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Iran: Whose History is it Anyway?

By Mehdi Baghernejad, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)


Farabi on Iranian stamp

There is increasing concern among Iranians that their cultural icons are been claimed by other nations in search of an identity. Persian-speaking poets, scientists and thinkers from days gone by are routinely claimed as national heroes by modern states like Uzbekistan and Kazakstan, on the basis of geography.


When the head of Kazakstan's National Academy of Arts, Arystan Beik Mohammadi, visited Tehran in February, he announced that the 10th century scholar Abu al-Nasr al-Farabi was a "Kazakstani" because he is believed to have been born in what is now that country.


This sparked a furious front-page rebuttal from the Tehran Emrouz daily, which is close to Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.


Hassan Bolkhari, director of the Art Research Centre, part of Iran's National Academy of Arts, also responded, asserting that al-Farabi flourished as part of the Persian cultural world, and was thus an inseparable part of Iranian history.


The dispute was only the latest expression of Iranian resentment at other nations "misappropriating" their cultural icons.


Farabi on Kazakhstan currency


One of the best known examples of this is the 13th-century mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi, born in the Khwarezmian state that encompassed modern Iran and parts of Central Asia. He ended up in Konya in western Turkey, where his tomb is visited by millions of people every year. His poetry was in Persian, but the Turks claim him as their own.


Other figures from the greater Persian cultural world of the Middle Ages include Ibn Sina, perhaps better known as Avicenna, one of the founders of modern medicine. Born in the then great cultural centre of Bukhara, now a provincial town in Uzbekistan, Ibn Sina is claimed variously by the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Turks and the Arabs.


The 10th century all-round scientist Abu Rayhan Biruni and mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who developed algebra in the 9th century and whose name gives us the word "algorithm", have also been posthumously been turned into citizens of modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.


Over on the western side of Iran, the two Persian prophets Mani and Zarathustra are claimed by Iraqis and Kurds, respectively.


Iranian officials react to all this by saying their culture is being encroached on by others.


Hassan Bolkhari argues that "foreigners are trying to hijack Iranian identity". He uses the term "cultural invasion", an expression coined by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


"Examples of this cultural invasion include claims that Rumi is Turkish, Farabi is Kazak, and Avicenna is Uzbek, as well as calling the Persian Gulf the 'Arabian Gulf'," said Bolkhari.


Critics say the Iranian government is not doing enough to address the problem.


Saman Heydarai, an archeology student in Tehran, says Iran's rulers have failed to defend their cultural heritage internationally. Another factor, he said, is that modern Iran has not yet resolved the question of whether its identity is national or Islamic, and this colours the way cultural matters are prioritised.


"Contrary to its own propaganda, the Cultural Heritage Organisation doesn't make much of an effort to register and promote many of the country's historical figures and national heritage sites," he said.


As an example, Heydarai cited 13th-century Persian poet Nezami Ganjavi. While it has traditionally been held that Nezami was born in Ganja, a town in present-day Azerbaijan), some Iranians now believe he was really born in the village of Tad in the Iranian township of Tafresh.


"Azerbaijan has made Nezami into an Azeri. Yet no efforts are made to publicise the site in Tad," said Heydarai. "Ganjavi's home is on the verge of ruin, and many Iranians are unaware that his home is even in Iran.


"This is at a time when hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent every year on renovating religious sites in Iran, and even on places of pilgrimage in Iraq and other parts of the world."


Mahjoob Zweiri is a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Qatar. Of Jordanian origin, he lived and studied in Tehran for many years, and explains that disputes over cultural ownership stem from the fact that the geographical borders of today simply did not exist hundreds of years ago.


The Persian cultural world extended eastwards across Afghanistan into India, northwards into Central Asia, and westwards to include parts of the southern Caucasus. The thinkers and writers of that time - many of them multi-talented scientists and poets - often moved around and ended up a long way from their birthplaces.


In places like Central Asia and Azerbaijan, the creation of "national" poets and other historical figures stems from the deliberate Soviet policy of equipping the USSR's constituent republics with a sanitised version of history, complete with their own approved cultural icons. This policy was carried over into the post-Soviet states as they embarked on nation-building and sought historical legitimacy. Thus, Ganjavi has been incorporated into the historical narrative of modern-day Azerbaijan.


Many of the figures whom Iranians regard as their own are also described by blanket terms such as "Muslim scholars", or even portrayed as Arabs because some of their works were written in Arabic, the language of religion and science of the day.


Iranians are dismayed when the likes of Ibn Sina are presented as Arabs. The well-known Tehran University professor of philosophy, Gholam Hossein Ebrahimi Dinani, sees this as a part of an "Arab plot" to rewrite Persian history.

"Many of these scientists produced works of literature and science in both Persian and Arabic," he said.


Zweiri points out that until Islam's golden age came to an end with the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1257, Baghdad was the centre of science and knowledge. At that time, "Arabic culture" was a much broader and all-encompassing concept.


He argues that such disputes over cultural legacy are a feature of societies in search of an identity, based around historical events or figures that support this.


When an article about Rumi's tomb in Konya appeared a year or so ago on the Iranian website Tebyan, one of the comments posted expressed regret that the poet's grave was not in Iran.


Yet as Rumi himself said, "When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men."


About the author: Mehdi Baghernejad is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist based in Tehran.


This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.


About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting ( the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.

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