Studies

Ahwazi identity, between the past, and future

(Arab case study on Ahwaz)

Identity: A set of personal social, cultural, psychological, philosophical, environmental, and historical characteristics and components, implying an expressive psychological emphasis on the nature or the essence of the group, which implicitly reflects the unity or homogeneity between its members and thus the distinctive characteristics of individuals belonging to it that sets them apart from other groups, in a specific temporal and spatial context and clarifies awareness.

Each human being has three identities: primary identity, group identity, and internal identity. The concept of primary identity is based on the biographical details of the individual; from his or her father, mother, origin and ancestry to the geographic and social features of their birthplace and the place where they spent their childhood – the climate, water, soil, light, urban or rural environment, neighbours and other features; all these fundamental components of life contribute to the construction of the first identity.

The second identity, the intellectual and cultural identity, which is shaped by the intellectual, cultural and ideological framework that forms the individual’s belief system and worldview, is concerned with the foundations of the individual’s belief and how these originated.

The third identity is an inner or an esoteric identity; in determining this identity, we must also understand the source from which it came: our inner identity, our character, our innermost soul, from what and where did this emerge? Typically, individuals and social groups are not necessarily affiliated solely with only one identity and can combine different identities, such as ethnic, religious, linguistic, national, and gender identities, as well as the identity of an occupational group.

A primary objective of identity discourse is to discover the best means of analysing the various factors in the different identities that go to make up each person’s multilayered identities.

Therefore, the existence of “dual identities” is considered a primary obstacle and one of the most critical problems that any analysis of the concept of identity faces.  Despite this, we must try to find the way to discover the similarities between the identities of different groups. It is worth mentioning that the advantage of dialogue and debate about identity is that one can learn the similarities between several different identities and deduce a comprehensive identity encompassing all the multilayered identities within a society.

Identity is a need that cannot be abandoned

Each individual wants to have a particular identity, through which he tries to identify and distinguish himself.

At the same time, the individual wants to be a privileged person and, in order to achieve this position, associates himself with a person or group of relatively nominally respectable and privileged persons; the individual likens himself to the other person or group, in part, by virtue of the privilege and distinction of that individual with the group.

Identity also gives an individual a profound feeling of self-value and self-acceptance, a source of solace and belonging so that, even when alone, he or she need not feel isolated.

Ahwaz, Arabistan, Shushan, Shush and Elam were the historical names given to the Ahwaz region, which was divided after Iran’s annexation in the 1920s between the modern-day provinces of Gron (Hormozegan in Farsi), Bushehr and North Ahwaz (the contemporary provinces of Khuzestan, as well as Musyan, occupy what was southern Ilam).

In this study, the author focuses on the northern part of Ahwaz, which was renamed, in Farsi, as ‘Khuzestan’ by Iranian colonists This was the historical incubator of the Elam civilisation؛. This research study centres on identity and the reality of interdependence between the Arab citizens of this region on the one hand and the Elamite civilisation and Elamite peoples on the other, tracing how this identity has evolved through time.   

North Ahwaz  (Khuzestan)

Khuzestan is a small part of the land historically known as Ahwaz, which extended from the province of Ilam(Elam) to the borders of the province of Hormozegan, as well as encompassing the Jubailat region, which is still inhabited by Arabs (known in this area as ‘mountain Arabs’ or ‘Arabs of Kamri’) and stretching to the area of Baida (The ‘White River’ or ‘Safeed – Sapeed rood’) .

Some scholars suggest that the name ‘Khuzestan’, which was commonly used for this area during the Pahlavi era, came originally from the ‘Khuz’, an Ahwazi Arab minority who inhabited parts of Qanthira (Dezful in Farsi), Arjan (Behbehan) and Toster (Schuchter).  Others suggest that the ‘Khuz’ in question were travelers and pilgrims who travelled to the area during the earlier centuries of Islamic migration and settled there.  

Whilst a number of linguists have claimed that Khuzia is an ancient and incomprehensible language, the Khuzians are, in fact, believed to be either from the Mandaean sector from a group of Ahwazi Jews who once lived in the city of Quneithra, Arjan and Toster.  Some historians have also suggested that the name ‘Khuz’ could come from a Mandaean family called Khuzia or Khuzaniyah, some of whose descendants still live in the Ahwaz region in the present day.

