Published: August 2008
Persia: Ancient Soul of Iran
A glorious past inspires a conflicted nation.
By Marguerite Del Giudice

What's so striking about the ruins of Persepolis in southern Iran, an ancient capital of the Persian Empire that was burned down after being conquered by Alexander the Great, is the absence of violent imagery on what's left of its stone walls. Among the carvings there are soldiers, but they're not fighting; there are weapons, but they're not drawn. Mainly you see emblems suggesting that something humane went on here instead—people of different nations gathering peace­fully, bearing gifts, draping their hands amiably on one another's shoulders. In an era noted for its barbarity, Persepolis, it seems, was a relatively cosmopolitan place—and for many Iranians today its ruins are a breathtaking reminder of who their Persian ancestors were and what they did.

The recorded history of the country itself spans some 2,500 years, culminating in today's Islamic Republic of Iran, formed in 1979 after a revolution inspired in part by conservative clerics cast out the Western-backed shah. It's argu­ably the world's first modern constitutional theocracy and a grand experiment: Can a country be run effectively by holy men imposing an extreme version of Islam on a people soaked in such a rich Persian past?

Persia was a conquering empire but also regarded in some ways as one of the more glorious and benevolent civilizations of antiquity, and I wondered how strongly people might still identify with the part of their history that's illustrated in those surviving friezes. So I set out to explore what "Persian" means to Iranians, who at the time of my two visits last year were being shunned by the international community, their culture demonized in Western cinema, and their leaders cast, in an escalating war of words with Washington, D.C., as menacing would-be terrorists out to build the bomb.

You can't really separate out Iranian identity as one thing or another—broadly speaking, it's part Persian, part Islamic, and part Western, and the paradoxes all exist together. But there is a Persian identity that has nothing to do with Islam, which at the same time has blended with the culture of Islam (as evidenced by the Muslim call to prayer that booms from loudspeakers situated around Persepolis, a cue to visitors that they are not only in a Persian kingdom but also in an Islamic republic). This would be a story about those Iranians who still, at least in part, identify with their Persian roots. Perhaps some millennial spillover runs through the makeup of what is now one of the world's ticking hot spots. Are vestiges of the life-loving Persian nature (wine, love, poetry, song) woven into the fabric of abstinence, prayer, and fatalism often associated with Islam—like a secret computer program running quietly in the background?

Surviving, Persian Style

Iran's capital city of Tehran is an exciting, pollution-choked metropolis at the foot of the Elburz Mountains. Many of the buildings are made of tiny beige bricks and girded with metal railings, giving the impression of small compounds coming one after the other, punctuated by halted construction projects and parks. There are still some beautiful gardens here, a Persian inheritance, and private ones, with fruit trees and fountains, fishponds and aviaries, flourishing inside the brick walls.

While I was here, two Iranian-born American academics, home for a visit, had been locked up, accused of fomenting a velvet revolution against the government. Eventually they were released. But back in the United States, people would ask, wasn't I afraid to be in Iran?—the assumption being that I must have been in danger of getting locked up myself.

But I was a guest in Iran, and in Iran a guest is accorded the highest status, the sweetest piece of fruit, the most comfortable place to sit. It's part of a complex system of ritual politeness—taarof—that governs the subtext of life here. Hospitality, courting, family affairs, political negotiations; taarof is the unwritten code for how people should treat each other. The word has an Arabic root, arafa, meaning to know or acquire knowledge of. But the idea of taarof—to abase oneself while exalting the other person—is Persian in origin, said William O. Beeman, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Minnesota. He described it as "fighting for the lower hand," but in an exquisitely elegant way, making it possible, in a hierarchical society like Iran's, "for people to paradoxically deal with each other as equals."

Wherever I went, people fussed over me and made sure that all my needs were met. But they can get so caught up trying to please, or seeming to, and declining offers, or seeming to, that true intentions are hidden. There's a lot of mind reading and lighthearted, meaningless dialogue while the two parties go back and forth with entreaties and refusals until the truth reveals itself.

Being smooth and seeming sincere while hiding your true feelings—artful pretending—is considered the height of taarof and an enormous social asset. "You never show your intention or your real identity," said a former Iranian political prisoner now living in France. "You're making sure you're not exposing yourself to danger, because throughout our history there has been a lot of danger there."

