Farstoxication: A Colorful Charming Snake

Dr.Alirıza Asgharzadeh

The kind of terminologies and concepts employed by marginalized writers, intellectuals and activists have central bearing in defining and articulating anti-colonial and anti-oppression struggles. While the use of a plethora of slogans and mottos at the grassroots level helps to identify the nature and direction of a people’s struggle, the choice of terms, concepts, words, signs and symbols to describe a movement is extremely important in the way others receive the movement and make sense of its objectives. In the majority of cases, usually terms and concepts developed and used at the beginning stages of grassroots movements are adopted or coined hastily and are nowhere near describing the true spirit of these movements. However, as the struggle progresses, the employed concepts and terminologies also mature to present more authentic and thorough image of the struggle.

The struggle of Azerbaijani people in Iran, like that of other oppressed nationalities such as the Kurds, Baluchis, Arabs, and Turkmans, is a democratic struggle rooted in modern conceptions of human rights, socio-cultural freedoms, and the right for self-determination. Nevertheless, the Azerbaijani movement is yet to articulate this struggle through concepts and terminologies in line with the spirit of its anti-oppression character. At the grassroots level, the signs and symbols used are often outdated undemocratic gestures and signals such as wolf and grey-wolfism that serve to project negative images of the struggle to the outside world. Against the backdrop of such an endemic poverty of democratic conceptualization, Hojjat-ul-islam Abduleziz Ezimi Qedim’s conception of Farstoxication (Fars-zadegi/Farsa-vurulmaq) is a breath of fresh air that could not have come at a more opportune moment. Farstoxication is a new term coined by this enlightened Azerbaijani ecclesiastic that helps articulate the ongoing struggle of non-Persian communities for social justice and equality in Iran.

Hojjat-ul-islam Ezimi Qedim is a cleric from the city of Ardabil who, in his recent writing, has clearly outlined the ongoing linguistic hegemony of the dominant Farsi-speaking group in Iran. In an article titled “Fars-Stricken-ness: a Colorful Charming Snake (Fars-zadegi: Mari Khosh Khatt-o Khal), he explains the degree to which non-Persian peoples’ languages, histories, even creativities and imagination are colonized by the Persian minority in current Iran:

Ever since we have opened our eyes in Iran, they have told us that we should have one official language. We thought that all countries in the world were run through one (official) language; that only a single language was taught and learned in their schools. We were so mentally stagnated that we thought the purpose of education was learning Farsi. The more they smeared us in Farsi, the more we became suspicious of our own mother tongue… We learned science in Farsi and slang in Turki. They kept us away from education in Turkish…to the extent that we became infatuated with Farsi and disgusted by our own mother tongue… But when we traveled to the Farsi-speaking cities of the country, we saw a completely different picture and realized that essentially our language was condemned to annihilation. We realized that an illiterate Farsi-speaking shepherd expressed himself more comfortably than our Turkic-speaking person with a bachelor’s degree. And I as a Turk, because of my Turkic accent, with a thousand of shame and embarrassments, am only able to approve whatever the Farsi-speaking shepherd says. If we speak with a Turkic accent they tell us, “You better go and correct your accent first.” We thus realized that we are condemned to annihilation.

The sentiments expressed by Hojjatul-islam Ezimi Qedim are not new and have been expressed before. What makes his observation new, though, is the fact that it comes from a member of the ruling clergy, that is, from someone wearing the official clergy uniform and acting as a revered member of the ulama community. Ever since the establishment of clerical rule in Iran, the ulama and members of the clergy have become the focus of alluring employment opportunities and glamorous official positions. It is in competing for these high status positions that the clergy from non-Farsi speaking regions come to feel the sting of language-based discrimination. They have realized that the most prestigious positions go to those who are fluent in Farsi or speak it without an accent—Tehrani accent being the standard.

