Turkmen Identity on the Wane in Iran

The younger generation of ethnic Turkmen is increasingly adopting Iranian ways, even discarding their own language in favour of Persian.

Turkmen Identity on the Wane in Iran

The younger generation of ethnic Turkmen is increasingly adopting Iranian ways, even discarding their own language in favour of Persian.

Azim Gorbanzadeh was shocked at what he found when he visited his home town of Gonbad-e-Kavus in northeast Iran, almost 12 years since he left.

Gorbanzadeh, a doctor who graduated in the United States, said he could hardly believe it was the same place because so much had changed in this largely ethnic Turkmen area.

All the signposts and shop names were now in Persian rather than Turkmen, and young women were dressed in the black robes and headscarves of Iran rather than their colourful traditional costume.

Even the language – closer to Turkish than Persian – was going, said Gorbanzadeh, who is Turkmen himself. Young people chatting in the street mixed in so many Persian words that their speech was barely recognisable as Turkmen at all.

Gorbanzadeh recalled, “I went to visit my uncle and was about to knock on the door when a young boy run toward me…. He shouted, ‘Dad - a man from Turkmenistan wants to talk to you’. He used pure Persian to address his father and it was a clear example of how they think only people from Turkmenistan can talk in the Turkmen language.

“This shocked me, but later I realised that this boy, my 14-year-old nephew Jamshid, was one of thousands in the new Turkmen generation who not only have an Iranian name but talk in Persian, which they view it as a symbol of modernity.”

Most of the Turkmen in Iran inhabit the northeastern region along the border with Turkmenistan. The few statistics available put their number at two or three million, although local experts say this is an underestimate. Formerly nomadic, most are now sedentary farmers.

The Turkmen - Sunni Muslims in a theocratic Shia state – feel disadvantaged for both ethnic and religious reasons.

According to Araz Perwish, a Turkmen historian based in Germany, few students can get into Iranian universities as admission is based on questions about Shia Islam. Private universities are less rigid but few Turkmen can afford the fees, so most people miss out on higher education.

Perwish puts the decline of Turkmen language down to the exclusive use of Persian in schools.

He warns, ‘It’s the beginning of the devastation of a nation, where in addition to this [Persian-language education], there is a law on wearing Iranian-style dress, it’s forbidden to give Turkmen names to babies, one has to speak Persian, and the dominant messages are about Iranian nationalism and religion.”

There is little in the way of Turkmen-language media, which is subject to censorship and closure. There is a short programme in Turkmen broadcast in the town of Gorgan, but nothing on television.

Two months ago, Sahra, one of the few newspapers in Turkmen, was closed after it quoted Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as rejecting an appeal for investment in the mainly Turkmen northeast.

“You didn’t support me in the election, so go and ask for help from those you voted for,” the title quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

Part of the reason why Tehran is suspicious of any attempt to promote Turkmen identity and culture is that Iran has many minorities – Kurds, Azerbaijanis and Arabs among others – with a history of separatism.

However, the regime in Turkmenistan has not promoted strong cultural ties with its ethnic kin in Iran, still less promoted secessionist ambitions among them. Instead, President Saparmurad Niazov has consistently sought to build a good working relationship, especially on economic matters, with the Iranian central government.

Muhammad Tahir is a journalist and broadcaster based in Prague.

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