“It is notable that Arabs, when and if they wish to disparage Iranians, more often than not will also refer to them as Persians: the ‘other,’ and, because they’re Shia, the infidel. Some Sunni Arabs in Iraq have taken it one step further, calling all Shias, including Iraqi Shias, ‘Safavids,’ the name of the Persian dynasty that made Shiism the state religion of Iran, and a clear move in sectarian times to associate non-Sunni Arabs with the non-Arab Persians. Shia Islam, however, because of its beloved saint Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad and an Arab, conveniently bridges the Arab-Iranian schism through Hossein’s wife, a Persian princess he wisely (as far as Persians are concerned) wed and who bore him the half-Iranian great-grandchildren of the last Prophet of Allah.
The often contradictory Iranian attitudes toward Arabs can be difficult to explain. What can one make of Iranians who shed genuine tears for an Arab who died fourteen hundred years ago, who pray in Arabic three times a day, and yet who will in an instant derisively dismiss the Arab people, certainly those from the peninsula, as malakh-khor, “locust eaters”? As one deputy foreign minister once said to me, lips curled in a grimace of disgust and right before he excused himself to pray (in Arabic), ‘Iranians long ago became Muslims, but they didn’t become Arabs.’ His scorn was meant, of course, for desert Arabs who brought Islam to the world, and not necessarily Syrian, Egyptian or Lebanese Arabs, whom the Iranians place a few degrees higher on the social scale than their desert brethren. The disconnect between Arab and Muslim for Iranians is not unlike the disconnect between certain anti-Semitic Christians and Jews — a disconnect that conveniently ignores not only that Christ was a Jew but also that Christianity, at least at its inception, was a Jewish sect. (The peculiar Iranian disconnect can work both ways, though, for many Arabs today, or at least Arab governments, would rather Israel remain the dominant power in their region than witness, Allah forbid!, a Persian ascent to the position.)”
Hooman Majd, writing in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.
Every now and again, the pictures on this blog make it look like one of those innumerable, indistinguishable “style” Tumblrs that that college friend of yours made, promoted on Facebook, and maintained for about a week before exhausting her collection of Jon Hamm pictures. I try not to be so superficial, but denying the impulse is ridiculous: some people just look cool, and Majd is one of them. If cool-looking people have something sharp to say, well then that’s even better — and plus, there’s enough weighty stuff here to get you through the day’s pensive minutes.
But about the substantive part. Several pages prior, Majd offers a telling personal detail which should color his above clarification:
I had discovered two years earlier, and there is no way to verify it because Iranians didn’t have surnames, let alone birth certificates or even records of births prior to the reign of Reza Shah in the 1920s, that I am a descendant of his and, more interesting, that he was a Jew: a brilliant mathematician and scholar… In my father’s village of Ardakan, moreover, some people apparently still think of my family as “the Jews.” During my Ashura week visit to my cousin Fatemeh’s house, where a few people I hadn’t met before seemed to drop in from time to time, as is not unusual in small towns in Iran, I was introduced to one older woman who asked, “Majd? Ardakani Majd?”
“Yes, Majd-e-Ardakani,” I replied, using my grandfather’s original name (which just means “Majd from Ardakan,” and Majd actually being the single name of my great-great-grandfather).
“Oh,” she said. “The Jews.”
It is worth keeping this in mind if you to decide to open the book, because many of its conversations and interactions, especially with Iranian officials, revolve around then-President Ahmadinejad’s public denials of the Holocaust and his highly touted, “scholarly” conferences on the subject. Majd confronts these officials, in a restrained but unmistakable way, with the treatment they deserve: disbelief, contempt, and muted ridicule.
Above all of this, however, Majd is an important voice on Iran because although he was born in Tehran to a well-established family (his maternal grandfather was an Ayatollah), he gravitated to the West — first to St. Paul’s school in London, then George Washington University in Washington, then to live in New York City, where he still resides. So there is a very literal sense in which he traverses the boundary between East and West.
If you want to read a shorter piece of non-fiction, check out his essay on rediscovering his childhood home, “The House on Iran Street”. If you came here for the look, click on his style blog The House of Majd, which he maintains with fashion photographer Ken Browar.