The Mandaean sect, descendants of the Semitic tribes who belong specifically to the ethnically Arab Aramaic tribes, are among the oldest continuous inhabitants of Quneithra (Dezful), Toster (Shushtar), Arjan (Behbahan), Rames, Mahmarah, Khafjayeh and other northern cities in the region of Ahwaz now known as Khuzestan, having lived there alongside Jews, Christians and Muslims for thousands of years.

It should be noted that, as in Judaism, the Mandaean faith is not generally open to those without Mandaean parentage and heritage; in both faiths it is necessary for the believer to be descended from others of the same religion; whilst others can, theoretically, convert to Judaism or Mandaeanism, this is largely unheard of.

The policy of erasing Arab identity in Ahwaz

Before the Pahlavis’ annexation of the Ahwaz region in the 1920s, the people’s Arab and Islamic identity remained under the sovereignty of Arab governments and states such as Masha’shayin, Bani Asad, Kaabi, Qawasim, Marazik, Al-Ali, Abadilah, Hamadilah and other Arab Emirates which ruled there. The rulers of these administrations and the Arab Emirates shaped a distinctively Arab and Islamic identity, with figures such as “Sadat Al-Masha’shin” in Howeyzeh and Khafajiyeh founding religious schools which taught in Arabic. During the Khazal dynasty’s reign, the region’s schools continued to focus on teaching Arabic language and literature, Islamic sciences and English.  This ended abruptly in the 1920s after Iran annexed the principality of Muhammarah on the eastern coast of the Arabian Gulf; after arresting Prince Khazal, the last Arab ruler of Ahwaz,  Iran’s leaders ordered the closure of these Arab schools and issued instructions that Arabs should no longer be educated in Arabic, but should instead be forced to study solely in Farsi along with other minorities in the area, including as the Mandaeans who also had their own distinctive language. The Pahlavis established schools teaching a Farsi-language-only curriculum which focused on Persian culture; this was the first step in Iran’s efforts to target and eradicate Ahwazis’ Arab identity, along with the identities of other minorities in the annexed region, in order to subsume this into a larger Persian identity.    

The second step in the attempt to obliterate Ahwazis’ Arab identity was to prohibit the wearing of their traditional Arab garb, with the indigenous Arab people, particularly men, forced to adopt the Pahlavis’ strongly Westernised dress code of Edwardian suits and hats modelled on the British imperial style of the time.  Ahwazis who refused to abandon their traditional Arab garb faced penalties for doing so.

Another means used by the Pahlavi dynasty in the attempt to eradicate Ahwazi history and culture was to replace the historic Arabic names of cities, towns, villages, streets, neighbourhoods and even geographic landmarks with new Farsi names.

All these steps were intended not only to enforce assimilation by the Arab people of the newly colonised region with the now-dominant Persian occupiers, but to sever Ahwazis’ relations with their fellow Arabs in neighbouring Arab nations.

 Other tools used by Shah Pahlavi in this campaign of forced assimilation included the imprisonment and execution of numerous prominent Ahwazi community leaders, sheikhs and other distinguished figures, along with mass forcible displacement of many thousands of Ahwazis to areas with ethnically Persian majorities. This was followed by an extensive campaign of indoctrination and propaganda in educational institutions, media and other forums intended to convince the Ahwazi people and ethnically Persian Iranians that Ahwazis were simply interlopers from neighbouring Arab nations, including Yemen, who had illegally entered Ahwaz in recent decades.   These easily disproven fabrications denying the millennia-old history of Arabs in Ahwaz are still presented as ‘fact’ up to the present day, with prominent Iranian intellectuals such as Ahmed Kasravi fabricating ‘evidence’ to substantiate this falsehood.

Iran’s efforts to erase Ahwazi identity in the region even went so far as writing offensive and humiliating titles in recording Ahwazi children’s birth certificates in an effort to further degrade and demean the people into abandoning their Arab heritage. 

Despite all these efforts, which have continued under successive rulers up to the present day, Ahwazis, along with their Sabean and Mandaean brothers, have retained their Ahwazi identity more successfully than other small minorities subjected to similar campaigns of forced assimilation by Iran’s rulers, such as the Arabs of Khamsah, or the Dezfuli, Shushtari, and Arjoni peoples.

