On Advocacy and Policies

Below is the keynote address I delivered in occasion of the Fall Meeting of the Global Consortium for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (GCPCH)

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It is a great privilege to be here today and have the opportunity to deliver this address on Advocacy and Policies.

Considering the amazing amount of institutional knowledge in the room, the best way I can meaningfully contribute to the conversation is by bringing to the table my experience from “the ground.”

Over the past fifteen years I have been working as an independent researcher supporting artists, cultural practices and productions in countries in conflict. For me, it is hardly possible to think of cultural heritage without thinking of people first.

I would like to begin by showing you a short art film from Afghanistan.

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The film, directed by Farahnaz Yusufi, is titled Ruyeeha-e Parihaa which in Farsi means Angel’s Dream.

There is not much to add to such a testament to the power of ingenuity. Farahnaz Yusufi opens for us a window to the never-ending quest for poetry. In the film, she also makes a complex reference to Sufi mystical culture that I have no time to unpack now, but we can certainly return to later in the discussion. Works like this, which combine a multiplicity of emotional, cultural and symbolic layers, interpellate us – as professionals who work towards the protection, preservation and revival of cultural heritage – with many fundamental questions. These questions, rather than the answers to them, will be the fil rouge that will guide my presentation.

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Baqer Ahmedi, Silent Face, 2014

A few days ago I met up with Baqer Ahmedi, one of the most talented emerging artists in Afghanistan, whom I have had the pleasure to mentor since he started his artistic journey. He updated me about his work and told me that he was not entirely satisfied with the progress he was making: for several months he could not draw as he had ran out of wasli paper and there wasn’t any available to buy in Kabul. Baqer Ahmedi is a contemporary artist, who works on a kind of handmade paper called wasli that is traditionally used for miniature painting – you can see here a couple of images from his work.

Baqer is about to leave Afghanistan as many artists have done before him. He’s going to Pakistan in a couple of weeks to begin his bachelor’s degree in Lahore. There he will be able to buy more paper and resume drawing. His matter of fact tone in telling this story stayed with me: there was no resentment. This is how often things are there in Afghanistan; it is normal not to have paper and not to be able to draw: there’s not much else to add.

It is from this lack of paper that we should probably start when we think of our role in protecting and reviving cultural heritage.

Luckily not the whole world is experiencing the same extreme conditions of Afghanistan, but I believe there’s much to learn from situations of conflict. I have just come back from Kabul, where I have been based for the past five years. In spite of the immense problems that the country is facing to shape itself into a mature and diverse nationstate, it is absolutely remarkable to see the relevance and centrality that culture and heritage play in the political debate.

During the last year, as a programme specialist with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, I worked closely with the Afghan Minister of Information and Culture to design a roadmap for both a National Cultural Policy and for the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The challenges have been and still are enormous. I would like to share some thoughts on my experience and perhaps we can further discuss them in our roundtable later on.

Working at the crossroad between international organisations, funding agencies and public institutions requires a lot of juggling. There are petty power games, there is the pressure to show progress and present deliverables, there is the aspiration to be relevant, to be accurate, to be meaningful. It is a jigsaw made of tons of tiny moving pieces: each of them requires full attention as the puzzle needs them all in order to be complete. Any attempt at cutting corners simply backfires. The greatest dilemma is between the urge to be efficient and the ethical desire to be sustainable.

Here the biggest variables are “the people” and time.

Because of my personal political history, I have always distrusted top-down decisions. This attitude has a profound influence on how I conceive my work. More on this later.

To go back to the issue of “the people” and time, when working in the context of so-called developing countries, our activities are measured by the strict sets of deadlines dictated by donors’ fundings. It is the logic of projects that orientates us along with the requirement to show short-term tangible results matched against large, sustained financial investments. This is all well and good, but it is also extremely easy to lose perspective and forget the big picture.

Most of what I do is to work with people, but working with people requires time and the kind of time that is needed to gain trust and build an equal relationship is out of sync with the temporality of a project-driven modality.

Let’s think of the National Cultural Policy for Afghanistan as an example. The quickest I could envision a roadmap for its development was on a three year scale with at least two rounds of nation-wide consultation with civil society organisations, local elders, religious and community leaders. In a country like Afghanistan, though, even three years into the future are difficult to envision: hardly any donor engages in such a “longterm” commitment, many of the decisions are personality-driven and so directions change along with the high turnover of the people in charge. Moreover, from next April the new electoral season will begin and the uncertainty that this entails may discourage anyone to engage in anything that at this point would appear utterly impossible.

I do not intend to paint a hopeless scenario here, I am rather trying to think out loud about the rationale that is behind what may seem a more pragmatic and certainly faster approach, whereby experts are brought into the picture for short-term consultancies to give answers and supposedly solve problems. Not always, however, is the specific professional competence of these experts paired with a nuanced understanding of the complexity and uniqueness of the context.

This way of working raises a number of questions. Will this ever be impactful? Will the results ever last? Will people ever feel ownership of any of the decisions made in such a detached manner?

The answer to this lack of space and time is often found in advocacy. An unavoidable component of every project proposal, it becomes the way to reach out to the people, to involve them, to make sure that we tick the box of inclusiveness.

