Demography: Cultural and Ethnic Minorities

Iranian Ethnic and Cultural Diversity

By Gabriele Ross for Middle East Studies Center at Portland State University

Depending on who you believe there are between 15,000,000 and 25,000,000 Kurds consisting of very diverse communities, which makes generalizations difficult. The simplest communality is probably that Kurds are on of few large ethnic communities who still live in their customary area of residence and beyond but never has a nation state. Since World War I the area where Kurds have traditionally lived (which contracted and expanded at different times throughout history) has been divided among five sovereign states. The largest Kurdish sector is in Turkey (43%), followed by Iran (31%), Iraq (18%), Syria (6%), and the former Soviet Union (2%). Only in western Iran has a variation of the historical name been preserved in the province of Korestan, with its capital Sanadaj. As a result of forceful deportations from the 16th to the 18th century, that are Kurdish enclaves outside what is generally to be considered Kurdistan: in Central Anatolia in Turkey and in Khurasan in eastern Iran. (1) Kurdish is part of the Iranic sector of Indo-European languages. There are two main branches: a) Kurmanji divided into Bahdinani and Sorani and b) Pahlawani divided into Dimili and Gurani. Out of these branches numerous dialects of Kurdish have grown. Differences between two Kurdish dialects may be similar to the differences of for example Italian and French, meaning that only about half can be understood by someone who only speaks one and not the other. Kurdsin Turkey write in the Roman alphabet as opposed to the Arabic alphabet used in Iran and Iraq. The lack of a common national language is one of the issues that make a united Kurdistan difficult. Writing in Kurdish has been forbidden in Syria and Turkey and until the revolution in Iran. In Turkey even speaking Kurdish was illegal until 1990 and Kurds are not acknowledged as such but generally reffered to as Mountainturks. Kurdish women are reported to perform hard physical labor and often are subjected to fewer restrictions than their non-Kurdish neighbors. They do not always veil, and to this day Kurdish women actively participate in military operations of the Peshmerga. There arelegends about ancient female Kurdish fighters. Ther have been female Kurdish rulers, and the first female Rabbi in the 17th century was Asenath Barzani, a Kurdish women.
Kurdish Art, Literature and Music
Kurds engage in a variety of traditional art forms, the best known and priced of which is probably carpet weaving. Kurds knot high pile rugs but are better known for flat, woven and usually colorful kilims. Kurdish rugs can easily be identified by their motives, which include abstractions of crabs, turtles, fish, lotus, deer, roses, pinecone, and diamond, square and cross shapes. The production of silk and hand-made cloth has for the part disappeared but exquisite embroidery is still common. Pottery is another ancient Kurdish craft.
Kurdish painters are known for both; traditional miniature and modern styles. Sculptors are common as part of Kurdish myth in the person of "Farhad" from an ancient legend. Kurds have engaged in various forms of village theater since ancient times. These include plays (in which the Iranian passion plays are largely absent), pantomime, puppet shows, and shadow theater such as the famous karagoz in Central Anatolia. Out of this tradition came an active community of film makers. The best known of the latter is probably the Anatolian Yilmaz Gunay, who produced "Yol" while in prison. Kurds have rich tradition of mostly oral literature extending back into pre-Islamic times. Much of it has been lost or fragmented due to migration. Bab Tahir (1000-1054) is one example for an ancient poet who wrote in the rubaiyat style. The epic drama Mem o Zin by Ahmad Khani is a model for mythical literary tradition, which serves to pass on Kurdish legends and history throughout generations. The poet Hajar and Hemon (Clarity and Darkness 1974) were active during the Mahabad Republic.
Kurdish music is s rich and diversified as Kurdistan's varying terrain, and draws on the ancient history and long cultural traditions of the region. Its musical style is derived from symbolic poetry and the content of Kurdish songs is influenced by the ideas of Man's constant struggle with nature as well as the importance of tradition. The many tragic love stories expressed in the songs are inspired by the endless difficulties of life. (3) Symbolically, Kurdish music has the endless continuity of a stormy ocean; the hurricane of life's misery smashing gigantic waves upon the rocky shore. Happiness, grief, work, struggle, friendship, separation, war, peace, health, sickness, belief, and tradition all find expression in the music. (3) In "Beitkhani" and "lajeh" we find sings about epic wars and romantic love as well as stories of religious and national heroes. According to Greek historians, these probably date from the time of the invasion of Alexander.
While the content of Kurdish music and songs is very varied, the words are usually set to one of five different rhythmic patterns. "Beitkhani" is freely written according to the model of Zoroastrain Chata Chant. The other four styles are simply three verses with lines of eight syllables, or two verses with lines of seven, ten or twelve syllables. (3)
Kurdish folk songs are stories told in the company of music and this is a story even when no words are uttered. The lyrics usually have four distinct themes: heroic, amorous, religious, and now also political. Well known Iranian Kurdish musicians and singers such as Shahram Nazeri and the Kamkars family also perform a Persian repertoire, Kayhan Kalhor himself a Kurd is currently gaining worldwide recognition in his joined endeavors with Indian musicians. Like classical Iranian music, Kurdish music is often improvised but still follows strict standards of modes and melodies (dessga in Kurdish, dastgah in Farsi). The lyrics also lend themselves to classifications: gorani are often long love songs, kalhuri have themes around travelers, hunters, and workers, bayts are single rhyming lines, dilok is poetry sung to dance music, hayran is the songs of sorrow, Qatar is formal, and barite is chorus singing.(1)
Kurdish dance falls in the tradition of handholding group dance, called govand in Kurdish. In the slow and graceful style the dancers pull close together, press their shoulders against each other and perform elaborate and complicated steps. Often one of the dancers is a virtuoso, leading while holding a handkerchief. Because of the prevalent cultural oppression (Nou Ruz, the most important Kurdish holiday, has been outlawed in Turkey and Germany) dances have become more and more social and political statement. The continuity and intense beauty of Kurdish artistic expression are a testimony to the resiliency of the scattered Kurdish community. They probably also are way of coping with hardship and a survival tool. As Mansoor Ahmed said at one of his exhibitions in Germany: In association with colors I find my distant home.(1)
Kurds in Iran
As elsewhere Iranian Kurds traditionally were mountain people used to be mostly engaged in agriculture and nomadic pastoralism. Iranian Kurds for the most part live in the Northwest of the country in the provinces of Kurdistan, Western Azerbaijan and Kermanshah. The disintegration of tribal structure began at the turn of the century with growing capitalism and industrialization, land reform and resulting urbanization. As in Turkey and else where, some Iranian Kurds were forcefully moved as different times for example to North Eastern province of Khurasan. What differentiates Iranian Kurds from others is that they live in a country with many other minority groups, Persians make only about 55% of Iranian population. At the same time Kurds are considered to be of Iranian origin, therefore fitting newly created entities. While the state religion of Iran is Shia, 75% of Iranian Kurds are Sunni, the rest are Shia, Jewish or Christian. There also is a large Sufi sector in Iranian Kurdish society. (2)
(1) Mehrdad R. Izady, The Kurds: A Concise Handbook, Taylor & Francis, 1992
(2) A.R. Ghassemlou, Kurdistan in Iran in Gerard Chaliad, A People Without a Country, Zed Books 1980
(3) Hooshang Kamkar, "A few words on Kurdish Music".

