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Orientalism has no place in religious celebrations

Why I do not want to “party Persian style”

Last week, Facebook suggested that I check out an event titled “1001 Persian Nights,” a celebration of the Jewish holiday Purim hosted by Hillel Montreal and the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) at Montreal. The cover photo features an orientalist depiction of what I’m assuming was to be “Persia,” similarly styled to Disney’s highly racist and orientalist movie Aladdin. According to the event’s description, people are encouraged to “party Persian style,” whatever that is supposed to mean. As an Iranian, I am writing this article because my post on the event page highlighting my concerns was deleted by the organizers and it is vital that this type of orientalist cultural appropriation be called out.

The terms “Iranian” and “Persian” have different meanings; the first refers to the people of a country, the second refers to an ethnicity within that country. However, the terms are largely used and understood as interchangeable in the West, and “Persian” is often used intentionally because it sounds more “exotic.”

The theme of this event uses elements that have historically forced Middle Eastern people into stereotypes. This is Orientalism, or, as scholar Andrea Smith calls it, one of the three pillars of white supremacy. According to Edward Said, Orientalism is a distorted and exaggerated way of seeing Middle Eastern peoples and cultures in a way that emphasizes their differences from cultures of the West. This involves imagining Middle Eastern cultures, especially Arab culture, as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and almost always dangerous, with overly sexual men and desexualized, oppressed women.

The event name “1001 Persian Nights” comes from One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folk tales compiled between the 8th and 13th centuries. Translations of this collection into English and other western European languages were largely  completed by European Orientalists who lacked a grasp of the stories’ original languages and took huge liberties in their translation, framing characters to embody the essentialist image of ‘the savage Arab,’ thereby marking the book as a prime example of the Orientalist canon. That is why, in the Western world, this collection is more commonly known as Arabian Nights: the book is often read as an essentializing portrayal of the Arab world.

Orientalism is by no means a phenomenon of the past; movies like Argo, The Dictator, and 300 and TV shows like Homeland show that it is alive and well. In fact, last summer, here in Montreal, the Museum of Fine Arts held an art exhibit actually titled “Orientalism” that, ironically or not, served nothing but to perpetuate stereotypes of Middle Eastern people. The Orientalist paradigm has real harms; the perception of people in the Middle East as “other” and “backward” feeds into the same white saviour complex that is used to justify imperialist wars.

So, after doing some research and talking to Jewish friends, I’ve learned that, although Purim parties often have themes or encourage the use of costumes, this “Persian” theme is by no means a necessity or norm of such celebrations. So, I am left to wonder if Hillel Montreal actually chose this theme because the events of Purim took place in Ancient Persia, as the event description says, or because, as someone said in a comment on my now-deleted post, Persian culture is “classy and dignified” and would “make for pleasant decor”? I understand the historical context of the holiday, but between comments like this and the cartoonish imagery heading the Facebook event, I am skeptical that this is how the theme is really being viewed. In the conception of “Persian nights” as a fun theme or “classy” aesthetic, the culture does not belong to Persians and Iranians themselves; it becomes an “Othered” fiction of everything non-Western, strange, and exotic. And, since Purim is a costume party, will participants dress up in accordance with this orientalist and racist theme? My culture is not a costume, and it is certainly not reducible to rugs and marquees and lanterns and genies.

This blatant racism is further complicated by Hillel’s politics. Hillel, an international organization, has a mandate that states it is “steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” The state of Israel, however, is built on the displacement and genocide of Palestinian people. Since its establishment, Israel has used an Islamophobic and orientalist approach to brush over the diversity that exists between and within Middle Eastern societies and cultures to portray people of the region as savage, misogynistic, homophobic terrorists. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s web page pertaining to Iran is simply titled “The Iranian Threat.” Apparently that’s all we are – dangerous, brutal, threatening. Iran’s foreign policy toward Israel is similarly hostile, but Iran, unlike Israel, lacks enough power in the international community to, for example, successfully hold other countries to cut ties with or sanction Israel – approaches that have been the hallmark of Israel’s foreign policy toward Iran for decades. The appropriation of this event’s theme is an even harder pill to swallow when it is done by a group that supports a state with politics that marginalize my people on a daily basis. You cannot ignore this history and use our culture when it is convenient. You just can’t have it both ways.

When I posted on the event’s page to voice my disagreement with the event’s theme, my ethnic identity that I cherish so much and have worked to reclaim after years of self-hatred was called into question. I was asked if I could prove that my roots extend to the “Persian Empire,” and was told that Jewish people were actually descendants of the “Persian Empire” and thus had a greater right to practice Persian culture than I did. I mentioned that while the “Persian Empire” no longer exists, we, Iranians, do, and this event is an appropriation of our culture. In a bizarre response, I was told that my not being from the “Persian Empire” meant that my practice of Persian culture was actually appropriation.

When I messaged Hillel Montreal after my post was deleted, they responded not with an apology but with tone policing, as if I owe those who appropriate my culture any affability. I was told that they would like to engage in a “dialogue” privately – but this is not a private matter. I hold Hillel and JLIC accountable for their racism, orientalism, and cultural appropriation, and would like them to issue an apology – very, very publicly.  

Last but not least, I would like to clarify that, had this event been held by and for Jewish members of Hillel who are actually of Persian descent, this criticism would have been different. Obviously, as Iranians and Persians, we can celebrate our culture as we wish. I’m certain that nobody who actually is of Middle Eastern descent would organize a party that paints an oppressive caricature of their own culture – with the possible exception of a situation where the Middle Eastern organizers and participants would engage with the theme in order to subvert it, not to reinforce it. Certainly, as Iranians and Persians, we still need to be wary of using orientalist tropes to spice up our celebrations, since, through self-orientalization, not only do we perpetuate the harm done to our communities by Western orientalists, but we also harm other communities of colour such as Arabs, Turks, or Indians.

However, my criticism is of non-Persian people in Canada attempting to practice a culture that is not theirs. And, for those who are wondering, I am not singling out Hillel because it is a Jewish organization; if any other group on campus with no connection to Iran was to have a similar event, I would also condemn them on similar charges. My culture is rich, it is full of beauty and full of diversity, but it is mine. Seeing it be reduced to a “classy decor” for a party organized by a group whose politics has never had my people’s best interests in mind fills my heart with pain.

I do sincerely wish everyone who celebrates Purim a joyous holiday. And, while we’re on the subject of Persian culture, I extend my best wishes to people of Iranian descent and people of Central and Western Asia who celebrate Norooz.

Paniz Khosroshahy is a U2 Women’s Studies and Computer Science student. To reach her, email