Linguistic Geography

Historical Clues and Modern Controversies in the Northeastern Caucasus: Udi and Ancient Albania

Map of Hurrian Kingdoms, 2300 BCE

Map of Hurrian Kingdoms and Neighbors, Circa 2300 BCEThe Caucasus is rightly called a “mountain of languages.” Linguistic diversity reaches its extreme in the Russian republic of Dagestan and adjacent districts in northern Azerbaijan. The nearly three million inhabitants of Dagestan speak more than thirty languages, most of them limited to the republic. Such languages may seem inconsequential to outsiders, mere relict tongues of minor peoples. Yet a few of them are of historical significance, and the broader linguistic geography of the region provides evidence of important historical patterns stretching back for thousands of years. Historical linguistic relationships here are also implicated in the current-day political struggles of this troubled region.

Although the languages of Dagestan include members of the widespread Turkic and Indo-European families, most belong to the Northeastern Caucasus family. Many linguists include the Nakh languages of neighboring Chechnya and Ingushetia in the group; others essentially limit it to languages spoken in Dagestan and the mountains of northern Azerbaijan. Despite its restricted distribution, the NE Caucasian family is deeply differentiated, including six clearly separate subfamilies in addition to Nakh. Three of these groupings (Lezgic, Dargin, and Avar-Andic) include one or two “major” languages, spoken by hundreds of thousands of people, along with an assortment of local tongues used by only a few thousand. According to the Wikipedia, four Dagestani languages (Avar, Dargwa, Lezgin, and Tabasaran) are “literary,” employed to some extent for written communication.

As a remote area with many small ethnolinguistic groups, the northeastern Caucasus is distinctive but hardly unique. Other areas of forbidding topography with similar levels of linguistic diversity include the highlands of New Guinea—a vastly larger area—and the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Most such areas are assumed to be historical backwaters, but that is not the case in regard to the northeastern Caucasus. If the “Alarodian” hypothesis is correct, two of the most important  peoples of the ancient Near East spoke languages, now long extinct, that were closely linked to the Northeastern Caucasian family.

The ancient languages in question are Hurrian and Urartian. “Hurrian” may not be a household word, but various Hurrian states were rivals of the Babylonians, the Hittites, and other Bronze-Age “super-powers.” The Hittite Empire itself probably included large numbers of Hurrian-speakers, although its official language was Indo-European. The main body of the Hurrians, living in what is now northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey, also seems to have been over-run by Indo-Europeans, chariot-riders who established the powerful Kingdom of Mittani circa 1500 BCE. The Mitanni rulers had Indo-European names, but they soon adopted the Hurrian speech of their subjects, as revealed by the remarkable Amarna Correspondences preserved in Egypt.

Map of Ancient UrartuThe Mitanni Kingdom of the Hurrians disappeared in the conflagration that marked the end of the Bronze Age, circa 1200 BCE, a time of massive population movement, de-urbanization, and the retreat of literacy. By the tenth century BCE, however, a powerful new kingdom using a closely related language emerged in the area around Lake Van in what is now eastern Turkey. This Iron-Age kingdom of Urartu was noted for its mineral wealth and for its bitter rivalry with the Assyrian Empire. Urartu persisted until it was conquered by the Empire of the Medes, the immediate predecessor of the Persian Empire, circa 590 BCE. At roughly the same time, the land of Urartu seems to have been linguistically transformed by the spread of proto-Armenians from the west, a people perhaps linked with the ancient Phrygians who spoke a language in an outlying branch of the Indo-European family. In the twentieth century, Armenian nationalists began to glorify ancient Urartu as the deep font of Armenian culture. In doing so, they sought to highlight the antiquity of their claims to territory in what is now eastern Turkey. Without endorsing such political claims, it is only fair to acknowledge a close historical connection between Urartu and Armenia.

Map of Albania in the Caucasus and Neighboring Kingdoms, Circa 300 CEThe linkage between NE Caucasian languages and ancient kingdoms is strongest in Caucasian Albania, a state that covered much of what is now Azerbaijan from the fourth century BCE to the eighth century CE. Like Armenia and the Georgian kingdom of Iberia, Albania was politically caught between, and deeply influenced by, the Persian world to its east and the Greco-Roman world to its west. We know from ancient Greek writers that the Albanians eventually acquired their own script, but knowledge of this writing system was lost until 1937. At that time, a Georgian scholar discovered a reproduction of the Albanian alphabet in a medieval Armenian manuscript. Subsequently, a few stone inscriptions were found that used the same script, but the language itself basically remained a mystery until the early 2000s.

Map of the Kingdoms of the Caucasus Circa 300The story of the recovery of Albanian writing begins in 1975, when a fire damaged a number of manuscripts in a neglected basement cell in the famous Eastern Orthodox monastery of Saint Catherine’s in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The heating of the manuscripts helped reveal the fact that some were palimpsests, parchment manuscripts that had been scraped over and then re-inscribed. Fifteen years later, unknown letters were noticed under a Georgian text in one of the documents. In 1996, the Georgian scholar Zaza Alexidze determined that the underlying passages were in Albanian. After several years of concerted effort, he recovered and translated the entire hidden layer of the palimpsest. What he found was an Albanian Christian lectionary, a church calendar with specific scriptural readings keyed to specific dates. Some scholars believe that this long-forgotten and thoroughly erased text, which dates to the late forth or early fifth century, is the oldest Christian lectionary in existence.

Map of NE Caucasian Languages, Including UdiAlexidze’s translation was facilitated by the existence of a living tongue strikingly similar to the language used in the lectionary. The literary language of the ancient Albanians, it turns out, lived on among the Udi, a group of eight thousand persons inhabiting two villages in Azerbaijan. As the years passed, the Udi language diverged from old Albanian, but not by much. The surviving Udi people also retained the faith of their ancestors. Although they live in a largely Muslim area, the modern Udi belong to their own Udi-Albanian Christian church.

Christianity originally spread to Albania from Armenia. The Albanian church eventually separated from the Armenian, affiliating instead with the Orthodox Christianity of the Greek world. After the Muslim conquest of Albania in the 600s, such an affiliation became politically fraught, as the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire was the main principal rival of the Muslim Caliphate. As a result, the Albanian Christian population was again placed under the ecclesiastical authority of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Over time, it seems, much or perhaps most of the Albanian population assimilated into the Armenian community. Those who resisted Armenian religious control seem to have evolved into the modern Udi. Yet the Udi population continued to decline, as many members adopted Islam and were absorbed by the Azeri community. Today, the Udi language is regarded as gravely endangered.

As might be expected, the Albanian heritage of the eastern Caucasus has generated a contemporary political controversy among Armenian and Azerbaijani partisans, focusing on the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Eastern Armenians, according to some Azerbaijani stalwarts, are not so much genuine Armenians as transformed Albanians—like much of the Azeri population. Armenian scholars charge Azerbaijani historians with greatly exaggerating the extent of Albanian assimilation, and with trying to “de-Armenianize” much of the historically constituted Armenian region.

To the neutral bystander, the issue might seem moot; ethnic groups and nations often expand by assimilation, and the mixing of peoples is more the norm than the exception over the long term. Primordialist nationalism, however, retains a strong hold on the imagination, especially when faced with intractable military conflicts. As the “frozen war” between Armenia and Azerbaijani is now going into its third decade, it is not surprising that the ancient Albanians would be recruited into the conflict.

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The Turkic-Speaking Greek Community of Georgia—and Its Demise

Map of the Former Greek Communities in Georgia, CaucasusReaders who have carefully examined the maps of the Caucasus posted recently in GeoCurrents may have noted an area marked “Greek” in south-central Georgia. This Greek zone appears on most but not all ethno-linguistic maps of the region, sometimes as a single area, and sometimes as two. Depicting Greek communities here is historically accurate but increasingly anachronistic. Since 1991, the Greek population of Georgia has plummeted from over 100,000 to less than 20,000, due largely to emigration to Greece. Many of the remaining Georgian Greeks are elderly, and a few locales are reported to have only a handful of remaining Greek residents, putting the survival of the community in some doubt

But regardless of the community’s future, its Greek nature raises some interesting issues about identity. Members of the group consider themselves Greek, generally belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, and use the Greek script when writing their own language; they are also reckoned as Greeks by the Athens government. As a result, their homeland has been accurately mapped as “Greek” on ethnic maps. It is a different matter, however, when it comes to linguistic maps, as most of the Greeks of south-central Georgia speak a Turkic language called Urum. They are not unique in this regard. Many of the estimated 1.5 million Greeks expelled from Turkey to Greece in the 1920s were actually Turcophones. Today, the remaining Turkic-speaking Greek population is concentrated in three areas: south-central Georgia, the north Azov area of southern Russia, where the community was reported to be 60,000 strong in 1969, and in Donetsk Oblast in southeastern Ukraine, which Ethnologue claims contains 95,000 Urum speakers.*

Map showing the Empire of Trebizond circa 1235 CEThe Greek presence in the area that is now Georgia apparently dates to antiquity. The ancient Greeks were a maritime people who established outposts all along the shores of the Black Sea, many of which survived, in one form or another, into the modern era. The focus of this so-called Pontic Greek community was the coastal strip of what is now northeastern Turkey, an area that enjoyed its heyday from 1204-1461 as the Empire of Trebizond, a prosperous and highly cultured Byzantine successor state. After the Ottoman conquest of Trebizond in 1461, some of its Greek residents abandoned Greek for Turkic dialects while remaining Map of the Aborted Republic of PontusChristian and Greek-identified, others retained both Christianity and their distinctive Pontic Greek dialect (or language), others converted to Islam and adopted the Turkish language, and still others became Muslim while continuing to speak “Rumca,” the local term used to denote Pontic Greek.** Those who retained Greek identity tried to build a Republic of Pontus during the chaotic years from the end of World War I until the early 1920s, but were unsuccessful. After repelling the Greek invasion from the west in 1922, the Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established a firm hold over Anatolia. Turkish assaults at this time on the Greek community in the northeast have been deemed by some the “Pontic Genocide”; in the end, most of the Greeks of Turkey were expelled to Greece, just as the Turks of Greece were expelled to Turkey. Today, Trebizond is an ethnically Turkish area described by the BBC in 2007 as a football-mad hotbed of Turkish nationalism.

