Congratulations to the Iranian community for recently putting enough pressure on the National Geographic to recant its reference to the body of water 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!
Letter campaigns were started, petitions and articles were written, and various organizations, both inside and outside of Iran, devoted all of their time and effort to combating this most abhorrent encroachment on Iran's sovereignty.
Even the government of the Islamic Republic voiced their disapproval of the National Geographic's audacity by banning the magazine. In fact, almost every Persian website one would go to, there was a convenient link to one or another petition addressing the atrocious act of the National Geographic.
Unfortunately, a part of this nationalistic fervour became coupled with a 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 Gulf, and provides links for the reader to write a letter in protest of. Included in this list of abusers is British Airways, oil giant ARAMCO, BBC, Harper Collins Publishing, and the Hotel Hyatt.
Provided on the website are letters written by the accusers to the abusers. A particular letter to the Hyatt Hotel in Dubai deserves mention. Dated April 15, 2002, the letter is written in protest 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 world of geography, nor should Hyatt pander to Arab nationalism.”
You see, 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 of room for politics in history, biology, philology, theology, cartography, and linguistics; we have made sure of this, so why should geography be exempted 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 bodies of land and water; it came with the rise of nationalism and the construction of 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 language. It is important to note that this campaign was not initiated by cartography organizations, but by ordinary Iranians who are continuing a tired, and too often debated discursive.
The unimpeded and genuine unity that came about through ownership and property 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 collective vocalization of the grievous human rights violations of the Iranian government, and yet are so quick and resolute to act when it comes to territorial integrity? As a community, surely we are not suggesting that the 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 profound environmental statements ever made. The city of Seattle is named for the chief, whose speech was in response to a proposed treaty under which the Indians were persuaded to sell two million acres of land for $150,000.
The speech Chief Seattle recited during treaty negotiations in 1854 is regarded as one of the greatest statements ever made concerning the relationship between a 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 them?”
Although the circumstances are obviously different, the sentiment in Seattle's reply still applies. Let us take our collective abhorrence, our letter writing 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 the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has for too long been committing heinous crimes against its own citizens, far worse than any slip up the National Geographic may have made.
About Samira Mohyeddin has a degree in Religion and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Toronto, and is currently pursuing a collaborative graduate program in Women's and Middle Eastern Studies there.