The Culture War At The Heart Of The Present ‘Gulf’ Conflict

‘I’m terribly sorry,’ someone from a cultural organisation in Abu Dhabi recently told me, ‘but you can’t use that term’. As part of an interview I was supposed to do with an individual there, I was asked to submit my questions to be screened beforehand. Apparently, I’d set off some sort of alarm. I asked them what they thought might be appropriate in lieu of the term I’d used, as I found myself struggling. ‘You can write either “Arabian Gulf” or “the Gulf”, but not “Persian Gulf”.’ Go figure.

Wanting to cooperate, I opted in the end for the rather vague and less-than-ideal ‘Middle East’. I regret having done so, and, had it not been for an agreement I was bound to, would have called off the interview then and there. Unfortunately, this was not the only time my use of the historical term ‘Persian Gulf’ was questioned. A few months ago, a friend of mine publishing a book of stories about Dubai reached out to me for a piece. I replied that I would happily submit one, under the one condition that ‘Persian Gulf’ not be censored. She replied that she understood my ‘concern’, but that the term was a ‘controversial’ one having to do with opinion, and that had cost some in her circles their jobs and livelihoods. Persian Gulf? That’s what you think. Alas, the cartographers of old are rolling in their graves.

In January 2017, the UAE’s Ministry of Education went ordered the replacement of the term ‘Persian Gulf’ in a fourth grade schoolbook with ‘Arabian Gulf’. This, if you ask me, is child’s play compared to what else has been happening on the Arabian shores of the Persian Gulf. Dirhams and dollars have gone quite a way in influencing the likes of Google and National Geographic, as well as airlines such as British Airways to use the term, or at least acknowledge it.

The Persian Gulf not being enough, countries like the UAE have taken a stab at renaming other sites, too. Although it is still known to many as ‘Bastakiya’, the UAE recently officially renamed the historic site – which owes its name to the southern Iranian city of Bastak, whence merchants travelled to Dubai – ‘Al Fahidi’. While such moves undoubtedly have their roots in the pan-Arab worldview championed by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 50s and 60s, they have more recently been fuelled by overt anti-Iranian sentiment.

When the eminent Emirati artist Hassan Sharif (1951 – 2016) passed away last year, I was more stunned upon learning about his roots. All along, the artist so touted as the shining jewel of contemporary Emirati art hadn’t only been of Iranian origin – like so many Emirati ‘locals’ – but had also been born in Iran; yet, there was hardly ever a mention of his Iranian heritage. Similarly, the Madinat Jumeirah resort, while looking like a tacky replica of the Iranian city of Yazd, with its iconic wind-catchers (badgir, corrupted in Emirati Arabic to barjeel), describes itself on its website as a stunning example of ‘ancient Arabian architecture’. More cringe-worthy was an Etihad ad I stumbled upon a few years ago in a luxury British publication, which depicted the famed Persian polymath Ibn Sina (Avicenna) like an extra in an Orientalist film gone wrong, and that referred to him as an ‘Arabian philosopher’. And, when countries like the UAE fail to ascribe elements of Iranian culture to Arab culture, ‘Islamic’ is conveniently slapped on as a label to discredit Iran and make its contributions appear as belonging to a larger ‘Islamic world’, as I wrote in a recent op-ed.

As long as the UAE continues to serve as the playground of expats from the world over (including, of course, the scores of Iranians who have helped make it the glitzy getaway it is today), the country will continue to get away with such rabid attempts at cultural appropriation. Many Iranians today look at Dubai with a sigh as the Iran that was, or could have been, had Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s ambitious plans for Kish Island come to fruition. To put it politely, my sentiments differ. When I happen to find myself in the UAE, I’m riled not by superficial comparisons of nightlife, but because I see Iranian culture presented as Emirati, or, at best, Arab; because I have to explain – and defend – myself whenever I say ‘Persian Gulf’, or point to the Iranian roots of something or someone; and, because places like Dubai at times seem like one giant finger pointing across the Persian Gulf to Iran.

Am I angry? Not as much as some other passionate Iranians are. I simply refuse to take part in a blatant rewriting of history and denial of truth. As far as verbal responses are concerned, mine has been the same for years. ‘But they do call it “Arabian”, Mike Wallace said to the late Shah in a 1974 interview. ‘They can do many things’, said the latter with a laugh.

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