The Pontic Greeks were not limited to northeastern Anatolia, as hundreds of thousands lived in the coastal areas of what are now Georgia, Abkhazia, southern Russia, and Ukraine. These communities also suffered periodic bouts of persecution in the twentieth century. Under Stalin, as many as 100,000 Pontic Greeks were exiled to Central Asia in two waves, the first in the late 1930s and the second in the late 1940s. Even after Stalin’s death, Greeks in the Soviet Union faced discrimination. According to one source, “Under both the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes, Greeks (with few exceptions) continued to occupy a disadvantaged position in Soviet society and were unable to obtain high positions in political, military, scientific, and academic hierarchies.” Ronald Suny, however, notes that Greek interests were accommodated in Georgia under the government of Eduard Shevardnadze in the 1970s and early 1980s (see The Making of the Georgian Nation, p. 313).

One of the main centers of Greek culture in the early Soviet Union was the city of Sukhumi in Abkhazia, formerly part of the Georgian Soviet Republic and now a self-declared independent state aligned with Russia. Before World War II, Sukhumi’s Hellenic community of some 65,000 supported Greek schools, theaters, newspapers, and libraries. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Sukhumi still had some 17,000 Pontic Greeks. As Georgians, Abkhazians, and Russians began to struggle over the fate of Abkhazia in 1991, the local Greeks began to flee, even though “[they] were encouraged by both sides to remain in the area throughout the conflict, and were even offered high ministerial and administrative positions.” In 1993, the Athens government carried out “Operation Golden Fleece” to evacuate most of the remaining population from the conflict zone. By 2003, only around 2,000 Greeks still lived in Abkhazia.

Although the Greek communities of the coastal zone are of long standing, those of interior Georgia date back only to the late eighteenth century. In 1763, Heraclius II, one of the last independent Georgian monarchs, enticed a sizable contingent of Pontic Greeks to settle in the area that now straddles the border of Georgia and Armenia, where he was developing silver and lead mines as part of an aborted modernization program. A second group fled the Ottoman Empire for Russian-ruled Georgia in 1829-1830, after the Greek War of Independence triggered the harassment of Anatolian Greeks. These refugees settled mostly in the Trialeti Plateau region of south-central Georgia, with the multi-lingual and now majority Armenian city of Tsalka forming their hub. Although these so-called Tsalka Urums were almost entirely Turkic-speaking—as the label “Urum” indicates—late Soviet ethnographic studies found that “36% of them considered Greek their mother tongue despite their lack of knowledge of that language, [and that] 96% expressed their desire to learn Greek.”

With the downfall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Georgia, the Tsalka Urums began to forsake Georgia for Greece. According some reports, the Greek community of south-central Georgia declined from 35,000 in 1989 to 3,000 in 2002, although the 2002 Georgian census still listed 7,415 “Greeks” in the Kvemo-Kartli administrative unit. The reasons for this precipitous decline are debatable. Some Greek sources claim that the Tsalka Urums were basically driven out by other ethnic groups. According to an April 2005 report in the Hellenic Resources Network, “Greek families have been massacred and others have been forced out of their villages, according to local ethnic Greek organizations.” Another report on the same site claims that internal migration within Georgia added to the community’s woes: “The remote Tsalka … became attractive for the Svanja, the domestic immigrants from western Georgia, and the Adjarians. … The squatters committed acts of violence … to force the ethnic Greeks to abandon their homeland.” The same sources, however, also mention an economic rationale for the migration, noting that retirees in the area receive pensions equivalent to twelve Euros a month, far less that what they are able to collect in Greece.

Maps showing ethnic changes in GeorgiaSeveral lessons can be drawn from the story of the Pontic Greeks of Georgia. The first is that ethnic mapping often fails to keep pace with events on the ground. Older maps depicted a substantial Greek population in south-central Georgia, as was indeed appropriate. More recent maps tend to copy from these sources, failing to capture such recent changes as the near disappearance of this Greek community. Recent maps also generally fail to note the disappearance of the southernmost area of Ossetian inhabitation in Georgia. I have accordingly changed one of the most widely used ethno-linguistic maps of the Caucasus, erasing the “Greek” and “Ossetian” areas from Georgia proper. I have also deleted the “Georgian” area from South Ossetia, as a significant degree of ethnic cleansing has occurred here as well.

A second lesson concerns the complex relationship between ethnic identity and language. One might assume that an area labeled “Greek” on an “ethno-linguistic map” would be Greek-speaking, but that is not the case in regard to Tsalka. Strictly speaking, such a designation is incorrect, as Urums are Greek only in the ethnic sense. Yet polling data from the late Soviet period indicated that many people here proclaimed a Greek linguistic identity even though they did not actually speak Greek, but merely hoped to learn it. Also important was their use of the Greek script to signal group membership.

Finally, the plight of the Georgian Greeks also speaks to the broader reduction of the Greek community abroad. The Greeks, like the Jews, the Armenians, and the Lebanese, are one of the great diasporic peoples of western Eurasia, their communities historically scattered over a vast territorial expanse. But ethnic persecution and economic hardship abroad, coupled with enticements from the national homeland, have reduced the extent of the Greek diaspora. In the process, the modern ethnic map of the Caucasus has become less intricate than that of the recent past.

In a similar process, many members of the Armenian community living in other parts of the Caucasus have relocated to Armenia (and Nagorno-Karabakh), a movement that has been going on for some time. Yet Armenia is now to sending many more migrants abroad than it takes in, thus perpetuating the Armenian diaspora in a different manner, as we shall see in a subsequent GeoCurrents post.

* The 2001 Ukrainian census lists 91,000 “Greeksfor the country as a wholewhereas the 1989 census counted 98,500 Ukrainian Greeks, only 14,286 named Greek as their native language. Whether the others are Turkic or Russian speakers was not mentioned.

* Some sources claim a few thousand Rumca speakers, many of them elderly, still live in northeastern Turkey, although the comprehensive Ethnologue has no information on the group.

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From Sarmatia to Alania to Ossetia: The Land of the Iron People

Map of the Sarmatian Tribes in Late Antiquity

Map of the Sarmatian Tribes in Late AntiquityThe Caucasus is often noted as a place of cultural refuge, its steep slopes and hidden valleys preserving traditions and languages that were swept away in the less rugged landscapes to the north and south. Such a depiction generally seems fitting for the Ossetians, the apparent descendents of a nomadic group called the Sarmatians that dominated the grasslands of western Eurasia from the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE.

The Sarmatians were probably not a single ethnic group, let alone a unified nation, but rather a collection of related tribes that spoke closely related Iranian languages and followed similar pastoral ways of life. Discussed at length by ancient Greek and Roman geographers, the Sarmatians were depicted as a proud and warlike people, noted by some for sending young women into battle. (Recent archeological investigations seem to bear this out, as many Sarmatian graves contain skeletons of women dressed for war.)

Long after they seemingly disappeared from history, the Sarmatians retained significance in the European imagination. In the seventeenth century, most members of the Polish nobility convinced themselves that they had descended not from the Slavic tribes that had given rise to their nation’s peasantry, but rather from the Sarmatians; as a result, they widely adopted modes of dress and manners that they associated with this ancient group. The resulting style, called “Sarmatism,” remained influential until the 1800s and has not completely disappeared. In its modern guise, however, the movement has been widened, with various central and eastern European nationalists claiming Sarmatian ancestry for their entire societies. Neo-Nazis also look back to the group; a “Sarmatians” image-search on the internet yields numerous links to the infamous Stormfront website.

Wikipedia map of the Alan Migrations The Sarmatian hold on their grassland home was apparently lost to others in the fourth century. It was around this time that certain Sarmatian groups became known to history as the Alans. From the west, the Germanic Ostrogoths moved into the steppes and took up a largely equestrian way of life, while the Huns invaded from the east, threatening Sarmatians and Ostrogoths alike. Pastoral polities of the time, however, were often quite fluid, allowing peoples of different language groups to join together, whether in semi-institutionalized confederacies or mere armed aggregations of coercion or convenience. A few Alan groups evidently joined the Huns, but most fled west into Europe to avoid domination. They moved not as a single people, however, but in numerous contingents, many of which attached themselves to the Germanic tribes that were also fleeing the Huns into the dying Western Roman Empire. Some Alans allied with the (Germanic) Burgundians to establish a strong presence in Gaul. Others moved into the Iberian Peninsula, ruling over a short-lived Alanic kingdom in the early 400s. Many more joined forces with the Vandals, accompanying them in their invasion of Roman North Africa in 429 CE.

Wikipedia map of Kingdoms in Iberia, Early 400s  The various Alan groups that moved into the Roman world in the late 300s and early 400s did not maintain their language or identity for long. In most cases, they merged with the more tightly unified Germanic peoples and were eventually subsumed into the general populations of the areas in which they settled. They did leave marks, however, as suggested by numerous place names along the lines of “Alainville.” They also seem to have figured prominently in the development of the medieval ideals of chivalry.

If C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor are to be believed, the cultural legacy of the Alans in Europe was profound. In a fascinating and controversial book entitled From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (Arthurian Characters and Themes), Littleton and Malcor argue that most of the Arthurian corpus derives from the stories and myths of the Alans. Although criticized for downplaying the Celtic aspects of the legends, Littleton and Malcor present abundant evidence leading back to the Alans. Guinevere, they allow, was a Celtic figure, but Lancelot and many others seem to have a Sarmatian origin. As they show, the north Caucasus’s own epic writings, the Nart Sagas, bear a curious resemblance to the Arthurian stories, abounding in magical swords and supernatural chalices.

Map of Medieval AlaniaAlthough most of the Alans swept into Western Europe and North Africa in late antiquity, others evidently sought refuge in the deep valleys of the Greater Caucasus range, where they intermarried with the indigenous peoples of the region. In time their descendants were able to establish a state of their own. By the 700s, the Kingdom of Alania linked the central Caucasus Mountains with a broad swath of the steppe zone of the north. Alania was soon embroiled in a complex geopolitical contest for the larger region, involving the Arab Caliphate, the Byzantine Empire, and the Khazar Khanate (an empire based in the northern Caspian Sea region whose ruling elite adopted Judaism). Alliance with the Khazars evidently resulted in numerous conversions to Judaism among the Alans, but Christianity triumphed in the higher circles of Alania, based on strong connections with both the Greeks and the Georgians, although pre-Christian beliefs and practices did not vanish entirely. Medieval Alania was already well integrated into the diplomatic circles of the Orthodox Christian realm. Several Alan princesses married into royal houses in Russia, Georgia, and the Byzantine Empire.

