The tragedy of the Azerbaijani Ethnic Minority

by Farzin Farzad
We are divided. We are a community that escaped religious indoctrination, racism, and the systematic and social eradication of our language, culture, and our identity. We arrived at the doorstep of the “land of free” to take advantage of all of the liberal economic and social policies that America’s forefathers enshrined in the Constitution. We developed into wealthy, highly-educated, elite members of American society and broke free from a theocratic experiment that is tantamount to a prison on a grand scale. Yet somehow we still can’t seem to formulate who we are. We remain in the most tragic prison of all, in an identity crisis. Are we American, Iranian, or Azerbaijani?
Like my family and I, many members of the Azerbaijani ethnic minority left Iran in the 70s and 80s because we were fed up with the various degrees of oppression. We could no longer stand being ridiculed for being part of an ethnic minority group by the citizenry and were equally detested by a government guided by an autocrat and then by religious elders. The majority of us chose to completely forget our pasts. Aside from our love of our own food, pastries, and certain holiday celebrations that evoked a sense of distant nostalgia, we were American now. Others joined or formed human rights groups or various other organizations and ended up working with the same ultra-nationalists that prescribed a singular Persian identity for all of Iran, the ones we were supposed to have run away from. Wherever we ended up, we never looked after our own kind. We have always been culturally limited by this desire to tend to the care of others instead of help ourselves; this mentality survived even in our diaspora in the United States. Could this be because we don’t know who we are?
It is quite strange for me that in the most powerful country on Earth, with arguably the strongest and most active and influential diaspora communities, we cannot even form one single organization to represent ourselves. I know from personal experience that there have been many failed attempts to create legally registered organizations to, at minimum, provide programming that would showcase our culture and educate our youth. With a few minor exceptions, even these organizations, promoting something as innocent as our culture, were doomed to failure. At this stage, anything with a larger scope seems impossible, but it hasn’t stopped some of us from trying.
The organization that I co-founded, the Network of Azerbaijani-Americans from Iran (NAAI), has been the first one with the aim to go beyond the limiting nature of a cultural organization, to create a diaspora network that represents our interests as a community and a voting bloc. Our board created the group in the hopes that we could finally establish a degree of solidarity and inspire others to get involved. But in the year that we have pushed to function effectively, I have realized that we will never be able to have an active and vibrant community if we don’t first see ourselves as what we are, Azerbaijani-Americans from Iran. In order to do so, we must recognize that our various identities are not mutually exclusive, are not in conflict, and shape who we are.

Among the many qualities of growing up in two worlds and having more than one identity, I was able to learn to objectively and dispassionately assess our practices, and develop a more practical outlook on our merits and faults. In my quest to search for an explanation for our disunity, I grew to become quite critical of this mentality. It wasn’t until after years of study, I realized that our self-loathing behavior was not inherent in our culture, but adopted after decades of nationalist rhetoric and education based on propagandized Iranian history. This form of ultra-nationalism, which centered on the love of Iran’s Aryan roots, has never been indigenous to the region, and was introduced only 80 years ago. It helped develop the rampant feelings of racism against all non-Iranic groups both inside and outside of Iran. It promoted the idea that Turks were the enemy, and we came to adopt this mentality of hatred against each other instead of developing distaste for those that belittled us. I, myself, am guilty to this psyche. Until a few years ago, my attitude completely changed when I was near Persians. I acted even more racist to our own than Persians themselves were, even among those who were authentically curious to learn more about Iran’s Azerbaijanis. I eventually realized that we are Turks and our history has been undeniably entangled with that of Iran. That is nothing to be ashamed of, but instead should evoke a major sense of pride.
I am not advancing the idea that we should retreat within ourselves and separate from either our American or Iranian identities. On the contrary, I yearn for a greater sense of unity and the ability to effectively advocate for issues such as help for victims of the Tabriz earthquake, the drying of Lake Urmia, and the promotion of ethnic and linguistic rights for the Azerbaijanis of Iran. These are issues that we can all agree are injustices and violations of our rights. I do, however, recognize that we cannot be vibrant members of society if there is no pride in being Azerbaijani. We must help ourselves first and develop our identity before we can go any further.
Ayrilik, or separation, is one of Azerbaijan’s most famous and beloved songs, which tells of the sorrow that we Azerbaijanis felt after our homeland was split in the early 19th century. The problem is that we have been separated in many different ways. We are metaphorically stuck in a Platonist cave and the only way to break free is to learn to see how our past experiences have shaped our psyche. We must realize that our culture of disunity is something that we have learned over the past 80 years, and it is essentially anti-Turkic behavior. Now is our chance to change our image. An effective diaspora organization, no matter which one, should be designed to represent the interests of whom it serves, both that of the repatriated community and the community of our origin. Our diaspora currently serves neither. We cannot let this endure.
Farzin Farzad is Executive Director of the D.C.-based Network of Azerbaijani Americans from Iran.