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August 10, 2021

As the rivers run dry the residents of Iran’s Khuzestan province—a land that knows how to create art out of thirst—are protesting over extreme water shortages.


One ancient inscription attributed to the Achaemenid King Darius is a prayer to protect his people from “enemy, drought, and dishonesty.” The capital of Darius’s vast empire was Persepolis, but he also enjoyed a winter castle in Shush, in the Khuzestan province of Iran. Khuzestan was home to one of the first civilizations in history, starting in the fourth millennium BCE, but many readers might never have heard of it until its recent appearance in the news due to protests over water shortages. An elder might recall Khuzestan for its affiliation with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now widely known as BP and responsible for much oil colonization between the 1910s and the 1950s. The company came into existence when oil was discovered in Persia, specifically Khuzestan, in 1908.

In 1908 Britain leveraged Iran’s turbulent political condition to assume exclusive rights to oil exploitation in Khuzestan. The Trans-Iranian Railway, completed in 1938, connected Tehran, the capital, to Khuzestan, indicating the importance of the region. The year 1943 marked the invasion of Iran by the Allied Forces and the United States becoming a key player in Middle East. Less than a decade later, in 1951, came the nationalization of the oil industry and consequently the birth of the National Iranian Oil Company. In 1953, a CIA-supported coup overthrew the nationalist government but the oil remained national, and the British were still a prominent force in its management.

Water Protests (Image courtesy of Associated Press, Reuters)

Until the 1979 Islamic Revolution, British and American expats were plentiful in the south of Iran thanks to the oil industry. The local community was deeply affected by their presence; indeed, Khuzestan became a trial field for many modernist ideas. But with the onset of the revolution, the expats fled the turbulent country, and in 1980, Iraq invaded Khuzestan, marking the beginning of a vicious eight-year-long war that left thousands dead and millions homeless. The region never recovered.

This province—home to a large community of Arab-Iranians whose mother tongue is Arabic as opposed to Farsi—is still the main source of income for the Iranian state but has hardly received anything in return besides poverty, neglect, and discrimination. Four decades after 1979, hardly anything remains of the beautiful cities and the grandeur of the oil industry. The towns carry the marks of war, and still from time to time an unsuspecting shepherd or child steps on a land mine in an abandoned field. But Khuzestan’s deepest wound has now surfaced, and it’s not about nostalgia, war, or oil. It is about water.

Just like the rest of the world, Iran is experiencing rapid global warming. Yet instead of having prepared for the inevitable, decades of unsavory water politics and inexpert decision making have left this region in dire straits. The tap water is chocolate brown, and in some places nonexistent. Iran’s only navigable river once passed through this place, making the hot province unusually fertile, but the river has dried up and turned into a wasteland. Sandstorms have become a regular occurrence as lakes dry out. Birds native to Khuzestan have left, and now sing up north in Tehran.

Khuzestan water protest march, July 2021

Just like the birds, Iranian people have become very familiar with the migration of experts. Undoubtedly Iran’s two major exports are oil and scientists. Having one of the highest rates of higher education in the Middle East, it also has the highest rate of “brain drain,” or flight of human capital, among the developing countries. The educated elite are leaving because their expertise is deemed worthless by the state, which values other characteristics in its decision makers, such as extreme Islamism and anti-West fervor. Kaveh Madani, an acclaimed Iranian environmental scientist at Yale University who was invited by the state to solve the water issue back in 2017, epitomizes this phenomenon. He sounded the alarms in his short time in office, and soon the extremists accused him of being a traitor trying to undermine the revolutionary state in the eyes of the West. He was forced to flee the country to avoid being arrested, and took with him all hope for a sensible way out of Iran’s environmental crisis.

As a generally dry country, Iran is no stranger to drought and extreme weather. But as the shortage of water and other life essentials has reached its peak along with decades of oppression, desperation, and rage, the people of Khuzestan and many other regions facing the same problems have taken to the streets. Their intolerant government reacts with a generous deployment of bullets, ignoring the fact that killing the thirsty (even thirsty animals) is a sin in the religion by which the state claims its legitimacy.