In this sense, the idea of advocacy is often mistaken with public campaigning, with large scale mobilisations that bring attention to pressing issues. By doing this, we hope to inculcate new ideas, to communicate to the people the urgency of concentrating our efforts for the preservation of physical and intangible heritage. Besides actions taken within the institutional framework, there are also special events that serve the same purpose.

Here are a couple of examples of individual initiatives that have quite successfully brought to the public attention elements of endangered cultural heritage.

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In 2015, Zhang Xinyu and Liang Hong, two Chinese philanthropes, built in Bamiyan a 3D laser projector to create a 50-meter-tall hologram of the Buddhas that were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban. This hologram was presented in a public event where 150 people participated.

 Another beautiful example is the “before and after” series of photographs that Joseph Eid took in 2016 in Palmyra.

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Joseph Eid/Getty

 Expressions like these are significant examples of advocacy, but I believe it is important to think beyond them. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against campaigning and public mobilisation. I am however suspicious of an approach to advocacy that is limited to that. In these terms, in fact, advocacy becomes a tactic, almost a quick fix instead of a form of strategy.

I just finished reading a book by Italian psychoanalyst Massimo Recalcati titled L’ora di Lezione. Per un’erotica dell’insegnamento.

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Massimo Recalcati, L’ora di lezione. Per un’erotica dell’insegnamento. Cover Photo.

There is no English translation of the book yet, the title roughly means The Lesson’s Hour. For an Erotic Approach to Teaching. The book addresses the profound crisis that the Italian school system is undergoing. It looks at how the great social transformations of the last four decades have had an impact on School (with capital S) as an institution as well as on the role that teachers play in the educational enterprise. This is not the right time to go into further detail about the book, but there is one point that Recalcati makes that may be useful for our discussion. He believes that teachers should reclaim their role in presenting to the students the objects of knowledge as erotic objects. In other words, the task of the teacher is to activate the desire to know. In Socratic terms, this is an unearthing process rather than an imposition. The maieutic art of teaching recognises potentials, nurtures desire and facilitates the space of expression.

I wonder if we can use the same model and re-think of advocacy in such terms. This will require, however, a serious shift in attitude.

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at a gathering of geographers and GIS experts in Bangalore in South India on the role that mapping can play in heritage preservation. Most of the participants came from a non proprietary OpenStreetMap (and a free software) background and the discussion that followed ended up focussing on the possibility of communities’ involvement and participation in the identification and geo-localisation of heritage sites. At this point a member of the audience, the only urban planner in the room, stood up and quite forcefully stated that people don’t know what is relevant; it is therefore our duty to teach them the importance of heritage. She left the room soon after, but the echo of her statement informed the rest of the conversation.

The presumption that we, all of us in a position of power and responsibility, know better than “the people” is a scary beast and it encages the nature of heritage within narrow and “managerial” parameters.

Statements like these are problematic at a multiplicity of different levels and they are – whether in a spoken or unspoken fashion – more common than one would be willing to admit. The first order of troubles comes from the fact that we (the experts, the bureaucrats, the academics) set ourselves apart from them, the people. We forget that beyond our expertise it is our cultural roots to make us who we are – be it by embracing or by opposing them. Somewhere, somehow, beyond our professional lives, we belong, we are members of a community and we are shaped and defined by a set of cultural practices, places and meanings that we share with others.

It is remarkable how quick we are in forgetting this when we wear our professional hats.

The second layer of problems with such statements comes from the fact that they ossify the idea of heritage within strict rules and regulations thereby ignoring its granular and embodied nature. In both physical and intangible terms, heritage is malleable and ever-changing, it is that particular tree, that folktale, this street corner that a community aggregates around and identifies with.

When my sister tells the story of where we come from, she loves to say that local dialects change every few kilometres and with every single village. What sets our hometown apart, she would go on, is the fact that we don’t have any distinctive dialect as the city was entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 1915.

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Photo by Lansing Callan for USGS (Us Geological Survey)

It is apocryphal stories like this one that help us shape our narratives as individuals who belong to a place and a community. It is stories like these that perpetuate a notion of living traditions.

I have recently discovered an incredibly inspiring document written under the auspices of UNESCO in 1998 in occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the Declaration of Human Duties and Responsibilities, which quite simply responds to the rights we claim with a set of duties and responsibilities that we have in order for our rights to come alive.

The Declaration is a manifesto of the ethics of responsibility and helps us conceiving the shift between moral and legal duties: it is about what we ought to do in order to guarantee the survival of the universal democratic values we cherish and claim as fundamental.

The strive towards equality and meaningful participation in public affairs is at the core of the document.

Relevant to our context, Chapter 11 of the Declaration is dedicated to Education, Art and Culture. Within this section, article 38 reminds us that within communities there is both an individual and a collective responsibility to provide a framework for and to foster arts and culture.

It is on this note that I want to conclude my address today.

As professionals who work towards the preservation of heritage – as well as as individuals who belong to a particular community – our job is also our duty.

When we create the conditions for the protection and the full enjoyment of cultural heritage we are basically performing our civic, obligatory and reciprocal duty as citizens.

