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.
Pellet-scars-Mir-Suhail-Aug-12-2016

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

A cup of salty tea

I don’t understand those who don’t understand that politics comes also from the belly. Beyond the viscerality of a political existence, for me there are always contingent factors that, by chance or by necessity, bring me back to the reasons of what I chose and the values for which I live.

Today the occasion has been 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 about it with one of my colleagues, he comes from Hunza a 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, he made it for me for breakfast. What he calls shur chai is a version (with butter and without baking soda) of what I know as noon chai and what for me represents the flavour of Kashmir.

As I was sipping from my cup, with my head in Kabul and my heart in Srinagar, he filled a bowl with bites of old bread, poured tea over it and ate it as a soup, nostalgically thinking of the breakfasts of his childhood.

My cup of shur chai made me face what I have been avoiding for days.

It has been for the past forty-three days that I have felt the need to write about what is happening in Kashmir, but every passing day made finding the words more difficult. I kept procrastinating and my guilt kept growing as I felt that my silence was becoming a form of complicity.  

For the past forty-three days the Valley has been under siege. After the killing of a young rebel commander fighting against Indian rule in the name of self-determination, Kashmir took it to the streets and India responded with an iron fist and unprecedented and unimaginable violence. In forty-three days almost seventy people have been killed and hundreds have been hit, mostly in the eye, by pellet guns. Quite literally, the Indian Army is systematically removing the possibility of looking at the future in a manner that differs from what is envisaged by those in power. Over the past few days, curfew has been extended to both day and night, making it almost impossible even to buy milk. The day before yesterday they prevented the distribution of petrol and an ambulance driver was shot at as he was taking several wounded people to the hospital.

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? Last 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 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.

Una tazza di te salato

Non capisco chi non capisce che la politica passa anche dalla pancia. Oltre alla visceralità dell’esistenza politica, per me ci sono anche sempre fattori contingenti che, per caso o per necessità, mi riconducono al perché di quello che ho scelto e di quello che per cui vivo.

Oggi l’occasione è stata una tazza di te salato, tipico del Kashmir e delle valli himalayane al di qua e al di là del confine contestato tra India e Pakistan.

Un paio di giorni fa ne parlavo con uno dei miei colleghi; lui viene da Hunza, una valle a 2500 metri d’altitudine nell’estremo nord del Pakistan. Discutevamo di variazioni regionali nelle ricette, di abitudini e tradizioni del te salato. Sapendo che mi piace molto, me lo ha preparato stamattina per colazione. Quello che lui chiama shur chai è una versione (con il burro e senza il bicarbonato) di quello che io conosco come noon chai e che per me rappresenta il sapore che associo col Kashmir. Mentre io bevevo la mia tazza, con la testa a Kabul e il cuore a Srinagar, lui ha riempito una ciotola con pezzi di pane vecchio, poi ha versato il te e lo ha mangiato come una zuppa, pensando con nostalgia alle colazioni di quando era bambino.

La mia tazza di shur chai mi ha messo di fronte a quello che da giorni cercavo di evitare.

Sono quarantatré giorni che sento il bisogno di scrivere di quanto sta succedendo in Kashmir, ma ogni giorno che passa rende più difficile trovare le parole. Ho continuato a procrastinare, incapace di affrontare l’impensabilità di tanto orrore. E con ogni giorno che passa cresce il senso di colpa perché sento che il mio silenzio diventa complice.

Sono quarantatré giorni che la Valle è sotto assedio. Dopo l’uccisione del giovane comandante di uno dei gruppi ribelli che combattono il controllo indiano in nome dell’autodeterminazione, il Kashmir è insorto e l’India ha risposto col pugno di ferro. Con una violenza inaudita e difficile da comprendere. In quarantatré giorni sono state uccise quasi settanta persone e centinaia sono state colpite, per lo più agli occhi, da fucili ad aria compressa. Fuor di metafora, l’esercito indiano sta sistematicamente rimuovendo la possibilità di guardare al futuro in maniera diversa da quella immaginata da chi sta al potere. Nei giorni scorsi il coprifuoco è stato esteso tanto al giorno che alla notte, rendendo praticamente impossibile anche solo comperare il latte. L’altro ieri è stata impedita la distribuzione di carburante e hanno sparato all’autista di un’ambulanza che trasportava dei feriti all’ospedale. Penso ai miei amici lì, a chi ha un posto molto speciale nel mio cuore, alle madri degli adolescenti che protestano per le strade. Alla rabbia, alla paura, al diritto di scegliere e di decidere per se stessi.

