Monday, August 29, 2016


Restricting Iran's Second Mother Tongue

Azeri language graffiti in Ardabil, IranAzeri language graffiti in Ardabil, Iran
Azeri language graffiti in Ardabil, Iran
Azeri language graffiti in Ardabil, Iran
February 21 was International Mother Language Day and I thought of my own mother language, Azeri Turkish.

Azeri Turkish is not one of the 3,500 or more endangered languages spoken by small communities which UNESCO calls on the public to protect.

But it's spoken in Iran by 15-20 million people (out of a 66 million population) plus by 8 million people in Azerbaijan, where it's the state language. It's a Turkic language, similar to Turkish, and distinct from Persian, Iran's state language.

In Iran, nobody forbids us from speaking Azeri Turkish at home or on the street. Even in the mosques of Azeri-populated Iranian provinces (Eastern and Western Azerbaijan, Ardabil, Zanjan), mullahs pray in Azeri Turkish.

But ever since the centralization of the state and education in the 1920s, Iran's ethnic Azeris can barely read or write in Azeri Turkish because there's no education in their own, mother tongue.

There is not one Azeri-Turkish school in the whole country, university institute, nor even a course teaching the language. An Azeri-speaking citizen talks in his native tongue to his family and friends, but writes letters to the same people in Persian because he or she doesn't know how to write in standard Azeri Turkish.

Azeri Turkish is gradually becoming socially irrelevant. Practically banned from official written form, it has been infiltrated by local and societal dialects and slang and Persian's overwhelming vocabulary and sentence structure.

It has always been this way, under the shah and now under the current regime -- and the reasons are partially understandable.

The language issue has been politically misused at least once in our history. In 1945, when Soviet troops occupied northern Iran, a pro-Soviet autonomous government was established in Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, which ultimately led to a de facto separation of Iran's Azeri Turkish-speaking regions from the central government in Tehran.

The main complaint -- and many say "pretext" -- raised by that government was the discrimination against the Azeri Turkish language.

That government fell after Soviet troops were forced to leave Iran. Since then, anyone demanding language rights for Azeri Turkish in Iran was referred to Moscow.

The same concerns and restrictions still remain today, with the Iranian authorities suspicious that "enemies" would use ethnic rights to sew animosity and division.

Most recently, a group of prominent writers, including Ali Reza Sarrafi, has been arrested simply for publishing and promoting works in the Azeri language.

Shahnaz Gholami, a prominent blogger and human rights activist, was imprisoned because she has been demanding the right for education in Azeri Turkish. Both Sarrafi and Gholami were charged with "acting against the national security of the Islamic Republic and its territorial integrity."

The problem is that, as many have argued, restricting people's ethnic and linguistic rights can actually weaken social unity and end up provoking separatism.

Which feelings could those "enemies" manipulate more effectively? The feeling that you have been deprived of your mother language or the feeling that you share the same linguistic rights as the majority?

For neighboring Turkey, it took 30 years of terror and fighting against the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) to even acknowledge the existence of a large Kurdish minority.

Ethnic and linguistic minorities are better off in Iran than in Turkey. But let's hope Iran won't need Turkey's bitter experience to learn what is in its own best interests.

-- Abbas Djavadi

Tags: azeri,Iran,turkish

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Arslan
February 24, 2009 19:21
What absolute bilge, I learned Azeri in middle school in Tabriz, I studied Turkish Literature in Teheran; 60-70% of which was devoted to the Azeri version of Turkish and also attention was given to Turcomani and Afsari Turkish Literature. But let's face facts, it's not discrimination, it's volume; Everyday thousands of original books are published in Farsi, the same cannot be said of any dialect of Turkish, even Ossmani. When you take this into account with the fact that dialectal drift in the Turkish languages is severe, especially in the Azeri regions where valley from valley the language changes significantly and "Traditional Azeri", the one I studied in school is and feels about 3 hundred years old with an archaic sound to current Azeri speakers. It becomes more understandable that people prefer to use Farsi as a Lingua Franca.

