Picnic in a Minefield

picnic-coverIn 2014 Western efforts at engaging the Middle East—diplomacy, occupation, sanctions, bribery, adjusted trade policy, ill-considered cultural engagement and, worst of all, war, collapsed in the ruins of Syria and Iraq.
Ignorance of the locale’s complex braid of culture, peoples, language, and faith among leaders and populations in the English-speaking world compounded the failed attempts at influence.
Brutal death-cults fill the vacuum left by these bankrupt Imperial efforts. Leaving death, desperation, and trails of blood in their wake, they stalk villages and byways under the conceit of establishing a “new Caliphate.”
Just in time, intrepid traveler, teacher, scholar, and journalist Francesca Recchia brings hope for enlightenment, nuanced discussion, and moral clarity with her stunning new memoir, Picnic in a Minefield.
The book details her experiences living, working, and traveling among the Kurds of northern Iraq. This timely book offers a first-hand account of life, living, and lives-lived in area of the globe that perpetually dominates the West’s concerns and discourse.
Recchia’s unique style and points-of-view illuminate Kurdish culture and the place of Kurds, who have long yearned for self-determination, amidst a cohort of nations intent on denying the mountainous Kurdish homeland its sovereignty.
Recchia recounts how living in the region affected more than her understanding of, and opinions on, Kurdish culture.
Through crisp prose and unforgettable anecdote, she shares with us the gift she received in Kurdistan: the company of the Kurdish people, liberated from an abstract prison of newsprint, brought to life in the minds and hearts of readers.
Picnic in a Minefield, by Francesca Recchia, is published by Foxhead Books.

The book is on sale now at bookstores, online retailers, and at Foxhead Books.
Foxhead Books publishes trade, electronic-books, and fine books.

Foxhead Books is an independent book publisher and a division of Potemkin Media Omnibus, Ltd., an Ohio Limited Liability Company.
CONTACT: GREG ENSLEN
140 E. BROADWAY AVE.
TIPP CITY, OH 45371
888-345-5847
INFO@FOXHEADBOOKS.COM

 

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Seasons in the Garden of Fidelity

This piece was first published in Chapati Mystery

AUTUMN

Anar

Anar is the Persian for pomegranate. It is one of those fascinating words that travel in space and time: from the Middle East to India through Afghanistan, anar is a word used in Farsi, Kurdish, Dari, Urdu and Hindi.

There is something magic and poetic to the pomegranate: it is a fruit full of symbolic meanings and is present in mythological accounts all across the world. For ancient Romans and Greeks it is the fruit of the underworld; for Christianity it represents resurrection after suffering; in Judaism it is a symbol of fertility and of the Promised Land; in the Quran it is mentioned as one of the examples of the beautiful things that God created.

In the last few years, pomegranate has been a constant presence in my life: it strangely became associated to life in a country in conflict as well as to the positive sensations of the small pleasures that make life special.

The taste of pomegranate is connected to vivid and precise memories of places and moments in time.

After her first trip to Palestine, my mother came home fascinated by the discovery of the freshly pressed pomegranate juice. Its unforgettable colour, its rich and thirst-quenching flavour. While talking, we realised that in different points in time, both my mum and I had pomegranate juice at the same stall: in East Jerusalem, in the Old City, just to the right of the Damascus Gate.

In Kurdistan pomegranate is the pride of Halabja – the city that has become the symbol of the Kurdish genocide and claims to have the best anar in the world. The flavour of the pomegranate I had there is, in fact, hard to forget. On top of a hill, in the golden light of sunset, after a visit to the cemetery where the victims of Saddam Hussain’s gas attack are buried, with Ayub who worked for the New York Times and told us about the bombs over Baghdad during the Second Gulf War.

And now in Afghanistan, where pomegranate help remember the passing of time, as one of the signs of the changing seasons. When Radio Capital journalist asked me a few days ago what will be the flavour I will miss the most once I will leave Afghanistan I answered: “Pomegranate” without even thinking. I had the first of the season – the special one from Kandahar – talking about the future with Andrea, in the garden of his house in Herat. And again under a pergola in Istalef, a little village nested on the mountains: we picked the fruit from the tree and ate it while looking over the valley suspended in time.

WINTER

Paraphrasing Marquez. Snow in the time of war.

It started to snow yesterday evening. My first snowfall in Kabul. It started slowly with small flakes that grew bigger through the night until dawn, when the city was entirely covered in white.

