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Kolbars in Iran: Logistical Intersection of Infrastructures and Borderscapes

Updated: Mar 4

Hamidreza Sadeghi | 4 March 2024

An Iranian Kolbar, doing Kolbari
An Iranian Kolbar, doing Kolbari: Aryan Nasrollahi, Mehr News Agency

Analyses of post-revolutionary Iran’s integration into the world order usually exceptionalize everything about Iran: the Iranian leaders’ policies are inherently anti-globalization, and ”the Iranian people” are an always-resisting, unified, victimized whole. Applying (im)mobilities, borderscape, and infrastructure concepts, in this text, I focus on the case of Iranian Kolbars to explore how Iranian leaders have been hardcore followers of anti-poor neoliberal policies, which are manufactured and theorized in the West, and how this transformation into a necro-neoliberal structure is not necessarily resisted (but sometimes celebrated) by the middle- and upper-middle-class people. 


In the Western borderland of Iran, Kolbars carry heavy loads of smuggled foreign goods on their backs in hazardous conditions in exchange for a few dollars. The term (کولبری in Persian, and کۆڵبەری in Kurdish) has been coined referring to the act of transporting smuggled goods across the border on the shoulders. Due to the customs laws passed after the Iranian revolution 1979, import of a wide range of goods has been banned; thus, Kolbars become hired by Iranian businessmen to transport these goods on their back from the other side of the border, usually from Iraqi Kurdistan, into Iranian Kurdistan. Some of the everyday items Kolbars carry on their back are electronic appliances, clothing, textiles, home appliances, car tires, cigarettes, gasoline, cosmetics; and in rare conditions, they transport alcoholic drinks, pepper sprays, and gunsRanging from 13 to 65 years old, Kolbars on their eight to twelve hours journeys pass dangerous locations such as mountains, valleys, steep hills, mud, barbed wires, minefields; and face threats such as wild animals, blizzards, avalanches, suffocation, freezing, and being shot by the Iranian border guards. In recent years, shooting Kolbars to death by Iranian border guards has become systematic: In 2021, 26 Kolbars died, and 111 survived shootings with injuries.

 

Focusing on the mobilities, infrastructures, bordering/debordering practices which combine to form violent logistics within which Kolbars navigate, helps one follow the mobilities of commodities Kolbars carry and the discursive practices which necessitate the very condition of Kolbars and the articulation of these commodities.

 

By the end of the 1980s in Iran, following the opening of the country to international capital, discourses of “produce and consume”, “economic production”, and “development” replaced existing pro-working-class discourse. Accordingly, ongoing export-oriented industrialization strategies and their supplementary neoliberal policies structuralized the violence against the poor via the imposition of highly exploitative working conditions on the working population. In parallel to the discursive shift in Iran, with the overflow of foreign investment on the other side of the Iranian Kurdistan border (Iraqi Kurdistan) in the 1990s, a new economy appeared as trans-border, small-scale trade, which exploited Kolbars to fuel a new borderscape of consumerism in the border cities of Iranian Kurdistan. The prosperity along the border differed in favor of Iraqi Kurdistan, and commodity price differences were considerable. 

 

For the mobilities of Kolbars to become functional, another constellation of mobilities works frictionlessly: Businesspeople from the big cities in Iran buy goods on the internet (or via their local contacts) in large quantities from Oman, China, Dubai, or elsewhere, which are then sent by truck to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region waiting for Kolbars to carry them into Iran. These Iranian businessmen comprise a heterogeneous network of “old-established merchants in bazaars, new commercial actors, far-flung transnational agents and a diverse set of state officials who regulate trade and facilitate smuggling”. Another constellation of mobilities that both generates and is generated by the movement of Kolbars includes the middle/upper-middle class’ bordering practices. As the Islamic Republic has replaced its downtrodden base with the consumer middle-class; the circulation of global luxury brands has led the middle/upper-middle class to constantly produce borderscapes of conspicuousness consumption to differentiate themselves. These new borderscapes function as spatial othering of lower-class people as “uncivilized and uncultured, immoral, deceitful, untrustworthy, and irresponsible”: In Iranian cities, “street vendors, homeless people, sex workers, and street children…are bullied not only by the police but also by municipality agents, by the media, and even by ordinary people. The bullying of street people is legitimized by an official discourse of criminalization of poor”.

 

Apart from tourists and people in business, the middle/upper-middle class—enchanted by the aesthetic and aura of mega shopping malls, proliferating throughout the country and Kurdish border cities—travel to these cities to buy cheap yet brand-new global commodities. The frictionless movements of these newcomers, which can be mapped as desire lines, is reliant on the apathy lines of the movement of Kolbars: The more the global goods waiting behind the border, the more the vitality of need for Kolbars to transport them inside the country (ibid.).

 

In the wake of the trans-regional interactions between the residents and the upper-class tourists, new borderscapes have been established based on the incorporation of the behavior, lifestyle, and dressing of the rich by the local, transforming the traditional values of the latter into the modern visuals of the former. As a local resident notes, “whatever was bad and inappropriate is good and source of pride now and vice versa”. These new borderscapes are exemplified in the excessive growth of hairdressers, fitness clubs, and specialized stores for slimming, beauty, and care products in Marivan, signalling the dominance of body-recycling practices. As the class differences have become more and more established in these cities, new borderscapes have appeared, stemming from the emergence of a new class as overnight billionaires: an upstart class characterized by its social indifference, flamboyant appearance, and the excessive show of consumption has become the main role-model for the youth.

 

This normalization of violence against the poor, the death-zone in which Kolbars are situated, close to the borders, and the disposability of their bodies as mere infrastructure for the circulation of global commodities within Iranian cities, indicates that the process of globalization in Iran has been experiencing a transformation towards the necropolitical.


 
 

Hamidreza Sadeghi is a Master's student in Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg


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