A corner of Africa in IRAN.

Author:Ghaedi, Monir
Position:Diaspora
 
FREE EXCERPT

In the southern port city of Bandar-e-Bushehr is a thriving community of Afro-Iranians, many of whom arrived as slaves in the 18th or 19th century. Although they are now an integral part of Iranian society, they have maintained many--of their African cultural traits, particularly in music and dance. Monir Ghaedi paints a fascinating picture of the lives of these long-lost children of Africa. Pictures by Giacomo Sini.

Although it is winter in Iran, the weather in Bandar-e-Bushehr is warm enough for Ali, 53, to sit on his porch and enjoy the breeze. Bandare-Bushehr is the capital of Bushehr province in the south of Iran with a long coastline onto the Persian Gulf.

Ali and his family do not look like typical Iranians--they are darker complexioned, with a faint but unmistakable African cast to their features.

Bushehr, like many other ports of the Persian Gulf, saw rapid expansion and re-development in the second half of the 20th century thanks to its abundant natural resources. Yet beneath the city's modern visage of middle-class suburbs, upscale shopping malls and unfinished skyscrapers are deep-rooted paradoxes.

Ali lives in Behbahani, a neighbourhood which rests on the fault line between the city's past and present. Today it is a tranquil, multi-ethnic community, yet it lies in the shadow of a mostly forgotten, or perhaps ignored, chapter of Gulf history: "Most of the locals, especially the young, would be surprised to hear that their neighbours, relatives, or they themselves are the descendants of slaves that were brought to the region in the 19th century," says Ali.

Although he does not live far from the coastline, a tall building, belonging to Iran's Ports & Maritime Organisation, has blocked Ali's view of the sea. Yet to peer through his rear window is to see ageing, paint-flecked houses, clustered around a serpentine array of narrow alleyways.

He is vague on his own family history but what he can recall anecdotally makes for a rather grisly tale: "My great-grandfather was a well-known merchant. He would often go to Zanzibar to bring slaves. His crew would ambush children. Well, they couldn't afford to capture adults ... eventually, locals identified them and one day, they chopped their bodies into pieces."

Iran's Slavery Abolition Act of 1926 has never been regarded as an important episode in the country's past. In his 1902 work, Ten Thousand Miles in Persia, the British writer Sir Percy Sykes reported that although there was slavery at...

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