Monday, October 17, 2005



The most recent example of the Balkan wars demonstrates how nationalism employs historical narratives to create mythical images of the past, which, in turn, later become a driving force behind the political agendas of opportunistic leaders and can be used to mobilize the masses for destructive action. This notion is especially relevant with reference to Azerbaijan, whose nationalist myth-making is not the fact of the remote past but is a process that started recently and continues today. While it is unscholarly to attribute racism to the endemic articles of the Azeri national character — if the term "national character" makes sense at all — Azeri nationalism and chauvinism do exist as distinct and increasingly influential ethno-political phenomena, with their own logic, mythology, historical roots and objective mode of development.

One of the birthmarks of Azeri nationalism — cultural plagiarism — is thought to be behind the denial of cultural and political rights of Armenians, Udins, Tats, Talishes, Lezgins and other native groups of Azerbaijan's colonized periphery, which survived earlier Turkification and became minorities.[2]

As a people whose national consciousness and ethnic self-awareness crystallized only with the imposition of Soviet rule, Azeris have been long grappling with a sense of insecurity and inferiority in their relations with the older cultures of their Persian, Armenian and Georgian neighbors. Contemporary Azeris — similarly to their Turkish cousins — are the descendents of Turkic horsemen who arrived to the Caucasus from their homeland in Central Asian in the late Middle Ages. To date, the languages and a bulk of ethnographic specs of Turks and Azeris only insignificantly differ from those of the Central Asia's Turkic groups, e.g. Turkmen and Uzbeks. Prior to the Turkic invasion of the eastern part of the Armenian Plateau, the territory of today's "Azerbaijan" was mainly populated by Armenian Christians (to the west of the River Kur) and a number of Persian- and Lezgin-speaking groups (to the east of the River Kur).

Assembled from linguistically related but disparate pastoral and semi-pastoral tribal formations — known as Borchali, Kengerly, Demurchi-Hasanli, Djinli, Padar, Karapapakh, Afshar, Shahseven, Ottuz-Iki, Igirmi-Dort, Chobankara, Karim-Beghlu, Sayidlu-Akhsakhlu, Jam-Melli, Qafarlu, Karabeghlu, Godaklu, etc., etc. — Azerbaijan represents a mutant entity that took its final shape in the course of scholarly experiments of Stalinist anthropologists as late as in the 1930s, long after the imposition of Soviet rule on the Southern Caucasus.

Azeris would soon vigorously embark on manufacturing their "historical past" — virtually from scratch — lashing out against commonsense.[6] This by the means of attributing to themselves the pieces of cultural heritage of neighboring Persians, Armenians, Arabs, Turkomans as well as long extinct, semi-mythical “Caucasian Aluanians.” A range of historical leaders, scholars, poets, writers and musicians of the mentioned peoples — together with architectural monuments and other artifacts produced by them and found on the territory of today's Azerbaijan — were wholesale declared manifestations of Azeri culture, which, through several miraculous "discoveries" of Azeri academics, almost overnight acquired lacking ancient flavor and gloss.

An example is the Persian lyricist Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209), proclaimed as "Azeri poet" by Azerbaijan's Communist bosses.

Mark Saroyan, an American political scientist, noted that Azerbaijani historians produced histories of “Azerbaijan” based not on the historical facts of a prior national state(s) but on the assumption that the genealogy of "Azerbaijanis" could be traced in terms of putative ethnic-territorial continuity of all lands that are found within the borders of the present-day Azerbaijani Republic. Similarly, the history of the ancient tribal Christian commonwealth of Caucasian Aluania (also known by its customary Armenian name — Aghvank, or as Strabo's "Caucasian Albania," no reference to European Albania) was assimilated by Azerbaijani historians into the history of the "Azerbaijani (Azeri) nation," despite the absence of any linguistic and cultural similarities between the Armenian civilization of Caucasian Aluania and the contemporary Azeris. In this way, cultural practices substantiated claims to ethnic continuity based on the modern form of the territorial national state.

