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Between Arab and Ajam: Travels Across the Borderlands of Iranian Khuzestan [Part 2]

Khuzestan is a big place that resists all-encompassing identities or labels, but after this trip, I’m only left with one thought on the matter: running between all of these diverse cultures, languages, and religions, somehow, there is something called being Khuzestani, no matter how hard that is to describe.

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Khuzestan is a big place that resists all-encompassing identities or labels, but after this trip, I’m only left with one thought on the matter: running between all of these diverse cultures, languages, and religions, somehow, there is something called being Khuzestani, no matter how hard that is to describe.

This article was originally written for Ajam Media Collective by author Kamyar Jarahzadeh. You can find the original article here.

After Dezful, it was off to my mother’s hometown of Ahvaz and a few other cities where my family resided. Ahvaz is the capital of Khuzestan and is known for being one of the major centers of Iran’s Arab communities, which explains why the city is often referred to as “Al-Ahwaz.”

At the literal and figurative heart of the city is the Karun river — incidentally the source of the Dez river. Not only does the Karun actually divide the city, making the crossing of its various bridges part of daily life, but Iranian popular culture is filled with songs celebrating the river, especially as a place to relax by in the summer and beat the heat.

But being Ahvazi (let alone Ahvazi-Iranian-American) is complex in itself. The city has both Persian and Arab inhabitants, among others, with a complicated relationship between the two.

There is a distinct problem of Persian racism towards the Arabs, and at the same time, Ahvaz is also home to Arab separatist groups that take issue with the government’s treatment of Arabs and Sunnis and Persian nationalist claims that at times marginalize Arabs as a kind of other-within.

But how could the cultures not mix? Walking and cabbing through Ahvaz, I could not help but feel like I left Iran and had entered the kind of place people envision when they think of the predominantly Arab states of the southern Persian Gulf; complete with men wearing Arabic dishdasha (white robes) and families eating at roadside falafel stands. Even listening closely while walking in the streets, you hear Arabs and Persians conversing, living, and working alongside each other.

Growing up in America, this mix is something that I was always proud of. Having an Ahvazi background that seeped in through my mother’s influence, I was able to connect not just with Persian Iranians, but Arabs from Iran and Iraq, whether it was through shared music, food, language, or some more intangible part of culture.

After Ahvaz, I travelled to Khorramshahr — a city right on the border of Iran and Iraq where my family lived for a period of time. Khorramshahr is a major city in the Iranian imaginary as the location where the Iran-Iraq war began, and the location of an infamously heinous occupation and equally glorious liberation.

The Iran-Iraq war began on the heels of the revolution in 1980, and was a bloody conflict that claimed over 1 million Iranian lives as Iran heroically defended itself against an Iraqi invasion. To this day, the war is a defining event in the psyche of generations of Iranians, and the courage that fueled the Khoramshahr resistance is respected in Iran.

In many instances, my Arab friends and colleagues have asked why Khuzestanis like myself are close to Arabs in so many ways. As I remind them, Khorramshahr is literally across the border from Basra: my father used to recount how when my grandfather wanted a night out on the town, he would take a boat right across the river to Iraq!

On our trip, we neared the border one day to watch people who were actually walking to Iraq to board buses for pilgrimage to Karbala. We were so close our cell phones actually switched to Iraqi towers.

Yet right by the border-cum-symbol of Iran-Iraq cooperation lies Shalamche; a town that was destroyed when the Iraq war began with Saddam marching his army across the border. The battlefield was preserved as a historical monument to the conflict. It was eerie to visit the silent battlefield with shattered tanks littering the ground.

My own thoughts overseeing the battlefield were similar to how I imagine many Iranians feel regarding the war: disgust at the horrors of the invasion, pride in the heroism of the Iranian defense, and an impossible wish that the war had never happened.

Standing over the quiet, cratered ground, moments of silence give the impression that war could start again at any moment. It frightened me deeply to imagine my own family hearing this same eerie silence during the war, praying for their lives while awaiting the next fatal attack.

The city of Khorramshahr itself is filled with similar sights. However, the town is more of an accidental museum than a planned one. Khorramshahr, unlike other parts of Iran hit by the war, was never truly rebuilt. Locals list off a variety of reasons: government mismanagement, lack of economic incentive, and the exodus of refugees they believe stopped development or true reconstruction from ever reaching the area.

Regardless of why Khorramshahr remains the way it does, driving through the city truly feels as if the war was yesterday. As pictured below, many buildings that were clearly hit by missiles and gunfire are still inhabited. A common refrain among Khuzestanis and Khorramshahris is that “it’s as if the war was yesterday.”

While there has been some development, when travelling through the city at times my field of vision would see nothing but rubble from houses that were destroyed in the war. Seeing children walk through these ruins would leave me in disbelief that the war ended 20 years ago.

