Sunday, October 15, 2006

Azeris in Iran

Nice article published here today in Montreal about Saleh Ildirim, an Azeri TV host on Gunaz TV. Good work by the writer, if I do say so myself.

Agitator on the airwaves

A Montrealer is one of Iran's most controversial figures, inspiring protests from afar

Published: Sunday, October 15, 2006

In downtown Montreal, there lives a refugee who has sewn leather, driven cabs and managed restaurants since fleeing Iran in 1985. But no employment prepared Saleh Ildirim for his current vocation as one of Iran's most controversial TV personalities.

Appearing on Gunaz TV, Ildirim pushes for the rights of Iran's Azeri population to be allowed to study in the Azeri language and to enjoy an open Azeri media. Ultimately, he wants Azeri independence.

In May, he helped organize a series of political demonstrations that saw thousands of Azeris take to the streets in Iran to protest against the Tehran regime. Anywhere from zero to 50 protesters were killed, depending on whether you believe Iranian authorities or Azeri nationalists. Many others were imprisoned or injured.

And Ildirim played a key role in the events - from a comfortable television studio in Chicago.

That's where the nationalistic Gunaz TV is based, entering Iranian homes on a European satellite uplink that the government in Tehran is powerless to block. Ildirim, 47, travels to Chicago for a few days at a time, where he'll sit broadcasting for hours. He also participates by phone from Montreal.

Ildirim, a wiry, clean-shaven atheist who talks in the staccato speech common in northwest Iran, admits to some misgivings about leading ethnic unrest from afar.

"It's hard. I feel pressure. My friends are dying over there and I'm just talking."

He said he recently found himself listed on a website of people targeted for assassination by Hezbollah's military wing.

"All this gives me more responsibility and it makes me more dedicated. But everything has a price and I'm ready to pay."

Ildirim said he would give up his life for the cause. "If I went to Iran, I would be executed on the first day," he said. "But if my political party asks me to go, I will go."

His plan is to return during an Azeri revolution. "Until then, I will go into Iran every day but through the TV."

At least one in four Iranians is an Azeri. The community numbers between 17 million and 30 million. Azeris share the Shiite Muslim faith with the predominant Persians, but speak a language similar to Turkish, identical to that spoken in the neighbouring republic of Azerbaijan.

As a youth, Ildirim fought for the overthrow of the shah, but renounced the Islamic revolution when the new regime refused to grant more autonomy to the Azeri north. When his opposition forced him into hiding, his penniless mother pawned her jewellery to buy him a counterfeit passport. Ildirim travelled to Turkey, where he was recognized as a UN refugee.

Ildirim has never returned to Iran, neither to attend his parents' funeral, nor that of his two younger brothers who died under mysterious circumstances in the 1990s.

He said Iranian police have recently been provided DVDs of his Gunaz TV appearances. "They are looking for me. I can't even approach Iran. Even here in Montreal, I have no security."

Ildirim dreams of Iran's northernmost eight provinces gaining independence or joining with Azerbaijan, a secular, oil-rich democracy of 8 million with close ties to the West. He is a spokesperson for the South Azerbaijan Independence Party.
"We've seen Vietnam reunite and Germany reunite. Now it's time for North and South Azerbaijan to reunite as well," he said.

Gunaz TV was launched in Chicago by fellow Azeri Iranian Ahmad Obali in April 2005. Iran allows no Azeri-language television, but any Azeri there with a satellite dish can hear Gunaz's political and cultural programming 24 hours a day.

"We have no way of knowing how many are watching Gunaz, but every home in northern Iran with a dish can watch it," Ildirim said. "And just about everybody there has one."

Telephone calls to the station from within Iran are blocked, so those calling the many Gunaz TV call-in shows must first dial a number in Europe, which then forwards calls to the station in Chicago.

On May 7, Ildirim and Gunaz TV decided to organize a rare demonstration critical of the Iranian government, a regime that does not smile on public protests.

