The artistic resistance of Ahwazi Arabs in Iran

Ahwazi Arab artists broke the barriers with their language and music and sent the clear message to the Iranian central government: “We shall not waltz with your tunes.”
Saturday 03/08/2019
The Karun River is seen in Awaz, the capital of Iran's southwestern province of Khuzestan, following floods in the country, April 11. (AFP)
The Karun River is seen in Awaz, the capital of Iran's southwestern province of Khuzestan, following floods in the country, April 11. (AFP)

When Iran came under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the mid-20th century, the central government undertook aggressive policies to create a “Persian nation-state.”

Pahlavi’s attempt at “Persianisation” of non-Persian people started with banning education in languages other than Persian. Another measure was the establishment of “Farhangestan” (language academy) in 1935 with the mission to purify the Persian language from Arabic loan words and other foreign vocabularies. The creation of new Persian words was another step by the central government to combat the multi-ethnic nature of Iran at the expense of a uniform and monolingual “Persia.”

In this regard, Polish philosopher Aleksander Swietochowski described the process of forced assimilation or “Persianisation” of Azeri Turks community in Iran as follows: “In the quest of imposing national homogeneity on the country where half of the population consisted of ethnic minorities, the Pahlavi regime issued in quick succession bans on the use of Azeri on the premises of schools, in theatrical performances, religious ceremonies and, finally, in the publication of books.”

Consequently, the culture, identity and language of non-Persian communities, which lived on the borders for centuries, were suppressed violently. The fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the same years established a similar academy and took drastic measure against foreign loan words in Italian. Mussolini fined business owners who used foreign words in their logos or product names.

Iran, however, was and is one of the most diverse countries in the MENA region, including ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. The United Nations said even now around 70 languages are spoken in Iran.

Iran reversed — on paper — some of its anti-minorities laws after the fall of the Pahlavi regime but the culture of discrimination persisted.

The language policy has had various negative consequences on the development of literature, art, poetry and cinema of national minorities. If members of the minorities desired to create art, they were forced to self-censor to avoid being banned and prosecuted by the central government.

There were some who chose to resist. Some members of Iran’s minorities strengthened their sense of community by producing art in their own language. The art produced by Ahwazi Arabs, for example, ends up having very strong political undertones and, since it is not in Farsi, it takes the government weeks to figure out the effect of a particular song or book.

In the time between the release of a music video or the publication of a book and government’s crackdown and ban, the work of art would have already moved the hearts and minds of millions of people and created a spirit of resistance among the community.

One of the best-known examples of artists who had such commitment and courage and paid the price with his life was Sattar Sayahi, also known as “Abu Suroor al-Ahwazi.” He was arrested in 2012 and, only hours after his release, he died. He was in his early 30s. His poetry can still be heard in Ahwazi Arab homes, gatherings and ceremonies.

In January, the Economist magazine reported on the story of Mehdi Yarrahi, the Iranian pop singer whose song “Pare Sang” (“Broken Stone)” became emblematic for the history, environment and many other issues that preoccupy Ahwazi people.

Some artists, such as Yarrahi, use both Arabic and Farsi in their work and tackled not only the resistance of the Ahwazi Arabs in the face of forced assimilation but the demands of all the people in Iran.

Like other forms of art, music was a uniting force. Hassan Sobhipour, also known as “Hassan Nasr,” the Ahwazi director and music producer, brought “Nasheed Alwahdeh” (“Anthem of Unity”) for Ahwazis. The song became so famous across the Arab world that an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, during a TV programme, quoted the famous line “They wanted to make us cry and we made the river cry.” The IRGC commander probably did not know that at the time he was reciting this line Sobhipour was in prison for this anthem.

Sobhipour was kept in detention for up to a month although he had the necessary authorisations to release the video. After the music went viral and calls for his release became louder, the Iranian government had no choice but to let him go.

The central government has been trying to break the mosaic that is Iran for decades but the music speaks louder than words and, in this scenario, Ahwazi Arab artists broke the barriers with their language and music and sent the clear message to the Iranian central government: “We shall not waltz with your tunes.”

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