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Not So Crazy in Love

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Once upon a time there were two star-crossed lovers. The young man, smitten, takes to composing ever-more mawkish and cringe-inducing poetry, sharing it widely as he broadcasts the name of his beloved – Leila – for all to hear. His behaviour is soon greeted with derision, to the point where he earns the nickname of Majnun (crazy). Much to his dismay, when he asks for his beloved’s hand in marriage, her father refuses—reasoning that he could never allow a daughter of his to marry a madman. Leila is quickly married off and Majnun wanders aimlessly. As to what happens next, accounts may differ, but they all agree that everyone dies alone in despair. The story, which likely originated in Arabia, has been told and retold for centuries, spreading across much of central Asia. It reaches its furthest elaboration in the hands of the great Persian poet Nizami, who transformed it into an intricate Sufi allegory for the relationship between the religious seeker and the divine.

Thus what began as a seemingly familiar “Romeo and Juliet” story is revealed to be something quite different: where Romeo and Juliet must face vituperative communal censure and violence, the tragedy of Leila and Majnun is about derision and ostracism. Romantic love, exalted and rendered tragic in the former narrative, is deprecated and mocked in the latter. Its recuperation is largely a matter of using it as a metaphor for more exalted social values: devotion to God or, perhaps, a religious master or a ruler. The point here is that the initial, superficial parallel does not withstand much scrutiny. Nor does it end up valorizing the contemporary obsession with companionate “love” marriages in a simple way, much less the lazy notion that people are basically the same everywhere. To the contrary, the juxtaposition comes to reveal that even apparent surface-level similarities amongst different traditions should not lead to self-congratulation and a sense of one’s own tradition’s inherent rightness. There is nothing natural, universal, or inevitable about currently widespread forms of personhood, kinship, and sexuality.

It is in this spirit that we can read Zuzanna Olszewska’s The Pearl of Dari: Poetry and Personhood Among Young Afghans in Iran as a welcome and much-needed addition to a growing literature in anthropology and Middle East Studies exploring the intersection of personhood, sexuality, and new forms of mass mediation and biopolitical citizenship. Olszewska’s ability to ground such pressing and timely concerns in the lived experience of young Afghan refugee poets gives her a privileged epistemological vantage point from which to comment upon the relationship between these themes. In doing so, she offers a necessary corrective to the popular caricature of contemporary Iran in which, “secular, middle-class subjects seem to arise autonomously, and then must busy themselves with resisting an alien subjectivity that a pernicious government attempts to force on them” (2015:17).

Her primarily female refugee interlocutors are subject to the most modern tools of large-scale population management associated with humanitarian refugee accommodation and policing (mass schooling, rationing systems, and biometric identification, to name a few). But they are also willingly embracing—and transforming—a much older form of self-fashioning, which is nonetheless very much tied to statecraft and the spread of powerful, complex, and deeply metaphysical belief systems. They do so through a specific technology of the self (poetry) which, as it has for a long time, offers well-placed liminal individuals the means to escape not just their workaday lives but the very fabric of the familiar known world. To do so, however, requires navigating a thick tangle of contradictions—to which Olszewska is an intrepid and knowledgeable guide.

“Now forcibly pin my cut-off lock of hair to your identity card” -Fragment from an Unpublished poem by Maral Taheri (Olszewska 2015:203).

The story of Afghan refugees in Iran begins with the Cold War era meddling of the superpowers in late 1970s. To be sure, Iran has been more welcoming of Afghan refugees than any of the global powers that did so much to undermine Afghanistan’s stability, but the lives of Iran’s Afghans have nonetheless been marked by precarity ever since. Initially welcomed as oppressed Shi’ite coreligionists, Afghan refugees have still never been fully incorporated as citizens into Iran’s extensive welfare state. Refugees are forbidden from working in the safer, more remunerative professions and relegated instead to menial jobs. What state services they do receive are always in danger of being taken away. Refugees are also subject to capricious crackdowns and deportation. The book ends on a hopeful note, though, pointing out that the defeat of the conservatives in the 2013 Iranian elections brought with it a return to free schooling for Afghan children. No doubt at least some of these children will go on to become accomplished poets. This constant precarity, straddling the boundary between citizen and non-citizen, is matched by a second, equally powerful form of liminality. Here, Afghan refugees straddle the boundary between kin- and non-kin. While many remain deeply connected to extended kin groups back in Afghanistan, urban anomie, distance, and mere exposure to new ways of life threaten to alienate them from their more “relational” selves (cf. LiPuma 1998).

