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.


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.



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.

Il dolore degli altri

Ho scritto questo bollettino qualche tempo fa, di ritorno da un viaggio in Kashmir. Racconta in qualche modo quello il perché e il come di quello che faccio.


Sono tornata da Srinagar da una settimana, ma le voci, le sfumature, i dettagli della città sono ancora presenti e vividi nella memoria. Il lago Dal, le montagne innevate all’orizzonte, la tempesta di vento che ha scosso la mia ultima notte in città inframmezzata dalle voci lamentose delle donne in preghiera per sconfiggere la paura.

Srinagar non mi lascia, forse vorrei una tregua e invece resta con me.

Il Kashmir del conflitto di cui non si parla mi si è infilato sotto la pelle.

Srinagar_01Agha Shahid Ali, il poeta che più di ogni altro ha dato voce alla mescolanza unica di bellezza e brutalità che sembra essere l’essenza del paese, mi ha fatto da guida: ho visto i suoi luoghi attraverso la lente delle sue parole e Srinagar è diventata inevitabilmente anche per me la città delle figlie, dove quasi tutti gli uomini sono schedati dalla polizia se non come sospettati allora come spie – sembrano ce ne siano cento settanta mila in un paese dove gli abitanti sono dieci milioni – e dove le donne portano avanti la vita, in silenzio, fuori dagli sguardi indiscreti e dai clamori della dimensione pubblica.

Ed è così che anche la calma apparente che avvolge Srinagar, la rinnovata presenza di turisti, la retorica della riconquistata stabilità prendono significato dai versi di Agha Shahid Ali, che cita Tacito: solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant – portano desolazione e la chiamano pace.

Non è la prima volta che faccio esperienza di questa desolazione, mi ha colpito in Palestina, nei campi di sfollati in Iraq e in Tunisia, negli slum del Pakistan.

Ma sembra che questa volta sia tornata a chiedere il conto.

Di anni di storie ascoltate, raccolte e conservate nella memoria. Di vite raccontate, di posti visti, sentiti e condivisi attraverso le parole.

Come fare giustizia a tanta ricchezza e tanto dolore?

Come dare il giusto credito a chi ti dice che si sente in colpa ad essere felice quando il proprio paese è vittima di un’oppressione che non sembra avere via d’uscita?

Come si naviga in questo mare? Dove è la bussola che guida il mio percorso in modo da conservare la delicatezza dello sguardo ed evitare un morboso senso di pena? Come si racconta la potenza della dignità umana senza l’atteggiamento oggettivante di un antropologo a caccia di verità?

Le domande si moltiplicano e le risposte sembrano sfuggire.

La strada è l’unica soluzione che conosco: la fonte di altre domande che porta al desiderio di cercare altre risposte.

La strada e un desiderio di cura, di dedizione e di attenzione – nella politica e nelle parole – per le persone e i luoghi che mi hanno raccontato e continuano a raccontarmi queste storie.

A year ago in Srinagar – A moment of beauty

IMG_20140123_110450It started last night, around midnight, when we went out on a whim looking quite hopelessly for three cigarettes. We took the car and drove through the deserted city: the two of us, four cows and a bunch of scrawny stray dogs.

Rain mixed with snow started to fall – slowly, while the street dotted with potholes became a blurry mirror for the occasional lamp post.

Four men clad in their pheran drunk tea around the gas stove in the little kiosk by the hospital.

Without getting out of the car, we pulled the window down and asked: “Do you have cigarettes?”

One of the men shook his head without uttering a word.

We kept going, looking for another possible place.

“The snow will never stay”, I said almost thinking out loud. “The ground is too wet…”

“Let’s see”, he replied, concerned more with the lack of cigarettes than with the weather forecast.

When we woke up this morning, we were greeted by a city covered by more than twenty centimeters of soft snow.

“It is so peaceful”, I said with a smile.

Let’s hope it lasts”, he replied without adding anything else.

Meanwhile, the snow kept falling.

Fat flakes, too heavy to swirl in the wind. Flakes that fall with determination and stay in the exact place where they landed. Purposeful flakes that have no intention to stop.

In the garden, there is a twitchy tree that seems to carry with extreme patience the burden of time and of the temporary white cloak that covers it. On the streets, the ancient chinar trees resemble dervishes with tired arms lifted to the sky, made heavy by the weight of the snow and by the little birds that rest in the cold, perked at their edges.

