The scenes are still funny, delightfully beautiful. They are memories of my dogfighting with our neighbor’s cat. The feline would climb the wall to sneak into the hen’s den at the corner of our yard, and the dog would wait in hiding to ambush the cat and give it a lesson. Watching the hit-and-run battles between my dog and our neighbor’s cat felt like watching an action film, a Hollywood blockbuster, in my backyard, in our village, Al-Ain village, located near the historic city of Susa in Arab Ahwaz region, south-west of Iran, with a Ziggurat that had survived the centuries since the Elamite civilization , our village, which did not have electricity, only twenty years ago.
Years following these childhood scenes, when I had reached my 30s, on an autumn evening in 2007, I weighed the risks and the urgency of attempting to escape to Syria, to apply to an asylum seeker with the UN Refugee Agency in Damascus.
I am an Ahwazi Arab. We are persecuted by the Iranian regime for our opposition to its violation of the Arab people’s rights and the destruction of our means for a decent life. I needed to consider my options carefully; I did not wish to leave my home, but there was a risk I could be hunted down by Iranian security personnel.
While thinking over my decision, I looked back over my childhood memories, of my family dog playing with our neighbor’s dog, of how the two mascots would dart back and forth striking at each other. Though one would sometimes yelp in pain, the aggression never resulted in serious injury. I realized that our mascots are capable of more mercy, love, and passion than some of the politicians who rule Iran. Those men speak of my people and treat us as unwanted animals, behaving with a callous lack of humanity. They have built walls around their empire and through their supremacist policies and the cruel application of these, barriers between the peoples of Iran.
I recall how indignant I felt: “Why must I flee from my home in the middle of the night? Am I committing a crime when I do such simple acts as speaking up against injustice and oppression, as carried out against us by Iran’s leaders? Why must I fear to be a journalist who attempts to inform the world of our suffering? When I say the Ahwazis are experiencing an unspeakable oppression and persecution and our land is ruled against the will of our people, that we have been reduced to a colony within Iran, surrendering our wealth and resources while we sleep with empty bellies, and our youths’ faces are pale with malnutrition, why am I treated like a criminal?
Must I accept that only at risk to my safety, of being forced to leave my homeland to live in exile, tormented with memories of a home I cannot return to, may I speak out about the repression of the aboriginal peoples of Ahwaz, and in defense of our people’s right to political representation, and to the social and economic benefits of rich oil wealth and massive gas reserves, and lush farmlands, and access to the sea?
Why is it that the essential requirement for our specie’s survival on earth, love for one another, should be so lacking? I cannot escape the feeling that our mascots have a higher capacity for love than do our rulers.
Do the arrogance and racism of the Mullahs know any bounds? Do they not feel any remorse for the seizing of our possessions, the destruction of our civilization? How far will they go? Why do the Mullahs insist on destroying what remains of Elam civilization, on killing our people?
I asked myself: “What do the Mullahs want from the Ahwazis? Why do they treat us in such an awful manner, tormenting us with repressive bureaucratic measures, stripping our people of our land, wiping out our language and culture, even taking away the very water we drink, the air we breathe?
And for our part, to what can the Ahwazis aspire in a world plagued for more than a century by terribly destructive wars and conflicts? Where can we find hope?
While searching for some answers to the questions that have long troubled me, as well as many an Ahwazi soul, whether at home or in exile, I was enheartened by the values of human rights and freedom of which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at an address in the Los Angeles library named for former President Ronald Reagan. In his speech, Mr. Pompeo spoke to me and many Ahwazis when he candidly described the realities of Iran. He spoke of the woes experienced by the Ahwazi people when no one else has, and we listened.
The Ahwazis eagerly followed Pompeo’s speech. They have seen in it a glimmer of hope for our cause. But already some have acted to smother our hope: interpreters distorted the speech; the Persian-language news media in the US and the mouthpieces of the Iranian opposition deleted the top diplomat’s references to the Ahwazis and the systematic persecution and suffering inflicted upon us. This censorship of Mr. Pompeo’s references to our oppression stirred fear among the Ahwazis. This fear has its roots in the traditional supremacist attitudes of some parties in the Iranian opposition towards the Arabs, who they view as longstanding foes. The Ahwazis are fearful of a change that might bring even crueler oppressors to power. Thus, in Ahwaz, some people are placing their hopes in the values praised by the United States, by Mr. Pompeo himself. Some even wish to compare him with Jesus Christ. Is it so strange that a people so terribly oppressed should seek salvation?
To understand the top diplomat’s potentially strategic role, an Ahwazi expert had expressed the sentiments of many of his people, when in a phone call from inside Ahwaz, he suggested that it was not Pompeo who addressed Iranians from Los Angeles, it was Reagan. In Iran, some Ahwazis believe Mr. Pompeo spoke in the same terms as did Reagan when he called for the Berlin Wall to be torn down. The Ahwazis are waiting for change to happen, for an end to the centralized dictatorship that seems so much like the “evil empire” described by Reagan, for indeed, our people do face an empire that cruelly siphons off the resources of our people, and oppresses not only the Ahwaz but all ethnic groups and the lower and middle social classes as well.
The Ahwazi expert added that there are opposition forces who share the same view as the non-Persian peoples as regards the necessity to change and forge a new future that is democratic and inclusive. These are recently developing forces whose means, rhetoric and tools are more modern. They are youth who refuse the traditional rhetoric, which is centralized and exclusive. They call themselves the Third Current. This growing tendency has an inclusive discourse that could meet the demands of Iran’s non-Persian peoples, unlike the exclusionary language of the traditional parties, be these right-wing, pro-monarchy, or left-wing.
I was told that if the forces of the non-Persian people managed to obtain genuine political support from policymakers in the US and regional countries around Iran, then there could be a basis for hope to bring about peace to the Middle East and inside Iran, after the hoped-for fall of the Mullahs.
Will this happen? Much of the answer lies with how US and Arab policymakers respond to the challenge. It is our hope they will consider the capabilities of the non-Persian peoples in the changes to come, as well as in the measures that will inevitably be required to restore peace to Iran and the Middle East. We hope they will consider the dialogue the non-Persian peoples seek with the Third Current, which is the way forward past destructive extremist and ultra-nationalist, exclusivist rhetoric.
Will our children play together along with their mascots, or will they grow up behind walls, learning irreconcilable hatred, recruited to create more chaos, more than the peoples of the Middle East have already endured?