The partial inclusion of Afghan refugees in the Iranian nation-state through mass education has left an indelible impression on the generation of Afghan refugee poets who Olszewska follows in Dorr-e Dari—the ‘Pearl of Dari’ Cultural Institute. The social life of the Cultural institute represents the attempts of a generation of Afghans raised on a particular Iranian nation-state-centric rendering of the Persian literary canon to re-appropriate aspects of that canon for themselves. They may pick and choose historical precedents and relational models, but those around them likewise set about imposing their own precedents and models on the world as well. All the while, it is hard to ignore just how vulnerable and gauzy the textual worlds that these poets weave truly are.

The cultural institute at the center of Olszewska’s ethnography takes its inspiration (The Pearl of Dari) from a famous Persian (Dari) verse reproaching those who would give up their poetry for political favor, likening it to casting pearls before swine. This “apolitical” bent to the project is matched by an embrace of modernist genres like blank verse, postmodernist techniques like pastiche, and, of course, an explosion of interest in “love” poetry. This contrasts markedly with the previous generation, which preferred to write much more martial and nationalistic poetry in classical, technically challenging poetic forms.

Olszewska analyzes these shifts as part of a particular, ever-evolving system of “position-taking,” which simultaneously highlights the real (if constrained) agency of poets as well as their subjugation to the interpretive publics that can either render them legible or cast them outside of the artistic fold as immoral or simply incomprehensible. She notes that despite the utility of Bourdieu’s (1993) model in explaining the relationship between avant-garde artistic projects and the mass market, his field theory does not leave a clear place for things like nationalist poetry. More importantly, Olszewska points out that the peculiar evaluative frameworks of Dorr-e Dari do not simply hinge on a conflict between elitist and mass-market appeal. Rather, the moral worth of poetry becomes tied up with the moral worth of the poets in complex ways that range far beyond the mere search for patronage and public approval. The poetry of Dorr-e Dari is intensely focused on constructing new kin relations and renegotiating old ones, always running the risk of placing poets outside of the protective fold of both their intimate and extended kin groups.

As Olszewska reminds us, though, this subtle, complex interplay of inside and outside has a very long genealogy in Dari poetry. It can be tracked through the use of the medieval Arab-Islamic dichotomy of zāher and bātin all the way through to critical modernist rawshanfekr[s] (intellectuals) and even the state-sanctioned “committed” literature of the post-revolutionary period that seeks to identify with and uplift the weak and socially marginal. By engaging with the deeper history of ever-evolving Persianate concepts like ‘eshq (love) and the inside/outside dichotomy, Olszewska is able to contextualize and parochialize what might otherwise seem run of the mill: namely young people meeting each other in the relatively un-chaperoned spaces created by markets, the work world, and mass schooling and forming relationships without regard to larger, multi-generational family-building projects.

The fight over who gets to decide which relationships are formed and nourished within a given society is profound. So it should come as little surprise that this leads to all manner of moral policing initiatives. For Olszewska’s mostly poor and non-citizen interlocutors, acting in a way that might run afoul of the Iran’s much publicized official morality police would be virtually out of the question. Through their poetry, though, they submit themselves to a much more subtle form of surveillance, taking very calculated risks as they cultivate a very particular sense of how to legitimately express one’s inner and outer selves. This form of surveillance is most public and theatrical in the poetry criticism sessions that the cultural institute holds every Friday. The poets’ lives are also shaped, as are most people’s lives, by the power of gossip and the fear of communal disapprobation. Poets may accept and even celebrate submission to political, religious, or kin-based norms in some contexts and later flout those norms and defend their autonomous action in other contexts.

