Why language families matter (in an Iranian context)

I’m typing out this post while in the nearby table 4 young students are recreating the Cambridge Bangladesh society (apparently it’s been moribund for a few years while the Indian & Pak Socs are simply flourishing). I find the irony to be delicious; I can’t escape Brownitude in even the Waspiest of places. I’m overhearing their conversation and it sort of weakly ties into my post about how intellectuals in the West can have such a lingering and profound influence on politics in the East..

Iran & Turkey share some similarity in the sense that both nations adopted surnames a few generations ago (I believe Ataturk & Reza Pahlavi Snr introduced them).

In the Turkish case surnames were deliberately designed not to have ethnic or religious signifiers. In Iran on the other hand there is a certain pattern to surnames (correlated with religion and ethnicity).

What began to interest me a while back is that a lot of my Persians friends were having surnames that just didn’t sound Persian*.

They were off in a certain subtle way; usually either very consonant heavy or not the typical occupation, location based surnames that are common for Persian surnames.

At any rate I soon began to discover that a lot of my Persian friends, for whom being Iranian and being Persian was interchangeable, actually had either Kurdish, Bakthiari or some other Iranian ancestry. For instance to quote a particularly famous desi example, Benazir’s mother is said to have been Kurdish but the Iranian side of that family all spoke Persian & considered themselves Persian.

Iran’s assimilation of her minorities has been very systematic but especially successful with the related Iranian peoples. Out of all the Iranian Kurds I know only one was indifferent (even hostile) to the idea of a pan-Iranian ethnicity (but then again he introduced himself as Jewish so I don’t know how much of an exception he actually was).

The Idea of Iran is a particularly powerful one even though in my trips to Tehran one can sense very strong undercurrents of Azeri patriotism. What remains surprising to me is how comfortable the middle and higher classes of the non-Persian Iranic populations are with a Persian identity that they don’t even need to disclose their exoticism. It’s definitely not the same for the Turkic & Arabic minorities.

I feel the same thing may operate in Turkey where the Turkic minorities blend in far more effortlessly than the Iranic minorities. I have an anecdote of a very good, fiercely proud Turkish friend of mine, who would boast of his ancestry from the Turkmen of Syria (his family was from the borderlands) but once confessed to me in secret that in all likelihood his paternal grandfather may have been an assimilated Kurd (another time a Persian Muslim friend confessed to me that the family secret was that their grandfather’s father was a Zoroastrian convert, which made sense as her family was of Kermani origin). The Kurds in Turkey may have lost their language (it’s heavily Turkified Kurdish in same way Azeri in Tehran is farsified) but they stand out as Kurds; assimilation is a very tricky minefield.

Finally in an Iranian context the rate at which North & South Iranians intermarry is surprising. This is mirrored in Pakistan where intermarriage among the educated classes is no trivial matter. Ethnic intermarriage among the higher stratas goes a very long way to bind multi-ethnic polities.

Of course while ethnic kinship predates anthropological and linguistic studies; in some cases the concept of language families is a directly Western import. Who came up with the Dravidian grouping? I’m certain the Brits had a part to play in its all too neat demarcation. It’s only modern history that obsesses with boundaries and labels; most societies were content with hazier definitions. Studies made in the colonial era percolate far into the future.

*As an aside the global Bahá’í community is a microcosm of pre-revolutionary Iran since the Revolution was such a traumatic event in the Bahá’í world. It cut Bahá’ís off from their original homeland and what was the source of so many Baha’i pioneers. It cannot be overestimated the extent to which the Revolution was a shock to the Persian Bahá’í psyche. I grew up thinking pre-1979 Iran was some sort of utopia and haven; it took me a long time to reconcile to the Revolution.

Also certain Persians Bahá’ís have clustered to certain regions; Bahá’ís of France & Germany (very prosperous families as of 1979) almost invariably have some Jewish antecedents while South Asian Persian Bahá’ís are Zoroastrian origin. Half of the Persian Baha’i in Kuwait and the Gulf are Borajoons, from the Iranian Arab town of Borazjan. Of course these moves in the Baha’i world mirror what their ethnic counterparts were busy doing; Zarthusthis were joining their kin in India, the Jews in Europe and Iranian Arabs in the Middle East. The only difference is the sustained and heavy intermarriage in the Baha’i world so one of my closest friends is Jewish, Arab & Zoroastrian by ancestry, which is usually an impossible combination outside our cocoon. To top it off he married a half Persian half Filipino girl so God knows what their children will be (beautiful I guess).

Bahá’í faith had no appeal to the Armenians, Assyrians in Iran or Indian Parsi community because none of these communities had a Persian cultural identity. In fact in the early historiography of the Faith, the Parsi community was desperately trying to stop the sustained hemorrhaging of Yazdis to the Bahá’í faith.

The interpretation of Baha’u’llah as the promised Shah Bahram allowed the Yazdi community to rejoin mainstream Persian Shi’ite without having to become Muslims. Anecdotally (and observationally since there are no studies on this) it would take Zoroastrian Baha’is a generation quicker to “blend in” than the Jewish Baha’is as judging by the intermarriage rates. Zoroastrian Baha’is were intermarrying with Persian Baha’is in the generation of our grandparents while Jewish Baha’is had begun their intermarriages in the generation of our parents but again this is difficult to substantiate.

I would estimate 10,000-50,000 (maybe 20-30k) Bahá’ís have a Zoroastrian grandparent or more. It was shocking to me just how many of the Bahá’ís, my age, have a Zoroastrian grandparent. To the global Zoroastrian community, which obsess over their demographic strength; the Bahá’í faith has had a huge (and for them detrimental) impact. I can’t comment on Persian Jewry but I suspect it would be something similar. Often exposure to Bahá’ís (in the late 19th century) would be the first step to wider exposure to Iran & the West for these isolated, impoverished communities (the Armenians in New Julfa were plugged in via their non-Persian speaking ethnic kin).

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