White Bridge 2007, Ahvaz, Khuzestan, Iran
White Bridge 2021, Ahvaz, Khuzestan, Iran

Ironically indeed, the Shia branch of Islam that Iran has aligned itself with for more than 520 years is tightly entangled with a story of thirst. Two centuries after the change of faith in Iran in 654 CE, this religious identity began forming in the ancient lands of Persia as a mode of resistance against the Baghdad caliphate that ruled over all other Islamic lands. In the year 1500, Iranians completely separated their narrative of Islam from the Sunni to disconnect themselves from the Ottoman empire, and this new account helped to form a new national identity that centers Huseyn, the younger grandson of the Prophet of Islam. Legend has it that as he traveled to Kufah with his followers and family, Huseyn was besieged and outnumbered in Karbala desert by the army of the caliphate, who blocked the water from reaching his camp, causing his family and followers to perish from thirst.

Tazieh, one of the East’s first endeavors in the dramatic arts, re-creates the events in Karbala. It has been performed every year since the seventeenth century on the anniversary of the occasion. A very particular dramatic art that is the embodiment of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect (albeit in a decidedly non-Brechtian context), Tazieh has no barrier between the audience and the play: the performers read their lines from a piece of paper and never pretend false emotions so as to suggest that they are the real characters. Rather, the essence of Tazieh is to constantly remind the audience that the performers are only stand-ins. Tazieh is performed somewhat differently in different regions of the country, but its content is always about thirst.

Although Tazieh is now used by the Iranian state to promote Shiite propaganda, this dramatic art has roots in ancient, pre-Islamic epic plays that were saved from being banned and forgotten after Islam entered Persia thanks to their inclusion of religious themes. And water, thirst, and unmerciful heat continue to be significant themes in Iranian creative productions across genres and eras. One fruitful venture into the deep waters of thirst in the Iranian creative industry is this ending scene from Amir Naderi’s film The Runner (1984):

Naderi, who in fact hails from Khuzestan, is very well acquainted with the culture of the south of Iran and its strange intertwinement with both foreigners and water. Apart from depicting the huge gap between the local community and the foreigners, and the challenges of day-to-day life in a region both rich and poor, Naderi uses thirst as a significant motif and a metaphor for the desire for something more—for things beyond. This thirst is at last sated by education as a symbol of salvation.

The Runner by Amir Naderi (1984)

Naderi followed up The Runner with Water, Wind, Dust (1989), which stars the same young actor. The film follows a boy who returns to his family in a remote southern village of Iran only to find that they have been forced to move in search of water wells that have not yet dried up. Breathtaking, minimalistic images of bleak deserts and sandstorms in their terrible beauty characterize this film that predicted the miseries now befalling Khuzestan with astonishing accuracy.

The short 1972 documentary film P Like Pelican (1972) by Parviz Kimiavi walks us through the real and strange life of a hermit who has taken up residence in an abandoned citadel in central Iran’s Tabas desert. The man has abandoned civilization because of a failed love affair, and he teaches the Farsi alphabet to local children who come to the ruins to play by means of poems he writes himself (the use of the alphabet as a symbol of change is a beautiful through-line between The Runner and P Like Pelican). The old hermit readily thinks of an example for each letter, but when he reaches P, one of the boys suggests “pelican,” a bird that the hermit has never seen. The boy describes the pelican as soft, white, and cold—characteristics hardly to be found in the dry, hot, utterly unmerciful environment of central Iran.

Poetry and storytelling are surely among Iranians’ finest talents, enabling them to shape a complex cultural identity around the poetics of dried lakes, sandstorms, and thirst. But despite the terribly beautiful images that such talent depicts, the lack of water in Khuzestan is horrifying in its stark reality. This region that already carries the scars of wars over oil is now facing a new war over water. And the prayer of Kind Darius seems to be lost to his gods; for draught, enemies and lies have all befallen his land.

Zayandeh River 2021, Isfahan, Iran

Shabrang Behzad is an author, translator and artist based in Tehran.


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