Part I of a series on Afghan refugees in Iran. Part II can be found here.
Iran is a culturally heterogeneous society that has been shaped by waves of migration over many centuries. While much of the domestic political and academic rhetoric chooses to highlight Iran’s resistance to foreign influence, the invaluable contributions of migrant communities have often been ignored or re-appropriated. Migrations from neighboring countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq have not only fostered an environment of socio-economic and intellectual exchange, but are crucial in dispelling the myth of Iran as a homogeneous nation-state with impenetrable borders.
Since the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Afghans refugees escaping the horrors of war have flocked to Iran and Pakistan in search of safety and economic opportunities. Over subsequent decades, the destabilization of Afghan society by foreign troops and armed militias increased the number of registered refugees to approximately 1 million — the largest and oldest refugee population in the world. Since 1983, Iran has been working with The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide shelter, food, housing, and repatriation for these migrants. The refugee issue in Iran is a visible one, and it has been closely monitored by the Iranian and international officials. Below is a clip from PressTV, the Islamic Republic’s English news agency, reporting on the conditions of a registered Afghan refugee camp in Semnan.
While the clip apparently shows habitable conditions for Afghan refugees in Iran, it does not depict the majority of refugees: the 1.5 million unregistered migrants residing in the shadows of urban centers. These undocumented refugees do not have access to health care and shelter as do their registered brothers and sisters, and generally work as unskilled laborers. They are unable to move about the country, for being caught without documents results in deportation. Though pushed to the margins of society and the informal economy, their stories and struggles have not been ignored. Their experiences have been explored by a number of notable Afghan writers who have introduced the figure of the refugee to an Iranian literary audience.
One of the most prominent of these Afghan writers, Mohammad Asef Soltanzadeh (b. 1964), gained notoriety by conveying painful memories of war and discrimination to Iranians as well as the international community. Soltanzadeh fled to Iran in 1985 and there interacted with diverse segments of traditional Afghan society who all shared personal narratives of conflict and dispossession. His first short story, Dar Goriz Gom Mishavim (We Disappear in Flight), was first published in 2000. It includes autobiographical elements and illustrates the overwhelming pressures of loss and isolation from one’s home and family.
Soltanzadeh’s own memories inspired his work: “In 1993, when I was refugee in Iran, I learned about the death of my mother from rocket shelling, which crushed the roof of our house in Kabul. This memory never left me. It invaded my memories so much that it was the subject of my first story.” In We Disappear in Flight, a young Afghan refugee in Tehran is called to his uncle’s house in the middle of the night to be told of a death in the family. However before he arrives, he is reminded of the loss of his mother a few months earlier and comes to fear the news he will soon hear.
“I know something new has happened. To whom this time? To father or brother? I know other people have come recently and have brought unpleasant news. What a world we have. We are afraid of people who come. We know that as soon as they open their mouths they will talk about death, destruction, devastation, sickness, and famine.”
When his uncle calls him again, afraid of hearing more news of death he attempts to flee Tehran. However, he is arrested by the police and sent back to his uncle for lacking travel documents. On the drive back to Tehran, he tries to avoid the unavoidable by shutting out reality.
“I forget myself, and I am distanced from my past. This forgetfulness gives me such pleasure; more than any narcotic (although I have never used one). But I know that anyone who goes in for them wants somehow or other to forget himself. Forgetfulness is such a blessing…”
Finally, the narrator’s reality breaks down; unable to endure the possibility of yet another loss, he loses his mind.
We Disappear in Flight depicts the harsh reality of many Afghan refugees in Iran. Day after day, migrants deal with discrimination and restrictions placed upon them while constantly worrying about developments at home. The narrator’s mental isolation served as a temporary refuge from danger and grief, but at the cost of his identity. The story also expresses a sense of physical isolation, not just from his homeland but from his fellow refugees. By referencing the travel restrictions as the narrator attempts to leave Tehran, Soltanzadeh presents Iran as a spatial prison. The inability to move freely across the country prevents a grassroots formation of a collective and cohesive Afghan voice. Discussions concerning society, culture, and refugee rights can only be conducted between friends and neighbors, eliminating the possibility of political and labor organization on a national scale.
The IRI has hindered Afghan political organization through restrictions and regulations, yet the government has helped financed cultural organizations which have recognized the achievements of Afghan writers, popularizing them among Iranians. Several organizations, such as the Dorr-e Dari Cultural Institute and the House of Afghan Literature, hold literary festivals, publish quarterly journals, and are staffed with famous Afghan expatriates. With the help of these institutions and literary projects, Afghan writers have created social networks and opportunities for a new generation of refugees who will reinvigorate the arts of their homeland.
Afghan diasporic literature reflects on the horrors of war, the pains of migration, and the conditions of life abroad. It has produced the strongest voice for nearly 2.5 million Afghans who are unable to speak politically. Writers like Asef Soltanzadeh fuse fiction with memory to create highly emotional accounts of refugee life that presents the struggles of Afghans in exile to Iranians. This literary exchange bridges socio-economic and cultural gaps initially brought about by migration– integrating the figure of the Afghan refugee to Iran’s already diverse social landscape.
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