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Is There Anyone in Iranian Azerbaijan Who Wants to Get a Passport to Go to Mashad, Qum, Isfahan or Shiraz? - The Dynamics of Ethnicity in Iran

By Fereydoun Safizadeh, Boston University


It is a very sensitive time in Iran’s history.  It is not clear what is in store for Iran.  In as much as there are plans to possibly use bunker buster atomic devices to get at nuclear sites in Iran, there are also plans to use ethnic tensions as internal atomic bombs in democracy operations in Iran.  It has been said that if Khuzistan is separated and turned into another Kuwait, Iran is finished.  Thus, it is important to find out what are the ethnic issues and regional grievances and to stop the simplifications that go on.


In Iranian Azerbaijan the answer to the question Is There Anyone in Iranian Azerbaijan Who Wants to Get a Passport to Go to Mashad, Qum, Isfahan or Shiraz? has been, and is, still no after the May 2006 unrest.  In fact, based on my most recent fieldwork in Tabriz between January and July of 2006 the answer is categorically no.   Of course, if you listen to the Chicago based GunAz TV broadcasting on Telestar or the Turkish Sats, you may think otherwise, but the truth is that when one reaches the final question that “do you want to get a passport to go to Mashad, Qum, Isfahan or Shiraz?”, even the most ardent of Azerbaijani rights advocates go through a reality check and reply that we are not talking about separation from Iran.  Now that this important question has been answered, may be we should stop worrying about Azerbaijani minority problems in Iran.  But in fact, this is exactly been the problem, and has been the pattern in dealing or better said, in not dealing, with ethnic minority issues in Iran.  So, what can I say that throws light on the relationship of Turkish and Persian-speaking people and communities in Iran?  Do not look for clear cut answers to the issues, or to the expectations of minority Turkish-speakers, or to those of the Persian-speakers.


It should also be said that in referring to Turkish-speakers in this paper I am only referring to the people in northwest Iran, and not the Turkmen or the Qashqai people, who are important Turkic speaking peoples in Iran.


Where is Azerbaijan?


The first issue or question is: where is exactly Iranian Azerbaijan?  In one sense this is rather an obvious issue, with various provincial divisions going back to the time of Reza Shah.  However, the closer you examine the topic, the more complicated it gets, and as the recent unrest clearly demonstrated the cultural make up of Azerbaijan is another thing.  There were demonstrations in Tabriz, Urmieh, Ardabil, Zanjan, and in numerous other smaller cities in all the four provinces.  Many people in all of these provinces found the Iran newspaper cartoon offensive and reacted to it.  As far as many local people are concerned, it is not absolutely clear whether the reason d’etre for provincial divisions into East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Zanjan were simply because of administrative needs or logistics.  So, where is the larger cultural Iranian Azerbaijan?  The northern and the western boundary of this area are clear, the international borders with the Republic of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey.  The southern boundary is somewhat diffused with Kurdish, Turkmen and Persian speaking people, and a significant number of Turkish-speakers in and around the city of Hamadan.  The eastern and southeastern borders of this cultural area has in recent years been pushed into Karaj and even into Tehran, where a low of 25% and a high of 40% are Turk, Azeri or Azerbaijani, take which ever term you would like.


The second issue has to do with the politics and poetics of the above terms.  The twenty million or so native Turkish-speakers refer to themselves as Turks.  They do not see why others insist on referring to them as something other.  Anthropology tells us that generally we should stick to the emic categories, that is, native categories of thinking and understanding of a particular local group that are meaningful to them.  Interestingly, in one of the post May 2006 unrest discussion sessions held in Tehran by journalists of Iran and Sharg newspapers, specifically inviting Turkish-speaking colleagues to assess the impact of the Mana Neyistani sousk cartoon, and their own ethnic, cultural and linguistic sensitivities and sensibilities in writing about  minority populations, it was suggested by a Turkish-speaking colleague, that a first step is, to call Turkish-speakers Turks, as they themselves do, and not keep referring to them as Azeri or Azeri-speakers, which has become the nomenclature of the print world in Iran particularly since the Islamic revolution.  The term Azeri has found a fashionable currency for distinguishing Iranian Azerbaijanis or Turkish-speakers from those in Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan and other groups in Iran.  The test of the native usage is, when two Iranian Azerbaijanis not knowing a third, will ask each other whether that third person is a “Turk or a Fars”, or of another ethnic group, such as Armenian, Assyrian or a Kurd, but not “Azeri or Fars”.