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Liberticide

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“It happens slowly, irreparably, slyly. What was the title of that song? Killing me softly. That’s how freedoms are killed – for the most.”

I write on Chapati Mystery about the slow, inexorable curbing of freedoms.

You can find the full article here.

UR/Unreserved

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UR/Unreserved is an arts project stemming from the collaboration between maraa arts collective and Anish Victor. UR/Unreserved embarks on a train journey to investigate the margins of negotiation of identity in contemporary India.

The trigger for the project was an SMS that circulated in Bangalore in 2012 targeting specifically the population of the North Eastern states of India. The message warned the receivers that, had they not left immediately, they would have paid the consequences. The SMS proved to be fake, however, many people fled overnight, by train, fearing for their lives.

Interrogating what it means to belong, how people identify, what are the processes of representation connected to identity, what are the markers that “give away” who people are. These are fundamental questions that urgently need to be addressed in the current political context in India.

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Eight young artists from Karnataka, Kerala, Assam and Kashmir will travel for a month in sleeper coaches and unreserved train compartments engaging fellow travellers in conversations around their own experience of individual and collective identities. Through performative techniques, magic tricks, songs and games they will facilitate the possibility of an exchange around a subject that is now too risky to address with strangers. The material gathered from these conversations will become part of public happenings and of a travelling exhibition.

To make this important arts project possible there is an ongoing crowd-funding campaign.

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To support Unreserved by contributing to cover the production expenses, you can give your contribution here.

L’esercizio della responsabilità

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Storicamente, i periodi di crisi socio-politiche sono caratterizzati da grandi movimenti popolari di protesta e rivendicazione dei diritti. L’enfasi sulla dimensione di rivendicazione da una parte implica la presupposizione di un potere che ascolta, dall’altra sposta la necessità dell’azione al di là di chi protesta.
E’ forse anche per questo che un documento tanto importante quanto la Carta Universale dei Doveri e delle Responsabilità è praticamente sconosciuta. A seguito di un processo consultivo internazionale che ha coinvolto esperti, politici (fra cui Leoluca Orlando), intellettuali (inclusi Dario Fo e Gianni Vattimo) e rappresentanti di comunità, la Carta è stata redatta a Valencia nel 1998 in occasione del 50º anniversario della Dichiarazione Universale dei Diritti Umani sotto il patrocinio dell’UNESCO. La Carta è una versione speculare della Dichiarazione dei Diritti Umani e funziona quasi da contrappunto: a tutto ciò di cui abbiamo diritto, fa da contraltare quello che dobbiamo fare per renderlo possibile.
Premessa fondamentale del documento è la distinzione di piani fra doveri e responsabilità. I primi hanno un valore di impegno morale, che si traduce in vincolo legale attraverso l’assunzione di responsabilità: se non espletiamo a pieno i nostri doveri per garantire i diritti di tutti, siamo perseguibili penalmente.
In tempi come questi, per esempio, è importante ricordare che al sacrosanto diritto al libero movimento fa eco il dovere all’ospitalità – in particolare verso chi è dislocato a causa di guerre o carestie – nell’ottica di un’equità non solo formale, ma sostanziale.
L’articolo 38 della Carta si concentra su doveri e responsabilità tanto degli individui che delle comunità di creare le condizioni e sostenere le arti e la produzione culturale.
Lavoro da oltre dieci anni nella promozione culturale, rivitalizzazione del patrimonio immateriale e sostegno agli artisti in paesi in conflitto. Fra le ragioni che muovono il mio agire c’è la consapevolezza di una profonda interconnessione tra urgenza, diritto e dovere alla libera espressione. Alla luce della Carta, la mia attività professionale è la risposta a una chiamata all’assunzione di responsabilità per cui ciò che facciamo è parte di una tutela dei diritti tanto individuali che collettivi.