The protest was set for May 22 at the Tabriz Bazaar, where the justice minister of a short-lived Tabriz-based independent Azeri government was hanged 60 years earlier.

Ildirim appeared on Gunaz TV for up to six hours at a time, urging Azeris to attend the protest and chant slogans such as: "Azerbaijan is awake and assuming its identity," "Hooray, hooray, we are Turks" and "Free the Azeri national prisoners."

Events took an unexpected turn on May 12, when a political cartoon appeared in the government-run newspaper Iran, portraying a cockroach repeating the word "namana?" - which means "what?" in Azeri. The cartoon seemed proof of the anti-Azeri prejudice that Ildirim decried. Gunaz hosts discussed the outrage relentlessly.

"Originally, we thought we might get a few thousand people at our protest. We were targeting ethnic activists, but then the cartoon gave us a boost," Ildirim said. "By May 20, I was predicting we'd have hundreds of thousands in the streets. I was criticized by others for raising unrealistic expectations."

But he was right. On May 22, the streets of Tabriz filled with protesters, many chanting Ildirim's slogans. Authorities eventually ended the protest, but not before it became big news around the world.

Gunaz TV also helped plan and promote a dozen other popular protests around that time in Azeri-Iranian cities like Urumiyeh, Ardabil, Zanjan and Khvoy.

Ildirim even helped with tactics.

"We heard of protesters caught behind a police barricade, so we went on TV and said: 'Don't stay at home! They're taking your brothers and sisters to prison! Don't let the Persian chauvinists do this!' Soon others came out and broke down the barricades and rescued the protesters," Ildirim said.

If his fiery rhetoric might seem designed to incite ethnic resentment, it's a style Ildirim justifies as an attempt to counterbalance what he claims is a longstanding tradition of demeaning the Azeri community in mainstream Iranian culture.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blamed foreign meddling for the protest.

Station founder Obali, who operates from a studio above his Turkish restaurant in Chicago, said the comments were directed at his station. "They didn't even call them demonstrations, instead they called it foreign interference. Our station concentrates on minority ethnic issues and those issues are Tehran's biggest fear."

Obali, like Ildirim, dreams of returning to an independent South Azerbaijan, the homeland he fled 21 years ago after being imprisoned for promoting Azeri nationalism.

Not everyone, however, agrees with the Gunaz TV agenda. The Republic of Azerbaijan, for one, wants no part of the breakup of Iran.

Masoud Aliev, who heads the Association of Azerbaijanis of Quebec, endorses only part of Ildirim's agenda. "Azeris living in Iran should have all the right to education in their own language and to develop in their own culture," he said. "But the breakup of Iran would destabilize the entire region. It would lead to a humanitarian crisis, civil war and millions of refugees."

Some Iranian Azeris such as Potkin Azarmehr, a London-based blogger who writes about Iranian politics, actively oppose Azeri nationalism. "Azeris enjoy influence in Iran's economy and politics. The supreme leader of the Islamic Republic is an Azeri and Azeri merchants in Tabriz and Tehran are very wealthy and influential," he wrote in an email. "Okay, Azeri is not taught at schools, but nor is Spanish in American schools, and that is hardly good enough reason to secede."

Meanwhile, Ildirim keeps agitating for revolution via satellite.

He helped organize protests in four cities on Sept. 23, against the lack of Azeri-language education. He's hoping for a big turnout for protests on Dec. 12 marking the 61st anniversary of the fall of the Tabriz-based Azeri government.

"There's no way to know if it will be a success," Ildirim said. "But television is a very powerful thing."


Blogger orkutproxy said...

Iranian Azarbaijanis have been essential part of Iran and will remain so ...
I can't understand why the word "Azarbaijan" is written as "Azerbaigan " in the texts? The word "Azar" is an Iran word that means fire , "baijan" is derived from the Iranian word "baigan" that means "archive" : then Azarbaijan means the protected land of fire ...