The Historical Identity and the Ahawzi Arabs

Fossils excavated by Western archaeologists in the city of Sous in North Ahwaz have confirmed the presence of Sumerians of Arab origin in the area thousands of years before the birth of Christ.

Among the fossils and relics found in Shush, some dating back 6,000 years, some have been discovered depicting ancient peoples dressed in the traditional Arab kaffiyeh headscarf (Amieh, 2011)

Archaeological records from the area also show many images of statuary and sculptures dressed in traditional Arab garb, depicting women wearing abaya-style robes, and men in dishdashi robes with the kaffiyeh and agal headgear; these clearly indicate a long history of cultural and civilizational interdependence between the Elamite civilisation and the Arabs since antiquity. (Hints, 2013)

Meanwhile, although there is debate amongst historical linguists over the origins of the Elamite language spoken by the earliest inhabitants of the region, what’s known of the language from texts recovered by archaeologists shows the presence of Semitic words still used today, such as ‘Tamim’ or ‘Tamimah’ meaning ‘goodness’ or ‘blessing’ in Arabic,  which is also the name of one of the oldest tribes in the Ahwaz region. In the pre-Islamic age, this tribe was known as ‘Tamim al-Ahwaz’. Many members of the tribe were mentioned in texts from the period of the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, where they were referred to as ‘Beno’alam’. (Majid Zadeh, 2008)

 ‘Zina’ is another notable word from the Elamite period, indicating a virtuous woman, which retains the same meaning in contemporary Arabic.   There are many similar words from texts dating to that historic period, such as Heto, Tito, Otto, Shoolgi, Shooly, Handel, Shul, Moshav, Helth, Sareem, Mashhoof, Sosa, Shoshan, Sousseh, which are also still commonplace Arabic terms today, thousands of years later.  

The distinctive languages used by other, non-Arab, minorities from Ahwaz, such as the Shushtari (the non-Arab indigenous people from the city of Tester), the Bahabians (a non-Arab minority from the Arjan area), and the  Dezful (the non-Arab inhabitants of Quneitra) also share a number of similarities with the Elamite language and may also share it as a common linguistic root, although this has not been confirmed by any linguistic specialists and remains  a hypothetical possibility.  The abundance of words from the Elamite language which are still everyday terms in modern-day Arabic, however, offer a strong confirmation of the connection between this ancient people and contemporary Arabs, whether the Elamites acquired the words from proximity to Arabs in the same region or were themselves of Arab origin.   Another noteworthy feature shared by the residents of this area is that all share the distinctively Arab throaty guttural pronunciation of certain letters.    

According to the fragments of Elamite vocabulary recorded by historical linguists and  the theories of historian Walter Hents,  the dialects of the minorities in Ahwaz (Shushtari, Dezfoli and Behbahani) do not correspond to the language of Elamites, though the language and dialects of  these minorities may descend from ancient Semitic languages spoken by Jews or Sabians in the province of Ahwaz; these languages’ historical relation to that of the Elamites is, however, unquestionable.  Since the Elamites were either Jewish or Sabian, some academics have suggested that the modern-day minorities could be of Indo-Aryan origin, though this would conflict with their well-documented Semitic heritage, making this theory highly improbable since they could not be simultaneously Semitic, as well as Indo-Aryan.

One point that is very clear from any study of the ancient and modern cultural and linguistic history, however,  is that the Arab majority in the Ahwaz region is  indigenous to this area, disproving the efforts by Shah Pahlavi and others to suggest that they were immigrants from other Arab nations, such as Yemen or Iraq, with the ancestors of today’s Ahwazi people living continuously  in the region  since ancient times, dating back at least to the Elamites and probably long before. In previous ages, up to the early 20thcentury, there were no hard boundaries between Ahwaz and other neighbouring territories, with Ahwazis maintaining familial, commercial and cultural relations with Iraqis and other neighbouring peoples which have lasted to the present day.  

The ease of travel in previous periods and shared cultural and linguistic features meant that many cases, Ahwazi families or family members settled in neighbouring Arab countries or others across the Levant and further afield, in nations including Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt, with a similar influx from those nations to Ahwaz. These close ties of kinship are still evident today.