Nomads: Where Boundaries Move
© 2006 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.

In places as diverse as Mongolia, Tibet, and Iran, people who live where the environment does not allow for sufficient agricultural production may be nomadic-moving throughout the year-and rely on animal herds for their food, clothing, housing, and trade. They move their homes and herds from time to time to follow sources of food for their herds rather than depend on crops. For these people, the boundaries of home change regularly. They do not wander aimlessly, however, but generally follow a route that allows them to maintain their herds from season to season. This exercise explores the way humans have adapted to regions that do not sustain communities through agriculture and the influence this has on how they live and view the boundaries of their home.
This lesson is one in a series developed in collaboration with The Asia Society, with support from the Freeman Foundation, highlighting the geography and culture of Asia and its people.
Connections to the Curriculum: Geography, social studies
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 1: "How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process and report information"
Standard 4: "The physical and human characteristics of places"
Standard 12: "The process, patterns, and functions of human settlement"
Standard 15: "How physical systems affect human systems"
Time: One to two hours
Materials Required:

  • Computer with Internet access
  • "Nomadic Pastoralism" focus sheet (PDF, Adobe Reader required)
  • Paper/writing implement for journals
  • Markers, colored pencils, or crayons for illustrating journals

Objectives: Students will

  • define the terms pastoralism and nomadic;
  • explain what environmental factors lead people to maintain a pastoralist lifestyle;
  • identify how pastoralists rely on herds to be self-sufficient;
  • examine the physical features of Mongolia, Tibet, and Iran; and
  • use standard writing conventions in describing the life of a pastoralist.