The third question has to do with historical and political issues.  Invariably, when discussing Iranian Azerbaijani and Turkish-speaking issues or identity the discussion takes on a specifically historical and political dimension, with the usual cast of topics such as the Turkic invasion of Iran, whether Iranian Azerbaijanis are Turks or Azeri, or their language is Turkish or Azeri, and issues relating to various social and political movements in Azerbaijan, such as the Constitutional Movement or the movements by Shaikh Mohammad Khiabani, Pishevari, etc..  Accurate and multi-dimensional understanding of these historical events and periods is extremely important.  But they have become a substitute for understanding the contemporary conditions of life in the larger Iranian Azerbaijan.  What is real today is that twenty million or so people live and work in that part of Iran with a particular language, customs, a way of doing things, some of which are very much like any other people in Iran, and others which are not. What these people want is understanding, respect and acknowledgement, and an end to the denial and erasure of their particularities, and an end to the unending making fun and stereotyping of their ways, culture, language, or their accents. 


The fourth issue has still to do with the area of language.  For Iranian Azerbaijanis language is obviously an important marker of distinctiveness and identity.  Such high level of language consciousness is barely a hundred years old.  Previously educated people in Iranian Azerbaijan were multilingual in several languages, in Turkish, Persian, Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian, Armenian, or even Russian or a European language.  The majority of common folk were generally monolingual, the majority as Turkish-speakers, but some were multilingual in Kurdish, Assyrian and Armenian as well. The primary cause of linguistic distinctiveness or identity has been the result of the 20th century nationalistic efforts to homogenize the population of Iran through Persian language education for better integration of the various peoples of the country.


Iranian Azerbaijanis have been in a unique position linguistically.  They are content or happy to do their talking in Turkish and their writing in Persian and their religion in Arabic.  But their capacity for multi-lingual living is being challenged both internally and externally with either-or choices in the name of national identity or ethno-national consciousness.  What you find on the ground is resistance to both these homogenizing options.


The key issues in this area are: 1) mother tongue, and what this entails in terms of thinking, expression, and comfort of communication; 2) the experience of second language acquisition, and the issue of fluency and accent; and 3) the social issues and dynamics related to knowing another language, in this case Persian.  For Iranian Azerbaijanis, Persian is a second language, and for many rural individuals, it is a completely new language.  Obviously, things have changed in the last forty years with the presence of television.  But language issues are still very much there for every family with kids, that is, how to facilitate the learning of Persian, and the feelings that individual mothers and fathers have about the force-major nature of having to insure that your child learns Persian so that he or she succeed better in school and the country as a whole.  Persian-speakers do not appreciate the second language acquisition achievements of the Iranian Azerbaijanis.  This is because few of them learn the languages of other minorities in Iran.  Turkish-speaking Iranians have more in common with their Persian-speaking compatriots when the Persian compatriots have to learn another language, such as English, in a foreign country.  While probing the question of “how does language, such as a different language or accent, shape your feelings about different people”, an informant of mine reacted with his own question “is there is an attitude about minority languages and cultures in Iran?”, and answered his own question, “from the jokes about the Turkish-speakers and their accents, one would have to say yes.”


The issue of mutual intelligibility or unintelligibility is an important subject in any multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.  In Iran a fair amount of miscommunication, conflict, animosity and hostility revolves around this reality.  It is here that the social usefulness of the jokes and stereotypes about Turks or Turkish-speakers come in.  When Persian-speakers with a historically privileged sense of self and culture cannot understand the minority, the Turk becomes the numskull or khar, the donkey.  The figure of donkey is an important one for defining the attributes of the other.  I asked my informant if he had a joke that I might use in my paper.  He promptly came up with one which I found distasteful, and decided not to use.  I censored myself.  But later, I thought this joke exemplifies the distasteful nature of many jokes that Persian-speakers often tell about Turkish-speakers and Turkish-speakers sometimes tell about Persian-speakers.  I beg of both my Persian and Azerbaijani readers not take offense.  My objective is only to show the bestial nature of the Persian and Turkish joking relation. 


