In the southern port city of Bandar-e-Bushehr is a thriving community of Afro-Iranians, many of whom arrived as slaves in the 18th or 19th century. Although they are now an integral part of Iranian society, they have maintained many of their African cultural traits, particularly in music and dance. Monir Ghaedi paints a fascinating picture of the lives of these long-lost children of Africa.
Although it is winter in Iran, the weather in Bandar-eBushehr is warm enough for Ali, 53, to sit on his porch and enjoy the breeze. Bandare-Bushehr is the capital of Bushehr province in the south of Iran with a long coastline onto the Persian Gulf.
Ali and his family do not look like typical Iranians – they are darker complexioned, with a faint but unmistakable African cast to their features. Bushehr, like many other ports of the Persian Gulf, saw rapid expansion and re-development in the second half of the 20th century thanks to its abundant natural resources. Yet beneath the city’s modern visage of middle-class suburbs, upscale shopping malls and unfinished skyscrapers are deep-rooted paradoxes.
Ali lives in Behbahani, a neighbourhood which rests on the fault line between the city’s past and present. Today it is a tranquil, multi-ethnic community, yet it lies in the shadow of a mostly forgotten, or perhaps ignored, chapter of Gulf history: “Most of the locals, especially the young, would be surprised to hear that their neighbours, relatives, or they themselves are the descendants of slaves that were brought to the region in the 19th century,” says Ali.
Although he does not live far from the coastline, a tall building, belonging to Iran’s Ports & Maritime Organisation, has blocked Ali’s view of the sea. Yet to peer through his rear window is to see ageing, paint-flecked houses, clustered around a serpentine array of narrow alleyways. He is vague on his own family history but what he can recall anecdotally makes for a rather grisly tale: “My great-grandfather was a well-known merchant. He would often go to Zanzibar to bring slaves. His crew would ambush children. Well, they couldn’t afford to capture adults…eventually, locals identified them and one day, they chopped their bodies into pieces.”
Iran’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1926 has never been regarded as an important episode in the country’s past. In his 1902 work, Ten Thousand Miles in Persia, the British writer Sir Percy Sykes reported that although there was slavery at that time, it was not widespread. Yet the topic has largely been neglected by contemporary historians. What is certainly true is that, unlike other ethnicities, the African community never became visible in Iran.
Perhaps for this very reason, the residents of Behbahani are eager to talk about their heritage: “Our rhymes and dances come from Africa, that’s why they’re spectacular,” remarks Ali. For two years he has been supervising a folk band made up of Afro-Iranian schoolchildren; the group has been remarkably successful, finding itself booked to perform at national festivals and even the subject of newspaper headlines.
Ali thinks that music is in his pupils’ blood, and it is not hard to see why: every other day the band rehearses in a small communal storeroom where they freely swap instruments while executing dance moves that are at once energetic and hypnotic. Adham, a 13-year-old who is regarded as the group’s finest dancer, takes a short break. “We are the first to emphasise the African heritage,” he tells me. “We call our band Bambassi, the name they used to call the Africans in Bushehr.” 12-year-old Kuka, who has been playing the drums, somewhat bashfully adds,“The Behbahani quarter is where the best folklore musicians of the region, most of whom are of African origin, live.”
Different celebration of Ashura
Every evening the locals gather in Behbahani’s main square. It is adjoined by a football field and tonight a group of children, some of them part of Ali’s band, are practising with their coach. Three senior citizens sit on a bench close by; “Shiite Islam is famous for its mournful rituals, but here in Bushehr we practise them with music and performance.” In Bushehr, Ashura (a time when Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein) takes on a festival atmosphere, with large groups of musicians playing to delighted crowds. Percussion instruments and the Bugh, a long, spiral bugle made of antelope horn, can be directly traced to Africa.