Geography as Destiny

Indeed, the long course of Iranian history is satu­rated with wars, invasions, and martyrs, including the teenage boys during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s who carried plastic keys to heaven while clearing minefields by walking bravely across them. The underlying reason for all the drama is: location. If you draw lines from the Mediterranean to Beijing or Beijing to Cairo or Paris to Delhi, they all pass through Iran, which straddles a region where East meets West. Over 26 centuries, a blending of the hemispheres has been going on here—trade, cultural interchange, friction—with Iran smack in the middle.

Meanwhile, because of its wealth and strategic location, the country was also overrun by one invader after another, and the Persian Empire was established, lost, and reestablished a number of times—by the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sassanids—before finally going under. Invaders have included the Turks, Genghis Khan and the Mongols, and, most significantly, Arabian tribesmen. Fired with the zeal of a new religion, Islam, they humbled the ancient Persian Empire for good in the seventh century and ushered in a period of Muslim greatness that was distinctly Persian. The Arab expansion is regarded as one of the most dramatic movements of any people in history. Persia was in its inexorable path, and, ever since, Iranians have been finding ways to keep safe their identity as distinct from the rest of the Muslim and Arab world. "Iran is very big and very ancient," said Youssef Madjidzadeh, a leading Iranian archaeologist, "and it's not easy to change the hearts and identity of the people because of this."

They like to say, for instance, that when invaders came to Iran, the Iranians did not become the invaders; the invaders became Iranians. Their conquerors were said to have "gone Persian," like Alexander, who, after laying waste to the vanquished Persia, adopted its cultural and administrative practices, took a Persian wife (Roxana), and ordered thousands of his troops to do the same in a mass wedding. Iranians seem particularly proud of their capacity to get along with others by assimilating compatible aspects of the invaders' ways without surrendering their own—a cultural elasticity that is at the heart of their Persian identity.

Welcome to Aratta

The earliest reports of human settlement in Iran go back at least 10,000 years, and the country's name derives from Aryans who migrated here beginning around 1500 b.c. Layers of civilization—tens of thousands of archaeological sites—are yet to be excavated. One recent find quickening some hearts was unearthed in 2000 near the city of Jiroft, when flash floods along the Halil River in the southeast exposed thousands of old tombs. The excavation is just six seasons old, and there isn't much to see yet. But intriguing artifacts have been found (including a bronze goat's head dating back perhaps 5,000 years), and Jiroft is spoken of as possibly an early center of civilization contemporary with Mesopotamia.

Youssef the archaeologist, an authority on the third millennium b.c., directs the digs. He used to run the archaeology department at the Univer­sity of Tehran but lost his job after the revolution and moved to France. Over the years, he said, "things changed." Interest in archaeology revived, and he was invited back to run Jiroft. Youssef thinks it may be the fabled "lost" Bronze Age land of Aratta, circa 2700 b.c., reputedly legendary for magnificent crafts that found their way to Mesopotamia. But thus far there's no proof, and other scholars are skeptical. What would he have to find to put the matter unequivocally to rest? He chuckled wist­fully. "The equivalent of an engraved arch that says, ‘Welcome to Aratta.' "

Prospects for more digs at the thousands of unexplored sites seem daunting. In Iran the price of meat is high, there aren't enough jobs, the bureaucracy is inscrutable, bloated, and inefficient, and state corruption—as described to me by three different people—is "an open secret," "worse than ever," and "institutionalized."

"The country has many needs," Youssef said, "and certainly archaeology is not the main subject." But since Jiroft, "all the provinces are interested in excavating, and every little town wants to be known around the world like Jiroft. They're proud, and there are rivalries."

Youssef was slouched happily in a faux-leather chair in the offices of his publisher, munching tiny green grapes while musing about why Iranians are the way they are. As much as anything else, he thought, it was the geography, for when the Iranians were being overrun time after time, "where could they go—the desert? There was no place to run and hide." They stayed, they got along, they pretended and made taarof. "The tree here has very deep roots."

Superpower Nostalgia

The legacy from antiquity that has always seemed to loom large in the national psyche is this: The concepts of freedom and human rights may not have originated with the classical Greeks but in Iran, as early as the sixth century b.c. under the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus the Great, who established the first Persian Empire, which would become the largest, most powerful kingdom on Earth. Among other things, Cyrus, reputedly a brave and humble good guy, freed the enslaved Jews of Babylon in 539 b.c., sending them back to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple with money he gave them, and established what has been called the world's first religiously and culturally tolerant empire. Ultimately it comprised more than 23 different peoples who coexisted peacefully under a central government, originally based in Pasargadae—a kingdom that at its height, under Cyrus's successor, Darius, extended from the Mediterranean to the Indus River.