Geographic Skills:
Acquiring Geographic Information
Organizing Geographic Information
Answering Geographic Questions
Analyzing Geographic Information
Suggested Procedure
Introduce or review with students the notion that most contemporary communities are relatively stable regions with identifiable boundaries. A city, for example, has boundaries that may be visible on a map or easily seen as walls or gates. Individuals in a community may have a personal space that includes a home and yard, fields, or living space within a particular building. The members of the community may remain in this area over long periods of time because food supplies are stable through local agriculture or means of trade. Ask students what might happen if they lived in a region that couldn't produce or access food. What alternative ways of life might evolve?
Ask students to generate a list of conditions that might make sedentary, or settled, agriculture difficult. Answers should include the following:

  • lack of sufficient rainfall or water for irrigation
  • lack of arable soil
  • regions with very short growing seasons
  • areas of extreme environmental/weather conditions
  • areas of extreme elevation

Introduce the idea of nomadic pastoralism as it has existed, and continues to exist, in Central Asia. The development of nomadic pastoralism was a true advance in the evolution of human civilization. About 9,000 years ago, the domestication of sheep and goats in this specialized form of agriculture was first found in Central Asia. Herds of animals were moved to rangeland areas where consistent water supplies and extreme weather conditions made growing crops difficult. People became experts in raising their livestock and moved frequently based on the weather and the availability of food and water. While mobility is an important part of nomadic life, the movements are usually planned based on rotating livestock through different seasons. Since it is difficult to move many possessions with such frequency, the number and health of the animals became the measure of wealth for the family or community.
Highlight the need for reliance on herds rather than crops, which forces groups to move their homes regularly. Have students examine the following maps, which may provide clues to areas that would face this challenge. As students explore the maps, have them list possible areas that would lend themselves to nomadic life. (If your students have not yet used the National Geographic MapMachine, you may first need to familiarize them with its functionality and features.)
National Geographic: MapMachine-Asian Precipitation in July Map
National Geographic: MapMachine-Asian Altitude Map
National Geographic: MapMachine-Asian Temperature Map
Using the National Geographic MapMachine, have students view the terrain in Iran, Mongolia, and Tibet. Give each student a copy of the "Nomadic Pastoralism" focus sheet (PDF, Adobe Reader required). Tell students to zoom in on images of communities of pastoralists to answer the questions on the focus sheet. Then have students record the ways that these people can live in harsh environmental conditions by depending on herds rather than crops. Finally, as a class, review the focus sheets.
Suggested Student Assessment:
Ask students to write at least four journal entries from the point-of-view of a nomadic pastoralist in one of these identified regions. Tell the students to include at least one entry for each season and to create illustrations to visually highlight the ways in which the pastoralist adapts to the environment. Have students print out or make a map of the region they wrote about in the journal.
Extending the Lesson:

  • Have students investigate the changes that are taking place in traditionally pastoralist regions by answering the following questions through online research:

o What role does the government play in the change of lifestyle of a nomadic pastoralist?
o How does the notion of boundaries and ownership influence the government's policies toward nomadic pastoralists?
o Where do these people live?
o What jobs do they take?
• Have students watch the National Geographic film The Story of the Weeping Camel. This film explores the life of a nomadic pastoralist family in Mongolia and their daily lives. (Note that the film is rated PG and should be previewed by the teacher prior to showing in the classroom. You may wish to show only portions of the film as it contains some mature content [characters smoking, a camel giving birth, a child being bathed, etc.].) After viewing the film, allow students to discuss examples of how the family members are nomadic pastoralists and modern influences on the family that might threaten the existence of their way of life.

The Quashquais of Iran
Library of Congress Call Number DS254.5 .I742 1989

The Qashqais are the second largest Turkic group in Iran. The Qashqais are a confederation of several Turkic-speaking tribes in Fars Province numbering about 250,000 people. They are pastoral nomads who move with their herds of sheep and goats between summer pastures in the higher elevations of the Zagros south of Shiraz and winter pastures at low elevations north of Shiraz. Their migration routes are considered to be among the longest and most difficult of all of Iran's pastoral tribes. The majority of Qashqais are Shias.