German map of the Kingdoms of the Caucasus, Circa 1000 CEAlania was devastated by the Mongol invasions of the early 1200s and essentially destroyed by the incursions of Tamerlane in the late 1300s. As had happened in the fourth century, some Alans fled the invading armies; others sought refuge in the remote Caucasian valleys; still others became incorporated into the conquering society. Joining forces with the Mongols, more than a few ended up in China, where “30,000 Alans formed the royal guard (Asud) of the Yuan court in Dadu (Beijing).” Another sizable group received refuge in Hungary; their descendants, the Jassic people or Jász, are still viewed as a distinct ethnic group, numbering some 85,000.

The Alans who retreated into the Caucasus after the Mongol assaults were unable to reconstitute their kingdom. Instead they split into petty polities and came under the partial domination of their Kabardian neighbors. They eventually divided into two distinct ethnic groups, the Iron and the Digor, marked by differences in dialect and territory. Ossetian religion came to be marked by a strongly syncretic bent, with the names of Christian saints commonly identified with pre-Christian gods. After the Russian conquest in the late 1700s, Orthodox Christianity experienced a revival, especially among the Iron. Islam also spread into Ossetia, passing from the Kabardians to the Digor especially. Syncretic beliefs and practices, however, persist among both groups, alongside mainstream Islam and Christianity. Such syncretism has historically been common through much of the North Caucasus, although more orthodox forms of faith have been spreading rapidly over the past few decades.

In the late Soviet period, Ossetian intellectuals began to reclaim their Alanian heritage, and in 1994 North Ossetia was officially renamed “North Ossetia-Alania.” This move may have been meant to help fuse the Digor and Iron into a single nationality, as the two groups remain divided by dialect and to a certain extent by religion as well. Loyalty to the Iron people rather than to the Ossetians as a whole is evident in a disarming hip-hop video found here. Although labeled “Ossetian Rap” in the English-language YouTube service, its actual title, in Cyrillic script, is “Iron Rap” (ИРОН РЭП).


(Many thanks to David Erschler for his corrections to the original post.)

From Sarmatia to Alania to Ossetia: The Land of the Iron People Read More »

Keystone of the Caucasus: Ignored Ossetia and Its Snow Revolution

Map of the Caucasus, Showing North Ossetia-Alania and South Ossetia

Map of the Caucasus, Showing North Ossetia-Alania and South Ossetia If the arch of the Great Caucasus can be said to have a keystone, it would have to be Ossetia. This east-west range presents a formidable barrier to traffic between southern Russia and the Middle East, as it is pierced by few negotiable passes. By far the most important route across the mountains extends along the Darial Gorge through the so-called Caucasian Gates, which passes directly through Ossetia. After seizing northern Ossetia in the late 1700s, Russian empire builders founded the fortress-city of Vladikavkaz at the northern terminus of this route; the city’s name literally means “ruler of the Caucasus.” In 1799, Russian engineers began building the inordinately expensive Georgian Military Road through the Darial Gorge. This roadway allowed Russia in 1801 to annex Georgia, which had been recently devastated by an Iranian invasion, and hence to dominate the Caucasus over most of the next two centuries.

Google Earth Image of Darial Gorge, Georgia and North OssetiaMilitary control of the Caucasian Gates passed among several imperial powers over the centuries. For many hundreds of years, however, the pass and its environs have been the territory of the Ossetians, a people generally regarded to be the descendants of the medieval Alans. From the 700s to the 1200s, the powerful kingdom of Alania ruled a broad area of the north-central Caucasus and the adjacent plains to the north, profiting handsomely from trans-Caucasian trade. Alania never recovered from the blows of the Mongols in the 1200s and 1300s, but the Ossetians remained ensconced in their remote mountain valleys. Today they are the only Caucasian ethnic group whose territory spans the Great Caucasus Range.  North Ossetia-Alania forms a semi-autonomous Russian republic, while South Ossetia is a self-declared independent country whose territory is considered by most of the international community to belong to Georgia.

Events in Ossetia rarely make the international news. In 2008, South Ossetia briefly made headlines when the Russian army moved in to block Georgia from reclaiming the area. Over the next two years, a few sources noted South Ossetia’s declaration of independence, as well as its official acknowledgment by a handful of countries other than Russia, specifically Venezuela, Nicaragua, Tuvalu, and Nauru (with Russia paying Nauru an estimated fifty million dollars US for the gesture). Several years earlier (2004), the Beslan School Hostage Crisis in North Ossetia received widespread attention—as well it should: over 1,100 persons, mostly children, were taken hostage by Chechen and Ingush militants, and some 385 died when Russian security forces stormed the school. The crisis heightened the power of Russia’s federal government and helped Vladimir Putin cement his iron grip on power. Yet most international news stories framed the event strictly as part of the Russian-Chechen conflict, rarely mentioning the fact that the victims were mostly Ossetians, not Russians, and seldom noting the possibility that the attackers meant to intensify a local conflict pitting the mostly Christian Ossetians against their Muslim neighbors.

More recently, South Ossetia’s “Snow Revolution,” as it was dubbed by the Russian press, went almost unnoticed outside of the region. This conflict emerged in December 2011 after the South Ossetian Supreme Court nullified the presidential election of opposition leader Alla Dzhioyeva in favor of the Moscow-backed candidate, Anatoly Bibilov. Dzhioyeva proceeded to lead massive street protests as thousands of her followers “camped out for 10 days in sub-zero temperatures on the central square in Tskhinvali, the republic’s capital, to protest that Supreme Court ruling.” Anger in South Ossetia had evidently been building for some time, focused on the authoritarianism and corruption of the outgoing regime of Eduard Kokoity. A political standoff ensued between supporters of the two leaders, punctuated by calls for renewed Russian intervention. In the end, Kokoity stepped down in favor of a caretaker government, and new elections were scheduled for March 25, 2012—shortly after the upcoming Russian presidential contest.

Ossetia may seem to outsiders like a small, obscure, and unimportant place. North Ossetia covers only 3,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers) and is home to only 700,000 people, while South Ossetia is half that size and contains only a tenth the population. But despite its modest extent, Ossetia is geopolitically significant, sitting at the crux of the restive Caucasus region, and embroiled in a conflict that involves not just the Russian Federation but also the United States and its allies. After the 2008 war, the U.S. government suspended the sales of military equipment to Georgia, but in December 2011, the American Congress passed a bill featuring a provision calling on the U.S. to normalize military relations with Georgia, including the sale of weapons. This move was denounced by both Russia and South Ossetia, with the South Ossetian foreign minister claiming that it would “push” Georgia to engage in renewed aggression against the break-away statelet. Georgia, of course, was pleased. The Georgian government insists that South Ossetia is an integral part of its own territory and worries about the threat posed by Russian troops stationed in the break-away republic.

Map of ethnic groups in the Caucasus, emphasizing Georgians and OssetiansThe conflict between the Georgians and the Ossetians is made more complicated by the geographical distribution of the two groups. As can be seen in the map to the left, the territory occupied by the Georgians is elongated east to west and is almost pinched off in the middle, while that of the Ossetians runs north to south, almost cutting the Georgian zone in two. As long as relations between the Georgians and the Ossetians are hostile, this unusual pattern enhances the vulnerability of each group.

Beyond its international significance today, Ossetia’s world-historical role was once much greater, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

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African Country Names in Indigenous Languages

Africa in the Endonym MapAfter the recent GeoCurrents post on country names, Asya Pereltsvaig brought my attention to an interesting website called Endonym Map. The site features a single world map that shows the names of countries and dependent territories in their own official or national languages, as expressed in the script used for those languages. (A detail of the Endonym Map, showing most of Africa, is reproduced here.) A table below the map provides the official name of each state in English, as well as the English names of the languages in which country names are expressed. Although the site is elegantly constructed, the map and the table do not always correspond. The table, for example, lists the language used for Djibouti as Arabic, but on the map the label attached to the country is in Somali (Jamhuuriyadda Jabuuti). This mix-up is not surprising; Arabic is Djibouti’s official language (along with French), whereas Somali is its “recognized national language” (along with Afar). By the criterion used by the Endonym Map, Somali would be the correct choice; the site specifies that “in cases where a country has more than one national or official language, the language that is most widely spoken is shown.” As it happens, Somali is much more widely spoken in Djibouti than Arabic. But specifics aside, the point is that political-linguistic complexity makes the identification of endonyms surprisingly tricky.

Wikipedia Map of Africa's Official languagesMultiple official languages are common in Africa, as the Wikipedia map posted here shows. South Africa has elevated no less than eleven languages to official status. When “national” languages are added to the mix, the situation becomes even more complex, partly because the concept of a national language is ambiguous. Narrowly defined, the term refers to the language spoken by the majority of the people within a nation. But since most sub-Saharan African countries have no majority language, such a definition is of little use in this part of the world. Broader definitions, such as that suggested by the Wikipedia, are unhelpful for the opposite reason; it is difficult to imagine what language would not qualify as having “some connection—de facto or de jure—with a people and perhaps by extension the territory they occupy.” The definition of “national language” used by the Endonym Map is unspecified, but it seems to rely on official recognition.

Map of Indigenous and Arabic Country Endonyms in Africa A close reading of the Endonym Map reveals some interesting patterns of African linguistic development. To highlight such patterns, I have constructed two maps that categorize the names used on the Endonym Map. As can be seen here, most sub-Saharan states give official standing to the languages of their former colonial rulers. French, English and Portuguese predominate, giving rise to the terms Francophone, Anglophone, and Lusophone Africa. Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony, has designated Spanish, French, and Portuguese as official languages, but as Spanish is most widely spoken, the country’s name appears in that language. (Fang is probably spoken more widely than Spanish in Equatorial Guinea, but it is designated as a “recognized regional language” rather than a “national language.”)

Map of African Country Endonyms by LanguageThe most intriguing pattern revealed by the Endonym Map is the widespread use of non-European tongues as the dominant official (or national) languages of sub-Saharan African countries. Chad, for example, is conventionally depicted as a Francophone country, and French is indeed one of its two official languages. But Arabic also has official status in Chad, and the Chadian dialect of Arabic has emerged as the country’s lingua franca, spoken by forty to sixty percent of its people. Elsewhere, a number of indigenous languages of sub-Saharan African origin are gaining prestige and have acquired official status. As the map shows, local languages function as the dominant official means of communication across much of eastern and southern Africa.

One of the more intriguing examples of an indigenous official African language comes from the Central African Republic (CAR). Like neighboring Chad, CAR is usually regarded as a Francophone country, and French is indeed one of its official languages. Yet far more people in the country speak Sango, which also has official status. Over the past several decades, Sango has been spreading rapidly, emerging as the country’s effective lingua franca.* The expansion of Sango has been documented by Mark Karan, who shows that it is also spreading into neighboring countries.

