Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

William Beeman Lectures on Iranian-Arabian Biculturalism

William Beeman Lectures on Iranian-Arabian Biculturalism

William O. Beeman, Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the ‎University ‎of ‎Minnesota and President of the Middle East Section of the ‎American ‎Anthropological ‎Association, delivered a CIRS Monthly Dialogue on “The ‎Khalijis: ‎Iranian-Arabian ‎Biculturalism in the Gulf Region”‎ on October 22, 2012. As an ‎introduction‎, ‎Beeman ‎‏gave the audience some background to what he described as “one of the ‎longest running toponymic ‎battles.” There has been disagreement in the recent historical period ‎over whether the body of water between ‎Iran and the Arabian Peninsula should be ‎called ‎‏‎“the ‎‏Arabian Gulf‎” ‎or the ‎‏‎“‎Persian Gulf‎.”‎ ‎

In order to resolve this historical contention, Beeman said that he uses the term ‎‎“‎Khalij” to ‎describe the body of water, and “Khaliji” to describe the residents of the region. These are terms ‎commonly used in the discourse of the region and are ‎understood in Arabic, in Persian, and in ‎some South Asian languages as well. “I want to call into question the nature of the identity of the ‎people who live in this region, and ‎rather than identifying them either as Persian or Arab, or ‎calling this body of water the Persian ‎Gulf or the Arabian Gulf, I want to make a case for these ‎individuals as residents of this region, ‎whether they are on the Iranian side or on the Arab side ‎independent of an exclusive Arab or ‎Persian identity,” he said.‎

Such communities are formed as a result of historical factors, including migration, trade, ‎shifting ‎colonial boundaries, or as the results of intermarriage or cultural borrowings that occur as ‎a matter of course ‎when populations come into contact. “The Khalij is a rich mélange of cultural ‎differences made up ‎of Arabic, Persian, South Asian, East African, Portuguese, French, and ‎English,” among others, Beeman noted. ‎

Linguistically, the people who live in this region have been comfortable communicating in a ‎number of languages, and even forming new ones that are a mix of Arabic, Persian, and Indian ‎languages. A similar example is Swahili – meaning “coastal” in Arabic – and the mutual influence ‎of Arabic ‎and East African languages on each other as a result of contact and ‎trade across the ‎Gulf of Aden. ‎‎“Many people living on either side of the Khalij are fully ‎bilingual, and frequently ‎tri- and quad-lingual,” Beeman said. ‎

The “geographical impenetrability” that separates the Khalij from the inland regions meant ‎that ‎people on both sides of the water had a closer cultural identity than what they shared with ‎their ‎own inland Arab or Persian communities in terms of cuisine, dress patterns, marriage ‎patterns, religious rituals, and ‎discourse structures.‎‎‏ ‏Often, because of the strong marriage and ‎trade ties, families would be ‎dispersed on both sides of the Khalij and, to this day, have strong ‎cross cultural and cross border ties. Before modern air travel, ‎the ease of maritime travel across ‎the Gulf and the difficulty of inland travel across deserts and ‎mountains meant that “people ‎living on the coast of the Khalij found that it was much easier to ‎communicate with each other ‎than it was to communicate with people who lived inland,” Beeman said. Boats ‎could carry much ‎heavier loads much more easily than any form of overland transport, ‎and so the Khalij was an ‎area that thrived both culturally and economically. ‎

In conclusion, Beeman said that, as a result of state and historical processes, there were several ‎events that had a profound effect on changing the unified nature of Khaliji culture, including ‎colonial territorial demarcations and competition. He argued that “the early impositions of state ‎structures in the region, which had been blissfully absent for ‎centuries, caused an overlay of state ‎identity, which has served to obscure the basic ‎commonalities between the members of the ‎population of this region.” Other events also contributed to the separation of the Khaliji ‎communities, including the consolidation of Iran under Reza Shah; the consolidation of Saudi ‎Arabia under Ibn Saud; the departure of the British from the Khalij that left a vacuum to be ‎filled by local ruling families who demarcated their territories accordingly; and, finally, the ‎Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 that changed the shape of the Iranian political and cultural ‎landscapes, and caused a break in the historical alliance between the cross-Gulf communities. ‎

Finally, the gradual encroachment of modern state structures into the region required a newly ‎‎“imagined” idea of identity that necessarily distinguishes one group or ‎nationality from another. ‎Beeman concluded that the shared culture of “Khaliji” identity belies this imagined separation ‎of ‎nationalities and promotes the idea of a diverse community that is ‎inherently multicultural. ‎‎“This,” he said, “is an ‘unimagined’ community; a community in fact, but not in name, ‎and not in ‎its social identification.” ‎

William O. Beeman was formerly Professor of Anthropology and Director of ‎Middle ‎East ‎Studies at Brown University. Best known as a Middle East specialist for more than ‎‎30 ‎years, he ‎has also worked in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Japan, China and South Asia. He ‎has ‎served as ‎consultant to the United States State Department, the Department of Defense, ‎the ‎United ‎Nations and the United States Congress. ‎ 

Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications