Iranís Azeri-Turks Linguistic Orphans: An Interview with Dr. Reza Baraheni

Sima Sahar Zerehi

Iran, One Country Many Nations
Iran is a country rich with a diversity of cultures and languages. Sadly, however, many of these nationalities have been obscured by the oppressive policies of Iranís governments, who have systematically silenced Iranís nationalities and pushed for cultural hegemony, representing one official Farsi language and culture.

Throughout the next several issues we are going to publish a series of interviews with prominent figures from Iranís various nationalities and ethnicities. Our goal is to introduce our readers to the history, culture and struggles of the numerous communities that live in Iran.

The following interview with Dr. Reza Baraheni, an Azari-Turk is the first part of this installment. In the next few issues we will speak to members of the Kurdish community, the Arab community as well as many others.

Reza Baraheni

Reza Baraheni, the author of more than 50 books of poetry, fiction, literary theory and criticism, is currently Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, and PEN Canadaís Writer-in-Exile-in-Residence at York University, Toronto.

Winner of the prestigious Scholars-at-Risk-Program Award of the University of Toronto and Massey College, Baraheni has taught in Teheran University in Iran; The University of Texas, Austin; Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana; The University of Maryland; and Oxford University, England.

He was also a Fellow at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, and at Oxford University, England, from 1982 Ė when he was fired from the University of Tehran for his advocacy of equal rights for Iranian women Ė to 1996, the year of his forced departure from Iran.

A former prisoner of both the Shahís regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Baraheni has been at the forefront of the struggle for democracy and human rights in Iran since 1964. He is a founding member of the Writers Association of Iran, a member of PEN International, and was President of PEN Canada from 2001- 2003.

Reza Baraheni lives in Toronto.

Can you tell us a little about the history of the Azeri-Turkish population in Iran?

Iran has always been made of all kinds of nationalities. Even if you go back for instance to the beginnings of its history, you will see that it was made of all kinds of what they called the Satrapiís. Satrapi was almost something like a province with its own independent identity and also independent nationality.

At the same time, in recent history that is in the last 1,100 years, letís call that recent history we, the Turks came to Iran. Many people of course believe that they had been there, because when they look at the Caliphate history, we see that the Caliphs actually speak of the Turks in their region, and also when we go back to pre-Islamic Iranian history we see that the Turks are there. I mean Azerbaijani - and in fact, one of these Iranian kings, Anu Shirban speaks of transferring them here and there. So they had been there.

Then of course there have been other migrations of Turks through almost the last 1,100 years, but the most important thing is that almost 300 years after the Arab invasion, the Turks started coming from central Asia towards Iran, and finally of course they managed to take the whole monarchy. For almost 1,000 years it was the Turks who were running the entire country.

And during those 1,100 years they never imposed their language on the Persians. They could have because they were the kings, and certainly they could do it by decree, but they did not. In fact, they encouraged Persian literature, they encouraged Persian language, and perhaps they wanted to create a kind of barrier, a kind of stronghold against the Arab influence, and it was that through the language which was being spoken in those days by the inhabitants, they could actually do that. In fact, it is common knowledge that it was the Turks who actually created this idea of the Persian language thing.

Most of the time in the courts, it was Turkish and Persian. There were two languages in the court. For many years of course the language of the army, the language of the court, the language of the administration was actually Turkish-Persian.

But after the constitutional revolution which took place from 1906-1910, in which the Azeri-Turks played a very, very important role, it was always thought that if there was going to be an official language or two official languages, one of them would be Turkish and the other Persian.

With the coming of the Pahlavi Dynasty, this whole thing actually changed, and they made Persian the official language of the country. Now, at present, the Turks form 37.2 per cent of the whole population of the country. If you go to you will see that that is the case, and of course the Persians have 32.8 per cent.

There are three major root languages. The first one, speaking alphabetically, is Arabic. Arabic is a language that has Semitic roots.

The Persians as I said are 32.8 per cent. Persian of course is an Indo-European language. It is not only Persian that is Indo-European; in Iran there are many other languages that have Indo-European origins, for instance, Gilaki and Talysh.

Then there is the Turkish language, which the Azeris in Azerbaijani speak. They make up 37.2 per cent of the population. There are four million Turkmen, who speak a dialect of Turkish. Turkish is an Altaic language, which is a language spoken to the West of China, up to the Caspian Sea and beyond now, because it goes up to Turkey also to East Europe. Finish is also an Altaic language. Now Altaic languages are the languages which are closer to Mongolian . . .

If you put all the Indo-European languages together, their number is higher, but if you think of Persian alone, then the number of the Turks is higher.

Now, according to a recent data that was given, they say that 57 per cent of the population of Tehran was Turkish, Azeri-Turkish. So this shows that when it comes to the roots of languages it is Indo-European roots that dominate. When it comes to one single language, it is the Azeri-Turk language that dominates.

