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Claims and facts
On Azaris and Azarbaijan

By Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian
October 2, 2002
The Iranian

Does Azarbaijan have a north and a south or are they two different entities? A long overdue issue has been raised and discussed by Aynalu Jurabchi [Who are Azeris?] and Reza Ordubadian [Politicizing linguistics].

The fact is that so-called 'northern Azarbaijan' has only borne that name since 1918, and that was in a bid to dissociate itself from Russia and bring itself closer to its cultural roots. Of course, when the Soviets took over, they found the name convenient for future claims on the real Azarbaijan and perhaps well beyond. This meant rewriting a lot of history, some of it here to stay, at least in the short term.

When the Republic of Azerbaijan first declared independence from the Soviet Union, I went to Paris to meet the first delegates the newly independent republic sent to Western Europe. At that time, they insisted on their Turkishness and were still critical of 'Persian discrimination' against Turks, as they had been told and taught.

They spoke of Shah Ismail Safavid, whom they know by his pen name 'Khatai', as their very own king who also happend to conquer a large empire stretching from Isfahan to Kandahar. They also insisted that Nezami wrote his poems in Turkish, not Persian, and if you showed them an original text, they would describe it as 'old Turkish', not Persian, and if you retorted that is was no different from Persian, they would look at you as though you were the one who rewrote history.

That Shah Ismail had red hair, was of Kurdish ancestry, that Nezami was Persian, with a Christian, probably Armenian mother, were not acceptable to them, no matter how hard you tried to give them dates and facts abaout the Turks beginning to arrive in those parts at about the time of Nezami and of the first Shaikh Safi (the remote ancestor of Shah Ismail and the founder of the Safavieh Sufi order).

To reaffirm their claim on the name of Azarbaijan, their then UNESCO delegate produced a letter by Ibrahim Khalil Khan, the great and wily Khan of Qarabagh at the time of Aqa Mohammad Khan's first incursions into the Qarabagh (coincidental with those of the Russians in Georgia). The basis of their argument was just one sentence, in which Ibrahim Khalil complained to the Ottoman Sultan about the fate that had befallen the people of Azarbaijan. (I have a photocopy of that letter).

That Qarabagh, because of its situation on the Aras River, was actually sometimes included as part of the province of Azarbaijan, is a historical fact, so the letter may have referred to that and to the fact that the people of Tabriz also suffered from Agha Mohammad's exactions as he moved north to recover the seceding provinces north of the Aras. But Ibrahim Khalil Khan's letter never meant to include neither Baku nor Shirvan, since these were not even remotely attained by Agha Mohammad Khan who, soon after the capture of Shisha in the Qarabagh, fell victim to an assassin from his own camp.

Ganja was an exception in that it was the fief of a Qajar tribesman, though it is doubtful that even Ganja would have been considerd part of Azarbaijan in Ibrahim Khalil's mind. The claim that this one letter proves that the khanates north of the Aras were included under Azarbaijan forces the issue with flimsy material.

That does not mean that there were not intimate bonds between the people on both sides of the river. Their commitment to Shiism; their language, the same Turkish Azari on both sides of the Aras; and the fact that Persian was part of the curriculum of the educated elite north of the Aras too, and yes, even their ethnic makeup, made the people of the khanates feel very close not only to the Azaris to their south, but to Iranians in general.

Regional differences in ethnic composition do exist but no more than between, say, Lorestan and Fars. As Reza Ordubadi rightly says, there is no such thing as 'purity' except in the most primitive and isolated communities and even those have been 'tainted' nowadays. Mixtures are the stuff of civilization and there is no particular merit in ethnic purity.

Eric Hobsbawm in his History of Nationalism since 1789 says that there are at most 12 out of more than 200 countries registered with the UN that can lay any claim to purity, and since he wrote that book their number must have dwindled to a handful at most.

