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The last stand of all things Persian
Why some damage the very cause they espouse

February 21, 2003
The Iranian

Most mornings, when the sun shows up in the tall bay-window of my living room, I catch a glimpse of its rays lighting up the unassuming silver box which sits on the table made of the shortened wheel of a heavy-gauge cable spool. A generation ago, twenty-four years ago, to be exact, the box was last seen resting on a still unassuming but more stately surface in mother's hospitality room, thousands of miles away from here, in another climate.

The scratches that mar the box's tarnished lid today contain in their groove the essence of its recorded history. They speak an inaudible saga, of passage through place and time, of its birth and purpose, and of its survival and legacy. They tell about how it was uprooted from the hearth and transported, on the back of the greed and thievery practiced by revolutionary thugs, and sold to a merchant of memories in a far flung island-country half a world away, eventually landing free here in Massachusetts and in the middle of my world.

When in London, the box was spotted in an antique store by a dear friend of the family. Amir recognized its origin from the inscription which had dedicated it as a personal memento from a cadre of five diplomats to their chief of mission at the Iranian embassy in Moscow on March 21, 1969. Reflexively, the friend purchased the box and tendered it by post to the owner in Paris, with an unassuming line as the caption for this beau geste, which, inscribed at the bottom of his business card, simply read "It is an occasion to renew my respect."

Many of the yellow-stained fingers that once had reached inside this wood-lined box are no more. Many of the others, no longer supporting smokers, grapple instead addictively with the tamper-resistent phial caps. Even among the living in this household, whose hands once had pursued in the unauthorized pleasures of puffing from the same box, most are content to have it sit there devoid of its appropriate content.

At Halloween, it is made to host sundry forms of candy, hard or soft, but always sized to fit its unusual dimensions. On other occasions, loose change finds in it a safe haven from the tussle of a bottomless pocket. The bite-size bubble gum, too, is known to seek refuge, albeit temporarily, in this hiding place. Everything about and around it has changed. Father is no longer its owner. Yet, it is, as it always has been, "Papa's Cigarette Box".

On this particular morning I have other things to fume about and for that I have managed to invite a few friends in order to participate in a gabfest dedicated to the previewing of an upcoming talk entitled "Looking for the 'Persian' in the Gulf".

The impetus for the gathering is the news that a group of well-intentioned but misguided individuals have decided to call for a ban or boycott of Ebi (Ebrahim Hamedi), the Iranian vocalist of many wonderful tunes, because he had declined to sing his legendary "Khalij Fars" (Persian Gulf) last January at a concert in Dubai! The event in Dubai is an annual affair, in which usually Iranian and Lebanese vocalists and musicians, among others from other countries, perform for a multitude of admirers, estimated to include also some 6,000 Iranian and Arab music lovers.

The very name of the group, The Persian Gulf Task Force, should send shivers down anyone's spine, much less an unwitting or misguided person or institution who should refer to or tolerate reference to the gulf as Gulf, Arabian Gulf, or anything else but the Persian Gulf. The transgressor is often bombarded with intimidating epistles and if found to be most offending he/she/it is put on a list of "Abusers of the Persian Gulf name" for the whole world to see and shame.

"A motion was approved by the Persian Gulf Task Force," reads their communique, "to boycott [Ebi] and place his name among the abusers of Persian Gulf name. The majority (92%) of those who replied to this motion agreed to boycott him." "The majority of Iranians have spoken," continues the fatwa, "Ebi is hereby boycotted from many Iranian communities all over the world." "We encourage other musicians not to work with him," the thought-police concluded, "and the community not to attend his concerts or buy his CDs or allow him to come on their radio or TV."

The task force's logicians begin with the premise that "Ebi has reached a level of fame so that he represents more than himself [;] he represents, his culture, identity, and his community." Therefore, the argument implies, Ebi should have performed the song and when he did not he put "his financial interest" ahead of ....

So what? Pity the man who develops his trade, thrills millions with his work, follows his heart, the beat of his own drum as is his fundamental right and liberty of expression, not wishing to offend one half of his host audience for the sake of the task force! Here is an idea, will the task force put its own money where its mouth is: Invite Ebi to the United States, pay him his annual income, and have him sing "Khalij Fars" until the cows come home.

