It’s not common knowledge that there is Iran in Africa and there is Africa in Iran. But there are commonplace signs of this connection.
My father once told me that he read Farsi text on a cannon in Zanzibar. I was surprised to learn that there are suggestions of Shiraz in Stone Town. My curiosity was piqued when I came across Pedram Khosronejad’s archival photographs of African slaves in Iran. As Tehran Bureau’s Denise Hassanzade Ajiri writes, “despite its ancient roots, the topic of African slavery is rarely discussed or even acknowledged in Iran.” It is barely discussed or even acknowledged elsewhere. When I studied African history in Lilongwe, Mbabane, Cape Town, and Oxford, I never saw it in the curricula.
Paul Tiyambe Zeleza insists that we rewrite the African diaspora beyond the Black Atlantic, and some scholars are trying to extend that call to Iran’s history, too. As historian Beeta Baghoolizadeh reveals, slavery in Iran was only abolished in 1928. This is hardly historical, practically contemporary. If the protests persist and Iran opens its doors, we would have greater access to more archives and more stories that need to be told. Living descendants could tell tales of their ancestors. Importantly, many African-Iranian communities reside in the southern region of Iran, and it just so happens that the largest number of deaths from the protests has occurred in one of these provinces, Sistan and Baluchistan. Crucial initiatives like the Collective for Black Iranians have been refocusing their regular storytelling to highlight the protests. In their work, they draw creative connections between what it means to be black and Iranian. They offer a beautiful beginning for this narrative, and I hope to see similar stories of what it means to be born in Africa with roots in Iran, a dimension of Iranian (and African) identity that is neglected.
When I asked Baba why he left Iran for Africa, he told me a story from his childhood that echoes the hidden history of Africa in Iran. When Baba went to school, he was called āfrīqāyī (African). Taunted for his full lips, darker skin, and curly hair, Baba thought he looked different because he had African ancestry. His coloring could be coincidental; what matters is that from a young age, he had a yearning to live where he wouldn’t be ridiculed for his āfrīqāyī appearance. I was born in āfrīqā because a Ugandan man visited Shiraz to encourage Iranians to move to Africa. This is where Baba met Maman. It was this man, Enoch Olinga, who led Maman and Baba to marry and leave for Malawi before the revolution.
I don’t want to romanticize life before the revolution. This happens far too often. It’s a seductive way of telling the story of Iran: contrast women in short skirts with women in chadors and you get an Orientalist narrative that doesn’t serve anyone and doesn’t tell the truth. Baba’s feeling of not belonging is generational. Although my parents had more liberties growing up in the Shah’s Iran, they belonged to the Baha’i faith, the largest and possibly the most persecuted religious minority in Iran. Maman wore minijoups and her long hair loose throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but I know that Baba was physically harmed for his beliefs at university. They experienced subtle and overt forms of discrimination throughout their lives. In an open letter written by my Aunt Rozi, it is clear that even before the revolution, Baha’is were considered unclean (najis). They were treated differently. This counters the portrayal of Iran’s history as one of pre-revolutionary freedom and post-revolutionary oppression. This binary is not the case, not even for Muslims.
Having said that, the Islamic Revolution harmed women and minorities. Within a decade, my mother’s beloved uncle, aunt, and cousin were hanged by the regime. Maman’s maiden name—a conspicuously Baha’i one—was a reason to remain in exile, but my parents took us to visit their families in the 1990s. Decades later, my father told me how it felt the first time he landed in Iran after the revolution. During that time, Baba had intermittent work as an irrigation specialist with Prison Reform International, where he used ancient divination techniques to find water and build wells in prisons. One of these was Maula Prison in our hometown, Lilongwe. Baba was marked by this experience. He would come home with stories of suffering. The drive past Maula darkened with Baba’s memories. Baba introduced me to a French filmmaker who was doing a documentary on Maula. Of his footage, the most striking scene was the prisoners waking up in a communal cell. They were so tightly packed into this unbreathable space that their limbs had woven with one another. Waking up in the morning meant untangling themselves in the dark. Baba said that the air was different there. The first time he stepped into the Islamic Republic of Iran, Baba said, he breathed Maula air. His homeland had become a prison.
Still, his children wanted to find their place in it. In a photograph from a family holiday in Iran, I wear a white rūsārī, a school girl’s hijab, which almost looks like the veil of a nun’s habit. I wear a gray coat and the biggest grin. One tooth is missing from the front of my mouth. My clothing is ill-fitting and austere; my face beams with joy. I had begged my mother to buy the school uniform. I wanted to look like the girls we saw walking down the street. I remember resistance from Maman, who grew up in a different Iran. “You don’t have to wear that yet,” she told me. “You don’t need to cover your hair till you look older.” I insisted. I didn’t understand the historical or political implications of my desire to blend in, to belong. I wonder what feelings she harbored when she made the purchase, when I posed for the camera. I was so happy to look like the other girls. Wearing the hijab, I didn’t feel like so much of a foreigner in the place my parents called home.
As I got older, my feelings around hijab changed. I feared hearing, “Ḥijāb-i tū raʿiyyat kun,” very loosely translated to “Mind your hijab.” It sounds more threatening in Farsi. I remember morality police apprehending us in a park, instructing us to comply. As Jina’s story has shown, a few strands of hair could get you into unimaginable trouble. We obeyed, but we felt more like ourselves at home, without having to scan the street for police or pull the scarves that slipped. In my last journey to Iran, I noticed the reluctance of passengers putting on the mandatory veil before our flight landed. I remember the jubilance when we could uncover our hair the moment the plane took off. It was absurd. The air above land was a free country. Still, I started to see signs of freedom on land. Young women in Tehran played with the boundaries. They wore trendy hats instead of full scarves, shorter jackets instead of long coats, dyed blonde hair and bright lipstick. I saw the thrill of breaking the rules to be yourself.
I don’t have to break any laws to be myself. I live in a country that has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. The constitution of South Africa is radical and inclusive because this land has learned the devastation of not treating every human life with dignity. South Africa’s Bill of Rights aims to prevent human suffering, the kind of suffering and segregation that has become the norm in Iran. I cannot reconcile the liberties I have in Johannesburg with the realities of my relatives in Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz.
On my phone screen, I see Iranians risking their lives for the right to be themselves. Workers strike, students gather, basījīs bash, survivors mourn, prisoners suffer. The death penalty hangs heavily over their heads. Although there have been many protests since 1979, this is the most protracted in its history. The potency of the protests has exposed the plight of women and minorities in Iran. These are stories we are accustomed to seeing without the world bearing witness. It’s not unusual to hear of homes razed and graveyards desecrated, to know of imprisonments and executions. It is unusual for the world to notice. For over sixty days, I have watched the most courageous acts and listened to strong, chanting voices. They have never wavered. This deserves to be a revolution.