This morning I go out early, on my own.

There are very few people on the street. The fresh snow allows me to negotiate my path between the frozen road and the non existing footpaths. The uncertainty of my steps forces me to look down, towards the dirty mix of snow, smog and ice, in search for stability and safety.

It takes me a deep breath and a bit of self control to realise that I am missing out and to lift my eyes off the ground.

And once again the city surprises me with the poetry of its unexpected beauty. What surrounds me pays me back for these efforts.

With my nose upwards and snowflakes on the lenses of my specs: it’s all right – I tell myself – even if it takes fifteen minutes to walk five hundred meters and a bit of breathing to fight the fear of slipping and falling: it’s all right.

A boy with a green woollen hat smiles and says hello. Salaam, I reply.

It is all so beautiful.

The softened sounds: the magic of silence in a place where the noise of traffic and helicopters dominates the soundscape. The icy embroidery on the naked branches of the trees: a delicate parenthesis in a city scarred by bombs first and by the bad taste of the post war reconstruction later.

A car runs past me sloshing brown snow all over and pulls me out of my reverie. I wonder what army tanks covered in snow may look like, I wonder if the white coat may make them look less scary.

The brown slosh is a powerful coming back to my present: a reminder that is important to think of beauty in relation to its context and that is important not to forget to keep looking around.

SPRING

Quasi Fellini

Dedicated to Pierce O’ Broin

Rain, rain. A slow and cold rain. It is supposed to be spring, but it seems it has gone hiding somewhere. The dull grey sky paints an eerie atmosphere that looks like one of Giorgio De Chirico’s paintings.

Kabul is strangely beautiful in this light.

Mud softens the sound of our steps, I have the displacing feeling of looking at myself from the outside.

The camera is set on black and white.

Pierce and I walk on the street trying to avoid puddles. It feels like stepping into the Afghan version of a Fellini movie.

Quasi Amarcord. Including Nino Rota’s soundtrack.

Below the hill of Tappeh-ye Maranjan sprawls the whole of Kabul. This is where people go to fly kites on a Friday afternoon. In a makeshift market of improvised stalls, car booths are full of colourful kites and children crouching next to torn rugs balanced between a stone and a puddle sell spools of bright red, blue, green string. There is a cart selling strawberries and one selling popcorn, a cart selling ice cream, one dates and one sunflower seed.

A group of kids with extremely long brooms pointing at the sky run around trying not to trip over the colourful strings.

– What are the brooms for?

– Look over there.

In the kite war, kids use the brooms to get hold of the falling kites – these are the kite runners, bedraggled and with broken shoes. They run and laugh and shout.

A few steps away there is a merry-go-round: a green pole with green arms and small dangling planks of wood. Boys and girls get hold of ropes and planks – when they are all ready, a man grabs one of the arms of the merry-go-round and starts running in circles. Round and round; faster and faster. Feet lift off the ground, legs get a tighter hold of the rope, a hand brushes the ground. Round and round; faster and faster.

A black, menacing cloud surprises us from behind. Rain coms fast. People start running to avoid getting soaked in the storm. We look at each other and smile with a shiver. It is time to go.

A different afternoon, a different hill. The ame black and white photos, the same persistent rain.

On Wazir Akbar Khan hill, in the north of the city, there is a swimming pool. Empty but freshly painted, it has three diving boards with bright yellow ladders: a strident contrast to the infinite shades of brown and grey of the city and the sky. Empty, but full of memories: it is rumoured that the Taliban used the highest diving board to execute political prisoners. A deadly jump with a stunning view and the city and the mountains as witnesses.

Outside the swimming pool there are reels of razor wire and a military barrack.

A girl walks past eating chips; she has a sailor’s hat and a coat of the same shade of blue as the pool.

Fellini. Amarcord. Nino Rota.

A few steps and a few puddles away, beyond the soft mud, there are the carcasses of two Soviet tanks; rusty, derelict, abandoned.

We look for the right angle for a photo.

In the background on the top the silhouettes of the diving boards, then the razor wire, the military barrack, the tanks looking over Kabul.

Untitled. Landscape with Soviet tank.

Rain becomes colder. We look at each other and smile with a shiver. It is time to go.

 

SUMMER

The eye of God. Kabul from above.

Dedicated to T.M.