Heritage and Politics in Kashmir

Amarnath-Yatra

This text was originally published on Kashmir Reader on the 6th of May 2016

Indian-occupied Kashmir is one of the most densely militarised corners of the world even though it is not officially a country at war. With over half a million troops stationed within its boundaries, the ratio between Indian armed forces and Kashmiri civilians is even higher than that between foreign military and civilian population at the peak of the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the promise of a plebiscite, the region has been denied the right of self-determination and has seen the criminalisation of organised forms of dissent. Movement is regulated and the right to public space curbed under the pretence of maintaining law and order. In such a climate, the struggle over the control and definition of territory assumes a fundamental role. Within this context, therefore, the management and articulation of heritage assume a loaded political meaning. Whose history is preserved and promoted? By whom and through which political allegiances? What messages and agendas are championed through heritage? What are the meanings and reasons for reclaiming cultural roots through fabricated notions of tradition?
After the 2008 and 2010 uprisings, the Indian government has associated systematic repressive violence with a renewed public discourse on the beauty of Kashmir – a pristine landscape devoid of people. To strengthen its propagandistic effectiveness, the central government started providing financial incentives to tourism and pilgrimages as devices to normalise the conflict. This whole political apparatus is mostly articulated in religious terms with an emphasis on the indivisible sacrality of Indian land since ancient pre-Islamic times. The same strategy is adopted in relation to the border, where Hindu shrines are installed within the premises or in the vicinity of Army check-posts. These newly established religious sites, which become collective yet segregated places of worship, indirectly sanction the Army’s presence as well as the quintessentially Hindu nature of India as a country.
In the decades that followed Partition, India and Pakistan sat at the negotiating table several times to try and solve, among other things, their disagreement over the management of Kashmir. These talks did not achieve much, but sanctioned the “question of Kashmir” as aterritorial dispute – an empty land on a map where the issue was how – rather than if – it should be divided.Almost seventy years and several UN resolutions later, the situation has not changed. The articulation of the discourse is still framed in bilateral terms and continues to exclude the political voice of Kashmiris. Through a narrative that reinforces the idea that the “solution” for Kashmir has to come from India and Pakistan, Kashmiris themselves are sidelined and not acknowledged as equal, let alone indispensable, interlocutors. It is the fate of the land that is at stake, not the fate of those who belong to it. This unchanged perspective perpetuates the legitimacy of a “mystical” tone whereby Kashmir has come to symbolise the unquestionable wholeness of India as a country.
The first months of 2016 have seen open and rampant tensions around the oneness of India. The central government and its supporters are undeterred in their attempt to promote such unity and reinstate the intrinsically religious nature of Indian nationalist loyalty founded on the centrality of the myth of Bharat Mata. The reinforcement of the identification of the Indian land with the body of the mother collapses political and religious categories, turns the nationalist struggle into a religious duty and charges political claims for self-determination with an almost blasphemous and hence seditious connotation. Incidentally, by reciting the Bharat Mata ki Jai, the Indian Army finds a religious justification to their brutality: their mission is to protect the integrity of the land thus turning into the uncontested custodians of a dominant interpretation of belonging and heritage.
In order to be able to grasp the complexity of the notion of heritage and the intertwining between the sacralisation of the land and a sense of belonging in Kashmir, it is fundamental to grasp the relevance of the events of the 1990s and the displacement of the Kashmiri Pandits. Much of their pledge has been in fact appropriated by a chauvinist nationalist agenda and their desire to return to their homeland has been manipulated to reinforce the Hindu nature of the wholeness of India.
The recent revival of the Amarnath Yatra is an important example of how people’s mobilisation around cultural memorialisation can be used to interpret the political implications of the promotion of immaterial heritage. Located 140 kilometres North East of Srinagar, at an altitude of almost 4,000 meters, the cave of Amarnath, with its ice stalagmite, has been for centuries the site of religious pilgrimages. At the end of a steep climb in a pristine forest, the cave is blocked by snow for most of the year and it is only accessible for a short period of time during which pilgrims challenge altitude and asperities to pay their respect to the god. Legend has it that this is the secluded place that Lord Shiva chose to reveal to Parvati the secrets of immortality and of the creation of the Universe without being heard by any other living being. The cave is therefore revered and considered among the most important religious sites for Hindus. To corroborate its sacrality, it is believed that the ice stalagmite, which is thought to be waxing and waning in accordance to the moon cycles, is an embodiment of the Lingam, the phallic representation of Lord Shiva himself.
After being forgotten for centuries, the cave was “miraculously” rediscovered around the 1850s by Buta Malik, a wandering shepherd during the reign of Gulab Singh, the first Dogra ruler of Kashmir. The Maharaja was all too happy to encourage pilgrims to visit the site. Since its modern inception, the Yatra was a relatively small event that lasted no longer than fifteen days and included twenty to thirty thousand local Kashmiri Pandits. Between 1991 and 1995, the pilgrimage was suspended because of political instability; it was then resumed in 1996 after assurances by the militants that they would not harm the pilgrims. That year, however, a sudden change of weather and unexpected snowfall caused the death of more than 250 people. In response to this tragedy, the government decided to impose stricter regulations and set up the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB).
The institutionalisation of the pilgrimage and the definition of the religious pre-requisites for the eligibility for the SASB represent a momentous turning point in the significance, promotion and political connotation that the Amarnath Yatra has acquired. It is after this transition, in fact, that the Sangh Parivar has shown a proactive interest in the pilgrimage, radically changing the narrative around it, thus escalating the politicisation of the initiative and hence its divisive nature.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm defines the process of the invention of tradition as an intentional way of using material from the past to serve novel purposes. This perspective resonates with an interpretation of heritage as a contemporary cultural use of the past, thus highlighting its political dimension. Hobsbawm’s definition of “invented traditions” can provide a useful framework for the understanding of the shift in meaning and political significance of the Amarnath Yatra. Even though there is no academic analysis of the Yatra, the debate around it is quite heated at the level of civil society. Positions are deeply polarised and mostly see a split between the government bodies, militant Kashmiri Pandits and Hindus from mainland India on one side, and moderate Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri civil society organisations on the other.
