As a counterpoint to my ongoing series of entries on purifying Greece comes an op-ed piece by Amir Taheri in today’s NY Times in which he discusses Saddam’s brutal efforts to “Arabize” Iraq. Everyone knows about his assaults on the Kurds, but I confess I had not known about this:

In 1970, he opened the Ottoman archives, in which Iraqis were classified as either Ottoman or Persian subjects. He prepared a policy of mass expulsion against the Persians, even though many prominent Iraqis — including Rashid Ali al-Gailani, the father of Iraqi nationalism, and Muhammad al-Jawahiri, the greatest Arabic poet of the 20th century — had been classified as Persian during Ottoman rule.

The mass expulsion of the Persians was implemented from 1972 on. By 1980 nearly a million people had been driven out. Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of those expelled had been born and raised in Iraq, regarded themselves as Iraqis and spoke Arabic as their mother tongue.

(I regret to report that in the course of the piece Taheri perpetrates this bit of idiocy: “Iraq is also the home of 11 living languages, some of which, like Elamite, are twice as old as Arabic.” All natural languages are equally old; it’s just a question of where you choose to stick the labels.)


  1. Wait a minute. In 1970, wasn’t Saddam a mere Ba’athist factotum? How was he opening up archives? And what does opening up Ottoman archives mean? You mean they were sealed when the Brits took the Iraqi territory from the Ottomans? And weren’t the Ottomans Turkish?
    Just a few questions.

  2. No, believe it or not, Saddam took power in 1968. I know, seems like only yesterday! (At first he nominally shared power with a couple of other guys, but he soon got rid of them, and he was in charge from the beginning.)

    I assume by “opened the Ottoman archives” they mean “dug them out of the back rooms where they had been gathering dust for decades and looked up the ethnic information collected therein,” but I don’t really know.

    The Ottomans were Turkish in the same sense the Romanovs were Russian: namely, nominally. (There’s a nice conjunction of words!) They’d been marrying Circassian and Balkan women (as the Romanovs married Germans) for so long the quantity of “Turkish blood” remaining was vanishingly small. Oddly enough, their court language was Persian — and the Persian court language was Turkish!

  3. Fascinating – please say more about Persian being the Turkish court language and Turkish being the Persian court language… during overlapping periods?

  4. Yes, they overlapped; Persian was the court language of the Ottomans (as well as of the contemporary Mogul dynasty in India, 1530-1857), while Persia was ruled by Turkish dynasties from the Safavids (1501-1722) to the Qajars (1779-1925). As a matter of fact, for much of that period Persian literature was more vigorous outside of Persia than in Persia itself. (The situation was not quite as simple as my chiasmus makes it seem, but it’s close enough for government work, as they say.)

  5. And then there are the “Marsh Arabs” or Ma’dan who are said to have continuously inhabited the wetlands between the Tigris and Euphrates for 5,000 years. Saddam Hussein’s regime has turned most of them into refugees through all the usual means of persecution plus something with longer-term consequences: he’s been busy draining the wetlands that their culture depends on.

  6. You’re probably going to protest that it is not your specialism, that there are plenty of people better qualified to write it and so forth, but never mind about those protests…. Why don’t you write a popular language history book about the Turkish-speaking Persian court and the Persian-speaking Turkish court?

    Yes, it’s a gimmick, but popular science has become a huge publishing area, and I’m sure there are tons of people who will casually buy a book about black holes, but think they know that languages are boring. This might be the gimmick that would make them [or their relatives] pick it up.

    I would certainly buy a book about how on earth each court came to be speaking the other’s language for a couple of centuries, and what the languages were like, and how neither of them is related to each other or to Arabic yet both used the Arabic script etc….

    And it could hardly be duller than Pinker going on about strong verbs!

    The title could be tricky [unless very long, which might be a selling point in itself – everybody will remember ‘When the Persian court spoke Turkish and the Turkish court spoke Persian’ for example].

    I really think it’s odd and startling enough to generate a scholarly bestseller.

  7. I’d be interested in such a book. But what I wonder is, how do the Mughals fit into this? Basic reference works refer to the Mughals as being of “Persian, Turkish and Mongol” origin. The last item sounds like a recursive definition, and were those Persian Persians and Turkish Turks, or Turkish Persians and Persian Turks?

  8. Prentiss: Here‘s a nice brief account of Babur and the Mughal conquest of India, as well as the growing Persian influence. The thing to remember about the “Mongol conquests” is that there weren’t that many Mongols; a large percentage of the Mongol forces were actually Turks, and after they conquered Persia and began to settle down and administer territories (rather than loot and run) they used the experienced Persians to show them how to run things (as the Arabs had done centuries earlier after they conquered Persia). Mongolian was used as a literary language in Mongolia itself but not (I think) elsewhere, and Turkish was used only for folk poetry and the like; Persian was the language of culture and administration in all the conquered territories. I think Persian should be much more widely studied than it is; it’s easy to learn for speakers of IE languages, it’s got an ancient history and one of the greatest literary traditions, and it’s used over wide portions of Central Asia (Dari in Afghanistan and Tajik in Tajikistan are dialects of Persian).

  9. Ilya Vinarsky says

    Elamite has been extinct for over 1000 years. Here are the living languages of Iraq:


  10. Pete Martinez says

    I just returned from Iraqi Kurdistan hard on the Iranian border along the Zagros Mtns. So many theories on the origin of the Kurds, the prevalent among them is that they descended from the Medes (Then mixed with everyone else). Is Kurdish a branch of Iranian/Persian?

  11. Yes, it’s an Iranian language (see map); both Kurdish and Persian (Farsi/Dari/Tajik) are Western Iranian (as is, oddly enough, Baluchi); the main Eastern Iranian language is Pushto. As you say, there are many theories of their origin, and I tend not to get too involved in questions where the prospect of a real answer is so remote; they emerge into actual history only with the Arab conquests of the 7th century. If you don’t already know David McDowall’s A Modern History of the Kurds, you should try to find a copy—it’s a superb summary of Kurdish history and politics since the 19th century (and, while very sympathetic to the Kurdish people, makes it clear how much of their troubles are the result of their persistent inability to keep from attacking each other rather than uniting against external enemies).

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