The word Ajam has been utilized in many different contexts — from Iran to Yemen to Sub-Saharan Africa to Andalusia — to refer to the spaces of the Arab world’s “others.” “Ajam” came to refer to anything “foreign” or “strange.”
Ajam (عجم) is, at its root, a slur. Originally meaning “mute” in Arabic, the word was applied to those unable to speak Arabic properly. Arabic is historically written with only consonants – the vowels are omitted, and one must already know the word in order to understand how it should be pronounced.
As opposed to an “Arab” – which means “one who is able to correctly pronounce unwritten vowels” – an “Ajam” mumbled those tricky vowels, since Arabic wasn’t their first language.
Over time, Ajam came to be specifically used to refer to Persians, as they were one of the first major civilizational “others” that Arabs encountered as they spread Islam across the globe. Persians never adopted Arabic as their home language, unlike many others across the Middle East, even as they contributed to Islamicate civilization and its growing realms of literature, art, and science that boomed under Arab Islamic rule. Over the centuries, some Iranians even adopted this term to refer to themselves, especially those that were directly connected to the Arab world.
Ajam is beautiful because it does not claim to be one thing or another; it is always the “other,” always on the edge, always offering a different way to see what is privileged as the norm. Ajam’s alterity is its essence.
Peoples on the edges were a part of the Arab and Islamic worlds without ever losing their sense of difference. By the very fact that these spaces are at the edges, they have historically been sites of tremendous cultural output and critical rethinking. Being on the edge allows one to see the center from a different perspective, and to maintain connections in every which direction that don’t privilege those already at the center. It is only by thinking from the margins that we can truly begin to understand and contextualize the center.
In Ajam, we see a heritage to be proud of: in the mixing and otherness, the heterogeneity and heterodoxy that Ajam implies, we see a way to remind ourselves that we can best understand the “center” by standing at the periphery. By being inherently located “outside” and yet still remaining a part of the center, Ajam understands both itself and others from a dual perspective.
The debates that took place in the lands of Ajam — all those worlds that developed at the edges of monolithic definitions of cultures, people, and civilizations — help us rethink and reimagine worlds where fluidity, fusion, cosmopolitanism are the norm, not the exception.
We at Ajam Media Collective use “Ajam” as a way to reclaim a word too often thought of as pejorative, while simultaneously drawing attention to how the state of Ajami “otherness” helps us imagine alternative worlds. By using Ajam, we’ve employed a tacit pun, forcing our audience to reckon with the previously silenced perspectives of the margins even as we help deconstruct the idea of a margin or periphery to begin with.