Tipp: Black Iran – An Unexpected Diaspora

Ethnic diversity can sometimes be found in place where one would not suspect it. Historically, ethnic diversity is very often a product of – sometimes voluntary, sometimes forced – migration. One example that has recently found some attention in the media is the black population living in South Iran.

Slavery in the area that is Iran today has been practiced for centuries. The existence of this institution was supported by the country’s location on the Persian gulf. Three major slave trades crossed Iranian territory: the Caucasian slave trade in the north, the Central Asian slave trade, also in the north, and the East African slave trade, which was brought up from the south through the Persian Gulf or land routes over from Arabia. After the Russo-Persian War (1826-1928) the trade in white slaves, most belonging to the ethnic groups of Georgians and Circassians, was abolished. However, since the other two slave trade routes remained open, the enslavement and forced migration of Central Asian and Black people (mostly of Ethiopian, Eritrean, or Nigerian origin) continued until the the late 1920s, when the country’s internal need for reform resulted in a ban on slave trade and the emancipation of all slave with immediate effect.1

Until today the topic is a taboo in Iranian society. Afro-Iranian scholar Behna Mirzai is quoted in this article in the Middle East Eye saying that before she embarked on her project, she – despite her degree in Iranian history from the Azad University in Teheran – was unaware of the history of black slavery in the area:

“I [didn’t] know whether we had slavery because this is not a common topic or something that people know or discuss. […] Slavery wasn’t integrated into the history of Iran… In terms of the knowledge of people, common people or even academics, [it] was very, very limited or at that time, [it] was zero,” she said. “There were no written articles or books; it was so new.”2

As of late, the Guardian, the Atlanta Black Star, and other news sites have published long articles on the African diaspora in Iran, featuring archival material such as pictures alongside recent surveys on language, customs, and people’s identification with African culture.3 On the 15 Minute History Blog of the University of Texas Beeta Baghoolizadeh (University of Pennsylvania) and Christopher Rose (University of Texas) discuss how this identity choice depends on the long battle for abolition in Iran and the minority’s interest in finally belonging to the Iranian state.

Now, you – as a reader of a blog with transregional focus – might wonder why we chose to feature this issue in an article. The transregional aspect of the history of black slavery in Iran is introduced by the researchers working in this field, their institutional association, and the funding of their projects . Much scholarship currently conducted on the African diaspora in Iran has been written by expats living in either, the United States, Canada, or France like Behnaz Mirzai (Brock University, Canada), or Pedram Khosronejad (Oklahoma State University/EHESS Paris) and funded by organizations, such as the UNESCO.4 The researchers are to a large proportion affiliated with the African-American Studies departments rather than with than area studies departments.

Moreover, it is notable that there is a strong support from the African-American community for research and promotion of visibility of the African diaspora in Asia. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library even has been hosting an online exhibition since 2011 on The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World including pictures, maps, scholarly essays and a comprehensive bibliography covering East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Persian Gulf, South Asia as well as outlying areas (China, Japan, and Indonesia). Yo can check out the wonderful exhibition, curated by Sylviane Diouf and Omar H. Ali, here, or alternatively the photo series on The Face of African Slavery in Iran, curated by, here.

If you are interested in learning more about his complex topic, recent publications on this topic include Omar H. Ali’s book Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery Across the Indian Ocean and Mirzai, Behnaz A. Slavery, the abolition of the slave trade, and the emancipation of slaves in Iran (1828-1928), who was also involved in the production of the new documentary on the topic (trailer above).

  1. Iran saw two major periods of slavery: the Qajar dynasty (1795-1925) and the early years of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979). []
  2. Jillian D’Amours: ‘We are Iranians’: Rediscovering the history of African slavery in Iran, in: Middle East Eye, 05/09/2016. Web: http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/they-are-iranian-discovering-african-history-and-slavery-iran-970665328. Retrieved on July 19, 2016. []
  3. The result of one study by Behnaz Mirzai was that the majority of African descendants living in Iran today are very well integrated and feel as Iranians. They do not want to be seen as a special group. []
  4. Some of the most groundbreaking research on the topic is owed to an innitiative to uncover and retrace Slave Routes, which the UNESCO launched in 1994 to better understand the causes and impact of global slavery. []

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