Iranian Identity, the ‘Aryan Race,’ and Jake Gyllenhaal

Tehran Bureau: Everybody has heard about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the recent Walt Disney blockbuster featuring Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of…a prince of Persia. That a rather fair actor with Swedish and Ashkenazi heritage plays the lead role in a story set in ancient Iran caused a minor controversy. Some enlightened people believe that Hollywood missed an opportunity to transcend its stereotypical depictions of non-Europeans, particularly Middle Easterners, by offering the part to a brownish hero. Of course, in private discussions, many Iranians, always prompt to portray themselves as “Aryans,” concurred that Gyllenhaal accurately embodies how their ancestors must have looked, before Arabs invaded and imposed both their religion and complexion at the point of the sword.

So far, nothing unusual. What is surprising and alarming, however, is that serious intellectuals condoned these views. Asked to comment on producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s declaration to The Times of London that many Iranians were “blond and blue-eyed” until “the Turks kinda changed everything,” American-Iranian author Reza Aslan asserted that, indeed, Iranians were Aryans. “If we went back in time 1,700 years to the mythological era,” Aslan said, “all Iranians would look like Jake Gyllenhaal.” This pronouncement highlights the resilience of what I call the “Aryan syndrome” in modern Iran. A historical detour is necessary to show why it is so problematic.

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