Most Iranians are dark-skinned

dis: orient

For centuries, trade between the Persian Gulf, East Africa and the Indian Ocean shaped the respective coastal regions. The descendants of African immigrants live in the southern provinces of Iran, and their cultural heritage lives on in music and dance, among other things. Mehdi Ehsaei portrayed some of them for a photo project.

Iran is enormously heterogeneous in ethnic and linguistic terms - this finding may not sound new, but it is often neglected in the presentation of the country. The reasons for this are complex and consist of a bundle that includes identity politics, ethno-centered nationalism, representation and participation. Conceptual problems and conceptual myths (keyword “Aryans”) play a role here as well as a reading of “race” or the construction and control of ethnic groups in a colonial context that is heavily influenced by the Anglophone diaspora and therefore often difficult to translate. The image of a primarily “Persian” Iran, whose national pride can supposedly be derived from the pre-Islamic period, is still dominant today and contributes, among other things, to the booming anti-Arab resentment.

The minorities of the Azeris and Kurds enjoy a certain degree of representation due to their high proportion (approx. 16 and 10 percent respectively) of the approximately 79 million inhabitants of Iran. The same applies to the nomadic tribes of the Ghashghai, the (partly Sunni) Baluch people or the Lurs. However, this is less the case for the descendants of African immigrants, who mainly live in the southern provinces of Hormozgan as well as Sistan and Balochistan. Your situation shows how controversial the issues of racism and slavery are among Iranians.

Brisk maritime trade and exchange between the continents - as early as the 9th century

The majority of Afro-Iranians (the term was coined by the Canadian scientist Behnaz Mirzai and criticized, among other things, for its analogy to the American context) consists of descendants of Africans who have been through the maritime trade network since the 9th century, i.e. under the Arab Abbasid dynasty who came to Iran. However, settled traders and other business people were also among these migrants. So neither were all Africans enslaved, nor were all enslaved Africans. People from different regions, including Georgia and Cherkessia, were used as enslaved primarily in Iranian merchant and ruling families present-day Iran.

Until well into the 20th century, the Gulf coast, which today belongs to Iran, was more closely interwoven with the Arabian Peninsula and India than with the northern parts of the country. [Ii] In their recently published study “A History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran, 1800-1929 “[Iii] explains Behnaz Mirzai, history professor at Brock University in Canada, that slavery functioned mainly along weak statehood and can only be compared to the transatlantic slave trade to a very limited extent. It fits this historical tendency that with the manifestation of the centralized Iranian nation state under the rule of Reza Shah Pahlavis (r. 1925-41) in 1929 slavery was completely abolished.

Two women in typical costumes of the region. Photo: Mehdi Ehsaei

Ceci n’est pas du racisme

Of course, black people in Iran today are not a “forgotten” minority whose need for an alleged “rediscovery” is implied by this term. Hormozgan Province is not particularly densely populated and its largest city, Bandar Abbas, has seen its days as a busy port city. Nevertheless, the region is a popular holiday destination for many Iranians who visit the ruins of Portuguese fortresses or mangrove forests on the islands of Hormuz and Qeshm. But the general knowledge about this population group often does not go beyond the popular form of "Bandari" music (Bandar = harbor) or the Tsar and Gowati dances (cultural practices strongly influenced by East Africa).

The figure of Haji Firuz - a black man in a red costume who brings wishes for the New Year - is the most prominent negative symbol of racist folklore in Iran. Similar to the debate about the “Zwarte Piet” in the Netherlands, there are often reflexive attempts to relativize it. A broader social discussion of the issue of black Iranians was, among other things, with the film released in 1989 Bashu, the little stranger (Bashu, gharibeye kuchek) triggered by director Behram Beizai. The film is about a black orphan who fled to the province of Gilan during the Iran-Iraq war and is staying with a family there (who speaks Gilaki, also a premiere in Iranian cinemas).

The historian Mirzai has dedicated herself to this topic for many years and published two documentary films before the study mentioned (Afro-Iranian Lives, 2008; The African-Baluchi Trance Dance, 2012). With the research project of the anthropologist Pedram Khosronejad from Oklahoma State University on photographs of African servants in households of the Qajar period, these image archives will be made accessible to the public in the future.

Modern photographs can also be a means of making the history and present of Afro-Iranians visible in public discourse, even though they operate in the field of tension between exoticization and the question of self-representation. This is shown in the illustrated book “Afro-Iran”, for which Mahdi Ehsaei, who was born in Münster in 1989, spent two months in the Hormozgan province. As a final thesis for his design studies in Darmstadt, he made portraits of children, men and women of all ages. Regional clothing styles such as the borqe - a traditional face mask for women that is popular with tourists from the big cities - can be seen here as well as a group of boys in soccer jerseys. Mahdi got the idea for the photo book while watching a soccer game in Shiraz, played by a team from Hormozgan. This has sparked his interest in the history of Afro-Iranian women. In the interview he reports on his work and the background to the project.

