The Forgotten History and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom
Waleed Ali was seventeen when he was first attacked by armed Iranian forces in Ahwaz for his political activism. He was taken away by the police, who showed no mercy—he was put into an isolation cell for seventeen days and moved to and from a scant room where they tortured him for information. This begun a series of events that had him expelled from the Islamic Azad University, where he was studying a bachelor of computer science.
Waleed left Ahwaz as a refugee in July 2013, found a people smuggler in Indonesia a month later and was held in detention in Australia for just over two years. Now, he lives in Sydney on a humanitarian visa and advocates for justice for Ahwazi peoples on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Bebo. He writes in Arabic, Persian and English on the disenfranchised Ahwazis who endure national oppression. He has become an outlaw in his country for using his real name for advocacy; he can’t go back to see his family. If he does, he will be executed.
Most of us in Australia have no idea what Waleed had been through in his lifetime of twenty-five years. Not only has he been humiliated to the nth degree, but now lives with irreparable psychological trauma, so much that he’s afraid of what’s next. Most of us don’t wake up to public hangings at Town Hall. We are not persecuted for speaking our mother tongue, nor are we forced to restrict our opinions, detained for participating in peaceful assembly or arrested for praying.
When it drew up its borders, the UN classified Al-Ahwaz under the Islamic Republic of Iran, who forged its membership with the international body on 24 October 1945. Ahwazi Arabs inhabit in the south and southwest of Iran. They are one of the oppressed people in the Middle East. They are united by race, culture, and language. Their Arab dialect resembles Iraqi Arabic dialect and Khaliji (Gulf accent).
The Majority is Muslim although there are a number of other religions and creeds practiced such as Christianity and Mandaeanism. There has been a deep-seated hostility by every exponent of the various leaders of the Iranian regimes against the Ahwazi Arab people, who constitute 10% of the population. Since 1925 with the toppling of the emirate of Ahwaz led by Sheikh Khazaal Al-Kaabi and the invasion by the Iranian regime, Ahwazis have endured a long history of suffering.
While the Iranian regime makes much of its supposed anti-imperialist stance, the initial annexation and ongoing occupation of Arabistan or Al- Ahwaz, renamed Khuzestan province in 1936, is a textbook exercise in supremacist colonialism with the overt and tacit backing of superpowers past and present.
The last leader of Ahwaz, Amir Khazaal Al-Kaabi, was promised support under a number of treaties with the Western superpower and empire of the time, Britain, when the then-Shah Reza Pahlavi threatened to annexe the state adjacent to modern-day Iraq in the post-WWI period. In what’s become a depressingly familiar regional theme, Al-Kaabi and the Ahwazi people were subsequently betrayed by the British, who felt their interests would be better served by siding with Iran’s rulers, who offered them sweetheart deals on the massive Ahwazi oil and gas resources (which comprise over 90 percent of those claimed by Iran), disregarding the earlier treaties in favour of backing Iran’s 1925 annexation and military occupation of Ahwaz.
If we go back in time, it is difficult to distinguish who the initial claim to the land had known today as Ahwaz.
It is not clearly known when human settlement in the Iranian plateau first began. Nevertheless, some researchers have referred to the possibility of human exodus from Africa, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Indian subcontinent towards this region. The excavations from the Kamarband Cave (near Behshahr) and the Hutu Caves (near Torijān, west of Behshahr) proved that civilization in Iran dated back to around 9,000 BC.1
Written records of inhabitants in present day Iran began about 5,000 years ago, with their neighbours to the west in the Mesopotamian plains – the Sumerians then later the Semitic Akkadians and Amorites. A Semitic nation by the name of Elamite, whose principal city was Susa in today’s Khuzestan left their blooming civilisations footprints.
In his book Five Centuries of the History of Khuzestan, Ahmad Kasravi (the foremost modern Iranian historian) wrote that “it was certain and there was proof that during the Parthian era (247 BC to 224 AD) Ahwazi Arabs had lived in Al-Ahwaz known as Khuzestan in Farsi and other parts of southern Iran…some 4,000 years ago,” before the arrival of Persians to its plateaus. Surveys by Abbas Alizadeh, Nicholas Kouchoukos, Tony Wilkinson, Andrew Bauer and Marjan Mashkour (respected archeologists) confirmed the settlements dating to the Parthian era, which included artifact concentrations and well-preserved cluster of small mounds in the “hummocky” configuration long associated with significant but yet uncharacterised changes in the modalities of settlement and land use.
D.T. Potts, a professor of Ancient near eastern archaeology and history at New York University claimed dozens of names of regions and population groups in western Iran were “subsumed under the Sumerian rubric NIM.2 Due to the lack of an indigenous term, the various languages spoken in this region may have simply been called Elamite. He goes on, “Elam is not an Iranian term and has no relationship to the conception which the peoples of high land Iran had for themselves. They were Anshanites, Marhashians, Shimaskians, Zabshalians, Serihumians, Awanites, etc…For although cuneiform sources often distinguish Susians, i.e. the inhabitants of Susa, from Anshanites, this in no way contradicts the notion that, from the Mesopotamian perspective… were all Elamites in the direction of Susa and beyond.”
