The Pearl of Dari: Poetry and Personhood among Young Afghans in Iran

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The Pearl of Dari takes us into the heart of Afghan refugee life in the Islamic Republic of Iran through a rich ethnographic portrait of the circle of poets and intellectuals who make up the "Pearl of Dari" cultural organization. Dari is the name by which the Persian language is known in Afghanistan. Afghan immigrants in Iran, refugees from the Soviet war in Afghanistan, are marginalized and restricted to menial jobs and lower-income neighborhoods. Ambitious and creative refugee youth have taken to writing poetry to tell their story as a group and to improve their prospects for a better life. At the same time, they are altering the ancient tradition of Persian love poetry by promoting greater individualism in realms such as gender and marriage. Zuzanna Olszewska offers compelling insights into the social life of poetry in an urban, Middle Eastern setting largely unknown in the West.

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1 Border Crossings and Fractured Selves: A History of the Afghan Presence in Iran

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A History of the Afghan Presence in Iran

GOLSHAHR

It doesn’t matter

on which side the sun came up,

on which side the moon went down.

In your alleys, sorrow.

In your alleys, beauty.

In your alleys, the sound of the handcart men

who cry out the freshness of their wares;

the footsteps that startle

the always-mute walls out of sleep;

the eyes that turn my dark midnights

into delirious muttering.

In your alleys

is a fluttering of wings that comes from distant mountains.

I begin from your farthest walls,

a place where even my friends don’t come anymore,

with my old briefcase in my hand,

like a shepherd whose sheep have all been torn apart by wolves,

like a commander to whom no letter is posted.

Longing for the wild winds of the Pamirs,

the song of a dobeiti in the mountains;

longing for the fresh fish of Helmand,

and soldiers invalided by war,

 

2 The Melancholy Modern: The Rise of a Refugee Intelligentsia

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The Rise of a Refugee Intelligentsia

A few years ago, I happened to sit next to a lady on a bus who introduced herself as a master’s student in law. That day, our words about the limited number of bus seats reserved for women compared to men1 led to a discussion of women’s rights, and we spoke a lot about the difference between women’s and men’s blood money (diyeh) and inheritance, custody rights, the equality of men’s and women’s rights, and so on. We had a lively exchange. As she was getting off, she said something that has bothered me all these years. She said, “I hadn’t thought an Afghan woman would even understand what rights are, let alone look at her rights from a religious point of view while being an intellectual (rowshanfekr) at the same time.” That Iranian woman’s words struck me as strange, but they forced me to think a little about what she had said, especially because in these years I have witnessed many changes in the thought and behavior of my compatriot women in exile.

 

3 Afghan Literary Organizations in Postrevolutionary Iran

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THE ARENA OF DEATH

Hark! Now is not the time for hesitation, tie up your bundle [and go]

Our patience with the foe runs short, tie up your bundle [and go]

If the foot drags, still you must go

Though your end be at the gallows, still you must go

From the depths of the incident [the battlefield] the smell of battle reaches us

See, the yells of manly [heroic] men reach us

Hark! Set your foot in the arena of death and [be prepared to] die

Come! Now is not the time for hesitation, stand up straight and die

[The foe] thinks each of your numerous wounds a scourge

[The foe] thinks the fury of your blood a river

Since the reins of Rakhsh the danger seeker are in your hands

Your defeat is the defeat of this [whole] tribe’s fortress

Hark! The crimson of the dawn sun belongs to us

And the foremost banner of the jihad belongs to us

Tell the enemy that we have no concern for death

“He who is not killed is not of our tribe.”

 

4 The Social Lives of Poets and Poetry

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It is a Friday early afternoon at Dorr-e Dari, between the weekly poetry reading and criticism session held in the morning, and the afternoon short-story writing class. Some of the poets are still around, catching up with friends, sipping fragrant black tea, rereading their latest poems for any latecomers, and asking for their friends’ informal feedback. More experienced poets give beginners useful tips on how to improve. A female poet and chess champion challenges a male short-story writer to a game of chess in a corner (see fig. 4.1); others head to a nearby park for a round of badminton. A heated debate has emerged in the kitchen, where the smokers have gathered, over whether a poem read in the morning was too provocative in its feminism or not. A group of university students uses one of the back rooms to discuss the upcoming issue of their magazine. The office contains a substantial literary library, and poets can borrow books to brush up on their knowledge of the classics.

There is also a steady stream of visitors. People who have repatriated to Afghanistan but are back in Iran for business or family visits drop by to see old friends and to exchange news and blog addresses. Some bring the latest newspapers or magazines from Afghanistan; many are now involved in media, politics, or education in their homeland. A recent Afghan graduate from an Iranian university comes by to share her good news and distribute pastries to those present. Meanwhile, Mozaffari, after giving a radio interview by telephone, leans back into his office chair and hums a traditional dobeiti (folk quatrain) from his birthplace in the Hazarajat.

 

5 Modern Love: Poetry, Companionate Marriage, and Recrafting the Self

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Poetry, Companionate Marriage, and Recrafting the Self

I hadn’t spent any time with Zarifeh and Sorayya away from the office until my visit to Zarifeh’s house. Her room was actually a small, one-room concrete structure built in the corner of her family’s courtyard (I later learned that many people build these to rent out for the extra income). Zarifeh’s mother wanted to rent it out, but for now it was her personal haven in which to read, study, and entertain her friends: a room of her own, whose vital importance for women’s ability to write Virginia Woolf once emphasized. We sat on the carpet while Zarifeh served us tea, homemade cakes, ājil (dried fruit and nuts), and candy. I flipped through the photo album she showed me—mostly pictures of various trips and outings to places outside Mashhad with the Dorr-e Dari kids, both young men and women—waterfalls, villages, woods, picnics, badminton games. Quite a few pictures were of fully clothed people standing knee-deep in water flowing by them.

 

6 “When Your Darun Speaks to You”: Ethics of Revelation and Concealment in Lyric Poetry

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Ethics of Revelation and Concealment in Lyric Poetry

In midwinter in early 2006, I attended a Friday poetry session at Dorr-e Dari with Zeinab, one of the granddaughters of my host family, who was beginning to take an interest in poetry. We were sitting in the second-last row, so I couldn’t see the poets who were reading very clearly, but I had a good overview of the room. One of the young women who wrote more daring poetry had put in a rare appearance at the session. She wore colorful, distinctive clothing and a lot of makeup, including dramatic sweeps of black eyeliner. Her poems were equally forthright, dealing with women’s sexuality and the problems attached to it. On this occasion, she read her poem before the audience: it was long and in blank verse, and I couldn’t follow all of it, as I was still having problems catching all the intricacies of poetic language.

But I noticed that the reactions of the people around me were increasingly agitated. Some of the women in the back row behind me were whispering among themselves and muttering muffled curses. Suddenly one of them got up, pressed past the others in her row, and hurriedly left the room, having to walk through most of the audience and pass demonstrably close to the speaker to reach the door. One by one, a handful of other people also got up and walked out. The poet’s eyes flicked to the door, but she retained her composure and read to the end of her poem. Twelve-year-old Zeinab watched the scene wide-eyed, thoroughly enjoying herself, and later recounted it gleefully for her aunts back home. The poem ended and there was a scattering of applause. I had not understood much of the poem, except for a fragment that went something like, “And God and his girlfriend Madonna sat eating pizza at the breakfast table.” I tried later to get a copy of this poem, but the poet was reluctant, and I unfortunately had not recorded the session.

 

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