FESTIVAL OF BABEK: THE LIVING SOUL OF AZERBAIJAN’S HISTORY
Every year in early July the Azeri town of Kaleyber becomes a colourful landscape of anti-colonial resistance against internal colonialism and oppression in Iran. People come from all over Azerbaijan in their hundreds of thousands to a place at the heart of which lies the famous Fortress of Bezz, a sacred sanctuary that sheltered a local resistance movement centuries ago. They gather in the town of Kaleyber to pay homage to their ancient hero, Babek Xorremdin, who over twelve centuries ago put up a fierce resistance against the invading Islamic/Arabic forces. Men, women, students, workers, peasants and farmers come to celebrate the birthday of Babek, this legendary figure who has now turned into the living soul of a people’s history of resistance and struggle. They pitch their tents around the Fortress of Bezz, the stronghold of Babek and his fighters for 23 years; they explore the Qala/Fortress from dawn to dusk; they gather around bonfires at night; they sing, dance, exchange ideas and read poetry.
This magnificent festival is not just about dance and poetry, though. There is more to it than meets the eye. People come here with their musical instruments, songs, dances, and poems to redefine themselves by means of their own culture, their own language, on their own terms. This is about survival and resistance of an entire people in defiance of an internal colonial force determined to annihilate its very existence. By annihilating their means of communication, their language, their culture, and their historical rootedness the government seeks to annihilate the Azeri people’s authentic means of self-definition and self-_expression. It is not surprising that the people’s slogans attest to their devotion to the language and identity to which they belong:
Azerbaijan is not dead
It has not abandoned its identity
Azerbaijan is awake
It preserves its existence
Ana dilim ölən deyil
Özgə dilə çönən deyil
My mother tongue will not die
It will not be supplanted by other tongue
The Azerbaijanis come to the Babek Qalasi to announce to the entire world that they exist as a people; that they are conscious of their own history and validate their historical heroes; that they are able to define themselves by means of their own culture; to articulate their condition through their own language. Here the real living history of the people of Azerbaijan comes face to face with the official/national history of the ruling elite, a history fabricated during the Pahlavi era, and reinforced in the Islamic Republic. This is where the culture of resistance explodes through artistic talents, intellectual creativities, and in the songs and poems of the masses of people. The festival becomes a moving, breathing manifestation of history, culture, and all sorts of communal activities. Here the latest published books are exchanged; the clandestinely printed articles and pamphlets are distributed; the latest CDs and tapes are sold. Here, songs, poems and ideas of liberation are smuggled from tent to tent. The Iranian government finds all these cultural paraphernalia, musical products and literary activities extremely dangerous. Why? Because they are produced in the forbidden tongue of the people of Azerbaijan, the Azeri-Turkic: a dangerous language that the government has openly condemned it to death by forbidding it to become a language of education, of instruction, correspondence, and governance.
So the Iranian government brought out its repressive forces to prevent the people of South Azerbaijan from celebrating the birthday of their historic hero. Local activists estimate that there were over 40,000 revolutionary guards, Basiji militia, and plain-clothed secret agents temporarily stationed around the Fortress of Bezz, apparently to engage in military exercises. They put up checkpoints at all major roads and alleys leading to the town. They harassed the pilgrims at every opportunity they got. They confiscated the drivers’ registration and car ownership documents. They wrote down the licence plate numbers of the cars carrying passengers and pilgrims. They interrogated the pilgrims inside the cars, buses, and in their tents. They rented, before hand, hotel rooms, hostels, and rental spaces where the pilgrims were going to stay. They marked the open areas around the Qala as spaces reserved for military exercises. They pitched large khaki coloured tents in every available nook and cranny.
The government also channelled religious nutcases and fanatics to perform the ritual of chest and back beating to mourn the death over 13 century ago of Hazrat-e Fatemeh, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad, the anniversary of whose death apparently coincided with the birthday of Babek. So the mourners came in black shirts, with mournful faces and long beards. There were thus rituals of mourning, accompanied by shrill chants of the eulogy speakers; the performers of "shaxsey" and "vaxsey," where the names of Imams and holy figures were chanted in one voice, in an attempt to invoke their sacred memory. In the midst of the commotion and mourning frenzy, a Basiji militia fell down a cliff, and having broken some limbs, drowned in a pool of water underneath.
