Like many other countries that border the Persian Gulf, Iran has communities of African origin living inside its border. While most Afro-Iranians are descendants of slaves brought to the country centuries ago, some Africans came to Iran in search of paid work as sailors. Afro-Iranians have their own distinct cultural and traditional practices, and mostly live in the Hormozgan province along the Persian Gulf, Sistan and Baluchestan along the Pakistan and Afghanistan borders, and Khuzestan province, abutting Iraq and the Gulf.
These Afro-Iranians are an important part of Iran’s rich tapestry of minority cultures and groups, but have largely been ignored both inside and outside the country. For example, in a video posted on YouTube, an Afro-Iranian man recounts his experience being pestered by surprised “white” Iranians about his “blackness.”
Writing about this video in Ajamm Media Collective, Beeta Baghoolizadeh explains:
Standing in the middle of a crowd, the man in this video relates his experiences with lighter-skinned Iranians in Tehran pestering him questions about his blackness. Because many are unfamiliar with Afro-Iranians, especially in more northern areas of Iran like Tehran, many quickly assume that people with darker skin are foreigners. These assumptions lead to much confusion with the so-called “foreigner” begins speaking Persian. In this man’s experience, people in Tehran stupefied by his Persian approached him and asked,
“Excuse me, sir? Excuse me? But why are you Black? Why are you Black?”
But, artists, filmmakers, and other cultural producers are starting to document the diversity and uniqueness of the Afro-Iranian community. In 2007, a documentary film, Afro-Iranian Lives, was released and examines:
[T]he history of the African slave trade as well as African cultural tradition in Iran, and pays particular attention to socio-economic activities, performances and rituals of the descendants of African slaves in rural and urban communities in the provinces of Sistan va Baluchistan, Hurmuzgan, and Khuzestan.
Now, Iranian-German, photographer, Mahdi Ehsaei, has released a photographic essay capturing Hormozgan’s Afro-Iranian community. As Ehsaei explains:
The Hormozgan province in the Persian Gulf is a traditional and historical region with a diverse and unexplored population. It is framed with unique landscapes and people with profound personalities. Iranians, who still have African blood in them and continue their African heritage with their clothing style, their music, their dance and their oral traditions and rituals.
The resulting portraits reveal new facets and unfamiliar faces, which are not typical for the common picture of Iran. They show details documenting the centuries-long history of this ethnic minority. A confrontation between the Persian culture and the, for Iran unusual, African consciousness.
Ehsaei plans to use his photos, a selection of which appear below with the photographer’s permission, to create a full-length book on the Afro-Iranian community.
Through striking visual efforts like these, confusion and ignorance about Iranians of African descent will hopefully become a thing of the past, both inside and outside Iran.