Danyal Lotfi: Racist Against Ourselves-The Negative Impact of Ethnic Jokes

The aricle below by Danyal Lotfi was posted originally in IIAB and Payvand News websites. it is a unique and courageous article as it is critical of the denigrating impact of “ethnic jokes” and the damage these impart to the collective identity of Iranians. In a wider sense, the article highlights the harmful nature of such “jokes” within the wider community of nations today, now increasingly interconnected by modern communications, social and regular media.

Kindly note that the pictures shown below did not appear in the original article. Readers are also encouraged to read the responses made by Feyli and Firoozeh to Danyal Lotfi’s essay (posted at the end of the article).


I’m sure most of you have heard of the typical Iranian jokes that are exchanged at family gatherings, between friends and neighbors. Have you ever paid attention to the content of these jokes? Who are they referring to? To us, Iranians. But they are always targeting a certain ethnic minority. These jokes usually entail stories of how Turks/Azeris are dumb, Gilaks have no honor, Lurs are stupid, and so on.


Sattar Khan’s fighters in Tabriz, Azarbaijan with the flag of Iran during the Constitutional Revolution. These played a major role in not only protecting the cause of democracy in Iran.   

What most people don’t realize when they share such jokes is how brutally they are hurting the identity of their brothers and sisters from all across Iran. No, Turks/Azeris are not dumb. Have you ever heard of a man named Sattar Khan? He was Azeri and one of the key players in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in early twentieth century, who with the help of Bagher Khan became the leader of the Constitutional rebels in Tabriz and later on in most of Iran.

You think Gilaks have no “honor”? Well, let me introduce you to Mirza Kuchik Khan, who was another leader during the Constitutional Revolution and who fought for quite a few years against the outside forces (Russian and British) who were controlling the capital at the time. Let’s not forget about Karim Khan Zand, a Lur, who in the 18th century, saved Iran from the chaos of the civil war. The list doesn’t end there. It goes on and on, giving us reasons to be respectful towards minorities within Iran and celebrate these minorities and what each of us bring to the table.


Sattar Khan remains one of the most honored figures of Iran due to his role in the Constitutional revolution of the early 20th century.

Today, there is much talk about racism against Iranians across the globe. However, when I sit at an Iranian gathering, whether it’s with family or friends, and I hear such offensive jokes, whether it’s targeting my own ethnicity or my friend’s ethnicity as a Turk, a Gilak, a Lur, or any other minority, I’m suddenly less worried about racism against Iranians from the outside world and much more concerned about racism within our own Iranian community.

 Mirza Kuchik Khan

Mirza Kuchik Khan fought bittelry against the Imperial Russians as well as the British. 

Most people never really think about the impact of these jokes when they share them. To them, it’s “just a joke, and no one should take it personally.” But think about what we’re asking others when we say such a thing and make ethnic jokes. We are directly humiliating them and part of their identity. How do we expect others not to be offended when we deliberately hurt them and part of who they are?

In order to fight against racism against Iranians across the world, we must first look to ourselves and our community and see what kind of a message we’re sending to outsiders. When we can’t even respect human beings with diverse ethnic backgrounds within our own community, how do we, as Iranians, expect other nationalities to respect us?

When I was growing up, I was always the source of jokes in my family. It almost became a tradition in our family, where every time we had a family gathering everyone would be asking me for the “newest jokes in the market.” And I was always ready to give them the funniest and newest ethnic jokes I had heard. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I began to realize the true impact of these jokes. The ethnic stereotypes mentioned above had been repeated in my head so many times that my brain was starting to believe them. When I had that awakening about the impact of these jokes, I began thinking about why such jokes are so popular in our culture. Dr. Kaveh Farrokh, a history professor at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division, says the following regarding the origin of ethnic jokes in the early twentieth century in Iran (Part IIb-8):

“The Russians (and British) were very concerned with a cultural dynamic in Iran that could lead to the rise of a modern and progressive state. The Russians and English were especially concerned with the leadership role that northern Iranians (e.g. Azeris, Rashtis, etc.) had played in Iran’s democratic movement of the early 1900s. It would appear that the united nature of the constitutional movement in which Azeri, Bakhtiari, Mazandarani, Mashahdi, etc. fought side by side in the name of a democratic, progressive and modern Iran was not palatable to the distinguished policy makers in Moscow and London. A means had to be found to divide the Iranians and dissolve their historical bonds.

