This is a post from my blog I did previously, with some updates. I will confess that I love learning about the Middle East. I love learning more about Jews, Muslims, Arabs, etc. I have so much to learn.
I’m a grad student working on some genetic studies (one of my many jobs). As part of the genetic study we are doing, we have our study participants tell us their race. In medical studies, different treatments can affect different races quite dramatically.
I’m designing a database to capture the information for the study. Many people don’t identify as just one race. Some are multi-racial, and even put percentages on their forms, such as 50% white, 25% hispanic, 25% black. So, I was asking questions about how to properly capture the data.
I learned that there are 5 basic races: White (Caucausian), Black, Asian, Native American, and Pacific Islander. As I have discussed on this blog before, genetic studies show that Native Americans are related to Asian peoples. Simon Southerton seems to have shown that peoples migrated across the Bering Strait, and settled the americas. But according to one of the genetic specialists (I’ll call her Ann) in my office, there is still a big enough difference between Native Americans to separate them from Asians. Same goes for Pacific Islanders.
It seems that many people often refer to the Jewish race, or the Arab race. Some of you may be familiar with the “Cohen” gene, which is a distinguishing gene among people of Jewish descent. So I asked Ann what race Jews were, and she said “Caucasian.” She said there is some interesting distinguishing characteristics of Jews, but not so much to call them a separate race. I asked about Arabs? “Caucasian.” Ok, what about people from India? “Caucasian.” This one really surprised me (as if the others ones didn’t.) I would have suspected India Indians to be Asian, but that is wrong.
Hispanic is the truly confusing one, because there are black hispanics, and white hispanics. If a person is a black hispanic, genetically they are black. Otherwise, they are Caucasian.
I was truly intrigued to learn all of this. Then to top it off, I discovered Ann was from Iran. (She told me it is pronounced ear-ron, not eye-ran, so I will endeavor to pronounce it properly from this point forward.) Now, I just couldn’t resist asking more questions.
I told her that I had heard that Iranians are not Arabs, and that I never really understood that. To me, it always seemed like anyone from the Middle East was an Arab. If Iranians are not Arabs, what are they, and what distinguishes an Arab?
She told me that they refer to themselves as Persians. I had a college professor who had told me he was Persian, and when I asked him where that was, he said “Iraq.” So, I asked her if Iraqi’s were also Persians. She was surprised to hear me tell her than an Iraqi claimed to be Persian, but then decided that it was possible, and then gave me a history lesson.
Persia was once much larger than it is now, and was centered in Iran. Around 600 AD, the Arabs from Saudi Arabia expanded their kingdom and conquered Persia, converting everyone to Islam. (Prior to that, the Persian religion was Zoroastrianism.) Even though the Persians converted to Islam, they never liked the Arab rulers, and a few hundred years later, overthrew them and installed their own kings.
I asked about the differences between Sunni and Shiite (or Shia) Muslims. Shia Muslims follow a direct lineage through to the prophet Muhammad. Sunni’s believe that clerics do not have to be genetically related to Muhammad. The Sunni line is larger than Shia. Iran is really the only nation primarily Shia. Iraq and Sadaam Hussein were ruled by the minority Sunni, but it appears that the Shiite majority is taking control of the government, so there could be a 2nd Shiite nation. Most other Middle Eastern countries are Sunni. Perhaps Persia is coming back into existence!
Anyway, Ann told me that Iranians hate to be referred to as Arabs, and identify much more with Europeans. She told me that Afghanis feel the same way. She said she knew Americans had a hard time telling the difference, but that people in that part of the world can easily tell the difference between a Persian and an Arab.
Ann has been in America for about a year. Prior to that, she lived in France. She said she really liked Utah, and culturally, felt that Utah was quite similar to Iran. She said families are very important in Iran, and very important in Utah. She said France was much more secular, and the people weren’t as nice. (I’ve vacationed in France, and didn’t think they were very nice either.)
Anyway, it was a truly fascinating conversation! I actually knew a little about Zoroastrianism. For example, the star at Jesus birth was discovered by the Wise Men from the East. Some scholars believe that the Wise Men believed in Zoroastrianism. (I did a post on this at Christmas.) Ann was surprised to hear this. I also know that there is a mountain in Saudi Arabia called Jebel-Musa which means Mount of Moses. Some Muslim and Christian scholars believe that this may be the true location of Mount Sinai, and I think there is some pretty intriguing evidence to support that claim. (Ann didn’t know that either.)
Some of my commenters gave me the following information.
On 21 March 1935, the ruler of Persia, Reza Shah Pahlavi, issued a decree asking foreign delegates to use the term Iran in formal correspondence. Some believe he made this decision in order to be closer to Germany, by trying to emphasize the Aryan connection between Hitler’s idealistic German Aryan race and the Persian Aryan race, given that “Iran” means “land of Aryans”, at a time where the German empire was slowly becoming an unstoppable superpower. Some others believed he changed “Persia” to “Iran” to present a new and modern face of the country in the world.
It should be noted that the first Aryans originated from India. This was a warlike society that called their best and courageous “Aryan” or nobleman. Therefore it was not so much a race, as class of people. Afterwards, wave and wave of these “Aryans” immigrated to Mesopotamia (Currently Iran) and to IndoEurope. After centuries the name Aryan or Nobleman was exchanged for race. The reason why Iranians don’t look like Germans is (1) because of weather and (2) because Aryans in Iran were integrated to the Arab kingdom in the time of Mohammad and so Aryans and Semites mixed.
Currently, anyone who is a native Arab speaker is considered Arab. Anyone who doesn’t is not.
The Iraon- Persian dialects include Tajik (Tajkistan), Farsi (Iran and parts of Afghanistan), Dari (Afghanistan), and Azerbaijani. The Tajik, Afghan, and Azerbaijani people I know would not identify as Persian–only Iranians would. It really is that simple.
So, did anyone know the difference between a Persian and an Arab? Do you have any other interesting things to add?