But at the same time you have to realize that even in the last 100 years the Azeris have had something to do with power. They have had something to do with the backbone of the army, the backbone of the administration in general, the cabinets, and parliament and so on. Because of the population, and because strategically, Azerbaijan is very important.

In recent years, letís say in the last 20 years, some of the population has moved to Tehran and around Tehran. For instance, Karaj has 11 million people in it, mostly Turkish speaking. So the Turks have moved out of Azerbaijan and have come and created a kind of circle around the capital. At the same time theyíve entered the bizarre, and they say that the bizarre of Tehran, the industry of Tehran is run by the Turks.

The reason this language has a leadership role is that first, it represents 37 per cent of the population. Second, the constitutional revolution was actually won because of the Azeri population, because of the role they played in the revolution. Also in 1944-45 they formed government, it was the democratic party and government of Azerbaijani and they got some kind of autonomy, some kind of self-determination.

But with the treachery, the treason of Stalin and the Iranian bourgeoisie that held hand in hand, and defeated this whole things and the government went away. It was only for a year or 14 months that we had this. As a child, I remember we studied everything in Turkish, but afterwards it was forbidden. Before that also it had been forbidden.

The Azeriís, this great population, theyíve always been forbidden to read and write in their own language.

You touched on this a bit in your first answer, but could you please expand on the attitude of the Iranian government towards the Azeri-Turkish people in the past as well as today?

The Iranian government has always tried to have one language, one official language for the whole country. This has been an imposition, which more than any other nationality, the Turks and the Kurds have revolted against.

You have to realize that Iranian-Azerbaijani use to be much larger. At the beginning of the 18th century, the war between the Iranian empire and the Tzarís empire, Iran lost some of its territory to the Russians. Parts of Azerbaijan were taken by Russia. This separation has of course always been there for the last 200 years; there may be certain tendencies, for instance for the two Azerbaijans to get together. There may be some exception, but I donít think that many Azeris in Iran are sympathetic to creating one country.

Certainly of course the language is the same. The roots of the language are the same. We read their culture and they can read our culture. Somehow we believe that we belong to the same nation. But at the same time, there is a separation that has taken place. I donít think that we want for instance to be with them, or that they will want to be with us. Although, the exchange of culture has taken place more or less like English-Canadians and the Americans.

Before the fall of the Soviets, the border was completely closed and nobody could go to the other side. After the fall of the Soviet Union, itís been quite different. Many people come and go and many people travel. I travelled myself.

When we had that language we thought that we had a country. The Iranian government completely outlawed this language and imposed Persian. This has been the case for all the nationalities.

We did not learn Turkish, we would learn Persian, then we would learn Arabic, then we would learn English. All three of them are foreign languages. This has happened to almost 67 per cent of the nationalities of Iran, except for the Persians who learn their language not only as a mother language, but also as a written language. So this is the kind of imposition that we are talking about.

Now the Arabs would like to read everything in Arabic. Not that their Arabic is bad, but they want to have a structural gradation of things so that they could systematically move up in schooling. We, the Azeriís, would like to have the same kind of thing.

This doesnít mean that for instance some of the people from Azerbaijan have not been allowed to be prominent writers in Persian. Play writing was introduced by the Azeris to the Iranians; literary criticism was introduced by Azeris to Iranians. Modern plays were introduced to the Iranians by the Azeris, and also the writing of fiction. This is very significant. Some of them earlier wrote in Turkish and got translated. But most of the other people wrote in Persian. Whatever has been written in Azerbaijan and is Persian, is considered to be a part of Persian literature.

So there is a difference between Iranian literature and Persian literature. Because, sometimes when you say Iranian literature, you would like to see what the Kurds, what the Arabs, what the Azeris have produced. Generally, except for the Azeris, the others unfortunately have not produced anything in their own language.

The influence of Azeri in the early days, particularly during the constitution have been immense, not only in Persian literature, but also in the writing of songs, in the writing of satirical poetry against the government - and some of them were written in Northern Azerbaijani and have been imported into Iranian Azerbaijan, and since most of the people on the Western part of Iran knew Azeri, they were translated into Persian. They formed to a degree the backbone of satirical poetry and later modern poetry.

Youíve spoken briefly about the contribution of the Azeri-Turkish population on the literary scene in Iran. How has the Azeri-Turkish nation maintained its identity and survived these assaults? How have the Azeri-Turkish people resisted these affronts in other ways?

The resistance has always been there, right from the very beginning. The Azeris were the fist people that introduced public schools to Iran. The pioneers of public schools said that the schools in the Azeri-Turkish parts of the country should be in two languages Turkish and Persian.

