Sunday, July 09, 2006


When the Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century and brought their religion with them there were, understandably, many who fought to resist the invaders. Perhaps the most successful of these fighters was Babak Khorramdin who campaigned against the caliphs in the area that is now called Azerbaijan. He harried the Arabs much like William Wallace did against the English, until he too was betrayed to the enemy and made to die a most unpleasant death by being cut up into little pieces. As such he has, of late, become a symbol for the Azeris of the fight against the suppression of their rights and their culture by the Persian majority (rather ironic given the fact that Babak himself was Persian and the Turkic people, to whom the Azeris class themselves, didn't arrive on the scene until a good 300 years after his death). The ruins of his castle, perched on a craggy, granite extrusion, surrounded by steep mountains is a site of pilgrimage for independence-minded Azeris and Iranians who don't particularly agree with living in a theocracy. The anniversary of Babak's birthday would see hordes of people descending on the beautiful valleys surrounding the castle for several days of festivities. For some reason the authorities were none too happy about this and for the past two years the site has been closed off by the military for a week either side of his birthday. We arrived there the day after the ban was lifted: all the hotels were empty and only a handful of people were making the trek up to the castle. Like despotic regimes everywhere in the world the government here is doing everything to maintain power and stifle dissent. Similarly, about a month ago, there were huge protests in Tabriz. Following the recent trend the spark that ignited them was a cartoon published in a national newspaper that mocked Azeris. The protests quickly grew to encompass dissatisfaction at the economic situation, the low status of the Azeri language (although it is spoken by everyone on the streets it is not taught in schools and there are no publications) and even calls for autonomy and independence. Most Iranians, however, were blissfully unaware that this was happening in their own country as there was a complete media blackout and the region was kept isolated during the riots.

While in northern Iran I did a little pilgrimage of my own to the river Araks (Aras in Farsi) that marks the border between Iran and the ex-Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. I have wanted to see the river for almost as long as I can remember as my mother chose it for my Farsi name (many members of my family don't even know that I'm called Erik). I must say that I approve of my mum's choice of river: although it is neither the biggest, nor most famous, river in the world, but what it lacks in scale it makes up with charm. Alternately gushing through steep mountain gorges or meandering along fertile flood plains, the Aras is also thought by some to be the Gihon, one of the four rivers of biblical Eden. Not bad for a little river.

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