Come si scrive di tutto questo? Dove si trovano le parole? Oggi un amico mi ha detto che scrivere è inutile perché in tempi come questi non ci resta niente da aggiungere. Forse è vero, non ci sono parole che possano dare la misura dell’orrore e quello che scrivo è irrilevante, ma mai come adesso il silenzio mi sembra colpevole.

A volte vorrei tanto vivere in un mondo semplice in cui una tazza di te salato potesse essere sufficiente per cominciare a cambiare le cose.

Gulkhana

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Quella di tornare a Kabul è stata una decisione difficile: da lontano, l’idea di mettere insieme abbastanza forze per affrontare il viaggio sembra un’impresa titanica, ben al di là di quanto si possa essere in grado di fare. E poi basta un attimo, le porte dell’aereo si aprono e Kabul ti accoglie con quella sua tipica ondata di calore, con quell’aria torrida dall’odore di polvere che per qualche oscura ragione ti fa sentire a casa. Basta un attimo e la città, col suo fascino inspiegabile, ti riassorbe e tu sei di nuovo parte di lei come se non ci fosse mai stata interruzione.

Kabul è sempre la stessa, eppure stavolta è tutto diverso. C’è un senso di fatica che per la prima volta, dopo tanti anni, è drammaticamente tangibile. Ho passato la scorsa settimana ad aggiungere nomi alla lunga lista di quelli che hanno lasciato il paese. Chi può se ne va, sfinito dalla guerra e dalla mancanza di orizzonte. In un paese senza presente come l’Afghanistan, la fuga di cervelli rischia di diventare la condanna a morte per il futuro.

Ieri un mio caro amico, uno dei più promettenti giovani artisti in città, mi ha scritto dicendo che spera di venire a trovarmi presto per mostrarmi i suoi nuovi disegni e nel frattempo mi aggiornava del fatto che non era soddisfatto dei suoi progressi: per vari mesi infatti non ha potuto disegnare perché non aveva più carta. Per fortuna, mi ha scritto, è andato in Pakistan con la famiglia e ha potuto comprare altra carta – e quindi ha ricominciato a disegnare. Non riesco a togliermi dalla testa il tono senza rabbia e senza rivendicazione con cui mi ha scritto: qui è così, è normale non avere la carta e non poter disegnare, c’è poco altro da aggiungere.

E’ da questa mancanza di carta che anche io devo ricominciare.

Il mio nuovo ufficio è nella serra di uno dei più bei palazzi di Kabul, sorprendentemente sopravvissuto a decenni di bombe di varia provenienza. Qui chiamano la serra gulkhana, la casa dei fiori – in questo periodo dell’anno il caldo è insopportabile, ma ho chiesto io di sedermi lì, mi sembrava un bel punto di partenza. La mia scrivania è circondata dalle finestre e inondata dal sole: torrida in questa stagione, ma con la promessa di un tepore gentile durante il lungo inverno. Mi guardo intorno e sono felice della scelta che ho fatto – ha senso essere qui; ha senso essere qui ora. Ha senso, ma mi domando come alimentare la determinazione per andare avanti con un compito che in qualche modo è “ingrato”: lavorare per il futuro senza la garanzia di risultati immediati nel presente. La promessa e la visione di una prospettiva più ampia delle immediate contingenze è senz’altro una fonte di motivazione, ma trovare il senso di quella motivazione nei piccoli passi di ogni giorno è tutt’altra storia – spero di avere sufficiente lucidità per continuare a ricordarlo a me stessa.

Le finestre della gulkhana affacciano sul giardino, mai spoglio perché costruito intorno al ciclo delle stagioni, all’instancabile andare circolare del tempo: saggezza semplice e senza pretese che ha molto da insegnare.

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.

La guerra dei linguaggi

 

«Once Upon A Time» di Shamsia Hassani

L’immagine dell’Afghanistan propagandata dai media è costellata di luoghi comuni, anche quando l’argomento riguarda la produzione culturale. I finanziamenti stranieri rinforzano la visione Kabul-centrica, considerano solo le élite che parlano inglese e non lasciano margine alla creatività spontanea

Un mio articolo sull’impatto dell’economia di guerra sulla produzione culturale in Afghanistan su Il Manifesto.

