Iranian Blackface Clowns are Racist, No Matter How You Sugarcoat Them in Obscure Archaic Mythology
A Fragmented Argument in Five Acts
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).
Act IV: Siāh – A Mocked, Castrated, Abyssinian Slave
Siāh of Siāh-Bāzi, similar to Hāji Firuz, has all the characteristics of an “other.” The color of his skin is only one signifier of his position as an outsider. Whereas mockery of regional accents has always had a significant place in the larger tradition of Ru-Hozi, Siāh’s malapropism is quite distinctive from his white clown counterparts. Siāh is clever in his use of malapropism, and often it is his mispronunciations that generate comic effects in the performance. He engages in elaborate wordplays with his master, Hāji, and is almost always triumphant at creating mayhem and confusion to get his way. Moreover, traditionally, the character of Siāh speaks with a shrill voice. The puppeteers who are responsible for voice acting for Siāh’s marionette version (named Mobarak in the puppetry tradition known as Kheyme-Shab Bāzi) often use a squeaker (“Safir” in Persian) to give the character his high-pitched voice.
Additionally, Siāh plays a peripheral role in the love stories of Siāh-Bāzi. These romantic comic situations often involve Hāji’s daughter, a modern middle-class girl who falls in love with a working-class man. The morally corrupt Hāji attempts, and almost always fails, to dissuade his daughter from marrying her poor lover, as he wants to marry her off to a wealthy, older man with whom he has some financial dealings. In these stories, Siāh’s role is auxiliary, but he is a benevolent character, always on the side of Hāji’s daughter and the other female characters in the play. His elaborate schemes result in uniting of Hāji’s daughter with her poor lover at the end of the story.
The name of Siāh’s master, Hāji, suggests that he has fulfilled his pilgrimage as an adult Muslim man (the title “Hāji” derives from the word “Hadj,” meaning pilgrimage in the Islamic tradition). One of the darkest chapters of the history of slavery in Iran pertains to the treatment of Abyssinian slaves. These slaves, as mentioned before, were often purchased by wealthy men during their pilgrimage and were brought to urban Iran to work as household servants. As a common practice since the Safavid period, many of them were castrated to serve as confidants in the wealthy men’s harems. Depriving them from any familial kinship was to ensure the slaves’ full loyalty was to their masters.
Whereas the character of Siāh does not demonstrate this extreme loyalty, his shrill voice, relationship to female characters, loveless life, and peripheral role in the main plots can be considered signifiers of a eunuch—an Abyssinian slave in Hāji’s service. It is not accidental that Siāh-Bāzi’s historical origins date back to the Safavid period, when the use of African slaves as harems’ confidants became a common practice. Here lies the problem with the ahistoricity of the mythological arguments: there exists historical context to explain the character’s blackness on racial grounds, whereas the mythological justifications merely satisfy a sentimental, nationalistic mind—they are not historical “arguments,” but mere “justifications” to close the door on any real conversation on the matter. For proponents of the mythological explanation for Siāh’s blackened face, Siāh-Bāzi is a national heritage that is to be preserved at any expense.
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.”
Act V: A Positive Hero
In 2016, Bahram Beyzaie, a respected Iranian film and stage director, and an authority on Iranian traditional forms of performing arts, directed his latest play, Tarabnameh in Cupertino, California. The play, a modern Siāh-Bāzi with blackface clowns that ran for almost four hours, was well received amongst the Iranian American community, despite a few voices of dissent that pointed out the ugly racism behind the tradition. Responding to the criticism, Beyzaie, in an interview on the eve of Tarabnameh’s opening, remarked Siāh’s “skin color has nothing to do with racism, race, etc. Because he is the hero of the story. This is not a racial humiliation – he is the positive hero of the story, and at the end, the triumph is his.” He then went on to explain that Siāh is akin to Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights as he, along with Hāji’s wife, are in control of the power dynamics amongst other characters.
In another public event at Stanford University (which was, incidentally, shared repeatedly when the controversy emerged again this March), Beyzaie offered several mythological justifications. In the very same speech, however, he referred to the character with the adjective “Zangi,” which according to the authoritative Dehkhoda Lexicon means “related to black tribes of East Africa. From Zanzibar. […] Egyptian. Abyssinian, black, Bedouin, savage, and inane people.”
In other words, the concern does not seem to be with the racialized origin of the character Siāh. Beyzaie, whose vast knowledge of Persian mythology and Iranian performance is unique amongst his peers, has chosen his words carefully here: because the character is the hero of the story, one could (and should) overlook the racism of this embodiment. One can accept that the character, in an evolvement through centuries, has become a symbol of the working class, the oppressed, and the marginalized. He might have even gained peripheral qualities to match the archetypal mythologies of the nation. However, denying Siāh’s racial history and origins is nothing but insensitivity to the plight of the Afro-Iranian community, the very marginalized parts of the society that Siāh, according to Beyzaie, champions.
The question remains that if Siāh is a positive hero who is a voice of the oppressed, why does he have to be embodied through a blackface mask? In the recent controversy in March of this year, many of the proponents of this performative tradition accused the dissent of an attempt to erase centuries-old traditions based on their Western-inspired thoughts and sensitivities. For them, Siāh and Hāji-Firuz are quintessential fixtures of Iranian culture. What they overlook, however, is the dynamic nature of said culture. Culture and history are not concrete notions that survive only in museums. On the contrary, cultural elements evolve, grow, reincarnate, and renew through the passage of time. A lively and dynamic cultural environment constantly re-examines its past. As such, we can preserve the character and the entire rich performative traditions around it, but should expunge it from symbols of racism and oppression, such as the blackface mask.
One final word on the matter of “agency” with an acknowledgment of my own: whereas over the past ten years that I have lived in the United States I have gained the status of a minority as an immigrant, I was born and lived most of my life in Iran’s capital, Tehran. I do not belong to the marginalized ethnic groups of the country, I speak Persian without an accent, and I have been, by all means, a privileged citizen. I strongly believe, however, that the missing link in the controversy about the blackface clown is agency. One of the most vocal public figures against the character in the recent controversy is Saeid Shanbehzadeh, an Afro-Iranian-French musician. The proponents of the mythological justifications, however, dismiss the claims of persons with agency on the matter—those whose very lives have been affected by racist traditions.
As long as this matter of agency is not acknowledged, when the marginalized are deprived of speaking out against the practices that have historically oppressed them, there is no real debate, no conversation. The archaic myths and folktales merely function as a means of continued oppression, a sugarcoating of an ugly past that remains unacknowledged.