The non-Persian ulama and members of the clergy realize that when it comes to patriotism, they are as patriotic as the Farsi-speaking clergy-if not more so; and when it comes to education, they are as qualified as the ulama from Farsi-speaking areas. Likewise, when it comes to devotion to Islam and Shiism, they are as devoted a Muslim as the next person-if not more so. Irrespective of all the right qualifications, however, they are discriminated against when it comes to allocation of prestigious jobs with high paying salaries. Why? It is at this point that the reality of language-based racism begins to sink in. The ulama from non-Persian regions come to realize that they can never obtain those glamorous positions because the mastery of Farsi is a determining factor in getting those positions. And since they have not been brought up in a Farsi speaking environment, they can never speak it like a native speaker. A new language is not something that one may master overnight. It takes a lifetime for one to master a different language. And since the Azerbaijani ulama traditionally have not been schooled in Farsi, it is almost impossible for them to speak it like someone from Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, Kerman, or Yazd. Hence, the bitter realization of exclusion, discrimination and racism that are direct results of monolingualism and linguistic domination of one group over others. Awareness, of course, propels action. And the aware ulama, like Ezimi Qedim, are brave and decent enough to take action and resist acts of internal colonialism and oppression.

Hojjat-ul-islam Ezimi Qedim goes on to further elaborate on meanings and ramifications of Farstoxication:

…knowledge is not limited to one language. Education in the mother tongue is not only possible but also preferable. By teaching Farsi to your child, your child will not be related to Tehranis, for s/he is your child. Whether s/he is good or bad, s/he is a Turk and belongs to Turks. However, [by forgetting his/her identity] s/he becomes a Persianized Turk, or in my terminology, Farstoxicated. Farstoxication is not a simple problem; it is a crisis. Farstoxication is a cultural aggression against the Turk and Kurd and Baluch… Farstoxication is like a dew of disgrace that tightens the circle of our entrapment with every passing day. Once it was the Pahlavi regime who was forcing us into Farstoxication; but today, in the height of indignity, we ourselves run after Farstoxication… The People of various nationalities must wake up from their deep sleep and free their children from the clutches of this dangerous snake. For, tomorrow will be too late and the task will become more difficult.

Fars-zadegi is twin notion of what Jalal Al-e Ahmad had called in the 1960s Gharb-zadegi, which meant ‘plagued by the West,’ ‘West-stricken-ness,’ or Westoxication. In Al-e Ahmad’s view, Gharb-zadegi was a cultural illness that had stricken many Eastern societies, and Iran in particular. Al-e Ahmad adopted the term from Ahmad Fardid’s lexicon. Fardid was an oral scholar of controversial ideas and character who derived the term Gharb-zadegi from his interpretation of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) critique of modern technology and the ways in which it was employed. In an essay titled "The Question Concerning Technology," Heidegger envisioned that

The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already affected man in his essence. The rule of Enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.

The decadence of the world had already begun in the West, maintained Heidegger, and through Western technology and culture was fast spreading to the East. This was the idea that Fardid borrowed from Heidegger and coined from it his own notion of Gharb-zadegi or West-stricken-ness. The Western notions of liberalism, democracy, and technology were in opposition to Eastern notions of spirituality and unity of the realm of spirit with that of nature. The West had dominated nature and environment technologically. It was also in the process of dominating the East culturally, through the imposition of its understanding of technology, ethics, and humanity on the East. It was from these ideas of Fardid that Al-e Ahmad built up his own notion of Gharb-zadegi or Westoxication. In his usage, the term signified a sense of (toxic) contamination as well as a sense of intoxication, where it functioned as sweet, lethal poison.

A west-stricken man who is a member of the ruling establishment of the country has no place to stand. He is like a dust particle floating in space, or a straw floating on water. He has severed his ties with the essence of society, culture, and custom. He is not a bond between antiquity and modernity. He is not a dividing line between the old and the new. He is something unrelated to the past and someone with no understanding of the future. He is not a point on a line, but an imaginary point on a plane or in space—just like that dust particle .

