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It's the Arabian Gulf - and that's that
By Khalaf Al Habtoor, Special to Gulf News
Published: August 25, 2009, 23:03
The gentle water that laps off the shores of the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq and Iran has become a source of contention. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet but it certainly irks most people in this part of the world when outsiders invariably refer to the Arabian Gulf as the Persian Gulf. Those of us who grew up here swam in the Arabian Gulf as children and were told that the big ships we could see in the distance were sailing through the Arabian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. And, today, most tourists who flock here from every corner of the globe do not consider themselves visitors to the Persian Gulf.
It may be true that pre-1960s maps and treaties made reference to this body of water as the Persian Gulf in the same way that many ancient European maps referred to the Red Sea as Sinus Arabicus or Arabian Gulf. But let's fast forward to the 21st century. Today, there are several reasons why the international community and its cartographers should officially recognise 'Arabian Gulf'.
The first is obvious. Persia hasn't existed since 1935 and, therefore, does not appear on modern maps. So, by saying Persian Gulf we are implicitly attributing domination of this 24,000 square kilometre body of water to a long gone era.
Secondly, the modern-day Islamic Republic of Iran is just one of eight countries that share this waterway, with all the rest being Arab. Moreover, many Iranians who live near Iran's southern coastline are ethnically Arab or Arabic speakers.
Thirdly, we are living during a time when countries in the Gulf have attained unprecedented geopolitical and economic clout, which should be recognised.
Fourthly, history notwithstanding, there are numerous examples of countries, cities and seas undergoing a name change to reflect the contemporary status quo. For instance, Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe, the Gold Coast became Ghana, Burma changed its name to Myanmar and Bombay is now known as Mumbai.
You may be interested to know that the Romans called the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum or 'Our Sea', while the ancient Greeks called the Atlantic Ocean Oceanus, but you don't find present-day Italians and Greeks up in arms about the name change.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our good friends the Iranians. They are hanging on to the 'Persian Gulf' like a mother lion defending her cubs. In 2004, hundreds of organised Iranian bloggers and webmasters launched what is called a 'Google bomb' and were successful in manipulating the Google search engine so that each time anyone searched for 'Arabian Gulf', up popped a spoofed web page that read 'The Gulf you are looking for does not exist. Try Persian Gulf'. Iranian hackers have also been busy hacking into Arab websites and replacing maps of the Gulf with their own.
In 2005, the Iranian government was incensed when Qatar used 'Arabian Gulf' in its official documents relating to the 2006 Asian Games and threatened to boycott them. In the same vein, Tehran has threatened to cancel the 2009 Islamic Solidarity Games planned for October because GCC member countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have asked that references to the 'Persian Gulf' be dropped from the event's promotional materials and medals. However, negotiations are ongoing and the Games may yet be salvaged. In the past, Iran has banned National Geographic publications because its World Atlas had 'Arabian Gulf' in parentheses, as well as The Economist, which used 'Gulf' on a map published in the magazine.
Frankly speaking, if Iranian sensitivities are that delicate then I have no problem with any name they care to give this shared body of water as long as they do not impose their terminology on anyone else. In a spirit of live and let live there should be no reason why they can't continue with 'Persian Gulf' while we Arabs hold to 'Arabian Gulf' or, simply, 'Gulf' in the same way the British say 'English Channel' and the French La Manche (the Sleeve) when speaking of the Atlantic waters that separate the UK from France.
Just as the labels English Channel and La Manche are legally interchangeable, 'Arabian Gulf' and 'Persian Gulf' should be likewise in the eyes of the international community. Despite appeals from Gulf nations, as things stand, UN directives stipulate that 'Persian Gulf' should be used in official documents, while the US and the UK have both endorsed 'Persian Gulf' as the official term of reference. Given the close relationship that GCC countries enjoy with Washington and London, this entrenched stance on their part is uncooperative at best, offensive at worst.
Lastly, our predicament is shared by North and South Korea, which have asked the UN Conference on the Standardisation of Geographical names to change the 'Sea of Japan' to the 'East Sea'. Unlike its support for 'Persian Gulf', in this case, the UN has ruled that such issues should be settled by the countries concerned.
We are just as proud of our history and geopolitical status as the Iranians are and we deserve just as much respect from our friends, especially when we host so many throughout the Gulf region. I would, therefore, ask our leaders to vigorously pursue this issue at the UN and, further, I would request our allies to look favourably upon any such request.
Until now, Arab nations have been treating this issue with kid gloves. It's about time that we made ourselves heard. The warm waters of the Gulf will be around long after we're gone but as Theodore Roosevelt once said, "The one thing I want to leave my children is an honourable name".
Khalaf Al Habtoor is a businessman and the Chairman of Al Habtoor Group.
Long shadow of 1929 Hebron massacre
Eighty years ago, violent Arab riots against Jewish immigration gripped British-ruled Palestine. The worst violence occurred in the city of Hebron where, on the 23 and 24 August, 67 Jews were murdered. Dina Newman reports on how memories of the bloody events of 1929 still linger in Hebron today.