So Persia was arguably the world's first superpower.

"We have a nostalgia to be a superpower again," said Saeed Laylaz, an economic and political analyst in Tehran, "and the country's nuclear ambitions are directly related to this desire." The headlines are familiar: A consensus report of key U.S. spy agencies—the National Intelligence Estimate—concluded last December that a military-run program to develop nuclear weapons in Iran was halted in 2003. Iran continues to enrich uranium, insisting that it wants only to produce fuel for its nuclear power plants, but highly enriched uranium is also a key ingredient for a nuclear bomb. As a deterrent, the UN has imposed increasing economic sanctions. But Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative hard-liner, is giving no ground while at the same time making frequent threatening remarks about nearby Israel, denying the Holocaust, and, according to the U.S. government, sending weapons and munitions to extremist militias in Iraq that are being used against Iraqis and U.S. forces there.

"At one time the area of the country was triple what it is now, and it was a stable superpower for more than a thousand years," said Saeed, a slender, refined man in glasses and starched shirtsleeves rolled to three-quarter length, sitting in his elegant apartment next to a lamp resembling a cockatoo, with real feathers. The empire once encompassed today's Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Jordan, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and the Caucasus region. "The borders have moved in over the centuries, but this superpower nostalgia, so in contradiction to reality," he said, "is all because of the history."

At the foundation of which, again, is Cyrus, and in particular something called the Cyrus Cylinder—perhaps Iran's most exalted artifact—housed at the British Museum in London, with a replica residing at UN headquarters in New York City. The cylinder resembles a corncob made of clay; inscribed on it, in cuneiform, is a decree that has been described as the first charter of human rights—predating the Magna Carta by nearly two millennia. It can be read as a call for religious and ethnic freedom; it banned slavery and oppression of any kind, the taking of property by force or without compensation; and it gave member states the right to subject themselves to Cyrus's crown, or not. "I never resolve on war to reign."

"To know Iran and what Iran really is, just read that transcription from Cyrus," said Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. We were in her central Tehran apartment building, in a basement office lined with mahogany-and-glass bookcases. Inside one was a tiny gold copy of the cylinder, encased in a Plexiglas box that she held out to me as if presenting a newborn child. "Such greatness as the cylinder has been shown many times in Iran," but the world doesn't know it, she said. "When I go abroad, people get surprised when they realize that 65 percent of the college students here are girls. Or when they see Iranian paintings and Iranian architecture, they are shocked. They are judging a civilization just by what they have heard in the last 30 years"—the Islamic revolution; the rollbacks of personal freedoms, particularly for women; the nuclear program and antagonism with the West. They know nothing of the thousands of years that came before, she said—what the Iranians went through to remain distinct from their invaders, and how they did it.

For instance, she said, after the Arabs came, and Iran converted to Islam, "eventually we turned to the Shiite sect, which was different from the Arabs, who are Sunni."

They were still Muslims, but not Arabs.

"We were Iranian."

In fact, the first thing people said when I asked what they wanted the world to know about them was, "We are not Arabs!" (followed closely by, "We are not terrorists!"). A certain Persian chauvinism creeps into the dialogue. Even though economically they're not performing as well as Arab states like Dubai and Qatar, they still feel exceptional. The Arabs who conquered Iran are commonly regarded as having been little more than Bedouin living in tents, with no culture of their own aside from what Iran gave them, and from the vehemence with which they are still railed against, you would think it happened not 14 centuries ago but last week.

I met a woman at a wedding who gave off the air of an aging movie star, her dapper husband beside her wearing his white dinner jacket and smoking out of a cigarette holder, and it wasn't five minutes before she lit into the Arabs.

"Everything went down after they came, and we have never been the same!" she said, wringing someone's neck in the air. And a friend I made here, an English teacher named Ali, spoke of how the loss of the empire still weighed on the national consciousness. "Before they came, we were a great and civilized power," he said, as we drove to his home on the outskirts of Shiraz, dodging motorcycles and tailgaters. Echoing commonly stated (though disputed) lore, he added: "They burned our books and raped our women, and we couldn't speak Farsi in public for 300 years, or they took out our tongues."

