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.

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.

No looking away: From Kabul to Kashmir

This article was first published on Kashmir Reader on the 25th of August 2016.

 

AZADII don’t understand those who don’t understand that politics comes also from the belly. Beyond the viscerality of a political existence, there are always contingent factors that, by chance or by necessity, force me to confront the reasons of what I chose, and the values for which I live. There is no looking away.
This time the occasion has come from a cup of salty tea, typical of Kashmir and of the Himalayan valleys on either side of the contested border between India and Pakistan.

A couple of days ago I was talking with one of my colleagues, he comes from Hunza, a picturesque and isolated valley 2500 meters above sea level in the extreme north of Pakistan. We were discussing about regional variations in recipes, habits and tradition of the salty tea. As he knows that I like it a lot, after our conversation he made it for me for breakfast. What he calls sheer or shur chai is a version (with butter and without baking soda) of what I know as nun chai and what for me represents the flavour of Kashmir.

Sitting across from each other, we had our tea in silence: our thoughts lost somewhere further East, in two different beautiful valleys of the Himalaya. As I was sipping from my cup, with my body in Kabul and my heart in Srinagar, he filled a bowl with bites of old bread, poured tea over them and ate the whole as a soup, nostalgically thinking of the breakfasts of his childhood.
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My cup of sheer chai made me face what I had been avoiding for days.
As I write this I am sitting in Kabul, in a beautiful late summer day that started with an unreported explosion while I was making breakfast. By nature I am not particularly fearful, squeamish or impressionable, and years of work in countries in conflict made my skin pretty thick. Yet, what is happening in Kashmir feels incomprehensible, utterly incommensurable.
It has been for more than forty-six days that I have felt the need to write about the mayhem that has taken over Kashmir, but every passing day made finding the words more difficult. I kept procrastinating, used the fact that I am busy as an excuse and looked away. My guilt, however, kept growing: my silence was becoming a form of complicity. This is the time to speak up, to take sides: the end result of a concerned silence is not different from a lax or irresponsible indifference.
For the past forty-six days the Valley has been under siege. After the killing of Burhan Wani, the young, indigenous, non-Pakistan sponsored, rebel commander fighting against Indian rule in the name of self-determination, Kashmir erupted and took it to the streets. This was by no means unannounced, the rage was simmering and slowly mounting under the surface. Those who cared looking, knew far too well that it was only a matter of time. Nobody, however, could predict that things would escalate to this level.
India responded to protests and stone pelting with an iron fist: with an unprecedented and unimaginable violence. In forty-six days almost seventy people have been killed, at least 6,000 were injured and more than 500 have been hit, mostly in the eye, by pellet guns. Curfew has been extended to both day and night, making it almost impossible even to buy milk. The Border Security Force has once again been deployed in Srinagar, a frightening reminder of the 1990s, certainly not a measure encouraging dialogue. A few days ago the Army prevented the distribution of petrol and an ambulance driver was shot at as he was taking several wounded people to the hospital.
India Kashmir Protests
After the 8th of July, when it became clear that the use of so called non-lethal weapons such as pellet guns would be part of the daily updates, it occurred to me that I had never seen one (why should I after all?) and I could not really grasp how the idea of non-lethal could possibly sit in the same sentence with a firearm. Not knowing how else I could educate myself on the subject, I thought I would check on YouTube. After a bit of browsing, and studiously trying to avoid gory images, I stumbled upon a video shot somewhere in suburban America. The protagonist was a white young man who was defending the efficiency of the pellet gun with spherical projectiles against those detractors who were trying to discredit its firepower. To demonstrate the accuracy of his thesis, he shot at a watermelon at a close range. The fruit cracked open, and the young man showed to the camera with great satisfaction that the watermelon’s inside was smashed beyond recognition.
My heart stopped and I wondered why it was that I did that to myself. I just could not bring myself to think that this was what was happening in Kashmir, to the faces of children as young as five. And not with spherical projectiles, but with modified, irregular pellets that would tear to pieces whatever they would encounter.
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Pellet Scars, Mir Suhail