According to American historian, William Theodore Strunk, prior to the discovery of oil in the region in 1908, 98 percent of the inhabitants were Arabs.3 Now, Ahwazi Arabs in Iran constitute the indigenous ethnic, national and linguistic minority in Iran; about 3 to 8 percent of the population, comprising of six to ten million people.
Dr Karim Abdian, a defender of Ahwazi rights from the Al-Ahwaz Alliance, in his speech to The Fourth New World Summit in Brussels on 19 September 2014, said that “after the emergence of Reza Shah and by enforcing centralisation, in 1925, he invaded Arabistan, overthrew the local administration, occupied and destroyed Arabistan’s sovereignty, and subordinated the province to Iran against the wishes of its Arab inhabitants and without their involvement. Farsi (Persian) was adopted as the official language, spoken by less than 40 percent of the total population. Schools were shut down and banned Arabic education in the province where about 90 percent of the people were native Arabic speakers.”
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, their situation is dire. Amnesty has said “no country in the world has a worse record in human rights.” Amnesty claims “even where the majority of the local population is Arab…land expropriation by the Iranian authorities is reportedly so widespread that it appears to amount to a policy aimed at dispossessing Arabs of their traditional lands.”
While the current Iranian Constitution contains some articles that include some of the basic human rights, breaches still persist, and remain on ice despite previous calls to action by resolutions of the UN General Assembly and various other international human rights organisations.
In a UN report on the situation of human rights in Iran, the Secretary-General remained “deeply troubled by reports of increasing numbers of executions, including of juvenile offenders and in public; continuing amputations and flogging; arbitrary arrest and detention; unfair trials; torture and ill-treatment; and severe restrictions targeting media professionals, human rights defenders, lawyers and opposition activists, as well as religious minorities.”
Mehrdad Amanat in his essay on nationalism and social change in contemporary Iran explained why non-Persian peoples in Iran have become second-class citizens, withstanding prevailing racism and contempt that is deeply ingrained in the mindset of Iranian Persians towards the Arabs. Amanat stated, “in an ethnically diverse nation where many languages and dialects were spoken, the promotion of the Persian language and literature enhanced a sense of nationhood.” This drove Iran toward ethnic conformity and denial of ethnic diversity. Now, non-Persians are subject to ethnic cleansing; dialects and cultural differences were discouraged in favour of Persian expansionist ideologies. In a country where ethnic majorities existed only in their own homeland, the socio-political structure that served to have one language, one religion and one identity failed to accord equal citizenship to its people: the Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Bahis, Manadis, Zurestorians, Yasai and other religious minorities, which in total constituted 50 to 65 percent of the population.
For Waleed, being an Arabic minority in what he deemed as an “occupied Al-Ahwaz region,” he knew too well the enormous pressure to conform and assimilate. Non-Persian people such as Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Baluchis and Turkmen bore hostile and bigoted views, based on historical claims that they were inherently inferior, never amounting to the same rights as a Persian in anything.
The views are divided on Ahwazians right to self-determination. For the past 91 years since the annexation of Al-Ahwaz homeland, Ahwazians have not recognised the Iranian government as their legitimate representative in any international fora. While Article 2 of the UN Resolution 1514 states that: “all peoples have the right to self-determination, by virtue of economic, social and cultural development,” it has become an “ongoing process of choice” in ensuring that Ahwazians are able to meet their social, cultural and economic needs.
It is not about creating a separate Ahwazian ‘state’, rather than having their rights respected in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the UN. Without self-determination it is not possible for Ahwazians to fully overcome the legacy of occupation and dispossession. This includes the freedom from discrimination of all ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities have to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their religion. It could also mean the devolution of central power and fair redistribution of wealth generated by the abundant resources in their traditional lands.
The future of Iran as a modern and progressive state in the international community will rest on the hands of today’s youth, such as Waleed, who will in turn decide its fate. A democracy demands representation from all national groups constituting Iran to develop their respective cultures, languages, histories, economies and homelands. While Waleed’s heroes have died for the unfortunate and unjust strive for equality, honour and dignity flows in his blood to his heart that beats for freedom. His frustrations borne out of necessity and love for his country hinder the realisation of his vision of a truly united Ahwaz. And while consensus building, which is the foundation of such a state may be a long and complicated process, it offers him and his people the opportunity of a more stable foundation for equitable advancement, one where his respective peoples fully enjoy the freedoms borne of democratic aspirations, indeed, where no one is left behind.
By: Harold Legaspi
1 History of Iran, United Nations, accessed 18 April 2016: http://iran-un.org/en/the-histroy-of-ancient-iran/
2 Is the name Elam was written with the sumerogram NIM meaning simply ‘high’, often accompanied by the determinative KI denoting ‘land, country’.
3 W. T. Strunk, 1978, The reign of Shaykh Khazʻal ibn Jābir and the suppression of the principality of Arabistan: a study of British imperialism in southwestern Iran 1897-1925, http://WorldCat.org