A: Where are you from?
A: So you speak Arabic?
B: No, we speak Farsi. Iranians are not Arab. We are Persian.
The above is a common dialogue for Iranians faced with non-Iranians whose knowledge about our culture and history is rather scant. At the beginning, Iranians were Zoroastrian.
Then, in the 7th century, Arabs conquered Iran during the Persian Empire era, and Iranians converted to Islam. The book Two Centuries of Silence written by Iranian scholar Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub eloquently discusses the very early years of this defeat both historically, politically and culturally. It is published in 1957, but due to its historical perspective of this sensitive and remarkable era, is highly significant and readable. Let it not remain unsaid that Iranian book publication and reading per capita have their own challenges and patterns. Unfortunately, Iranians` reading per capita is only 13 minutes per day. The number of book copies published this year were 18,034. The average price per book in Iran is almost four dollars. Armed with these details, writing a review about a recently published book is no easy task.
Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub was an Iranian scholar of Iranian literature, literature history, Persian culture and history, who died on 5th September, 1999. He held faculty positions at universities including Oxford, Sorbonne and Princeton. During his life, he wrote over 25 and translated more than six books, in addition to being the author of seven research books. His books are highly read among academics and also are considered the main source for mysticism studies and Mowlavi studies. Two centuries of silence is also translated into English. This book features ten chapters, each describing different decades of these two centuries. Each chapter focuses on the challenges, wars and invasions faced by Iranians. Based on Zarrinkoub’s narration, the reason he named these two centuries ‘the era of silence’ was due to the Arabs shock defeat of Iranians, as these were culturally productive and the rivals of the Roman Empire. The cultural silence was the reaction to that massive cultural and political change.
During the Sassanid era, Arabs invaded Iran and brought Islam to the country. The feebleness of the Sassanid government, its deterioration, and dispersion of ideas, bigotry, falsehoods, bribery and the spiritual weakness were all the reasons that caused the Persian Empire to be conquered by nomadic and plain Arabs who paid no attention to the world of meaning. Prophet Mohammad’s peaceful massage was built on equality, kindness and brotherhood which united Arabs and gave them power. The Zoroastrians priests lost their power, influence and validity. Generally, the empire decided that the stroke of Arabs was quite enough for Persians to experience the storm of war, harshness and slaughter. Since then, the seed of Iranians’ hatred of Arabs was planted, mostly watered by the racial prejudice of Arab rulers over Iranians reaching its peak during the Umayyad Caliphate.
During the Arabs’ sovereignty over Iran, Arabic became the official language. However, Iranians resisted and used their own language of Pahlavi in other aspects of their daily lives. This is why many words in the Farsi language feature Arabic roots. Arabs were strict about Iranians using Arabic, they burned books in the Pahlavi language and forced them to speak Arabic. Language is one of the most significant elements of forming identity and in order to ruin national identity it is enough to extract lingual ties. During these two centuries, Iranians resisted strongly faced with the brutality of the Arab rulers. Whenever there were riots in territories such as Khorasan, Iranians supported the revolutionists. In the Bokhara territory, the Umayyad Caliphates burned the fire-temples building mosques in their places.
Iraq, which was the focal point of Iranian and Arab confluence, was the base of Abbasid Caliphates and the cradle of A Thousand and One Nights-stories, which was formed by plundering Iranian territories. As Zarrinkoub expressed in Two Centuries of Silence, thousands were overpowered and distressed that a drunk Caliphate would scatter jewels on poets and musicians during their banquets.
Zarrinkoub mentions that Iranians hatred of Arabs was so severe that in Tabarestan, Iranian women who were married to Arab men, would pull their beards and hand them over to the rulers to be killed. The rise of these two dynasties were the resurrection of Iran. Taherian was the first Iranian dynasty after defeating the Arabs and were the vanguards of Iranian independency. Since then, Iranians would stand up and obtain their autonomy. Animosity of Iranians toward Arabs was well formed and Iranians attributed all good and pure to themselves and all bad and unclean to Arabs. This otherization was completely shaped mutually. During these two centuries many religious sects were founded but all failed. These were anti-Arab sects but none succeeded. Ever since the early days of the defeat, the dispute between Arabs and Iranians was a religious one which has continued till now.
Reviewing history through Two Centuries of Silence, one is able to understand that the roots of Iranians` hatred of Arabs is not necessarily related to Arab strictness, cruelty, racial prejudice, war and slaughter. Instead, these deep-seated historical, ideological and religious conflicts are also related to Iranians hatred of their own weakness faced with a ‘weaker enemy’. During this period, Iran was an empire, but as aforementioned, one weakened by the inefficiency of Sassanid kings. At that point, even a slight attack of nomads and plain Arabs were able to collapse the unsteady, shaky and fragile empire. Zarrinkoub quoted one of the Arab rulers as saying: “I am surprised that Iranians who were ruling for thousands of years never needed us for one second, whilst we ruled for a century and were dependent on them for every hour”. What Iranians were losing was their self-belief.
In summary, Zarrinkoub`s historical book is neither anti-Arab nor Pan-Iranian. He tells the early history of Iranian and Arab interaction using a fair and fact-oriented perspective. He edited his book in later publications and adjusted some sections, indicating that he is not a prejudiced narrator. This clarifies his flexibility and honesty. The book’s turning point is Zarrinkoub’s narration of start of the interaction between Iranians and Arabs. For any scholar who wants to know the current relationship between the two sides, this book is a must. Being able to understand how the current conflicts and clashes are related to a very bloody and savage beginning. As in science, knowing the roots of every event is necessary and inevitable. My hope that this book review has served as a reminder that Iranians are not Arab, but Persian.