Refugees of Afghanistan in Iran: a Photo Essay by Peyman Hooshmandzadeh

15 January, 2022,
Afghan refugee chil­dren, pho­tographed by Pey­man Hooshmandzadeh.


Peyman Hooshmandzadeh (photos and text)

Trans­lat­ed from the Per­sian by Salar Abdoh

In Iran, Afghan refugees have been a part our every­day lives for over four decades now. Their sto­ries amaze and trou­ble us, and prob­a­bly more so because their land is so near and in so many ways they could be us — their lan­guage, their frames of ref­er­ence to clas­si­cal Per­sian verse, their heroes from our shared mytholo­gies. And yet, run­ning into this par­tic­u­lar group of refugees in a man­made nowhere­land just a stone’s throw away from the Caspi­an Sea —not more than four kilo­me­ters from an amuse­ment park by the beach —stunned us day trip­pers into a retreat.

We had tak­en the back­roads to reach some­where qui­et where we could go swim­ming. Now we sud­den­ly were sur­round­ed by these fam­i­lies who spoke an almost oth­er­world­ly iter­a­tion of our shared language. 

They imme­di­ate­ly took us for jour­nal­ists who had come to inter­view them. Their wants were basic — water, when they (a land­locked nation) were not more than a few min­utes’ dri­ve from the sea; elec­tric­i­ty, when a pow­er relay sta­tion was bare­ly a hun­dred meters off; and, of course, a place where they could rest at nights and not have to wor­ry about sand from the sea blow­ing into their sleep. 

Their world away from the world was made of bam­boo and sand. This was the north and they looked like no one from the north of the coun­try. It took only a minute to real­ize who they were, though why they were there and how they had got­ten there was a mys­tery. We were too non­plussed to ask them any­thing. It was they who did the ask­ing, believ­ing that sure­ly we had come to report on their woe­ful con­di­tions and some­how save them. 

The odd con­ver­gence of intent and real­i­ty silenced us. Yes, we were writ­ers and pho­tog­ra­phers. But we had come here not to report or write today; instead we were here to get wast­ed on booze and swim a lit­tle. We were on a brief hol­i­day. Yet the ever-present cam­era in my hand made these fam­i­lies cer­tain we had come to inquire about their lives. Chil­dren sur­round­ed us, each pulling us toward their own rick­ety hut. 

We were vet­er­ans of these images. I for one had already trav­elled to Afghanistan more than once on shoot­ing assign­ments. But in that sum­mer of 1998, when I still used neg­a­tives for pic­ture tak­ing, and the Tal­iban were firm­ly in con­trol of most of their coun­try and it would be a long time yet before the Amer­i­cans made their ruinous entry, we had imag­ined, and right­ly so, that the Caspi­an shore would be the absolute last place in Iran where we’d find a gath­er­ing of com­plete­ly iso­lat­ed refugees. It was as if time itself, and cer­tain­ly the author­i­ties, had utter­ly for­got­ten about this place. 

We slow­ly began to with­draw — not toward the intend­ed beach, but the way we’d come. An after­noon of debauch­ery was cer­tain­ly out of the ques­tion now. We wore the unbear­able guilt of men and women who would short­ly go back to the rou­tines of their com­fort­able lives at the cap­i­tal. And when the refugees asked if we would make their voic­es heard in that far­away place, we nod­ded our heads and said yes, we sure­ly we would. 

We nev­er did.


AfghanistanIranIran-Iraq warrefugeesTaliban

Born in 1969, Peyman Hooshmandzadeh lives and works in Tehran. He graduated with a degree in Photography from Azad University and has worked as a photographer for various Iranian newspapers and agencies. He has won awards for both photography and writing, including the annual Photography Press Award of Iran. His work has been shown in such venues as the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.

Salar Abdoh is an Iranian novelist and essayist who divides much of his time between New York and Tehran. He is the author of the novels Poet Game (2000), Opium (2004), Tehran At Twilight (2014), and Out of Mesopotamia (2020) and the editor and translator of the anthology Tehran Noir (2014). He also teaches in the graduate program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York at the City University of New York. Abdoh seeks to help Iran re-engage with the Arab world and convey more of Iranian culture to the west. He is a TMR contributing editor. Salar Abdoh at Goodreads.


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