A part of a larger research on migration and refugees, these pages constitute an important contribution to the knowledge of the Shiite Persian-speaking Afghan community in Iran. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Mashhad and Tehran, the article questions the role of poetry in the shaping of identity of three generations of Afghans migrants.
By examining the cultural achievements of the refugees, Zuzanna Olszewska sheds light on an aspect of Afghan migration in Iran which remains widely unexplored. At odds with the dominant image of the poor, unskilled and illiterate laborer, this study focuses on the middle-class Afghan intelligentsia in exile. It reveals the striking paradox of a community that, however marginal socially and economically, was able to set up a firm and lasting intellectual sociability of its own. Once strictly framed by the dominant Shiite Afghan political groups, the community has come to develop independent institutions in the form of cultural and literary associations. The non-political, multi-ethnic organisation “Dorr-e Dari” (founded in 1997, renamed in 2002) and its literary magazine, Khatt-e sevvom, are a perfect example of this new cultural landscape. What is more, the literary experience carried out within these structures is not merely a means to strengthen the values and traditions of the group. Poetry has also proven instrumental in binding the community to its host, thereby enabling what the author refers to as a “critical dialogue” between Afghan and Iranian intellectuals.
From the first generation of refugees who fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to the exiles of the civil war and to the later Iran-born Afghan youth, however, deep social transformations have affected the community. Moving away from the overt political commitment of the first generation of poets, the younger generation tends to address increasingly subjective topics, and seems more willing to explore innovative forms of expression. But while displaying a higher level of education and a stronger presence of women, the new intellectual scene remains painfully concerned with the issue of exile, which has recently taken on a new meaning: Born and raised in Iran, the young Afghan poets have indeed also become strangers to their long forlorn homeland. Though she insists on the “emancipatory powers” of poetry in a context of de-politicisation of Afghan communities in exile, the author therefore concludes on the divided identity of the Afghan youth, “trapped between modernity and tradition and critical of both”.