Earlier this morning I sent him a photo I took last night: three dots – two yellow and one orange – in a black background. This is all my phone could record of the stunning view of Kabul I was surprised with.

Maybe you should delete it. The one in your mind’s will always be brighter.” Comes his response.

It is one of our usual early morning email exchanges. We generally talk about writing and the small, cherished details that life in Kabul offers us: they would be soon transformed into written words. Like the little bird that the guards keep at the entrance of the compound, or the policeman who stops the taxi driver to offer him dates to break the fast during Ramadan.

The last email of this morning’s thread ends with these words and no salutation: “Everything in Kabul is caged… the women, the birds, the bookstore, the city itself”. He is referring to his own writings and I can see the expression of his eyes while I read these words – very serious, concerned, almost stern and yet mixed with a glint of excitement for the new discovery – I could hear the intonation of his voice had he spoken them.

As I read his words, my eye fill with last night’s breathtaking view of Kabul. A friend invited us for dinner, she had anticipated that the rooftop terrace was what made her fall in love with her new house, she also mentioned that it would be the best place in town to spot the exact location of bombs and attacks as they may happen. I recorded the information without really making sense of it. Until last night.

We climb up the spiral stair case and an immense sky opens over our heads. We are on the seventh floor of a building in the very heart of the city: Kabul surrounds us in all her beauty.

I stand in the wind and turn on my feet, three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, the city is all around me: I feel happy and free and blessed with opportunity to experience a moment like this.

A gigantic orange moon is rising above the hills; I am surprised by the amount of little, dim lights: I was not expecting the hills to be so densely populated. The hills embrace that side of town as a crescent, they look like a necklace full of sparkling precious stones: an unintended homage to the wealth of this country.

There is something peaceful and liberating about the view. Kabul is not a city in a cage, this is a city that secretly hatches hope and the possibility of change. It is a city that is growing, aggressive and resilient, powerful in all the potentials that are yet to be revealed.

Devices for Political Action

Photo Credit: dpr-barcelona

Photo Credit: dpr-barcelona

My new e-book with a brilliant photo-essay by Leo Novel is finally out!

Devices for Political Action. The Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan looks at the case of Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan as an example of how State interventions on the ground are often instruments utilised to implement broader political plans. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s the Iraqi government made full use of spatial planning as a constitutive part of the strategy of “dealing with the Kurdish problem”.

The Ba’ath regime adopted urban planning and space design as social engineering devices in its larger scheme of shaping society into a more homogenous and simplified form.

The Iraqi government used the combination of ethnopolitics and a centralised ideology of modernisation to heavily intervene in the management and design of territory, causing a systematic disruption of local knowledge and practices.

The book is part of dpr-barcelona’s Emancipatory Space Series and can be purchased here.

 

Virtual Kabul – Or, the unexpected joys of collaboration

A couple of weeks ago I was in San Francisco and had the great pleasure of meeting Nick Sowers.

Nick defines himself as someone who “constructs space with sound” and we soon found ourselves talking about space (obviously), cities, walking and everything urban. We talked about how sounds and noises influence the perception of our surroundings and the role they play in terms of memory and orientation.

That’s when I told him that I have written for The Little Book of Kabul  a musical score for a construction site. This piece was originally conceived as a fully fledged sinfonietta (that the amazing composer Giovanni Dettori checked for musical and compositional accuracy). For reasons of space it became a much shorter piece, but it is a fundamental part of the book anyway.

I had visited the construction site of what would become Rahim Walizada‘s Design Cafe in Kabul several times. I took notes and spoke to people, but then after a while I was at loss for stimuli: didn’t know how to interact with the place anymore and was getting pretty bored. I then decided to sit in the corner, listen and write down all the sounds I could hear, their intensity and where they were coming from. I didn’t have anything specific in mind back then, but when I went through my notes months later while writing the book, I realised it was an incredible opportunity to experiment with writing and explore different ways of describing spatial relations.

I told all this to Nick, we understood we spoke the same language and he invited me to join him in his sound studio and asked me if if was OK with him trying to make my musical score play. I was completely thrilled.

His studio is a remarkable little place where he set up a sound device that allows you to experience the three-dimensionality of space through sound. We didn’t have much time, but we played around and we could both feel that there something there that was worth chasing.

As we parted ways, Nick told me that he wanted to spend more time with those sounds and make something out of it. The idea made me really happy: there was the chance for my words to morph, to take body in a different shape and substance. I don’t think I could have asked for anything better.

