Archives, Rustin Zarkar

Far From Home: Portrayals of the Afghan Refugee in Iranian Cinema

Part II of a series on Afghan Refugees in Iran.

Earlier this month, I completed a post discussing how works of literature from prominent Afghan writers voiced the conditions of millions of undocumented Afghan refugees residing in Iran. These members of the Afghan diaspora have been able to draw upon their own personal accounts as refugees to create narratives describing the struggles of every day life within their displaced communities in realistic and compelling ways. While Afghan-born writers have been able to record and document their own experiences in Iran, they have not been the only ones to portray refugees in Iranian art.

A movement of peoples does not only produce narratives for the migrant community, for the host nation is also exposed to the trauma of displacement and the uncertainties of diaspora but from a strikingly different perspective. Over the last two decades, the figure of the Afghan has been adopted into the Iranian social and visual landscape; Through cinema, Iranian filmmakers illustrate the plight of the Afghans while presenting them as a visibly prominent aspect of Iran’s heterogeneous society.

One of the first major portrayals of the Afghan in Iranian cinema occurs in 1988, when Mohsen Makhmalbaf released Bicycleran (the Cyclist). in the film, Makhmalbaf explores the conditions of Afghan refugees living in the suburbs of Iran’s cities. The main character, a poor Afghan refugee and former cycling champion named Nasim, decides to ride his bicycle non-stop for seven days and nights in the town square in order to raise money for his wife’s surgery.

As each day passes, more and more people come to witness Nasim’s feat. In the video clip below, an utterly exhausted Nasim continues to peddle through the night with the help of his son. The film is the first to bring to light the situation of 2.5 million Afghans in Iran and shows the desperate economic and exploitative conditions they have frequently suffered from.

Following Makhmalbaf’s film, the figure of the Afghan became a reoccurring cinematic motif. The inclusion of Afghan characters gave Iranian viewers an insight into their daily lives as laborers in a foreign land. In subsequent years, Afghan characters were no longer shown in isolation, but increasingly as members of society interacting with Iranian characters.

Hossein Panahi’s 1996 film Badkonake Sefid (The White Balloon) concerns a little Iranian child who, on her way to buy a goldfish for Nowruz celebrations, drops her money in a gutter and is unable to retrieve it. Fearful of punishment, she dares not return home without a goldfish, an important part of the New Years celebrations. Throughout the film the little girl meets strangers, one of them a young Hazara balloon seller, who offer to help (starting at 1:09:00). At the film’s conclusion, the three resourceful children finally obtain the lost money. The film portrays the figure of the Afghan in a positive light; he is assimilated into the social fabric of Iran’s streets and works in cooperation with others to solve a problem.

A year later, Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 film Ta’m-e gīlās (the Taste of Cherry), offered a narrative from a refreshing perspective– from the Afghan refugees themselves. In the film, the main character Mr. Badi (played by Homayoun Ershadi) is a middle-aged man driving through Tehran looking for prospective candidates who are willing to help bury him after he commits suicide.

In the clip below (starting at 7:45), Mr. Badi converses with his passenger, an Afghan seminary student who is supporting himself as an unskilled laborer. By including an Afghan character within the film, Kiarostami suggests that Afghan refugees (along with other minorities) have become a part of Iran’s diverse mosaic of communities, though tensions may still exist. It also allows the Afghan to finally speak of his experience on the periphery of society, an act that was previously denied across Iranian popular culture.

Majid Majidi’s 2001 film Baran (Rain), focuses primarily on unskilled Afghan laborers working in the outskirts of Tehran. At the beginning of the film, an Afghan worker named Najaf breaks his leg after falling from a building and his taken to a hospital for recovery. Najaf’s daughter disguised as a boy is brought to work the following day in order to replace her father. Lateef, a 17-year old Afghan who serves tea and prepares food for the laborers, discovers Rahmat’s secret and becomes protective of her.

Throughout the film, the working and living conditions of the refugees are depicted in vivid color. The clip below is one of my favorite shots from the film, which shows in great detail the various tasks that refugees are often obliged to do. The film focuses on the struggles of laborers and respects the Afghan for his/her role in the reconstruction of Iran after the cease-fire with Iraq.

Abolfazl Jalili’s Delbaran (2002) also focuses on the lives of young Afghan laborers who have no other choice but to work, and thus are robbed of their childhood as a result of war in their homeland and the lack of access to education or social services in Iran. the film tells the story of a 14-year old Afghan refugee name Kaim who was orphaned after his mother perished in an aerial bombing and his father was killed fighting for the Northern Alliance.

Kaim flees to the border where he works at at a truck-stop in the Iranian town of Delbaran. While the boy feels safe in Delbaran, the sounds of warplanes over head constantly remind him of his precarious situation. Throughout the movie, the viewers are bombarded with the harsh realism of living life day-to-day as an unskilled laborer, with no security of the future.

The development and the production of these films indicate that multicultural encounters resulting from migration are not ignored by the host society. As a matter of fact, some host societies become aware of the struggles of these migrants and, through interaction and dialogue, learn to produce their own narratives that explore the dilemmas facing these communities. Afghan refugees, while still on the sociopolitical periphery of Iranian society, are making their presence felt, and powerfully so, in contemporary Iranian visual culture.

About Rustin Zarkar

From a young age, Rustin aspired to study archaeology. His scope drastically shifted during his undergraduate career, where he became interested in Persian fiction and soon found himself studying the contemporary era. Rustin’s doctoral research at NYU focuses on material, literary, and visual culture-- specifically the circulation of cultural products between Iran, Afghanistan, and Soviet Central Asia. His academic work has taken him to Iran, Tajikistan, and the Arab World, and he enjoys contemporary literature, cinema, and a good khoresht.

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