Quite literally, by hitting in the eye, the Indian government forces are not killing people directly, is attempting to kill the idea of the future. It is systematically trying to remove the possibility of looking at the future in a manner that differs from what is envisaged by those in power. This makes me wonder who is it that is really blind: those whom violence have deprived of the sun light or those who think that violence and brutality can kill ideas.
How far can this go? Would an entire population deprived of eyesight stop seeing the way towards freedom, the path to azadi?
I think of my friends, of those who hold a very special place in my heart, of the mothers whose teenage sons are protesting in the streets. I think about the anger, the fear and the right to decide for themselves.
How can one write about all this? Where are the words to be found? The other night a friend told me that there’s no point in writing in times such as these because there is really nothing left to add. Maybe it is true, there are no words to give measure to such a horror and what I am writing is irrelevant, but never like now does silence feel culpable.
At times I wish we’d live in a simpler world where a cup of salty tea could be the trigger to start changing things.
Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir,
is bringing love to its tormented glass,
Stranger, who will inherit the last night of the past?
Of what shall I not sing, and sing?
Agha Shahid Ali

Gulkhana

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It is hot. I sweat slowly.

Deciding to come back to Kabul has been difficult: from afar, the idea of gathering enough strength to face the journey is overwhelming, something that seems beyond actual capability.

But then, it only takes a second: the doors of the plane open and Kabul welcomes you with her typical heatwave, with that sultry air that smells of dust and that, for some obscure reason, makes you feel at home. It only takes a second and the city, with her inexplicable charm, absorbs you and makes you part of her again – seamlessly.

Kabul is always the same, yet this time everything seems different. There is a sense of tiredness that, for the first time in many years, is dramatically tangible. I spent the whole of last week adding names to the long list of those who have left the country. Those who can, leave: exhausted by war and the lack of a horizon. In a country without a present like Afghanistan, this brain-drain is a death sentence for the future.

Yesterday a good friend, one of the most talented young artists in town, wrote me to say that he hopes to come and show me his new drawings soon. He went on updating me about the fact that he was not entirely happy with the progress of his work: for several months he could not draw as he ran out of paper. Luckily, he added, he had gone on a trip to Pakistan with his family and hence could buy more paper and resume drawing. The matter of fact tone with which he wrote stayed with me: there was no resentment. This is how things are here, 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 I should probably re-start as well.

My new office is in the greenhouse of one of the most beautiful old buildings in Kabul: it stayed surprisingly intact despite decades of bombs. In Dari, the greenhouse is called gulkhana, the flowers’ house. At this time of the year, its heat is unbearable, but I specifically asked to sit there: I thought it would be a beautiful starting point. My desk is surrounded by windows and flooded with light: it is torrid in this season, but it carries the promise of a gentle warmth during the long winter. I look around and I am happy about the choice I made. It makes sense to be here: it makes sense to be here now. It makes sense, but I wonder how to feed the determination to keep going with what may somehow seem an ungrateful task: to work towards the future with no guarantee of immediate results in the present. The promise and the vision of a broader perspective that goes beyond contingencies is certainly a source of motivation, but finding the root of that motivation in the little everyday steps is another matter. I hope I’ll stay lucid enough to be able to keep reminding it to myself.

The windows of he gulkhana face the garden, which is never barren as it has been designed around the cycle of seasons, around the tireless, round pace of time: simple, unpretentious wisdom that has a lot to teach.

This post was published on The News on the 26th of July 2016.

Who cleans the city?

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Photo EPA

After the terrible attack that shook Kabul, I wrote about those who clean the city.

Auctorly hosted my piece.

The day after is always difficult.

Yesterday’s suicide attack has been the worst in Kabul since 2001–the victims were all civilians, all young: a terrible blast for the already fragile heart of the city.

Read the full article here.

A Wealth of Voices in Kashmir

About a year ago, Rich Autumns and I started discussing about the blog-sphere in Kashmir. It was before my trip to Srinagar, I thought I would use some of the time of my visit and meet bloggers and feel the pulse of the place.

A few hours after I arrived in Srinagar the snow came, loads of snow, so the plan faded, but I consoled myself with the good company of friends and cup after cup of noon chai.

Just before the end of 2014, the debate around blogging in Kashmir sparked again on Twitter – following the momentum, Rich and I decided to get back to our list, a modest one of maybe twenty-five links or so. Within a few hours, we decided to make the list public and look for contribution from those who were taking part in the discussion online.

