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An Interview with Dr. Iona Italia on Parsi and Zoroastrianism (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/06/22


Dr. Iona Italia is an Author and Translator, and a Sub-Editor for Areo Magazine, and Host of Two for Tea. She discusses: personal background, and ethnicity and religion; Zoroastrianism; approximate global population; outside of Bombay; Ph.D. from Cambridge; reclusive caves of doctoral students; and 1694 and the Scottish Enlightenment.

Keywords: Areo Magazine, Iona Italia, Parsi, Zoroastrianism.

An Interview with Dr. Iona Italia on Parsi and Zoroastrianism: Host, Two for Tea & Sub-Editor, Areo Magazine (Part One)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is personal background for you? How is ethnicity and religion intertwined in this backdrop?

Dr. Iona Italia: Parsi is the ethnicity. Zoroastrianism is the religion. It is ethnic religion. You cannot convert to Zoroastrianism. Your father must have been Parsi – it is patrilineal – for you to be Parsi and Zoroastrian. You can, obviously, also be Parsi and be an atheist, but you cannot be Zoroastrian. Unless you are Parsi.

The requirements are that your father was Parsi. It doesn’t matter whether or not your father was an atheist, but the requirements are that your father was Parsi and that you have had an initiation ceremony which we call the Navjote, which literally means “new flame” and which is usually performed in the ancestral homeland of Iran at around age 15, 16, but now in India, usually between ages 8 and 12.

I had it done originally in Karachi at age 8. You can have it done at any time in life. There is a famous example of someone who had his Navjote at age 70.

Once you have had your Navjote, if you are Parsi and you have had your Navjote, then you are a Zoroastrian and at that point, you can enter the Agiary. Obviously, you can enter to have your actual Navjote, but until the ceremony is done, you cannot otherwise enter the Agiary, which is the fire temple. We have a ritual garment. It is called the Sudreh Kusti. It is a cotton “wife-beater,” I rather irreverently call it, with a string belt.

The main worship that we do involves going to the Agiary, and then there is a ritual you follow with handwashing and various things. You wear this Sudreh Kusti and you undo the belt and you re-tie it, and as you re-tie it, you recite certain prayers. There are a few little gestures that go along with it, as well.

You tie and then you take off your shoes, you go inside, and there are a few other little gestures like touching the painting of Zoroaster, which we always have in the Agiary, and going into the place where the actual fire is, saying a small prayer at the fire, and putting a little bit of ash on your forehead. That is the main mode of worship. This is probably way more information than you need.

It is not like church, where there is a service. We do have a few servicey-style things, but mostly you go in and it is like visiting a shrine. You go in, you say your prayers, and you sit for a while, if you feel like it, or not, and you leave.

Zoroastrianism was the ancestral religion of Iran until the Islamization of Iran in the 8th century. When Islam arrived in Iran and everyone was converted by the sword, a group of Zoroastrians, so legend has it, got into a boat and fled to India to the Gujarat coast, where they settled. They agreed that they would follow the Indian customs, wear the Indian clothes, eat Indian food and have weddings after sunset, which is a Hindu thing – if they could follow their religion. The Parsis are mostly settled in India now, for more than a millennium, and mostly in Bombay. That is a little tale, maybe rather too long an answer about Parsis and Zoroastrianism.

2. Jacobsen: When was Zoroastrianism originated? What’s the – if known – definitive point?

Italia: It is not known. It probably predates Judaism. Whether or not it predates Hinduism is unknown, it is one of the oldest world religions.

3. Jacobsen: What is the approximate global population at this point, in terms of the Zoroastrian diaspora?

Italia: It depends if you count Iranians as ancestral Zoroastrians, as some people do. I said that you cannot convert, but there is an exception, which is if you are Iranian, so some people are attempting to revive this in Iran, which is why Armin [Navabi] wanted to talk to me. [Please note: Armin and I discussed this here,, from around the 32–53 minute marks).]

If you do not count that, then the population is small. We have always been a tiny, tiny minority. We have always been a small group. Probably in the 8th century when the Parsis arrived, there were probably only 4,000, 5,000. I think now there is around 100,000. Half are in India, and the other half are in the diaspora.

4. Jacobsen: Outside of Bombay, where else do you find those who have that form of ethnic/religious background?

Italia: The majority are in Bombay. There are a few scattered around elsewhere in India. Then there are some small diaspora communities in London, I know there is one in Toronto, and, for example, there is a small community in Texas. There is one in upstate New York, which I have visited. I have been to the temple in upstate New York. That is the only diaspora community that I visited, in fact.