Qui la versione integrale.

A culture of writing in absence of freedoms

Il 12 febbraio saremo alla Fondazione Feltrinelli con Parvaiz Bukhari e Mirza Waheed a parlare di libri e Kashmir.

Gli ultimi anni hanno visto una crescita esponenziale dell’uso dei social media da parte dei giovani Kashmiri a testimonianza del bisogno di comunicare un’immagine differente e più radicata della storia politica della regione.

Riflettendo su questa situazione, la conversazione prende in esame il ruolo della scrittura, la cultura della lettura e la scelta delle possibilità di pubblicazione in un contesto in cui il conflitto si articola in termini religiosi, linguistici e coloniali.

Qui orari e indirizzo.

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The Pain of Others

I wrote this bulletin a while ago, after coming back from a trip to Kashmir. I think it sums up the how and why I do what I do.

***

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I have come back from Srinagar a week ago and the voices and details of the city are still vividly present in my memory. The Dal lake, the snow-capped mountains, the windstorm that shook my last night in the city and got mingled with the lamenting voices of women praying to fight their fear.

Srinagar is not leaving me, I would like perhaps some distance, but it has decided to stay with me. The Kashmir of the almost forgotten conflict has crept under my skin.

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. I have looked at his Valley through the lens of his words. And Srinagar inevitably became also for me the city of daughters: where almost every man has a police record – if not as a suspect, as a spy: it seems, in fact, that there are some 170 thousand spies for a population of 10 million people – and where women make life go on, in silence, away from indiscreet gazes and the clamours of public domain.

And so it is that also the apparent quiet that surrounds Srinagar, the renewed presence of tourists, the rhetoric of the regained stability acquire a new meaning through the verses of

Agha Shahid Ali, who quotes Tacitus: solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant – they make a desolation and call it peace.

It is not the first time that I experience this kind of desolation. It hit me in Palestine, in refugee camps in Iraq and Tunisia, in the slums of Pakistan.

But it seems that this desolation has now come back to claim a long overdue credit.

Of years of stories that I listened to, collected and preserved in my memory. Of tales of lives and places that I visited, felt and shared through my writings.

How can I do justice to so much richness and pain?

How to give proper credit to those who tell you that they feel guilty to be happy when their country is under an oppression that seems to have no end?

How do to sail in this big sea? Where is the compass that leads the path so as to preserve a sensitive eye and yet avoid pitiful sympathy? How can one tell about the power of human dignity without risking the objectifying gaze of the anthropologist who looks for truths?

Questions multiply and answers seem to slip away.

Hitting the road is the only solution I know: the source of more questions that animate the quest for more answers.

The road and a desire for care, dedication and attention – in my words and politics – towards the people and places that have told and continue telling me these stories.

The Little Book of Kabul in London

The Little Book of Kabul

SOAS Afghan Society will be joined by Francesca Recchia and Lorenzo Tugnoli, the authors of The Little Book of Kabul.

The Little Book of Kabul is a book project that depicts a portrait of Kabul through the daily activities of a number of artists who live in the city. With an evocative tone, it focuses on the tiny details that escape grand narratives. Colours and gestures, smells and accents. In 20 short stories and 47 black and white photographs, The Little Book of Kabul dives into the lives of the three main characters exploring what it means to be an artist in Kabul and hence unveiling the beauty and brutality of the city.

Come join us!

Date & Time: Friday 28th November, 6-8pm
Room: G3 SOAS, University of London, London WC1H 0XG
Nearest tube: Russell Square

This event is free and open to all.

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The Little Book of Kabul on Fair Observer

The Little Book of Kabul

Fair Observer featured our book:

The Little Book of Kabul is a book project that depicts a portrait of Kabul through the daily activities of a number of artists who live in the city. With an evocative tone, it focuses on the tiny details that escape grand narratives. Colors and gestures, smells and accents. In 20 short stories and 47 black and white photographs, The Little Book of Kabul dives into the lives of the three main characters exploring what it means to be an artist in Kabul and hence unveiling the beauty and brutality of the city.

Read more here.

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