So, here is the joke.


“Two friends were walking along a river and they hear a donkey braying and passing gas once in a while. The Persian-speaker tells the Turkish-speaker that the donkey is speaking Turkish.  The Turkish-speaker laughs and responds, it is true, but the problem is that the donkey is mixing in Persian once in a while.”


This is a balanced joke often jokes are highly one sided and just as stinging.


The famous British anthropologist, Radcliffe-Brown (1965) has explained that a joking relationship is a kind of friendliness expressed by a show of hostility.  It is only “sham hostility” and the parties are not expected to take offense.  Nevertheless, a joking relationship symbolically recognizes the separateness between two groups, and the potential for conflict.  But at the same time, it obligates the parties to interact in a friendly way with one another, thus, actually minimizing the chance that conflict will occur. 


Such functional explanations aside, how the jokes and stereotyping engages the other, when there are grounds for misunderstanding and miscommunication, especially about the important matters, such as politics, religion, loyalty or economic rights, that is the concern in Iran today.  The fact that Persian-speakers tell jokes about many people in Iran is not a good answer for bad taste, and disrespectful behavior, which for the sake of national interest, security and decency is totally unnecessary.


The Sousk Cartoon and the Streets of Tabriz


This brings me to the subject of the latest round of so-called unpremeditated offense against a minority population in Iran which is supposed to be cute, just a cartoon for kids and no big deal!!  So, what was the Friday May 12th Iran newspaper, Jomeh edition, cartoon by Mana Neyistani about, and why did it lead to such an unrest on Monday May 22nd in northwest Iran? 


Most people will hardly have paid enough attention to the actual cartoon, and may be puzzled why a children’s cartoon caused such a region wide protests, that lasted almost a week, left at least 4 persons dead, many injured, and an unknown number of persons arrested.  Initial calls for an apology went unheard by the newspaper.  Finally the newspaper’s negative reaction to the call for an apology was published on Monday May 22nd (85/3/1) which triggered the afternoon demonstrations in Tabriz.


It is worth paying close attention to the actual cartoon.  The title of the cartoon story was Che Konim Ke Sousk ha Souskemoon Nakonand, or what we should do that the cockroaches don’t turn us into cockroaches.  The story begins with “it is the month of Khordad, and with the coming of summer heat come the cockroaches.  In the past several years a new “veersion” (the English word is written in Persian in the cartoon) of cockroaches has arrived that are four season cockroaches, and are not affected by heat or cold” (the new “veersion” of cockroaches have arrived in Iran via air travel evidently).  The story continues that “it is that time of the year that the old and new “veersion” cockroaches come out of the toilet scaring poor  little Sara, who runs to her mother screaming maman sousk, sousk…”  The cartoonist states that “… in dealing with cockroaches … one should not adopt violence, because it takes the fun out of it.  In a civilized way, we should sit at a table and have a dialogue with them.”  He continues, “Unfortunately, the cockroaches do not understand human language, and the grammar of their own language is so difficult that 80% of them prefer to speak the language of others.” The cartoonist continues “when cockroaches do not understand their own language, how do you expect them to understand us.   It is at this point that dialogue comes to an end, and you have to resort to more violent ways.”


The first cartoon plate shows Sara and the cockroach sitting at a table with Sara attempting to speak with the cockroach, and the cockroach replying in Turkish (but written in Latin letters) “Namana” or “what.”  With this plate establishing the cockroach as a Turkish-speaker, the eight other plates go on graphically and distastefully to discuss how the cockroach live in toilets and eat human waste and so on, and how a civilized person should deal with them.