 It was in here where the Russian secret police had the distinction of inventing the first anti-Iranian cultural weapons. They even outdid the British, who themselves had been working to undermine Iran’s unity since the 19th century“.

The cultural weapons are the so-called venomous “jokes” targeted against Iran’s Azeri population and the north in general (esp. Rasht). This is not surprising as it was always these regions that would put up the first fight against any Russian invasion. The Bakhtiaris and Lurs were also targeted, partly due to fears of their martial abilities.”

We must understand the origin of these jokes in order to fully realize their true purpose and impact. We have such a diverse community in Iran and that’s what makes our culture beautiful. Every ethnicity within Iran is an essential organ in the body of the Iranian culture and we shouldn’t have any reason to damage it.

In an article that was recently published by Beeta Baghoolizadeh, “The Afro-Iranian Community: Beyond Haji Firuz Blackface, the Slave Trade, & Bandari Music,” she brings up a similar topic. Her article is about the Afro-Iranian community of southern Iran, one of the many ethnic minorities within Iran. Baghoolizadeh discusses the status of Afro-Iranians in Iran, and the fact that to many Iranians “they simply do not exist.” Baghoolizadeh states:

When talking about the diversity of Iran, most people will recall the various ethno-linguistic groups that are equally native to the Iranian plateau, like Persians, Azeris, Gilakis, Baluchis, and others who have migrated to the region through the centuries. In these discussions, however, Afro-Iranians and those of African descent are often ignored. Perhaps this stems from their limited exposure in mainstream Iranian culture. Or maybe it is because the legacy of African slavery in Iran contradicts the ever-so-pervasive Aryan myth of perfection and civilization. Regardless, most Iranians forget the Afro-Iranians and their rich traditions, despite their prominent cultural influence that persists today.”

The issue of harming ethnic minorities within Iran does not only come from ethnic jokes. This issue must be looked at from a much broader point of view. We must find all the ways through which we are damaging ethnic minorities in Iran, such as ethnic jokes, ignorance, etc. and work together to eliminate these disrespectful practices.


Reliefs at Persepolis showing delegates of different regions of Persia coming to Persepolis during Norouz celebrations.

We, as Iranians, have always been proud of our past and brag on a regular basis about the great Persian Empire that we believe promoted freedom of speech and religion, whether it actually was the case or not. By looking at the stone carvings at Persepolis in Iran, we can see how delegates of various races from different parts of the Persian Empire would gather together in peace during Norouz celebrations at Persepolis. While it is great for us to be proud of our past and what we believe our ancestors have accomplished, it unfortunately sometimes prevents us from seeing the problems that we face today. Are we as inclusive today as we can and should be? Are we able to gather in harmony with friends and family members from other ethnic backgrounds without making part of their identity the subject of ridicule? We must learn to move on from, but not forget, our past and focus on a brighter future. Ask yourself, aren’t you as a human being offended when someone’s topic of laughter is your ethnicity, sexuality, culture, or other parts of your identity? Are you doing anything to stop discrimination within our Iranian community? Please, take a moment and think about the extremely negative impact of these jokes. For as long as we continue making these ethnically offensive jokes, we are making it harder for ourselves to come together in unity with our brothers and sisters from various parts of Iran. Instead of sharing these disrespectful jokes against ethnic minorities in Iran, let’s encourage ourselves and others to celebrate this diversity within Iran’s borders and learn about how we can enrich our culture and society by doing so.


Farrokh, Kaveh. “Introduction: Pan-Turanianism Takes Aim At Azerbaijan; A Geopolitical Agenda” Introdcution: Pan-Turanianism Takes Aim At Azerbaijan; A Geopolitical Agenda . The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, 2005. Web. 02 Aug. 2012. See review by Reza Saberi in Iranboom site: -معرفی کتاب پان‌تورانیسم آذربایجان را هدف می‌گیرد

Baghoolizadeh, Beeta. “The Afro-Iranian Community: Beyond Haji Firuz Blackface, the Slave Trade, & Bandari Music.” Ajam Media Collective. Ajam Media Collective, 20 June 2012. Web. 25 July 2012.