Sounds are muffled, shape smoothened; the snow-clad landscape offers an unexpected sense of tranquillity. A silent inner comfort. And awe for this perfect yet transitory beauty.

I had not been back in Srinagar for more than a year and had started to miss it. I could not have wished for a better welcome.

Here, as much as in Kabul, these moments of beauty surprise me.

It is, however, a beauty that is as profound as it is deceiving.

Snow offers the momentary gift of relief and lightness even if it does not make tanks, coils of concertina wire and check-point barriers less frightening.

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.


Blogging the War

 John Little is a manager of large databases with a technology background. He is the heart and soul behind Blogs of War, one of the most thorough and well respected information platforms in the field of conflict studies and reporting.

Last year I interviewed him about war-blogging, his approach to information reliability, and the fine balance between timeliness and accuracy when writing and thinking about conflicts. The conversation was first published on Muftah.


Francesca Recchia (FR): Let’s start from the beginning. Intelligence and national security are not immediately part of your professional expertise, yet for more than ten years Blogs of War has been an invaluable source of information and insight into conflicts across the world. How did the idea come about? And, why is it blogs in plural?

John Little (JL): I have been involved in online communities since around 1980. My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20. While many were into games I was more fascinated by the modem and the potential to connect to other computers and people. In my mind that’s what made the early computers fundamentally more exciting than game consoles.

I spent a massive amount of time exploring bulletin boards. I even ran a couple, before more robust services and the web came along and rendered the model obsolete. It was such a great time to be a hacker. The culture was different, much less destructive overall, and there were few if any hacker-specific laws to worry about.

My friends and I were “war dialing” (writing and running programs that would call sequential phone numbers until a modem answered) to find the rare receiving modem, social engineering companies that had zero concept of security, and dumpster diving for old floppy disks or discarded dot-matrix print outs. We accessed systems just to access them. We got in, looked around, and got out.

Our activity in that arena faded out around the mid-1980s when security awareness and the legal system started changing. We wisely retired well before we could get into trouble (or drive a car).

Early Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was another place that I spent a lot of time. It was a great place to study how people connect with technology and it was also something of a hacker’s playground. I ran channels, messed around with bots, and fought a few channel wars back then. It was part of the fun, but got increasingly tedious as the number of people flooding IRC kept growing.

Eventually the web came along and it slowly eclipsed all of these communities. I jumped in right away and started building web pages and web applications. I was updating my home page on a regular basis in the late 90s with completely random content when I started playing with different free content management suites. This eventually allowed me to be more productive and that lead to more frequent updates.

However, it wasn’t until 9/11 that I looked at all this and decided that it was time to bring more focus to my efforts.

The events of 9/11 aggravated two areas of frustration for me. The first was technological. Updates on news sites were infrequent. Media, with very few exceptions, was not fully invested in the web or the larger Internet at the time. Having lived with the Internet and these communities for a long time I knew how to go to multiple locations and piece together a story.

When news broke, I could go to chat rooms, forums and relevant web sites to generate a much more complete story than the media was giving me. A motivated individual could really run circles around traditional media at the time.

My other source of frustration was related to the lack of understanding in the general public about terrorism and some of the forces at work that were making the world a much more dangerous place.  International relations, intelligence and conflict had always interested me so I was surprised by how completely off the radar these issues were for most people.

My online activity very quickly became more and more focused around addressing this problem (or ranting about it). As the site became more focused, I shifted its design and changed the name to Blogs of War, which is a take on Shakespeare’s “dogs of war”. Later, in November 2002, I made it official and registered the domain name.

FR: A seemingly unrelated question. We share a love for the mountains. For me a good deal of this love has to do with the perspective and observation points they provide, with their panorama and the all encompassing views from above. It is also about a passion for challenges and the openness to reflect and learn from humbling experiences. What is the influence that being a mountaineer has in the approach to the intellectual and professional tasks that you are confronted with?

JL: The past two years have not been kind to my mountaineering ambitions. When I was training for climbs it was my singular focus. Life has been far too complicated lately.

