How the Collective for Black Iranians Is Amplifying Afro-Iranian Voices

In the wake of their latest exhibition, “Hasteem: We Are Here”, AMAKA speaks to the Collective for Black Iranians on how their work unearths and celebrates their marginalised histories and cultures.

Photo courtesy of Collective for Black Iranians.The exact number of Black Iranians is unknown. Their ancestry is linked to either the Trans-Saharan slave trade, the 19th century Pearl Diving trade, or more recent economic migration from African countries. However, race and ethnicity are not always discussed within the Iranian community. 39-year-old filmmaker and lawyer Priscillia Kounkou Hoveyda is changing this with a group of young Iranians of African descent from Iran, the UK, Canada, the US and Germany with the online platform Collective for Black Iranians.

Finding the echo

Formed in 2019, the collective opens up conversations on the ethnic group’s history, culture and social issues. Its main audience is its 17,000-strong following on Instagram, which showcases a colourful tapestry of short films, illustrations, commentaries and photos in Persian and English.

“We are such a small team, all working pro-bono because we were tired of the narratives of African and/or Black Iranian folks to be [sic] erased, ignored, overlooked. These experiences are powerful echoes and reflections back to oneself. Echoes are deeply valued because prior to finding these echoes, it was for many Black Iranians: complete silence”, Hoveyda tells us.

One of the group’s most remarkable projects is its history series. One of these tells the story of Haji Naneh, a Harriet Tubman-esque figure who helped free a girl who had been tricked into slavery called Narges.

Beeta Baghoolizadeh is an assistant professor of history and critical Black studies at the University of Bucknell in Pennsylvania, United States. Her work connects photography with the history of the modern Middle East, race, slavery, and the erasure of racial-economic exploitation in the region. She explains why it was important to bring Haji Naneh’s story to the fore:

“Haji Naneh’s rescue of Narges from her illegal form of enslavement tells us so much in such a short story from early 20th century Tehran. First, that there were Black women in Tehran, navigating (and out-manoeuvring) individuals who openly justified greed and deceit based on their Blackness. And second, it tells us a lot about racial constructions in Iran at this time, that a Black woman was assumed to be enslavable, even when she directly tells everyone involved that she was a free woman.

“Narges’ enslaver had kidnapped her because she was Black. Enslavement in Iran generally followed Islamic norms of enslavement — anyone born to a free father inherited their father’s status and could not be enslaved. Narges told everyone her father was free, but everyone, from the slave trafficker to the mullahs to the enslavers, ignored her freedom in the face of her Blackness.“

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Baghoolizadeh says the fact this story is not well known–even in Iran–helps explain negative attitudes towards race in the country:

“While I was conducting research in Iran, I had trouble tracking down her story and only came across it in a memoir. I came across other references to her and her network of escaped women too, with some people pointing to different neighbourhoods on older maps or alleys that used to be known as her parts of town. The idea that parts of Tehran — the capital of Iran — were known for a freed Black woman would surprise many Iranians today. Much of the history of enslavement in Iran has been erased, both actively and passively. Any visible signs of enslavement, such as architectural spaces and other spatial changes, were destroyed in the years after the Manumission Law of 1929.”

Other series focus on the history of African pearl divers who, alongside Arabs and Indians, were indentured and indebted labourers. Pearl diving has played a crucial role in the Persian Gulf’s economy since the Stone Age. By the 19th century, it experienced a boom, making up 75% of the gulf’s total exports. However, the industry faced a decline during the 1920s and 1930s, as increasing numbers of pearl divers sought their freedom.

Bringing it forward to the present day, the Collective for Black Iranians is an opportunity for young people to tell their own stories, like the Voices of Home series. Londoner Roxanne Tataei is of Afro-Jamaican and Iranian heritage and stands out as a key insight into Afro-Iranian narratives. She tells us:

“I was raised by my Jamaican mother and family, but unfortunately was never close to my Iranian side. Apart from delicious food, I never knew much about my Iranian culture. I’ve never been to Iran and I was never taught Farsi. And I guess, because of these things — added with a generous amount of anti- Blackness — I have never felt particularly Persian. But as I’ve grown and now become a mother, I’ve had to discover and explore what being Persian looks like to me. And I have found the deepest connection through song.”