Responses to article:

—- Original Message —-

From: Feyli xxxx <feylixx@gmail.com>

To: manuvera <manuvera@kavehfarrokh.com>

Sent: Wed, May 29, 2013 1:30 pm

Subject: Re: Danyal Lotfi: Racist Against Ourselves-The Negative Impact of Ethnic Jokes

Kaveh jan,

While I agree with the context of this article, I hope that the end result is not an endorsement of uninteresting, unchanging and monochromatic pseudo-nationalism.

I should point out that it is not “racism” that we are up against (“Today, there is much talk about racism against Iranians across the globe.”) – in fact, there is no “Iranian race” ( I don’t buy into the European “Aryan” mythology at all). However, there is a cultural alienation and discrimination primarily by Iranians against themselves and secondarily by others against us. We have indeed become “West-toxified” (to quote Al Ahmad) to the point that we find it quite reasonable to allow a foreigner to tell us what we should think of ourselves and allow them to humiliate our culture and beliefs without question.

First I would argue that there is really no significant racism in Iran, and, as a whole, we are unique culture that is racially blind. In Iran we have a very small black population, mostly in the south on the coast of the Persian Gulf and a Turkmen population in the Northeast (possibly racially distinct). But, having worked in both areas, I did not see overt racism – such as was apparent in the US even in the late 60’s – against either group. In general, Iran is a fairly racial homogeneous society and this blinds us to a large extent to really ugly parts of racism.

Second I would postulate that Iran has a very ethnically aware society that differentiates recognizes many ethnic groups – but this is not the same as racism. We are an ethnically and linguistically highly diverse society. In fact, I would argue that Iran, by definition, is a nation of multiple ethnic minorities bound together by an overall unique and uniform cultural identity. Because of this overall culture, it is necessary that we maintain our ethnic identity so as not to be assimilated into a monolithic whole. This preservation of our ethnic and linguistic personality – with all its strengths and peculiarities – has consequences, part of which is the development stereotypes vis a vis other ethnic groups in our national melange.

The political and social jokes that we make are not new, some in fact go back to the multiple invasions that occurred after the collapse of the Sassanid dynasty (e.g., Obaid Zakani of the 13 century CE has some pretty nasty comments about Turks and Arabs). While I do not condone or endorse “putting down” other ethnic groups, I find being identified as a Azari (with all the asides about bull headedness, single mindedness, general machoism, etc., etc.) kinda of amusing and will put out my own version of “azari jokes” from time to time. Unless one is able to occasionally laugh at oneself, it is impossible to maintain the very cultural identity that makes Iran unique in the world (see the attached maps).

I believe that we not only must preserve our particular ethno/linguistic “Aash” but should constantly and, by whatever means possible, try to strengthen it. We should not allow Western pseudo-nationalism to homogenize everybody and every group into a single bland uninteresting pastel blob.

Iran’s strength is in its diversity and it is good to remember that ‘It’s me and my brother against my cousin. But it’s me and my cousin against any foreigner.’ We may make fun of each other, but let’s make sure that our business remains our business and not someone else’s. As Danyal points out, from time to time different ethnic groups have risen to the occasion and saved our culture without jeopardizing or subsuming their own ethnicity to the whole. Let’s make sure that cultural strength is preserved.

Hope this is not too long a commentary. My very best to Danyal for his excellent exposition



— Original Message —-

From: Firoozeh <fxxxxn@gmail.com>

To: manuvera <manuvera@kavehfarrokh.com>

Sent: Thu, May 30, 2013 9:30 am

Subject: RE: Danyal Lotfi: Racist Against Ourselves-The Negative Impact of Ethnic Jokes

I think this is an undemocratic form of depriving people of free speech. This I am saying as a Lur person Who has heard many jokes about the Lurs and they don’t bother me. Also one of the most democratic and humane kings of Iran has been a Lur of the Zand tribe; Karim Khan Zand who never comes in the discussions, only the Azeri’s are mentioned.


