Tuesday 15 December 2015

The Polish Exodus To Iran in World War 2

In light of the horrific deaths of refugees & migrants crossing into Europe and the alarming xenophobic sentiments that are being spouted on the radio waves, I have decided to bring attention to an almost forgotten footnote in history; the Polish refugees of Iran.

A Polish woman decorates her tent, in an American Red Cross camp in Tehran, Iran. 1942
Why were the Polish in Iran?
Time for some backstory. It's September 1939 - Germany and the Soviet Union have invaded Poland and partitioned the country between the two. To say life was miserable for the Polish at this time would be an understatement. The Soviet Union interned over 320,000 Polish citizens and deported them to Siberia for work in the infamous Gulags. Another 150,000 Poles died, in gruesome massacres such as the Katyn massacre. Stalin began emptying Poland of anyone who could resist the occupation. First went military officers and their families, then the intelligentsia, and last anyone with wealth, influence or education.

Fast forward to 1941 and Nazi Germany launched a full-scale invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa, the largest military campaign in history). Officially on the side of the Allied powers in July 1941, Joseph Stalin signed a Polish-Russian agreement that led to the foundation of a Soviet-backed Polish army that was to be made up of Polish prisoners of war who were 'pardoned' from the Gulags. The formation of such an army would take place in British-occupied Iran.

With news of their mass release, Poles began to slowly make their way towards Iran. With the Polish government in exile unable to assist their compatriots, and the Soviets refusing to allow access to trains to facilitate their exodus, fatalities due to hunger, the Siberian cold, violence, disease and simple exhaustion were high. By August 1942, a conservative estimate suggests more than 115,000 Poles (included 40,000 civilians) fled to Iran. At most, it is thought 300,000 Poles fled.

Camp Polonia:

The soldiers who enlisted in Anders' Army (named after its commander Władysław Anders) regrouped in Bandar Pahlavi, Mashhad and eventually Ahvaz, before being transferred to British command in Mandatory Palestine.

Young Polish refugee at a camp operated by the Red Cross in Tehran, Iran. Nick Parrino, 1943
The civilians were left in the refugee camps that sprawled up around the country. Having first arrived in the port of Bandar Pahlavi (now Bander Anzali) on the northern Iranian coast, a makeshift city comprising over 2000 tents (provided by the Iranian army) was hastily erected along the shoreline of Pahlavi to accommodate the refugees. It stretched for several miles on either side of the lagoon: a vast complex of bathhouses, latrines, disinfection booths, laundries, sleeping quarters, bakeries and a hospital. Every unoccupied house in the city was requisitioned, every chair appropriated from local cinemas. Nevertheless, the facilities were still inadequate.

The Iranian and British officials who first watched the Soviet oil tankers and coal ships list into the harbour at Pahlavi on the 25th March 1942 had little idea how many people to expect or what physical state they might be in. Only a few days earlier, they had been alarmed to hear that civilians, women and children, were to be included among the evacuees, something for which they were totally unprepared.[4] The ships from Krasnovodsk were grossly overcrowded. Every available space on board was filled with passengers. Some of them were little more than walking skeletons covered in rags and lice. Holding fiercely to their precious bundles of possessions, they disembarked in their thousands at Pahlavi and kissed the soil of Persia. Many reportedly sat down on the shoreline and prayed, or wept for joy.

They had not quite escaped, however. Weakened by two years of starvation, hard labour and disease, they were suffering from a variety of conditions including exhaustion, dysentery, malaria, typhus, skin infections, chicken blindness and itching scabs. The spread of typhus in particular was deadly to such an extent that 40% were hospitalised and a large proportion later died.
Overcrowded ship crossing the Caspian Sea to Pahlavi

Gholam Abdol-Rahimi, a struggling photographer in Pahlavi, emerged from bed to witness ships disgorging disheveled refugees. Abdol-Rahimi's photographs are perhaps the most complete account of the catastrophe. But his work was never recognized or published.

Pahlavi was only a temporary shelter. Refugees were later dispersed to more prepared camps in Isfahan (Isfahan in particular being dubbed as the 'City of Polish Children'), Tehran and Ahvaz.

More than 13,000 of the arrivals in Iran were children, many orphans whose parents had died on the way. In Russia, starving mothers had pushed their children onto passing trains to Iran in hopes of saving them.

As the war dragged on, most refugees continued their journey away from the Soviet Union, reaching Pakistan, Palestine and British East Africa & South Africa, eventually to the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Polish cemetery in Bander Anzali (Pahlavi)
In all, 2,806 refugees died within a few months of arriving and were buried in cemeteries around Iran. Their alien names and the dates on their tombstones chronicle a calamity, even to a visitor without knowledge of their history. Etched on row after row of identical tombstones is a single year of death: 1942.
Polish military cemetery, Tehran.
Further reading:
Forgotten Polish Exodus to Persia - Washington Post
The Exile Mission: The Polish Political Diaspora and Polish Americans, 1939-1956. Anna D. Jaroszyńska-Kirchmann. page 26-27 
The Polish Deportees of World War II: Recollections of Removal to the Soviet Union and Dispersal Throughout the World. Tadeusz Piotrowski. page 10-12.