I am livid already and it is not even ten o'clock. My guests will be arriving soon. Among them will be Hushi, a learned fellow, who is more interested in the survival of the Gulf's ecosystem and cares not what it is called. With him will be a Lebanese-born historian, named Hassan I. Mn., who has proposed a very interesting theory about how the seas received their names. In his opinion, the Persian Gulf owes its name to the geographical fact that this body of water at one point led to Pars, like a road leading to a destination and thus receiving its name -- pretty much like Jadeh Shemiran or Mill Street. By this logic, the name "Indian Ocean" received its name because it led to India, "Arabian Gulf" (Red Sea) because it led to Arabia, to Mecca and Medina, really, and so on.

Hassan's theory debunks the chauvinistic myth that seas received their names because they belonged to some territorial sovereignty or people: to wit, India never owned the Indian Ocean and so the name could have not come from a possessive relationship between India and the ocean. By the same token, the Persian Gulf for the most part of its history did not belong to Persia and yet has been called the Persian Gulf. To this, I have added the juristic observation that at the time when they received their names, in antiquity, seas could not be owned as a matter of law. So, the n in Persian Gulf was and is a geographical, descriptive referent and should never be taken as evidence of a proprietary relationship between Persia and the Gulf.

Also joining the group this morning will be Dariush. He is the specialist on ancient Persia and is very fond of Darius I (ruled 521 bc - 485 bc), the Achaemenid king of the Persians and some dozens of other tribes and peoples that formed the Achaemenid Empire thousands of years ago. The precursor to the present-day Suez Canal, as every good Iranian knows, was the 150-feet wide canal between the Nile and Red Sea which this Darius, Darius I, had dug. However, Dariush discounts this Iranian bravado by pointing out, long before Darius I, Ramses II had dug it but it silted and was closed until such time as the Pharaoh Neco thought to reopen it, but he desisted in that enterprise for the fear of the Babylonians sailing up it into Egypt.

Anyway, according to Dariush, the cuneiform inscriptions etched on five huge stelae or steles of red granite and placed along the canal told the story of its construction by Darius. On one of these slabs it is written "I, Darius, am a Persian. From Parsa I seized Egypt. I commanded this canal to be dug from the river, Nile by name, which flows in Egypt, to the sea which goes from Parsa."

In another translation of the same inscription -- draya tya hacha parsa aity -- is given as "the sea which commences from Pars." There is nothing here about the sea belonging to Persia. According to Dariush, in 1973, in a fit of nationalism and in response to the inventive Iraqi and Egyptian practice of calling the gulf "Arabian Gulf," the Iranian government resolved that Darius's otherwise innocuous reference should have meant "the Sea of Pars" as if it had belonged to Persia.

I inched my way to the den, where I should pick an appropriate background music for the gathering. I rummage through my very scant cassette collection. There is Beethoven's fifth symphony, next to Meatloaf and another tape labelled "An Evening with John & Ludwig,": a reading by yours truly of John F. Kennedy's speeches to Beethoven's fifth.

There is the empty cover that so many years ago went with the song about the beckoning perfume of the Mulian river. There is an older tape, with no cover, whose scratchy bootleg content once was all that I had managed to inherit in 1975 from Ricky B's Googoosh album. There is also an unmarked cassette which I know contains a single number -- the Ey Iran hymn sung by a number of expatriates at a meeting in Paris in the early 1980s, which makes the rendition of the Marseillaise in Rick's Cafe in Casa Blanca sound lame.

I reached in for Ebi's tape. I put it in the player and sink in a nearby bean-bag. "Khalij Fars" comes on: "With every glance at its sky, I bestow a thousand kisses upon this land .... I breathe Sefidrud, Khazar and the forever Persian Gulf .... Great Tonb, Little Tonb and Abu Musa light up my eyes as do ...." This song arouses the passion; hair stirs to attention; the face tightens; breathing accelerates; the heart stops with excitement.

This song is not about the Gulf: It is about Iran, all of Iran. Every inch and every corner of Iran. Sung by an Iranian, for Iranians, about Iran. Ebi had no business singing it at a concert in the United Arab Emirates, whose government does not, as a matter of policy, use the name "Persian Gulf" and which is locked also in a territorial dispute with Iran over the Tonbs and Abu Musa islands.

The choice, to sing or not to sing, was Ebi's. So has been and is the choice of millions of Iranians to call the other body of water in Ebi's song -- the Caspian -- by its non-Iranian name "Khazar". It might surprise the task force to know that Daryaa-ye Khazar (Khazar Sea) was called as such by the people of northern Iran because the sea led to the land of the Khazars, a Turkic principality on the northwestern shores of the sea, which for the most part sided with Byzantium, Iran's rival.