If one is a Turk, an Azerbaijani, a Turkish-speaker or an “Azeri”, and reads the cartoon carefully, it is not hard to get offended.  With close attention, it also becomes clear that this cartoonist has neither Iranian nor Western sensibilities.  He is caught in the twilight zone of two or more cultures, and in a position to play with people’s feelings, in this case, the feelings of Iranian Turkish-speakers.  As one informant reacted “he needs to sit in jail and drink some cold water (think), and saying that it is just a kids cartoon is not an acceptable answer.”


What happened in Iranian Azerbaijan in the week following the publication of the cartoon, and how it can be interpreted is another problem.  Given that ethnic and minority issues are highly sensitive in Iran these days just getting an outline of what exactly happened was a challenge.


What is clear is that the movement, at least in Tabriz was minimally organized, and it started on university campuses where students photocopied the cartoon page and passed them around and demanded an apology.  Through word of mouth word spread about the cartoon.  The heavy use of mobile telephone and text messaging was so effective that later the authorities cut mobile service for several days.  The initial city wide demonstration began around 4:00 pm on Monday May 22nd near Rasteh Kuche, Maydan-e Namaz, in front of the bazaar, and around Tabriz University.  Tabriz bazaar was shut down early while shopkeepers and others joined demonstrations heading towards the governor general's office.  The governor general and his deputies elected not to come out and respond to the marchers which further aggravated the people.  With the bazaar protesters flowing into a major artery in the city, they were joined by numerous other groups flowing towards the Tabriz University.  Similarly, groups were flowing down from the University area into the city center.  When the two groups met at a major intersection (Ab-e Rasaan), and were also met there by the security forces using tear gas and clubs to halt and disperse the marchers, violence broke out.  The confrontations lead to the burning of police vehicles, banks and the breaking up of shop windows.  Clashes took place throughout the city for the next several days while special riot forces had to be flown in from Tehran which were reinforced with irregular brown shirt type forces from the outside of the city, that were housed in mosques for several nights and supplied with chains, cables and clubs for beating marchers, demonstrators and innocent by standers.  The marchers and demonstrators received an unusually violent beating as the security forces rounded up individuals believed to be instigators and ring leaders.  Rumors spread that Persian and non-Turkish-speaking forces had been flown in to deal with the situation.   Similar violent confrontations took place in Urmieh, where the state television station was set afire.  Demonstrations and marches also took place in Miyandoab, Marand, Ahar, Ardabil, Miyaneh, Zanjan, and many other cities and towns.  Demonstrations were particularly violent in Marand and Ardabil. 


The main demand of the demonstrators was an apology from the newspaper and the cartoonist.  Given that the Iran newspaper is the official organ of the Iranian government itself, the apology took on a slightly different meaning.  When the apology finally came it was too little too late.  By that time the protest had gathered so much steam that only an acknowledgement, a statement or an apology from the government and the supreme leader, rahbar, was going to do the job.   Once the government realized the extent of the unrest and the potential for its continuance, the Tehran judiciary quickly took steps to shut down the Iran newspaper, and jailed the paper’s editor, and the cartoonist (Mehrdad Qasimfar and Mana Neyistani) on the charges that they have offend the Iranian Azerbaijanis, caused mayhem and exposed the country to foreign instigations.  Mr. Haddad Adel, the speaker of the parliament, appeared on national television, in one of Azerbaijani-Ardabili mosques in Tehran, and praised all Azerbaijani for their support for the revolution, the war and for their patriotism.  Finally, Ayatollah Khamenei himself addressed the nation on May 28th on the events in Azerbaijan, praising again the “Azeri-speaking” Iranians for their religiosity, patriotism and industry, and blamed the foreign hands in fomenting the unrest.  During the speech he offered in Turkish his own and the government’s version of the demonstrator’s slogans: “Azerbaijan-e Jaanbaz Ingilabdan Arlirmaz”, and “Azerbaijan Oyakhdi Inglaba Dayakhdi”.  The demonstrator’s slogans had been “Azerbaijan Oyakhdi Oz Dilina Dayakhdi, Farslar Biza Gonakhdi,” and “Azerbaijan Oyakhdi Oz Dinina Dayakhdi”.  A more economically oriented slogan was “Soghan Yeralma bir Quimat, Mivada bir Quimat, Dash Bashuwa bi Geyrat” or more ultra-nationalistically oriented slogan was “Fars, Russ, Ermani, Azerbajan Doushmani”.  Once again, the primary blame was put on foreign countries and their agents for causing unrest and turmoil among a minority population in Iran.


