I love Vancouver! While I did arrive during a heat wave, I don’t mind it much because D.C. is usually much hotter. So, I’ve been walking everywhere. I got a bus pass for the month and I’ve been using it to explore the city. It is gorgeous. The city is nestled near a mountain range and an inlet. My housing situation is great and my director Fakhteh Zamani is a truly inspiring person and is incredibly dedicated to her work. But more about me and Canada will come later.
I must first apologize for the length of this blog but I need to discuss what I am learning and doing. I would also suggest you to visit Malcolm Read for improving skills of blogging.
So far, the only substantial work that I have done this week (besides this blog) has been to search for possible foundations and trusts that can fund ADAPP’s work and I have drafted a letter of inquiry for one foundation. I’ve never had any experience with grantwriting, but we shall see how it goes. Hopefully, we can secure some grants for Fakhteh’s work because most of the organization’s funding has come from donations and Fakhteh’s own pocket, so it is unsustainable.
I’ve spent the rest of my time learning about the organization, the plight of the Azerbaijanis in Iran and the complexity of Iranian politics. I have also been practicing my Azerbaijani and I must say that I really have a lot to learn. I’ve gotten a chance to speak with Azerbaijanis that have studied in Azerbaijan proper and I’ve gained first hand experience as to how rich their language is compared to ours in South Azerbaijan. I really now understand how deprived South Azerbaijanis feel. If all of this sounds new to you, let me give you some facts about Azerbaijanis in Iran so you can understand why I am here.
Firstly, we need to understand that Iran is not a homogeneous society and houses many people of many faiths and identities.
Azerbaijanis are a Turkic people that are effectively separated between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Islamic Republic of Iran. They number about 7 million in Azerbaijan proper and a whopping estimated 30 million in Iran but share the same culture and language. While they have had a long history with various Iranian peoples, they are distinguished by their own history, culture and Turkic language. The nation was split during the Russo-Persian wars and various cities were handed over to Russia in the Golestan Peace Treaty in 1813 and again in 1828. So one set of Azerbaijanis shared Iran’s destiny and the other shared Russian and Soviet destiny. Well, at least up until 1991. When the Soviet Union fell, North Azerbaijanis received their own state and were able to flourish culturally. When this happened, South Azerbaijanis gradually became more active in advocating language rights (if you like, ask me about the theory of relative deprivation). Azerbaijanis became more fed up with the racism in Iranian society as they watched their brethren flourish. Actually, it was explained to me that the education system is the exact opposite of the western system. Racist mentality grows in higher education institutions, weird huh?
(Currently I’m reading Iran and the Challenge of Diversity by Alireza Asgharzadeh and Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity which are provide a great backdrop to this issue, check them out!)
So the movement exploded in May 2006, when an Iranian newspaper published a cartoon comparing Azerbaijanis to cockroaches. Many took to the streets and some even rioted in East and West Azerbaijan Province, Aradabil Province and even in the capital city Tehran in response to the cartoon. It is estimated that roughly 10,000 protesters were captured. Since then, there have been a few sporadic demonstrations and more and more Azerbaijanis have been publicly celebrating Iranian Azerbaijani heros such as Sattar and Bagher Khan, who were instrumental in the Constitutional Revolution in Iran and have been gathering at the famous Babak Castle once a year; all to the behest of the Iranian government.
Another series of protests erupted last month when an internet video emerged showing former President Mohammed Khatami making insulting jokes about the Azerbaijani people on May 16. Protests again ensued in the cities of Tabriz, Urmia and Tehran. On May 22, a group of protesters interrupted a government-sponsored fitness walk in Tabriz. Many were taken away screaming “Turk dilinde madrese” which translates to “Turkish language schools”. This video shows an example of one activist Alireza Farshi, who was taken into ministry of intelligence custody for advocating linguistic rights. He is currently being held in government custody with no word of a trial date. His wife and family are unaware of his whereabouts and health. He is at risk of torture. Oh and it is estimated that roughly 100 Azerbaijani activists were detained in the May 22 protests alone.
But it’s not all complete doom and gloom. The Azerbaijani people are gaining some momentum. It seems that the minority card has been steadily becoming more important in the upcoming election. Former prime minister (Iran abolished this position after the constitutional reforms of the late 80s) Mir Hossein Mousvai, himself and ethnic Azerbaijani, toured Tabriz and Urmia (the city that I was born in) on May 25 and 26 to appeal to the Azerbaijani people. At one point in his speech in Urmia, he began to speak Azerbaijani and the crowd went wild. He also screamed “ Yashasin Azerbaijan” which sort of translates to long live Azerbaijan. The following picture is of Azerbaijani activists holding up a sign which says “Turkish language schools” during Mousavi’s speech in Urmia.
Even current president Ahmadinejad joined the bandwagon. On a June 7th speech in Tabriz, Ahmadinejad reportedly claimed that he spoke fluent Azerbaijani and said that the language was “one of the best and most complete languages”… go figure. Yea, so appealing to minorities is quite new to Iranian politics. While this is still all rhetoric, I’m pretty optimistic about the future.
So this week, I will be working to get news about political prisoners out in the open to the English-speaking world. I have thus far made a facebook fan site, group and causes page. Please join them and ask all of your friends to join.
Posted By Farzin Farzad
Posted Jun 9th, 2009