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From Kabul to the isles of Denmark: An Afghan writer's journey

From Kabul to the isles of Denmark: An Afghan writer's journey

The title of Asef Soltanzadeh's new book is evocative of the themes running through all his short stories: exile, war, and the experience of being a refugee.
7 July 2003
Exiled Afghan writer Asef Soltanzadeh in Teheran.

TEHRAN, Islamic Republic of Iran (UNHCR) - The title of Asef Soltanzadeh's new book, 'Nowruz is beautiful, but only in Kabul' is evocative of the themes running through all his short stories: exile, war, and the experience of being a refugee.

Nowruz in Farsi literally means "new day" but is popularly known as the celebration of New Year, beginning on the first day of spring. It is a yearly celebration of renewal, but for Asef, it is a holiday that he has not celebrated in his home country of Afghanistan for many years.

In 1985, then a 20-year-old student, Asef fled Kabul after having been twice arrested at the height of the Soviet invasion of his country. Together with one of his brothers, he opted to cross into Pakistan, then into Iran, and he finally stayed in Tehran for 17 years. Asef never had the chance to go back to Afghanistan, and after his flight into exile he never again saw the rest of his family, including his parents, who died while he was away.

It was in Tehran that Asef first had to come to terms with the experience of being a refugee. He was not able to continue his formal education, missed home, and worried constantly about his family back in Kabul. But he was soon to find an outlet for his anxiety and sense of loss.

Rather than be overwhelmed by the limbo of exile, he sat down and wrote, producing over the years several film scripts and four plays. One script, "Wondering," encapsulates what for him is a refugee's constant experience - wondering - about what is going on back home, about what will happen in the new country, about what the future will bring.

In 2000, Asef's first book, "Lost in Flight" was published in Persian. The book, a collection of short stories, was very successful, and soon afterwards was translated and published in France. The book is now being translated into Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian and Arabic.

Last year, with the help of UNHCR Tehran, Asef was resettled in Denmark, where his new book "Nowruz is beautiful, but only in Kabul" was recently published.

Asef had been eagerly awaiting his chance to move to Europe after going through a lengthy screening by UNHCR and the Danish government. But at first, living in the small village of Højrup, near Odense, on the Danish isle of Fyn, he felt himself exiled once again. After so many years of living in Tehran, one of the world's largest cities, Højrup's relative isolation was initially hard for him to handle.

As a writer, Asef says, his inspiration comes from talking to people, listening to their stories. Unable to speak Danish, he was cut off from this source of inspiration, and also felt very lonely. Over the last ten years, Denmark has accepted 808 Afghans referred by the UN refugee agency, but they are mostly dispersed throughout the country.

Asef tried to stay in touch by phone. He still has the 100 used phone cards he went through in the first few months while nightly calling his friends in Tehran.

Now, Asef has been learning Danish, and slowly things are getting easier. He is now working as second director on a play that will be performed in a theatre in Odense. The play is called "Guests": once again, the experience of being a refugee is the inspiration. Earlier this year, Asef won the 2003 Refugee of the Year Award from the Danish Refugee Council.

Back in Tehran for a short visit, Asef said he feels very emotional about being so near home again. But, he says, for a writer distance is good. It is only now, almost 20 years later, that he feels able to look back and write clearly about leaving home and family behind.

One of his short stories, "Lost in Flight", illustrates just how overwhelming the pressures of loss and worry can be. The main character, a young Afghan refugee in Tehran, gets called to his uncle's house to be told that his mother has died in a bomb raid in Kabul.

When his uncle calls him again, he is so scared to hear that his father and brother have been killed too that he attempts to avoid the bad news by fleeing Tehran. But, without a travel document, he is arrested by the police and sent back to his uncle. On the drive back to Tehran, the fear of hearing more bad news proves too much. Unable to cope with the prospect of yet more loss, he loses his mind.

Asef insists his stories are only partly autobiographical. His inspiration is other people. In Tehran, he was constantly meeting with newly arrived refugees from Afghanistan, asking their stories. He also spoke to people inside the country: soldiers, warlords, and ordinary people.

Some critics in Afghanistan have attacked Asef for writing about the situation in a country he left so many years ago. But he says he is only writing stories Afghan people have told him, and he hopes that through his writings their voices can be heard.

Asef would like to see Afghanistan again. But he doesn't think he would be able to write there, because, he says, the situation is still not stable enough. In the meantime, exile and loss will continue to inspire his writing. He is now working on his third book, 'Danish Stories.'

By Marie-Hélène Verney
UNHCR Tehran