Professor Shapour Shahbazi: Origins of the Parthians

The article below on the origins of the Parthians is authored by the late Professor Shapur Shahbazi and was originally posted in the Encyclopedia Iranica). Readers are also referred to Professor Shahbazi’s article on the Parthian army (kindly click the picture below):



Our sources on the ancestry of the eponymous founder of the dynasty, Arsaces, vary irreconcilably. He is introduced as a bandit who seized Parthia by attacking and killing its satrap, Andragoras (Justin 41.4; Ammianus Marcellinus 23.6.2); as a Bactrian who found the rise of Diodotus unbearable, moved to Parthia, and securing the leadership of the province, rose against the Seleucids (Strabo 11.9.3); or as a Parni chief of the Dahae Sacians, who conquered Parthia shortly before Diodotus’ revolt (ibid., 11.9.2).

34-Map of Parthian Empire 44 BC to 138 AD

[Click to Enlarge] Map of the Parthian Empire in 44 BCE to 138 CE (Picture source: Farrokh, page 155, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا). 

A fourth account alleges that “the Persian” Andragoras whom Alexander left as satrap of Parthia was the ancestor of the subsequent kings of Parthia (Justin 12.4.12). A fifth version had been provided by Arrian in his Parthica, now lost, which was epitomized on this point by Photius (Bibliotheca 58) and the twelfth-century Syncellus (Corpus scriptorum historiae Byzantinae XIII, ed. W. Dindorf, Bonn, 1829, p. 539). Photius’ epitome runs as follows: “Arsaces and Tiridates were brothers, descendants of Phriapites, the son of Arsaces [Syncellus: the brothers “were allegedly descendants of the Persian Artaxerxes”]. Pherecles [Syncellus: Agathocles], who had been made satrap of their country by Antiochus Theus, offered a gross insult to one of them, whereupon … they took five men into counsel, and with their aid slew the insolent one. They then induced their nation to revolt from the Macedonians and set up a government of their own.” Finally, the Iranian national history traced Arsaces’ lineage to Kay Qobād (Ferdowsī, Šāh-nāma VII, p. 116; Ṭabarī, I, p. 710), or to his son Kay Āraš (Ṯaʿālebī, p. 457), or to Dārā the son of Homāy (Ṭabarī, I, p. 704; Bīrūnī, The Chronology, p. 118), or even to the famous archer, Āraš (Šāh-nāma VII, p. 115; anonymous “authorities” apud Bīrūnī, op. cit., p. 119).

Parthian-1-Parthian Nobleman

A reconstruction of the face on the statue of a Parthian nobleman housed at Tehran’s Iran Bastan Museum (Picture Source: Parthian Empire).

These reports reflect developments in political ideologies. Humble origin and robbery are folkstories told also of Cyrus, Sāsān, and other dynastic heroes. The association with Āraš the archer was occasioned by similarity in names and the fact that Arsaces is figured on Parthian coins as a bowman (cf. A. v. Gutschmid in ZDMG 34, 1880, p. 743), although the bow was always regarded as a royal symbol. “The Persian Artaxerxes” in Syncellus has generally been taken to mean Artaxerxes II because Ctesias said (apud Plutarch, Artoxares 2) that he was called Arsaces prior to his coronation (A. v. Gutschmid, Geschichte Irans und seiner Nachbarländer, Tübingen, 1888, p. 30, and others). But this ignores the fact that Artaxerxes I also was called Aršak/Arsaces, Babylonian Aršu (A. Sachs, “Achaemenid Royal Names in Babylonian Astronomical Texts,” American Journal of Ancient History 4, 1979, pp. 131ff.).

1-Parthian-Horse Archer

Parthian Horse Archer (Picture Source: Civilization fanatics)

The tradition that Arsaces was a Parni chief is supported, as R. N. Frye has noticed (The History of Ancient Iran, Munich, 1983, p. 206), by a statement in Bundahišn (35.43f.) according to which Dastān (= Zāl), “Prince of the Sacas” and Aparnak, Lord of Aparšahr (later Nīšāpūr) were descendants of Sām: “Aparšahr is thus named because it is the land of the Aparnak” (corrected translation in Frye, loc. cit., with n. 3). By the middle of the third century B.C., the Parni appear to have been assimilated to the Iranian Parthians: They adopted the latter’s name, bore purely Iranian—even Zoroastrian—names (Lassen, Indische Altertumskunde II, Bonn, 1847, p. 285 n. 3, could connect the name of Arsaces’ father, Phriapites, with an Avestan *Friya pitā “father-lover” = Greek Philopatros). On his coins, Arsaces wears Sacian dress but sits on a stool (later ampholas) with a bow in hand, as Achaemenid satraps, such as Datames, had done before. He deliberately diverges from Seleucid coins to emphasize his nationalistic and royal aspirations, and he calls himself Kārny/Karny (Greek Autocratos), a title already borne by Achaemenid supreme generals, such as Cyrus the Younger (see for details M. T. Abgarians and D. G. Sellwood, “A Hoard of Early Parthian Drachms,” NC, 1971, pp. 103ff.).