Wikipedia Map of Francophone AfricaAlthough Sango is clearly an indigenous language, it has been heavily influenced by French. In fact, most of Sango’s vocabulary is of French derivation, although the most commonly used words, as well as the basic grammatical patterns, are fully indigenous. Most linguists classify Sango as a creole language, or one that “developed from the mixing of parent languages.” Evidently, Sango emerged as a vehicle of inter-ethnic communication along the Ubangi River before the initiation of French colonialism. Its use was later promoted by both the French colonial army and Christian missionaries, and it gained many French words in the process. As a result of such patronage, Sango became the dominant language of the capital city Bangui, enhancing its appeal.

Mark Karan's Spread of Sango Map and Book CoverThe use of a creole language as a dominant official (or national) language is relatively rare. As it happens, another website is devoted to precisely this issue: Peter L. Patrick’s Pidgins & Creoles as National or Official Languages. Patrick lists nine cases: Cape Verde, Central African Republic (CAR), Haiti, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles, and Vanuatu. With the exception of CAR and Sierra Leone, all are island countries. Of the official creole languages of these countries, all but Sango of CAR are based on European tongues.

Although Patrick lists Sierra Leone as using a creole language (Krio) as its main national language, the Endonym Map depicts the country in English. This discrepancy stems from the fact that Krio is merely the de facto national language of the country, rather than one that has been given official standing as such. According to the Wikipedia, “Krio is spoken by 97% of Sierra Leone’s population and unites the different ethnic groups in the country, especially in their trade and social interaction with each other.” It is also used in some public schools in the country, and has evidently even been recognized as a “home language” by the New York public school system. Eventually, Krio will probably gain some sort of official standing, requiring a change to the Endonym Map.

*According to the Wikipedia, only about half of the population of CAR is conversant in Sango, but Patrick claims that “it is used as a second language by almost the entire population.”


African Country Names in Indigenous Languages Read More »

From Sogdian to Persian to Sart to Tajik & Uzbek: The Reformulation of Linguistic and Political Identity in Central Asia

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for her assistance with this post)

Wikipedia map of Ancient SogdianaThe Turkic-Persian historical synthesis found in Iranian Azerbaijan (discussed in the previous post) extends well beyond Iran’s borders. Through much of Central Asia, the dominant cultural framework is perhaps best described as a hybrid formation. In a fascinating book, Robert Canfield and his colleagues go so far as to designate a vast zone in central, southern, and southwestern Asia as “Turko-Persia.” As the Wikipedia describes the concept: “The composite Turko-Persian tradition … was Persianate in that it was centered on a lettered tradition of Iranian origin; it was Turkic insofar as it was for many generations patronized by rulers of Turkic background.” In the modern era, however, national governments have made great efforts to divide “Persians” from “Turks” across the region, creating the modern Tajik and Uzbek nationalities in the process.
Wikipedia Map of Bactria, with Sogdiana addedTurkic and Persian traditions have long been deeply intertwined in a region once known as Sogdiana, centered on the Zeravshan Valley of what is now eastern Uzbekistan. Sogdiana has played an important role in world history for millennia. Fertile and well-watered alluvial fans along the foot of the Pamir Mountains provided the agricultural foundation for an urban civilization stretching back almost 3,000 years. The Sogdians were renowned merchants, plying the routes of the so-called Silk Road that linked China to western Asia. In the process, they transmitted a number of religious practices and cultural ideals across much of Eurasia, including those associated with Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, and Manichaeism. After the Muslim conquest in the late 600s, the Sogdians gradually deserted their pluralistic religious heritage in favor of Islam. They also abandoned their own language, which belonged to the Eastern branch of the Middle Iranian grouping, in favor of a language from the Western branch that eventually became what is known today as Persian/Farsi (although a dialect of “neo-Sogdian” is still spoken by the Yaghnobi people, some 12,500 strong, of Tajikistan). Despite the loss of their distinctive ethnic identity, the Sogdians’ descendents continued to be an important mercantile people, noted for the wealth and beauty of their cities, particularly Samarkand and Bukhara. With the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate in the early 800s, a powerful and explicitly Persian state, the Samanid Empire (or Samani Dynasty), arose in the eastern Persian lands, with its capital in Bukhara. The Samanids made a concerted and largely successful effort to convert the Turkic-speaking nomads living to their north to Islam.
Map of Samanid Empire With the downfall of the Samanid Empire in 999 CE, Sogdiana came under the political domination of these same Turkic-speaking peoples. Over time, significant numbers of Turkic speakers settled in the region, intermarrying broadly within the local population. As a result, their language spread. But as it did, it was molded by the pre-existing Persian substratum, gaining a large number of Persian words and expressions; several of the resulting dialects even lost the distinctive “vowel harmony” that characterizes Turkic and, more broadly, Altaic languages. But the spread of Turkic speech did not result in the disappearance of Persian (or Tajik, in Turkic parlance). Instead, linguistic duality came to characterize much of the region. At the beginning of the 20th century, Persian/Tajik served as the main language of Bukhara and Samarkand, as the region’s lingua franca, and as the chief vehicle for administration and literature. In many of the smaller towns and farming communities, however, “Persianified” (or “Iranized”) Turkic dialects prevailed.
Thomas Lessman's Map of 1500, Showing Uzbek KhanateIn a social environment in which bilingualism was common, the distinction between those who spoke Persian and those who spoke a Turkic language was generally of little significance. What mattered more was mode of life. The main distinction here was that between settled people, whether city-dwellers or farmers, and pastoral nomads. Those with a sedentary lifestyle were generally called “Sarts,” both by outsiders and themselves, regardless of their mother tongue. In contrast were the Turkic peoples who largely retained a pastoral way of life, most notably the Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Turkmen. Included in this group were the original Uzbeks, a group of historically nomadic people, ultimately of Mongol origin, who had forged a powerful state the 1500s, the Shaybanid—or Uzbek—Khanate. The relatively non-Persianified Uzbek language of this group (known as Kipchak Uzbek) was, and is, much more closely related to Kazakh and Kyrgyz than it is to the Turkic dialects of the settled Sarts (which are most closely related to Uyghur in northwestern China).
Wikipedia Maps of Three Turkic Language Sunfamilies In the 1920s, ethnic affiliations were transformed by official decree across was then became Soviet Central Asia. Following Lenin’s nationality policy, certain groups were elevated to national status, affording them a measure of cultural autonomy within their own Soviet republics. After lengthy deliberation, Soviet cultural engineers decided that “Sart” was a derogative term that had no linguistic content and thus did not denote a real ethnic group . As a result, they split the Sarts into two nationalities, each of which received its own republic. Those who primarily spoke Persian were deemed Tajiks, while those who spoke Persian-influenced Turkic dialects were placed in the Uzbek category, despite the fact they bore little relationship to the people who already carried that name. The new standardized Uzbek language that resulted does not even fall in the same linguistic sub-family as the original (Kipchak) Uzbek language, as the former is placed in the Southeastern (or Eastern, or Uyghur) group, the latter in Northwestern, or Kipchak, branch.  (And if that were not enough complexity, a third dialect of “Uzbek”, Oghuz Uzbek, falls into yet a different division, the Southwestern branch of the Turkic language family.) The linguistic terminology used today does not clarify the issue, as the old “Kipchak Uzbek” tongue is now classified merely as a minor dialect of “Uzbek.”  Even the linguistically rigorous Ethnologue uses this classification scheme. Yet it makes little sense from a strictly logical point of view: how can two dialects of the same language simultaneously belong to different branches of their larger linguistic family? Political expedience, it seems, can trump linguistic realities.
The artificially constructed distinction between Uzbek and Tajik continues to generate political problems in the former Soviet Central Asia, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

From Sogdian to Persian to Sart to Tajik & Uzbek: The Reformulation of Linguistic and Political Identity in Central Asia Read More »

Greater Turkey Vs. Greater Iran

Maps of Greater Turkey fro YouTube Videos Visions of a Greater Iran, discussed yesterday, come into conflict with other imaginings of geopolitical enlargement, particularly that of “Greater Turkey.” Harsh debates are posted under maps of hoped-for state expansion. The following exchange, accompanying a YouTube clip proselytizing for Greater Iran, typifies the more civil end of the argument spectrum:

 Azerigull: Long live Greater Iran, Empire of Iran. To all the turks with illusion that turkey is a nation, you should know that original turks in turkey today are about 5 million that came from China, the remaining population are children of Greece, beloved Iran, and Armania. Long live Empire of Iran, you will Rise again to bring Peace and Harmony to the World.

Agartali Vaiz: Greater Turkey will rise again to form the Small Turan from Bosnia to the Turkish areas of Iran also including Caspian coast; from Aleppo to Turkmenistan, from Crete to Batum, from Tesalonika to Shiraz. After that the project of greater Turan will be the second mission.

            YouTube and blogsite dreams of national aggrandizement form an intriguing genre. The discussion forums, when not disabled, make captivating if disturbing reading. Rival camps of extreme nationalists seem to take delight in grossly insulting each other. Although perhaps dismissible as the fantasies of marginal groups, these clips can reach hundreds of thousands of viewers. Viewer numbers vary tremendously, of course, as does video quality. Some productions are minimal: a single map of a “great state” accompanied by patriotic music. Others use fairly sophisticated cartographic animation to show projected change over time.

Maps of Extreme Interpretations of the Greater Turkish WorldDepictions of “Greater Turkey,” or “Future Turkey,” also vary significantly.  As can be seen in the maps posted above, mega-Turkey is envisaged by some as absorbing such neighboring areas as northern Syria, northern Iraq, northern and eastern Greece, and parts of the Caucasus. A few extremists hope to reclaim all of the lands ever held by the Ottoman Empire—and then some. One map turns northwestward to take in not just the former Yugoslavia, but also Austria, northern Germany, and northeastern France. Some maps of greater “Turkistan” and the “Turkish World” are comically extreme. Most depictions foresee the incorporation of all Kurdish-speaking areas into an enlarged Turkey.

A few proponents of Greater Turkey have gone well beyond drawing imaginary maps. The Turkish ultra-nationalist “Grey Wolves” have long struggled for a more powerful state that could eventually encompass all Turkic-speaking peoples. Turkish authorities have accused the group of carrying out 694 murders between 1974 and 1980. Although declining sharply after being outlawed in 1980, the Grey Wolves were able to prevent the Turkish screening of a film on the Armenian genocide as recently as 2004. Some evidence indicates that the group is resurfacing in western Europe. On October 31, 2011, the International Business Times reported allegations of Grey Wolf attacks against a Kurdish community center in Amsterdam and a Kurdish-owned shop in Saint-Étienne, France.