Over the course of several interviews with Kashmiri Pandits living both in the Valley and outside it, it emerged that there was a shared agreement around the preposterous notion of “reclamation of Kashmir” utilised to justify the scale of mobilisation around the Amarnath Yatra. In a phone interview, S. – who spoke on the condition of anonymity as he feared that his positions would upset the community – told me: “Amarnath has no relation whatsoever with Kashmiri Pandits, we as a community have nothing to do with the shrine. Those who will tell you that the tradition is ours and Muslims are trying to destroy it, hold false and biased views that are fuelled by their anger at the displacement they underwent. This reactionary narrative is not inherent to Kashmir, it is the result of Indianisation and the media are contributing to exacerbating a narrative that is more important to Indians than it is to us.”
Sanjay Tickoo, a Kashmiri Pandit social activist, who decided not to leave his native Srinagar during the 1989 exodus and has lived in the Valley his entire life, highlighted the deep religious connection with nature in Kashmir that characterises the Pandits’ religiosity and framed the relation with the Amarnath Yatra in the same terms. He also expressed his discontent towards the fact that the pilgrimage was taken over “by those who claim to be the real custodians of Hinduism”. While dissenting from the interpretations of the Yatra as a form of political oppression, Tickoo criticised the composition of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board where currently only one member, Bhajan Sopori, is a Kashmiri Pandit. He told me that this detail can be indicative of the politicisation of the pilgrimage and its disconnection from the Pandit community. Even though he did not seem too preoccupied with the implications of such adevelopment, his main concern had to do with the terrible environmental consequences the massive expansion of the Amarnath Yatra has caused over the years. He was highly critical of the great numbers and of the extension of the pilgrimage time from fifteen days to almost two months.
The effect that hundreds of thousands of people can have on a fragile mountainous environment is a general reason of concern. For many civil society activists, however, the ecological preoccupation is framed in broader political terms. Khurram Parvez, a member of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), lamented the detrimental effects that the Amarnath Yatra has on Kashmiri culture in terms of “its impact on our natural resources, its absolute lack of sustainability and the fact that it has become an alibi for an even further militarisation” Parvez was adamant in calling the Amarnath Yatra as a “military project run under the patronage of the State” and accused the SASB of being complicit with the State-sponsored narrative of reclaiming Kashmir.
As the BJP, RSS and other extreme right-wing Hindutva organisations appropriated the narrative around the Yatra, they started aggressive fundraising campaigns gathering large sums of money from diaspora Hindus across the world so as to be able to sponsor increasingly larger numbers of pilgrims entirely free of cost. This process changed dramatically the demography of the pilgrims who for the most joined the Yatra for opportunistic or ideological reasons. This tension is further heightened by the fact that pilgrims consider the Army to be there to protect them from aggressions by locals and terrorists alike, whereas for Kashmiris the military presence is an obvious disruption of their own lives.
Moreover, as the number of pilgrims grew exponentially, Kashmiri civil society organisations started denouncing the visible deterioration of the fragile Himalayan ecosystem around the cave. Scientific research shows the increase of waterborne diseases and water shortage in villages in South Kashmir during and in the immediate aftermaths of the pilgrimage. Yatris neither show any respect for the natural environment, by throwing all sorts of waste in the Lidder River and by defecating in the open, nor are they provided with the necessary facilities for a more considerate behaviour, despite it being one of the main tasks assigned to the SASB.
The tension between civil society organisations and the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board reached a peak in May-August 2008 after the state government granted the transfer of 40 acres of forest land to the SASB for the construction of temporary structures for the accommodation of pilgrims. The announcement that this would represent a permanent transfer created public outrage as Kashmiris saw the transaction as a blatant violation of article 370 of the Indian Constitution. One of the provisions of such article is that only citizens of the state can purchase and own land in the Valley. Khurram Parvez defined the land transfer and the plan to build on forest land permanent structures to host pilgrims as “an ecological disaster and yet other manifestation of the Indian occupation.” Street protests erupted across Kashmir and clashes between civilians and Indian Army determined the withdrawal of the transfer. This in turn triggered a wave of unrest in Jammu – where the majority of the population is Hindu – with Hindutva parties and organisations were up in arms calling for a comprehensive agitation to fight and take back the land of Kashmir defined as “the paternal property of Hindus”.
The 2015 Amarnath Yatra counted more than 350 thousand participants and several deaths. The 2016 edition is scheduled to begin on the 2nd of July and will last for 48 days. In an ostentatious attempt to regulate the Yatra, the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board announced that it will “only” allow 7,500 people per day on each of the two routes, therefore bringing the estimated attendance to 720,000 people. Violence and unrest are ebbing again in Kashmir following various episodes of brutal military responses to critical voices that dared questioning the indiscriminate acceptance of the oneness of India. In this climate, the forthcoming Amarnath Yatra may acquire further ideological connotations and be instrumentally used to serve chauvinistic Hindu nationalistic agendas. Leveraging on sentiments of belonging and the right to reclaim their own land through the construction of a well orchestrated invented tradition, the Amarnath Yatra is an important, if little known, example of the ways in which heritage movements can serve political purposes. Heritage activism in this particular case shows a dark and antagonistic side where the promotion of a carefully fabricated continuity to a selective sense of the past serves the Indian hegemonic discourse and indirectly legitimises both the presence of the Army and their deeds as custodians of the sacred unity of Bharat Mata.