A small museum in the Old City of Hebron, established by the Jewish settler historian Noam Arnon, displays evidence of the massacre eight decades ago - a photograph of a girl struck over the head with a sword with her brain spilling out; a woman with bandaged hands; people with their eyes gouged out.
These are the well-documented atrocities committed by an Arab mob seeking to drive their Jewish neighbours out of Hebron.
Hajj Yussef Hijazi, now 95 years old, witnessed the tragedy. He lived in the old city and remembers that houses there were small and close to each other. A section of his family's house was rented out to a Jewish hacham, or rabbi. Both sections of the house were connected through a back door.
"Jews in the old city were mostly shopkeepers, doing business. We used to visit each other," he says speaking through an interpreter. "We used to go to each others' places for tea. They were our Palestinian Jews, they spoke Arabic and they dressed like us Arabs."
"Jews lived here peacefully with their Arab neighbours," confirms Mr Arnon. "Jews here were not involved in any politics. They did not have any self-defence. And this wonderful life finished with a tragedy."
Hebron is a holy city to both Muslims and Jews. The patriarch Abraham is believed to be buried here. Both Muslims and Jews claim spiritual and emotional connection to the site, which is called the Tomb of the Patriarchs by Jews and the Ibrahimi Mosque by Muslims.
But modern political rifts mean the tension between the two communities remains high.
Among Hebron's Jewish settlers, probably the most hardline settler community in the West Bank, the enduring stereotype of a cruel Arab, drinking tea with you one minute and plunging a dagger into your back the next, often comes up in conversation.
The settlements inside Hebron are heavily protected by Israeli soldiers. Since 1994, when a US-born settler Baruch Goldstein shot dead 29 Palestinians at prayer in Ibrahimi Mosque, the Israeli army maintains a strict separation policy.
As a result most Arab residents and shopkeepers have moved out of the Old City, and those who remain risk abuse and harassment by settlers protected by Israeli troops.
Hajj Yussef says problems with the Jewish community started in the mid-1920s, when more Jews began to arrive from abroad. They did not speak Arabic and they dressed differently. They were coming in their hundreds.
In November 1928, like every year since 1917, the Palestinian Arabs protested against the Balfour Declaration, a letter from the British foreign secretary promising to support a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.
"After these protests the Arabs got very angry," says Hajj Yussef. "They were very angry with the Jews, especially the non-Palestinian Jews."
The Jews and the Palestinians agree that despite prior warnings of possible violence in August 1929 the British authorities did nothing to avert the tragedy.
There was just one British policeman in Hebron, who had completely underestimated the danger to the Jewish minority.
He commanded a force of 18 mounted police and 15 on foot, of whom all but one were Palestinian Arabs.
This small force was quickly overrun by the mob, while some Arab policemen even joined in the killings.
From mid-August rumours began to spread that Jews were killing Muslims in Jerusalem and were about to destroy their holy sites.
The nationalist mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, is often blamed for whipping up news of anti-Arab violence to foment unrest. But despite the bloodshed elsewhere in Palestine, the Jewish community in Hebron did not believe that their Arab neighbours could attack.
Hajj Yussef remembers the morning of 24 August well. It was Saturday.
"When the trouble started I could not understand why, and I was really shocked," he says.
Early in the morning, when calls to kill Jews were heard on the streets of Hebron, Hajj Yussef and his cousin went to see their lodger, the Jewish hacham. They found him there together with his wife and a dozen students.
"We did not know all of students," says Hajj Yussef. "Some of them were not from Palestine, they were outsiders. But they were together with the hacham, and we took all of them into our section of the house through the back door."
When an angry mob came looking for the Jews, Hajj Yussef was afraid that the people being sheltered by his family could get hurt. He says he was not afraid for himself, perhaps because he was too young.
He says he and his cousin persuaded the mob to go away, "because this hacham was a Palestinian".
Noam Arnon does not know Hajj Yussef, but he used to know some other Arabs who had saved the Jews.
He says they deserve appreciation and recognition for what they did. As for the settler community, Mr Arnon sees its historic mission as the continuation of Jewish life in Hebron, after Jews returned to the city following Israel's occupation of the West Bank in 1967.
Ruth Hizmi is a teacher and a mother of seven. She is proud to live in Hebron and believes this is the best place in the world to raise her children.
"I was born in England, and sometimes I am scared to go out, because I know we are in danger," she says with a smile. "But I can see our children, they were born in Hebron, and they are walking around, they are proud, they have no fear. If an Arab attacks them, they attack back. This is our reality, and we can't run away from it."
The settlers are planning to commemorate the 1929 riots with a ceremony in September, with some of the survivors present. But Hajj Yussef believes today's settlers have no right to live in Hebron at all.
"I have no problem living with the Jews, like we lived many years ago," he says. "But today's settlers are not Palestinian Jews, they came here from abroad. And I have a problem if the Jews live in my country as occupiers and settlers."
When the word "gay" is entered into Google's translation tools, the word "luti" is returned, an Arabic equivalent of "sodomite", to the ire of gay activists.