Some years ago, one of my students at Jacksonville University asked me “if I ever receive any reply to my emails that I sent out to important people?” I was bragging about sending emails to Mr. Kevin Klose, then president of National Public Radio, and Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. My answer to my student was “yes”, of course. I said the important people that I write to may try to hide behind their phones or email addresses, but I smoke them out of their caves. This must have been the time when we were trying to smoke out terrorists from their caves. Thus, I can say that my conversation with my student must have happened after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Especially when on the road driving, I always listened to NPR. Even now, no day goes by without somebody on the air mispronouncing some of the proper, personal and place names, from the Middle East. By writing to NPR, I was trying to come up with a way, a method of standardization, to pronounce these proper names accurately. The first time I got in touch with NPR was in 2004. I received one encouraging reply from Mr. Kernis, a VP, who wrote to me on 8/2/06 that my proposal was important to NPR, saying “It’s extremely important to us to get it right, as our credibility is at stake.” But, he said that Mr. Marimow, also a VP and Ms. Malesky, a librarian, are the people that I should get in touch with. None of them was of any help.
I sent my first long email to Mr. Klose on September 11, 2006. I wrote him “continuation of mispronunciation on NPR in the 21st century is an anachronism. Running business as usual and ignoring this problem is disrespectful to our education here and insulting to millions of people abroad.” I even reminded him that at NPR, they were violating their own 3rd “Codes of Ethics and Practices” related to accuracy. He unsuccessfully attempted to convince me that there was not any pronunciation problem. Then, he simply disappeared form my sight. At the end, Mr. Klose ignored my many following emails throughout 2007.
In dealing with NPR, I noticed an interesting fact. I found a sample of five journalists, reporters, media personalities, and a professor that go through a process of self-mutilation and dumbing-down Americans. They knowingly pronounced all or parts of their names erroneously. All of the five were born in the Middle East and all but one worked for NPR. In addition to Ms. Hoda Kotb (Qotb) of NBC, the list included Ms. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Ms. Davar Ardalan, Ms. Roxana Saberi, and Dr. Vali Nasr. None of the syllables in Ms. Kotb’s first and last names is mentioned correctly. Only one of three of Ms. Nelson’s name is pronounced properly (and you can guess which name that is). The last three, all originally from Iran, have had all or part of their names rendered meaningless and worthless.
Throughout my graduate studies, I have noticed that at least half of the available works, even a few that were written by scholars with advanced educational attainments, do not set forth a proper understanding of the relations between Iran and Persia. The writers appear to believe that ancient Persia became modern Iran. I had to reject this wrong historical concept. Some of the authors are so confused that both names are given in their titles of their books (Batmanglij 1986 and Pollack 2004). For many years, the CIA’s World Factbook’s opening sentence about the country stated, “Known as Persia until 1935, Iran…” This was and still is the world’s biggest historical blunder. I felt I had to correct this mistake.
Thus, I diligently and carefully wrote a paper on this subject that was published in the American Geographical Society’s Focus on Geography in 2007. A summery of this research paper was published in the Association of American Geographers Newsletter, as an Op-Ed. I proved that Iran has never changed its name. The country has always been called by the same name. It is absolutely wrong to believe that ancient Persia became modern Iran. Persia, Pars, now called Fars, is only one of the 31 Iranian Ostans or Provinces. In this regards, I sent an email and a hard copy of it via USPS to the CIA. Unfortunately, I was ignored.
With its capital in the city of Shiraz, Fars is Iran’s Province number 19. In my forthcoming book , The 31 Ostans of Iran, I wrote the followings about the Province of Fars:
“Shiraz, the capital city of Pars, is heavenly in spring,
When flowers bloom and nightingales sing.
Farsi or Persian, the official language of Iran,
Started here and learning it is so fun.
Tombs of Saadi and Hafiz, and ruins Persepolis,
Are among places you should not miss.”
At the end of both articles, I mentioned that the country’s name should be pronounced “Ee-run.” I believe that these two articles had an effect on the way Iran’s name is pronounced recently. I was not surprised when on 12/12/12, both Chris Wallace and Hilary Clinton, on Fox News and ABC, respectively, pronounced the name of the country accurately. But, apparently neither Alex Trebek nor his writers on Jeopardy have seen my papers. Again, on 12/12/12, according to them, mistakenly, “Persia became Iran.”
Also, I sent the following email to Senator Nelson on Thursday, December 21, 2006 12:05 PM.
“Honorable Senator Nelson:
This morning, shortly after 7:00am, I heard you talking about your recent trip to Syria on a local radio station. Your pronunciation of President al-Assad’s name was different than what I have learned in the region. When pronounced correctly, “Assad” means the “Lion” in Arabic. It becomes meaningless, of course, if mispronounced. This name has two syllables, “Aa” and “ssad.” The first part is pronounced as the “A” in “apple” and the second part as the English word “sad” with an accent on the letter “s.” … As a part of communication system, I believe pronunciation matters a lot. Authentic, authoritative, and accurate pronunciation of proper names adds an extra dimension of respect to many situations.”
The Senator simply ignored my message.
In my paper about Obama’s Pronunciation problems that was published by Counter Punch in 2009, I wrote that, “There is no “eye” in Iran or Iraq, There is no “key” in Pakistan and no “lee” in Taliban, and There is no “nee” in Afghanistan. No “dee” in Kurdistan.” Did my advice help president Obama? Yes, he has tuned up and has been able to avoid many of the above problems. But, he still needs more practice with Iran and Iraq’s names. Similar to a pirate, he pronounces Iran with an “Arrrrgh.”
Now, I must offer a few more correctors:
There is no “bye” in Dubai.
There is no “zee’ in Israel, Islam or Muslim.
The “h” in Bahrain, Tehran, and Tahrir should be clearly pronounced.
There is no “tar” in Qatar and its first Syllable should sound like a “cat.”
The name “Al-Assad” actually ends with the English word “Sad” not “Sod”.
A decade has passed since my conversation with my student that I mentioned at the start of the article you’re reading now. Actually, I should have told him that I have received replies to only some of my emails. A few ignorant and arrogant individuals may not care about accuracy. For me, it has become an ongoing process. Standardization of pronunciation is on its way. I hope that the media personalities that read this piece learn to pronounce the name of Syria’s president correctly before Syria reaches the state of oblivion.
Dr. M. Kamiar is the author of a forthcoming reference book called Standard Pronunciation Guide for Proper Names from the Middle East.
Batmanglij, N. Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies. Mage Publishers Inc., Washington, D. C.: 1986.
CIA, “Iran.” World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ir.html. This page was last updated on December 5, 2012.
Kamiar, M. “Country Name Calling: The Case of Iran vs. Persia.” The American Geographical Society’s Focus on Geography, Vol. 49, No. 4, Spring 2007, pp. 1-11.
_________ “Country Name Calling: The Case of Iran vs. Persia.” Association of American Geographers Newsletter, Oct. 17, 2007, p. 15.
_________ “There’s No “Eye” in Iran: Obama’s Pronunciation Problem.” counterpunch.org, April 6, 2009. https://www.counterpunch.org/kamiar04062009.html.
_________ The 31 Ostans of Iran. Forthcoming EBook, amazon.com, 2013.
Pollack, K. M.The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America. New York: Random House, 2004.