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.

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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.

The broken city – Political observations on the built environment

This article was first published in Domus, no. 967 (2013): 114-123.

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From the vantage point of a ramshackle tea stall on the south side of Hari Parbat Hill, the view over Srinagar— the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, India—is breathtaking: eagles flying above the skyline, snowcapped mountains on the horizon and an endless sequence of sloping tin roofs, interrupted only by the towering spires of the many mosques.

Hari Parbat is in itself a remarkable summary of the city’s complexity. On top of the hill stands a majestic fort, whose construction was first conceived and initiated by Emperor Akbar in the 1590s, and then completed in the 18th century by the Afghan governor of Kashmir. Just below the fort is the Makhdoom Sahib Dargah, the tomb and shrine of the eponymous Sufi saint and one of the holiest places in the valley, revered by both Muslims and Hindus. Indeed, Hindus consider the hill to be especially sacred due to the presence of the Sharika Devi Temple dedicated to the goddess Shakti, an embodiment of the goddess Durga, who is both a maternal figure and a bearer of destructive male energy. On the way up to the hill there is also the Akhund Mullah Shah Masjid, an abandoned mosque dating from the Mughal era. As well as having domes instead of spires, it is also one of the very few mosques that were historically built in stone rather than the vernacular wooden structure. People say that the Akhund Mullah Shah Masjid has hardly ever been used for worship, and there are two versions of this story: some say it was because the place was possessed by the djinns—naughty or angry genies—while others claim that it was an act of resistance against the foreign Mughal domination.

Hari Parbat Hill is a microcosmic representation of the complex nature of the city of Srinagar and of the whole Valley of Kashmir. It is a palimpsest of layers: multiple narratives and times across religions, identities and dominations. It holds both the power of the popular imagination of Kashmir as a site of pristine natural beauty (which, as historian Mridu Rai argues, is often rhetorically constructed as emptied of people) and the controversial meanings of the idea of Kashmiriyat (or Kashmiri-ness, an essential notion of what it means to be Kashmiri) beyond religious or sectarian belonging. The physical stratification of architectural styles, religious rituals and historical sites triggers questions on how the built environment can be interpreted in order to understand intricate stories that have several, and often contrasting versions. When asked how we can link the current situation of simmering political tensions with a parallel narrative of cherished cultural cohabitation and mutual influence, Professor M.H. Zafar, the former director of the Institute of Kashmir Studies at the University of Kashmir, told us that interrogating architecture is a good way to begin to understand. “Architecture does not wear its meaning on its sleeves,” he said. “It is a subtle matter that requires observation in order to understand the multiplicity of stories that it tells.” This multiplicity encompasses tales of subversion and experimentation, as well as conservative strategies of preservation.

Heritage and historical architecture, in fact, can also be appropriated and used to produce a pacified vision of controversial presents. In Kashmir, the discourse around its long-standing syncretic tradition is exemplary in this respect: contrasting parties have adopted this notion in ways that are instrumental to either communal political agendas or to comfortably preserving the precariously balanced status quo. Syncretic architecture is introduced in the discussion as physical evidence of a harmonious past in which all religions lived in peace, and it is only due to the radicalisation of their opponent—alternatively Muslims or Hindus, depending on who is speaking—that this harmony has now become compromised or even lost.

~ * ~

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 9.53.07 AMThis recollection of an ideal past is easily translated into an invitation to forget the stone (pelters) of the present and concentrate on the architecturally meaningful stones of the past. In political terms, this attitude shifts the emphasis to tourism, on the natural beauty of the Valley of Kashmir, on the richness of its cultural and culinary traditions, and becomes a clever instrument used by the Indian government to distract both visitors and detractors from the fact that Kashmir is actually one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world.

This is quite a striking detail if we consider that Kashmir is officially not a war zone.

The built environment in situations of conflict is often neglected as a possible exegetic source—it is treated as a victim, accounted for as one of the many casualties, but hardly ever addressed as a witness or a repository of memories and testimonies. This is, however, an incapacitating intellectual position that overlooks the fact that the built environment does not lie, but instead preserves the evidence of facts and stories that ideological discourses may try to efface. Following the omnipresent global argument of security, and its localised version of protection of 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. It is visually revealing to take a walk through Lal Chowk—the heart of Srinagar, a busy bazaar-like commercial hub and one of the places that has historically hosted both official political events and opposition demonstrations—and from there to the Old City. The signs of military appropriation of the civil urban space do not use a subtle language and are part of the visual landscape of Srinagar’s present and recent past. By the scenic Amira Kadal Bridge, where Kashmiri women have kept the fishmonger’s trade alive despite decades of political unrest, lies the Hanuman Mandir, a prominent Hindu temple dedicated to the monkey god. Nowadays, the temple is manned by a Kalashnikov-wielding sentry. Surrounded by barbed wire, it houses the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), who protect it from potential Islamist attacks and use the spires of its domes to stretch out washing lines to dry their uniforms. Not too far away, in downtown Srinagar, Firdous Cinema Hall tells a more hopeful story: after being occupied by the army for more than 20 years, and being turned into a security camp in 2005, the CRPF returned it to the civilian population in December 2011. Eight other cinemas, however, are still used for military and paramilitary purposes, as are a further seventy-nine hotels. According to KashmirWatch, a branch of the Europe based Kashmir International Research Centre (KIRC), in the past 8 years the army in its various capacities has cleared out of about 1,300 private and public buildings, but, as of early April 2012, 1,800 are still under their control.

Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), the poet who more than anyone else managed to express the unique mixture of beauty and brutality that seems to be the essence of the Valley of Kashmir, wrote extensively about Srinagar. Through decades and centuries, the city’s built environment has incorporated the landmarks of cohabitation, syncretism, anger, defeat and resistance. It tells stories of communal harmony as well as tales of struggle and dissent. It carries the wounds and scars of the savage military occupation of civil public space. It echoes the words of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem A Pastoral 196:

We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear. Again we’ll enter
our last world, the first that vanished
in our absence from the broken city.

This article is dedicated to Parvaiz Bukhari

Seasons in the Garden of Fidelity

This piece was first published in Chapati Mystery

AUTUMN

Anar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WINTER

Paraphrasing Marquez. Snow in the time of war.

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

This morning I go out early, on my own.

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

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

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

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

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

It is all so beautiful.

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

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

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

SPRING

Quasi Fellini

Dedicated to Pierce O’ Broin

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

Kabul is strangely beautiful in this light.

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

The camera is set on black and white.

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

Quasi Amarcord. Including Nino Rota’s soundtrack.

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

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

– What are the brooms for?

– Look over there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fellini. Amarcord. Nino Rota.

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

We look for the right angle for a photo.

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

Untitled. Landscape with Soviet tank.

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

 

SUMMER

The eye of God. Kabul from above.

Dedicated to T.M.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art in Afghanistan: A Time of Transition

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

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Tugnoli

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Tugnoli

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

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

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

International Donors in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locating Independent Arts and Cultural Organizations in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independent Cultural Organizations Are the Future

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

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

 

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