Semitic Language Groups
Arabic and Assyrian are the two Semitic languages spoken in Iran.
The Arabic dialects are spoken in Khuzestan and along the Persian
Gulf coast. They are modern variants of the older Arabic that
formed the base of the classical literary language and all the
colloquial languages of the Arabic-speaking world. As a Semitic
language, Arabic is related to Hebrew, Syriac, and Ethiopic. Like
these other Semitic languages, Arabic is based on three-consonant
roots, whose meanings vary according to the combinations of vowels
that are used to separate the consonants. Written Arabic often
is difficult to learn because of the tendency not to indicate
short vowels by diacritical marks. There is no linguistic family
relationship between Arabic and Persian, although Persian vocabulary
has been heavily influenced by Arabic. The Arabic loanwords incorporated
into Persian have been modified to fit the Persian sound patterns.
Arabic also continues to be the language of prayer of all Muslims
in Iran. Children in school learn to read the Quran in Arabic.
Persian- and Turkic-speaking Iranians who have commercial interests
in the Persian Gulf area often learn Arabic for business purposes.
In 1986 there were an estimated 530,000 Arabs in Iran. A majority
lived in Khuzestan, where they constituted a significant ethnic
minority. Most of the other Arabs lived along the Persian Gulf
coastal plains, but there also were small scattered tribal groups
living in central and eastern Iran. About 40 percent of the Arabs
were urban, concentrated in such cities as Abadan, Ahvaz, and
Khorramshahr. The majority of urban Arab adult males were unskilled
workers, especially in the oil industry. Arabs also worked in
commerce and services, and there was a small number of Arab professionals.
Some urban Arabs and most rural Arabs are tribally organized.
The rural Arabs of Khuzestan tend to be farmers and fishermen.
Many of the Arabs who live along the Persian Gulf coastal plains
are pastoral nomads who keep herds of cattle, sheep, and camels.
Both the urban and the rural Arabs of Khuzestan are intermingled
with the Persians, Turks, and Lurs who also live in the province.
The Khuzestan Arabs are Shias. While this physical and spiritual
closeness has facilitated intermarriage between the Arabs and
other Iranians, the Arabs have tended to regard themselves as
separate from non-Arabs and have usually been so regarded by other
Iranians. Among the Khuzestan Arabs there has been a sense of
ethnic solidarity for many years. The government of neighboring
Iraq, both before and after the 1979 Revolution in Iran, has claimed
that the Khuzestan Arabs are discriminated against and has asserted
at various times that it has assisted those desiring "liberation"
from Tehran. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 and occupied much
of Khuzestan for nearly two years, however, an anticipated uprising
of the Arab population did not occur, and most of the local Arabs
fled the area along with the non-Arab population.
Apart from Khuzestan there is little sense of ethnic unity among
the scattered Arab settlements. The Arabs in the area stretching
from Bushehr to Bandar-e Abbas tend to be Sunnis. This has helped
to strengthen their differentiation from most non-Arab Iranians
and even from the Arabs of Khuzestan.
The other Semitic people of Iran are the Assyrians, a Christian
group that speaks modern dialects of Assyrian, an Aramaic language
that evolved from old Syriac. Language and religion provide a
strong cohesive force and give the Assyrians a sense of identity
with their coreligionists in Iraq, in other parts of the Middle
East, and also in the United States. Most Assyrians adhere to
the Assyrian Church of the East (sometimes referred to as the
Chaldean Church or Nestorian Church). Many theologians regard
this church as the oldest in Christendom. In the nineteenth century,
Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries proselytized among
the Assyrians and converted many of them.
There were about 32,000 Assyrians in Iran at the time of the
1976 census. Many of them emigrated after the Revolution in 1979,
but at least 20,000 were estimated still to be living in Iran
in 1987. The traditional home of the Assyrians in Iran is along
the western shore of Lake Urmia. During World War I virtually
the entire Assyrian population fled the area, which had become
a battleground for opposing Russian and Turkish armies. Thousands
of Assyrians perished on the overland flight through the Zagros
to the safety of British-controlled Iraq. Eventually, many of
the Iranian Assyrians settled among the Assyrian population of
Iraq or emigrated to the United States. During the reign of Reza
Shah, Assyrians were invited back to Iran to repopulate their
villages. A few thousand did return, but, since the 1940s, most
young Assyrians have migrated to Tehran and other urban centers.
Data as of December 1987