Not enough if we internalize insults to our history
By Jamshid Charmchi
January 7, 2002
Twenty years ago, in his book, Among
the Believers, V.S. Naipaul, this year's Noble Laureate for literature,
characterized Islam as Arab imperialism. This hypothesis was supported by
first-hand observations he made while traveling through non-Arab, Muslim
nations, such as Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
The name of this essay is taken from a chapter in that book. That thesis
is a complex issue that I will not fully explore here. I will, however,
address one example that gives credence to a supposition of that premise
-- Arabs as imperialists. This is best achieved by witnessing the systematic
distortion of historical fact and blatant revisionism that certain Arab
states and their supporters -- specifically Britain -- have engaged in during
the past fifty years, in their attempts to rename the Persian Gulf.
As is always the case with me, there exists an immediate catalyst that
has caused me to sit in front of my laptop on a Saturday evening, instead
of being sprawled out on the sofa. It always takes a shock of some sort
to shake me from my apathy; a sharp jab that can break through the protective
bubble of day-to-day routine.
A couple of days ago, my girlfriend and I, decided to do something "cultural"
and go to one of the local museums. There were the obligatory Greek vases
depicting what the ancient Greeks seem to have admired a great deal naked
men engaged in various sporting events. Then there were the Egyptian mummies,
drawing a stream of onlookers, no doubt contemplating their own mortality.
I also saw, prominently displayed and to my dismay, a chunk of the grand
staircase from Persapolis, from the scene depicting the various peoples
of the Persian Empire, offering gifts to the Shah on Noruz (New Year's).
It occurred to me that it probably hadn't fallen off of the relief at Persapolis
by itself. It then dawned on me that the mummies hadn't left their crypts
But I digress. More to the point, I was glad to see that the map that
went along with the exhibit, had correctly identified the body of water
to the south of Iran as the Persian Gulf. "Good," I thought to
myself, at least I won't have to write the museum, to point out any geographic
mistakes. There was also an interesting display of ancient maps, some from
as far back as the 16th century. The ones I could make out had "Sinus
Persicus" (Latin for Persian Gulf) written in the proper place. I'm
sure the dead cartographers were glad to have escaped my wrath.
You see, lately I have been sending emails (polite but forceful) to any
entity that misrepresents the cultural legacy of Iran. CNN, the BCC and
Newsweek are some of the lucky recipients. Just take a look at the
Newsweek from a couple of weeks ago. There's a brief, superficial
analysis of the political situation in Iran, and a nice picture of a woman
on a ski slope close to Tehran ("snow, in Eye-ran?" the unassuming,
average reader must think!) all this in an article entitled, "How to
Save The Arab World". You see what I'm dealing with?
A day after the excursion to the museum, I was at the local mall when
I stumbled into one of those ubiquitous and non-descript frame stores. It
was a map of the world that had caught my eye. So, this self-proclaimed
inspector cautiously zeroed in on Iran and nervously traced her borders
south. And smack, there it was, tucked neatly into the corner, two words
that never fail to hit below the belt, "Arabian Gulf."
My knee-jerk thought was, "those Arabs with their oil money must
be behind this one." But wait, there was more. "God, isn't it
enough that they occupied and converted us 1,400 years ago (the actual conversion
took 300 years)? Do they want to take this remnant of our past greatness
as well? Hell, they should be happy that they have the Gulf of Oman and
the Arabian Sea." I was busy having this internal monologue, and getting
increasingly agitated when my girlfriend snapped me out of my reverie. "Come
on," she said, "don't let them ruin our day. Otherwise they've
won." She has a way with words.
So, it was off to an afternoon of shopping. I thought I'd put the episode
behind me until I got back home. As much as I want to lounge around, the
voice inside won't let me. I think I had only managed to suppress my thoughts
for a few hours; pushing them into a recess of my mind, only to let them
simmer and come to a boil. In fact, I feel like one of those old steam-cookers
that my grandmother used. The ones that blew a whistle when the lid was
about to fly off from all the accumulated pressure. So, in the interests
of self-preservation, I'll vent by giving you a piece of my mind, on a matter
that is close to my heart.