Mimicking their Turkish role models, Azeris similarly began falsely personating themselves as heir of — unrelated to them — Midians, Manians, Aluanians (i.e. "Caucasian Albanians," no reference to European Albanians) and other real or hypothetical groups that inhabited the Transcaucasus at least fifteen centuries before the arrival of the first proto-Azeri nomadic infiltrators from the eastern shore of the Caspian to the territory of the present-day "Azerbaijan." In an equally absurd manner, Azeri nationalist historians laid down claims to the legacy of late medieval Persian khanates (principalities) of the Transcaucasus, as the precursors of their modern nation-state.

The fact that Azerbaijan is a recently constructed nation is a circumstance that makes historical revisionism a genetic, ever-present attribute of Azeri ongoing nation-building process. Azeris regard historical past as a periodically updateable domain that from time to time could be subjected to arbitrary, politically-motivated reformulations and revisions. In their nationalist exercises, Azeri scholars waxed insolent to the point that, as of today, proclaimed not only mosques but even Christian churches (!), found in the vicinity of former Azeri pastures and built by Persians and Arabs, or Armenians, respectively, as manifestations of their own "Azeri" architecture. One may only wonder when Azeri academics would "discover" that the Athenian Parthenon was an originally Azeri temple ... It is both ironic and symbolic that Azeris, the descendents of those whose economic life in the past was sustained by nomadic banditry and looting, now try to embezzle not only material but also cultural and spiritual heritage of their neighbors, perhaps considering this practice a modern form of booty-taking.

Perversely coupled with hypernationalist paranoia, Azeri self-examination efforts tend to turn ugly, necessitating periodical aggressive interactions with minority groups and next-door neighbors, including the victimization of non-Azeris and the display of indiscriminate hostility toward them. These violent exchanges help to define Azeri ethno-political identity through mostly negative rather than positive patterns, in other words, through the understanding of “who-we-are-not” in contrast to “who-we-are.” Ultimately, in Azerbaijan, sharp lines between "us" and "them" were drawn in blood.

Estimates of Azeri Population in Iran

Estimates of Azeri Population in Iran

Chehregani also complained that Iran’s central government bans the use of Azeri language in schools, changes Azeri geographical names, harasses and imprisons Azeri cultural activists and underreports the Azeri population, which he claims is 35 million (which would make it an ethnic majority).

The CIA World Factbook estimates Iranian Azeris as comprising nearly 16 million, or 24 percent of Iran’s population. The United Nations human rights report on Iran notes that "there may be as many as 30 million" ethnic Azeris in Iran.

Remembering Zulqarneyn: On the Occasion of Oliver Stone’s “Alexander”

Remembering Zulqarneyn: On the Occasion of Oliver Stone’s “Alexander”

By Alireza Asgharzadeh

In my view, having actors with diverse accents is one of the strongest aspects of “Alexander.” In a film of this magnitude, probably it is not possible to have the Greeks, Macedonians, Persians, Jews, Arabs, Hindus, and others converse in their original tongues. In such a situation, the least an objective producer can do is to present English in various local accents, if only to attest to the presence of varied linguistic communities in the movie. Would not the use of various Englishes be more objective than using a uniform, standard Queen’s English to represent each and every linguistic community from Europe to Central Asia to the Middle East? Moreover, now that English has virtually become the lingua franca of our increasingly globalizing world, rather than contesting the use of various Englishes, one ought to encourage such an act as a fact of contemporaneous life.

For those of us who spend most of our time reading old books about ancient figures and events, movies like ‘Alexander’ offer a breath of fresh air by taking us away from the dusty pages of books and into thrilling theaters. Historical sagas like “Alexander” make us reflect on how and why certain figures continue to intrigue our imagination and pique our curiosity. Alexander the Great of Macedonia (356-323 BC) is certainly one such figure. His mythical and factual persona has entered into oral narratives and written literatures of peoples of Central Asia and the Middle East ever since his arrival to the region in the spring of 334 BC, provoking thoughtful historical, literary, intellectual, and linguistic debates. Take the name of our homeland, ‘Azerbaijan,’ for instance. Does this astounding name originate from the name of our ancestors, the Azerler, or is it derived from the name of Atropathena, a general of Alexander’s who became the governor of Azerbaijan after Alexander’s death? Our historians and linguists are still debating this issue.