11:40 AM  
Blogger Azarmehr said...

Perhaps someon eshould have told the Gunaz TV hosts that it was not "Persian chauvinists" who were beating up and arresting the demonstrators, it was Azeris Law Enforcement Officers whose allegiance is with the Azeri supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

May be if they stop burning books and read more they would know:

1:59 PM  
Blogger Sevda said...

That is true, zerbaijanians are nort allowed to speak their language in public. They are not allowed to read books in Azerbaijanina language, not allowed to study in their native language.They are denied very basic rights in Iran. Iranian government have no respect to humanity.

7:45 PM  
Blogger HILMI said...


7:23 AM  
Blogger Vmrgrsergr said...

The Azerbaijanis of the republic of Azerbaijan do not consider the 'Azeris' of Iran their brotherin.
Recent tests show that the Azerbaijanis of the country share similar genes to the people of the Caucasious, where as the so-called 'Azeris' from Iran are the same race as the Persians but speak a Turkic language due to centuries of Turko-Mongol conquest.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Vmrgrsergr said...

The Azerbaijanis of the republic of Azerbaijan do not consider the 'Azeris' of Iran their brotherin.
Recent tests show that the Azerbaijanis of the country share similar genes to the people of the Caucasious, where as the so-called 'Azeris' from Iran are the same race as the Persians but speak a Turkic language due to centuries of Turko-Mongol conquest.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Edalatci said...

I believe every human has the right to learn and talk or write in his own (mother lan.). No body with any reason could band this right. I think our Persian brothers should realistic. If they continue with their current politic , for sure they will be responsible for what is going to happen. You can not not blame ultra nationalist if you dont give the minimal human right.
you can not blame someone who is fighting for his rights just exchange for a second your position with Turks in Iran. What you would have done ? I believe Turks in Iran are really nice ,tolerant and civilized people. Hope to see one day free Iran for everybody with any ethnic or religion.
Just blame first the Fascists not the the people want their human right.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Emilio said...

Good Blog!!

see you.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Gengiz said...

As an Azeri who has lived in Iran for most of my life I can tell that the life for an Azeri in Iran is a real nightmare. We are not allowed to learn our own language and then because we can never learn their language (persian) properly they always humiliate make fool of us. The life is so brutal because the moment they find out you have an accent they will not allow you to many jobs and in persian areas of the country such as Tehran (capital) you should be prepared to enter into a deep isolation because persian people will only talk to us just to have some laugh by making fun of our accent. Living outside Iran right now I still sometimes cry at night for all the humiliation and plight I suffered in Iran. I do agree with Saleh Ildirim that the only way of success for Azeris is to get independence. I will myself do whatever I can to make that dream realize. The Azeris who are against independece are either not grown in Azerbaijan or are are related to persian people or they economic benefits in other parts of Iran.

9:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Iran's Azeris and Persians have been intermarrying for centuries due to the common Shiite faith and common Iranian nationality. Out of Iran's population of 75 million, eight million are of mixed Azeri-Persian heritage (almost the population of the Republic of Azerbaijan itself).
Men ozum yarim azeriyem yarim farsam. Menim atam Irandaki turkdu, anam ise fars. Biz hamimiz iranliyiq.

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nowhere in the world is there a nation whose population outnumber thirty million but is still deprived of basic human any other free nation in the world, Azerbaijanis have always struggled for freedom over the last century although evry attempt to take the Persian yok off has been immediately nipped in the bud.The brutality faced by this ethnicity on daily basis by the racist Persians is unimaginable.The discourse of Persian racism is instilled in the fabric of iranian society.i myself tried to raise linguistic awareness among students and launched a signiture campaigne to draw the attention of the officials to the articles 15 and 19 of the constitution which acknowledge the right of mother tongue education. the outcome was detention, blindfolding, unspesified charge and harrasment by the secret police. İnternational community should support oppressed nations as the right of self-determination obliges us all to do so.

9:38 PM  

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