Before the advent of social media, when people used to share jokes and petitions and good luck symbols via chain e-mails, I remember periodically receiving e-mails about signing a petition to preserve the name of the “Persian Gulf” and preventing its name change to the “Arabian Gulf.” More often than not, the culprit was Google—that is, the e-mails would state that Google, a search engine company, was going to change the name. This made me wonder: what are the implications of a search engine company, an entity of digital technology, purportedly making this transformation? Does it even have the jurisdiction to do so?
Currently, if one were to search the term “Persian Gulf” on Google Maps (depending on where you search from), its location is accurately pinpointed, followed by a parenthetical note: “also known as the Arabian Gulf.” In the different iterations of these e-mails, however, the claim was being made that if one were to search Google for “Persian Gulf,” it would not yield results. More often than not, this was not the case; that isn’t to say, though, that the claims were entirely unfounded. On at least two different occasions (that have been documented), Google Maps and Google Earth have used the denomination “Arabian Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf.” Over the years, other organizations have been the subject of boycotts by the Iranian government due to their use of the term “Arabian Gulf,” or even simply “The Gulf;” yet, these instances did not, it would seem, merit the same kind of attention and fervor on the part of Iranian users as Google’s so-called blunder did.
A search engine is supposed to be neutral. In Google’s founders’ letter, there’s a section titled, “Don’t be evil,” and the claim is that their search engine provides results that are “unbiased and objective.” Yet, how can the process of mapping and naming be “unbiased and objective”? When the Global Language Justice Reading Group hosted Dr. Elsa Stamatopoulou, we read and discussed her piece “Language Rights as Part of Cultural Rights,” that she had presented at the 2012 symposium, “Language Revitalization in the 21st Century: Going Global, Staying Local.” In this piece, Dr. Stamatopoulou refers to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as “the most advanced international instrument on language rights” (10)[i]; Article 13 of this Declaration that, along with Articles 14 and 16, deals with the language rights of Indigenous Peoples, refers to “the right to designate their own names for…places” (ibid).
What happens to this right when a corporation like Google that is vying for dominance in an international market, yet claims neutrality, enters the domain of mapping and naming? Of course, mapping is more complex when it comes to fluid bodies of water, and while the name “Persian Gulf” has been in effect for over a millennium, this name dispute makes sense, given the maritime boundaries of the Gulf’s surrounding Arab countries.
And of course, mapping and naming are always political. They denote access and power and strong nationalistic sentiments. So, when on October 13, 2017, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, referred to the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf when making an announcement about whether his administration would leave the nuclear treaty with Iran, Iranians around the world erupted into anger and resentment. The occasion of the remarks (not to mention the fact that the US Navy purposefully uses the designation “Arabian Gulf”), makes it hard to believe that this was a “slip”—especially given that the current administration made it its mission to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia and antagonize Iran as a shift away from the previous administration’s policies in the Middle East. Indeed, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to claim that the Commander in Chief was pleased with the reaction he elicited. The title of an article on vanityfair.com referred to Trump “trolling” the Iranians. Yet Trump’s Instagram post that refers to this statement has garnered more than 4 million comments (and counting). A group of Iranians (mostly using fake accounts) have made it their mission to visit this post every day and occupy the space underneath it, turning it into their very own, personal chatroom, typing desultory remarks in Persian—ranging from chit-chat and jokes to complete lyrics of Persian pop songs. It is, in fact, the Iranians that are trolling Trump—quite literally.
About a month before this incident, Apple finally added a Persian keyboard to its products. Before that, Iranians or Afghans using Apple products would have to use the Arabic keyboard to type. I was not aware of this development until early January 2018, when I was doing research for this post. I stumbled upon a news article on BBC which led to this discovery. And it seems I was not the only one who was still, unknowingly, using the Arabic keyboard. After conducting an informal survey on social media, it came to my attention that almost half of the population I had surveyed were not aware of this development and only switched to the Persian keyboard after I’d informed them. It is very likely, therefore, that a good number of those who were protesting the “Arabization” of their beloved Gulf in the space of the US President’s social media account, were doing so using an Arabic keyboard. It makes one wonder and hope about the possibilities of this ironic interaction: what happens when the digital technology and language of a people whose claims to the Gulf are deemed so threatening to the nationhood of the other, in fact comes to their aid in a space of protesting that “threat”? Just like the body of water whose name becomes a site of contest, the borders between their two languages becomes messy; I would like to think that this messiness is rife with possibilities.
While the difference in the two languages’ alphabet is merely 4 letters, the layout of the Persian keyboard is sufficiently different from the Arabic, to the extent that it almost feels like learning how to type in a new language. My typing speed in Persian is now considerably slower than what it used to be when I was using an Arabic keyboard. When texting Iranian family and friends, I am tempted to resort to Fargilisi (more commonly known as Pinglish, which is Persian typed in Latin script and is a combination of the words ‘Persian’ and ‘English’) so that I can type faster; and in those instances, I, almost unfailingly, remember the rant of a friend on Facebook a few years ago about the growing “illiteracy” among Iranians that he was witnessing on social media. One such grievance was against the use of Pinglish, and he was effectively equating its use with illiteracy. The post vexed me for a number of reasons, one of which was an absolute neglect of the vast number of Iranian diaspora whose children were raised abroad, with no access to schooling in their native language, thus becoming heritage speakers of Persian, relying on Pinglish to communicate and stay connected with friends and family back home. Pinglish is, therefore, their only mode of access to a world that is increasingly pushed or pulled away from them.
Yet, the need to expand the borders of Persian text and speech and to effectively go global while staying local (to borrow the title of the earlier-mentioned symposium), is deeply felt by an Iranian population that is breaking underneath the weight of imposed sanctions, travel bans, and further marginalization by Google’s equivalent(s) in the realm of geopolitics. Like mapping, naming, and language, Google also denotes access, on a scale that is at the moment, compared to the other avenues of access, arguably, the most widespread and important—which is why, I imagine, Google’s use of the name Arabian Gulf always drew the most attention and ire from Iranians. In a world that is largely connected via digital technologies and the endless possibilities they offer in terms of access to knowledge, goods, and international markets and databases, the threat of a cartographical erasure from its leading search engine could be conceived as the first step toward more permanent erasures.
[i] Stamatopoulou, Elsa. “Language Rights as Part of Cultural Rights.” Language Revitalization in the 21st Century: Going Global, Staying Local Symposium. City University of New York. 31 May 2012. Address
By Atefeh Akbari Shahmirzadi, Graduate Research Fellow in Global Language Justice and PhD Candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.