The Qashqai confederation emerged in the eighteenth century when Shiraz was the capital of the Zand dynasty. During the nineteenth century, the Qashqai confederation became one of the best organized and most powerful tribal confederations in Iran, including among its clients hundreds of villages and some non-Turkic-speaking tribes. Under the Qashqais' most notable leader, Khan Solat ad Doleh, their strength was great enough to defeat the British-led South Persia Rifles in 1918. Reza Shah's campaigns against them in the early 1930s were successful because the narrow pass on the route from their summer to winter pastures was blocked, and the tribe was starved into submission. Solat and his son were imprisoned in Tehran, where Solat was subsequently murdered. Many Qashqais were then settled on land in their summer pastures, which averages 2,500 meters above sea level.

The Qashqais, like the Bakhtiaris and other forcibly settled tribes, returned to nomadic life upon Reza Shah's exile in 1941. Army and government officials were driven out of the area, but the Qashqais, reduced in numbers and disorganized after their settlement, were unable to regain their previous strength and independence. In the post-World War II period, the Qashqai khans supported the National Front of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. Following the 1953 royalist coup d'état against Mossadeq, the Qashqai khans were exiled, and army officers were appointed to supervise tribal affairs. The Qashqais revolted again in the period 1962 to 1964, when the government attempted to take away their pastures under the land reform program. A full-fledged military campaign was launched against them, and the area was eventually pacified. Since the mid-1960s, many Qashqais have settled in villages and towns. According to some estimates, as many as 100,000 Qashqais may have been settled by 1986. This change from pastoral nomadism to settled agriculture and urban occupations proved to be an important factor hindering the Qashqai tribes from organizing effectively against the central government after the Revolution in 1979 when exiled tribal leaders returned to Iran hoping to rebuild the confederation.

By the 1980s, the terms Qashqai and Turk tended to be used interchangeably in Fars, especially by non-Turkic speakers. Many Turkic groups, however, such as the urban Abivardis of Shiraz and their related village kin in nearby rural areas and the Baharlu, the Inalu, and other tribes, were never part of the Qashqai confederation. The Baharlu and Inalu tribes actually were part of the Khamseh confederacy created to counterbalance the Qashqais. Nevertheless, both Qashqai and non-Qashqai Turks in Fars recognize a common ethnic identity in relation to non- Turks. All of these Turks speak mutually intelligible dialects that are closely related to Azarbaijani. The total Turkic-speaking population of Fars was estimated to be about 500,000 in 1986.

