A Whole New World Part 2

Similarly, in the documentary, Afro-Iranian Lives, director and narrator Behnaz A. Mirzai shows how African-descended peoples in Iran form an integral part in society. She traces the history of Africans in Iran, exploring the East African Slave trade that brought Africans to the southern regions of the Persian Gulf to their present day conditions. In the film it is apparent that certain African-descended communities remain restricted from full societal immersion due to their once enslaved status. Rural communities face greater barriers to social integration. Small villages are often still dependent on their former masters for sustenance, requiring access to their resources such as boats and tools in order to make a living. Whereas the “flexible socioeconomic conditions in cities […] have facilitated a greater degree of Afro-Iranian assimilation than elsewhere. Intermarriage [allowed in the cities] further assisted the elimination of socioeconomic barriers and permitted gradual assimilation” (Mirzai, Afro-Iranian Lives).

Despite the obstacles Afro-Iranians have faced regarding full societal acceptance, Mirzai posits that they “tended to integrate easily into Arabic culture. The dress and language of their modern descendants remain dominantly Arabic.” (Afro-Iranian Lives). In the communities present on film this is evident as the individuals Mirzai interviewed were all devout Muslims, displaying the traditional Islamic garb and fluently speaking Arabic. One man, however proudly demonstrated his tentative knowledge of the East African language Swahili as many Afro-Iranians, Mirzai explains, are beginning to learn the African tongue as a way of reconnecting with their ancestral roots.

“Elements of the Afro-Iranian traditional heritage,” Mirzai affirms, “synthesized with Iranian culture to find new expressions” (Afro-Iranian Lives). Therefore, despite the predominance of Arabic culture, ancient African customs have still retained their importance, enduring until present day. For example, in the documentary, Mirzai gives an intimate look into a ritualistic dispossession ceremony. The ceremony consists of a designated spiritual leader, a mama or baba, curing an ailing person of the evil wind or zar, a possession causing the sickness. Many aspects of the African tradition are now replicated in Sufi Muslim rituals. The music, style of dancing accompanied by the drum or dhol for instance, have all influenced the local Arabic culture in southern Iran. Mirzai adds, “The significance of Afro-Iranian cultural heritage lies in the sharing and cross fertilization of influences: music, dance, song and language are important characteristics of the African diaspora in Iran” (Afro-Iranian Lives).

Thus, the construction of African identity in this sense involves a blending of Arabic and African traditional elements once more. However, in this case, in contrast to the story illustrated by the African Palestinian, the realization of a positive diasporic identity has not reached completion as Afro-Iranians occupy two distinct realms at once. They are begrudgingly accepted in Iranian society in some instances, and marginalized in others but yet they have greatly influenced and been influenced by the dominant Arabic culture in which they live. Additionally, while taking on the dominant culture, embracing much of it as their own, they have not altogether abandoned their African roots either. Therefore their blackness remains a poignant factor that impacts and helps form their identity as Afro-Iranians.

 

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