By the same token, the name "Caspian Sea" originated with the Greeks, Romans and later the inhabitants of the northern shores, from whose vantage point, the sea led to the land of the Caspi, a people settled on the southern shores of the sea in the present-day Gilan area in Iran. Maybe one day a "Caspian Sea Task Force" should take the stick to Ebi for singing about "Khazar".

Fereydoun, the sociologist of the group, related a recent encounter at a local diner, where a patron in her late-thirties was crowded with a few kids into a booth. She was wearing a white sweat shirt, which bore the insignia of one of the services, with the name of the squadron on top and the words "Arabian Gulf" in large lettering under the insignia.

At the sight of this monstrosity, he confessed, to have undergone the full range of a typical Persian emotional upheaval. Wisely, he resigned himself to say nothing and do nothing ... until she had gotten up to leave. As his eyes met hers, he remarked the neatness of her apparel and inquired as to its origin. She said that she had received it from her brother who was stationed on a carrier in the Gulf. Fereydoun then asked where might "Arabian Gulf" be, to which she responded "it is really the Persian Gulf." "I am glad," Fereydun replied, "that you should know the difference." He had realized that to her this was just a sweat shirt.

For at least one thousand and three hundred years, the religion of the Arabs, their language, grammar, names, manner of dress, food, script and blood has mingled and permeated the shores of this basin. Three quarters of the coastline is lined with numerous Arab countries -- Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, itself consisting of more than half dozen sovereignties.

More than half of the people who inhabit the shores of this basin are of Arab stock. "So it is the Persian Gulf, you say, where then is exactly the 'Persian' here?" mused one of the guests. "Precisely," countered another, "despite what the sands time has blown from the heart of Arabia and deposited on these shores, the name 'Persian Gulf' remains, where there is a Persia no more." And to what should one credit this longevity?

The country name of "Persia" is no more, but "Persian Gulf" as a name endures in the face of environmental adversity, linguistic diversity, political digression, and other contaminants. It does so, as does any living organism, because the name, as a geographical phenomenon, has been the product of a natural selection process over time.

The task force is wrong to suggest that the Persian Gulf is the "historical heritage of Iranians". In this region, history has been for the most part on the side of the Arabs. The name "Persian Gulf" owes its creation and survival throughout the ages to all of the linguistic and cultural influences that touched this gulf in an era long before the ugly considerations of ideology, national competition, and ownership considerations were injected into the discourse.

I would posit that the name survived because it was more a product of Arab and Persian geographical practices than Persian historical influences. Today, many Iranians have been made to feel that for the past fifty years, the name "Persian Gulf" has become the symbolic last stand of all things (Persian) Iranian against the ever expanding and corrosive Arab influence in southwest Asia.

Hushi, through his Harvard connections, treated the group to a copy of John Marlow's seminal 1963 remarks on "Arab-Persian Rivalry in the Persian Gulf" before the Royal Central Asia Society in London. This text was remarkable in that it also contained the remarks of a discussant, an Arab, who stated openly "No Arab geographer in the past has ever mentioned the words 'Arabian Gulf.'" The term, as he put it, originated in the 1930s among the Bahrainis who opposed Iran's claim on Bahrain. According to C. Edmund Bosworth, the preeminent authority on the nomenclature of the Persian Gulf, by the early 1960s the Arab states bordering the gulf had adopted the expression Khalij al-Arabi (Arabian Gulf) as a weapon in the psychological war with Iran for political influence in the gulf.

In my own personal experience, very few Iranians or Arabs were immune from the psychosis that was engendered in the 1960s by the overt animosity between the Iranian and Arab governments over the Persian/Arabian designation of the gulf. While among the Iranians of my generation it was not uncommon to speak about the "Gulf" or Khalij when we spoke among ourselves, it was never the liberty which one took when in the presence of Arabs, whom we knew harbored as mush nationalistic animosity toward us as we did toward them. In those situations we dared not speak or write about anything but the Persian Gulf, sometimes comically repeating the full name "Persian Gulf" a few times in a single sentence at the expense of economy and form.

In defense of "Persian Gulf" many Iranians, in my opinion, tend to damage the very cause they espouse. First and foremost, damage comes from the pure militancy and xenophobia that many display when countering the use of the term "Arabian Gulf". A few months ago, the Sackler Museum at Harvard had an exhibition of Islamic metalwork. In the hall, I noticed a very large map of the Islamic World on which the gulf was depicted as "Arabian Gulf".

