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

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 day and 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.

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