05 October 2009

Iran: Here we go again!

Nearly every global news outlet has picked up the UK Telegraph article which claims to reveal evidence about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's suspected Jewish roots in Aradan, in Semnan province

I've received numerous emails from readers asking about the story, as well as blog visitors clicking Tracing the Tribe's earlier post on the story. So it seems time to chime in.

The Telegraph article is here, and was also picked up by Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, YnetNews, US media and everyone else. A Google search for SABOURJIAN lists some 3,500 hits, with some 2,500 for SABORJIAN. The difference in the transliterated spelling from the Farsi alphabet is not important, either spelling is correct. Most sites are merely referencing the UK article.

The story is not new and was first reported by blogger Mehdi Khazali, who was later arrested for blogging about it.

Some comments:

1. Most people without specific knowledge of Iran or the Farsi language wouldn't recognize a Jewish Iranian name if it tripped them in the street. And without intimate knowledge of the community, would not know which "Persian-named" families had previously held very Jewish names.

2. Relying on an unnamed expert to unilaterally declare - and all other news media to copy and to embellish the original statement - that SABOURJIAN or SABORJIAN is a "well-known Jewish name" seems unwise. Other media outlets and blogs have written that the name is a "prominent Jewish Iranian name," "a common Jewish name," and some other rather ridiculous statements. It is NOT a well-known, common or prominent Jewish Iranian name.

3. According to Wikipedia: "Kasra Naji who wrote one of the most important biographies of Ahmadinejad available in the English language, contradicts this claim and adds that the name was actually 'Sabaghian' which means 'dye-masters' in Persian. ["Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader,"University of California Press (2008), p. 4]

4. According to Iranian-born Israeli Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East/Iran expert: "As someone who wrote his biography, I can tell you that this claim is inaccurate and would be happy to go on the record to say so. Saborjiyan are people who paint carpet threads. Also, in Iran, many Muslims and Jews share the same surname."

5. Tracing the Tribe, who lived in Teheran for nearly a decade and several more decades in the largest Iranian Jewish diaspora community of Los Angeles, has never met a Jewish or other family with that name. However, the possibility exists that there are some somewhere. Semnan province was home to a Jewish community, there was a Semnan Jewish school and an active carpet industry employing Jewish families. Photos and text about the Semnan community are in Esther's Children, and Semnan is also included in other Iranian Jewish history texts.

6. A "list of reserved names for Iranian Jews compiled by Iran's Ministry of the Interior" ? What it might be is a list of names known to be used by Jewish families. Sound familiar? Do we hear a German accent? There is also a Spanish ministry list of pre-1492 Jewish surnames. If your Sephardic name is on that list, you may qualify to apply for Spanish citizenship and "return." Genealogists love name lists.

7. To a genealogist, the Telegraph's "expert" comment below that the "jian" ending proves that a family had been practising Jews, is wrong. It is possible that the reporters didn't understand the explanation.

A London-based expert on Iranian Jewry said that "jian" ending to the name specifically showed the family had been practising Jews.

"He has changed his name for religious reasons, or at least his parents had," said the Iranian-born Jew living in London. "Sabourjian is well known Jewish name in Iran."
Jewish possibly, Jewish descent maybe. But absolutely proving that a family bearing a specific surname suffix are or were "practising" Jews (whatever that means in an historical context) ? Since when does a name suffix "prove" the personal religious observance level of a person or family?

In any case, in Farsi, the suffix -chian/-jian is not Jewish, it simply means someone who does or makes something. It does not signify a religion. For example, dokhmechian is a person who makes buttonholes (dokhmeche). The tailoring industry had many Jewish workers. For the record, DOKHMECHIAN is a Persian Jewish name known personally to me (although the family changed it later to a "better" name). -IAN is also the Farsi suffix for "son of," and also commonly used in Armenian surnames.

8. The name SABOURJIAN/SABORJIAN in Farsi has been variously described as meaning a streetsweeper, a patient man, a cloth-weaver, a dyer or painter of threads, a carpet-making industry "thread painter," a name for a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl, which in Iran is called tzitzit) or a producer of painted cloths. Take a number and get in line. All - except one - are wrong.

9. When we lived in Teheran in the 1970s, there was only one rule of which I was aware and that was that a given name had to be an "officially accepted" one, which included Farsi names from literature, religious names (Moslem, Jewish or Christian, depending on the family's religion, a required field in the identity card, shenasnameh) and some other categories. But even that rule could be gotten around and often was when parents wished to give a newborn a "foreign" name. If desired - and many did - one could also remove the word "kalimi" (meaning Jewish) from the identity card. I wonder if anyone has a copy of A-jad's father's original identity card to see what was written in the "religion" field.

10. When Reza Shah came to power in 1925 and began modernizing the country, this included requiring citizens to formally adopt surnames and to record personal and family data in identity cards. In the surname decree was the requirement that only one family in each town could take a certain name, unless they could prove they were related to the family who had first adopted the name. Thus, for example, there are BERUKHIM families originally from Isfahan and Kashan, where they adopted that name and later migrated to Teheran, where others had already adopted that name. They are not related.

What is funnier than the story itself - which might have some basis in fact, although I haven't seen hard evidence yet - are the comments made by readers to the original story and in other media outlets. Some commenters are convinced the name is really Armenian because it ends in -IAN (as many Armenian names do), while others go off on political tangents.

Despite all the above, many Jewish families in Iran were converted via force (the last mass conversion was in 1830s' Mashad) to Islam or voluntarily for other reasons, becoming Bahai, Christian or Moslem.

Critical reading skills are important in analyzing news stories. For genealogists, who deal in facts, evidence is essential. The "sexiness" of a certain story should not preclude good journalism, which should also be based on facts.

Food for thought.


  1. On each of the four corners of the silk tallit are special knots called Tassels (Tzitzit) in fulfillment of the biblical commandment.The word Tallit originally meant "gown" or "cloak.

  2. Anonymous1:14 PM

    Names ending with jian or ian are for the most Armenian, Armenians are christians, but there 100% hebrew bloodlines?! ..also google Armenia and the lost tribes!

  3. Anonymous3:58 PM

    Thanks for a well written piece on this hijacked subject.

    Also growing up in the 70s in Iran, I was privileged to have been brought up in a family who had Jewish, Christian, Baha'i and Zoroastrian friends. I myself come from a Jewish and Muslim background and attended a Christian school. Your assessment of names and origins are exactly as I understand them, and as I was taught.

    Most people cannot trace their any farther back than Reza Shah.

    I am interested in learning more about Jews of Arak, where my mother's family converted in the 1930s.