Overcoming the Arab-Persian divide: Who owns the Gulf?

Arab and Persian nationalisms try to exclude the Indian and African heritage from the identities they have promoted.

"To the silly choice of Arabian or Persian Gulf I always respond only half-jokingly that we should call it by its real name, which is the American Gulf," writes Dabashi [EPA]

As an Ahvazi I am the product of the multicultural fact of that magnificent city, and in fact our province and by extension the entire northern and southern shores of the Gulf are at the crosscurrents of no less than four cultural forces: Iranian from north, Arab from the west, Indian from the east and African from the south. False and falsifying Arab-Persian divide first and foremost has categorically ignored, and dismissed the fact that we have a profound and enduring Indian and African presence in our region.

Construction of the complementary modes of Arab and Persian bourgeois xenophobia has historically banked on manufacturing each other as mere obstacles to their sublime achievement of white-identified, Eurocentric modernity. As such, what they both simultaneously conceal is their mutual fear of the African and the Indian, both of which are conspicuously absent from their identically racist identity politics.

The whole white-washed bourgeois nationalism of both the Arab and Persian vintage is so deeply afraid of being “coloured” by the factual evidence of history that, all its antagonisms notwithstanding, comes together in mutually repressing the African and Indian component of the region.

The Zanj Rebellion of 869-883 AD is among the earliest indications we have of a massive slave revolt in and around Basra at the tip of the Gulf. The origin of my own last name (meaning “bilingual”) is just one small indication of a profound Indian influence in southern Iran, and all the way from the Gulf to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

How horridly boring would it be if any ethnic nationalism were to triumph.

Defending the term “the Arab Gulf”, a dear Egyptian friend once told me that a man he knew had done a research and concluded that “all people living on the northern shore of the Persian Gulf spoke Arabic.” To the degree that this might in fact be true, it is balanced by the fact that as many on the southern shore also speak Persian – two imperial languages that for millennia were the lingua franca of successive empires.

To the silly choice of Arabian or Persian Gulf I always respond only half-jokingly that we should call it by its real name, which is the American Gulf. The navigational and maritime imperial realities of the region are far more accurate reflections of who and what we are in that region. Shat al-Arab, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean – that is how history has opted to call the varied waters of the region.

During the shah’s time we were told to call Shat al-Arab, Arvand Rud. We could not, for us it was Shat al-Arab, pouring into the Persian Gulf, pouring into the Arabian Sea, pouring into the Indian Ocean – a fair and evenly divided maritime distribution of water among people, if we were to disregard the fact that Africans are left out of the equation.

Argument against separatist movements should not be abandoned to a bogus jingoism of a Tehran-centred racism but to the factual evidence that there are no pure anything. In our robust veins runs the blood of God Almighty only knows how many sailors from what distant shores. As the late Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri once put it in a poem:

I am from Kashan

My lineage may reach a plant in India,

A relic from the soil of Sialk,

Or perhaps a prostitute in Bukhara.

A sense of transnational solidarity

A mere criticism of the predominance of this pervasive brand of bourgeois nationalism is not sufficient. What is necessary is the retrieval and cultivation of other collective memories that factually and persuasively override it.

Consider the factual phenomenon that my generation of Iranians grew up on the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Ahmad Shamlou, Faiz Ahmadi Faiz, Aime Cesaire, Nazem Hekmat, Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Mayakovski, almost entirely oblivious to their Arab, Iranian, Pakistani, Turkish, African, Latin American, or Russian origins. These poets formed a liberating space out of their emotive universe, and in reading their work we did not think we had crossed any borders.

Quite to the contrary: We were framed and freed in their poetry into a liberating recognition of who and what we were. Against the persistent colonial and imperial machination to instigate separatist movements to divide so as to rule us better, these poets defied the postcolonial fiction of nation-states and brought us closer to each other in the poetics of our resistance to tyranny and injustice.

This sense of transnational solidarity was by no means limited to the realm of poetry and extended well into politics. Consider the monumental figures of Nehru, Mosaddeq, Nasser, and Lumumba. They were champions of anti-imperial struggles of people from Asia and Africa long before the ferocious fiction of the Arab-Persian divide or even worse that of the Sunni-Shia conflict had divided to rule them better.

As someone blessed by countless Arab friends, colleagues, comrades, students, and acquaintances, I proudly carry my Arabic first name (the signature sign of my identity as a Muslim), my Indian last name, and my Iranian parentage, speaking my Persian with a joyous southern accent, my Arabic with a splendid Persian intonation, and my English with a triumphant transatlantic twist, walking tall and feeling blessed that from Asia to Africa to Latin America, and deep into Europe and North America, I am at home in countries and cultures graced by more than one trace on their countenance.

How horridly boring would it be if any ethnic nationalism were to triumph, if all the Kurds were to live together, all the Arabs together, all the Persians together, soon to discover the terrifying vacuity of their delusional fantasies that they actually share anything beyond that fictive hallucination of unadulterated lineage. We are all mongrels, and how beautiful is that?

There is scarce anything more terrorising than the murder of a poet. Hashem Shaabani has joined Said Soltanpour and a whole pantheon of martyr poets – going all the way back to Mirzadeh Eshghi and Farrokhi Yazdi in both the Islamic Republic and the Pahlavi regimes – dreaming a better world for their people. It is the historic task of those people precisely to interpret those dreams in liberating and increasingly universal terms. Arab and Persian bourgeois nationalism are the diametrical opposites of such emancipatory terms.

This is the second part of Hamid Dabashi’s article. You can find the first part here.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.