Here, perhaps, a bit of caution may be necessary when picking up on a common strain of anthropological thinking that takes love, so exalted in contemporary so-called “Western” society to be “anti-structural” in other societies (cf. Abu Lughod 1986; Gell 2011). It is easy here to find oneself projecting one of the oldest clichés about love in the Western canon (that love expresses “the individual’s” challenge to “society”—a version of what Foucault termed the ‘repressive hypothesis’), willy-nilly, wherever people contest the terms in which other people make and break their kin bonds. To correct this misapplication of concepts, it is important to look closely at what sorts of relationships, precisely, are being contested in particular times and places. I have to question how long something like ‘eshq can remain consistently anti- or extra-structural before it is simply differently structural, supporting its own unique sets of social relations, art forms, and personas.

Yet Olszewska, due to her positioning of herself as an ethnographer within a relatively institutional setting, is structurally predestined (one might say) to document the more autonomous selves of the poets asserting themselves against their more relational selves. These more relational identities are primarily detectable negatively, in the space created in poems and acts of defiance that created gossip, commentary, and subsequent acts of self-revelation towards the ethnographer. A woman marries a man in France, who she met online through her poetry. Another woman successfully challenges the norm of ethnic hypergamy for women among her fellow Hazari Sayyeds. In subtle ways, we glimpse the relational world that Olszewska’s interlocutors leave to come to the cultural institute. Young, in possession of spare time and advanced education, these men and women craft a world—however fragile—that is nonetheless somewhat their own.

“Majnun and the wilderness/ Tagore singing his songs/ I will fossilize your letters” – Fragment from a poem by Sajjadi, Quoted in Olszewska (2015:179).

This is where we can see Olszewska’s work as a necessary contribution to the anthropological literature on personhood (cf. Mauss 1985[1938]; Mines 1994; Spiro 1993; Strathern 1988), which succeeds on its own terms even as it seems to call for more research. She makes a good case against projecting one single model of personhood onto distinct societies while also avoiding homogenizing real differences in how personhood is constructed and perceived cross-culturally. Yet there are of course blind spots created by the specific ethics associated with her methodology, demanding publicity for the poets so as to give them credit for their creative output but also demanding privacy for the poets lest they be unmasked as having transgressed sensitive communal norms. This means that we can only learn so much from her fieldwork (almost by design) about the world of relational personhood that exists just over the horizon, not in isolation from individuating state initiatives but rather in the interstices between partial, intermittently effective claims of individual autonomy.

Amidst their struggles to construct selves that are by turns “relational” and, to the contrary, modern, autonomous, self-possessed rawshanfekr (intellectual) selves, these Afghan refugees teach Olszewska and her readers a lot about the ways in which the particularities of the post-revolutionary Iranian state produce new forms of personhood and desire. The same regime that draws millions of boys and girls out of their homes and into its schools to teach them new ways of thinking and being must contend with unwanted desires engendered by that very system—thus the interest of local state-building projects in both Iran and Afghanistan in moral policing. This ensures that these new forms of identity and sentiment engendered by the state will, ironically, come to chafe under its smothering embrace and constitute sometimes less and sometimes more subtle forms of resistance or support to its broader political project. In this way, Olszewska illustrates just how truly context-dependent particular forms of personhood can be.

Far from producing mawkish paeons to romantic love, then, Olszewska and her interlocutors are aiming for something far deeper, something that can transcend idiosyncratic personal fixations while avoiding the far more unflattering misstep of merely projecting those fixations onto others. The fruit of this kind of interpretive labor is a structured, historicized complexity in which different sorts of personal and collective projects and desires become more or less possible in different times and places. These projects open themselves up in turn to yet more ways of articulating, individually and collectively, even more previously impossible projects. In their iterative, hermeneutic unfolding, these traditions can surely be rendered mutually intelligible—but it remains important to appreciate their unique genius as well. Olszewska and her interlocutors have done well to avoid the example of the naïve pseudo-anthropological Majnuns who inartfully bandy about invocations of familiar structures of feeling in favor of the subtle metaphorical layering of a Nizami.



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Strathern, Marilyn. 1988. The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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