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Iran or Persia? Farsi or Persian? Which Ones Should be Called ?!


By Pejman Akbarzadeh
Member of the "Artists Without Frontiers"


Until a few decades ago, in the English language (which is now international) and in international circles, our country was called "Persia." Unfortunately, however, in 1935 the then government of Persia requested all countries in the world to call Persia by its native name, "Iran," without heeding the delicate point that as an ancient land, possessing a civilization thousands of years old, our country was known as "Persia," not "Iran."


Aside from political issues and the political motive of closeness with Germany and Adolf Hitler, which was the main reason for this change of name ordered by Reza Shah, some expressed the view that "Persia" denoted only one province of "Iran."  Although it may be said that perhaps for us Persians, the name "Persia" only connotes a province of Persia, for others in the world, who for 26 centuries (and perhaps even to this day), have used the name "Persia," this name is associated with the whole of our land, and when speaking in foreign languages, we are obliged to take advantage of this name. We must therefore observe what effect this name has in the minds of foreigners, not in the minds of Persians.


We must not be prejudiced and think that only because we ourselves use the name "Iran," foreigners must also say, "Iran."  On an international scale, many countries are called by a name different from that of their native names. The people of Egypt, for example, call their country "Al-Misr," but their international name is "Egypt" - two names which are in no way similar. But Egyptians have never forced other countries to say, "Al-Misr!" For they know that, with its ancient civilization, their country has become known to the world as Egypt.


There are other cases such as:


International Name:    Native Name:

India                              Bharat
Germany                       Deutschland
Finland                          Suomi
Greece                           Hellas
Japan                             Nihon


and many others....

For us speakers of Persian, the name "Iran" is a very dear and respectable name, but in world culture, for non-Persians, Persia connotes an ancient culture. The change in the international name of our country, from Persia to Iran, has created a detrimental gap between Persia and its historical and cultural past in the minds of the people of the world. In the West today, there are very few people for whom Iran and Persia connote the same meaning. Contrary to what the government officials of Persia believed in the 1930s, in the West, not only are people not aware of an association between the name "Iran" and the "Aryan" race, but rather due to the great similarity that exists in European languages between the names "Iran" and "Iraq," many, especially among the youth, mistake Iran with this newly-established Arab entity which borders western Iran. Like it or not, the great similarity between these two names in the West have muddled the identities of these two countries!  For those who recognize a difference between "Iran" and "Iraq," Iran is a country bordering the Persian Gulf, possessing oil, with a more or less Arab identity, which has no clear connection with the "Persia" in history.


A large portion of the budgets of various countries is spent annually on advertising and cultivating their international image. Postal stamps that are currently being distributed by Switzerland may be the best example. Despite the fact that its international name is Switzerland, on its stamps one reads the name "Helvetia," which was the Latin name given to Switzerland centuries ago but has long been abolished.


Nearly seventy years have passed since the change of name from "Persia" to "Iran" for international usage, but on many occasions (especially when relating to Persian history, art and culture), in works written in European languages, Persian and non-Persian scholars use the name "Persia" and the adjective "Persian" for "Iran" and "Iranian," since historically and culturally, "Iran" and "Iranian" do not convey any special meaning to non-Persians.


The name "Persia" for Iran, and phrases such as Persian Carpet, Persian Gulf, Persian Miniature, Persian Garden, Persian Cat, Persian food, etc. have all been entered in respectable world encyclopedias.


In 1935, the then Persian government requested all countries to use the words "Iran" and "Iranian" in their official correspondence in place of "Persia" and "Persian." Thus the two words which embrace all the history and culture of Persia abroad gradually faded out of public usage in foreign languages; only the word "Persian" remained to denote the Persian language. However, in recent years and following the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Persians to Europe, Australia and America, the lack of knowledge and attention on the part of some of them paid to this issue, as well as the lack of attention by some official organizations within the country, regrettably, the term "Farsi," instead of "Persian," has entered Western languages (especially English) - a completely new word in Western literature which is in no way representative of Persian history and literature.