The architecture of conflicts

I will be part of a round table discussion on the 15th of June at The Triennale in Milan during the Milano Arch Week 2017.

Here are the details:

 15th June 2017 La Triennale – Giardino delle Sculture
16.30 / 17.30 TALK
THE ARCHITECTURE OF CONFLICTS:A DIALOGUE AROUND LANGUAGES,  TERRITORIES AND REPRESENTATION
moderato da Camillo Boano con:
* Eyal Weizman,
* A
mos Gitai,
* Francesca Recchia,
* Arcò,
* Vento di Terra

Hope to see you there

To Resist is to Exist

images50 years ago, the revolutionary masterpiece The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. To mark the anniversary, the film has been restaured and CG Entertainment launched a campaign to published this new edition (in Italian). To support the initiative, they asked me to engage in a conversation with this great work of art. My thougths are below and this is the link to support the campaign.

 

We live in dark times, in a precarious equilibrium between fear and inurement. The big engine of the empire huffs and puffs, hit at its core by lone wolves and organised terrorists. The chasm between us and them grows wider, defined by shortcuts and superficial understandings that seem convincing because are worded in the incontestable language of reassuring populism. We live in dark times that are nurtured by historical courses and recourses: History does not teach, human kind does not learn from past mistakes, the thirst for revenge is more satisfying than the desire for transformation. The dystopia of the present builds isolating and fragmentary geographies, designed in the negative and founded on divisions. In this grim picture, instead of the possibility of encounters, the only thing that seems to multiply are separating devices and mechanisms of exclusion: concrete walls, thousand-eyed drones, coils of barbed wire.  

Read the full article on With Kashmir 

Resistere è esistere

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50 anni fa, La Battaglia di Algeri di Gillo Pontecorvo vinceva il Leone d’Oro alla Mostra del Cinema di Venezia. In occasione dell’anniversario, il film è stato restaurato e CG Entertainment ha lanciato una campagna per pubblicare questa nuova edizione. In sostegno all’iniziativa, mi hanno chiesto di raccogliere dei pensieri in risposta a questa grande opera d’arte.
Il testo
è qui di seguito e questo è il link per sostenere la campagna.

Viviamo tempi cupi, in equilibrio precario fra la paura e l’assuefazione. La grande macchina dell’impero sbuffa in affanno, colpita al cuore da lupi solitari e terroristi organizzati. Il guado tra noi e loro si allarga, un guado definito da scorciatoie spesso solcate da conoscenze superficiali che sembrano convincenti perché elaborate nella lingua incontestabile del populismo rassicurante. Viviamo tempi cupi che sono alimentati da interminabili corsi e ricorsi di vichiana memoria: la storia non insegna, il genere umano non impara dagli errori del passato, la sete di vendetta sazia più del desiderio di trasformazione. La distopia del presente costruisce geografie frammentarie e isolazioniste, disegnate al negativo e fondate sulla divisione. In questo quadro sconfortante invece della possibilità d’incontro, l’unica cosa che sembra moltiplicarsi sono i dispositivi di separazione e i meccanismi di esclusione: muri di cemento, droni dai mille occhi, bobine di filo spinato.

Cinquantadue anni fa, Gillo Pontecorvo girava La Battaglia di Algeri, un film rivoluzionario senza tempo che – raccontando la storia della resistenza algerina e dei primi passi del movimento di liberazione nazionale che hanno condotto al drammatico, ma necessario processo di decolonizzazione – parla al presente con una contemporaneità stupefacente.

Cambiano i termini storici, ma la sostanza resta la stessa. Gli oppressori, i fascismi, i colonialismi passati e presenti reiterano triti argomenti per perpetuare la propria esistenza e asserire un’idea immutabile di passato che confermi la legittimità del proprio privilegio. Il paternalismo benevolente del potere, l’infantilizzazione dell’altro, la discriminazione sulla base del colore della pelle e della religione sopravvivono alla loro stessa stupidità.

In risposta ad uno status quo ingiusto e apparentemente immutabile, la resistenza – politica, civile, disobbediente, armata – continua a vivere rivendicando il diritto all’autodeterminazione, ad un accesso equo alle risorse, alla possibilità di essere gli autori della propria storia.

L’Algeria del 1957 è la Palestina dell’Intifada, è il Kashmir dell’estate di sangue del 2016, è la protesta degli Indiani d’America nella Riserva di Standing Rock.

Qualche tempo fa, in una conversazione i cui toni sono presto diventati animati, un amico mi ha invitato al realismo dicendo che di fronte alla violenza del potere è dovere dell’oppresso accettare la disparità delle forze ed accettare un compromesso. Mi ha detto che devo imparare a distinguere fra l’idealismo e la realpolitik: è tempo di crescere e guardare in faccia la realtà, visto che il sacrificio per la libertà non hai mai portato nessun frutto.

E’ vero, mai come oggi – in giorni di barconi alla deriva, campi profughi delimitati da reti elettrificate e diritto al movimento negato sulla base della religione – è tempo di crescere e guardare in faccia la realtà prendendo atto del fatto che siamo costantemente stimolati a scommettere sulla sopravvivenza e di dimenticarci della nostra esistenza.

