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Language, Colonization and Decolonization: Examples from Iran

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Dedin: Azər elinin bir yaralı nisgiliyəm mən

 

Nisgil olsam da, gülüm, bir əbədi sevgiliyəm mən

Yad məni atsa da, oz gülşənimin bülbülüyəm mən

Elimin Farsica da dərdini söylər diliyəm mən

 

The central place of language in the process of colonization and decolonization cannot be emphasized enough. It is through language that values, desires, and wills for oppression and domination are transmitted, legitimized, and justified. And it is through language that counter-hegemonic narratives of resistance are constructed to challenge and eventually subvert dominant discourses of exclusion and colonialism. In the case of Iran, it has been through the recourse to language that the dominant Persian group has fashioned a distinct ‘Aryan’ racial and linguistic  identity for itself, while rendering the languages deemed to be non-Aryan as foreign, illegitimate, and savage. If a language is identified as alien and savage, there is no question that its speakers too are considered to be savage, monstrous, and foreign. As such, it is imperative that marginalized communities seize their indigenous languages, honor them, revitalize them, and use them as a most effective tool against the politics of demonization, assimilation, and colonization. By seizing the language, one seizes the narrative in resistance against the dominant discourse of oppression. By seizing the language, one secures a space on which to articulate one’s condition in one’s own voice, a space that dominant language has always denied to the colonized.

During the Pahlavi dictatorship in Iran, colonized non-Persian communities had little space to develop narratives of resistance in their own languages. They were forced to use the dominant Farsi language to combat the domination of that language, a paradox that resonates through all colonial conditions. Can one use the colonizer’s language to destabilize colonialism? Can one use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house? How effective is such a strategy?  In Iran of the Pahlavi era, just as in the contemporaneous one, generations of minoritized bodies have used the dominant Farsi language to combat its colonizing structure. Prominent among these writers and poets are such figures as Mohammad-Hossein Shahryar, Golamhussein Saidi, Samad Behrangi, Reza Baraheni, and others.

Mohammad-Hossein Behjat Tabrizi (1906-1988), better known as Shahryar, can safely be called the father of modern Azerbaijani poetry. In a famous piece entitledSehendiyye (1991) addressed to Bulut Qarachorlu, who criticized Shahryar’s choice of writing in Farsi,  Shahryar passionately defends his use of Farsi language, claiming:

Dedin: Azər elinin bir yaralı nisgiliyəm mən

Nisgil olsam da, gülüm, bir əbedi sevgiliyəm mən

Yad məni atsa da, oz gülşənimin bülbülüyəm mən

Elimin Farsica da dərdini söylər diliyəm mən

 

You said I was a bleeding sorrow of the Azer people

Sorrow I may be, my dear, yet their undying beloved I am

Strangers may reject me, for I am the canary of my own garden

I am the voice of my people articulating their pains in Farsi

(Shahryar, 1991, p. 80)

 

Shahryar was certainly an eloquent voice of his oppressed people in combating Persian racism. To prove this point, suffice to mention his famous poem titled “Tehran va Tehrani” (1967) in which he daringly confronts the dehumanization and ‘donkification’ of the Turks and all Turkic peoples in the dominant Persian narrative:

Hey you, the Tehrani!

Let’s be fair!

Which of us is a donkey?

You or I?

Nevertheless, Shahryar’s everlasting fame is not because of his Farsi poems but due to his Turkish works, particularly the masterpiece “Heydər-Babaya Salam!” Through his poetry, Shahryar revitalized the Azeri-Turkic in Iran, and in turn, was himself invigorated and immortalized in his own language and by his own people. The decolonizing and anti-racist impact of his work in Farsi is in no degree comparable to the overwhelming impact of his poetry in Turkish. He produced his Azeri works during the heydays of Pahlavi racism, when non-Farsi languages such as Turkish were considered a bunch of gibberish unworthy of writing, literature and literary creations. Shahryar showed that Azerbaijani language (Turkish, Azeri, Azerbaijani, Azeri-Turkic) was a fine vehicle for the expression of most subtle ideas, images, stories, and experiences. He also illustrated the way the mother tongue could be used to combat the politics of colonialism and annihilation. He accomplished all this not by engaging in violent struggle; not by writing polemics and rhetoric, but by merely using his brutalized and demonized language. He showed that others too could do the same, and in so doing, challenge the foundation of the dominant Iranian racist order.