Tataei performed “To Bio” for the cooperative, a song famously rendered by Iranian opera soprano singer Monir Vakili, who popularised Persian folk music and opened Iran’s first opera company.

“Learning and singing this song really allowed me to connect with my culture in a way I never have before. And whilst I don’t understand what I’m saying, I feel every word. Maybe it’s time I start those Farsi classes”, Tataei explains.

Hoveyda says more Black Iranians are coming forward to contribute to the platform, “It is always the greatest gift that keeps on giving — finally finding more echoes to our identities and our experiences. Let’s add the born and raised in Iran, Black Iranians who when you walk the streets of Isfahan or Tehran or Karaj, anywhere, the assumption is that you’re a foreigner. For me, it’s been for all of us to begin drawing the contours of our histories, from Bandar Abbas to Zanzibar and Tehran, passing through Bandar Bushehr, Berlin and Paris to Freetown and New York and Toronto. The village is finally more visible and is growing.”

Be the culture

The Collective for Black Iranian’s rising prominence has caught the attention of streaming giant Netflix, who reached out to collaborate last year.

Speaking to AMAKA on the opportunity, Hoveyda says, “We were in our first six months at the collective, and they saw the value of our work and its potential for our community and also their own staff. There was a desire to hear from us, make us more visible to their community, ours and beyond. We are grateful for those who do see us, understand why the conversations we bring not only to the Iranian community but to the global community are vital in understanding one another and removing whatever pre-conceived ideas we’ve built around ourselves and others.”

That conversation led to the Be the Culture photography series, which falls under Netflix’s WeAreNetflix initiative. Hoveyda operated as the shoots’ creative director, showing various members of the collective. Photographer Henna Koskinen shot with a medium format film camera while artist Chyna Dumas filmed with a Sony Handycam from the 1990s. Hoveyda explains to me that this was intentional, using older cameras to show the preexisting nature of their identities, “It was important to show the preexisting nature of our identities hence the use of older mediums- as in, Black and Afro-Iranians have always been here.”

One photograph shows co-founder Alex Comment end Eskandarkhah sitting on an Iranian poshti (cushion), holding an African mask that covers half of his face. He sits on a large cushion that’s upholstered with rug fragments. West African wax-print fabric (also known as “Dutch wax” or, more popularly, “Ankara”) is used as a backdrop.

“[It’s] a nod to our ancestors, to let them know we are reading about them, making art and having the world look at them. And [it’s] an obvious nod to Malian photographer Malick Sidibe as well, who would build sets showcasing Ankara for backgrounds and many other items”, Hoveyda explains.

Hasteem: We Are Here exhibition

Beyond social media and streaming platforms, the Collective for Black Iranians is making its way offline, taking advantage of relaxed COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings in the United States. One way they have done this is with their recent Hasteem: We Are Here exhibition at the 12 Gates Arts gallery in Philadelphia, United States.

“It’s a big accomplishment for us as the collective is not funded and is only one year old. This is truly all a labour of love and pain and love all over again. We’ve received such powerful feedback from people who went to see the art exhibit. Many were deeply moved by the story of Khyzran, who was born in the 1800s [in] Zanzibar and was kidnapped into enslavement in Iran, [before] fighting for her freedom and that of a 13-year old enslaved boy in Iran, Walladee.” Hoveyda tells AMAKA.

Hoveyda continues, speaking on plans for the group’s future:

“We’re working on securing other art exhibitions and enlarging it with more short films from Iran by Afro-Iranian/Black Iranian filmmakers and artists, more visual representations and narratives of being Black/Afro-Iranian and Africans of Iranian descent. We’d like to lead more conversations on the topics of race, intersections and racism, anti-Blackness, harmful notions of colour-blindness in our community, the region and beyond, [as well as] put an end to the non-factual and harmful “conversations” around blackface. [We want to] allow our community to grow once and for all in the richness of all its Black and African diversity.”

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