Resistere è esistere – vivere a pieno in nome dell’equità e della libertà proponendo un modello diverso dall’oscurantismo che in nome di un dubbio beneficio immediato dissecca le radici dei diritti, del valore della diversità, della necessità di esprimere il proprio sé al di là di categorizzazioni e incasellamenti.

In La Battaglia di Algeri nel sesto giorno dello sciopero generale organizzato dal Fronte di Liberazione Nazionale, il gendarme francese al megafono sollecita la popolazione locale ricordando loro che è la Francia ad essere la loro patria ed è la Francia a sapere ciò che è meglio per il loro futuro e non i “terroristi” che cercano di manipolarli.

In un momento di grande poesia, il piccolo Omar, sgattaiolando tra il filo spinato, riesce a sottrarre il megafono ai Francesi e grida alla folla: “Fratelli algerini, fratelli, coraggio, resistete. Resistete. Non ascoltate quello che vi dicono. L’Algeria sarà libera.”

E’ con l’innocenza di questo bambino, un’innocenza che sopravvive nonostante la guerra, che dobbiamo guardare al futuro, alle potenzialità di un domani non omologato, tenendo stretto il diritto sacrosanto a esistere e resistere.

Important questions

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A while ago, a friend of my mother’s asked me if one of her 8th grade students could send me some questions for a research she was preparing for her final exam. I said yes without giving it too much thinking. A few weeks later I received the questions and realised how much responsibility was attached to my answers. I was faced with the difficult task of balancing honesty and simplicity, of keeping my cynicism at bay while articulating my answers so as to give full value to the sensitivity of Sara’s questions. It gives me hope to know that, in the general confusion of these blind times, a thirteen year old girl would like to know what is going on in different corners of the world. As our “interview” has been for me a very important occasion to stop and reflect, I thought it would be nice to share it.

Sara: What are the daily life conditions of the civilian population?

Francesca: In the past year, things in Afghanistan have deteriorated. Even though the war here has almost been forgotten, its impact on the civilian population is still enormous. UNAMA, the UN Agency that is specifically dedicated to Afghanistan, recently published a report stating that 2016 has been one of the worst years for civilians since the beginning of the war. Because of the on-going violence, in the last twelve months 650 thousand people have been forced to leave their homes and head to nearby cities or villages or ended up in refugee camps in order to find a safer place to live. Imagine: the population of fifteen cities like Avezzano [our home town] forced to flee: the numbers are immense and mind boggling. Moreover, this past winter, things have been even more difficult as there has been a lot of snow and avalanches. Many remote areas of the country have been almost impossible to reach because of the conflict hence making the living conditions of civilians – especially the poorest ones – really dire.

Sara: Are there still terrorist attacks? How can people protect themselves?

Francesca: The only way we can protect ourselves from war is to continue living our daily lives without being overpowered by fear. Keep going and keep working for a better tomorrow: I don’t think there is any other possible protection.

Sara: Can you communicate easily with local people? Do you think you manage to understand their needs and hardships?

Francesca: I work with art and cultural production. We can say that my work – in Kabul as everywhere else in the world – is dedicated to the needs of the mind and the spirit more than to the needs of the body. I have spent the past four and a half years in Afghanistan concentrating on this kind of “care”. I have learnt a lot in these years and I keep learning something new every day. In order to be able to understand – to use your words – people’s needs and hardships the important thing is to listen, to be open to the reality of a new place without the presumption of having all the answers and all the solutions before even having landed. Such a blind attitude will take you nowhere and will bring no good to you or to anyone around you.

Sara: How many and which organisations are active in the country and for which purposes?

Francesca: Afghanistan is full of local and international organisations active in various fields: from education to the defence of the environment, from building roads to vaccination. Some organisations do very good work, they are serious and committed; others take advantage of the many existing needs and of the fact that the international community continues to send a lot of money. It is really a mixed bag. If I have to give you an example of excellence, I have no doubt: emergency is at the top of the list. They build hospitals for the victims of war; they work with bravery, dedication and humility. We really have a lot to learn from people like them.

Sara: What is the security situation for you volunteers?

Francesca: It is important to understand that the majority of those who work in Afghanistan are not volunteers, but paid (sometimes overpaid) professionals who do their job in a difficult context. Taking care of the foreigners’ security is a very complex and incredibly costly business made of armoured cars, bodyguards and so-called security protocols – that is rules and practices of behaviour in a situation of risk. There are many nuances and your questions opens a complicated reflection on how to behave as well as on the “why” of certain choices.

Sara: Is there still a possibility to improve the political situation?

Francesca: The possibility of improvement is something we should never ever doubt – else we lose hope for the future. The real challenge is to understand the path for this improvement and the required ways and timelines. This is a shared responsibility between governments and civil society. For those like you, who are far away, it is important to keep remembering these wars even though they are no longer prominent in the news.

Domande importanti

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Un po’ di tempo fa, un’amica di mia mamma mi ha chiesto se una sua allieva potesse mandarmi delle domande sul lavoro che faccio per la sua ricerca per l’esame di terza media. Ho detto di si senza troppo pensare. Dopo qualche settimana mi sono arrivate le domande di Sara e mi sono resa conto che alle mie risposte era legata una grande responsabilità. Mi sono trovata davanti al compito difficile di bilanciare onestà e semplicità, tenendo a freno il cinismo e articolando delle risposte che valorizzassero il tono attento e sensibile delle domande di Sara. Da speranza sapere che nella confusione generale di questo tempo cieco, una ragazza di tredici anni abbia voglia di conoscere quel che succede in altri angoli del mondo. La nostra “intervista” è stata per me un’occasione importante di riflessione che mi fa piacere condividere.