by: Bugra ATSIZ from: Canada
February 24, 2009 22:16
Mr. Djavadi, a former colleague of mine at RFE/RL Inc. from the olden days in Munich, contradicts himself in this article. He says, the Azeris in Iran, a population of 15-20 million people, have no schools, most of them cannot even write in their mother tongue, and the language is gradually becoming irrelevant. An attempt to revive the language by publishing and promoting the Azeri language, Mr. Djavadi continues, ended in imprisonment of Azeri human rights activists and bloggers who demanded the right of education in their language. &quot;The problem,&quot; he claims, &quot;is that, as many have argued, restricting people's ethnic and linguistic rights can actually weaken social unity and end up provoking separatism&quot;, and ends the article by comparing Iran to Turkey and concludes that Iran's minorities are better off than minorities in Turkey, because it took Turkey 30 years of fighting with the PKK even to acknowledge the existence of the Kurdish minority.<br /><br />1- How can the Iranian minorities be better off than somewhere else when they are being arrested and put in jail for demanding education in their own language?<br /><br />2- Mr.Djavadi should know that Turkey didn't fight and still fights the PKK which does not represent the entirety of the Kurdish population, because they wanted cultural rights, but because they attacked and killed innocent people and continue to do so operating from inside Iraq. Teheran had also to fight a branch of the Kurdish guerilla group, the PEJAK, inside Iran. So, the comparison with Turkey does not make any sense when Iran is doing the same. <br /><br />3- Mr. Djavadi should further know that Turkey's Kurds have now officially sanctioned courses in Kurdish to learn their mother tongue; a chair for Kurdish Language and Literature at a major university is in planning; and last not least, even though admittedly it took Ankara too long, Kurds in Turkey have a TV Channel (Channel 6) which broadcasts in Kurdish since recently sponsored by the State Television.<br /><br />I miss the logic throughout the article. RFE/RL Inc. used to have editors to prevent nonsensical rough drafts like this one above. If needed there are a few I could recommend, including myself.<br /><br />Regards

by: Peter Jones
February 25, 2009 09:01
Gentlemen, do you know what is the meaning of Azari activist in Iran. Do you know what is the percentage of Turk language people in Iran? If you fan this fire in Iran, it means a bloodshed that nobody ever has experienced in the world. Every friend of a Farssi language is a Turk, in school, in work, in parties, in every place and every occasion. You always hear a couple of people are talking Turkish. Iran has been ruled by Turk kings for thousand year until Pahlavi who were Mazandarani. Soltan Mahmoud of Ghaznavids who is the godfather of Farssi literature was talking Turkish at home. Read the history. Shah Esmail of Iran was writting Turkish poetry. Ottoman Soltan of Turkey was writing Farssi poetry. His court was speaking Farssi. He wrote to Esmail of Safavid, &quot;I am King Feraydoon and coming to fight you because you are Zahhak.&quot; He had all Iranian mythology of Shahnameh in memory. As it is known Fars and Turk people in Iran has successfully passed the process of national unification and are living in ultimate friendship within a two-phase coexistence. It is better that fire-bearer in prison than you fight with your neighbour or married relatives or classmates or colleagues. Remember that in English language speaking country of US, one out of four person is talking Spanish at home.<br />Peter Jones UK<br />

by: Sabina from: Rahimova
February 26, 2009 21:32
My own experience in Soviet Azerbaijan (under Russian occupation) helped me a lot to understand problems of Iranian Azerbaijan. <br /><br />I was a child and when my parents were discussing which school I should go - Russian or Azerbaijani, I asked a question: Why my brother goes to the Russian school. My dad's answer was: &quot;it will be very difficult for him to achieve a success in career if he will have Azerbaijani education&quot;. Apparently my parents did not see any need for career growth of girls in the family so all my sisters and me were given to Azeri school. However in Azerbaijan SSR we had a certain degree of choice. Do Iranian Azerbaijanis have this? <br /><br /><br />When I first met a person speaking about Azerbaijani's rights in Iran, my questions were: Do the majority care and why they just can not simply have Persian education? Why those Azerbaijanis represented in higher levels of society are happy with system and those who don't get high are not. I was in Iran then. It was 1992 and I saw families suffering from identity crisis. Parents were trying to speak to their children in Farsi, because children from Azerbaijani families had difficulties in school. Humiliated for their accent, they could not be as successful as their Persian mates in literature, history. All Azeri students I got acquinted with were &quot;A&quot; students in math and physics, but not in &quot;humanitarian&quot;. <br /><br />So I remembered discussion in my family and got the whole idea. You have to switch your identity to become successful in Iran. That is what those in elite did. As successful they become as more is the gap between assimilated Azerbaijani in Iran and the rest of the ethnic group. The rest, uneducated, mostly dealing with trade and subscribed to the Army of basijs (what else they would do without proper education) are considered loosers, while the root of the problem is – would they have native language education, they might become more successful. And if the one from elite tries to highlight problems of his original group - he is under risk of being considered a looser as well. <br /><br />So as I understand, that is what makes elites to be resistant to the idea of preserving identity. That is why assimilated Azerbaijani Turks in Iran say they don’t care. And now we come to the question: whether those in elite could be considered as representatives and why the other prospective (of looser) should not be considered as more or even equally representative. <br /><br />My understanding of basic rights says the language and identity is something that comes with your family, but is a matter of choice. And my question is: whether this choice is given? I think that the freedom of choice is limited if: <br /><br />there are more opportunities for dominant language speakers like for Russian speakers in Soviet Azerbaijan <br /><br />and off course there is no freedom of choice if: <br /><br />* there are no schools in Azerbaijani like in Iran<br />* people teaching Azerbaijani in their houses, reading Azerbaijani books are jailed (I have examined court documents and can prove this) <br />* people are sentenced for panturkism (while panturkism as a crime is not defined in the Criminal Code of IRI)<br />* people get extra prison term for refusing to speak Farsi in the court (while according to law he has to be provided with translator)etc. <br />

