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Black Iranians

Prof. Hesham al-Awadi

Published: Updated:

In May 2021, Afro-Iranians formed an assembly aimed at integrating this ethnic group into the Iranian society. The assembly comprised artists, storytellers, and filmmakers, who took to both traditional and social media platforms to talk about the lives of black Iranians.

Iranians enslaved people from east Africa, who were then employed in domestic service, pearl hunting, and date agriculture. Although the word “Siyah” in Persian is a generic term that refers to the people that were enslaved by Iranians from various geographical regions, as well as the Indian subcontinent; however, the designation “Aswad” is exclusively associated with African slaves.

Britain had been pressuring Iran to ban the slave trade since 1848, but it was not until 1929 when the Iranian parliament formally abolished slavery. Ever since, Afro-Iranians continued to live in the country as a marginalized minority. The flawed national myth stating that the Iranian race is purely derived from white Aryans could not accommodate for citizens of different skin color.

The black Iranians group seeks to preserve the legacy and memory of blacks in Iran through what was written about them in British documents, as well as their art and memories in Iranian society. A member of the group said, “Although slavery did not end long ago in Iran, many Iranians do not know anything about the history of slavery in Iran and the Gulf.” He continued, “I grew up in Iran hearing people say, ‘We do not have blacks in Iran,’ even when I tell them, ‘But I’m Iranian, too.’” Moreover, the few scholars who acknowledged the slavery era in Iran focused solely on the aspect of human relations between slaves and society, which is a quite different approach when compared to slavery in the United States.

Black Iranians are trying to celebrate their past and heritage rather than shun it. They believe that their goal is to democratize history, i.e., achieving transparency and access to information for all. In Abadan, Bushehr, and Bandar Abbas, black Iranians began, for the first time, to tell stories about their ancestors in a dialect that combined Persian with Arabic and Swahili. They also began, perhaps for the first time as well, to reveal family photographs of relatives who had been enslaved during their childhood.

It remains to say that Iran's experience is not very different from the Gulf's experience with regards to slavery. The difference is that there are no groups in the Gulf countries on par with black Iranians.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Kuwaiti newspaper al-Qabas.

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