Al-e Ahmad’s emphasis is thus on the Westoxicated creature’s disinterest in his/her own culture, society, and community. Such a creature is not entirely uprooted from his/her community; s/he is not separated from her/his means of communication and language. S/he is just infatuated and fascinated by an alien culture and society. The more pronounced this infatuation becomes, the more s/he becomes, in Al-e Ahmad’s view, alienated from her/his own community. The Iran of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi era serves as a model for Al-e Ahmad based on which to conceptualize his notion of Westoxication. In this era, the West was looked upon by the ruling elite as a superior civilization which had to be emulated. The underlying explanation for this admiration and emulation was a racist notion of supposedly a common Aryan ancestry between Europe’s white race and the Persian race in Iran. Following in the footsteps of Europe’s 19th and 20th century racist theorists, the dominant Persian group was advertising Iran as the origin and birthplace of the European constructed Aryan race. This supposedly superior race’s offspring had made marvelous progress in the West. And yet, the presumed ancestral home of this supposedly superior race was in shambles. It was a disastrously backward society economically, socially, politically, and industrially.

According to the dominant ruling elite, the main reason for Iran’s dismal state of backwardness was none other than the introduction of Islam to the country in the 7th century, which had resulted, among other things, in more than a thousand years of Arab and Turkic rule over the supposedly Aryan inhabitants of Iran. The Arabs and Turks had kept the country away from the certain advancement and progress that were to be the destiny of Iran’s presumably superior Aryan race. The only way to overcome this backwardness was to emulate the West and become Westernized ‘from the tip of the toe to the top of the head’ (Malcolm, 1914/1973, Taqizadeh, 1920/1978). As far as the ruling elite was concerned, becoming Westernized meant the blind mimicry and emulation of the West, on one hand, and the purging of such un-Iranic (anirani) elements as the Arabs and Turks from Iran’s history, on the other. Al-e Ahmad was not able to fully grasp and articulate the underlying racist and supremacist components of politics of Persianization and Westernization at the time. As a result, his work mainly focused on individual tendencies towards the West as reflected in superficialities such as mode of dress, behavior, and so on.

The west-stricken man chooses the easiest path. He is always ready to “seize the opportunity,” and appreciate the moment… He never troubles himself about anything. He can easily shrug off any problem… He is jack of all trades and master of none… The west-stricken man has no personality. He is a creature lacking in originality… The west-stricken man is a gigolo. …[He] is the most faithful consumer of western manufactured products… The west-stricken man never takes his eyes off the West. He does not care what happens in his cozy little part of the world, in this corner of the East. If by chance he is interested in politics, he is aware of the slightest shift to the right or left on the part of the English Labour Party and he knows the names of American Senators better than he knows the names of ministers in his own country’s government. He knows more about the commentators in Time and the News Chronicle than he does about his cousin far away in Khorasan…

It is this notion of mimicry that Al-e Ahmad cites as the main defining feature of a Westoxicated person. This, however, is not a Bhabhaian notion of mimicry with potential for rupture and disturbance of the colonized order. This is a Fanonian notion of "nauseating mimicry." It is the mimicry of a person blindly imitating whatever s/he thinks is confirmed and approved by the West. So Al-e Ahmad emphasizes on such superficial values as mode of dress, behavior, eating habit, fashion, etc. It would, of course, have been a different picture had Al-e Ahmad’s creature been forced to abandon his/her language for that of the West. However, this had not happened in an Iranian context. So Al-e Ahmad had to focus on superficialities rather than on real defining values such as language and religion.

What would happen if Al-e Ahmad’s Westoxicated person abandoned his/her language in favor of a dominant Western language such as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese? Of course, this would give a whole new meaning to the notion of Westoxication. And herein lies the difference between Al-e Ahmad’s notion of Westoxication and Hojjat-ul-islam Azimi Qadim’s conception of Farstoxication. Farstoxication takes place in an environment where non-Farsi languages are not allowed to be studies, learned, and used as normal languages of learning and education. The governing apparatus in society sees to it that Farsi receives all the support it needs to supplant other languages. The government’s absolute power is undividedly behind the processes that lead to Farstoxication. It is only by mastering Farsi that a non-Persian individual can secure a good government employment; it is through speaking Farsi that one can have any claim to knowledge and literacy; it is through the mastery of Farsi that one can be able to express oneself creatively, artistically, and scientifically. The mastery of Farsi is the key to all privileges in the country, from economic to social to cultural to scientific to psychological. It is in such an environment that the Farstoxicated creature comes into being. S/he comes into being first by learning Farsi, then by replacing it with his/her own mother tongue, and at a later stage by vilifying his/her own language.