Reza Baraheni is another Azerbaijani scholar writing in Farsi who has been most outspoken, most daring and most prolific in trying to produce a non-racist Persian literature. Unlike most writers of his generation, Baraheni’s Farsi employs an ordinary language, without trying to artificially omit Arabic and Turkic elements from Farsi. In some cases, he has also tried to introduce certain Turkic and other non-Farsi elements in his fiction and poetry. In a way, he and others like him have tried to, in Bakhtin’s (1981) word, ‘carnivalize’ the dominant Persian language, by widening its scope, destabilizing its authoritarian status, and making it more reflective of the linguistic reality in Farsi speaking areas. In justifying his use of the dominant Farsi language, Baraheni notes:

“I raised my voice, trying to strike back at the enemy who had done all he could to paralyze the language of my entire consciousness. I could not hit back in the language of which I had been deprived through an historical necessity devised by the enemy. I took the sword of the enemy in my hands. The enemy, by imposing his conditions on me, had given me training useful in the combat. The enemy’s strongest weapon was his language, his culture, and these I had learned as much as any of the sons and daughters of the enemy. I tried to be the tongue of my oppressed nationality in the language of the oppressor… I tried to sing in the words of the master against the dominion of that very master.” (Baraheni, 1977, p. 114)

Try as they could, this group of minoritized writers has not been able to introduce any significant changes by way of decolonizing the privileged status of Farsi. They have not even been able to decolonize their own name-Turk-in the Persian language, which continues to be written in its derogatory and colonized form: ‘Tork.’  Instead of transforming the Persian language to adapt to their needs and experiences, they have ended up adapting their experiences to an imposed language. In effect, all they have done is to fatten and strengthen Farsi, while their own language has been plunging into a state of semi-death. Of course, Baraheni, Saidi, and others time and again have emphasized that they had to write in Farsi because they were not allowed to write in their own language. But this is not the point here. The point is the effectiveness of using the master’s language to disturb the master’s dominant discourse. The experience of Iran’s minoritized writers shows that, although such disturbance may be possible to a limited degree, it is nowhere near the disruption that the use of one’s own language causes in the dominant discourse, in the colonial order and throughout the hegemonic system. As such, it is essential to any decolonizing movement to seize the mother tongue, the indigenous language, and through it the narrative in resistance, in self-expression and self-identification.

On December 15, 2009, Iranian minister of education, Mr. Hamidreza Haji-Babayi, revealed that 70% of Iranian students were bilingual. What this means is that Farsi/Persian is the natural mother tongue to only 30% of Iranian students. In other words, 70% of Iran’s population is non-Persian. And just a few weeks ago, on 18th January 2012, during an official visit to Turkey, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi confirmed that 40 percent of Iran’s population spoke Turkish as their mother tongue. Despite this fact, the Iranian government along with the majority of Persian intellectuals, scholars and even human rights activists continue to disregard the country’s rich ethnic, racial and linguistic diversity.

The problem is, the elites and intellectuals of the Persian ethnic group are not willing to give up their linguistic privilege, a privilege which has been accumulating since 1925 as a result of forceful imposition of Farsi on the majority non-Persian population. Despite their passionate narratives regarding human rights, their unwillingness to give up their linguistic privilege makes this group of Persians a part of the problem, and a major part at that. Will they ever give up this racist privilege willingly and without bloodshed?

This is not an easy question. Nor is it a new problem. Leo Tolstoy spoke of this problem in 1886, in his “Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence”:

“I sit on a man’s back, choking him, and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by any means possible, except getting off his back.” Will the honorable Persian “poets, scholars, intellectuals, human rights activists and freedom lovers” get off our back, and let us read and write in our own language?

 

References:

Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The dialogic imagination. M. Holquist, (Ed.). C. Emerson and M.           Holquist. (Trans.). Austin: University of  Texas.

Shahryar, M.H. (1991). Kolliyyat-e divan-e Torki. [The collection of Turkish divan]. H.

Mohammadzadeh, (Ed.). Tehran: Entsharat-e Negah/Entsharat-e Zarrin.

Baraheni, R. (1977). The crowned cannibals: writings on repression in Iran.  New

York: Vintage Books.

For other references, see: Asgharzadeh, A. (2007). Iran and the Challenge of Diversity: Aryanist Racism, Islamic Fundamentalism, and Democratic Struggles. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

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