Map of Greater Turkey and Greater Azerbaijan The Turkic-speaking peoples of Iran and Central Asia, especially the Azeris, are caught between the claims of Turkish and Persian “super-nationalism.” Both sides assert rights to the Azeri-speaking region, although one depiction of Greater Turkey does map out a separate expanded Azerbaijan, presumably envisaged as an ally state. Not surprisingly, Greater Azerbaijan is envisaged separately by a group of hard-core Azeri nationalists. In general, however, Iranian Azeris strongly incline towards Iran. Many of the leaders of the Greater Iran movement are themselves Azeri.

The Iranian political allegiance of Turkic-speaking Azeris in northwestern Iran is not surprising. For centuries, the highest levels of the Persian state were dominated by people of Turkish heritage. The rulers of the Safavid Dynasty (1501–1736) were partially if not mostly of Azeri descent, and those of the Qajar Dynasty (1785–1925) stemmed from another group of Turkic people. Azeri Iranians are in general well integrated; virtually all are bilingual in Farsi, and many occupy high social, economic, religious, and political positions. Of course, not all Iranian Azeris embrace Iranian nationalism, and allegations of discrimination do persist. But Iran can to some extent be regarded as a Persian-Azeri partnership, underwritten by the religious bond of Twelver Shi’ism.

Greater Turkey Vs. Greater Iran Read More »

The Dream—or Nightmare—of “Greater Iran”

Map of Greater Iran from the Arab AtlasWhen the term “greater” is attached to a country name, it usually indicates that certain extreme nationalists want the boundaries of the state to expand. The Wikipedia article on “Greater Iran” is one exception, framing the issue on cultural and historical grounds without reference to geopolitical ambition. Still, links in the article lead to sites promoting “Pan-Iranism,” defined as “an ideology that advocates solidarity and reunification of Iranian peoples living in the Iranian plateau and other regions that have significant Iranian cultural influence.” Pan-Iranists, it turns out, ardently hope to create a politically unified “Greater Iran.”

Map of Greater Iran from Pan-Iranist VideoThese aspirations are spelled out in the webpages of the Pan Iranist Party of Iran. Pan-Iranists see modern Iran as a rump state, accounting for less than half of the nation’s rightful people and territory. (The slash on the group’s flag is said to represent “mourning for the lost lands of Iran.”) As depicted in a video associated with the movement, Greater Iran includes almost 200 million people: all those living in present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Georgia, and Armenia, as well as parts of Turkey, Russia (North Ossetia), Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and China. Most members of the non-Persian groups slated for inclusion in such an expanded state would likely see the scheme as a mad dream of Iranian imperialism.

Flag of the Pan-Iranist Party of IranThe Greater Iran propounded by the Pan-Iranist Party is essentially secular. As the Party’s website specifies, “requests for membership … are welcomed” by all people of conceivably Iranian heritage, regardless of faith; the largely Christian Georgians and Ossetians receive specific mention. The inclusion of the Georgians shows that Greater Iran is not conceived here in linguistic terms, although the Iranian language family is often mentioned. The key is historical and cultural influence, even if occasional phrases like “all other Iranic ethnics” imply a degree of ethnic unity.

But if “Greater Iran” usually has secular-nationalist roots, the concept has also been taken up by some members of Iran’s clerical leadership. LiveLeak reported in 2010 that Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, Secretary-General of Hezbollah-Iran, forwarded a plan for “reestablishing” a “Greater Iran,” encompassing all territories of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Kharrazi’s scheme is grounded both in a conviction of Persian cultural supremacy, especially over the Arabs, and in Shia eschatology. According to the memo, his plan was designed to anticipate the “establishment of global government led by the Mahdi,” the messiah-like “hidden Imam” of Shiite end-of-days doctrine.  According to an article from the Jerusalem Post, Kharrazi expressly called for the destruction not only of Israel, but also of “Shi’ite Iran’s other regional adversaries, … [singling] out secular Arab nationalists—as well as followers of the austere version of Sunni Islam practiced primarily in Saudi Arabia that is known as Wahabism.”

Maps of Greater Iran from Iran Defence.Net “Greater Iran” is not imagined consistently, as can be seen in the images to the left. IranDefence.Net has posted detailed discussions of the issue, with a welter of maps. The maximal versions encompass all areas ever ruled by the ancient Persian Empire—and then some. As a political or religious scheme, such expansive pan-Iranism does not rest on a firm foundation. But when limited to cultural and historical analysis, Greater Iran—or Greater Persia—can be a useful concept. Deep Iranian cultural influence does indeed extend well beyond Iran into both Central Asia and the Caucasus. Historically, the Persian linguistic sphere has extended even farther to the east than is indicated on the most extravagant maps of Greater Iran. The Moghul Empire of India, for example, maintained Persian as its official language throughout its history.

The map of Greater Persia found in the Arab Atlas is one of the better depictions of this cultural realm. The map’s portrayal of the current Persian-speaking area within the larger Persian cultural sphere is especially helpful. Whereas most cartographers obscure the contemporary extent of Persian (Farsi), this map accurately shows it extending from interior Iran across northern Afghanistan, through most of Tajikistan, and well into Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, few maps capture this state of affairs accurately. The Soviet insistence on calling the language of Central Asian Persians “Tajik,” along with the government of Afghanistan’s 1964 decree that the same language be called “Dari,” has contributed to a widespread cartographic minimization of what is in fact a vast Persian linguistic sphere. Political considerations, in other words, have tended to trump cultural realities.

Pasa Map of Iranian PeopleInterestingly, a few Greater Iranian sites themselves diminish the extent of the Persian linguistic sphere. The map of “Iranian Peoples” posted on the Parsa website, for example, essentially outlines the area in which people speak Iranian languages today, plus a few Turkic groups heavily influenced by Persian culture and Iranian political structures. Yet the map leaves out central Afghanistan—an area inhabited by the Persian-speaking Hazaras, a Shiite people linked to Iran on religious as well as linguistic grounds. The Harazas were excluded, it turns out, on racial grounds. Parsa seeks to define Iranians as a genetic stock, largely based on physical appearance. As the Hazaras are generally of East Asian physical appearance, they are read out of Greater Persian by certain ultra-nationalists.

The Dream—or Nightmare—of “Greater Iran” Read More »

The Complex and Contentious Issue of Afghan Identity

Nigel Allan's Map of Babur's Use of the Term "Afghanistan"“Afghanistan” is an oddly constructed place name. It is usually said to be a Persian word meaning “land of the Pashtuns.” The widely used suffix “stan” is Persian for “place of” or “land of,” cognate with the English “stead” (as in “homestead”) and ultimately with “stand.” “Afghan” is usually considered synonymous with “Pashtun.” From the Pashtun perspective, “Afghanistan” is an exonym, a geographical term of foreign origin. For Pashto-speakers to call their country “Afghanistan” would be a bit like Germans calling their country not Deutschland but Germany, or the Japanese calling theirs Japan instead of Nihon or Nippon. But Pashtun-speakers in Afghanistan, unlike German speakers in Germany, do not form the majority linguistic community. In Persian (or Dari), the country’s most widely used language, “Afghanistan” is native term, but one that refers to a different people and to some extant a different place. (In Pashto, the official name of the state is Da Afġānistān Islāmī Jomhoriyat, translated into English as “the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”; in Persian it is Jomhūrī-ye Eslāmī-ye Afġānistān.)

The identification of “Afghan” with “Pashtun,” however, turns out to be a knotty issue. Geographer Nigel J. R. Allan of the University of Nevada at Reno has examined this subject in detail. The earliest use of “Afghanistan” that he has found is in the Baburnama of the early 1500s, the autobiographical story of Babur’s creation of the Mughul Dynasty of northern India. In this account, “Afghanistan” denotes a limited area south of Peshawar in what is now northwestern Pakistan. Subsequently, “Afghan” came to denote a handful of Pakhtun/Pashtun tribes living in and around the Vale of Peshawar. The designation was gradually generalized to cover all Pashtun people, but the idea lingers that the “real Afghans” are still those of Peshawar, arguably the most important Pashtun city (although the multi-ethnic metropolis of Karachi now has the largest Pashtun population). With the creation of the modern state of Afghanistan, “Afghan” was extended to cover all residents of the country, regardless of their language or ethnicity. Allan associates this usage with 19th century British imperial agents. As a place name, “Afghanistan” is thus both exonymic and geographically displaced, having originally denoted an area outside of the borders of the modern country of that name.

To be sure, Allan’s narrative would be challenged by a few Afghan nationalists, who see earlier versions of “Afghan” in historical place names such as “Abgan.” A few have gone so far as claim a geo-historical essence for the Afghans and their country. In 1969, Abdul Hai Habibi argued that, “The word Afghan … represents an indivisible unit under all historical, economic and social conditions in the heart of Asia … with a historical background of one thousand and seven hundred years.” Yet, as usually the case, such an insistently nationalistic interpretation twists the past in accordance with modern-day dreams of national unity. The result leans more toward wishful thinking than scholarly analysis.

Allan’s finds similar complexities with other ethnic designations used in Afghanistan. Most texts and maps divide the country into roughly a dozen ethnicities. As the Wikipedia puts it, “The ethnic groups of the country are as follow: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Arab, Brahui, Pamiri and some others.” The term “some others” indicates uncertainty, which is indeed warranted. Following the Ethnologue and Erwin Orywal, Allan discerns forty-five languages and fifty-five ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Several conventional groups turn out to be composite units composed of distinct peoples speaking separate languages; “Nuristani,” for example, encompasses five languages. “Tajik” is an especially a fraught category. It too is foreign, derived from the Turco-Mongol term for “non-Turk.” Although it has long been used by Persian speakers for self-designation, “Tajik” retained pejorative connotations until recent decades. The institutionalization of the term has been linked to the Soviet manipulation of ethnic categories in Central Asia. As Allan shows, most of the current ethnic designations of Afghanistan were imposed by outsiders on the basis of limited knowledge. The resulting scheme ignored the indigenous concept of manteqa, used to divide most of Afghanistan into ethno-geographical units. As the Wikipedia puts it, “In Afghanistan, the Tajiks … refer to themselves by the region, province, city, town, or village they are from; such as Badakhshi, Baghlani, Mazari, Panjsheri, Kabuli, Herati, Kohistani.”

