Najmeh Mohammadkhani
Journalist located in Iran and Middle East.

IRAN: This sixty year old book is heartily recommended for anyone who wants to know more about the current relationship between Iranians and Arabs.

‘Where are you from?’ ‘I am from Iran.’ ‘So you speak Arabic?’ ‘No, we speak Farsi. Iranians are not Arabs. We are Persian.’ This is a common exchange for Iranians encountering people lacking in knowledge about their culture and history.

In the beginning, Iranians followed the ancient Zoroastrian faith. Then, in the seventh century the Arabs conquered the Persian Empire, and the Iranians converted to Islam. The book, Two Centuries of Silence (Do Qarn Sokut), by Iranian literature scholar Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub (1923–1999), is a well written depiction of the early years following this decisive historic, political and cultural defeat. The book, first published in 1957, remains hugely important and quite readable. Today, book publishing and reading face certain challenges in Iran. Unfortunately, an Iranian reads, on average, only thirteen minutes a day, while the typical price of a book is almost four dollars.

Post-traumatic silence. Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub was an expert in Iranian literature and Persian culture and history, and taught at universities such as Oxford, the Sorbonne and Princeton. During the course of his life, he penned over twenty five books and translated at least another six, in addition to publishing seven scientific works. Zarrinkoub’s books are frequently read in academic circles and are viewed as the key sources in the study of mysticism and the mystical anthropology of the Persian Mowlavi. Mowlavi was a Muslim scholar, lawyer, lyricist and Sufi mystic living in the 1200s. He is also known as Rumi.

The English translation of Two Centuries of Silence contains ten chapters describing the various decades of this pivotal period, focusing on the challenges, wars and invasions the Iranians were subject to. Zarrinkoub terms the years ‘the era of silence’ due to the Arab  victory over the Iranians, who traditionally had been cultural rivals of the Roman Empire. The silence that ensued was a reaction to the great cultural and political changes the Persians were going through.

«Iranian hatred against the Arabs is not necessarily rooted in Arab cruelty, but in the hatred of their own weakness faced with an even weaker enemy.»

Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub

Sowing the seeds of hatred. The Arabs invaded Iran in 641, during the kingdom’s Sasanian era (224–651). The weak government, the decay, spreading of ideas, bigotry, lies, bribes and a general spiritual weakening led to the Persian Empire being conquered by simple Arab nomads. The Prophet Mohammed’s peaceful message was founded on equality, goodness and brotherhood – beliefs that unified the Arabs and provided them with strength. The Zoroastrian priests lost their power and influence. When the Arabs struck, the Persians experienced the wartime ravages of  brutality and murder. The seed of Iranian hatred for the Arabs was sown, further nourished by the Arab leaders’ racist prejudice against the Iranians. This reached a height during the Umajjad caliphate (until ca. 900 A.C.).

During the Arab reign, Arabic became the official language in Iran. The Arabs demanded that Iranians used the Arabic language, books written in Farsi were burned and Iranians were forced to speak Arabic. But the Iranians rebelled by using an early form of the Iranian language, Pahlavi, in their daily lives.

Iraq, the focal point of Iranian and Arab attention, was the main area for the Abbasid Caliphate (762–1258) and the birthplace of the Arabian Nights folk stories, which largely portrayed the plunder of the Iranian lands. As Zarrinkoub points out in Two Centuries of Silence, many reacted strongly to the fact that the intoxicated Arab caliph was able to bestow jewels on poets and musicians who entertained at his banquets. In certain places, this hatred led Iranian women married to Arab men to ‘pull hard at their husbands’ beards’ and hand them over to the leaders to have them killed.

Contempt for their own weakness. The Tahirid-dynasty (821–873) was the first Iranian dynasty after the Arabs were overthrown and the regaining of Iranian independence. The antagonism between the two peoples was strong and mutual, and both attributed noble qualities to themselves while deeming their adversary vile. During the centuries of Arabic rule, several religious sects were founded, none of which survived. Ever since the Arab defeat, the conflict between Arabs and Iranians, influenced by religion, carries on today.

Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub and writer Houshang Golshir

Looking at the history over the course of Two Centuries of Silence, you realise that the Iranian hatred towards the Arabs is not necessarily founded on Arab cruelty. The profound conflicts are also linked to the Iranian hatred of their own weakness when faced with ‘an even weaker enemy.’ Iran was an empire, but an empire debilitated by the incompetency of the Sasanian rulers. So neglected, unstable and vulnerable was the Persian Empire that even a moderate attack by Arab nomads was enough to sweep it aside. Zarrinkoub quotes one of the Arab rulers: ‘I am surprised that the Iranians, who ruled this place for Millennia, never needed us, whilst we ruled for a century and depended on them every hour of every day.’ Ultimately what the Iranians lost was a belief in themselves.

Zarrinkoub’s portrayal is neither Anti-Semitic nor Pan-Iranian. He chronicles this early Iranian-Arab history in a sober and factual manner. In later versions, Zarrinkoub edited and adjusted the book thus demonstrating both his flexibility and lack of prejudice. Two Centuries of Silence is heartily recommended for anyone who wants to know more about the current relationship between the two peoples. And remember: Iranians are not Arabs, but Persians.