It is through Alexander’s encounters with local peoples that we come to witness a phenomenon in the movie that has captured the imagination of generations of historians for centuries: Why is this young conqueror greeted by local peoples throughout the vast Achaemenid Empire as a liberator? Why do we not find any semblance of revolt and revulsion against this man on the part of local peoples and communities? After all, who would want to be conquered and dominated by an outside force? These questions take us back not so much to Alexander’s tolerance and respect for other cultures (which he possessed to an admirable degree) but to the nature of the enemy that he defeats: the warlike tribe of Achaemenians.

Intruders to the Iranian Plateau, the Achaemenians had terrorized the region’s diverse populations for 228 years, from 559 to 331 BCE. The recorded Orientalist historiography tells us very little about this aggressive tribe. The Old Testament describes them as cruel warriors who would emerge from the North and destroy Babylonia:

The Orientalist historiography of the region paints a positive image of the cruel Achaemenid rulers, regarding them amongst the earliest forefathers of a supposedly ‘superior’ Aryan race. It is this Orientalist reconstruction and misrepresentation of these brutal warmongers that gets taken up during the rule of Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1978) in Iran. The Pahlavis take the Orientalist misrepresentations to an exaggerated level and use them to justify their own brutal suppression and repression of non-Persian ethnic groups and languages in the country. Just as the Orientalist historiography accords no space to the region’s rich and diverse cultures and languages in the Pre and post-Achaemenid era; so too the Pahlavi regime uses the Aryanist mumbo-jumbo surrounding this supposedly ‘superior’ Aryan race to deny the existence of difference and diversity in modern Iran. This denial becomes the official policy throughout the Pahlavi era and even after its downfall.

Oliver Stone’s depiction of the Achaemenian kings in “Alexander” is a faithful replica of the Orientalist misrepresentation of these destroyers of other cultures and civilizations. The image of a dignified, distinguished-looking King Darius III and his noble entourage bear no resemblance to the vicious images that historical evidence shows of the Achaemenians. Conversely, Stone’s depiction of Alexander as a humanitarian cosmopolitanist respectful of diverse cultures, ethnicities, and languages seems to confirm the image that both the historical record as well as the collective memory of peoples of the region have of Alexander the Great. However, one must be careful not to glorify and romanticize any act of aggression, conquest, and occupation, including those of Alexander the Great.

The positive image of Alexander is so deep-rooted in languages and cultures of the Middle East that Iskandar (Alexander) has become a common name throughout the region. Anyone traveling to remote villages in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Azerbaijan, and other places, would certainly encounter individuals bearing the name Iskandar. The same cannot be said of Achaemenian kings and their generals. That is to say, we never encounter in the literatures of the region names such as Kambujya, Khshayârshâ, Vishtâspa, and the rest. Even today we do not come across such names in major Iranian towns and cities, and this despite the fact that the short period of Pahlavi rule (1925-1978) in Iran was the heyday of Aryanist racism and aggressive chauvinism. On the other hand, the name of the Macedonian hero who put an end to the rule of the Achaemenian kings has been commonly used by all cultures and communities ever since the arrival of Iskandar the Great to the region.

Even the Shahnameh of Abulqasim Ferdowsi, a book written around1000 AD to tell the ancient tales of Iran, is completely oblivious to the existence of Achaemenian kings, whereas there are positive references to Iskandar of Macedon in it. The Achaemenians terrorized the region’s diverse populations for 228 years, destroying their cultures, appropriating their arts, and plundering their wealth. Perhaps that was reason enough for the peoples of the Middle East, Eastern and Central Asia to glorify a young hero who put an end to those intolerable appropriations and pillages. Perhaps, too, this is a good time for us to deconstruct the Orientalist/Aryanist fabrication of the histories and stories of Iran’s diverse nationalities and ethnic groups.

A critical interrogation of the Aryanist/Orientalist constructed image of the Achaemenians would be a great starting point to this end. The Iranian historian Naser Poorpirar has already dropped the bombshell by way of his seminal “Investigations into the Foundation of Iran’s History.” The onus now is on younger generations of scholars and historians to follow in the footsteps of Naser Poorpirar and expose the Aryanist historiography of Iran for the lies, deceptions, and misrepresentations that it is. Oliver Stone deserves best of credits for bringing the undying memory of Zulqarneyn to the attention of contemporary generations. He has done a great job in rekindling the old debates and discussions. It is up to us now to carry the discourse to a more humane terrain.