            As a term of self-designation, “Pashtun” stands on stronger grounds than “Tajik. “Pashtun identity tends to be pronounced, and is often a source of considerable pride. But the mere fact that this ethnic group spans the border challenges the national formations of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan also signals a claim to Pashtun territory by way of the word “Afghan.” The “A” in “Pakistan”—an acronymic country-name—refers to “Afghania,” just as the “P” refers to Punjab, the “K” to Kashmir, and the “S” to Sindh.

Map showing different definitions of the term "Pashtunistan"The Pashtun people themselves have on occasions hoped to break out of this geopolitical bind, proclaiming their own separate nationality and agitating for the creation of a new state. The proposed boundaries of an independent Pashtunistan, however, vary significantly, as can be seen in the maps posted to the left. In one version, Pashtunistan would be limited to the Pashto-speaking areas of both countries; in another it would add Pakistani Balochistan and a few other areas; in another it would encompass all of Afghanistan as well as the western half of Pakistan; and in yet another it would include only the western half of Pakistan. Although the idea of Pashtunistan is often considered dead, some maintain that the fear of its revival pushes policy in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. As stated recently in the anti-militarist World War Four Report, “Kabul and Islamabad both feel the need to appease Pashtun tribal leaders, fearing the specter of an independent ‘Pashtunistan’—which would take a critical chunk of both states’ territory, and widen the war yet further…”

As a final note, it has long seemed odd to me that Afghanistan is usually portrayed in the U.S. media as a Pashtun-dominated country, even though most of its residents belong to other ethnic groups, and even though Persian is more widespread and more prestigious than Pashto. Nigel Allan links this habit to U.S. diplomatic and military maneuvering in the region. In the 1950s and 1960s, almost all American developmental projects in Afghanistan focused on Pashtun areas. In the 1980s, the U.S. military embraced a “southern strategy” based on alliances with Pashtun militias aimed at expelling Soviet forces from the country. This Pashtun focus, Allan argues, stemmed in part from the British imperial designation of the Pashtun people as one of South Asia’s “martial races.” Whether the U.S. reliance on such Pashtun leaders as Hamid Karzai has been an effective strategy is a different matter altogether.

For more information, see Nigel J. R. Allan, “Defining Place and People in Afghanistan.” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics, 2001, 42(8), 545-560. (Note: the journal is now called Eurasian Geography and Economics.)

The Complex and Contentious Issue of Afghan Identity Read More »

Further Problems with the “Ethnolinguanymic State” Concept: The Case of Afghanistan

Map of Underfit StatesLast Saturday’s post on “ethnolinguanymic states” generated pointed criticisms, especially from Maju, whose frequent comments on GeoCurrents are much appreciated. I realized afterward that the main problem was a lack of clarity in the initial post. The ultimate point was not to argue that “ethnolinguanymic” countries (those whose names incorporate the names of their main language) should be regarded as solid nation-states, with a close match between state boundaries and national identity. If anything, it was to argue the opposite: although ethnolinguanymic states might seem to form solid nation-states, reality is often quite different. Hence the framing of the concept in the English language: I am interested here primarily in misconceptions that I commonly see circulating in the English-language media and among my English-speaking students.

The case of Spain, discussed intensively in the GeoCurrents forum, illustrates the central issue well. American students generally expect to find a high degree of linguistic commonality and national solidarity in Spain, assuming that virtually all citizens of Spain are Spanish-speakers Spaniards who identity themselves as such. But that is not the case, given the strong sense of separate national identity found among the Catalans and Basques, and to some extent the Galicians as well. In my experience, students who have spent time in Barcelona or the Basque country participate enthusiastically in classroom discussions on this topic, often stressing how surprised they were to find such strong anti-Spanish-national sentiments in these areas.

The identification of the Spanish (or Castilian) language with Spain is further challenged by the fact that most native Spanish (or Castilian) speakers reside not in Spain but in Latin America. Ibero-Americans, of course, do not identify themselves with the Spanish nation. In general terms, national identity in the Western Hemisphere did not develop on ethnolinguistic grounds, although in the officially “plurinational” state of Bolivia, current-day “nations” are defined on such a basis.

In the Eastern Hemisphere, several “ethnolinguanymic” countries are potentially challenged by the fact that a higher percentage of the people in the ethnolinguistic group on which the state is supposedly founded live in a neighboring country, a phenomenon introduced in a previous GeoCurrents post under the label of the “underfit nation-state.” Each case has its own complexities and deserves a post of its own. For the sake of simplicity, I will note here only that more Mongols live in China (mostly in “Inner Mongolia”) than in Mongolia itself, more Lao live in Thailand than in Laos (to the extent that Isan is synonymous with Lao), more people who speak Malay as their mother tongue live in Indonesia than in Malaysia, more Azeris (or Azerbaijanis) live in Iran than Azerbaijan, and more Southern Sotho speakers, Swazi speakers, and Tswana speakers live in South Africa than in Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana respectively.

Map of Ethnic Groups in AfghanistanAfghanistan is doubly compromised on this score. “Afghan” is generally taken to be synonymous with Pashtun (or Pakhtun, in the “hard” dialect of the Pashto language), yet more Pashtun people live in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. By the same token, more members of the Tajik ethnic group live in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan. The latter imbalance is even more striking if defined on strictly linguistic grounds. The Tajiks of Tajikistan supposedly speak Tajik whereas those of Afghanistan supposedly speak Dari, but Tajik and Dari are merely different names of the same language. Two other major ethnic groups of Afghanistan, the Aimaks and Hazaras, also speak Dari, and Dari has long been the prestige language as well as the main language of inter-ethnic communication across the country. Taken together, Afghans who speak Dari probably outnumber those who speak Pashto, perhaps by a substantial margin. And to add to the confusion, Dari itself is a dialect of Persian, inter-intelligible with Farsi as spoken in Iran. In fact, as stated in the Wikipedia, “native-speakers of Dari usually call their language Farsi. However, the term Dari has been officially promoted by the government of Afghanistan for political reasons…”

Map of Major Languages by District in AfghanistanAfghanistan is thus merely a seeming ethnolinguanymic state; in actuality, the name of the country does not follow the name of the majority ethnolinguistic group, as the country has no majority population. And as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post, the identification between the term “Afghan” and the modern country called Afghanistan is further challenged by geo-historical considerations.

Further Problems with the “Ethnolinguanymic State” Concept: The Case of Afghanistan Read More »

Afghanistan and the Ethnolinguanymic State

Map of Ethnolinguanymic StatesA recent GeoCurrents post noted that Afghanistan is not a nation-state, lacking the requisite solidarity. Yet the very name of the country might lead one to expect a relatively high level of cohesion derived from a common ethnic background. To coin a term, Afghanistan is an “ethnolinguanymic state”—that is, a state named after a dominant ethnic group that speaks a distinctive language and maintains a sense of common identity. Most ethnolinguanymic countries can make credible claims to nation-state status, founded on ethno-national solidarity. To be sure, such solidarity is routinely compromised by resistant minority groups, contested ethnic boundaries, and so on. But the case of Afghanistan is extreme. The identification between the Afghan people and the country of Afghanistan—“land of the Afghans”—is both tenuous and troubled.

Before delving into the Afghan situation in the next GeoCurrents posts, it seems worthwhile to spend some time on the admittedly idiosyncratic idea of the “ethnolinguanymic state.” Here is my working definition: an ethnolinguanymic state is an independent country whose official name (in English) incorporates the name of its dominant official language, spoken as mother tongue by more than half of its population. Some countries fit the definition quite well; in others the situation is more complicated, as the map indicates.  The patterns that appear here are perhaps best explained on a region-by-region basis.

As can be seen on the map, most European countries are unambiguously ethnolinguanymic. This is to be expected, considering the long European history of nationalism, nation-building, and ethnic cleansing. Yet not all countries in the region qualify. Switzerland and Belgium are multi-ethnic states without languages of their own.* Austria and Kosovo are more ethnically unified, yet they also lack their own languages (although many Americans, including the current president, often become confused on this score). Ireland and the UK are also out. Irish may be the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, but few speak it. English is the language of Britain, yet England has not been sovereign since it united with Scotland in 1707. A few other European states are of insecure ethnolinguanymic status. Fewer than seventy percent of the people of Estonia, for example, are Estonian-speaking ethnic Estonians; the same holds for Latvia. Almost all citizens of Luxembourg do speak Luxembourgish, which is also an official language of the country, but by linguistic criteria it is generally classified as a dialect rather than a language. The same is true of Moldovan, a dialect of Romanian. Serbian, Croatian, and Montenegrin were considered to form one language before the break-up of Yugoslavia, and they are still linked by a dialect continuum. Bosnia is in the same group, yet Bosnia is unmarked on the map, as fewer than half of its people speak “Bosnian.” By the same token, Macedonian can be taken to be a western Bulgarian dialect—and only about sixty-five percent of the people of Macedonia are Macedonian-speaking ethnic Macedonians.

The Western Hemisphere, by contrast, is virtually without ethnolinguanymic states, reflecting its deep heritage of European colonialism and the imposition of European languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French and English). The only exception is Haiti, where Haitian Creole, along with French, is an official language. The list would expand, of course, if other “creole-speaking” Caribbean countries were to elevate their own local patois to official status.

Like the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa also has few ethnolinguanymic countries, again reflecting the history of European colonialism and boundary-making. Several indigenous African polities based on particular ethnic groups, however, did endure the colonial period to reemerge as sovereign states. Almost eighty percent of the people of Botswana, for example, speak Tswana (or Setswana), which has official status in the country along with English. By the same token, Swaziland is closely identified with the Swazi (or Swati or siSwati) language, just as Lesotho is indentified with Sotho (or Sesotho). The situation is a bit more complicated in Rwanda and Burundi, where two ethnic groups, Tutsi and Hutu, have historically shared a dialect continuum; the dialect deemed national in Rwanda is Kinyarwanada (or Rwandan) while that in Burundi is Kirundi (or Rundi). The situation is similarly complex in Madacascar, where one language (Malagasy) prevails, yet numerous ethnic groups, with distinctive dialects, divide the land. Somalia, on the other hand, is ethnolinguistically united around the Somali language, yet is a sovereign state only in theoretical terms.