The Cult of Ferdowsi

The Iranians spoke Farsi anyway. The national language has been Arabized to some extent, but Old Persian remains at its root. The man credited with helping save the language, and the history, from oblivion is a tenth-century poet named Ferdowsi. Ferdowsi is Iran's Homer. Iranians idolize their poets—among many, Rumi, Sa‘id, Omar Khayyám, Hāfez (whose works are said to be consulted for guidance about love and life as much as, if not more than, the Islamic holy book, the Koran). When the people were oppressed by the latest invader and couldn't safely speak their minds, the poets did it for them, cleverly disguised in verse. "Sometimes they were executed," said Youssef the archaeologist, "but they did it anyway." So today, although Iran is home to many cultural denominations (and languages) other than Persian—Turkmen, Arab, Azeri, Baluchi, Kurd, and others—"everyone can speak Farsi," he said, "which is one of the oldest living languages in the world."

The poet-hero Ferdowsi, a sincere Muslim who resented the Arab influence, spent 30 years writing, in verse with minimal use of Arabic-derived words, an epic history of Iran called the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. This panorama of conflict and adventure chronicles 50 monarchies—their accessions to the throne, their deaths, the frequent abdications and forcible overthrows—and ends with the Arab conquest, depicted as a disaster. The most heralded character is Rostam, a chivalrous figure of courage and integrity, a national savior and "trickster hero," according to Dick Davis, a Persian scholar at Ohio State University who has translated the Shahnameh into English. "The stories of Rostam are their myths," he said. "This is how the Iranians see themselves."

The tales involve feuding kings and hero-champions, in which the latter are almost always represented as ethically superior to the kings they serve, facing the dilemmas of good men living under an evil or incompetent government. The work is haunted by the idea that those ethically most fitted to rule are precisely the ones most reluctant to rule, preferring instead to devote themselves to humankind's chief concerns: the nature of wisdom, the fate of the human soul, and the incomprehensibility of God's purposes.

The original Shahnameh is long gone, and all that's left are copies, including one in Tehran's Golestan Palace museum. Its caretaker, a sweet-faced young woman named Behnaz Tabrizi, cleared a large table and covered it with a green felt sheet. She retrieved a black box from a safe in an adjoining bulletproof room equipped with fire and earthquake alarms and climate control and laid a red velvet cloth on top of the green felt cloth, because the Iranians like to make little ceremonies out of everything, if they can. I had to wear a surgical mask to protect the manuscript from stray saliva and the condensation from my breath, and Behnaz put on white cotton gloves. She gently lifted the book, which dates to about 1430, out of its box and gingerly turned the pages with the tips of her fingers while I examined its 22 illustrations with a magnifying glass. They depicted scenes the collective cultural memory is steeped in—someone tied to a tree while awaiting his fate; Rostam unwittingly killing his own son, Sohrab, in battle; men on horseback with spears fighting invaders on elephants—all precisely drawn and vibrantly colored, using inks that were made from crushed stones mixed with the liquid squeezed from flower petals.

It is said that just about anybody on the street, regardless of education, can recite some Ferdowsi, and there are usually readings going on at colleges or someone's apartment or traditional Persian teahouses, like one in south Tehran called Azari. The walls were covered with scenes from the Shahnameh, among them the one of Rostam killing Sohrab. A storyteller did a one-man dramatic reading, and afterward musicians played traditional music and sang about yearning for the love of a woman or for the love of Allah. People sat together at long tables or stretched out on platforms covered with Persian rugs, smoking their tiny Bahman cigarettes and clapping to the music, while waiters brought dates and cookies and tea in delicate little glasses with little spoons, followed by kebabs, yogurt milk, pickles, and beet salad. Children danced on the tabletops as the patrons cheered them on and took pictures with their cell phones.

"They Can't Control What's Inside Us"

Thanks to Ferdowsi, the Iranians always had their language to unite them and keep them different from the outside world—and they also took pains to safeguard their cultural touchstones.

Take the New Year: Nowruz, a 13-day extravaganza during which everything shuts down and the people eat a lot, dance, recite poetry, and build fires that they jump back and forth over. It's a thanksgiving of sorts, celebrated around the spring equinox, and a holdover holiday from Zoroastrianism, at one time the state religion of the Persians. Zoroastrianism's teachings—good and evil, free will, final judgment, heaven and hell, one almighty God—have influenced many reli­gions, including the world's three main faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. By the time the Arabs arrived, bringing what was for them the new idea of worshipping a single God, Persians had been doing it for more than a millennium.

