About Cats and Carpets

“Oh so you’re from Iran? I know some Arabic words!”
“Well, we don’t speak Arabic in Iran. It’s Persian. So we’re not Arabs, we’re Persian, just like the cat, meow!” (quoting Maz Jobrani, a comedian)
Well, you may or may not have encountered a similar situation when you ran into an Iranian. I could understand that you might get confused between Iranians and Arabs since, to you, they come from the Middle East – they’re Muslim and they have the same physical features as dark eyes and lots of facial hair- but Iranians and Arabs are really different and in this article I will try to point out some of the differences.

این است فارسی کج بیل بنظرمی رسد

هذا هو شكل اللغة العربية

The two sentences above are written in Persian and Arabic. They look the same, since they are both written from right to left and the Arabic and Persian alphabets are nearly the same; there are only 4 more letters in the Persian alphabet, but they are completely different languages. Both sentences say ‘This is how Persian or Arabic looks like” and as you can see, they do look different. Persian and Arabic have different origins: Arabic is a Semitic language currently spoken mainly in the Middle East and in Arabic countries, while Persian is an Indo-European language and is currently spoken mainly in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan (though there are different dialects in each country). Also ethnologically, Arabs come from Semitic origins, while Iranians come from Aryan origins, and are therefore Indo-European.

Arabs and Persians have different history. Generally, it is believed that Persian history started with the unification of Persian land by King Cyrus the Great. Persian culture really flourished and various religious were practiced, such as Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Mazdaism and Manichaeism. Arabic history, however, started mainly after the appearance of Muhammad, and the rise of Islam. Interestingly, around the 7th century AD Persia was conquered by Arabs, and the Islamic culture and religion more or less took over whatever religions and cultures they had, and that was the end of the Sassanid Empire, however attempts at Arabization never succeeded in Iran. In the modern day, Iranians are primarily Shiite Muslims though while the Arab world is mostly Sunni. Shia Muslims tend to follow a direct lineage through to the prophet Muhammad while Sunnis believe that clerics do not have to be genetically related to Muhammad. The Sunni line is larger than Shia and Iran is really the only nation that is primarily Shia.

Iran’s first Shi’a state was established in the 16th century by Shah Ismail the First. Then several other Shahs and Sultans followed up until the Iranian and Islamic revolution in 1979 where the Iranian monarchy was replaced by a republic. You have probably heard the name Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was the leader of the revolution. The Shah at the time was sent into exile, and was only hosted by an Arabic country, Egypt, during his exile which was not exactly well received by the Iranian people. This is one of the incidents that shows why Arabs and Persians have such a complicated history. In 1980 the neighboring Iraq, under the regime of Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran in an attempt to take advantage of the revolutionary chaos. In 1982, however, Iran regained control over its territory again, but this again shows you why the history between Arabs and Iranians is complicated.

The political and social environments in Iran and the Arab world are completely different. For example, Iran, with its controversial president Ahmadinejad, does not maintain a relationship with the U.S. unlike the rest of the Arab world.

To sum things up, I just hope that you sort of now know why you shouldn’t confuse being Iranian with being Arab. It is not fun to do that. If the whole politico-religious information is a bit too much for you, just keep in mind that Iran is about Persian cats and hand woven carpets, and Arabs are about falafel, hummus, and pita bread. 🙂

[اللغة العربية]

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4 thoughts on “About Cats and Carpets”

  1. I think it is really difficult for people to tell Arabic apart from Persian, if people have no knowledge of the two languages. And I do think many languages share this problem. For example, Chinese and Japanese seem very similar. So do Spanish and Portuguese.

    Your examples are very interesting and helpful. I like them!

  2. It would be interesting to know how much vocabulary is shared between the two languages. My first thought is that Farsi (or Persian) has more words from Arabic than Arabic has from Farsi. This is first time I have heard the language referred to as Persian rather than Farsi, although it make more sense to call it Persian than “Iranian.” I like the historical, big-picture, overview of your article. It is clear you are a student of history, language and cultures.

  3. @ Hikari: Thank you for your comment. It is true yeah, it is not just Arabic and Farsi! But interestingly, Arabic and Farsi are not even in the same language group as the examples you’ve mentioned.

    @Mike. Thank you for your comment! Approximately 50% of the Persian lexicon has Arabic origin, though only 25% of the words in general use are of Arabic origin. Some words from Farsi are loaned to Arabic as well, but with modification, such as panjeh (window) becomes fanjaz. While the media nowadays calls Persian “Farsi” as the natives call it, the original English term had always been “Persian”. And I really like culture, history and languages, but I am a Pharmacy student 😀 Actually since I grew up in the middle east, some of those events are just naturally a part of my history.

  4. Thanks for the reply. You are right that Spanish and Portuguese belong to the same language family. But Chinese and Japanese don’t belong to the same language family. Chinese and Tibetan belong to the Sino-tibetan family of languages, while Japanese is one of the so-called Altaic languages.

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