On 22 March 2021, M. R. Javadi Yeganeh, a sociologist and the current deputy mayor of Tehran for social and cultural affairs, issued an executive order that banned the use of blackface in Persian New Year festivities, calling for “more discussion in order to better understand the matter.” His basis for the ban was “potential misunderstandings” about the racial connotations of a particular clown figure who is omnipresent on the streets of major cities in Iran during this time of the year. The clowns traditionally wear red clothes and blacken their faces while dancing and singing festive new year’s songs. Iranian theatre scholars and practitioners, however, forcefully pushed back against the ban in public forums and social media alike. Whilst some voices agreed with the deputy mayor, especially in the Iranian diaspora in the West, the majority found correlation between the official executive ban and the Iranian government’s perceived crusade against pre-Islamic Iranian rituals.
The resistance against this ban, in a short span of time, became synonymous with opposition to the Iranian government, and the proponents of the ban were soon accused of complicity. On 27 March 2021, however, the Center for Dramatic Arts at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance openly contradicted the mayoral office, stating that the racism of the performative tradition is just the deputy mayor’s “theory” and has “no basis in the historical realities of Iran.” Emotionally-driven arguments on both sides of the debate muddied the waters in March, especially after the governmental officials decided to inject themselves into the conversation.
I believe the blackface mask of the clowns is reminiscent of an ugly past, of a system of enslavement that requires further scrutiny. Here, I try to remain objective and present a few fragmented observations in support of my claim, without emotional or nationalistic consideration.
Act I: The Clown
Hāji Firuz clowns are festive figures. They wear bright red clothes and pointed hats, and they always carry a drum. They also wear a blackface mask. Many of them can be seen during the days preceding Nowruz (the spring equinox and Persian New Year), dancing amongst cars stuck in Tehran’s unbearable traffic, or on the sidewalks, amongst countless hawkers selling items for Haft-Seen (an arrangement of seven items, all beginning with an “s,” that Persians set up before the new year and keep around for thirteen days). The clowns have several iconic songs, often addressed to their “masters:”
Abrāb-e khod-am sāmboli ´aleykom,
Abrāb -e khod-am sar-eto bālā kon!
Abrāb -e khod-am be man nigā kon,
Abrāb -e khod-am boz-boz-e qandi,
Abrāb -e khod-am cherā nemikhandi?
Greetings, my Master,
Raise your head, my Master!
Look at me, my Master!
My Master, the goat,
Why don’t you smile, my Master?
The general vibe given off by this festive figure is that of an outsider: Hāji Firuz is black, he is different, and he mispronounces simple Persian words (he says, for example, “Abrab” as opposed to “Arbab”).
This is not the only blackface clown in the Iranian performative traditions. His more famous stage counterpart, Siāh (simply meaning “black”), is a stock character in a popular entertainment tradition called Siāh-Bāzi (“Bāzi” means play). In Siāh-Bāzi, the blackface character always appears with his master (another stock character often named Hāji—a man who has visited Mecca for his Islamic pilgrimage, “Hadj”). Although Siāh-Bāzi is a narrative, storyteller performing arts, and therefore different from the short appearances of Hāji Firuz during Nowruz, the two blackface clowns share many similarities, from their physical appearance to their comparable characteristics such as malapropism. Siāh-Bāzi is a special act amongst a larger tradition of comic performance in Iran named Ru-Hozi. Although the exact historical origin of this performance is unclear, iconographical evidence points to mid- to late-sixteenth century (during the Safavid Dynasty). The performative tradition was popularized by the middle of the Qajar period in the early nineteenth century. To this date, Siāh-Bāzi performances are popular, and a number of young Iranian artists blacken their faces and appear as Siāh on stage every day.
The blackface mask of the clowns is reminiscent of an ugly past, of a system of enslavement that requires further scrutiny.
Act II: The Mythological Justification
For decades, Iranian scholars and theatre practitioners have justified the blackness of Hāji Firuz and Siāh on mythological grounds. Most famously, Mehrdad Bahar, an authority on Iranian pre-Islamic mythology, has argued that the character is a representation of Prince Siavash and has its origin in Transoxian myths and Middle-Persian matriarchal indigenous folktales. Siavash, according to the most known retelling of his story in the tenth-century epic poem, Shah-Nameh (“The Book of Kings”), was the incestuous love interest of his stepmother, Queen Sudabeh. When Sudabeh finds her love unreturned, she accuses Siavash of rape in revengeful retaliation. Siavash, in order to prove his innocence, is made to ride through a mountain of fire (fire being a purifying symbol in Mithraic and Zoroastrian mythology). Siavash proves innocent as he survives the fire. According to Bahar, Hāji Firuz has his archetypal origins in these kinds of mythological stories: he is returning to earth from the underworld during the spring equinox, and his black face is a sign of his journey.
While this and other mythological explanations for the character’s blackness might be meritorious, they fail to fully explain the persistence of the tradition and its reincarnation on the Iranian popular entertainment stage. Most importantly, these justifications are completely ahistorical: for instance, no explanation is offered as to how this performative form emerged in the sixteenth century (at the height of Islamization and Shi’afication of Iran during the Safavid Dynasty) and became popular during the nineteenth century.
As a trained historian, I am skeptical of metanarratives of any sort, especially when a “universal truth” is abused to silence and marginalize the “other.” These mythological justifications are, indeed, metanarratives that function as they always do: to replace the complexities of “difference” and “suffering” with easy-to-digest, feel-good stories of nationalism and pride.
Act III: Slavery in the Iranian Plateau
The history of slavery in Iran is an untold story. Whereas recent scholars such as Behnaz Mirzai have produced academic writings about this history, their reach has been limited to academic and intellectual circles. One can find almost no mention of the practice in the nationwide uniform K-12 textbooks in Iran. Although the Iranian slave trade systems were by no means comparable in size to the transatlantic transformation of enslaved people to the Americas, a great number of eastern and northeastern African slaves were transferred to Iran via the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Especially during the Safavid Era, slavery became a common institution in the country. Moreover, a number of Abyssinian slaves were bought by the wealthy Iranians from their pilgrimage to Mecca to be employed as domestic servants.
Slavery was officially abolished in 1929, but it left behind a community of Afro-Iranians, especially in the southern parts of the country. To this date, these communities have preserved their unique rituals that originated in Africa (such as Zar, a practice of exorcising demon spirits through music and dance, that can be seen almost identically in southern Iran and the Horn of Africa alike).