Khorramshahr remains a sort of open-air museum of the conflict, and a standing example of the desolation war can bring to an entire city. Just like standing in Shalamche, I found myself in Khorramshahr’s streets dreaming of an Iran that never had to fight this war, or that was truly able to move beyond it.

While leaving Khorramshahr for Abadan, we passed the derelict cars left in place as a memorial to the war. The story goes that the Iraqi army took these undelivered import cars from the local port and turned them upright and buried them in the ground as anti-paratrooper emplacements.

Alongside these were missile-scorched remains of the cities’ famous palm trees, and as soon as I saw the scene in total my stomach began to churn. Seeing such sights is painful enough, but it’s an even harder task when I remember that I’m also an American: a citizen of the country that literally handed the bullets and missiles to Saddam’s army.

In some twisted sense, the only thing that relieved my pain was knowing that I could at least partially share in the suffering of the people who live there. Although I never had to feel or see the war, my family in Khorramshahr at the time was forced to flee because of the conflict, and was never able to return because of the devastation.

My family left Iran for a combination of reasons and still returns for regular visits, but had the war not happened, at the very least I’d like to believe I could have been walking among those streets not with tears in my eyes, but with the same joy my father has as he recounts his youth there.

But a few miles down the road, I entered what seemed like a totally different city in an alternate universe: Abadan. Abadan had always been an important port city, but in the 20th century with the discovery of oil, the English Anglo-Persian Oil Company transformed the town into a cosmopolis. The refinery and oil company, still referred to affectionately by many Iranians as Sherkat-e Naft (“The Oil Company”) attracted workers from across Iran and across the world.

While the revolution and the war have ended that era of life in Abadan, in the Iranian imagination, Abadan is still the center of a cosmopolitan Khuzestan. Abadan, like Khorramshahr, was also under siege during the Iran-Iraq war but was able to resist long enough to avoid total capture. Both towns have major international seaports, and in Abadan not only is the economy better off, but the cosmopolitan nature of the place has somehow survived until this day.

My own family and even those of my Iranian-American friends recount fond memories of Abadan when it was home not just to locals, but a mix of Pakistani, American, British, Armenian, and other populations that came to work in the oil industry. While most foreigners have gone and Abadan is no longer the city it once was, Abadan is still unmistakably itself.

The city is still home to a famous Pakistani restaurant, Pakistan Central, and the Abadani dialect still uses many loanwords from English and other languages. Even Abadani cuisine has marks of its international past. Samosas are common snacks sold on the street and made at home, as locals claim Indian workers brought the recipe with them.

Flashy American cars still line the streets due to a trade rule that allows locals to purchase foreign cars so long as they only use them within certain areas of Khuzestan. Just walking through the streets, I saw women and men wearing clothes that were of the latest international styles, and with higher heels and tighter clothing than I saw in Tehran!

These norms can largely be traced to Abadan’s history as a city of immigrants from not just within Iran, but also Western expats. The historic presence of the port has always allowed Abadanis access to the newest fashions at the best prices.

Even during my short stay, the adage that “Khuzestanis are warm people” seemed to follow me everywhere I went: asking for directions or just the bathroom was consistently met with laughter, jokes, and personable interactions that proved the existence of true Iranian southern hospitality.

Despite all that I experienced on my short trip and all that Khuzestan has to offer, I only had one moment that could even partially sum the whole experience up. In Dezful, we made a day trip outside of the city to visit a semi-nomadic Bakhtiyari Lor friend. The estimated five million Lors of Iran are semi-nomadic people who live not just in cities in various parts of Iran, but occasionally in tents in the countryside as well.

Although some Iranians claim Lori is simply a dialect of Farsi, speaking with Lors makes it clear that their language is indeed distinct and not simply a dialect. Speaking with a Lori speaker often feels like hearing someone speak Kurdish simply based on the sound of the language, and indeed linguists have agreed on Lori’s linguistic links to Kurdish.

When speaking to a fellow guest in the area, I brought up a story about a certain part of the Dez River that is extremely difficult to swim in, and is ill-advised for anyone except locals. The bend of the river is referred to as Ajam-Kosh literally, “Ajam killer.” Historically, Ajam has been a derogatory term Arabs used to refer to non-Arabs.

However, in this context, the term refers to non-locals and the fact that they should stay away from that part of the Dez River lest they drown. Indeed while I was in Dezful, I heard Persians, Lors, and all other residents using the term Ajam in various contexts to refer to anyone who was not some sort of local.

After I recounted my confusion with this, one of our Dezfuli-Lori friends nodded and replied, “You know, that’s very interesting. Dezfuli people are not Arab, Ajam, Fars, Lor, or anything — they are just Dezfuli.”

Khuzestan is a big place that resists all-encompassing identities or labels, but after this trip, I’m only left with one thought on the matter: running between all of these diverse cultures, languages, and religions, somehow, there is something called being Khuzestani, no matter how hard that is to describe.