These days some officials see the bond with antiquity as a focus for hope. "We are a nation with such a history that the world could listen to us," Iranian Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashaee told me. "We hope that by taking pride in our archaeological sites, the people realize their capabilities, and it imbues the soul of the nation." But conservative Islamists who have no interest in reviving Persian identity can still hold sway. At times the government has tried to diminish the importance of Nowruz or replace it with a different New Year, such as the birthday of Imam Ali, the historical leader of the Shiite Muslims. "They would bring forces and arrest people," my friend Ali said. "But they couldn't get rid of Nowruz because we've been practicing Nowruz for 2,500 years! They don't really control us, because they can't control what's inside us."

That has never stopped Iran's leaders from trying, or foreign powers from interfering—particularly after the country was discovered, around the turn of the 20th century, to be sitting on what Iran claims is an estimated 135 billion barrels of proven conventional oil reserves, the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia. Adding to the drama is that the Persian Gulf is located along Iran's southern border. On the other side lies much of the rest of the world's crude, in the oil fields of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. There's also a hairpin waterway in the gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world's oil passes every day. So Iran is in a unique position to threaten the world's oil supply and delivery—or sell its own oil elsewhere than to the West.

Oil was at the root of a 1953 event that is still a sore subject for many Iranians: the CIA-backed overthrow, instigated and supported by the British government, of Iran's elected and popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh had kicked out the British after the Iranian oil industry, controlled through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later BP), was nationalized, and the British had retaliated with an economic blockade. With the Cold War on and the Soviet bloc located just to the north, the U.S. feared that a Soviet-backed communism in Iran could shift the balance of world power and jeopardize Western interests in the region. The coup—Operation TP-Ajax—is believed to have been the CIA's first. (Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., Teddy's grandson, ran the show, and H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the father of the Persian Gulf war commander, was enlisted to coax the shah into playing his part. Its base of operations was the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the future "nest of spies" to the Iranians, where 52 U.S. hostages were taken in 1979.) Afterward, the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was returned to power, commercial oil rights fell largely to British and U.S. oil companies, and Mossadegh was imprisoned and later placed under house arrest until he died in 1967.

To Iranians like Shabnam Rezaei, who has created the online magazine Persian Mirror to promote Iran's cultural identity, Operation TP-Ajax set the stage for later decades of oppression and Islamic fundamentalism. "I think if we had been allowed to have a democratic government," she said, "we could have been the New York of the Middle East—of all of Asia, frankly—a center for finance, industry, commerce, culture, and a modern way of thinking."

For the Love of God

The shah had his own uses for Persian identity. He was big on promoting Persepolis and Cyrus while at the same time pouring Western music, dress, behaviors, and business interests into Iran. One attempt to instill nationalistic pride, which backfired and helped turn public opinion against him, was the ostentatious celebration he staged in 1971 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of Persian monarchy. It featured a luxurious tent city outside the entrance to Persepolis, VIP apartments with marble bathrooms, food flown in from Paris, and a guest list that included dignitaries from around the world but few Iranians.

The shah's vision apparently involved too much modernizing too fast, and many Iranians bristled. "We were getting westernized," said Farin Zahedi, a drama professor at the University of Tehran. "But it was superficial, because the public had no real under­standing of Western culture." Iranians experienced it as a cultural attack and rebelled in the press and with street demonstrations. The more paranoid the shah became, the more heavy-handed were his secret police—SAVAK, created in 1957 with the help of American and Israeli advisers. At least hundreds of people are believed to have been executed by SAVAK; many others were imprisoned, tortured, and exiled, and more than a thousand were killed by the army during demonstrations. So when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spoke in the late 1970s of liberating the people from this latest yoke, they were moved by his eloquence and moral rectitude, and for a time the reemergence of religion after the shah's relentless modernism felt like a cleansing.

Yet many Iranians by nature are not particularly religious, in the sense of being mosque­goers and fasters. "They have a powerful soul and spirit," said a carpet salesman named Arsha, "but that is not the same." There's a tendency to follow more of a Zoroastrian model from antiquity, with its disdain for rules and for the presumption that an intermediary, such as a mullah, is required to know Allah. The spiritual journey has tended to be more inward, in keeping with the Persian proverb "Knowledge of self is knowledge of God."