That being said, I haven’t give up hope. I have more summits in my future. Climbing is like Zen. It is experiential. It is just not possible to share the depth of that experience with someone else. You just can’t describe the intense physical effort, the depth of satisfaction, and clarity of experience to someone who hasn’t attempted it. And I really hate to distill the whole thing down to a bunch of motivational mumbo jumbo. Those analogies just cheapen the experience for me.

Climbing has a purity to it that will never be found in the workplace or self-help class. It is real life. Before my last climb a Zen Master friend of mind sent me a koan. “Who Walks? Never give up until you get the answer….then follow that.”

At the risk of sounding a bit metaphysical the answer to that koan is the greatest gift climbing offers.

FR: One of the most interesting things about Blogs of War is that it works on multiple different levels, juggling a remarkable amount of complexity and sophistication. It is real time news and a social media monitor; it is a repository of information and points of view; and it is a cultural platform that provides readers with critical perspectives on issues of global security, intelligence, technology, and all the possible interconnections of the three. This is something that seems both conceptually and practically very complicated to manage. Can you give us a bit of a background on how the Blogs of War machine works?

JL: There is no stable process and that can be alternatively exciting and maddening. Blogs of War is, and always will be, an experiment. That means that anything, from the front end that users see to the back end processes that feed it, can change at any time.

Many people do not realize that Blogs of War is simply a personal blog. I do not have a staff. I do not have a budget. However, I do have a demanding career and a full life away from the blog.

This attempt to monitor, curate, and comment intelligently on so many topics within a framework that has so many constraints creates constant tension. It’s really a silly thing for one person to undertake and managing it all well is not something that I’ve ever really mastered. Honestly, I don’t think mastery is possible. So what you see, in the end, is just my best attempt at the impossible.

In terms of content I’m constantly seeking and evaluating RSS and Twitter sources and the software that makes managing those easier. I have also been known to resort to crudely hacking together my own tools to manage this. That is how the live Twitter streams that I rolled out during the Egyptian revolution (and later as CovertContact.com) came to be.

Over the years I’ve tried many automation schemes to help carry the load. I have moved away from the concept on the blog as people have generally stopped looking to blogs for real time news. That activity has largely shifted to Twitter and that is where much of my focus lies.

As it stands now, some of what readers see on Blogs of War’s primary Twitter feed is fed automatically from carefully selected sources or queries that I developed and some of it comes directly from me. This arrangement allows me to feed readers solid real-time news while also giving me a little breathing room to think and contribute more complex thoughts or content. It is far from perfect but it works.

As for me, I spend many hours throughout the day watching the many private Twitter lists that I’ve created and constantly edit. I do most of this through my iPhone. These lists focus on specific regions, conflicts and key subject such as intelligence or information security.

The quality of subject matter experts on Twitter is just unbelievable, so identifying and tracking them occupies a large amount of my time and energy. When important new breaks, I’ll try to get to my Linux workstation as soon as possible. I have two 24″ monitors hooked up to it and with virtual desktops it is essentially like having eight different widescreens running at once.

I can very quickly fill those up with live video and Twitter streams as I monitor both professional media sources and eyewitnesses who may be tweeting, streaming video, or uploading photos from the scene.

FR: In the domain of knowledge production, I am fascinated by the idea of speed and slowness and the achievement of a fine balance between the two – this is something I feel you have managed quite successfully. In the past, such as during the 2003 war in Iraq, you have been able to break news faster than mainstream media outlets. At the same time, Blogs of War is a slow-paced space for reflection, in depth inquiry and deconstruction – if you allow me the term – of very convoluted and multi-faceted topics. What is your magic formula?

JL: Blogs used to be the speedier mechanism for news updates, but Twitter really owns that space now and there is no sign of that changing anytime soon. It actually took me a surprising amount of time to find what seems to be a workable balance.

I think the emergence of Twitter left the old school news bloggers with very few alternatives. Twitter upended news bloggers in very much the same way that we upended traditional media. I really struggled with the divergence initially. The only reason I held onto the blog was my unwillingness to pour all my effort and content into someone else’s (Twitter’s) platform.

Eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, I dropped the notion of the blog as a real-time news platform and shifted that effort to Twitter. Now, the blog is for long form writing and a more robust exploration of important topics. Not only does it work, but it makes managing it all much less stressful.