A few days later, Nick got back to me and sent me his reinterpretation of my music score.

(You can read his take on our encounter here)

When my sister Susanna Recchia, who is a dance artist, listened to Nick’s piece, she immediately said that she would love to try and use it for one of her performances. This is yet to happen, but I am really hoping that it would soon become a further chance of collaboration and one new embodiment of experimenting with words, sounds and space.

Art in Afghanistan: A Time of Transition

This piece was first publish in Muftah’s Special Collection Art of Pakistan and Afghanistan

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Tugnoli

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Tugnoli

2014 is slowly running its course. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is expected to withdraw by the end of the year retaining only a very light foothold in the country. Many international donors are responding to the impending transition by reducing their work in Afghanistan as well. In the first few months of the year, attacks against foreigners increased, pushing many international NGOs to cut their presence on the ground to the bare minimum. Reduced military and humanitarian engagement means significantly less money flowing into the country. This will inevitably impact the sustainability of the nation-building process. Reduced cash inflow will have direct repercussions at various levels, affecting the maintenance of armed forces, the funding of salaries for government employees and NGO workers, the creation of new job opportunities, and the provision of basic security.

As is often the case, culture is among the first sectors to suffer funding cuts in times of crisis. To a certain extent, this is happening today in Afghanistan. On the one hand, culture is low on the agenda of donor priorities. This marks a radical change compared to the past few years, when cultural projects were supported, largely in an instrumental manner, to demonstrate the great achievements that resulted from Afghanistan’s occupation. On the other hand, in a revamping of the ‘winning hearts and minds’ counterinsurgency doctrine, donors are likely to continue using arts and culture to convey social and political messages – a subtle yet sneaky form of propaganda.

As Afghanistan transitions into a new phase, this is a prime opportunity to begin assessing the role international funding has played, and can continue to play in the country’s cultural practices.

International Donors in Afghanistan

In general, the centrality of capacity building and deliverables, combined with the fact that decisions are mostly made away from Afghanistan, have created funding priorities that focus on the start-up phase of projects instead of the less exciting work of institutionalizing initiatives. This has triggered a vicious circle of endless beginnings, and left limited funds for investing in long-term sustainability.

Commenting on this phenomenon, an Afghan friend once told me: “People come to teach us ABC, but we always stop at A because every time someone new comes, he starts again from A as he doesn’t expect that we can go any further.” The consequences of this attitude are potentially paralyzing, generating both dependency and irrelevance for many projects, including but not limited to those in the arts.

As an independent researcher living in Kabul, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with different organizations working in arts and culture in Afghanistan. In the past two years, I have directly witnessed these dynamics at the grass-root level, including the (not always so healthy) interactions between donors and practitioners.

Since culture is considered a relatively ‘harmless’ field, it is often experimental ground for scores of armchair experts and adventurous, self-appointed intellectuals to come and teach Afghans how to express themselves. One reads time and again of people who visit Kabul for a week or so to ‘discover’ Afghan art (or literature, or music, or poetry) and give voice to the ‘locals.’ They work to ‘enlighten’ the youth about how to emancipate themselves from an oppressive society, how to reject tradition, and liberate themselves from the burden of cultural backwardness. All this is often done under the incorrect supposition that Afghanistan is a homogenous, black and white place – demonstrating an appalling lack of knowledge (or worse, interest) in the actual conditions on the ground.

But this is also a two-way street. Beneficiaries sometimes take advantage of patronizing Western perspectives. They are happy to let the money flow, take what they can, and have at least some form of support for their activities.

In a recent interview, Afghan-American contemporary artist Aman Mojadidi commented on these circumstances:

There is the potential for cultural activities to move forward, but a lot of organizations have become dependent on international money and presence. If this deteriorates, will local cultural organisations have the motivation to keep going rather than continue to be psychologically and financially dependent? In practical terms, there would be no real obstacle: you are a group of artists and you do art. There is nothing to it: you don’t have to have funding. […] But when you immediately connect the creation of art with a donor, a project, a budget, then this is the sign of a very damaging mentality that can kill the potential of these cultural initiatives to move forward.[1]

To meet donor requests and attract more funds, events like thematic festivals, and photo, visual arts, or painting exhibitions, have multiplied. Many of these projects focus on topics of interest to Western funders, including women’s rights, children, peace or attempts at countering violence, drugs, and corruption. This has generated a significant amount of conceptual confusion between visual communication and genuine artistic expression, producing an abundance of mediocre, if not plain bad, art.