Friday 30 October 2015

The Ajam of Manama

The Ajam of Bahrain
But first, an introduction. The Ajam (عجم) are an ethnic group in Bahrain composed of ethnic Persians who hold Bahraini citizenship. They have traditionally been merchants living in specific quarters of Manama and Muharraq. They mostly adhere to the Shia sect of Islam. In the Manama Souq, many Persians are clustered in the neighborhoods of Mushbir and Fareeq el-Makharqa. They're estimated to number around 100,000.
The Persian-run school (Ittihad School) in 1939
The story of their origins is actually quite interesting. Let's begin, shall we?

Bahrain was under control of the Persians for a considerable portion of its history (Parthian, Sassanian, Safavid, Qajar dynasties amongst all) so we are going to assume that Persians from across the Gulf migrated at some point to Bahrain. However, we kinda need proof to say this. Proof that we don’t have the luxury of having. In fact, the earliest verified evidence of Persians owning some sort of Bahraini property comes from a deed that indicated the purchase of a date plantation in Bilad al-Qadeem in 1828. 

Why migrate to Bahrain?

Historians agree that large-scale migrations to Bahrain occurred between the 1860s and early 1920s. There are several reasons for this;
  • In the late 19th century, the Shahs, in their infinite wisdom, sought to consolidate revenue from customs and trade along the southern coastline of Iran. Obviously, this impeded merchants on their God-given right to acquire money. Merchants began favouring trading posts across the Gulf (Kuwait, Dubai, Manama) to the extent that they preferred trading in Indian rupees rather than the Persian kran.
  • Southern Iran in the 1860s-1920s wasn’t a fun place. Scarce rain caused food shortages in Bushehr between 1870-72, 1888-92 and 1897-8. Naturally, crime followed and staple food prices like wheat skyrocketed. Locust swarms and outbreaks of cattle disease didn’t help. Famines and outbreaks of diseases like cholera and smallpox in the 1870s and 1890s also certainly didn’t help.
Bonus: Over half of the Ajam are estimated to originate from Dasht district, where Bushehr is the capital city.

When did the Ajam arrive?

Now because the first census of Bahrain was conducted in 1904, we have absolutely no clue on the exact numbers. But we are really good at guesstimating. Records show a sharp increase in the consumption of tea imports, shawl, rosewater, books and shoes in 1873-1905. Persians of the mercantile class were often literate and contemporary writing by British observers welcomed the “more refined taste and superior material culture of the Ajam immigrants” (their words).

What type of people migrated?

If you think all the Ajam were rich traders looking to make a quick buck, you’d be mistaken. The majority of Persians who left Bushehr were economic migrants assisted by relatives in Bahrain or were often simply impoverished peasants and labourers escaping the insecurities of rural Iran. Persians often intermarried with first-cousins and relatives in Iran to promote continuity with their former homeland.

For a case study of the Safar and Sharif families et al, refer to the reference at the end.

The Ajam of Manama

It’s 1904. If you paid attention, you’d know we have the census by now. The census in 1904 showed that over 1,550 Persians lived in Manama, forming the largest permanent foreign ethnic group in the city. Patronage for more Persian immigrants was provided by the Bushehri and Kazerooni families (entrepreneur groups who wished to enlarge their incomes basically) who were responsible for the protection of over 20% of the Ajam population of the city.

The Fareej:

You’d think that with Persians predominately being traders or labourers, they’d be centered around the souq (property-wise at least), right? Nope. The souq’s buildings were owned by members of the ruling family so the Persians improvised by living on the then-outskirts of Manama, resulting in the formation of residential districts we all know and love called the Fareej. 

The oldest of these residential districts are the Fareej Kanoo and Fadhil (collectively known as the fareej-al-Ajam / the Persian quarter) located just east of the souq and port. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Hammam and Makharga districts were established. In the 1920s, the fareej of Mushbir and Bu Sirra were still growing.

The Ajam elite (particularly the Bushehri and Kazerooni families, being building contractors) acquired empty land in the residential quarters to build houses and hut compounds called hawteh. This was how the neighborhoods grew. These residential quarters were often housed by families that knew each other etc.

For the rich Persians, life was good. For the impoverished and unskilled labourer? Not so much. They rarely found accommodation in good places and often worked mainly in the pearl industry or in menial labour alongside the Baharna, freed slaves and Baluchis. In 1929, these poor Persians formed a majority of the labour force in the port; they were often involved in disturbances with the Najdi population (in 1903-4 and 1923). Their populations increased in the 1910s and 1920s. 

For the poor Persian, hawteh was not a luxury they could have. They often lived in concentrated informal housing called barasti or ‘arish. The barasti sprung up in eastern Manama and on marshland of no agricultural value. 

A key way to distinguish rich and poor neighborhoods was by name. Richer neighbourhoods were named after families whereas poorer ones were named after geographic locations (where said-poor Persians came from) like Awadhiyya, Suqaiya and Minawiyyah.
People in front of a barasti, 1930s Bahrain.
Bonus - the history of Adliya
The history of Adliya is somewhat… sad. Actually, it’s very sad.
First founded and named Zulmabad (which literally means the land of oppression), it housed predominately poor Persians from Bander Abbas in 1923. The district was a source of major epidemics and, in an effort by the Manama municipality to clean its act, decided to change its name to an Arabicised Adliya (land of justice!) in 1938. But still, people were poor. It was sad. Such is life.

Author's note: Yes, I am aware of the existence of a wonderful history of the Ajam of Muharraq. I hope to include it at some point in the future. Do add any interesting information in the comments below!

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