The Black Fish of Urmia

The Black Fish of Urmia - Civic Space

A car tyre lies in the growing salt flats of Lake Urmia, a salt lake in the province of West Azerbaijan. Studies have revealed that the lake's size has fluctuated over time largely due to the impact of periods of drought and flooding. Currently the lake is rapidly shrinking due to drought but also due to dams built on some of the rivers that feed the lake.

A car tyre lies in the growing salt flats of Lake Urmia, a salt lake in the province of West Azerbaijan, by Hossein Fatemi

The beautiful and complex allegories used by one of Iran’s most prominent children’s story writers and social critics, Samad Behrangi, have been used for a number of years to illustrate the common man’s struggles in Iran. Due to his communist leanings he still remains a controversial character for the dissidents of Iran; hitherto his writings remain respected all the same.

His life and work have become symbolic of Iran’s historic battle for the freedom of expression, be it the right to protest, freedom of linguistic expression or a writer’s right to write. For example, being from the city of Tabriz, in the Azarbaijan province in Iran, Behrangi’s native tongue was Azari Turkish, which he preferred to write in rather than Farsi. Yet, as it was prohibited to do so even in the Pre-revolution era, he was obliged to translate his works to Farsi for a license to publish. He resented this obligation – subtle nudges in this regard are seen in his work.

‘The Little Black Fish’, written in 1967, is Behrangi’s most eminent short story which encompasses his ideas and ideals skilfully. Using a little black fish as an allegory for injustice, struggle and oppression, Behrangi tells the story of this small fish that leaves his local stream to see the rest of the ocean. During his venture he meets numerous other animals that represent the oppressed class or the oppressors – a duality that he wanted children to learn at early on in life. Through his adventures he ultimately sacrifices himself to save the lives of others. His main line is touching, and reminiscent of Behrangi’s own life: “Death could come upon me very easily now… Of course, if someday I should be forced to face death— as I shall— it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the influence that my life or death will have on the lives of others.”

The reason I am having this nostalgic look at The Little Black Fish today is not only to highlight the relevance of the fish’s symbolic struggle against oppression, but rather the use of the symbolism of water and its relevance to what is the liquescent nature of Iran state affairs, where the flow of influence is manipulated and changed easily. A current that the little black fish couldn’t avoid either.

Taking this fluid form is the devastating stories of the acid attack women, who not only suffered from violent attacks, but the damming governmental bills that indirectly advocated them. The suspects of these horrific crimes, which have been linked to ‘moral patrols’ and ‘bad hijab’ monitoring have been freed due to the police’s inability to gather sufficient evidence.

Most recently, the miscarriage that faced Lake Urmia, in Behrangi’s home region of Azarbaijan, is noteworthy. One of the world’s largest lakes and a UNESCO biosphere reserve, has been drying out partly due to drought, but mainly, it seems, due to governmental mismanagement. This lake which leads many people’s livelihood, is at the heart of the region and the main reason for the areas agricultural richness. This mismanagement has ignited huge protests throughout the region – protests that have continued thought the years and have been met with heavy hand of the state. A source close to Azad Tribune has reported that the weekly protests by the residents of the Urmia region continue to strengthen regardless of the crackdown on its media coverage.

Many from this region have argued the rights of the Azari ethnic minorities are overridden by the governmental desire to continue development that is detrimental to the area, such as excessive damming of the rivers on the way to the lake. Although rainfall in recent months has increased the water levels, substantive protection and environmental impact evaluations are required to maintain this vital source of life in the area, as well as the respect of the surrounding community to protest.

The government, after much pressure, has agreed to research new methods to maintain the water resources of the region. Yet, the blame has been shifted on the residents on Urmia, accusing solely their overuse of water, combined with drought, rather than the mismanagement of river pathways. Iran has now agreed to spend half a billion dollars just in the first year on this project. Part of the announced three year plan is to ban further agricultural activities on large parts of land in the region. This can have devastating effect on the farming community if the government does not fully compensate them for what they would have earned while cultivation and irrigation is stopped during the selected years. Regardless, the black fish who reside in the Urmia will continue to struggle against the tide of governmental misuse and demand the lake’s rightful management, their right to water and protest.