FR: You represent a precursor of what is now defined war-blogging. Online access to information has broadened the scope of interest and debate on conflicts that would otherwise risk being forgotten or overlooked. At the same time, this has created a plethora of self-appointed pundits, experts, analysts, and strategists. This is an issue that you partly discuss on your blogpost Thoughts on Identity and Credibility in relation to how you choose guest contributors. Can you tell us a bit more about your discerning criteria? This, I think, could be a great help to many disoriented readers.

JL: The model, if you can call it that, is fluid. It changes with the culture and the landscape. If the criteria are too rigid you miss out on amazing content. We see this with organizations that refuse to treat bloggers as credible journalists. On the other hand, if it is too flexible you will find yourself falling prey to sensationalists, conspiracy theorists, and frauds.

A key factor in all of this is my desire to be accurate above all else – even at the expense of my own political agenda. When accuracy is the overriding priority it shows. When a political agenda is the overriding priority it really shows and the quality of the content takes a nose dive.

Although, it should be said that there are increasing numbers demanding their news through a rigid partisan filter. I find this troubling. It would be nice if people were both secure and flexible in their worldviews, but I guess the temptation to shut out challenging viewpoints has always been there.

I will often present view from both sides of an issue. I don’t always tell people where I stand or where I think they should stand. Most of my readers seem to value this, but it confuses others terribly.

I am a big believer in networks when it comes to identifying and validating sources. One thing that Twitter allows me to do is quickly pick apart someone’s network and get a feel for what they do and where their influence lies.

I am always looking for new subject matter experts. When I find them, I pick through their social media networks for even more experts and influences. I am constantly building Twitter lists of these experts. Once I have put them into their little boxes I can monitor their activity closely and evaluate their content and positions on key issues.

Some of these people go into my primary A-list rotation right away and others stay in my secondary tier with similar subject matter experts where they are still monitored, but with somewhat less frequency.

Of course, I am not beyond hitting the search engines to research someone. In some cases I’ll sift through LinkedIn resumes or academic publications. Only a small percentage of people get this sort of attention, but it does happen.

FR: Following up on this point, a similar question may arise in relation to the news that you report. How do you screen and monitor the reliability and accuracy of your sources? How do you decide what gets published and what does not?

JL: In terms of Blogs of War interviews or guest posts it is very simple. Those are by invitation only. I turn down almost daily requests from volunteer contributors. In eleven or twelve years, I have probably only taken up one or two authors on their pitches for guest posts. I have to have a personal interest in your story or voice for that invitation to be extended.

Twitter accounts are verified in the manner described earlier. Other content comes from a constantly maintained, and quite large, list of RSS feeds from traditional media and extremely well established individual bloggers.

FR: At the convergence between the tech and social sciences worlds, there has recently been a growing buzz around the use, potentials, and short-comings of big data. What do you think the relevance of this debate is in the field of conflict studies? Can tools like Covert Contact be considered as a context-specific response?

JL: Look data is useful. There’s no question about that. The problem, at least when it comes to conflict, is that data will only rarely alter the human condition. Even when data does offer that advance warning needed to avert disaster, the decision making process happens in what is usually a deeply political and otherwise flawed human layer.

We have a million problems on this planet that could be solved with no data whatsoever, but they persist because human beings are very difficult animals.

I don’t want to appear to be overly negative about big data and its usefulness. It is having an impact and that impact will grow. It just won’t be a magic bullet when it comes to human conflict. There are no magic bullets.

Covert Contact was extremely useful even if it was a bit crude. The initial social media monitoring tools that I developed helped me stay far ahead of the media, and apparently even governments, during the early days of the Arab Spring. Having massive amounts of data at your disposal is always a good thing providing you know how to parse through it all.

FR: Warfare has dramatically changed in the last decades and with it the way we think, talk, and write about it. Since 2002, when you started blogging, we have developed a new vocabulary, new forms of military and strategic approaches, and a whole lot of new (whether real or fictitious) enemies. How have you managed to navigate this situation and adjust to the changes?

JL: Constant hard work. Researching, reading, analyzing and engaging experts day in and day out is the only way to do it. I am constantly aware of my own shortcomings and gaps in my knowledge and I work every day to fill them. But let’s be honest it’s a losing battle. One person cannot monitor, and understand, the entire world. For this reason, Blogs of War has never lived up to my vision and it never will. I don’t have the resources to get there. What people get is best attempt at the impossible.

