Is it Ahvaz or Ahwaz – and what difference does it make?

Ahvaz is a cosmopolitan city that cannot be defined by narrow-minded ethno-nationalism.

An Iranian soldier carries a child away from a shooting during a military parade, in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Iran which killed at least 25 people [AP Photo/Mehdi Pedramkhoo] [Daylife]

The deadly paramilitary attack on a military parade in the southern city of Ahvaz, with civilian casualties, has brought the name of this ancient city to the front pages of global media.

“Gunmen have opened fire on an Iranian military parade in the south-western city of Ahvaz,” writes the BBC, for example, “killing at least 25 people, including civilians, and injuring 60, state media say.”  The report then adds: “An anti-government Arab group, Ahvaz National Resistance, and Islamic State (IS) have both claimed the attack.”

What in both of these sentences comes out transliterated as “Ahvaz” in the original Persian and Arabic spelling appears in two distinctly different ways. 

The official state media and Iranians, in general, write the name of the city as “اهواز”  – while the separatists who have claimed responsibility for the attack write the selfsame word as “الاحواز.” 

While completely lost in transliteration, the two original spellings lay two distinct and opposite ideological claims on the name of the city:  One recalls an ancient Iranian origin for the name of the city while the other imagines an Arabic claim on the way the name of the city is ought to be spelled and pronounced.

These two ideologically hostile spellings and pronunciations signal a decidedly racialised, ethnicised, mutually exclusive, and absolutist claims on a singularly cosmopolitan city the historical pluralism of which categorically defies any such purist Persian or exclusively Arab or any other separatist claims on it.

A city of labour migrants

I was born and raised in Ahvaz, and I lived there until I graduated from high school in 1969 and went to Tehran to attend college. My father was originally from Bushehr and my mother originally from Dezful. As a young man, my father had come to Ahvaz to work for the Iranian national railroad company and my maternal grandparents had migrated from Dezful in search of better jobs and brighter future for their children. 

In our part of the city, near Pol-e Siah (the Black Bridge), we had an Isfahani mosque on one side and an Armenian church on the other, one catering to labour migrants from the city of Isfahan and the other to Armenian families from all of over the country. 

Some of my classmates spoke Arabic as their mother tongue, while others spoke their Persians with distinctly Shirazi, Dezfuli, Isfahani, or Tabrizi accents. 

The story of my parents and our neighbourhood and my school was fairly typical of the demographic composition of Ahvaz and by extension the rest of the oil-rich Khuzestan province all the way down to the port cities of Abadan and Khorramshahr. 

Like the rest of Khuzestan province, Ahvaz, its capital, was a labour immigrant city. Iranians, Arabs, and other labour migrants all the way from Palestine, from southern India and even East Africa all came to Ahvaz, Abadan, or Khorramshahr in search of work, and none of them had any exclusive claims on the city.

My own last name is of Indian origins (it means “bilingual”), my father had distinctly African features and dark skin, while my mother had a fair complexion, light brown hair, beautiful hazelnut eyes, and was as white as Shakespeare’s Desdemona in Othello.  So, I always tell my children their paternal grandparents had an Othello-Desdemona situation – minus the drama.

I share these details about my life in order to illustrate the factual diversity of my hometown in which no ridiculous ethno-nationalist claim on this decidedly border city (Persianist or Arabist) has any shred of legitimacy. 

The colonial mapping of the world – of the post-Qajar and post-Ottoman territories included – has crossed many border regions in which the historical fact and force of labour migration makes a mockery of any delusional ethno-nationalists claims of one sort or another. 

Our history is cosmopolitan not by any bourgeois liberal fantasy, but by the bone-deep and bloodied fact of successive and multiple labour migrations. We were united by the toil of our parents’ labour, not by the murderous fantasies of any pure race.     

What’s in a name? 

There are serious structural calamities in every region of Iran, including Khuzestan, Baluchistan, and Kurdish regions in the western parts of the country. The incompetence and negligence of the central government are chiefly responsible for decades of neglect and therefore accumulated anger.  

Drinking water in Khuzestan is increasingly scarce; natural resources are being depleted; urban decay is rampant; rates of unemployment among the youth are disproportionately higher than other parts of the country; an oil-based economy is failing to generate new job opportunities.

The environment is simply ripe for desperate acts. The slightest manifestation of Arab, Baluch, or Kurdish cultural pride is treated suspiciously and violently repressed. None of these facts, of course, explains this murderous act intended to terrorize the public and threaten the state. But they do point to endemic problems the ruling state has miserably failed to address.  

These are serious issues and require serious attention. But ludicrous ethno-nationalist ideologies of one sort or another will not resolve such problems and can only exacerbate them further.

The ruling regime in Tehran and its counterparts in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, or Tel Aviv are all equally responsible for the calamitous conditions in which Iranians and Arabs find themselves across the region.

In June 2017, several people were killed in coordinated attacks on the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini –  and now in late September 2018, four gunmen dressed in fatigues opened fire at a military parade in in Ahvaz, killing at least 29 people including innocent women and children bystanders. 

Cutting to the chase: Saudi Arabia, Israel, UAE and their malignant puppet People’s Mujahedin of Iran  (MEK) opt for blind violence – typical of their combined treacheries, while the warmongers at the Trump White House – John Bolton and Mike Pompeo chief among them – continue exercising their regime change delusion. 

The net result of their treacheries is obvious: loss of innocent lives and an even more aggressive transformation of the ruling revolutionary guards into a guerrilla operation in the region targeting the military interests of those behind this operation. 

The violent hostilities between the ruling regime in Iran and its regional nemesis will result in further consolidation of power in the militancy of all the warring states at the heavy cost of the just and legitimate struggles of Arabs and Iranians alike.

With every such act of blind violence the ruling regimes in Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE become more militantly entrenched, innocent people more vulnerable, their just and legitimate causes more sidetracked and camouflaged, and the treasonous creatures who lead MEK – more justly despised.   

Ethnic nationalism of one sort or another, spelling the name of the city Ahvaz or Ahwaz, is a ludicrous distracting sideshow. We need to keep our eyes focused on the real issue:  the just and democratic aspirations of Iranians and Arabs. The rest is a murderous firecracker to distract attention from their common fate. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.