So while Iranians at first were open to the idea of an increased role of Islam in public life, they weren't prepared for it to be forced on them with such rigor, especially given the Koran's specific instruction that there should be "no compulsion in religion." They certainly didn't expect the clerics to take over commerce, government administration, the courts, and day-to-day life, down to and including how to go to the bathroom and how to have sex. Punishments reminiscent of the Dark Ages—public stonings, hangings, the cutting off of fingers and limbs—were put into effect. The central government now discourages some of these archaic practices, but stubborn conservative mullahs out in the provinces cling to the old ways. Beneath it all is the spiritual aim to serve Allah and prepare for paradise.

"They're forcing heaven on me!" Ali said.

At his home one night, half a dozen friends sat in a circle and confided how awful it was to be trapped in an environment of fear and secrecy, not knowing if a friend or a loved one has been put in a position to make reports on what you're thinking and saying and doing.

"The ayatollahs and the ordinary people—everyone has to pretend," said a soft-spoken locksmith with a huge mustache named Mister D. "You don't know who is telling the truth; you don't know who is really religious and who isn't."

The Persians have a saying: The walls have mice, and the mice have ears.

"You can't trust your own eyes," Ali said.

"If you breathe in or breathe out," Mister D said, "they know."

The Generation of the Revolution

As for the revolution's effect on Persian identity? A typically Iranian thing seems to have happened.

For ten years the doors to the West were closed, and conservative clerics running the government went about trying to minimize any cultural identification that was pre-Islamic, a period referred to in much of the Muslim world as Jahiliya, age of ignorance. In official documents, where possible, references to Iran were replaced with references to Islam. Zoroastrian symbols were replaced with Islamic symbols, streets were renamed, and references to the Persian Empire disappeared from schoolbooks. For a time it seemed that Ferdowsi's tomb—a big, pale-stone mausoleum outside the holy city of Mashhad, with a beautiful reflecting pool leading up to it and chirping birds racing about the columns—might be destroyed. Even Persepolis was in danger of being razed. "But they realized this would unite the people against them," Ali said, "and they had to give up."

The people had welcomed the removal of cultural junk from the West, said Farin, the drama professor, as we sipped tea in her tasteful Tehran apartment. "But we soon realized that the identity the government was introducing also was not exactly who we were." In the cultural confusion, "elements of the old culture"—traditional music, Persian paintings, readings from Ferdowsi—were rekindled. "We call it 'the forgotten empire.' "

A young underground Persian rap singer named Yas joined us then. He had black spiky hair, stylishly long sideburns, handsome eyebrows shaped like two black bananas, and around his neck he wore a silver fravahar, the Zoroastrian winged disk that signifies the soul's upward progress through good thoughts, words, and deeds. He's part of the Generation of the Revolution, who grew up after 1979 and account for more than two-thirds of the country's 70 million people. Variously described as jaded and lacking belief in their futures—"a burned generation," as Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi put it—they are increasingly leaving for Europe and elsewhere. Some have a rich consciousness of their Persian past while at the same time supporting the idea of Islamic unity; some feel only Persian or only Islamic; and others immerse themselves in Western culture through television programming received on illegal satellite dishes. Farin said: "They're schizophrenic."

Yas raps about Persian poets, grandparents, and the history of Iran. One of his most popular cuts, "My Identity," was in response to the movie 300, about the famous battle at Thermopylae between the Spartans of Greece and the so-called Persian immortals. "The Greeks were portrayed as heroic, innocent, and civilized," Yas said. "The Persians were shown as ugly savages with a method of fighting that was unfair." The movie set off a tirade from Iranians here and abroad, who experienced it as a cultural attack. In defense, Yas rapped about Persepolis and Cyrus but also chastised his fellow citizens for resting on the laurels of greatness past.

An irony is that the Islamic revolution—at times referred to here as the "second Arab invasion"—appears to have strengthened the very ties to antiquity that it tried so hard to sever; it has roused that part of the national identity that remains connected to the idea, memorialized in places like Persepolis and Pasargadae, of Iranians as direct descendants of some of the world's most ancient continuous people. A civil engineer named Hashem told me of a recent impromptu celebration at Cyrus's tomb. People text messaged each other on their cell phones, and a couple of thousand "coincidentally" showed up, buying multiple entrance tickets to support restoration of the tomb. The celebration was informal. No speeches, no ceremony. "Just to honor Cyrus and show solidarity."

As Farin put it, shaking her lowered head with an air of world-weariness, "there has been this constant onslaught on our identity, and the reaction has always been to return to that deepest identity. Inside every Iranian there is an emperor or an empress. That is for sure."