32-Partho-Sassanian belt buckle 2nd or 3rd century CE

[Click to Enlarge] Partho-Sassanian belt buckle dated to the 2nd or 3rd century CE (Picture source: Farrokh, page 143, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا). 

Later Parthian kings assumed Achaemenid descent, revived Achaemenid protocols (J. Neusner, “Parthian Political Ideology,” Iranica Antiqua 3, 1963, pp. 45ff.), and Artabanus III, who named one of his sons Darius (Dio Cassius 59.27), laid claim to Cyrus’ heritage (Tacitus, Annals 4.31). On the whole, then, onomastic, numismatic, and epigraphic considerations point to the conclusion that the Parthian dynasty was “local, Iranian by origin;” on this ground “the Zoroastrian character of all the names of the Parthian kings, and the fact that some of these names . . . belong to the “heroic background” of the Avesta,” afford logical explanation (G. V. Lukonin in Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, 1983, p. 687).

Professor C. Toumanoff: The Arsacid Dynasty of Armenia

The article below on the Arsacid Dynasty of Armenia is authored by Professor C. Toumanoff and was originally posted in the Encyclopedia Iranica). Kindly note that apart from the map and table of kings which have been posted on Encyclopedia Iranica and CAIS, all other pictures are unique to this posting.


Third dynasty of Armenia (in Armenian, Aršakuni), from the first to the mid-fifth century. The preceding dynasty of the Artaxiads became extinct about A.D. 12, amid a secessionist chaos caused by the perennial struggle of Iran and Rome over Armenia—the second throne, after Media, in the Iranian scheme of vassal kingdoms. It was then that the ex great king of Iran, Vonones I became king of Armenia. After him, seven Arsacid princes from Parthia came at different times to occupy the Armenian throne, interchangeably with six others, candidates of Rome. A compromise was finally attempted in 63 (Treaty of Rhandeia).


[Click to Enlarge] Map of Armenia under the Arsacid House (Picture Source: CAIS).

An Arsacid, Tiridates I, was recognized by both empires as king of Armenia. Roman “friendship” was imposed upon him—and in 66 he journeyed to Rome to be crowned by Nero—and, at the same time, as a Parthian prince, he was bound to accept the family ascendancy of the head of the Arsacids, the great king. The balance thus established between political and dynastic allegiance proved, however, precarious. Dynastic allegiance often became political as well, and Armenia continued to oscillate between the two rivals. None of the first eight Arsacids who reigned in Armenia founded a line of kings; it was left to the ninth, Vologases (Vałarš) II (180-191), to achieve this: his posterity of thirteen kings formed the Armenian Arsacid dynasty (see table below).


[Click to Enlarge] Arsacid Royal Lineage of Armenia (Picture Source: CAIS).

The Armenian historical tradition (found chiefly in Ps.-Movsês Xorenac’i) represented the earlier, national Artaxiads as also a branch of the Iranian Arsacids, and the Armenian Arsacids as their direct continuation, creating thus an imbroglio from the effects of which Armenian historiography has only recently succeeded in freeing itself.

Arsacid rule brought about an intensification of the political and cultural influence of Iran in Armenia. Whatever the sporadic suzerainty of Rome, the country was now a part-together with Iberia (East Georgia) and (Caucasian) Albania, where other Arsacid branched reigned-of a pan-Arsacid family federation. Culturally, the predominance of Hellenism, as under the Artaxiads, was now followed by a predominance of “Iranianism,” and, symptomatically, instead of Greek, as before, Parthian became the language of the educated. However. since the Iranian Arsacids themselves took pride in being philhellene, Armenian Hellenism was not destroyed.