Eventually, the head of East Azerbaijan Judiciary (Hojjatollah Najaf Aghazadeh) announced that in East Azerbaijan alone, 330 persons were arrested.  80-85 persons for being ring leaders of the demonstrations and marches, another 20-25 persons, for being key instigators of violence.  A number of the key instigators were said to be Bahai and Tudeh’i (Communist), and two individuals to have ties to the state of Israel.  Another 50 individuals were to be tried for only throwing rock and damaging public or private property.  He also indicated that 9 and 15 persons were arrested in the cities of Marand and Ahar respectively.  It is uncertain how many were arrested in the other provinces.


The government and the authorities elected a three pronged approach to the Azerbaijan unrest.  While the security forces dealt extremely harshly with the participants in the demonstrations and marches, with beatings, arrests and instilling of fear, in the national newspapers, and radio and television there was a short lived public relations campaign of formulaic praise to alley the feeling of Iranian Azerbaijanis.  This was combined with arrest of journalists, and blocking the distribution of local papers, thus, choking off of any discussion in the local media of what had just happened, and what were the causes of such spontaneous protests and unrest. 


Obviously, contributing such public protests and demonstrations to the publication of a cartoon is a simplification of the issues and problems facing the people of Iranian Azerbaijan.  Clearly, the cartoon was seen as "tahgir" or insult to the identity of Turkish-speaking people, on the other hand, people talked of economic disparity, regional underdevelopment, and hoviyat zedaii, obsession with identity, both Persian and Turkish, as the main cause for the surfacing of dormant dissatisfactions.  Many informants stated the causes of problems in Azerbaijan should not be sought on the other sides of the Iranian the borders, but as the result of wrong and unfair policies by the government and the local administrators.  Some wondered with such economic, social and cultural potential why has Iranian Azerbaijan has ended up among the less-developed provinces of Iran.  Others asked which economic policies are responsible for budget allocation for East, West Azerbaijan and Ardabil provinces that combined are less than the budget for some other provinces such as Kerman or Yazd.  At a conference in Tehran two days after the start of the Azerbaijan unrest on Tanavo’e Farhanghi va Hambasteghi Melli, on Cultural Diversity and National Unity (Wednesday May 24) Mr. Hashemi-Rafsanjani stated that the cause of Azerbaijan unrest was “za’f-e tadbir” or weak policies and management.  The reformists (2 Khordadis) believe such unrest was unlikely to happen under their watch as their handling of the situation would have been much more professional and sensitive.  Only one newspaper, Etemad Melli, in a front page article, criticized the minister of Interior, the government spokesperson, and the security forces for blaming foreign countries and their agents.  The article asked how powerful can foreign hands be to have caused such unrest in Khuzistan, Sistan, Baluchistan, Kerman, and now in larger Azerbaijan (four provinces),  or to have orchestrated the cartoon and is its publication, as well as the crash of C-130 airplane killing high level Sepah Pasdaran (revolutionary guard) personnel.  If indeed, foreign agents have been able to cause all of these, then what have the security and intelligence forces and the political authorities been doing all this time.  The article continued, assigning weakness in management and policies to foreign agents, is offensive to the people of Iran, especially to the already offended people of Azerbaijan.


At the local level, recrimination had started between various authorities, particularly from the Tabriz Mayor (Ali Reza Novin) as to who should have done what, when and where to prevent the escalation of the unrest and violence.  He was critical of the Governor of East Azerbaijan (Mohammd Kazem Me’marzadeh) and stated if he had come out of his office and not been afraid, and had attempted to lead and manage the protesters, it is possible that the events would not have gotten out of hand and turned violent.  Without orders from Tehran, it is unthinkable that the governor could have done anything on his own.  What was clear was that no one was going to take responsibility for anything.  The local newspapers were warned not to “act against the interests of the state” and “not to prolong the subject”, and they did good job dancing around the issue.