Sara: Qual è la situazione attuale relativamente alla vita quotidiana dei civili?

Francesca: Nell’ultimo anno, in Afghanistan le cose sono molto peggiorate. Nonostante questa sia una guerra quasi dimenticata, il peso che il conflitto ha sui civili è enorme. L’agenzia delle Nazioni Unite che si occupa specificamente dell’Afghanistan, l’UNAMA, ha pubblicato un nuovo rapporto la scorsa settimana in cui rivela che il 2016 è stato uno degli anni peggiori per i civili dall’inizio della guerra quindici anni fa. Per le continue violenze più di 650 mila persone solo lo scorso anno sono state costrette a lasciare le proprie case e spostarsi in città o villaggi vicini o in campi profughi per cercare un posto più sicuro dove vivere. Immagina, quindici città grandi come Avezzano costrette a spopolarsi: sono numeri enormi e difficili da immaginare.

Questo inverno, poi, le cose sono state particolarmente complicate perché c’è stata tanta neve e molte valanghe e alcune zone del paese sono quasi impossibili da raggiungere per via della guerra, rendendo la situazione dei civili – soprattutto dei più poveri – ancora più pesante.

Sara: Ci sono ancora attacchi terroristici? Come i civili possono difendersi?

Francesca: L’unico modo in cui ci si può difendere dalla guerra è continuare a vivere la propria vita e non farsi sopraffare dalla paura. Andare avanti e continuare a sperare in un domani migliore, non credo ci sia altra difesa possibile.

Sara: Riuscite a comunicare facilmente con le persone del posto, e a rilevare le loro difficoltà/esigenze?

Francesca: Io mi occupo di arte e produzione culturale. Il mio lavoro – a Kabul come in ogni altra parte del mondo – è, se la vogliamo dire così, dedicato alle esigenze della mente e dello spirito, più che a quelle del corpo. Ho dedicato gli scorsi cinque anni a questo tipo di “cura”. Sono anni in cui ho imparato molto e continuo ogni giorno ad imparare qualcosa di nuovo. La cosa importante per, usando le tue parole, comunicare e rilevare le esigenze delle persone è quella di essere disposti all’ascolto, di essere aperti a capire la realtà di un posto tanto diverso dal nostro senza la presunzione di arrivare in partenza già con tutte le risposte e le soluzioni a tutti i problemi. Un atteggiamento del genere penso che non porti da nessuna parte e non faccia bene né a noi né a chi ci sta intorno.

Sara: Sul territorio quante /quali associazioni/organizzazioni operano e per quali scopi?

Francesca: L’Afghanistan è pieno di organizzazioni locali e internazionali che si occupano delle cose più disparate, dall’educazione, alla difesa dell’ambiente, alla costruzione delle strade e alle vaccinazioni. Alcune organizzazioni fanno un gran buon lavoro, serio e importante; altre approfittano un po’ del bisogno e del fatto che la comunità internazionale continua a mandare tanti soldi nel paese. C’è un po’ di tutto. Se ti devo nominare un esempio di eccellenza, su tutti c’è la nostra emergency: costruiscono ospedali per le vittime di guerra, lavorano con coraggio, dedizione e umiltà; la loro è una storia da cui c’è davvero molto da imparare.

Sara: Qual è il livello di sicurezza di voi volontari?

Francesca: E’ importante chiarire che chi lavora in Afghanistan non è un volontario, ma un professionista pagato (a volte molto) per fare il proprio lavoro in un contesto difficile.

La sicurezza degli stranieri è una cosa complessa e costosissima fatta di macchine blindate, guardie e quelli che si chiamano protocolli di sicurezza ossia dei modi di comportamento da tenere in situazioni di rischio. Ci sono molte sfumature e questa è una domanda molto complicata che apre delle riflessioni molto complesse sul come ci si comporta e il perché di certe scelte.

Sara: Esiste secondo voi una possibilità di migliorare la situazione politica?

Francesca: La possibilità del miglioramento è una cosa di cui non si deve mai dubitare, altrimenti si rischia di perdere la speranza per il futuro. Capire quale sia il percorso necessario per il miglioramento, con i suoi tempi e modi, è la grande sfida e una responsabilità condivisa fra la società civile e il governo. Per chi sta lontano, credo che la cosa importante sia non dimenticare le guerre perché ad un certo punto non fanno più notizia.

Sara: Quali siti posso consultare per avere uno spaccato reale della situazione politica e sociale?

Francesca: Non conosco molte risorse utili in italiano. C’è il sito di emergency http://www.emergency.it/index.html; ci sono gli scritti di Giuliano Battiston che viaggia spesso in Afghanistan http://talibanistan.blogautore.espresso.repubblica.it/ e ci sono alcuni articoli interessanti su Q Code Magazine http://www.qcodemag.it/