FR: Strategic communication through social media is a fundamental element in the landscape of new warfare. It is a powerful tool that so-called “enemies” and official players use in molding public opinion and asserting their presence in the virtual domain. In this respect, if we use Afghanistan as an example, we can think of Taliban Twitter accounts such as Abdulqahar Balkhi (@Abalkhi), as well as the increased social media outreach efforts undertaken by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). What are your thoughts on this?

JL: They all bore me, but for different reasons. Taliban, Shabaab, and their ilk do a better job of speaking with an authentic voice, but they are only speaking to the true believers. You’ll never see them effectively engage outside of their narrow world-view. I think we did see that with @abumamerican, but that didn’t go over well (for him) and he is now dead, at least in part, because of it.

On the other side, there are public affairs officers and layers of bureaucracy that are just absolute death to compelling content in the social media space. A million of them have contacted me over the years. They write up their stories about NFL cheerleaders visiting forward bases or Marines rescuing a puppy and beg me to repost it. I did that a couple of times, but won’t ever do it again.

I sympathize with these people on the front-lines of the information war, but I am not here to bore people senseless with meaningless content. I use to reply and attempt to explain to them what my audience expected. My blog was theirs for the taking if they could supply intelligent and informative content, but it never happened. Not once. Maybe they sent it elsewhere.

I believe that governments would benefit from far fewer overt accounts and many more covert ones. Every military unit and bureaucratic department has its own neglected Twitter account now. They do nothing to advance the strategic or tactical goals of their government.

If the goal is to advance a message in a battle space, then agents unrestrained by bureaucratic oversight have to be trusted to get out there and mix it up. Governments should be taking cues from hacker culture in this arena. You can legitimately criticize much of what LulzSec [a group of hacktivists who took responsibility for a number of high profile attacks, including taking the CIA website offline] did during their short time in the spotlight but at least their messaging was extremely compelling.

The same can be said about Anonymous and even the Occupy movement. The groups are all largely composed of digital natives and this stuff is just instinctive to them. You will never achieve that impact when you run your messaging through a bureaucratic filter.

FR: Kashmir is not on the list of hotspots that Blogs of War directly monitors. Is there a reason for this?

JL: Covert Contact, which grew out of the Blogs of War monitors, has been put on hold due to changes in the Twitter API that I am not currently able to accommodate. So to be clear there are no monitors at the moment. But getting to your point I can only say that it was a one-man effort and was a work in progress. Kashmir would have made the list eventually. It just wasn’t a priority in the initial rollout.

FR: One last question. When the NSA is listening to you, what does it hear?

JL: There are occasionally moments when running Blogs of War can get a little surreal. Different agencies and mysterious individuals have reached out to me from time to time and I’d be sort of naive to think that the government hasn’t taken a peek at my email over the years.

Still, personal contacts with government types have been respectful and the monitoring, if it happens, could only bore an analyst senseless. 95% of my phone calls are to my girlfriend. 3% are to my family. 1% are to close friends. I suppose the remaining 1% is composed of former spies and similar types from the Blogs of War network, but even that isn’t surveillance worthy.

I have a real life. It is tedious and mostly boring. I am not trading nuclear launch codes with drop-dead gorgeous foreign agents via Gmail – or though any other medium for that matter. Throughout my blogging career I’ve made it clear that I am not here to attack the state. I am not going to publish classified U.S. government information in search of a scoop. I am just not wired that way. I look at journalists consumed with hatred for the U.S. government and I wonder why they aren’t interested in devoting that energy to exposing government abuses in Iran or North Korea or any number of places where government power has truly horrific consequences. I know that we are not perfect but I question their sense of perspective.

So with all these years and untold hours online I am sure NSA has heard plenty. Terrorists, spies, and hackers routinely engage me online (and usually publicly). I suspect many of those conversations are archived somewhere. I would be sort of disappointed in the intelligence community if they weren’t. That being said, the value of those conversations, in terms of their mission, is minimal at best. That is why I don’t worry about it.

The world is a very scary place and the intelligence community is not going to waste its time on me.

Eyes, roads and barbed wire

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


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.

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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