To our greatest surprise, suggestions and recommendations started to flood in with great enthusiasm. Haamid Peerzada has been particularly helpful and without his contribution the list would have not taken the shape that it has today: almost two hundred names!

The list can be found here and it is still very much a work in progress. My hope is that I can make sometime soon to write a proper review of what we’ve found, for now I am thrilled at having stumbled upon an immense treasure: a wealth of voices and a great desire for expression, which feels me with hope in such a delicate political moment in the Valley.

 

A journey to the Other Iraq

This article was initially published in Domus 958 in May 2012.

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Photo Credit: Sebastian Meyer

The Autonomous Region of Kurdistan has in recent years been in the news as the “Other Iraq”. In 2011, National Geographic described it as an oasis of peace and development, and The New York Times placed it 34th out of 41 best travel destinations— beating Miami, which finished up in last place. In reality, the region is not so much a tourist attraction as it is land prized by multinational and private investors. After Saddam Hussein’s bloody ethnic persecution, a decade of armed conflict between Iraq and Iran, two wars to export democracy, and one civil war, Iraqi Kurdistan today is striding towards a new state of political and economic stability. Its long history of war and violence has left indelible marks and scars. At the same time, however, it has created a unique situation characterised by openness and opportunity. The future is all there to be invented, there is plenty of scope for experimentation, and the direction to be followed can still be chosen. Erbil, the regional government capital and one of the world’s most ancient cities, inhabited without interruption for thousands of years, is an extraordinary example of that condition. One of the principal artifices of this growth is Nawzad Hadi, governor of Erbil since 2004. In a recent interview, with the clarity of a visionary he illustrated to me the steps required to fulfil what he calls a great dream: the building of a city worthy of being an international capital, “a new Dubai”. That is no mean statement, considering that Kurdistan is not even an officially recognised state. “I am doing it for my people, who deserve it after years of oppression.” The magnitude of Nawzad Hadi’s challenge is quite incredible. It began with the asphalting of roads and the guarantee of standard access to water and electricity, continued with the completion and implementation of a master plan and the prospect of a green belt around the city, and is now on its way to transforming Erbil into an economic and commercial hub. In an explosive mixture of individual profit and common good, the governor has embraced the city’s historic and cultural profile as the symbol of this rebirth. He has started a restoration of the Citadel, Erbil’s ancient heart, by working with UNESCO to have it included in the list of World Heritage Sites. At the same time, with an eye to the international trends of the architecture star system, he appointed Daniel Libeskind to design a museum of Kurdish memory, an audio-visual project for the historical and narrative reconstruction of the Kurdish genocide. Work on the museum is scheduled to commence this year.