Why should we allow a league of opportunists, to tread upon our cultural
heritage (not to mention over two thousand years of recorded history) by
engaging in blatant and outright revisionism? When has Iran ever demanded
that the rest of the world refer to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea
as the Gulf of Iran and the Persian Sea? And finally, what gives the BBC,
a news agency that ostensibly provides accurate coverage of world events,
the right to contribute to this poisoning of history by referring to the
Persian Gulf as mere "The Gulf". An error of omission is an error
nonetheless. Just check out the map of Iran in their country-profiles section,
on their website and see for yourself.
I (along with many others) brought this matter to the BBC's attention
some time ago. They somewhat derisively responded, "a while ago it
was decided to refer to that body of water as The Gulf. At present
there are no plans to revise this position." Hmm, what prompted them
to take that position in the first place? How would they feel if the Associated
Press (AP) and the Agance France Press (AFP) suddenly decided to call the
English Channel, "The Channel?"
Hey, the possibilities are endless. Sounds like a free-for-all. Let us
all drop, change, and revise names for places as we see fit. It could lead
to a bit of confusion, but who cares, the British are doing it so why can't
we? In fact the Koreans have been trying to get in on the game by objecting
to the name "Sea of Japan". Could the BBC provide us with a "decision"
on that matter as well? Who cares what the experts at the National Geographic
Society have to say? (For those of you who are curious, the Persian Gulf
and the Sea of Japan are the correct historical terms used by the Society.)
Now, given that I am Iranian, I could indulge in any one of a myriad
of conspiracy theories to explain the state of things a handsome contribution
to the BBC from the Emir of Kuwait; an imperialist plot hatched by the British
Foreign Office to keep Iran and the Arabs at odds (not that we need their
help). As much as I want to write a five-volume set on the matter, I'll
just put forward a few points.
First, it cannot be denied that certain Arab governments have for the
past 50 years (incidentally when many of them came into existence for the
first time with the fall of colonialism) sought to strike at the territorial
integrity of Iran in one form or another. Although they have been at that
for much longer, the brutal Iran-Iraq war, Arab claims to Khuzestan, and
the current "dispute" over the three islands in the Persian Gulf
are just a few contemporary examples. Perhaps the Arabs are bitter that
they were unable to eviscerate Iran and disconnect it from its past, much
as they did in Egypt and most recently attempted to in Afghanistan.
Second, while the figurative sun, set on the British Empire at the end
of World War II, vestiges of that legacy linger in the manner the British
seek to impose their will on other nations. There is no doubt that there
is more to the BBC "decision" than they are willing to admit to.
It is on the whole likely that they are courting favor with their former
colonies for cheap oil, while the Arabs are all too glad to make one last
grasp for empire by lashing out at Iran, the land they once conquered, but
could not defeat. They are willing to sell their economic lifeline for a
pittance, lay siege to and kill history if need be, all to satisfy their
yearning for the prominence they have lost. They are free to squander their
wealth but we cannot let them take what is ours in the process.
There is an important lesson to be had from this discussion. If we
do not standup to challenge those who seek to wreck our history and the
truth, for their own selfish ends, we will be left to shift through the
aftermath of their destruction. Look at the American-Jewish community and
see what can be accomplished when people come together to defend their identity.
There are plenty of other examples but theirs' is particularly noteworthy.
It is not enough if we internalize these insults to our history and then
proceed to do nothing about it. I know it's easier to sit idly by and let
things fall where they may. But if we surrender to apathy, then others will
take matters into their own hands and make decisions that are not theirs
to make on our behalf. For over two decades now, there has been a substantial
Iranian population in the United States and elsewhere in the West.
Although the trauma of immigration is a substantial one, more than enough
time has lapsed for our wounds to have healed. As we become increasingly
politically active, we should also use our growing voice to defend our community's
interests both here and abroad. Only those who speak up can be heard. We
gain nothing but loss from silence. I encourage all of us to exercise our
power, by voicing our displeasure (again, politely but firmly) with any
entity that does not call the Persian Gulf by that name. History is not
negotiable and neither is our legacy.
Footnote: By the way folks' the conspiracy gene is located on
the short arm of chromosome 14. Scientists at the Tehran Genetics Institute
recently identified it after many years of research. However, rumor has
it that they have not publicly announced their findings due to pressure
from foreign powers.