A case in point with respect to Azarbaijan, is that, when, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the US decided to grant visas to Iranian minority groups, it included the Turks, only to find out that they totaled fifteen million in 1980, that they were one of the most productive and wealthy segments of Iranian society, that many of those who called themselves 'Turks' were now Persian-speakers and vice-versa. The ignorance of the Western public, outside of the ivory towers of academia, about us and our history feeds such misconceptions.

I have several friends from Baku who recognize their part of 'Persian' ancestry, through one or more lines, and even admit with a degree of pride. Very few of them are entirely devoid of a link that a Jurabchi might look down upon. The official (or is it 'officious') discourse, as presented by Ainalu Jurabchi, has not really changed much since the hot-headed early days of independence.

There is still a lot of misguided historical information in what she says. She seems to believe that the Aras River was always as hermetically sealed as it was during the Soviet era, whereas in fact there was a lot of to and fro throughout the ages, from the indigenous people of the Caucasus to the Iranian Scythians and Alans (who gave their name to Arran, the former name of the territory of Azerbaiajn), to various Turkic tribes and even some Arabs, and and sMongols of the Golden Horde of Russia, to name only the most important movements.

To try to validate her assertion, Jurabchi falls into the trap of fishing out some of her statements from old propaganda and dubious scholarship. To wit, that Atropates, governor of Azarbaijan under the Greek Seleucids, was a Mede! A mere error of five centuries. Media covered not only the province of Azarbaijan and beyond, sometimes as far as Rey, but especially most of the northern Zagros, which includes first and foremost the capital of the Medes, Ecbatana (Hamadan). When Atropates became governor of Media Atropatena, it meant that part of Media which is the province of Azarbaijan.

I agree with Reza Ordubadi that the name of Atropates was not what gave the province its name, as Western scholars claim on the basis of their sacrosanct 'classical sources'. On the contrary, it may have been the association of those parts with subterranean volcanic activity and the resultant fires (later consecrated as 'sacred' by Magians) that was responsible for the title given to Adurbad, i.e. Atropates in Greek, the appointed governor of Media. (This probably explains the confusion in Jurabchi's mind).

That there should be no textual evidence before that for the name of Azarbaijan, does not mean that it was not in use already before Atropates was sent to govern the province. It would seem too absurd to name such a large and important province after a satrap appointed by occupation forces and to retain it long after they were gone. In that case Rey-Tehran would be still be Europa, as the Seleucids renamed it.

But where Jurabchi really goes off the track, and she shares this error with present-day Turkey and some of the Central Asian republics, is in her redefinition of the word 'Turk', which is now often used to designate any mixed cultural heritage that has, as its vernacular, a much modified and hybridized 'Altaic' language. In the definition of Jurabchi, the Turks should be equated with the Scythians, to the excliusion of any indigenous natives of the Caucasus who were there long before the great migrations of Indo-Iranians, as linguistic studies indicate.

'Azerbaijan' has long claimed that the Turks had been in the area since two thousand years before the common era, an absurdity that even the punctiliously kept Chinese negate and they were best placed to know when Turks or Koek-Turk, as they were first known in Chinese sources of the early centuries of this era, developed ouf of the Huns of the Mongolian steppes and moved on to the then Scythian-occupied region of the Altai.

I have no argument with the substitution of the word 'Turk' for 'Scythian' (a generic term for various 'Iranian' tribes on the steppes and the original stock of the tribes that branched out under various names such as Persian, Mede, Sogdian, Sarmatian, Alan and of course Scythian or more correctly Saka in their own Iranian language), if that makes them happier, but let us not pretend that the Turks and Scythians are one and the same.

Without doubt some of the Scythians (Saka in Iranian languages)eventually mixed with so-called 'Altaic' or Turkic people, as well as with indigenous peoples of the Caucasus and of the Iranian plateau, and with Greeks and others in the Black Sea area, but all that happened much later than Jurabchi likes to think. As for the Ghuzz or Oghuz, they are known by serious historians to have only appeared on the frontiers of Transoxiana and Iran around the year 1000 AD. Before that, the earliest indication for them is in Western Xinjiang, not too far from Kashghar in the 6th century, where a Toghuzsaray, the site of a now ruined Buddhist monastery, still bears their name.

