Image: Mahdi Ehsaei
Storytelling is what preserves history and culture. It allows communities to retell the stories of their ancient and extravagant kingdoms, hard-headed rulers that built their nations, and the hardships faced by their people. Without the devices to preserve such storytelling, histories are lost, cultures are erased, and societies are left to wonder. Therefore, how these histories are reproduced, documented, and narrated in their current environments dictates the trajectory of their existence. The unfortunate reality for many Black Iranians is that their stories remain unheard and their bodies unseen. They have been cast outwards without representation in a country that has been their home for centuries. This is their story.
History of Slavery in the Gulf Region
During the middle of the 19th century to roughly the first quarter of the 20th century, the Middle East, particularly the Gulf region, experienced an economic bloom. In addition, the international system was quickly moving toward industrialization and modernization in order to prepare for a competitive economic market. Now, to meet these demands, the Gulf became heavily dependent on slave labor. With such a growing demand, slave populations from Africa exponentially increased (it is important to note here that slavery in the region predated the industrial revolution).
Although slavery has been a part of the region's history for centuries, the lack of historical accounts has made it difficult to estimate how many people were enslaved and what the African diaspora looked like in the region before the 19th century. Iran's history of the African slave trade can be traced back to the early 16th century during Safavid Iran. Unlike the Atlantic slave trade, where enslaved people were sold from the western coast of the African continent, many enslaved people taken to Iran came from East Africa.
Slavery in Iran
The Portuguese assisted in the movement of enslaved people from Somalia and Zanzibar into Iran through passageways on the coasts and islands of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The last two dynasties of Iran, the Qajar (1795-1925) and the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979), may have been the most influential in the legacy of the slave trade in Iran.
The life of an enslaved Iranian during the Qajar dynasty mimicked that of indentured servitude. Enslaved people primarily served as eunuchs, concubines, servants, militants, administrative employees, and field workers. The shift in slave labor took place in the late years of the Qajar dynasty and the early years of the Pahlavi dynasty as the industry began to change course and field laborers became high in demand. Slavery was formally ended in 1929 by Reza Shah Pahlavi. The end of slavery started a concentrated effort to remove slavery from Iran's past. Depictions of slavery in art and other forms of media in Iran were essentially destroyed, and conversations about Iran's slave history became taboo.
Although slavery ended in Iran, the decedents of enslaved people and formerly enslaved people in Iran remained. As a result, many Afro-Iranians settled on the southern coasts of Iran in the provinces of Khuzestan, Bushehr, Hormozgan, Sistan, Baluchistan, and the south of Kerman.
Wherever Afro-Iranians settled down on the southern shores of Iran, they assumed the region's language, accent, and religion. What they have not forgotten, however, is the cultural mementos they brought from their homeland, which have significantly impacted the culture of the southern region of Iran. Although they encompassed the Iranian identity, Black Iranians have not been incorporated into the Iranian national identity.
It is of utmost importance that, in this modern age, all people residing in Iran should be recognized and given full authority over their national identity. Many black Iranians have lived in Iran for generations, long enough that their “Iranianness” is just as strong as their ethnically Iranian counterparts. If not given full recognition of this identity, their proximity to violence, prejudice, and limited ownership will only intensify.
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