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What is universal in the Iranian character is the enjoyment of the cadences of poetry read aloud, their wonderful food and their admiration of natural beauty.

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Iranians are proud of their Aryan roots, which distinguish them from the people of south Asia or the Middle East. They intensely dislike being classed as Arabs. In essence the Iranian soul is a deeply sensual one – perhaps the biggest surprise for Westerners expecting religious fanaticism and austerity. 

Life Style

Iranian meals can take time to prepare and though supermarkets exist and some pre-packaged ingredients are available, mostly there is no convenience food. Just buying, cleaning and chopping the herbs served with every meal can take a good chunk of the afternoon. Working women generally see to these tasks in the evenings, when they may prepare the next day’s lunch. Perhaps in more enlightened families men help with the cooking and housework, but as both the mother and grown sons of one Iranian family we know told us: ‘men who cook are not real men’. Mostly it is safe to say that men’s  role in the home is largely confined to appreciating the quality of the cooking. Which they do well, Iranians being true gourmands.

Family life

Family life is still of supreme importance although there is ongoing talk of the erosion of family values. Often families include children, parents, grandparents and other elderly relatives. As a result Iranian society is more multigenerational than Western society, something that’s most obvious on holidays and weekends when you’ll see multigenerational families walking, laughing and picnicking together.

Family Life

It’s extremely unusual to live alone and unmarried children only leave home to attend university in another town or for work. Although the young people of Iran long for independence and their own space, just like their Western counterparts, there is not much cultural precedence for this. Being married and having a family is regarded as the happiest – not to mention the most natural – state of being.


Education is highly regarded; literacy is well above average for the region at 77%, according to Unesco. Many middle-class teenagers spend up to two years studying for university entrance exams, though the Sheer number of entrants, ideological screening and places reserved for war veterans and their offspring make it very hard to get in. And once out of university, there is no guarantee of work. For the most part, though, the average Iranian family is a robust unit and, despite economic and social differences, most operate in broadly the same way. They provide an essential support unit in a countrywith no state benefit system.


When Iranians meet they inevitably ask: ‘Where are you from?’ This is because Iran has a multiplicity of distinct ethnic identities who are all, nevertheless, Iranian. It is important to understand that though the indigenous ethnicities are very much part of life, there is a unifying Iranian identity that keeps all these separate peoples part of a bigger whole.

Iran’s population has more than doubled since the revolution, as contraception was outlawed and large families encouraged. This policy was hastily reversed when the economic implications became clear and in recent years population growth has fallen sharply. Having said that, the number of Iranians is still growing and with all those born in the 1980s now beginning to have children of their own, expect that growth to continue. In 2007 the population was more than 70 million, with almost 70% of those under 30 years old  and about one-third under 15, creating serious issues with unemployment and underemployment.

The following are brief summaries of the main ethnic groups you’ll find in Iran. For more detailed descriptions, follow the cross-references to the relevant chapters.


Persians are the descendents of the original Elamite and Aryan races who arrived in what is now Iran during the 3rd millennium BC. The Persians, or Farsis, were originally the tribes that came to establish the Achaemenid Empire and now make up about 50% of the population. Persians are found across Iran, but Tehran, Mashhad, Esfahan, Yazd and particularly Shiraz have the highest concentrations.

Farsi is the main Iranian language and Persian culture is often considered Iranian culture. For more on Persian culture, see Lifestyle and the National Psyche.


Commonly called ‘Turks’ in Iran, the Azaris make up about 25% of the population. They speak Azari Turkish, a dialect mixing Turkish with Farsi. They are concentrated in northwest Iran, in the Azarbayjan Provinces around Tabriz.



Iran has more than six million Kurds. The Kurds lay claim to being the oldest Iranian people in the region, descended from the Medes. In Iran, Kurds live in the mountainous west, particularly Kordestan province near the Iraqi border. Kurds also live in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Kurds are widely feared and misunderstood by other Iranians.



Arabs make up about 3% of the Iranian population and are settled mostly in Khuzestan, near the Iraq border, and on the coast and islands of the Persian Gulf. They are often called bandari (bandar means port), because of their historical links to the sea. Their differing language (a dialect of Arabic), dress and faith (many are Sunni Muslims) mean other Iranians consider them exotic.



These proud people constitute about 2% of Iran’s population and are thought to be descendants of the first peoples in the region, the Kassites and Medes. Many speak Lori, a mixture of Arabic and Farsi, and about half remain nomadic. Most of the rest live in or near the western province of Lorestan.


Making up about 2% of the population, Iranian Turkmen are descended from the nomadic Turkic tribes that once ruled Iran. They live in the northeast of the country, especially around Gorgan and Gonbad-e Kavus. They speak their own Turkic language.



The population of dry, barren Sistan va Baluchestan province is largely Baluchi. Baluchis comprise around 2% of Iran’s population and are part of a greater whole that spreads into western Pakistan and  Afghanistan. Their culture, language and dress are more associated with Pakistan than Iran.



About a million people still live as nomads in Iran despite repeated attempts to settle them. Most migrate between cooler mountain areas in summer and low-lying warmer regions during winter, following pasture for their goats and sheep. Their migrations are during April and May, when they head uphill, returning during October and November. The majority of nomads are Turkic Qashqa’i and Bakhtiyari, but there are also nomadic Kurds, Lors and Baluchis. 

2014-12-10 | by
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