Another name for gulf sets off a wave of anger

Sea change: A mapmaker gets caught up in a dispute over what to call the body of water - Persian or Arabian.

November 25, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

For thousands of years, the people of ancient Persia and their descendants in modern Iran have called it the Persian Gulf.

But the National Geographic Society's mapmakers noticed that some U.S. military agencies and other map gazers use the name Arabian Gulf for the body of water on Iran's southwestern shore.

So they altered the eighth edition of the society's influential Atlas of the World to include Arabian Gulf as an alternate name (in parentheses) under the traditional title.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Nov. 25 editions about a controversy over a National Geographic map of the Persian Gulf contained a statement incorrectly attributed to the Iran National Front USA. The statement, posted on the Iran National Front Web site, was issued by a separate Iranian nationalist organization, the Marze Por Gohar Party.
The Sun regrets the errors.

That has landed them in hot water with Iranians from Los Angeles to Tehran. Not to mention the Iranian government, which on Tuesday banned National Geographic's publications and journalists from the country until the organization "corrects" the atlas.

The anger had been brewing for weeks. "A spit in us Iranians' faces!!" writes Padina Abbaspour in a reader-review of the atlas on the Amazon.com Web site. "This is you people trying to change and alter History and what is written down for generations!!"

The emotion reflects Iranians' deep pride in their ancient culture, and a long history of enmity toward regional Arab powers such as Iraq, with which Iran fought a bloody eight-year war in the 1980s.

National Geographic has received thousands of e-mails on the subject, and Amazon.com has posted hundreds of reader reviews of the $165 atlas, mostly from angry Iranians. Some of them see geopolitical conspiracy.

"It is a shame to see what once was a respected journal turned into a political backroom wheeler & Dealer and an Arab slave," wrote R. Zomorodi from Los Angeles. "The reason ... is due to the fact that The Saudi Royal family owns a large amount of shares in all US media and journals."

The emotional dispute has put Allen Carroll, National Geographic's chief cartographer, in the hot seat.

"We try to retain our independent judgment and not to be swayed by a response from a group with a particular interest," Carroll says. In a statement on the society's Web site, he defends the atlas but promises to add "explanatory" and "clarifying language" to future editions.

Carroll has seen similar uproars before. "For instance, the Sea of Japan ... The Koreans want us to use the term East Sea," he says. And new atlas includes East Sea in parentheses.

Iranians are alleging other mapmaking insults, including a description of three tiny islands in the gulf. Designated as Iranian in the last edition of the atlas, this time they're labeled as "Occupied by Iran" but "claimed by the UAE [United Arab Emirates]."

That change triggered this online eruption from an entity in Los Angeles called the Iran National Front USA: "The enemies of Iran should know, so long as there is one Iranian alive with blood pumping through his or her heart, even the thought of taking one grain of Iranian soil, will strongly be opposed and defeated. Long Live Iran."

It was all so predictable, says James E. DiLisio, professor of geography at Towson University. "I'm surprised the National Geographic got in the middle of it," he says.

Ethnically, Iranians are mostly Indo-European, not Arab. Ethnic and territorial disputes in the region go back "to Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar and Darius the Great ... back before the birth of Christ and before Islam appeared on the scene," says Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center in Washington.

In the past 10 years especially, he says, Iranian nationalism has resurfaced as a force in the Islamic republic's foreign policy, even among reformers.

"We have a lot of positive things in Persian culture, and we want to preserve it," says Muhammad Ala, an Iranian-born business professor at California State University in Los Angeles

"Our history is 7,000 years old," he adds, arguing that even the prophet Mohammad spoke of the Persian Gulf.

National Geographic's 8-pound Atlas of the World has no official status. But among geographers, it's considered authoritative. "If you're after a daily reference, the National Geographic is the one we normally look at," says Towson's DiLisio.

Experts agree that the name Persian Gulf, or Khalij-e Pars, predates Arabian Gulf by a long shot. "The earliest references stemmed from the time of the Sumerian rulers in the third century B.C. That ought to be old enough to establish it," says James Bill, an Iranian specialist at the College of William and Mary.

British cartographers adopted the name Persian Gulf at the turn of the last century when the Anglo-Persian Oil Co. was formed to tap Iranian oil, DiLisio says. When Standard Oil of California found oil on the Arabian side of the gulf, he says, the Americans began using Arabian Gulf on their maps in deference to their hosts.

Pan-Arab nationalists adopted the use of Arabian Gulf in the 1950s as a symbol of their movement.

"There's nothing people get more exercised about than the names of things," Bill says.

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