After the Pahlavi Dynasty took over in 1925, they outlawed Turkish language and made Persian the official language.

One of the things that happen is that at home until you are seven you speak Turkish and this language is the language that the mother teaches the children. The psychological thing that takes place between the child and the mother later faces a very great difficulty when they go to school and face another language which is the mother language of other people.

So here some kind of double alienation is taking place. The kid is alienated from his mother tongue because he knows his mother tongue only orally, but he doesnít know it in a written form. So he is actually split. Heís got to think in Turkish and express himself in Persian when he comes to school. Or see everything in Persian, then as soon as he faces the other world, the other people have already learned their language at home, and when they come to school if they are Persians, they actually speak their language. So the alienation isnít there for them. But the alienation is there for Azeri-Turks, not only when they come to school, but also towards their mother. That is what I call double alienation.

I think that psychologically they have turned Azeris to people with split personalities. This has been strengthened by other alienations, because right after that you get into learning another foreign language which is Arabic. Itís the language of religion and you learn it not only through prayers but also through school. Youíre always being moved away from your mother tongue and moving to the direction of languages about the mothers of which you know nothing. You are always a kind of orphan. Male and female, they are orphans when it comes to language. These are linguistic orphans.

This creates a very, very bad situation for most of the Azeris and some of the Persians since they think that these people should know Persian as well as they do, and if they cannot learn for instance to speak Persian they consider them sub-humans and sometimes, they actually call the Turks, Turke-khar which means the donkey -Turks. Just because they cannot speak the mother language of someone else, but they themselves donít take any trouble to learn Turkish, which is actually the language of the biggest nationality in the country.

The psychological disturbance itself is extremely important, particularly when facing public education. You learn Turkish at home. When you go to school youíve got to speak Persian. That creates a distance between the mother and the son, or the daughter. That, I think, is the worst thing that is happening. The departure from the womb is taking place right at the beginning, and that of course is on a language level.

Thatís why the patriarchal structure of Iranian society is one of the worst patriarchal structures. In learning Persian, you learn it not as the language of the mother, but as the language of the patriarch. The language of the top-most creature on this pyramid of masculine history, so heís on the top, heís the king; this is his language and is forced down to the lower levels.

We touched on this a little bit in terms of the discussion on education and rights to language. When we speak about sovereignty and equal rights for the Azeri-Turkish population, what are we talking about?

The Azeris have their own identity. They have a language. They have a culture. Even their faces are quite different from the Persians, in general they are a bit whiter, with eyes that are brighter than other Persians. They are a different people.

They donít know, perhaps they are the Khazars of the ancient world, there have been so many studies of these things, there have been some kind of similarities now that they have found between the Azeri language, the Turkish language and Sumerian language, which is one of the oldest languages in the world.

Some people think that the Azeris did not migrate to the area, that they have been there from the beginning. Somehow, history also supports that. We have a kind of language, a kind of culture, although destroyed because of these impositions; we would like to keep it. They think that Azeri-Turkish should be the official language of the area. Now, it should also be the official language in Tehran too, because more than half of the population in Tehran is made up Azeris.

Iranianís should begin to understand that hybridity is much better than uniformity. They should understand that itís not only a kind of multiculturalism, but difference is much better than being identical. They have to realize that this is a country in which different nationalities actually live. They have to learn how to live with them. Not as their masters, but as their friends and as their equals. This has not taken place. Theyíve got to do that now, if itís going to take another revolution in that country, itís going to take another revolution and you canít stop it. Or, you can actually discuss it as a dialogue, not only with the Persians, but also with the other nationalities. For that you need some kind of format in which these discussions will take place.

Iím sure that most of the Azeri leaders inside Iran would be quite willing to discuss it with anyone. Recently, Bani-Torof, the person who was recently arrested, an Arab, and an Iranian-Azeri leader, the two of them went to pay a visit to the former speaker of the Parliament, and they discussed these things together. This meant that perhaps something was going to happen, but none of these things happened.

The other thing is that they donít spend any money on Azerbaijan, because from the beginning there have been these superstitions, that now that the Azeris are so alienated, one day they will separate from the country, and than why spend money on them. Most of the money has been spent in other places. The oil money has been spent in Kerman. The oil money has been spent in Esfahan. Major investments in Azerbaijan have not taken place. If you had a kind of autonomous government, they will certainly plan everything and then they will say that this is our portion and we would like to have this much, if this is our budget then we would like 37 per cent of the budget.

Then they can learn Turkish, they can learn Persian, they can learn English. It is important to learn oneís own mother tongue. . .

What role does the Azeri-Turkish nation play in the future of Iran, as well as the future of the region?