A portrait of Armenian King Varazdat (r. 374-378 CE) who was a descendant of the Parthian nobles of Armenia, known as the Arshakuni.

After a while, however, the Armeno-Iranian symbiosis came to an end. Early in the third century. the Arsacids of Iran were overthrown by the Sasanians; the family federation existed no longer; instead, a family feud separated the Armenian Arsacids from the “usurping” new rulers of Iran. Next, in 314, under King Tiridates (Trdat) the Great and through the apostolate of ‘St. Gregory the Illuminator, Armenia, nearly simultaneously with the Roman empire. officially accepted Christianity, a turning point in its history. An unbridgeable gulf between the militant Mazdaism of Sasanian Iran and Armenia’s no less uncompromising Christianity, now replaced the unity of the easy syncretistic paganism of the Armeno-Iranian symbiosis. Politically, religiously, and culturally, this was a victory of the Roman empire and Hellenism. But this, the “neo-Achaemenianism” of the Sasanians could not tolerate. So the struggle of empires went on, more intensely than before, until, finally, the Roman empire, occupied elsewhere, was obliged to come to terms with Iran and to agree to the partitioning between them of the apple of discord, especially as, quite conveniently, the latter had just itself effected its division.

Sassanian and Armenian Knights

 [CLICK TO ENLARGE] PHOTO INSERT & COMMENTARY BY Kaveh Farrokh: Sassanian metalwork at right depicting  Khosrow I Anoushiravan and four Sassanian knights (possibly the Sassanian empire’s primary generals). Note the stance of one of the knights from the plate highlighted for reference. Note the figure highlighted  on the Surp Neshan Basilica – the parallels of this form (despite the wear of weather over the centuries) with its Sassanian counterparts are virtually exact.

Parallel to the tension of imperial rivalries outside, there was also a tension at home, one between the crown and the great nobility. Armenia was a highly aristocratic society, its peculiar feature being the presence, above the lesser, azat nobility, of a group of dynastic princes, descendants and successors of prehistoric tribal chiefs, who regarded themselves as minor kings and the king of Armenia as a primus utter pares. The crown endeavored to enhance its ascendancy over the princes. In an attempt to replace the purely political subordination of sovereign princes to a more powerful sovereign, the king, feudalism was introduced, reaching its fullest development in the Arsacid period, with its fundamental conception of the derivation of all authority from the king. The princes, on their part, strove to preserve the older conception, their traditional dynastic position. Hence both conceptions coexisted, in a typically Armenian- and Caucasian- blend. Hence, also, the inner tension. So, while the crown was drawn towards the autocratic and bureaucratic empire. the princes, albeit Christians, gravitated towards the comparatively more aristocratic Iranian monarchy. During one of the internal crises, the kingdom was divided in 384 between the pro-Roman Arsaces (Arsak) III and the pro-Iranian Chosroes (Xosrov) IV. With this fait accompli before them, the Emperor Theodosius I and the Great King Shapur III hastened to ratify in 387 the existence of two Armenian kingdoms, one, western, a Roman, and the other, eastern and vastly larger, an Iranian vassal. Arsaces I11 died in 390 and the western kingdom became a part of the Roman empire; but the eastern kingdom (Persarmenia) continued to exist. The crown, however, was fatally weakened; and, finally, the princes, weary of all immediate authority over them, deposed with Iranian connivance the last king, Artaxias (Artâshês) IV in 428 and brought about the abolition of the monarchy. Thereafter Armenia was a part of the Iranian empire, with the princes as its sovereign oligarchs, vassals of the distant great king, whose suzerainty expressed itself in the presence of his viceroy (marzpan) and in the obligation of fealty and military aid imposed on them.


Armenian depiction of Goddess Anahit – Armenian equivalent of the Goddess Anahita (Picture Source: News.Am).

An event of importance in the Arsacid period was the invention on the threshold of the fifth century, of the Armenian alphabet by St. Mashtoc’ (Mesrop). With this Armenian became the language of the educated; it was introduced into the liturgy; and national literature was born (under Hellenistic and Syrian influences). Armenia’s identity and individuality were thus saved and an absorption by either Byzantine or Iranian civilization was precluded.