Afshin Molavi: 4/15/03, a EurasiaNet Commentary
Iranian Azeris, who comprise at least one-quarter of Iran’s population and possibly more, are attracting increased interest from US policy-makers, especially those who are interested in promoting "regime change" in Tehran. Some American analysts view Iranian Azeris as a potential source of instability for Tehran.
At present, there is little tangible evidence to support the notion that Iranian Azeris are prepared to confront the government in Tehran. Iranian Azeris are widely known to be well-integrated into Iranian society and the state. Nevertheless, a new book by Brenda Shaffer, Harvard University’s Director of Caspian Studies, has reportedly captivated the attention of "regime change" advocates in Washington. In her book, "Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity," Shaffer challenges the widely held view in contemporary Iranian scholarship that a broad Iranian identity supersedes ethnic identities.
Shaffer describes a cultural reawakening among Iranian Azeris, calls Iran’s national and ethnic-minority policy unjust and suggests that Iranian support for Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute stems from a fear of the Republic of Azerbaijan becoming strong and, as she said in a recent London lecture, emerging as "a source of attraction to [Iran’s] own Azerbaijanis."
Washington policy-makers have also expressed an interest in the views of Iranian Azeri cultural rights activist and political dissident Mahmudali Chehregani, a former Tabriz University Professor who was jailed briefly three years ago in Iran, and who currently resides in the United States.
On April 9, he told an audience of policy-makers, diplomats, journalists and students at the Johns Hopkins University Central Asia-Caucasus Institute that a strong sense of Azerbaijani nationalism is growing in Iran, predicting the possibility of Azeri-led unrest unless the demands of this "movement" were met. He predicted "radical changes" in Iran within three to five years, hinting that those changes could emanate from unrest among Iran’s large Azeri population.
Chehregani also complained that Iran’s central government bans the use of Azeri language in schools, changes Azeri geographical names, harasses and imprisons Azeri cultural activists and underreports the Azeri population, which he claims is 35 million (which would make it an ethnic majority).
The CIA World Factbook estimates Iranian Azeris as comprising nearly 16 million, or 24 percent of Iran’s population. The United Nations human rights report on Iran notes that "there may be as many as 30 million" ethnic Azeris in Iran.
Chehregani backers in Turkey and in the Republic of Azerbaijan have hinted and said publicly that Iran’s Azeri community should unite with Azerbaijan, a view with virtually no support among Iranian Azeris, most on-the-ground observers agree.
Chehregani publicly disassociated himself with the unification idea in his Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Speech, instead arguing for more cultural rights for Azeris, and a future Iranian government with "a federal structure resembling the United States, where Azeris can have their own flag and parliament."
Still, Iranian officials, as well as some in Iranian Azeri intellectual circles, have expressed alarm with Chehregani’s alliances with pan-Turkic backers of secession and/or unification. His web site includes a flag with similarities to the Republic of Azerbaijan’s flag. His frequent use of the term "South Azerbaijan" to denote Iranian Azeri territories implies unification and/or secession, and he heads a group known as the South Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement.
While Iranian Azeris may seek greater cultural rights, few Iranian Azeris display separatist tendencies, or go as far as Chehregani does in predicting ethnic-inspired unrest. Extensive reporting by this author in the three major Azerbaijani provinces of Iran, as well as among Iranian Azeris in Tehran, found that irredentist or unificationist sentiment was not widely held among Iranian Azeris. Few people framed their genuine political, social and economic frustration – feelings that are shared by the majority of Iranians – within an ethnic context.
According to Dr. Hassan Javadi – a Tabriz-born, Cambridge-educated scholar of Azerbaijani literature and professor of Persian, Azerbaijani and English literature at George Washington University – Iranian Azeris have more important matters on their mind than cultural rights. "Iran’s Azeri community, like the rest of the country, is engaged in the movement for reform and democracy," Javadi told the Central Asia Caucasus Institute crowd, adding that separatist groups represent "fringe thinking." He also told EurasiaNet: "I get no sense that these cultural issues outweigh national ones, nor do I have any sense that there is widespread talk of secession."
Iranian Azeris – much like Persians, Kurds, Baluchis or any other ethnic group – have expressed frustration with the current political gridlock, the country’s economic malaise and lack of political freedom. Indeed, Iranian Azeris have played a key role in Iranian nationalist freedom movements throughout the twentieth century. Today, the Azeri city of Tabriz is widely acknowledged as the host of the most active and progressive student democracy movement outside of Tehran, carrying on a long tradition of Tabriz-Tehran nationalist-democratic opposition dating back to Iran’s 1905-11 Constitutional Revolution.
Still, Chehregani, Shaffer and others raise important questions when they talk about Azeri cultural rights. Other cultural minorities – Kurds, Baluchis, ethnic Arabs, Turkmens – have often complained about what they characterize as Iran’s centralized "Persian chauvinism."
Many Kurdish Iranians, meanwhile, say that the Islamic Republic has continued "the Persian-centric policies" of Iran’s Pahlavi kings, adding another layer of "Shi’a chauvinism" that distresses the Sunni-oriented Kurds. In October 2001, all six Kurdish members of Iran’s Parliament resigned in protest at what they described in a letter to the interior minister as "denial of their legitimate rights" and the central government’s failure to address the "political, economic and cultural rights that they have brought out."
Some experts contend the perception of Shi’a chauvinism is perhaps overblown, suggesting instead that the government tends to favor Tehran at the expense of the provinces. Still, there is no doubt that the central government’s heavy hand on cultural issues has embittered many cultural rights activists. It is far less clear, however, whether this heavy hand might have implications for Iran’s instability that outweigh the more pressing points of potential instability: joblessness, a stagnant economy, a nascent national democracy movement, an extremely young population eager for political and social change, and the external pressures of the US military on Iran’s borders to the East and West.
The overwhelming majority of Iranian Azeris has displayed little interest in ethnic-inspired instability and virtually no interest in secession or unification with the Republic of Azerbaijan. Many view the Republic of Azerbaijan as economically stagnant and politically corrupt. As one Tabriz merchant joked: "We already virtually control Iran. Why would we want to become [Azerbaijani President Heidar] Aliyev’s slave?"
Editor’s Note: Afshin Molavi, a Washington-based journalist, is the author of Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran. He was born in Tabriz, Iran and regularly reports on Iran for a variety of Western publications.
Posted April 15, 2003 © Eurasianet:

Submitted by goudarz on Wed, 03/26/2008 - 3:00pm.