The Persian Version

Ask most people in the West what images they associate with the words “Middle East” and you’ll likely get descriptions of oil wells, desert dunes, and men in flowing robes and Bedouin headgear. More recently, you might hear of crowds filling public squares demanding the downfall of autocratic leaders. But while such images might suit the reality of Saudi Arabia or Egypt, they do not at all fit another regional colossus—Iran.

Iran has oil aplenty and a reform movement, but that’s where parallels end. Islam was brought to Iran by seventh-century Arab invaders bent on eradicating Zoroastrianism, the traditional Persian faith. The language, Farsi, is not native to the Middle East, but rather an Indo-European language that migrated from Europe, undergoing numerous transmutations along the way. Iran does not belong to the “Arab brotherhood,” and its relations with its neighbors have always been tinged with unease. Traditions are different; food is different. Falafel, hummus, tabouleh, and pita bread do not appear on Persian menus.

One hundred fifty miles south of Tehran I visited the city of Kashan, home to landmarks that illustrate the cultural divide between Iran and the Arab Middle East. Near the city center, four large houses hunker, fortress-like, behind blank, formidable walls that give no hint of the riches of Persian history on the other side. The houses were built during the dynasty of the Qajar rulers, which began at the end of the eighteenth century and...

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About the Author

Christopher Thornton teaches at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.