In Al-e Ahmad’s Westoxication, language plays very little-if at all-role. The Westoxicated individual may aspire to learn a Western language, but it does not mean that s/he has to abandon her/his own language. The West exerts its hegemony through cultural, technological, and economic means, but it is not actually there to enforce them physically (at least in Iranian case). Farstoxication, on the other hand, is enforced by the government and the ruling elite. The non-Farsi speaking individual in Iran has no choice but to learn Farsi and try to speak it better than his/her own mother tongue. This process is characterized by sheer force, necessity and coercion; whereas Al-e Ahmad’s Westoxicated person enjoys a great degree of exercise of choice, arbitrariness, and flexibility in decision.

While the Persianization politics of Pahlavi era produced a number of notoriously Farstoxicated individuals such as Ahmad Kasravi, Taqi Arani, Rezazadeh Shafaq, Naseh Nateq, among others, it is important to note that Farstoxication has not been limited to the Pahlavi era. Nor has it been limited to the borders of current Iran. In recent years there have been some salient cases of Farstoxication that make one wonder how far can a person go in denying his/her language and identity, in order to prove that s/he is Persian—hence: Aryan. A glaring case in point is the recent publication of a supposedly ‘academic’ work entitled A Grammar of Iranian Azari, including comparisons with Persian. The book is written by Yavar Dehghani, who has completed it as a PhD dissertation in linguistics at La Trobe University in Melbourne in 1999.

In the beginning of the book, Dehghani makes several statements regarding the Azerbaijani language each of which is enough to send shock waves through the body of anyone with slightest familiarity with the language academically known as Azerbaijani, Azeri, or Azeri-Turkic. Dehghani starts off his discussions by identifying the name of the language currently spoken in Azerbaijan. Without any academic, methodological, or ethical considerations, he arbitrarily and single-handedly identifies the name of the language as “Azari.” On first sight, one gets the impression that perhaps by “Azari” the author means to refer to “Azeri” which is currently acknowledged in international literature as an authentic designation to refer to ‘Azerbaijani Turks’ and their language, Azeri-Turkic. However, in subsequent discussions the author exposes his personal and political agenda by distinguishing between ‘Azari’ and ‘Azarbaijani.’

In Dehghani’s view, ‘Azari’ and ‘Azerbaijani’ is not the one and same language whose close to forty-million speakers in Northern and Southern Azerbaijan believe that it is. According to him, ‘Azari’ is a language independent than ‘Azerbaijani.’ As he puts it,

…one of the languages closely related to Azari is Azebaijani which is spoken in the Republic of Azerbaijan… In fact, currently, the difference between these two languages is so great that it is difficult for their speakers to understand each other, or at least to communicate effectively.

To prove this absurd assertion, Dehghani quotes a passage from a text produced in Northern Azerbaijan. He then arbitrarily translates it into what he calls Azari, which is supposed to be the language of millions of people in Southern Azerbaijan. Since Dehghani considers himself a supreme authority in Azerbaijani language, he does not see a need to justify his absurd translation of a passage from a literary text into his invented ‘Azari’ language. The idea does not even occur to him to compare a literary text produced in Northern Azerbaijan with a similar text produced in Southern Azerbaijan. As an ‘expert’ in Azeri language, he surely should know that there are thousands of comparable texts produced in Southern Azerbaijan particularly after the Islamic Revolution. All he had to do was to glance through a journal such as Varliq and select a passage of his choosing for comparison. However, since Dehghani is after his own personal/political agenda, he does not carry his ‘academic research’ based on objective academic research methodologies. The crux of his personal and political agenda is to say that “the language of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Iranian Azari are two distinct languages.”