5. Jacobsen: In the UK, when you did your Ph.D. in Cambridge, did you happen to meet some of the diaspora there, as well?

Italia: No. I did not meet anybody in Cambridge, no Parsis. [Please note that I met many other people!]

6. Jacobsen: Is part of that a consequence of being in the reclusive caves that doctoral students put themselves in when they are doing their research and their work?

Italia: I was, at that stage, not interested in exploring that side of my heritage. My parents died when I was young. My father died in 1980. After I came to the UK, and my parents died, I was 11 at this stage, and I went to boarding school. I had a complete break from that entire side of my family. I grew up with no Indian relatives, with no Parsi relatives.

I was at boarding school. In the holidays, I spent time with my much older sister. She was 19 years old, my half-sister on my mother’s side, who I did not consciously meet until that stage, and with a few aunts, and a few times with non-relatives also assigned by the state. I left that entire culture behind at that stage. I rediscovered it much, much later.

7. Jacobsen: What was your doctorate question or research? What was the answer or the findings?

Italia: I did my doctorate in English literature, so we do not have a question, like that. I do not know if that is a social sciences thing.

I did my undergraduate degree in English literature. I did my Ph.D. on 18th-century periodical essays. I began my writing on women writers from the period, so I looked at five journalists. Then I later, after I finished my Ph.D., expanded it into a book. I looked at ten journalists for the book. I had them all in sexed pairs, so there were one man and one woman in each, as the feature of each chapter.

Journalism as we know it began in the 1690s, in 1694. Before that there were broadsides and pamphlets that were issued in response to specific events, so they were like one-off flyers. What we would think of as a periodical, is a regular publication, those began coming out in 1694. I will not go into the whole history.

There was a reason for the specific date. The things that I was interested in were not news reporting. They were essay periodicals, as they were called. Later, I also looked at magazines, which were basically social and political commentary. The writers that I looked at approached that in an especially witty way. They usually had pseudonyms. They invented backstories for themselves. They wrote in the voices of these sometimes ludicrous figures.

One of them, for example, wrote as “Miss Mary Singleton, Spinster.” They wrote about how they conceived of their role as social and political commentators, which was a new role at that time.

At first, my approach was more of a feminist approach, so I was interested in women writers. Four of them women and one was probably a woman. We cannot tell because men did often write under female pseudonyms, too, in this period. Women writers negotiated that and represented themselves. [This doesn’t make sense—maybe the tape is unclear? I’d leave it out.] Later, I was more interested in, in general, how writers saw their role during this period when journalism was beginning.

I looked at the period in London from 1694 up to 1770. It is in London, the main chunk of the Enlightenment period in the UK, in England. The Scottish Enlightenment got going a little later towards the end of the period. This is the core period of the English Enlightenment.

8. Jacobsen: Two questions: Why 1694? Why did the Scottish Enlightenment take a little bit longer to get online?

Italia: 1694 was the lapse of the licensing act, which meant that the government was no longer pre-censoring printed material. Up until 1694, you could not publish things without having them first pass the government censors. That made it impossible to run a newspaper. That was one thing.

The other thing was some major technological innovations that made it possible to print off more copies of one thing at once. If you’re printing a book, then it doesn’t matter so much if it takes you six months to print off 500 copies because the book is not going to go out of date, but you cannot run a newspaper that way. You must be able to print enough copies at once.

There were technological innovations. Also, before the licensing act lapsed, the government had control of all printing presses, as well. If you wanted to print something, you had to get it past the censors and then get the government to print it on their press. Once that ceased to be the case, people started buying their own presses. Then they were able to create their own journals.

As for the Scottish Enlightenment, I do not know that it took longer to get going, as such. It is that these things tend to be virtuous circles, where you have people who are influential, and they encourage others. Then you get a burgeoning group of thinkers and writers. A similar thing happened, for example, with the Lunar Men in Derby in the 1760s.

That is what happened in Scotland, in Edinburgh, and in Aberdeen from about the 1770s onwards. There were some Scottish people also involved in the English Enlightenment, but who were based in London. I am talking about a Scotland-based Enlightenment when I talk about the Scottish Enlightenment.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Host, Two for Tea; Sub-Editor, Areo Magazine.

[2] Individual Publication Date: June 22, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2019:


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