The Autonomous Region of Kurdistan chose Erbil as the emblematic image of its capacity for self-government, and in this case investment in its urban growth has been notably political. Through the concession of land-tax benefits and structural support, the regional government is encouraging the circulation of private capital. This has made a significant impact on the city’s development and building prospects. In the past five years the world’s biggest corporations have staked claims in the city, luxury hotels have multiplied, and new residential complexes have sprung up suggesting the possibility of exclusive lifestyles and their desirability. Dream City, Empire City, English Village, Royal City, Vital City and Italian Village are gated communities now occupying a large slice of Erbil’s outer ring road, not far from the construction site of the Marriot Hotel and from the 23-storey Hotel Divan tower. Erbil’s economic prosperity is just one of the multiple sides of this transition to a mature state of democracy. Traces of years of conflict—and the fact that virtually all investment has been confined to the growth of this capital city—are on the other hand dramatically evident in the rest of the region. Contrasting the enthusiasm of this new prosperity are the mountain villages and refugee camps where resilience and the art of making ends meet are means of ensuring survival. Wlaxlw is a village of about 50 mud-and-stone houses, on the border between Iraq and Iran. Its geographical position made it a constant target of bombardment during the war between the two countries. To this day it is surrounded by the aftermath of that conflict in the shape of missiles, bullets and bombshells, ammunition boxes and helmets. Over the past 20 years the inhabitants of Wlaxlw have made a virtue of necessity, by utilising the debris and rubble as building material for their postwar reconstruction. Thus Katyusha rockets have become support beams for ceilings or pillars for pergolas, missile casings are converted into drainpipes, and helmets (those without bullet holes at forehead level) are used as flowerpots or to collect rainwater, while landmine warning signs serve as firewood props, and ammunition boxes sunk into the ground provide steps to the higher part of the village. Wlaxlw is a cross-section of an amazing world, a bizarre combination of a post-apocalyptic landscape and an oil painting by an 18th-century orientalist. But it is not the only example of the contradictoriness of these coexistences. Stories of this kind are illustrated by the various army buildings once occupied by Saddam Hussein’s troops stationed in Kurdistan. From the end of 1996, at the height of the civil war, these structures began to be converted into “villages”, complete with mosques, small shops and elementary schools. Ma’asker Salam, Top Khane and Raparin are three such villages, located a few kilometres from Sulaymaniyah, the second largest city in the Automous Region of Kurdistan. Ma’asker Salam is where Saddam’s army stables were situated. Today, some 300 families have found accommodation there. Not far away is Top Khane, a group of 12 buildings formerly used as an arms depot and now occupied by another 300 families. Raparin, located closer to the city centre, was in Sadam’s day a large industrial complex used to produce and repair weapons. Today it hosts a maze of self-built huts, inhabited by some 70 families. By a curious twist of fate, what were once the building-symbols of the Ba’athist regime’s military oppression have been transformed into a safe haven for hundreds of families, the place of refuge they call home, while waiting (with ever diminishing faith) for the politicians to keep their promises of compensation and assignment of public housing. During this long wait of more than 15 years, the old army buildings have changed their appearance as a result of spontaneous actions by inhabitants. Using improvised materials and traditional construction techniques, they have gradually turned this political aberration into something more like a familiar and hospitable landscape. Haji Mahmoud and Nadja, two residents of Ma’asker Salam, recount that local and international NGOs helped refugees to settle into the abandoned military structures. At Ma’asker Salam, the stables were initially divided by makeshift walls into rooms to accommodate one or more families each. In the course of time and with a growing awareness that the situation would take years and not months to be resolved, the inhabitants of these permanently temporary villages began to expand. They partitioned the rooms assigned to them in order to meet the needs of their families and to create more comfortable living conditions.

Nadja lives in a corner house and changes the colour of its interior three times a year. With her husband she has laid out a garden, its flowerbeds bordered with stones and broken bricks. There are also three trees, grown from the kernels of fruit and each planted to mark the birth of her three daughters. “All I’d like is a nice house,” she says, “nothing more”. With snow-capped mountains on the horizon, the landscape of Ma’asker Salam and Top Khane has a surreal look. The picturesque impression of mountain villages clashes with memories of a cruel and dramatic past which the inhabitants have not yet managed to cast off. The old stable buildings at Ma’asker Salam are today barely visible. Covered with satellite dishes, they are now a mass of irregular dwellings built from cement blocks, stone and rough earth bricks, and wrapped in coloured striped plastic sheets for winter insulation. In a surprising combination of improvisation, recycling and vernacular architecture, remnants of plastic and metal mark out Haji Mahmoud’s garden, where birds are kept off by scarecrows made of snipped plastic bags. In the courtyard next door, his son and daughter-in-law have built a pergola with the wooden poles of building sites, while their neighbour has used the door of a derelict car as the gate to a courtyard surrounded by a dry wall. Between the sushi bar on the 21st floor of a 5-star hotel in downtown Erbil and the Katyusha rockets used as construction material in Wlaxlw, observing the anthropised landscape can be an outstanding means of interpreting what is often, abstractly, defined as a postwar dimension. The iniquitous distribution of wealth derived from the postwar reconstruction efforts has left indisputable signs of the temporality of a twisting and frequently obstacle-strewn path. In Iraqi Kurdistan, improvisation and resilience are the other side of the coin to massive urban development and the dream of becoming the next Dubai. Torn between far-sightedness, forgetfulness and selective memory, territory is revealed as neither a neutral nor an innocent platform, on which political debate and intervention are staged and the future takes shape.