Dehghani’s amateurish assertion begs the question: Why is he trying so hard to prove that the Azeri language spoken by Azerbaijanis on the northern banks of the Araz River is completely different than the Azeri spoken by the same Azerbaijanis on the southern banks of the same river? After all, all one has to do is to pay a short visit to one of many Azerbaijani pal-talk rooms on the internet and see whether Azeris from north and south speak the same language or two different languages. All you have to do is check the archival material of one of many Azerbaijani email discussion groups and see whether Azeris are using the same language or two different languages to communicate with each other. Dehghani, understandably, does not bother doing any sensible research. He only relies on his own ‘expertise’ as an Azeri along with those of his “informants.” The result is a distorted (mis)representation of both the Azerbaijani people and their language. He embarks upon such a dishonest misrepresentation in order to show that the Azeri language spoken in Iran is almost identical with Farsi.

…Persian has influenced Azari in every aspect except in case markings and verbs. A large number of Persian words constitute a considerable part of the Azari speakers’ vocabulary. In some cases, the only criteria to distinguish between Persian and Azari sentences uttered by those speakers who have had at least a primary education can be Azari verbs and postpositions and certain phonological properties. For example, in the Azari sentence:

mən bayəd həmisə bəraye kişvər müfid olam … ‘I should always be useful for the country.’ Only the verb /olam/ is an Azari word, and other elements are borrowed from Persian.

Thus, Dehghani goes so far as fabricating an entirely ridiculous sentence only to show that Azeri is almost the same language as Persian. In fact, what he does is to write a sentence in Farsi, remove the verb at the end of the sentence and replace it with an Azeri verb, then present the entire charade as an authentic Azeri sentence. Here too we can see a shameful act of Farstoxication in action. This individual seems to be infatuated with Farsi to the extent that he is willing to present an entirely distorted picture of his own mother tongue in order to prove that his mother tongue is Persian. Throughout his book, not even once does he mention the fact that Farsi has been elevated to the status of ‘the national tongue’ in Iran by force and coercion; that it has become the only language of education and instruction because of the assimilationist agenda of the dominant group and the ruling elite in society. Nor does he mention the fact that Azeri has been a demonized, criminalized, and banned language for the past 80 years; that if Azerbaijanis speak Farsi it is not because ‘they love Persian’ but because their own mother tongue has been proscribed and Farsi has been imposed upon them as the only language of instruction, education, literacy, and correspondence.

Farstoxication thus becomes a process through which one’s own identity and language are denied so that one may easily associate oneself with the language and identity of the dominant group. It is a colonial act that entails the complicity and open participation of the colonized within the colonization processes. Allured by the economic and social advantages of self-denial, the Frastoxicated creature gnaws at the roots of his/her language, culture, and history as if s/he were the only person on earth with exclusive and absolute authority on that language, culture, and history. S/he is able to do this only because s/he immensely enjoys the political, economic, and coercive support of the dominant group. S/he knows perfectly well that the colonized language has no means of defending itself, that the individuals speaking that language are coerced into silence and are themselves at a point of extinction as a people. The realization of this bitter fact emboldens the Farstoxicated creature to attack the marginalized language and identity evermore fiercely, confident that the dominant group is ready to reward his/her acts of betrayal accordingly.

That is why Hojjatul-islam Ezimi Qedim’s initiative to identify this group of accomplices is a bold act of resistance against the colonial enterprise in its entirety. For, the dominant group always uses these collaborators to justify its act of annihilating minoritized languages, cultures, histories, and identities. The dominant group says that it is not we the dominant who want non-Farsi languages destroyed; it is the educated scholars and intellectuals from within these communities themselves who believe that such languages are dangerous to Iran’s territorial integrity and therefore must be destroyed. ‘Don’t you believe us?’ they ask. ‘Then look at Ahmad Kasravi, Taqi Arani, Rezazadeh Shafaq, Naseh Nateq… Aren’t these honorable individuals the most knowledgeable, the most educated and talented within these communities? Well, it’s they who believe that Farsi should become the only language throughout the country. Who are we to reject the patriotic demand of the honorable leaders of non-Persian communities?’