President Ahmadinejad’s Trip to East Azerbaijan


For sometime there had been an on-going expectation if and when the President Ahmadinejad was going to pay his official visit to the East Azerbaijan province.  Without much notice the president started his 16th provincial visit to East Azerbaijan on July 12th.   He began his four day stay with a major speech in Tabriz at the Bagh Shomal/Takhti Stadium to which everyone had been invited, summoned, and bussed to from various government offices, factories, etc.  As Imam Jomeh of Tabriz (Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed-Shabestari) and other local dignitaries welcomed the president and listed the needs of the city and the province, what was most noticeable was the choreographed attention to Zionism and its western supporters at the international level, and to the needs of young men, especially young women at the local level.  Over the next four days President Ahmadinejad visited most other provincial cities and some small towns, at each stop adding more details to the general outline of issues raised in the Tabriz speech.  In every city or town a sport hall was promised both to young men and young women, as well as public assistance for getting married.  In as much as in the larger Azerbaijan unrest was blamed on foreign hands, the government was keenly attempting to appease the young men and women, and to address some local needs.  As job creation for the young men and women are not easy, the government was doing the doable to keep the young busy and off the streets, particularly through the sports and the marriage options.


All said and done, Iranian Azerbaijanis are in a difficult position as they have been before.  First, are their economic and political dissatisfactions, second, is their cultural dissatisfactions relating to Persian ethnocentricity that has permeated the government’s relationship with all minorities, and finally, there are the ever present unwanted hands of foreign influence and governments such as that of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Turkey, United States and Israel.  Azerbaijani ultra-nationalism is in part fed by the forces in the Republic of Azerbaijan, similarly, Pan-Turkic ideas are fed by forces in Turkey, and a variety of ideas and issues emanate from the United States and Israel directed at Iranian Azerbaijanis and other minority populations in Iran.  Many right wing think tanks in US are openly advocating using the ethnic tensions to destabilize Iran.  Similar advocacy can be read in the work of Israeli analysts, who see Iran as one of the last dynastic multi-ethnic and multi-cultural states left in the Middle East ripe for another case of federalism.  And there are the satellite broadcasts seeking to further democracy and bring about regime change in Iran.  Take the case of previously mentioned Chicago based GunAZ TV  (Güney Azerbaycan Television Inc.) broadcasting on Telestar and Turkish Sats targeting the Iranian Azerbaijanis.  Whether this station receives US government support or not is irrelevant, many Iranian Azerbaijanis believe that this is a partially US government supported operation, especially when the US Congress allocates millions of dollars to further democracy operations and regime change in Iran.  This station mainly spouses anti-regime and anti-Persian propaganda, and calls for demonstrations of one kind or another at a given place in Tabriz or Iranian Azerbaijan.   For example, in early March 2006 it called for people of Tabriz to gather at Chahr Rah-e Khomeini and Shariati intersection (old Shahnaz and Pahlavi streets) and march towards the Khalifegari, the Armenian social club, to demonstrate against the small number Armenian households left in Tabriz.  The Armenians took refuge in their home for several days to wait out the storm.  Except for the few who heeded the call (several hundred), most people I spoke with in Tabriz found this event to be an utter disgrace, instigated by uninformed and dislocated Azerbaijanis, Iranians, or others, located half way around the world.  The first casualties of this type of democracy-bringing broadcasting are often the defenseless small minorities, in this case the Christian population of Tabriz, who have generally been much appreciated for their industry and citizenship.  Individuals in the GunAz TV sitting behind microphones with access to the latest satellite technologies are often irresponsible ethnic wheeler dealers playing with local people’s lives, and in the process gaining a good deal of ill will towards the United States and its allies.


To sum up, hardly anyone in Iranian Azerbaijan wants to get a passport to go to Mashad, Qum, Isfahan or Shiraz even despite the sousk cartoons.  But we should remember that nothing is forever, like a good marriage, Turkish-speaking Persian-speaking relations need to be cared for, just as the heterogeneity of Iran and Iranian Azerbaijan needs to be appreciated and preserved.


About the Author: Fereydoun Safizadeh teaches anthropology at Boston University. He holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Middle East Studies from Harvard University.



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