Locating Independent Arts and Cultural Organizations in Afghanistan

Over the past two years, I have invested a great deal of effort as an academic and practitioner in both understanding and responding to this situation. One of my greatest preoccupations has been to address – in theory as well as in practice – the agency that has been ignored or denied by Western aid practices.

In undertaking this work, my first step was to determine which of the existing cultural organizations would have enough commitment and determination to continue their work regardless of donor funding. I was not necessarily looking for antagonistic groups that were against the donor model, but rather for organizations that had a good balance of self-determination and external support.

In Afghanistan, I found quite a few organizations and artists that fit the bill. Whether in the field of visual arts, music, film, or poetry, there are a number of individuals and groups that have engaged in constructive but critical dialogue with the international funding system and are not fully dependent on these funders. Most of these genuinely independent initiatives lie below the radar, are very localized, operate offline, communicate in Dari or Pashto, and serve relatively small communities of people.

Among these is Berang Arts, a collective of young visual artists, who came together in 2009 after participating in the first edition of the Afghanistan Contemporary Art Prize. Investing their own funds, they managed to rent an apartment in Kabul and turn it into a contemporary art center – the first artist-led space in the country – with studio facilities for young artists and a small gallery for exhibitions. With time, the group has become a legitimate local partner for prestigious international cultural institutions, such as the Van Abbemuseum in Holland, the Prince Claus Fund, and documenta13.

Because of a lack of financial resources, artists and independent institutions tend to be protective of their achievements and ‘territory,’ making it difficult to have conversations with different groups engaged in similar activities. From both personal and formal conversations, I realized that the art’s community would benefit from more professional spaces that go beyond occasional workshops and vocational trainings. Many artists expressed a desire for more structured discussions around art theory, the history of art, as well as marketing and selling art to learn how to make a living through their practice.

In the last year, I have started working more closely with Berang Arts in an attempt to counter the damaging ‘ABC mentality’ and offer an alternative to the insularity of Kabul’s small cultural scene. Berang Art wanted to make the most of its space, and open itself up to artists coming from different backgrounds and working in various genres.

With small financial support from the Goethe Institute, the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, and the Dutch Embassy in Kabul, Berang Arts and I joined our resources and started working together to respond to shared needs and desires in Kabul’s art community. Together, we established an independent Contemporary Art Academy that offers young, but experienced artists advanced education in contemporary art history and theory, while also providing a personalized mentorship program to support them in their work.

Independent Cultural Organizations Are the Future

Berang Arts is a beautiful example of the great potential embodied by independent and self-sufficient arts and cultural organizations in Afghanistan. Groups like Berang foster advanced thinking about contemporary art, while operating strictly within a framework of local, cultural values and norms. They are proactive and independent, yet know how to relate to and benefit from the Western donor community.

Given their ability to navigate this world, these are the organizations that will likely come out the strongest once the country’s current financial and political transition has passed. This slippery terrain will work as a filter, helping good art and strengthening those groups and individuals whose commitment to arts and cultural practices in Afghanistan is rooted and genuine.

 

[1]Francesca Recchia, “Nationality, identity and art” Himal Southasian Special Issue Reclaiming Afghanisttan, Vol 27 No 1, 2014, p. 75.

Scoprire l’arte a Kabul

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Tugnoli

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Tugnoli

Durnate la 14. Mostra Internazionale di Architettura della Biennale di Venezia, il gruppo di ricerca ASK – Art, Society and Knowledge dell’Università Bocconi è stato invitato a partecipare a  Monditalia – Weekend Specials.

Per questa occasione, hanno prodotto una mia lunga intervista sulla relazione fra pratiche culturali e trasformazione sociale.

L’intervista è adesso disponibile sul sito di RAI Arte.

 

The Little Book of Kabul

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The Little Book of Kabul is a self-published book released in Agust 2014 in collaboration with the amazing photographer Lorenzo Tugnoli.

Made of short stories and black and white photos, the book is a portrait of the city of Kabul through the daily activities of a number of artists that we followed for more than a year.

The book is a limited edition of 500 signed and numbered copies.

The affection that surrounds this project is overwhelming and never ceases to leave me happily speechless.

The book can be purchased here.