by: ziba from: Tabriz
February 27, 2009 00:55
Mr. Javadi was doing well until he got to the end of his article and contradicted himself. He is totally right and I take my hat off to him. Who says there are schools in Tabriz or anywhere else in iran? please for once in your life be honest.

by: Alireza from: Ottawa
February 27, 2009 16:43
Iran is not a mess for no reason, years of forced assimilation, racisim, unequality and etc are taking their tole on this country. Elite, who are racist, sexist and all are ruling the country with sharia law. Opposition and the so called intellectuals are denying people their basic rights to call themselves with their ethnic identity. When intellectuals of a country do not believe in the basic rights of a human being, I am not surprised why this country is the way it is. Iran can fight for democracy for years and years to come but will get no where since dysfunction is at the root.<br /><br />Mr Djavadi, I understand you sir. I know that you tried to criticize Turkey to take a bit of heat off the pan-Persians attacking you but why are you afraid. We say in Azerbaijani, gor henanin yeridi? at this point Turkey and Iran are not comparable. one going forward and Iran both within the country and Diaspora are going backward. Let us be brave and tell the things the way they are. Persians will get used to it.<br /><br />cheers, Alireza<br />

by: Shems Tebrizli from: US
February 28, 2009 00:18
Mr. Djavadi,<br />Thanks for touching the issue of ethnic and linguistic minorities in Iran. As you said, Azeris have been deprived of their rights to be educated in their own language. Also there is a systematic assimilation going on in forms of changing geographical, business, streets, .. names to erase the collective memory of Iranian Azeris in next generations. Some Azeris even &quot;know&quot; that Shahriyar is &quot;the only&quot; Azeri poet and they &quot;question&quot; contributions of Azeris in literature, science, and process of modernization in Iran. <br />In part of your article you mention &quot;he language issue has been politically misused at least once&quot;, I think misusing a subjective look. An objective look could be &quot;Since Pahlavis, Iranian central government have always treated language demands of Azeris with suspicion as a precursor for separation.&quot;<br />Last part of your article contradicts itself and is subjective. When you say for Turkey &quot;it took 30 years of terror and fighting against the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) to even acknowledge the existence of a large Kurdish minority.&quot; that means 30 years of terror and fighting was the reason for acknowledging Kurdish minorities. I don't see any reason backing up this claim. Rather, gradual improvements in Turkish democracy and their ambition to join EU could be the reason for improvement in their treatment of Kurdish minority. Also you claim &quot;Ethnic and linguistic minorities are better off in Iran than in Turkey&quot;. That is also very subjective point of view. Iranian Azeris are well-integrated/assimilated into the society as whole 1)for their sheer huge population compared to Kurds in Turkey and 2)at the price of losing some of their lingual and ethnic identities, whereas Kurds in Turkey are very conscious of their identities and have been less integrated/assimilated into the bigger society. Which ones are better off? views could be different.<br />At the end I thank you for your commentary/news piece which would help to raise awareness to the language rights of Iranian Azeris.

by: Hasan from: Denmark
March 10, 2009 14:56
Dear Arslan. <br /><br />It is not the fact of volume or dialect. The fact is the “right to choose”. <br />I have grown up in Iran and spent my childhood there, get a high education in Iran, but never had chance to choose. Now I leave in North West Europe and feel that what is to say “freedom of chose” and what is to say “forbidden”. <br /><br />All of us know that the “Fasi” language is a very new language mixture of Arabic and gypsy language from all gypsies immigrated from Indian by Silk Road and created the Persian part of Iran. <br />Iran will never be a country you can have freedom, first the Shah (sorry) the king of kings (what a big joke) and later the religion finalism (the God himself). All of them show the “Fars” generations inner culture.<br />Pity, the most Azeri’s have lost their values and become a servant to whom, call them, donkeys. <br /> <br />

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