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30 September 2007 @ 05:35 pm
of the politics of naming - Persian vs. Arabian Gulf  
Wow. I did not realize how long it's been since my last post. sorry. I've been super busy with job applications. So, if any of my readers still exist, here's something that's come up in the last few days that I have been pondering:

So I posted a conference announcement on a popular Gulf listserv that caters mostly to academics and policy folks. The conference is focused on the GCC and for most of my announcement I said either GCC or "Gulf Arab States," but I guess I slipped in an "Arabian Gulf" as well. Well, some Iranian scholar found that offensive enough to email me in order to educate me that the proper term is Persian Gulf and that to not use it is a distortion of history and a denial of who it actually belongs to (belongs? since when, post-imperialism, do entire bodies of water "belong" to a country? oh yeah, and last I checked "Persia" is not a country). OK, well I passed it off as just some random person with too much investment in identity politics, but then I started poking around a little and learned that 1. if you type Arabian Gulf into Google, the first listing you get is a google bomb about how there is no such thing, and 2. that apparently when National Geographic used the term a couple years ago in an article (in which the also used Persian Gulf interchangeably) it caused such a backlash that they eventually had to recant.

To me this is all a bit weird. Both terms are so laden with Orientalist history and British colonial involvement in the region that I really don't think any are innocuous or "proper." I personally use Arabian Gulf as one of the few ways I know to distinguish that I am talking about the Arab side of the Gulf, and namely the GCC countries, who have similarities in terms of history, economic development, social change, etc, that are very different from Iran and Iraq. (thus the two words "Arabian Gulf" are a way to shorthand that whole last sentence). As a scholar of the "Gulf" I also find that Gulf Studies often gets overrun by academics who study Iran and Iraq, so this is my way of carving out a space for us, the GCC-focused people. Also, the GCC governments, and the people who live there, use the term, so I guess I am used to it.

So really, do you all think that this is a big deal? I personally feel like the Iranian scholars and activists that seem to care tend to be invested in some notion of a "Persian" cultural history that separates them from the current situation in Iran and includes within it a desire to distinguish themselves from "Arabs," which I think can be plenty problematic, esp. here in Socal where the very active Iranian diaspora community is often in support of Bush's imperialistic policies in the Middle East, including support of potential military action in Iran. Anyway, just my initial thoughts on what apparently is a huge can of worms which I inadvertently stumbled upon but probably should have known about by now...
Ask a stupid question: Burj al Arabdubaiwalla on October 1st, 2007 02:01 am (UTC)
I've been super busy with job applications.
Hope those are coming along well!

The Arabian/Persian Gulf thing is amusing. The controversy started off in the 60s, when Nasser decided to Arabize it (or so Dr. O said). If the Gulf 'belongs' to someone, uninformed outsiders would expect the stuff in it (islands, oil) to belong the same entity. Hence the long and bitter struggle about nomenclature. National Geographic certainly aren't the only ones to run afoul of people in the region. If you want to keep looking up the subject, there are stories involving Ahmadinejad and the Emir of Qatar, as well as British cartographers swayed by oil money.

Both terms are so laden with Orientalist history and British colonial involvement in the region
Really? The Iranians claim ancient Greek maps support their claims, and as mentioned above, the Arab side's version comes down to Nasser, at least based on what I know. So while they'd probably refer to British maps or whatever, I'm not sure the terms are Orientalist. Feel free to tell me why I'm wrong if you've read up on this and know better.

I like to just use the term 'the Gulf' when possible. I should be careful here though, because absent any context, people might well thing I'm referring to the Gulf of Mexico.
Kwabená Píèsíe: Bedouin in Desertmcgillianaire on October 1st, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC)
>I like to just use the term 'the Gulf' when possible.
Me too. I believe the Persian Gulf is the more popular term but I wouldn't mind a growth in the use of Arabian Gulf because I think it reflects the current realities rather than the region's history. (The Persians used to rule Oman, formed a majority of the inhabitants (or at least its descendants) in Bahrain and though my Imperial Persian history is sketchy for the other Gulf states, maintained some degree of influence over them throughout the course of history. Until the British arrived of course.)
(Anonymous) on October 19th, 2007 07:12 pm (UTC)
n, your world is so different from mine it's fascinating