I wrote to the curator of the Museum and enquired, as politely as I could, the reason for the depiction of the gulf by that name. That should have ended the matter. However, I had made the mistake of copying my email to an acquaintance who is involved with the Persian Gulf Task Force. It took no time at all for the strike force to swing into action and aim its pen at the bastion of sedate civility. My guess is that this type of reaction foreclosed any sympathy that one might have been able to engender among the Museum workers, for whom toponymic wars are not very interesting.

Equally futile is when Iranians respond politically to a situation that clearly elicits an economic or commercial response. In August 1990 a Boston law firm had hired a partner with the name of Bill Brown, who claimed to have extensive "connections" to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In the business announcements that he sent out to people, promoting his new association, he declared his area of concentration as "Finance, Business and International Trade Law," adding parenthetically ("With Emphasis on the Arabian Gulf Countries").

Long after he had left the firm, in September 1991, I was handed a letter from Iran, in which a Dr. Jazayeri from the National Petrochemical Company, was responding to Bill Brown's business pitch. "We take this opportunity," Dr. Jazayeri had written, "to bring to your attention that the sea territories of Southern Iran, extending from Arvand River (Shatt-al-Arab) on the Southwest to the Strait of Hormuz on the Southeast, has been nobly known as the 'Persian Gulf' since the ancient times, as all the historic sea-voyagers and international merchants have always been accustomed to this name. Also, designation of this name has been confirmed by the United Nations. Please make necessary corrections in your literature."

Needless to say, Bill Brown would have not "corrected" his literature. Equally, needless to say, I do not think Dr. Jazayeri would have ever thrown any business in Bill Brown's direction. In retrospect, if I were in Dr. Jazayeri's shoes I might have reacted differently, recognizing that one could have purchased a correction of Bill Brown's "faux pas." A follow up letter to him would have requested advice on a small matter and that could have begun the process by which one could have attempted the "re-education of Bill Brown" not by boycott but by co-option.

Another behavior that sets back the cause is when an Iranian reacts harshly to the matter when clearly what is needed is a gentle reminder of the alternative, to realize that not everyone is trying to make an anti-Persian statement. This is particularly a better approach in the United States where an overwhelming majority of the public knows next to nothing about the Persian Gulf, Arabian Gulf or is even incapable of locating the United States on a blanked out map of the world.

There is also the unpardonable behavior of the Iranian governments and leaders, who demonstrated a willingness to change the name of the "Persian Gulf". This simply weakens the name's geographical legitimacy and emboldens others to seek a change based on their preference. In 1935, the Iranian government informed the foreign diplomatic missions that henceforth they were to refer to the country as Iran, by the name which Iranians themselves knew their country.

Consequently, a debate arose in Iran and in the halls of the British Government, particularly in the India Government, about changing the name of the "Persian Gulf" to "Iranian Gulf". When Iran suggested this the British Government refused to entertain the thought precisely because the name Persian Gulf was a geographical description and could not be altered, lest the changeover give the impression that the gulf had belonged to Iran.

In 1979, the Islamic revolutionaries, in an effort to curry favor with the Arab governments, considered surrendering the Tonbs and Abu Musa islands to the United Arab Emirates and offered outright to have the gulf renamed as the "Islamic Gulf". The Arab governments and many in Iran did not buy it. According to Sayed Hassan Amin, a member of the Iranian and Scottish Bars, there went a golden opportunity by Iran and the Arab governments to reach "a seemingly sensible solution" to the Persian/Arabian Gulf issue.

On February 11 of this year, 2003, on the occasion of the 24th anniversary of the revolution, the mass rally in Tehran, which was attended by the supreme leader, concluded with the reading of a 10-point resolution. One of the resolutions stated "The Persian Gulf belongs to Islam and Muslim nations." Not! The gulf is a part of the high seas and open to navigation to all countries.

The conclusion reached by my friends was a sobering one. The disappearance of the name Persia as a country name in general, the present government's erasure of ancient Persian history and eradication of its symbols, and the want of effective public relations, together, have weakened in an unprecedented way the stability of the term "Persian Gulf" by depriving the term of a point of reference that is presently relative, concrete and tangible. If there is no attempt at reversing this trend, the term will go extinct.

The meeting broke up. The guests filed out one by one into the cold, each braving the frigid air with the warm memory of a playful conversation along the shores of the Khalij. I eased shut the door and returned to the den, where Ebi's tape had ended with "Paayandeh Iran". From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the silver box in the next room dancing in the sun. How many other times must the box change hands, I thought, until it is no longer "Papa's Cigarette Box".

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By Guive Mirfendereski



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