As I have discussed in About Iranians, Iran is a diverse country both geographically and culturally. Geographically we have it all — from the open seas and hot climate in the south along the Persian Gulf, to the dry and extreme climate of vast central and eastern deserts such as Dasht’e Kavir, to the cold climate of high mountain chains such as Alborz and Zagros, to the verdant north coast (Shomal) along the Caspian Sea with mild four season climate with high humidity and precipitation.
Ethnically Iran and Iranians are also quite diverse. Many of us use the terms Iranian and Persian interchangeably and may even prefer the latter especially in the west when speaking to a non-Iranian. Because ever since the 1979 revolution, the American hostage crisis, and the establishment of the hard-line Islamic Republic, the terms Iran and Iranian have found a certain negative and possibly even hostile undertone.
However, not all Iranians are Persian. In fact according to the CIA World Factbook on Iran, Persians only make up about half of Iranians (51%). The other ethnic groups are Azaris (24%) concentrated in the Northwest, Gilakis and Mazandaranis (8%) in the North along the Caspian Sea coastline, and Kurds (7%) in the Northwest and West. There are also Arabs, Baloch, Lurs, and Turkmen (2-3% each). These ethnic groups also speak their own languages, Persian and its dialects, Turkic (or Azari), Kurdish, Luri, Balochi, and Arabic among others such as Assyrians and Georgians.
And we have nasty jokes and stereotypes just about all of these ethnic minorities. Supposedly, Azaris are like donkeys, lack common sense and speak Persian with a bad accent, Gilaki men are weak while their women are promiscuous and unfaithful, men from Ghazvin are petafiles/homosexuals, Isfahanis are very stingy, Loris are idiots, on and on.
Though certain individuals may be offended by such jokes, most Iranians usually joke about these stereotypes and laugh along. It is almost like a custom or tradition. Once a few men come together at a party or gathering, even if they don’t know each other, before long someone will start telling jokes for a few cheap laughs. In a sense such joke telling may serve as an icebreaker in groups.
As an Iranian, I am also part of the system and guilty of saying and laughing at such jokes at times. And i don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with it. Similar stereotypes and jokes may exist in other cultures around the world. But I must say that sometime the Persian joke telling tradition can be quite distasteful, especially coming from someone you barely know.
There is a conspiracy theory that at some point in the relative modern history of Iran, the powers-to-be intentionally introduced these ethnic stereotypes and joke telling to break up the unity of Iranian people and create segregation and separatism. To that end, I recently came across three pieces/poems in Persian that are framed like a joke but express this sentiment. Here they are:
کریم خان زند
یه روز ما همه با هم بودیم..
ترک و رشتی و لر و اصفهانی و … !
و قفل دوستی ما رو شکستند .. ؛
حالا دیگه ما برای هم جوک می سازیم،
و اینجوری شادیم .. ؛
یه روز یه رشتیه.. !
اسمش میرزا کوچک خان بود، میرزا کوچک خان جنگلی؛
برای مهار کردن گاو وحشی قدرت مطلقه تلاش کرد،
برای اینکه کسی تو این مملکت ادعای خدایی نکنه؛
اونقدر جنگید تا جونش رو فدای سرزمینش کرد …
یه روز یه ترکه،
اسمش ستار خان بود، شاید هم باقر خان.. ؛خیلی شجاع بود، خیلی نترس.. ؛یکه و تنها از پس ارتش حکومت مرکزی براومد!جونش رو گذاشت کف دستش و سرباز راه مشروطیت و آزادی شد،فداکاری کرد، برای ایران، برای من و تو.. ،برای اینکه ما یه روزی تو این مملکت آزاد زندگی کنیم
I will not do an exact translation here but roughly they speak of named brave Iranian men and freedom fighters such as Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan (who were Azaris), Karim Khan Zand (a Lur), and Mirza Koochak Khan Jangali (a Gilaki), who fought and died for the freedom of Iranians and Iran in their days so we could have a better life. Alas they are forgotten and now we think we are having a good time making fun of and laughing at each other.
Whether such a conspiracy theory is true or not, I think there is something to be said about this. Regardless of our ethnic backgrounds, we need to remember our unifying identity as Iranians. And I believe we do that to a large extent. According to some research data, Iranians are among the most nationalist people of the world who are proud of their identities as Iranians — more so than the Americans and more so than the French for example.
At some point I want to cover the stories of the above-mentioned Iranian heroes who were in a way considered terrorists by the governments of their times and nowadays hardly ever get any coverage. I do not know who the author(s) of these segments are to give proper credit here, but I’d like to thank Mr. Ali Shokouhbakhsh for sharing them with me.