A market scene in Iran's southern Hormozgan province. Photo: Mahdi Ehsaei

Alsharq: YouhasFortheProjecttwoMonthsin frontplaceinHormozganspent. Howexactlyranthejobfrom?

Mahdi Ehsaei: In the first days and weeks I planned my trip and tried to slowly get to know the structures of life in places that were still unknown to me. At first I was very careful when approaching people. The approach that you have with European or Western subjects is different than that with the people in Iran. In the first two weeks I didn't take any photos for the Afro-Iran series. I took the opportunity to get to know the people by experiencing everyday life there and just drifting. So I was able to find my way better in the south of Iran (Jonoob), which was unknown to me.

After about a week, I became friends with people in Bandar. Some of them, especially women, did not allow me to photograph them. I always did a lot of trusting work before I switched to taking photos.

As a German-Iranian living in Germany, I enjoy the privilege of mastering the Persian language. This contributed to the fact that by and large I was able to find my way into Iranian society independently for this project. I've been on the road a lot and tried to explore as many places as possible.

Howto havethePeoplein frontplaceonYourprojectresponds?

Even the first attempts at portraits turned out to be obstacles. When asked to take a photo of them, people often reacted rather negatively. In places where they went about their daily activities, I had conversations with them to gain their trust.

Many women, for the most part, reacted with amazement and questioned the reason and purpose of the photographs. I received most of the refusals from women, which could be related to religion and culture. The publication of their photos was in part not approved, as they even covered themselves with the Borqe in their own surroundings.

In my conversations, I explained the background to my project and my intentions to them. Basically, I was able to persuade the unwilling people through the documentary and cultural background of this work. Many of them were pleasantly surprised that someone came especially from Germany to portray them.

Givesitapicture, theYouespeciallyimpressedHas?

Although every picture for me is linked to a story and is therefore special, that would probably be the photo with the little boy on the beach. It was made in the first week of my recording in Bandar Abbas. I was in the Khaje-Ata district, an area near the port. It was afternoon, the sun was slowly setting, and I saw several boys playing by the sea, including one with an orange bathing suit and a stick in his hand. When I asked if I could take a picture of him, he stopped and formed his body. It was only a brief moment in which he detached himself from his childhood. When I removed my face from the camera, he started playing again. What I like about the picture is the emotionality it conveys. What the little boy didn't know: he was possibly playing exactly where his ancestors had to gain a foothold a few centuries ago.

"What I like about the picture is the emotionality it conveys," says Mahdi Ehsaei about the boy on the beach in Bandar Abbas. Photo: Mahdi Ehsaei

YouhasAntoinSevruguinasinspirationForYoursphotosdesignated. In what waywantedYouhiselementscontinue, WhatwantedYoudifferentdo?

The main inspiration of my work was one of the first photographers in Iran named Antoin Sevruguin (1830-1933) [iv], who was of Russian and Armenian-Georgian descent. He was one of the few artists who has visually documented the demographic and ethnic groups that lived in Iran during his time. For the first time, he showed the diversity of Iran's population. Sevruguin decided to create his own study of the people, landscape and architecture of Iran.

Even after more than 100 years, his work shows the important role ethnographic photography plays in understanding peoples.


Before I started the project, I never thought that the history of the Afro-Iranian people goes back hundreds of years - I wasn't the only Iranian then. Many others I spoke to also did not know that black Iranians have been living in the country for centuries. It was very difficult for me to find any books, statistics and information about this minority, and there was also no visual documentation of Afro-Iranians.

I felt this loophole was injustice. The story behind these people is so profound that it requires a global platform and needs to be seen. Unfortunately, this community is still little visible in Iran and in the world. So I decided to tackle this difficult task with the knowledge and skills I had acquired in order to educate people about Iranians of African descent and to show another fascinating picture of Iranian culture.

In the first few weeks, the biggest challenge wasn't accessing people, but confronting them with the camera. As mentioned above, the geographical and social situation of the people is decisive for their reactions to the person being portrayed. The presence of friends or family or the communication in the dialect "Bandari" spoken in the south made this at least somewhat easier. seemed reassuring. At least the native person of the dialect "Bandari" spoken in the south should be able to speak. In some places I had a local companion with me, with whom I have been very good friends since then.