So let us call things by their name and not sow further confusion in a region that has had an exceedingly complex history of interaction, from the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to the Mongolian steppes, with the Iranian plateau often serving as the focal point of interaction. With ancestral roots on both sides of the Aras and a blend of some of the other strands that have gone into our making.

I like to pride myself on the lack of prejudice beyond that which my judgment and my taste might dictate. That is often not so with the vociferous defenders of concocted theses. What motivates the breakaway republics of the former Soviet Union is their search for a separate identity, which some of their leaders hope (rightly so, it would seem) will bring them greater wealth from their oil and gas resources.

Countries like Azerbaijan have had a long enough role in history not to be in need of that sort of historical misrepresentation to claim their resources. Why separate one's cultural past from that of the greater whole, if it gives all of us more joint clout in asserting our contributions to world civilization? Why isolate segments of the past into scattered and therefore meaningless leaves of a book that an ill wind has tried to blow apart? Can you imagine Britain, France or Germany denying their debts to ancient Greece and Rome or Renaissance Italy? Only by joint effort can we too stake our claim on the stage of world history.

So far I have not said anything about the issue of language on which a lot of the debates about the meaning of 'azari' is based. Although I agree with Reza Ordubadian on most of his many points, I hate to have to take issue with someone as qualified as he is on one that one issue. Kasravi may have not made it clear in his book, but from what I have learnt from my sources, he must have been referring to Tati which was the main Iranian language spoken for centuries by the common folk of Azarbaijan. As of the Islamic period, Persian became the literary lingua france of all educated Iranians and of many more besides, 'from Istanbul to Delhi', to use a popular cliché, but without displacing local vernaculars until the arrival of the Turks.

Like Persian of all periods, the Tati dialect belongs to the Western Iranian group, but is considered to be more closely related to Median and Kurdish, and very similar to the Taleshi still spoken in pockets along the southwestern Caspian coast of Iran and Azarbaijan, including Lankaran (Lenkoran, as they like to call it in Baku), where the inhabitants pride themselves on their ancient heritage and language. Thus there actually was an 'azari' dialect, which was not restricted solely to Azarbaijan. That was the language that was practically wiped out by Shah Ismail's Turkic Qizilbash troops in the early Safavid period.

Turkicization had of course been an ongoing process for some time by then, largely thanks to the Saljuqs who had sent their loyal Ghuzz or Oghuz tribesmen to the 'frontiers of Rum' in the twelfth century, allegedly to convert infidels, but in actual fact to keep them as far as possible from his court and from the wholesale Persianization to which he had become committed and in which the warlike illiterate tribesmen could not participate at that early stage.

Tati had survived both the Ghuzz tribesmen and the much more vicious onslaught of the Mongols, but I'm not sure to what extent it was still being used north of the Aras before the Qizilbash. The Caucasus had always been a Babel of dialects, some of which were bound to disappear gradually. Tati must have been one of them, and a dominant one, but to what extent and for how long, hopefully Reza Ordubadian's erudition can provide a much-needed answer to the fabricated scholarship that tends to come out of some of the former republics of the Soviet Union. I cannot blame them for dissociating themselves from a bunch of mollas for whom not much love is lost in Iran, but one does not build historical and cultural identity on short term sentiments.

Meanwhile if we cannot come to terms on mutually acceptable cultural concerns, if we cannot make others call places by their rightful names, let us not fall into the trap of spelling our own Azarbaijan with an 'e' as in the Turkish pronunciation used for the country to the north of the Aras. Azarbaijan, not Azerbaijan. Let them call their country as they please until they too come to realize what is good for them, as they inevitably will, thanks to all the soul-searching currently going on in our part of the world.

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