A conversation with Trevor Paglen

Francesca Recchia: We share a passion for geography and maps. A great part of your artistic and conceptual work has been concentrated on what may be summarised as mapping the invisible. How do you inhabit such an oxymoron?

Trevor Paglen: Most of the work I do is self-contradictory: I make images that tend to be quite abstract and at the same time, I do a huge amount of empirical work to arrive at those abstractions. I’m not so much interesting in ‘mapping’ the invisible so much as trying to understand what invisibility itself looks like.

FR: Photography is an important element in both your research process and its final outcomes. Whether buildings, documents, satellites, or airplanes, most of the subjects of your photographs are classified, but you always make a point in shooting them from public land. In this historical phase of hyper-control, is this a way of reclaiming our right to the common, our right to a free public domain?

TP: I’ve long thought of photography as a performance. To take a picture or to make an image is to also insist on one’s right to make an image. From the earliest photos I took of classified military installations, I almost thought of them as documentation-of-performances.

FR: Your work seems to reside on the fine line between the absurd and the sublime. Is that a deliberate quest for a new kind of poetic space of artistic creation?

TP: What I want out of art is things that help us see who we are now. To me the world looks like a combination of the absurd and the sublime.

FR: The Last Pictures Project is an extremely fascinating, visionary endeavour. Almost a sci-fi version of the romantic explorers who would go and discover new worlds, connecting cultures and perceptions of the world. Have you ever felt like an inter-galactic Indiana Johns?

TP: The Last Pictures is very much about the conjunction of the absurd and the sublime. The project started when I realized that certain kinds of satellites (geostationary) are in orbits so far from earth that when they power-down and die, their inert hulls remain in space, essentially forever. Billions of years – they are probably by far the longest-lasting things humans have ever made, transcending even the deep-time of geology and encroaching on the time of the cosmos. The Last Pictures is a project that’s trying to think through the contradictory moment in time we find ourselves living in. We live in a time where we can make things that last as long as the solar system, but can’t seem to develop even short-term policies to avert the economic and environmental crises that we collectively face.

FR: What is the sort of human kind that emerges from the selection of photos that you have chosen to send travelling in the outer space with The Last Pictures Project?

TP: The Last Pictures is decidedly not meant to be something as ludicrous as a ‘portrait of humanity’ or some crap like that. It’s a montage of deliberately obtuse images that, at least for me and my collaborators, speak to deep anxieties about the idea of “progress” and the direction that the world is going.

FR: American forester and environmentalist Aldo Leopold said: “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” Can your interest in space junk or projects like The Other Night Sky be interpreted as a way to explore new forms of cosmic harmony? Or new frontiers for the semantics of eternity?

TP: I’m suspicious of the idea of harmony, which to me implies a kind of stasis that I don’t think you actually can ever find in nature or history. When I’m looking at spy satellites or space junk, I’m perhaps invoking traditions of looking at the sky and seeking deeper truths about the origins of the universe and its ultimate fate. But where someone with a background in observational cosmology finds clues to the early universe in the images of a Hubble Space Telescope, I look at the night sky and tend to see all of the secret machines that are spying on the earth below. Not incidentally, the Hubble Space Telescope is itself essentially a re-purposed spy satellite.

FR: From a non-practicing academic to a non-practicing academic: your work seems to address the issue of knowledge production from a perspective that questions the prominence of the logos. You create and unpack complex notions, using languages that go beyond the verbal. You seem to make a pretty strong statement about the potentials of the visual as an independent form of knowledge production.

TP: Thanks.

FR: Your artistic work is the result of extensive and meticulous investigative research. Do you think that the fact that after all it is only just art allows for a protected space of enquiry and a greater freedom to expose sensitive geopolitical issues?

TP: Not really. I think that it’s very difficult to be a good artist, especially in dealing with politically charged issues. Making art just doesn’t work the same way as journalism or scholarship. A lot of scholarship is pretty formulaic. With art you have to invent your own forms themselves, which is really hard.

FR: Can you tell me a secret?

TP: The government is spying on you. (Like many secrets, this one is well-known but is still officially a secret).