Study of the artefacts from the era of the Elamites and Messians, from the period of the Arab rulers, whose territory extended from Susa to Mesan, shows numerous indications of a long-established Arab presence in Ahwaz which enjoyed close relations with these civilizations. The existence of Arab rulers, traditions and customs can be seen in the artwork, including sculptures, from the period; for example, in Elamite and Messiani women’s sculptures, one sees women wearing robes similar to the modern abaya and headwear identical to contemporary hijabs. Meanwhile, coins from the Elamite period show the Arab kings wearing headgear with emblems representing the moon, star and other symbols which are still used today in the tribal insignia in many of the flags of Ahwazi families.

Another point undermining the efforts of Iranian historians to suggest that Ahwazis are foreign interlopers in the region is that these historians ignore the history of Islam; in the early years of the Islamic conquest of the region, genealogists attempted to link the entire Arab population with rural Arab tribes in Hijaz or Yemen. This omitted the fact that many Arabs are from urban areas across the region in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen and Ahwaz itself, which lack this tribal composition, again showing that the efforts to conflate tribalism with Arab nations is hopelessly flawed.

These peoples were highly sophisticated and advanced,  with identities drawn from their cities and regions rather than from the narrow confines of the tribe, and had no use for or understanding of tribal identity which was an alien concept to them;  for example  Ahwazi scientists, who were renowned during the first flowering of science at the time of the Islamic enlightenment across the region,  took the names of their cities  of origin rather than being known by the title of their family or tribe; these included Arjani, Tastari, Askari, Ahwazi, Aldorki, Dailami and other renowned scientific figures. 

This underlines once again that the effort to suggest that tribal affiliations and divisions are somehow a primary defining factor in Ahwazi identity, as seen in the work ‘Sabayek Al-Zahab’ is not only untrue but shows ignorance of Arab culture and history.

Conclusion

Ahwazis have been the indigenous people of the Ahwaz region for millennia, with any attempt to suggest that their loyalties are tribal or displaying a depth of ignorance. Whilst many young people today seek to know the origins of their families and tribes, it is a mistake to believe that this is a primary consideration for most, and an error worthy of analysis and reflection.  While some are concerned with these matters, with members of the Hijaz tribe expressing righteous pride at their descent from Islamic icons, efforts to use these tribal loyalties as a tool of division or to suggest that these emotional connections prove that Ahwazis are interlopers in the region are woefully misguided.  While there is no doubt that in the first days of Islam, some tribes from Hijaz and other Arab territories migrated to other areas across the region to proselytise for Islam, Ahwaz is certainly not an isolated example of this, and the suggestion that the population of Ahwaz is descended from these early proselytisers is disproven by the abundant evidence to the contrary.   Many historians have suggested that the Semitic peoples originate from Yemen, claiming that it may be the original cradle of Arab civilisation.  But even if we want to accept this theory and to claim that this proves that the entire Ahwazi population originated from Yemen, we then have to accept that, according to all the evidence, this migration  took place at last 10,000 years ago, when the earliest known artefacts of Ahwazi culture date back to,  a period when the great plains of Ahwaz were not even  inhabited by the Elamites. So far as is currently known, the historical identity of the Arabs of the Ahwaz region began with Elam, passes through the civilisation of Maysan, flourished under the global Islamic civilisation and continues to exist in the form of contemporary Arab culture, with a heritage that dominated the world for centuries and made invaluable cultural contributions from Andalusia to China. Historical evidence and ancient monuments, as well as the writings of contemporary western historians, confirm the historical depth and endurance of the Ahwazi people’s heritage and culture, which dates back millennia, underlining that this civilisation has historically played an important role in the prosperity of societies worldwide.   Leading Ahwazi figures ancient and modern have left a great legacy, from the fields of medicine and the sciences to the translation of Syriac sources into Arabic in the third century AH. Ahwazis’ central historical role and millennia-long presence as the indigenous people of this region cannot be negated and their invaluable contribution to human progress should not be denied. 

By Hussein Faraj Allah Kaab, Researcher and Historian

 

Sources:

1 – Amye, Pierre. Islamic Ndochen, Shirin. (2011). History of Elam. Bayani (Translator), Publisher: Tehran University.

2- Hints, Walter. (2013). Recent results from ancient Iran. Translator Parviz Rajabi: Qqenos.

3 – Muhiedzadeh, Yousef (2008). The History and the Civilization of Elam. Auditor Rida Farakh Fall: Center for Academic Publishing.

4-Pats, Daniel Thomas. (2017). Elam Archeology: Organization for the Study and Compilation of Humanities, University Books (SMT).

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