a Persia that never really existed. Perceived romantically, as an objet d'art, it could not be expected to function as an autonomous, self-governing society, despite the fact that it was self-governed for thousands of years, and produced such powerful leaders as Xerxes, Cyrus the Great, and Darius, and later Nadir Shah and the Safavids.

Persia is the archetype of that fascinating dream world of the Arabian Nights, harems, opium dens, and barbarian comportment. Satrapi asks, "Where is it, this legendary East of our fantasies and dreams and hatreds?" The construct produced by the West has come to symbolize that which is inferior to Western thought and governance, regardless of the fact that Persia and the East do "exist" on their own terms. The differing perspectives ultimately provide a false demarcation of East and West, itself a historical construct. The East simply represents what the West does not; but really, the divide is manufactured by cultural differences.

In other words, the line drawn between the East and West is imaginary, but it serves to distinguish divergent approaches to governance, culture, and life as a whole. Satrapi offers, "Maybe the term 'Eastern countries' has more to do with a religious definition--maybe what we really mean is that they're Muslim countries.... This notion would take us from Bosnia to Somalia, and from Morocco all the way to Indonesia--and such countries are to be found on three continents: Europe, Africa and Asia."

Islam is at the heart of what Iran has come to represent to the Western political system and media, not only as a state under theocratic rule, which it undeniably is, but culturally and socially as well.

Satrapi points out the key here: it isn't only the reduction of all Middle Eastern countries into a "single abstract concept," but what that concept represents. "What is a Muslim? Unfortunately, the West equates him or her with Bin Laden, that is, with the most radical of all wretched ideas.... The West turns the Muslim into an enemy...and Iran is a Muslim country."

Iran thus represents the alternative metaphor for this same geographic region, the flipside of the Persian coin. Iran is not a place of genies and Delacroix. Iran has long been the target of the Western news media, of xenophobic paranoia and terrorist labels. Satrapi states, "As for the Iranians, they take American hostages, they detonate bombs, and they're pissed at the West. They were discovered after the 1979 revolution." In the Western perspective, Persia can be subdued, painted, written about, romanticized, and dominated. Iran is perceived simply as hostile -- in large part, because Iran will not allow itself to be treated as a European artifact.

As Satrapi reveals, the reductive image of Iran that has taken root in the West, particularly in the United States and Great Britain, makes it a symbol for all that is evil in the world. For decades, the Western media has focused on stories and images reflecting Iran's most extremist elements while ignoring the majority of Iranian Muslims who devote themselves to family and friends, spend their time playing volleyball, visiting the beaches or mountains, celebrating holidays, watching TV and going to the movies, or sitting in restaurants and cafes, talking or reading.

The rise of the Green Movement has forced the West to see this side of Iranians--the silent majority who gathered friends on social networking sites, rejecting the extremism and hypocrisy of their own government in favor of democratic values and personal liberty. The movement broke through the image long maintained by the West of Iran as a monolithic evil. On every news site, television station, and radio outlet there were reports of outraged demonstrators fighting against an election fraud perpetrated by a regime that the West assumed all Iranians supported. The image of the axis of evil's most notorious member has needed to be redrawn, much to the consternation of American hawks long intent on precipitating a violent attack, even an outright invasion. To drop bombs on Iran now would mean to kill not terrorists, but young people in the street peacefully demonstrating for the same values Westerners espouse. We all saw the camera-phone footage of Neda's brutal murder on TV and the Internet. To attack Iran now means killing thousands of young, innocent Nedas.

The mask of the enemy has been shattered. However, the old casts of Iranian identity are still perpetuated. Contemporary Iran is as much a construct as Persia was in the 18th century. They are each flat, one-dimensional characterizations hardly representative of Iran's culture or its people. Iran is further constructed through fantasies of Islam promulgated by sources as diverse as the memoirs Not Without My Daughter and Reading Lolita in Tehran and the abrasive speeches of President Ahmadinejad. With its supposedly relentless pursuit of a nuclear program, Iran still represents the axis of evil, the rogue terrorist nation in league with Hezbollah and Hamas, haters of Israel. However, all of Iran can no longer be made to represent these ideas -- lines are being drawn between the Iranian people and the government that ordered the beating of citizens gathered peacefully in the street, in some cases to death, while the whole world looked on. So the West is learning to separate these two entities, as opposed to lumping a nation's entire population under one ideology. As Satrapi states at the end of her essay, "Iran has extremists for sure. It has Scheherazade as well. But first and foremost, Iran has an actual identity, and actual history -- and above all, actual people, like me." Through the efforts of the Green Movement, the West is discovering that the reality is much richer and more complex than such crude constructs, and the Iranian is not a projection of Western interests and ideas, but determined, diverse, independently thinking and compassionate -- in a word, human. And in the end, should the movement succeed, Iran may very well define itself on its own terms.

Rick Zand is an editor at Tehran Bureau.

Marjane Satrapi's essay is in the collection My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes: Uncensored Iranian Voices, edited by Lili Azam Zanganeh.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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