I think that as the biggest nationality in the country it will play a very, very big role. My only hope is that the other side will listen to the logic of multiethnic. I hope that there isnít a kind of harsh disputes about these things. I hope that people of goodwill, will participate in this process and transform the cultural and linguistic side of this discourse, so that everybody will understand whatís going on. Because if they donít understand, it wonít be taking action, it will be making war. Civil war in Iran would be extremely bad. It will hurt everyone and only make the imperialists happy. Then they can actually come and influence the country and divide it up.

Intellectually of course, the Azeris are playing a very important role, because they have the theoretical background of this thing. Most of the Azeris in the past, most of the intellectuals have been lefties. They were the creators of the constitutional revolution. They participated in the second, very important revolution, which started with the invasion of Iran by the allies, and it went until 1953, when it was that whole revolutionary movement for democracy, for freedom, for getting rid of the foreign interests. After that we have the dark ages.

I think we have to do something about that. With the revolution the slogans were Turkish-Persian, Turkish-Persian, and Persian-Turkish. The languages were opened up, everybody was speaking their own language and everybody was saying what they wanted.

One thing that is important is that the clergy always spoke to the people in their mother tongues. The work of the clergy is more oral, and of course Khomeini used it in the best way. He sent tape recordings in Persian and everybody knew what was happening, he did not speak, lets say a very sophisticated type of Persian in those things, not that he wasnít a sophisticated man, I think that he was very, very sophisticated, and a very shrewd thinker.

At the same time, the clergy always spoke to the people in their own language, for instance in Kurdistan, they spoke Kurdish, in Azerbaijani they spoke Azeri. In the Arab places they spoke in Arabic. In Baluchistan they spoke Balochi. In Turkmenistan they spoke Turkmeni. In Tehran and in most of the other places where the Persians were living they spoke in Persian.

But the Iranian intellectuals were deprived of speaking or writing in their own languages because the people had not learned that language. Generally, it was in written form, so the relationship between the intellectuals and the political leaders and so forth of the left, was completely disrupted by the regime. In this way the regime made the hands of the clergy stronger, and it was the illiterate parts of the country that revolted against the Shahís government and got rid of it. Not that of course the intellectuals were for the Pahlavi regime, they were against it. You have to realize that most of the publicity came through these people, and they built a foothold for themselves, they had already done that from the beginning.

Moving on to the future, what do you think the role of the Farsi speaking community both inside and outside of Iran is in supporting the struggles of the Azeri-Turkish people?

First of all I think that the best thing for them is to look at the state structure, the government structure, the structure of the public education, of those countries where several people with several different identities live together. Canada would be a very good example. Canada has got two official languages.

The two official languages English and French live side by side. Everybody knows that here youíve got to learn two languages; otherwise it is going to be very difficult to get in to the university to get in to public life. You cannot go to the Parliament without learning those two languages.

Now in Iran, this has not been the case, although the structure of Iran is more or less like the structure of Canada. This is the difference between modernity and backwardness.

Dr. Baraheni, donít you think that a more apt example and comparison would not be English and French in Canada, but rather the various First Nations languages that have been wiped out throughout the history of this country, which are still unacknowledged?

I think that, that would be a very good example, with only one difference that is if we put the quantity and the quality together. In Iran, 67 per cent of the people speak other languages. Here you have - what is the percentage of the First Nations . . . I donít think that we should be dealing with quantity. Youíre quite right when you say that these languages should be free, and they can study them and read and write if they want to.

But in the case of Iran 67 per cent of the people cannot read and write in their language, and their languages and cultures have always been there. Nobody invaded their country to take their languages away; those people were there all the time. So as soon as public education came and people had to be educated in their own languages, Persian was imposed on the entire country.

Another example would be Switzerland, you have four languages there, itís a very small country, and all those languages are considered to be official languages. There is no difference; Iran could be the same kind of thing.

Thatís why the solution to this is very easy. There is amongst the Persians a kind of Aryan attachment, more or less the same kind of attachment during Hitlerís time. Now, when you look at the writings of the Persians who speak about the other nationalities, or who donít speak about the other nationalities. They think that Iran is made up of one nation, and all of them are Aryans. They always say we are Arianee. If you tell the Americans that these people are Aryans, and this is what they have done against the Turks and the Arabs and so forth, they will actually say that this is a kind of anti-Semitism. This has taken place in Iran.

My suggestion to my Persian friends, and particularly as a person who has written about 60-70 of their books is, why donít you help the other people so that they can also use their talent in their own languages, and get together and create a country with several languages, and several cultures, and several identities, and have at the same time a roof above your heads as one country with several of these things.

In other words I think that there should be some kind of dialogical situation instead of a kind of homological situation. Thatís why I think Iranians are hybrids, and they should think of themselves as hybrids with several languages, several roots, several cultures. . . Modernity will not accept the suffocating of the language of millions of people just because Persian seems to be a pretty language.