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.