A number of ambiguous situations are also encountered in Asia. Cambodia is an ethnolinguanymic country to the extent that Khmer is interchangeable with “Cambodian,” as it is generally taken to be. A similar situation obtains in Bhutan (Dzongkha =Bhutanese) and the Maldives (Dhivehi=Maldivian). It is more of a stretch, however, to regard Hebrew as synonymous with “Israeli,” and as a result I remain uncertain as to how Israel should be classified. China is also a difficult case; “Chinese” is actually a family of related spoken languages (deemed dialects) that share a written but not an oral basis. “Standard Chinese” (Mandarin, or Putonghua), to be sure, is a single language, albeit one spoken by less than seventy percent of the people of China as their mother tongue. Other Asian countries are coded to show the presence of large minority groups speaking non-national languages. Only about half the people of Nepal speak Nepali as their mother tongue, just as only about half the people of Malaysia claim Malay (Malaysian) as their first language. For Burma and Kazakhstan, the comparable figures are closer to two-thirds. The Philippines and Indonesia are excluded because fewer than half of their people speak Filipino and Indonesian, respectively, as their mother tongues. Iran is trickier, as it is an ethnolinguanymic country only to the extent that Persia is considered synonymous with Iran, and Farsi is reckoned synonymous with Persian. And even so, only about half the people of Iran speak Farsi/Persian as their first language.

But it is Afghanistan where the situation is most difficult to parse out, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

*Although one could argue that Swiss German and Flemish do qualify.

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Conflict in the Comoros

Map of the Comoros Including MayotteAlthough Mayotte is a troubled island, its difficulties are minor compared to those of the other islands in the Comoro Archipelago, which collectively form an independent state. By some accounts, the Comoros is the most coup-wracked country in the world, having suffered twenty military assaults on its government since independence in 1975. Its instability is almost matched by its poverty; as listed by the IMF, the Comoros ranks 166th out of 183 countries in per capita GDP (in PPP). Food insecurity is widespread, and according to a recent report, the Comoros has experienced an increase in hunger since 1990. Private enterprise is weak and discouraged; according the World Bank’s most recent “ease of doing business report,” the Comoros is one of a handful of countries that would tax a hypothetical small ceramics firm at a rate “exceeding 100% of its profit.” It is thus hardly surprising that many residents of this densely populated state have fled to French-controlled Mayotte in recent years.

As mentioned in the previous post, the Comorian island of Mayotte voted to remain under French sovereignty in a 1974 plebiscite. Supposedly, in the same election the residents of the other islands in the archipelago—Anjouan (Ndzuwani), Grande Comore (Ngazidja), and Mohéli (Mwali)—voted by more than 99.9 percent for independence. Many evidently came to regret that decision. In 1997, both Anjouan, and Mohéli first declared their independence and then sought the reinstitution of French rule. France declined the offer, and federal Comorian troops brought the recalcitrant islands back under central control. Resistance to centralization persisted, however, leading to mediation by the African Union. As a result, in 1999 each island was granted substantial autonomy, and the country itself was rechristened the Union of the Comoros.

Wikipedia Map of the Invasion of Anjouan in the ComorosDespite decentralization, inter-island tensions and general political instability persisted. Problems came to a head in 2007 and 2008 on the island of Anjouan. Anjouan’s president, Colonel Mohammad Bacar, refused to step down after federal authorities accused him of rigging the most recent election, which he had ostensible won with over ninety percent of the vote. The central government appealed to the African Union, which responded with a 2000-troop invasion force. Soldiers from Sudan, Tanzania, and Senegal—with logistical backing from France and Libya (!)—soon restored the island to federal authority. Bacar fled to French-controlled Mayotte, prompting a sizable anti-French demonstration in the capital city, Moroni. Eventually he found sanctuary in Benin.

Tension between the Comoros and France has not kept the island country from joining French-led international associations, such as the International Organization of the Francophonie and the Indian Ocean Commission. But then again, the Comoros has joined a wide array of international groups, including the Arab League. Membership in the Arab League is somewhat unusual, as the Comoros is not an Arabic-speaking country.* Evidently, its leaders are hoping to address that situation, at least as far as the government itself is concerned. On October 4, 2011, a press release from Kuwait noted that the “Foundation of Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain’s Prize for Poetic Creativity announced on Tuesday that Prime Minister of the Republic of Comoros issued a decree stipulating that all his ministers would be attending the Arab language courses held by the Foundation.”

The indigenous inhabitants of the various islands of the Comoro Archipelago are culturally similar. Uninhabited before the sixth century CE, the islands were settled, like Madagascar, by peoples from both Indonesia and East Africa. The Comoro islands, unlike Madagascar, were subsequently tightly entwined in East African and Arabian trade networks, eventually forming an insular extension of the Swahili Coast. Arab merchants settled, and the common version of Swahili gained a particularly heavy Arabic influence. The resulting Comorian (or Shikomor) language is the common tongue of the archipelago, although each island has its own local dialect.

The religious demography of the Comoros not entirely clear. Wikipedia and the CIA Factbook state that 98 percent of the islanders are Sunni Muslims, with the rest following Roman Catholicism.** Other sources cite a Shia presence, varying from slightly less than one percent to as much as five percent of the population. Freedom House, moreover, claims that “Tensions have sometimes arisen between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” which would indicate a non-trivial Shia*** presence. Intriguingly, the former president of the Comoros (until May 2011), Ahmad Abdullah Sambi, was so fond of Iran that he was dubbed “The Ayatollah of Comoros.” Ostensibly a Sunni Muslim, Sambi was lauded in the Iranian media as a convert to Shia Islam and for proselytizing on its behalf (2008).  At the same time, the Comoros Sunni religious establishment angrily accused the entire government of “favouring the spread of Shiism.”

Regardless of Shia numbers, I have not found any evidence suggesting that religious practices differentiate one island in the Comoros from another. Linguistic differences are minor, and history is shared. Why then are relations among the islands so fraught? Global comparison suggests that insularity itself may play a role; the individual islands in small, politically bound archipelagos sometimes develop deep rivalries. A prime example would be the ABC islands of the former Dutch Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Their cultural differences may be minor, but their political relations have generally been tense.

* The other non-Arab members of the Arab League are Somalia and Djibouti.

** The Christian proselytizing Joshua Project pegs the Christian population of the Comoros at 0.01 percent. It also claims that among the Muslim community, “mosque attendance is very low. Mixed with their Islamic practices is a strong involvement in occultism and spirit possession.”

** Presumably most Shiites in the Comoros are Twelvers (Ithnā‘ashariyyah), followers of the largest branch of the faith, dominant in Iran and southern Iraq. Evidence gleaned from on-line matrimonial advertisements, however, suggests a Dawoodi Bohra (an offshoot of Ismaili Shiism) presence, linked to the Gujarati diaspora. The Bohras are noted for their high rates of educational and professional achievement, for women as well as men. I have not provided a link, however, as it seems rude to link to such personal sources of information.

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Arabs and Persians; Shiites and Sunnis: More Complicated Than You Might Think

Physical Map Showing Areas of Sunni Islam in IranUninformed voices in the United States commonly refer to Iran as an “Arab country”—a fundamental error committed even by outlets as respectable as Slate magazine. Few Americans grasp the lines of division between Arab and Persian (or Iranian) culture and society. Iranian-Americans emphasize the distinction; calling a person of Iranian heritage an Arab is likely to provoke a quick lecture on the subject. Websites with names as subtle as PersiansAreNotArabs.Com spread this message so insistently that it has become an object of humor within the community. Iranian-American comic Maz Jobrani’s “Persians vs. Arabs” video has reached 456,035 YouTube viewers. While Jobrani’s routine is gently satiric, the 1,407 comments that it has garnered range from harsh to vile, bandied back and forth between Arab and Persian partisans. Many focus on the name of the body of water that lies between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. As one obscenity-free but historically challenged comment frames the issue: “ARABS FINISHED THE persian EMPIRE IN LESS THEN 10 YEARS. AND SINCE THEN THEIR EMPIRE DOESNT EXIST ANYMORE. ARABS ARE STILL THERE AND THEY CONTROL AND USE THE GULF MORE. ARABIAN GULF FOREVER!!. “

As basic as it is, the distinction between Arabs and Iranians can be over-stated. As noted in a previous post, more than a million Iranians are Arabs. In both Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, moreover, so-called Persian Arabs—people of mixed background—maintain cultural traditions associated with both groups. Over long periods of time, hundreds of thousands of Persian Sunnis fled across the Gulf to avoid discrimination, a movement that was especially pronounced under the rule of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941-1979). In Bahrain, a few of these refugees and their descendants still “speak a dialect of Persian sometimes referred to as Khodmoni [or Khodmooni].” On the other side of the Gulf, some self-identified Iranian Arabs actually speak Farsi (or Persian) as their mother tongue, having lost the language of their ancestors. Most of the estimated 50,000 Arabs of Khorasan in northeastern Iran, for example, are Persian-speakers. Intriguingly, those Khorasani Arabs who maintain their original language speak an “extremely ancient Arabic dialect.”*

The common identification of Shia Islam with Iranians and Sunni Islam with Arabs likewise represents an oversimplification. Tens of millions of Arabs are Shiites, including the majority of Iraqis and Bahrainis. And while most Iranian Muslims are indeed Shiite, some ten percent follow Sunni Islam. Iranian Sunnis are mainly Baloch or Kurdish, but an unspecified number are Persian, concentrated in the southern province of Hormozgan and in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Like other Sunnis in Iran, they face discrimination. A year ago, Sunni Online, the “official website of the Sunni Community in Iran,” ran an article claiming that pressure and even violence against the community were increasing “day by day.” An intriguing recent discussion thread on the Sunni Forum website delivered a more mixed message. Here an Iranian commentator calling himself “Sunni Warrior” tells his fellow sectarians, “Sunnis have no problem [in Iran]. But if you are shia and then become sunni you will get hanged for turning kufir.” (Sunni Warrior also provides an insightful comment that hits a little too close to home: “And don’t trust those western maps, you know they divide us in sunni and shia areas! If a place has 52% sunni and 48% shia they make it a sunni area…”)

M. Izady's Map of Religion in Iran, Gulf 2000 ProjectLanguage Map of Persian/Arabic Gulf from MuturzikinAs mentioned in the previous GeoCurrents post, most Iranian Arabs are Shiites. Mike Izady’s remarkably detailed map of religion in Iran and vicinity, however, depicts the Arabic-speaking coastal strip of Bushehr Province as Sunni. Comprehensive linguistic maps indicate that this area’s inhabitants speak Gulf Arabic, rather than the Iraqi Arabic prevalent in Khuzestan province, which would help explain the religious differentiation of Iranian Arabs.