By exposing the central place of collaborators in the processes of colonization and assimilation, Hojjatul-isalm Ezimi Qedim exposes one of the deadliest weapons used by the dominant. His articulation of Farstoxication makes it clear that the colonized too bears responsibility in the way acts of colonization and assimilation are carried out. It also signals a warning to collaborators that their complicity in the act of colonization and assimilation does not go unnoticed by the marginalized.

Our problem is with the Farstoxicated segment of our population who sees civilization and progress as exclusive province of Persian language. They are oblivious to the fact that their home[land] is plundered, the names of their cities and villages are changed to Farsi, and little by little the language of most of their cities is changing from Turki to Farsi. Today, it is Qazvin, Hamadan and Saveh [that we have lost], tomorrow it will be Zanjan and Miyaneh, and it won’t be long that Tabriz and Ardabil will also lose before this colorful charming snake [Farstoxication]. When that day comes, we are already dead and someone must bury our rotten corpses. Today is our last opportunity to understand that just as being Muslim is not synonymous to being Arab, so too being Iranian should not be synonymous with being Persian. We are Turkic Muslims, we are Turkic Iranians, and so are our children. And we must defend our being Turk and Kurd, just as the people from Yazd (Yazdiha) defend their being Fars. We are Turks and we are Kurds; and we won’t submit Iran to the Farsi-speaking group, for Iran belongs to all the ethnic groups living in it.

As expected, Hojjatul-islam Ezimi Qedim’s resistance against politics of assimilation and Farstoxication has come with a price. Because of writing the above words and resisting against the dominant group’s colonialist advances, he was put on trial in the city of Tabriz and in August 24, 2004, was sentenced for two years of internal exile form Azerbaijan to Farsi-speaking regions (http://ebduleziz-ezimi.blogspot.com/). The struggle of this enlightened cleric has breathed new life into the anti-colonial resistance movement in Azerbaijan. The presence of ecclesiastic clerics and ulama like him indicates that the ruling theocrats do not see eye to eye when it comes to Iranian nationalism and Fars-centered politics of assimilation. In fairness, from the very beginning, the local ulama and clergy have been staunchest supporters of the education in local languages. During the Pahlavi era, when writing in Azerbaijani language was prohibited, it was the ulama and members of the clergy who conducted their sermons in Azeri language. In fact, the Pahlavi period witnessed an enormous output of Azerbaijani eulogy literature that was read in mosques and places of warship in the holy months of Moharram, Ramadan, and on other occasions.

Azeri-Turkic is the language of instruction even today in all seminaries and religious schools in Azerbaijan. Since the ulama have not completed their education in centralized so-called ‘modern’ schooling system, they are not so well-versed in Farsi. After the Islamic revolution, the government required of all imams leading Friday Prayers to read at least one of the two sermons in Farsi. The Azerbaijani imams reluctantly accepted to read one of the sermons in Farsi from a previously prepared text. Even then, their Turkic accent became the butt of jokes throughout Azerbaijan and Iran. A former imam of Tabriz, Ayatollah Moslem Malakuti, is still remembered for frequently uttering the phrase, “I say this in Farsi so that the Americans will understand what I say!” Implicit in this anecdote is a view of Farsi as a foreign language in Azerbaijan, i.e., a language which is comprehensible to the Americans but not to the local people. In religious schools, the main texts are in Arabic, and the language of instruction is the local language. As such, it is not surprising to see the Azerbaijani clerics persistently resisting the politics of Persianization. The extent of their resistance and the degree of their involvement in the anti-racist struggle will, no doubt, play a decisive role in the future outcome of Azerbaijani resistance movement.