The pilgrims came, nonetheless. They sought shelter in people’s houses, in whatever empty spaces they got; and they pitched their tents among the tents of the military personnel, in the belly of the beast, as it were. In the death of the night, many a pilgrim was taken away, for questioning, interrogation, and who knows what. Some were released later on; some are still gone, without a trace. Various reports indicate the number of detainees to be in hundreds, among whom are women and young students. The government used all tricks in the bag of all dictatorships to prevent this event from taking place. From intimidation to psychological warfare to open arrest and detention, it used all it could to prevent the Azeris from participating in this festival of commemoration and remembrance. But the tricks did not work; the intimidations, coercions and detentions failed. The people came out to defy the culture of fear, threat, and oppression. And they succeeded.
As usual, the dominant Fars-centered media censored the event. This dominant media, particularly its extension in abroad, is run by a bunch of pseudo-democrats and pseudo-intellectuals who dismiss the legitimate demands of the non-Persian communities as backward, traitorous, and reactionary demands. They brand the democratic struggle of these communities to restore their human rights as inspired by the imperialist powers and ill-intentioned neighbours. They do not see it problematic that their language (Farsi) has masqueraded itself as the national, official, and mother tongue of the majority of people in Iran. They regard it perfectly normal to impose their mother tongue on others. But when a non-Persian community asks for its right to education in its own language, that community becomes pan-Turkist, pan-Arabist, or pan-Kurdist. It is perfectly normal for them, for the Persians, that is, to talk about ‘the greater zone of Iranic culture,’ to share the latest literary and artistic innovations with other Farsi-speaking groups in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere. But when an Iranian Azeri expresses his/her love for the language, music, and literature developed by his/her co-ethnics in the Republic of Azerbaijan north of the border, this Azeri becomes a separatist, a traitor disloyal to Iran’s territorial integrity.
Acts of othering, of dehumanization and foreignization are central to all systems of domination and exploitation. Such acts serve as the guiding principle for all chauvinistic, ultra-nationalist, and racist groups. Of course, this is not to say that racist or chauvinistic ideologies do not exist amongst members of marginalized communities. Far from it, such ideas indeed do exist. Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi, in their pioneering studies of Africa’s resistant movements have shown that certain members of the colonized groups are indeed capable of harbouring most vicious racist ideas. No one can deny the existence of individuals with racist and chauvinistic views within various minoritized communities. However, these individuals are, and have always been, in the minority within their own communities. By making sweeping blanket statements that regard entire communities as pan-Turkist or pan-Arabist, the dominant group aims to dismiss the legitimate demands of these communities for political, cultural, and linguistic equality in the country. Instead of acknowledging the diverse nature of Iranian society and trying to address it in a democratic manner, the privileged dominant group tries to silence the voices of non-Persian groups by accusing them of being pan-Turkist, pan-Arabist, Pan-Baluchist, and pan-Kurdist.
In essence, the dominant group’s characterization of minority activists as pan-Arabists and pan-Turkists serves to strengthen the position of a handful of individuals within these communities who really champion panist, racist and chauvinistic notions. With its generalizing blanket statements, the dominant group gives a legitimacy of sorts to various undemocratic stances which would otherwise be dismissed and isolated within minority communities themselves. On one hand, this kind of statements coming from the dominant group helps the racist elements to recruit from the community, especially from the youth and student groups. On the other, it helps to marginalize the democratic segment of the activists who work within a framework of human rights, justice and equality for all. Evidently, this kind of response on the part of the dominant is a conscious strategy to both weaken and discredit the resistance movements in their entirety, in order to avoid their legitimate demands for social, political, and cultural rights. That is how the dominant Farsi-speaking group has always treated the non-Persian activists, be it during the Pahlavi era or in the Islamic Republic. And the marginalized, oppressed minority activist has always defended him/herself by confessing that he/she is not a traitor; that he/she too is a human being and has human rights. That is how a leading Azeri poet, Bulut Qarachorlu, had understood the situation and articulated it under the Pahlavi rule:
Mən demirəm üstün nejaddanam mən
Demirəm elim ellərdən başdır
I don’t say I belong to a superior race
I don’t say my people is better than others
Mənim məsləyimdə, mənim yolumda
Millətlər hamısı dostdur, yoldaşdır
In my ideology, in my approach
All peoples are friends and comrades
Ancaq bir sözüm var: mən də insanam
Dilim var, xalqım var, yurdum-yuvam var
But I have this to say: I too am a human being
I too have a language, a people, a place I call home
Yerdən çıxmamışam göbələk kimi
Adamam haqqım var, elim-obam var
I have not sprung from the ground like a mushroom
I am a person rooted in my community, with rights and freedoms
Anyone who knows anything about colonialism will know that the current condition of Azeris in Iran is the condition of a colonized people. Imagine a distinct ethnic group numbering over 30 million, without a single school where they can read and write in their own language. This is a people whose contributions are not reflected in works of history, literature, sociology, and other genres produced in the dominant Farsi language. This is a people who is denied the right for self-definition, self-_expression, and self-identification in its own language and through its own voice. If this is not a colonized people, then what is it? If this is not colonialism, then what is it?