Elsewhere Ashura is a day of mourning, with men and women dressed in black weeping openly and often beating their chests in memory of one of the greatest heroes of Islam, Hussein. He and most of his family and companions were martyred in Karbala, Iraq for their principles in 680. They refused to accept the rule of Yazid, the Ummayad Caliph, because they believed he was unjust. Yazid forbade the mourning of the martyrs lest it lead to revolt but it continued secretly and each Ashura day was marked by recitations of the events. Today, Ashura is observed all over the world, mainly by the 150m Shias.
The playing of musical instruments and dancing in Bushehr is in stark contrast as they believe that Ashura marks the victory of good (Hussein) against evil (Yazid) and is thus a triumph for mankind to be celebrated. “This quiet man right here is an acknowledged Damam master,” says Ali, pointing to his friend, Seyed Abdi, an Afro-Iranian with a trimmed long beard and beads in his hands (a traditional Islamic symbol of piety). Seyed Abdi’s skill with the instrument has aroused the interest of several musicologists, journalists and documentary film- makers.
Yet his home does not contain a single Damam. Musical instruments such as Damam are considered community property in Behbahani and are kept in the mosques. Conservatives would be aghast at such a practice, but the mosque here is free from the burdens of orthodoxy. Instead, it is a relaxed environment where passers-by can shelter from the torrid afternoons of the region’s nine-month summer, drink tea, chat or just sprawl in a corner and take a nap. Women feel more comfortable here: they hold their own rituals, many of which involve songs, and worship is often led by other women of African origin.
Times are changing in Iran, however. The swelling ranks of the nation’s youth do not share the religious devotion of their elders. Young residents of Behbahani do most of their socialising at the teahouse, not the mosque. In addition to the teahouses, Mohammad’s carpentry workshop is one of those meeting points. It is open till late at night because in a city like Bandar-e-Bushehr, the cool night hours are the most productive times. While Mohammad works, his friends of different ages hang around, play backgammon and talk.
What he makes is old-fashioned Bushehri window frames, to be filled with colourful glass. “These windows were popular 100 years ago, when Bushehr was prosperous, right before the discovery of the oil!” he says, accurately referring to the time when the lucrative trade of pearls and dates increased the need for cheap human labour and attracted the slave-traders. “And now, they take the oil and gas from the ground underneath our houses, but what do we get from it?” asks Adel, an Afro-Iranian man sitting on a stool. “I am a fisherman, like my father. I sail on the same boat. But with all the gigantic fishing ships [now], I have to go as far as I can.” He says that every time, they risk getting trapped in hurricanes or crossing the borders, without realising it. “Many of my fellow fishermen are in neighbouring countries’ prisons because of that.” Adel finishes his tea.
He wants to take his wife and child to the cinema, because tomorrow he will be away sailing for at least five days. He makes his way home through the unnamed and unnumbered labyrinthine streets of Behbahani and says hi to every passer-by. Among them is Homa, an AfroIranian in her 60s. People call her Aunt Homa and admire her for her voice. She is the most sociable person in the neighbourhood, attending every ceremony and singing there. “For a single woman [of] my age, the best way of passing time is to visit my friends.” Her friends are the Afro-Iranian housewives – women of all ages who spend their whole day at Behbahani’s huge houses. Time has covered those once luxurious houses with rust and dust. They belonged to the city’s elite long ago. These days however, several families live in each of them. Some of the families’ origins go back to slaves. The oil and gas industries have radically transformed the region and detached it from its past. Stories of the sailors, merchants and travellers sound like fairytales to which no one has time to listen.
Ali thinks that even though much of the history is buried forever, the African legacy is omnipresent in the region’s culture: “Africans brought their music and rituals as a souvenir to their unwelcoming hosts. They planted them in the auspicious environment of the city’s folklore, and now, it is an inseparable part of our identity.” Not far from Ali, a 67-year-old Afro-Iranian man has another opinion. He provides for his family by selling snacks, cigarettes and drinks from his smallish cart. As he pulls it towards his home at 10 o’clock at night, he says: “Who cares whose father was slave and whose was master? We’re all struggling to earn our livings now.”