Astoundingly, Izady’s map of religion shows an area of “African Animism” in southeastern Iran. A community of African descent, the Ahl-i Hava, does indeed inhabit this area, which Iraj Bashiri linked in 1983 to the Portuguese importation of slaves from southeastern Africa in the 16th century. (Others have hypothesized different origins, including, bizarrely, descent from pre-Indo-European indigenes!) Bashiri portrays the faith of the Ahl-i Hava as a syncretic blend of Shia Islam and animism, the latter marked by the peculiar worship of winds blowing from particular directions. Until recently, another ethnic group practiced animism in the country as well: the Godars, “nomadic gypsies who migrated from India to Iran.” According to director Bahman Kiarostami’s 2004 film “Infidels” (Koffar), the Godars were forcibly converted to Shia Islam after the Islamic revolution of the 1970s; evidently they are still widely viewed as infidels by others.

*The phrase used in the German report on the subject is “außerordentlich altertümlichen arabischen Dialektes.” Khorasani Arabs may be few in number but they are of considerable historical importance, having been the main military force behind the replacement of the Umayyad Caliphate by the Abbasid Caliphate in 750 CE. Some scholars have argued that the subsequent Abbasid “Golden Age” was in large part the result of the fusing of Arab and Persian (as well as Greek) intellectual traditions. In later periods as well, many of the finest Persian scholars, including the astounding geographer and polymath al-Birunī (973-1048 CE), wrote mostly in Arabic rather than Persian.

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Oil and Arabic-Speakers in Iran’s Troubled Southwest

Map of Iran's Major Oil Fields and Its Arabic-speaking populationIf Saudi Arabia faces a restive Shia minority in its main oil-producing area (see GeoCurrents Oct. 14, 2011), Iran has a similar challenge. Its foremost oil-producing zone—the southwestern province of Khuzestan (Ahwaz in Arabic)—is the heart of Iran’s dissatisfied Arabic-speaking minority. Fear of unrest in Khuzestan looms large in Iranian security deliberations. Not only does the region suffer pervasive ethnic tension, but its physical geography makes it vulnerable to invasion. As the maps indicate, most of Khuzestan lies in the flat plains of the greater Tigris-Euphrates Valley, cut off from the Iranian heartland by the rugged Zagros Mountains.

The vulnerability of Khuzestan, along with its ample oil and disgruntled populace, enticed Saddam Hussein to invade the region in 1980, initiating the bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Hussein proclaimed himself the liberator of the Iranian Arabs, hoping they would rally to his cause. The invasion backfired. Not only did Khuzestan’s Persian population remain loyal to Iran, but so did most of its Arabs. As Shiites, most of Iran’s Arabic-speakers saw little to be gained from Saddam Hussein’s anti-Shia regime. The resulting war devastated the province, where many of its most ferocious battles were fought. As summarized by Wikipedia, “many of [Khuzestan’s] famous nakhlestans (palm groves) were annihilated, cities were destroyed, historical sites were demolished, and nearly half the province went under the boots of Saddam’s invading army. This created a mass exodus into other provinces …”

Iran Physical Geography and Khuzestan MapAlthough Khuzestan’s Arabs remained loyal to Iran in the 1980s, evidence indicates that few are currently pleased with Iranian rule. Major demonstrations and rioting broke out in 2005; all were firmly suppressed. Iranian Arabs complain of discrimination and lack of linguistic and cultural rights. The community is relatively poor overall, despite inhabiting the most economically productive part of the country. Drug addiction is widespread and Khuzestan is reputed to be one of the main gateways for the importation of heroin and other narcotics into Iran. A recent report claims the city of Ahwaz, the capital of Khuzestan, is the most polluted urban area in the world. Iran has responded by investing in the province, inaugurating “a number of giant petrochemical projects in Khuzestan” in early 2011. Official Iranian news outlets, however, continue to caution the country about the potential dangers of Arab separatism. On October 7, 2011, PressTV warned its viewers that “The Khalgh-e Arab group, who want Khuzestan province separated from Iran, [get their] doctrine from Iraq’s Baath Party. These groups have blown up several public places in Iran’s southern region, killing scores of people.”

Arab-Iranian activists, for their part, deny that Khalq-e Arab even exists, claiming that the Iranian state uses the phantom organization as an excuse to crush dissent. According to the Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network, the Iranian government has been busy “concocting conspiracy theories” linking unrest in the region with US and British effort to destabilize the country. The same source further claims that Iranian news agencies have also been pushing the line that “militant Wahhabi (Sunni fundamentalist) groups were being supported by Gulf states to foment separatist sentiment in the oil-rich region that forms the Ahwazi Arab homeland.” The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network itself maintains that the oppositional movement of Iranian Arabs is peaceful and above-board:

  Ethnic Ahwazi Arabs are demanding collective rights, including the redistribution of oil revenues, an end to forced displacement, equal labour  rights, environmental protection and cultural freedom. The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network supports non-violent direct action as well as the use of   international lobbying and awareness-raising to assert the collective rights of  this persecuted ethnic group.

            Other Arab-Iranian websites strike a less accommodating tone. The National Liberation Movement of Ahwaz, for example, supports the full independence of the province, and seems to advocate revolutionary practices. It is difficult for someone who does not read Arabic, however, to determine the group’s actual agenda, as the prose on its English-language website is delightfully mangled:

  However, in the name of Islam apparently, Islamic republic and its interior,  truthfully, and the way in practice on the ground will translate legacy Persian Khosrawi authoritarian racially hateful everything is not set in all walks of  life, starting of human rights through the rights of peoples bonded who under  the yoke occupation and colonialism Persian racial and ending the  destruction of those nationalities oppressed in the case of claiming their  legitimacy and the historical.

            Incorrect Map of Sunni/Shia Distribution in the Middle EastNot surprisingly, even the most basic demographic information on the Iranian Arabs is disputed. The Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network claims that around four million Arabs live in Khuzestan alone, whereas the Wikipedia pegs Iran’s entire Arabic-speaking population at something between 778,000 and 2,336,000. By most accounts, Khuzestan’s rural population is mostly Arab, whereas the urban population is mixed, with Persians predominating.  The religious disposition of the Ahwazi community is also unclear. Most sources claim that “most” Iranian Arabs are Shiites, which certainly makes sense. Some unspecified proportion of the community, however, follows Sunni Islam, which would greatly intensify its hostility toward the Iranian state. Surprisingly, the most widespread map of Islam on the internet portrays Khuzestan as mostly Sunni, which is almost certainly incorrect.

The situation in Khuzestan also figures in discussions of US–Iranian relations, especially in regard to the impending withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. A recent article in the left-leaning New American Media website, for example, speculates that Iran might be tempted to move military forces into southern Iraq to safeguard its own oil reserves; in the face of any such advance, the author continues, “Washington would have little alternative to an invasion of Khuzestan, ostensibly aimed at halting Iranian incursions…” This scenario seems highly unlikely, but the potential for serious, near-term conflict in the province does seem real.

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The Linguistic Geography of the Wikipedia

One of the highlights of the Association of American Geographers meeting last week in Seattle was the annual Geography Bowl. Student teams competed to answer all manner of geographical questions, including a few that were devilishly difficult. The most impressive answer may have come in the final round, when the two remaining teams were asked to list the five top languages, after English, used in Wikipedia articles. The Middle Atlantic team buzzed in almost immediately, and one of its members confidently and correctly recited, “German, French, Polish, Italian, and Spanish.”

Both the lack of Chinese and the presence of Polish seemed extraordinary, prompting me to query the team after the contest. The response referenced the well-known cultural pride of the Poles, as well as the fact that Polish has roughly 40 million speakers, a considerable number.

An article in the “meta-wiki” provides detailed information on the use of the 281 languages in which Wikipedia articles have been written. The table posted lists the top fourteen of these languages, with their respective number of articles (in rounded figures). As one can see, Chinese is represented here, coming in twelfth place, between Swedish and Catalan. Such a showing is hardly impressive, however, considering the fact that more than a billion people speak Mandarin Chinese, whereas only around 10 million speak Swedish and 11.5 million Catalan. But neither is the showing of the top Wikipedia language, English. To demonstrate relative Wiki language standings, I calculated the number of articles per 1,000 total* speakers for each of the top fourteen Wikipedia languages. Here English is far surpassed by a number of other languages. Considering the fact that most Swedish, Dutch, and Norwegian Wikipedia users are fully fluent in English, the quantity of articles appearing in their native languages is impressive indeed. (Admittedly, articles in languages other than English are often translated from an English original.)

Overall, European languages dominate the Wikipedia list. A number of major non-European languages rank relatively high (Vietnamese coming in 17th place, Korean 21st, Indonesian 22nd, and Arabic 25th), but they are still surpassed by European languages with far fewer speakers. Several important Asian languages, moreover, rank very low: Bengali, for example, with more than 230 million speakers, is outranked by Luxembourgish, Welsh, and Icelandic, none of which even approaches one million speakers. Sub-Saharan African languages are least represented. Swahili ranks a respectable 75th, with more than 21,000 articles, but Hausa, a major language spoken by 43 million people, ranks 245th, with only 263 articles. By this metric, Hausa is bested by such obscure tongues as Norfolk and Nauruan, and even by long-deceased Gothic.

Another notable feature of the list is the relatively large number of articles written in non-national European languages, many of which are often regarded as mere dialects. In Spain alone, Asturian is used for more than 14,000 articles, Aragonese for more than 25,000, and Galician for more than 70,000. Local linguistic pride along with regionalism and sub-state nationalism are no doubt responsible for such elevated numbers. Such processes are largely but not entirely limited to Europe. In the Philippines, the obscure tongue of Waray-Waray (3.5 million speakers) has an amazingly large Wikipedia presence, its 102,000 articles far over-shadowing the 51,000 written in the national language Tagalog (Filipino).

A final oddity is the relatively high rankings of artificial languages. Almost as many Wikipedia articles are written in Esperanto as Arabic, and the constructed language of Volapük bests Hebrew, Hindi, Thai, and Greek. Ido, with an estimated 100-1200 speakers, boasts more than 21,000 articles, while Interlingua has more than 5,000, Novial more than 2,500, Interlingue (“Occidental”) almost 2,000, and Logban over 1,000. So-called dead languages are also reasonably well represented, with Latin being used for more than 52,000 articles, Old English (Anglo-Saxon) for 2,600, and Pali for 2,300. Artificial languages from fictional societies, however, do not make the list, even though such tongues as Navi and Klingon have plenty of aficionados. The explanation comes in a footnote: “The Klingon language edition of the Wikipedia is no longer hosted by Wikimedia and is now hosted by Wikia as Klingon Wiki.”

* As opposed to native speakers.

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