Shockingly, even the very designation ‘Turk’ identifying this people is distorted and misrepresented as "Tork" in the dominant language, evidently to make it more convenient for the speakers of the imposed language. A few years ago I was working as the editor of a bilingual (Azeri and Farsi) journal. In my capacity as the editor I had the luxury of rendering various Turkic/Azerbaijani terms and names as they were spelled in the original language. Thus, in Farsi section of the journal, wherever relevant, I always wrote ‘Turk’ as opposed to the Persionized version "Tork." Mount "Savalan" was always written as "Savalan," as opposed to the persionized "Sabalan." The River Araz was always spelled as "Araz," instead of the persionized ‘Aras,’ and so on and so forth. So one day I ran into this rather angry-looking professor of Persian literature, with whom I had prior acquaintance. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, in a self-righteous tone he bellowed at me:
--Buddy! You have to get your acts straight. What is this so-called journal you’re publishing? You can’t even spell out your own name correctly! Who has ever seen "Tork" written as "Turk" in Farsi?
Humorously I replied:
--I am decolonizing my name in your colonizing language, buddy! "Turk" is how I call myself in my own language, and that is how I will write it in your imposed language. If you don’t like it, then do not impose your language on me!
Of course, I was able to engage in this act of decolonizing because I was writing from the privileged positions of exile and editor. These privileged positions had empowered me to challenge the oppressive misrepresentation of myself, my language, and my people in the dominant language. Decolonizing acts usually start with seemingly minor acts of self-definition and self-_expression. However, such acts have the potential to give rise to larger and more organized demands for such significant rights as cultural, religious, and linguistic autonomy. For instance, using demands similar to the notion of the right for self-determination, the Inuit community in Canada managed to secure an autonomous self-governing Inuit homeland in 1991. They adopted the name ‘Nunavut’ to refer to the Indigenous land of the Inuit of the central and eastern Arctic, and to the new Territory of Nunavut in Canada's eastern Arctic. In the Inuit language of Inuktitut, Nunavut means "Our Land." The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement is the largest native land claim settlement in Canadian history which establishes clear rules of ownership and control over land and resources in the new Territory, with an area of approximately two million square kilometres, or one-fifth of Canada's landmass. As they say, a journey of one thousand miles starts with a single step.
The Azerbaijani Festival of Babek is a major decolonizing movement initiated by the people of Azerbaijan in an attempt to resist the Iranian government’s politics of assimilation, and cultural/linguistic annihilation of non-Persian communities. It is imperative that Azeri intellectuals and activists articulate this festival to the world as it is, that is, without tarnishing its anti-racist spirit. Now more than ever we need to show to the world that this movement is rooted in the legitimate struggle of the Azerbaijani people for democracy, human rights, and the right for self-determination. As such, the Azeri writers and intellectuals ought to try and cleanse this movement from undemocratic tendencies, signs and symbols that serve to project negative images to the outside world. Festival of Babek is a manifestation of the living soul of Azerbaijan’s history. It embodies the continuous movement of the South-Azerbaijani people for equality and justice. We are all responsible to carry this movement to its final destination within the guiding principles of democracy, human rights, and anti-racist vision.