Some publications and English-language television channels, both inside and outside the country, many Persians who possess Internet sites, various news agencies, computer companies (especially those producing Persian word processors),  many supposedly reputable universities and language institutes are among individuals and organizations which have had a role in aggravating this cultural complexity whose scope is ever widening. Apparently, however, no one has been as dedicated to burying alive our cultural heritage as much as we Persians ourselves! School books for teaching English, which until recently were insistent upon using "Farsi" instead of "Persian," English-language newspapers published in Tehran, our English-language television programs, and the live program which is currently being broadcast by the international television network, Sahar, entitled, "Let's Learn Farsi" are examples of our own doing.


The increasing usage of Farsi in place of Persian has caused this term to enter world encyclopedias. In recent years, under the adjective "Persian," Oxford University Press has added: "Now usually called Iranian or Farsi"


It must be emphasized that "Farsi" is the native name for this language while "Persian" is its international equivalent just as, for example, the native names for the German and Greek languages are Deutsch and Hellenika, while they are never used in English.


It is essential to note that today's Persian youth are generally alien to the terms Persia, Persian, and even the Persian Gulf. They associate the name "Persia" with Peugeot Persia!, and they associate the name "Persepolis" (Persia's most famous historical relic) with a football team!


* * *


The discussion over the usage of Persia and Iran in European languages has long existed among Iranians, especially Iranian immigrants. As usual, some agree and others disagree. Apparently a completely wrong idea exists among some of our fellow countrymen that "Persia" is a dead historical word, representing the Zoroastrian culture, whereas, without any prejudice and considering historical research, one must easily accept the fact that Persia is the English equivalent of Iran.


According to undeniable existing documents, this name was officially applied to Iran from 600 B.C. until 1935 A.D., and unofficially since then in European languages; in no way does it exclusively apply to the Persia of the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods. Today's Iran is the same Persia. Political and cultural changes that exist in the history of most nations are no reason for a change in the nation's historical name. Just as there is no comparison between today's Egypt and the Egypt of 7000 years ago, or as there is no comparison between the vastness and political situation of today's Greece and the Greece of 3000 years ago.


Apparently, as of the mid-1980s a few Persian (Iranian) scholars residing abroad, by touching upon this topic, by publishing articles in Persian publications inside and outside the country, have attempted to inform the public and especially responsible organizations; however, for various reasons it has not had tangible results. Dr. Ehsan Yarshater, professor at Columbia University in New York and editor of the Encyclopedia Iranica; Dr. Kazem Abhary, professor at South Australian University in Adelaide; Dr. Hormoz Farhat, professor at Dublin University; and Amir-Rostam Beigi in Houston, are among the most industrious individuals on the promotion of this topic, whose works have also contributed to the writing of this article.


In 1992  following the efforts of a few Persian cultural figures in Australia (especially Dr. Kazem Abhary), a strong announcement was made in European languages by  the Persian Language Academy ("Frhangestaan" in Tehran) in strong opposition to the usage of Farsi instead of Persian in the correspondences of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Academy admitted that a change from the word Persian to Farsi has created the misconception in the West that Farsi is a new language, different from Persian. The Academy likewise warned that "bad intention" was suspected on behalf of specific circles and that it is expected of the Iranian government to be on guard with respect to such activities so that any possible conspiracy would be forcefully neutralized.


But unfortunately, except for its publication in the Academy's quarterly and its dispatch to a few embassies, this announcement did not have much repercussion and was quickly forgotten. In March 2001 a document, with the intention of calling for more serious efforts on this topic, was written by Dr. Hormoz Farhat. This time apparently the geographical dispersion of interested Persians has delayed the work. The goals include: the encouragement of writers, translators, researchers, artists, journalists, editors for using "Persia" for Iran in their writings in Western languages, the correction of any usage of the word "Farsi" instead of "Persian" (for the language), and "The Gulf" instead of "The Persian Gulf." Finally a group of Persians in the US created "Persian Gulf Task Force".


The most important conclusion we have arrived at in the course of years of effort on this topic is that although such activities have had positive effects, without the attention and total support of the Iranian government we cannot achieve any significant results in changing the usage in language. Efforts in this regard require the support of all Persians who are sympathetic to this cause.


In my opinion, in order to protect national interests and the country's history, we must remain faithful in using the word "Persia" on an international level, and use the adjective "Persian" for anything that is related to Persia - its history, civilization, culture, art, language, and people.


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