A man leans against his car. Photo: Mehdi Ehsaei

Thequestion, whoorWhatIranianbe, playsin thecountrypartiallyasizerole. HowdesignedyourselftheMajority discoursetoafro-Iranianminority? WhichroleplayseverydayracisminIran?

These people live a fully integrated life and of course see themselves as part of Iranian society. Addressing this group as “different” can rightly create a feeling of separation from Iranian society, as it does for any other community.

Afro-Iranians belong to the cultural diversity of Iran like any other ethnic group, such as the Azeri, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Armenians and so on, who have long been part of Iran. But as in any other culturally diverse country, there are aspects here that are not exemplary. I cannot deny the fact that the country is not free from discrimination and prejudice. In my two-month stay and further visits to southern Iran, however, I did not experience any kind of discrimination against Afro-Iranians. People who act differently are unaware of the fact that Afro-Iranians have been part of the Iranian population for centuries. I also have to mention that this type of behavior can be experienced more often in Europe than in Iran.

Afro-Iranians not only belong in Iranian society, but have also shaped the entire culture in the southern parts of the country. East African culture has influenced the style of dance and the rhythms of regional musical styles, dialect and dress styles of southern culture. These cultural specifications have influenced and shaped the culture over the past centuries. This was continued by the entire population of the region in southern Iran. Apart from their history, skin color and their concentration in certain places, Afro-Iranians are just like all Iranians one usually knows. They feel Iranian and feel uncomfortable just being approached about the origin of their ancestors. Some of them know their historical cultural background, some don't.

Since the arrival of Africans in Iran more than 400 years ago, Afro-Iranians have formed a fully integrated minority in the multi-ethnic Iranian society. I find it remarkable and astonishing how well an intercultural life of different peoples can work and the feeling of being different is not in keeping with today's times.

GivesitacommonidentityundertheMemberstheafro-IranianCommunity? Describeyouyourselfselfasethnicgrouporminority“?

The Afro-Iranians have shaped the music and dance style of this region, and customs that are clearly of African origin have also been preserved. In a village near Bandar Abbas, for example, I was able to take part in a »Tsar« ceremony - a kind of exorcism in which the participants put themselves into a trance with the help of music and dance in order to free those affected from mental illnesses. The hospitality of the Afro-Iranians is also remarkable.

HowstandsitaroundthepoliticalandmedialrepresentationtheAfro-Iraniansin thecountry?

As far as I know there is no political representation of the Afro-Iranian minority in Iran, at least I don't know anything about it. In the media, among the most famous Afro-Iranians are musicians like Saeid Shanbezadeh, Morteza Karimi, Carlos (Hosein Ghodsinezhad), actors like Reza Daryaie and the former players of the Iranian national soccer team in the 1970s and 80s, Mehrab Shahrokhi and Abdolreza Barzegari or the former athlete Peyman Rajabi.

HowaretheReactionsonYourbookso farfailed?

The feedback was overwhelming and I didn't think that the project, which I only published on my website, could go viral at all - in such a short time. Since then I have received a large number of inquiries from renowned media and institutions around the world. Afro-Iran created a lot of opportunities for me. Since the book was published in late 2015, my Afro-Iran photo series has been exhibited in Colombia, Italy and Kenya. Other countries will follow

What do you think saytheReactionsabovethethemegenerallyout?

It was only when the project went viral on the internet that I realized how important the issue of Afro-Iranians is. I think it represents a neglected chapter of the African diaspora and Iranian history. Since then, the topic has come more and more into the focus of media, institutions and photographers, which at the same time shows the meaning and importance of this topic.

The topic of Afro-Iranians is so extensive and there are still many undiscovered passages that I would like to deal with in more detail in my next projects, such as the position of Afro-Iranians in today's Iranian society.

More information about Mahdi Ehsaei's work on his homepage His book Afro Iran (Kehrer Verlag 2015) can be ordered at:


[i] Anthony A. Lee offers a very readable review of an Afro-Iranian biography in the 19th century: Enslaved African Women in Nineteenth-Century Iran: The Life of Fezzeh Khanom of Shiraz, in: Iranian Studies, No. 45: 3, 2012, pp. 417-37.

[ii] Cf. Rudie Matthee: The Persian Gulf: A Political and Economic History of Five Port Cities 1500-1730 (Review), in: Iranian Studies, No. 44: 2, 2011, pp. 123-27.

[iii] Behnaz A. Mirzai: A History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran, 1800-1929, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2017.

[iv] Cf. Aphrodite Désirée Navab: To be or not to be an orientalist ?: The ambivalent art of Antoin Sevruguin, in: Iranian Studies, No. 35: 1-3, 2002, pp. 113-44.