Azerbaijani Turks are Iran’s biggest minority. Living mainly in the north-west of the country, in the region known as Southern Azerbaijan (or Iran’s North Azerbaijan), the 30 million-strong community make almost half of the republic’s entire population. Yet, the ethnic minority feels invisible, limited in its rights to affirm its identity and are pushed into the shadows - schools in Azeri Turkish are banned, so are media.
Since the mid-2000s Azerbaijanis have increasingly asked for more rights, in particular that of education in their native language, as enshrined in the Iranian constitution, which allows “languages of other ethnic groups” alongside the official Farsi. The provision however has remained a dead word. While a reality for other smaller minorities, (including from the Caucasus, like Georgian and Armenian minorities) schooling in Azeri Turkish is effectively prohibited. State media broadcasts only in Farsi.
Children learn their ethnic group’s language - a dialect of Turkish with strong Farsi influences - as the regional Azeri populate has been part of today’s Iran since the early 19th century - only in the private sphere, mainly in the family.
This is how Mahsa Mehdili learnt to love, and fight for, the language of her people.
Mehdili, a cultural activist currently living in self-imposed exile in Turkey, was born in 1983 in Salmas, in the north-west of the country - the only girl in a family of four whose parents were teachers. Azeri Turkish was the language that embraced her whole life, the one used over family meals, and in kids’ games on the playground.
Outside her family circle, the world spoke a foreign language.
“There was only Farsi on television and radio,” she recalls. “My father was adamant about keeping alive not only the language, but even the specific dialect from my region which differs in various ways from the Azeri Turkish spoken in other areas of Southern Azerbaijan.”
She was the only girl, surrounded by three brothers, but tradition never intruded the family in terms of gender. “My mother is a strong-willed woman and I was never told I could not do something because I am a woman. My father used to say “a woman can even lead an army.”
Her mission to protect her right to speak her native language alive started in her early school years - back then it did not look like a lifework, rather a powerful desire to explore. Elderlies in her community would embolden people to use Azeri Turkish, but when she wanted to write essays in her language at school she faced her teachers’ opposition. “It is not legal,” they told her. Yet, she regularly participated in poetry days which were gutsy statements in themselves.
“Just a few people dared to write in our native language and, frankly, we did not know our language well enough,” she recalls. “We just knew how to speak it, every new word was a discovery, like a new world opening up.”
Although the majority of Salmas’ population is Azeri, there were only two bookshops serving the community - one belonged to Mehdili’s teacher Nadali Jalili. As a schoolgirl she used hang out in the little shop, spending hours with him.
Those were formative years which shaped her understanding of who she was and where she belonged. She learnt about the region of Nagorno Karabakh which broke away from Azerbaijan at the fall of Soviet Union and the war that followed and about the 21 Azer movement which established the short-lived Azerbaijan’s People Government between November 1945 and November 1946, with capital Tabriz.
She turned into a bookworm. Digging through her father’s library, she stumbled into "Asli and Kerem." The then-eight year old was captivated by the anonymous epic saga about the ardent, yet tragic, love story of an Azerbaijani Muslim man for a Christian Armenian woman, dating back to the 16th century and originally written with the Arabic alphabet.
The humanities’ lover eventually ended up entering the veterinary faculty in Urmia, not far from the Turkish border. Her family encouraged her as the profession is lucrative. But her heart simply wasn’t there. At the university most of students spoke Persian, communicating in Azerbaijani Turkish was problematic - many students despised her, others praised her, there was simply no middle ground.
From devouring books she moved onto writing, attended the commemorations for Mohammad Hossein Shahriar, Iran’s celebrated contemporary poet who wrote in both Farsi and Azeri Turkish.
“I spoke at events at Urmia University. I met with like-minded people. At the beginning I was the only woman, then others started attending. I became a nationalist."
In 2002 she joined the ranks of "Oyanish" (Revival), a magazine published both in Persian and Azeri Turkish and started giving free language lessons at the university dormitory.
“We were a group of active, very brave women. One day we decided to gather and distribute flyers about the challenges the Azerbaijanis faced in Iran. We managed to distribute more than 1000 flyers that day, men could not keep up.”
Despite the restrictions, they organized secret gatherings to commemorate the Khojaly events when 161 Azerbaijani civilians were killed in February 1992 during the war in Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh.
In 2005 she was expelled from the university dormitory because of her poems - about Azerbaijan, about Nagorno Karabakh and the conflict frozen since 1994, and about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding president of independent Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century.
“I will never forget that night, they came after me for a few poems in Azeri Turkish, ” she sighs. “Our building was 20km from the city. Four men showed up at the dormitory at 1am and literally threw me out. They did not manage because other students got in their way and managed to kick them out.”
Since then, Mehdili was under the radar of the authorities - constantly monitored, often interrogated. “They questioned me so many times that even I cannot count them, but all they left serious pain in my memory.”
Pressure on activists like her increased in 2006. In May, one of Iran’s leading newspapers, the Farsi-language daily “Iran,” published a cartoon portraying a cockroach speaking Azeri Turkish. The caricature deeply offended the minority which staged demonstrations in the Southern Azerbaijan region, leading the country’s Press Supervisory Board to close down the state-owned outlet “due to its publication of divisive and provocative materials.” The culture minister officially apologized.
The events triggered a cultural reawakening and feelings of stronger unity which resulted in activists to increase calls for fairer minority policies. On their side, authorities saw the demands as a rise in nationalism threatening their power.
During the uprising, outspoken students were not allowed to enter the university, Mehdili recalls, and she was repeatedly interrogated by the state police. In 2011 she was then arrested on charges of “propaganda against the regime in Iran” by security forces. She was questioned in the cell for a month, and after the court she was given suspended sentence for one year.
Her activism was her life and brought her love. After her release in 2011 she married Musa Barzin Khalifali, a lawyer who represented many activists like her. Instead of gold, the common wedding present for brides, she asked for a jar of soil from Nagorno Karabakh and 1,324 books - the number corresponding to the Persian calendar year in which the Azerbaijan’s People Government was established (1945, according to the Western calendar).
Khalifali himself was arrested and sentenced for 27 months behind bars . Spending three months in prison he payed 100 million ( $US 40,000) as deposit and was released. They decided to leave Iran. Mehdili and Khalifali have been living in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, since 2012.
Mehdili has not forgetten her struggle, in fact her exile is part of it. She is the face of the Azerbaijan Province National Freedom Front and advocates for her people’s rights through events, publications, and conferences. The studies in veterinary have long been abandoned and she is now studying International Relations at Ankara’s Anadolu University.
Mehdili remains on Iranian authorities’ radar as a nationalist charged of disseminating lies about prisoners and violating the law. Her family has been threatened more than once.
“This is dirty propaganda against us but I accept it as part of our struggle,” she says to Chai Khana from her house in Ankara. “I am a lucky one, I have a family who accepted and supported my ideas and a husband who never tried to stop me. But it has not been easy; and it is not over.”
This material may contain terms, which are not favored by all the parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in a material belong to the author and not Chai-Khana.