The gulf wars
What's in a name?
January 18, 2005
Congratulations to the Iranian community for recently putting enough
on the National Geographic to recant its reference to the body
between Saudi Arabia and Iran as the Arabian Gulf. Hats off to
us who got so
bent out of shape about the naming of a body of water!
started, petitions and articles were written, and various organizations,
inside and outside of Iran, devoted all of their time and effort
this most abhorrent encroachment on Iran's sovereignty.
the government of
the Islamic Republic voiced their disapproval of the National
Geographic's audacity by banning the magazine. In fact,
website one would go to, there was a convenient link to one
petition addressing the atrocious act of the National Geographic.
Unfortunately, a part of this nationalistic fervour became coupled
latent, but ever present, idiom of anti-arabism. For instance,
the website, PersianGulfOnline.org,
a self-appointed Persian Gulf task force that lists
various organizations, or "abusers of the name", as
they are called on the
website, that have referred to the Arabian Gulf, or simply the
provides links for the reader to write a letter in protest of.
this list of abusers is British Airways, oil giant ARAMCO, BBC,
Publishing, and the Hotel Hyatt.
Provided on the website are letters
by the accusers to the abusers. A particular letter to the Hyatt
Dubai deserves mention. Dated April 15, 2002, the
letter is written
against the UAE franchise making reference to the Persian Gulf
as the Arabian
Gulf on its web site. The letter than moves on to give instructions
as to how
Hyatt should proceed: "There is no room for politics in the
geography, nor should Hyatt pander to Arab nationalism."
this is where
Mr. Jamshid Chahrmchi, the author of the letter, is wrong: there
is plenty of
room for politics in the world of geography, just as there is plenty
for politics in history, biology, philology, theology, cartography,
linguistics; we have made sure of this, so why should geography
from this ever expanding list... why is geography so sacred?
Although the website
does not answer this question, it serves as an effective study
of the myth of
benign group identity.
There is nothing fantastically new about the subject of contested
land and water; it came with the rise of nationalism and the construction
nation -- states. Don't get me wrong, I am aware of the
real politics involved.
However, that does not mean that I should engage in its xenophobic
It is important to note that this campaign was not initiated by
organizations, but by ordinary Iranians who are continuing a tired,
often debated discursive.
The unimpeded and genuine unity that came about through ownership
was a tad bitter sweet, to say the least. One cannot help but ask
why it is
that we cannot as a people agree on the fundamental need for a
vocalization of the grievous human rights violations of the Iranian
government, and yet are so quick and resolute to act when it comes
territorial integrity? As a community, surely we are not suggesting
dignity and integrity of the human condition does not supercede
that of an
illusive right to a body of water?
This incident also instantly made me think of Chief Seattle,
chief of the
Suquamish and other Indian tribes around Washington's Puget Sound,
who in 1854
delivered what is considered to be one of the most beautiful and
environmental statements ever made. The city of Seattle is named
chief, whose speech was in response to a proposed treaty under
Indians were persuaded to sell two million acres of land for $150,000.
speech Chief Seattle recited during treaty negotiations in 1854
is regarded as
one of the greatest statements ever made concerning the relationship
people and the earth - the speech was published in the Seattle
Sunday Star on
October 29, 1887. Seattle's statement regarding the above
noted treaty begins
with a fundamental question:
"The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to
buy our land. But
how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange
to us. If we do
not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water,
how can you buy
Although the circumstances are obviously different, the sentiment
reply still applies. Let us take our collective abhorrence, our
campaigns, petitions, and rallies, and focus them where they
are needed most;
not at the naming of bodies of water, but at the government of
Republic of Iran, which has for too long been committing heinous
against its own citizens, far worse than any slip up the National
may have made.
Samira Mohyeddin has a degree in Religion and Middle Eastern
Studies from the
University of Toronto, and is currently pursuing a collaborative
program in Women's and Middle Eastern Studies there.