Eyes, roads and barbed wire

This piece was first published in Kashmir Reader on June 14th, 2012.

kashmir

The first glimpse from afar confirms that Kashmir lives up to its expectations: a picturesque land of pristine natural beauty.
But then, the plane begins its descent and the runway gets closer. And dozens of military barracks start taking shape. With their apparent temporariness, they embody the ineluctability of permanence and with their blue and grey camouflage they occupy the landscape with a sense of intrusive heaviness.
The first encounter with Kashmir at the ground level is almost the opposite of its aerial view: it is armed, muscular, and grim. The nervous presence of the Indian army, with their self-assured attitude of righteousness, generates an edgy atmosphere. The army carry with them a sense of tragedy, they intimidate rather than conveying the feeling of safety and security that is supposedly at the core of their mission.
Once, while talking about Kashmir I was asked: “Tell me about this war.”
It is not easy to explain that in Kashmir there is no war as such, especially when the next sentence in your answer may perhaps refer to the fact that this is one of the most militarised areas of the world. But how does one tell this story without resorting to graphic descriptions of brutalities, without falling into the trap of a hyper-visual domain where the conflict is interesting in as much as it is spectacular? How does one account for the subtleties and the invisible consequences that a military occupation inevitably provokes?
Streets, walls, architecture are powerful entry points to a different way of narrating conflict. It is rarely the case that the built environment is considered as a possible tool to interpret this kind of situations. Many of the scholars who study this field, discuss it in terms of urbicide – the killing of the urban space, its violation by bombs, tanks and coils of razor wire. This theoretical approach treats the built environment as a victim, as one of the many casualties of war, but it fails to address it as a witness and a repository of memories and testimonies. This omission may lead to a limiting intellectual position that does not consider that the built environment does not lie, but maintains in its fabric the evidence of facts and stories that ideological discourses may try to erase.
When roaming in the streets of Srinagar, a city of poetic beauty, this undercurrent of tension never leaves you. Legitimised by the global argument of security, which is locally translated in terms of keeping subversive individuals at bay while protecting the cultural minorities and their heritage, the Indian army has appropriated temples and cultural centres across Kashmir, wrapped them in razor wire and practically transformed them into military bases. The military presence is so capillary that it is almost impossible to avoid it. In a recent article (10 April 2012), Kashmir Watch – a branch of the Europe-based Kashmir International Research Centre – reported that in the past eight years the army vacated about 1300 private and public buildings, but 1800 are still under their control – including eight cinemas and seventy nine hotels.
The visual impact of this presence is both evident at first glance and hidden in the details that may not be striking in their appearance, but are devastating in their recurrence. What sign does it leave on a child’s psyche the memory of walking every day past a checkpoint, the ordinariness of bunkers and weapons on the street, a broken kite entangled in a coil of barbed wire?
It is not always necessary to use gory images to understand the depth of pain and the blindness of cruelty.
To this sort of considerations, the Indian army and official governmental sources respond by claiming that since the 2010 summer of unrest things have improved. Lt Gen SA Hasnain, the General Officer Commanding (since transferred out of Kashmir) has recently taken pride in the army’s newly discovered “people friendly methods” (Hindustan Times, ‘Winning hearts’ in Kashmir to continue: Army, June 8th, 2012), which include playing cricket with boys on the street and changing the timing of convoys.
The state government boasts statistics about the renewed presence of tourists: the number of visitors is used against detractors and malignant activists to demonstrate the achievement of a new phase of peace and stability: honeymooning couples coming from all over India taking boat rides on the Dal Lake provide evidence for that.
Agha Shahid Ali, the poet who more than anyone else gave voice to the unique mixture of beauty and brutality that seems to be the essence of the Valley, has been my guide during my last visit to Srinagar. I have looked at the city through the lens of his words. While wandering around the lanes of the old city, my steps seemed to echo each one of his verses. In the apparent quiet that shrouded the city, the stones of ancient buildings mixed with those that came to symbolise the 2010 uprising.
“[W]hen you left even the stones were buried: / the defenceless would have no weapons” – Agha Shahid Ali says in his poem titled Farewell (1998). The authorities may claim the taming of stone pelters while the lack of visible daily violence can come to signify peace. And yet, the poet is there to remind us what the Latin author Tacitus noted almost two thousand years ago: solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant – they make a desolation and call it peace.