On Advocacy and Policies

Below is the keynote address I delivered in occasion of the Fall Meeting of the Global Consortium for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (GCPCH)

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It is a great privilege to be here today and have the opportunity to deliver this address on Advocacy and Policies.

Considering the amazing amount of institutional knowledge in the room, the best way I can meaningfully contribute to the conversation is by bringing to the table my experience from “the ground.”

Over the past fifteen years I have been working as an independent researcher supporting artists, cultural practices and productions in countries in conflict. For me, it is hardly possible to think of cultural heritage without thinking of people first.

I would like to begin by showing you a short art film from Afghanistan.

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The film, directed by Farahnaz Yusufi, is titled Ruyeeha-e Parihaa which in Farsi means Angel’s Dream.

There is not much to add to such a testament to the power of ingenuity. Farahnaz Yusufi opens for us a window to the never-ending quest for poetry. In the film, she also makes a complex reference to Sufi mystical culture that I have no time to unpack now, but we can certainly return to later in the discussion. Works like this, which combine a multiplicity of emotional, cultural and symbolic layers, interpellate us – as professionals who work towards the protection, preservation and revival of cultural heritage – with many fundamental questions. These questions, rather than the answers to them, will be the fil rouge that will guide my presentation.

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Baqer Ahmedi, Silent Face, 2014

A few days ago I met up with Baqer Ahmedi, one of the most talented emerging artists in Afghanistan, whom I have had the pleasure to mentor since he started his artistic journey. He updated me about his work and told me that he was not entirely satisfied with the progress he was making: for several months he could not draw as he had ran out of wasli paper and there wasn’t any available to buy in Kabul. Baqer Ahmedi is a contemporary artist, who works on a kind of handmade paper called wasli that is traditionally used for miniature painting – you can see here a couple of images from his work.

Baqer is about to leave Afghanistan as many artists have done before him. He’s going to Pakistan in a couple of weeks to begin his bachelor’s degree in Lahore. There he will be able to buy more paper and resume drawing. His matter of fact tone in telling this story stayed with me: there was no resentment. This is how often things are there in Afghanistan; it is normal not to have paper and not to be able to draw: there’s not much else to add.

It is from this lack of paper that we should probably start when we think of our role in protecting and reviving cultural heritage.

Luckily not the whole world is experiencing the same extreme conditions of Afghanistan, but I believe there’s much to learn from situations of conflict. I have just come back from Kabul, where I have been based for the past five years. In spite of the immense problems that the country is facing to shape itself into a mature and diverse nationstate, it is absolutely remarkable to see the relevance and centrality that culture and heritage play in the political debate.

During the last year, as a programme specialist with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, I worked closely with the Afghan Minister of Information and Culture to design a roadmap for both a National Cultural Policy and for the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The challenges have been and still are enormous. I would like to share some thoughts on my experience and perhaps we can further discuss them in our roundtable later on.

Working at the crossroad between international organisations, funding agencies and public institutions requires a lot of juggling. There are petty power games, there is the pressure to show progress and present deliverables, there is the aspiration to be relevant, to be accurate, to be meaningful. It is a jigsaw made of tons of tiny moving pieces: each of them requires full attention as the puzzle needs them all in order to be complete. Any attempt at cutting corners simply backfires. The greatest dilemma is between the urge to be efficient and the ethical desire to be sustainable.

Here the biggest variables are “the people” and time.

Because of my personal political history, I have always distrusted top-down decisions. This attitude has a profound influence on how I conceive my work. More on this later.

To go back to the issue of “the people” and time, when working in the context of so-called developing countries, our activities are measured by the strict sets of deadlines dictated by donors’ fundings. It is the logic of projects that orientates us along with the requirement to show short-term tangible results matched against large, sustained financial investments. This is all well and good, but it is also extremely easy to lose perspective and forget the big picture.

Most of what I do is to work with people, but working with people requires time and the kind of time that is needed to gain trust and build an equal relationship is out of sync with the temporality of a project-driven modality.

Let’s think of the National Cultural Policy for Afghanistan as an example. The quickest I could envision a roadmap for its development was on a three year scale with at least two rounds of nation-wide consultation with civil society organisations, local elders, religious and community leaders. In a country like Afghanistan, though, even three years into the future are difficult to envision: hardly any donor engages in such a “longterm” commitment, many of the decisions are personality-driven and so directions change along with the high turnover of the people in charge. Moreover, from next April the new electoral season will begin and the uncertainty that this entails may discourage anyone to engage in anything that at this point would appear utterly impossible.

I do not intend to paint a hopeless scenario here, I am rather trying to think out loud about the rationale that is behind what may seem a more pragmatic and certainly faster approach, whereby experts are brought into the picture for short-term consultancies to give answers and supposedly solve problems. Not always, however, is the specific professional competence of these experts paired with a nuanced understanding of the complexity and uniqueness of the context.

This way of working raises a number of questions. Will this ever be impactful? Will the results ever last? Will people ever feel ownership of any of the decisions made in such a detached manner?

The answer to this lack of space and time is often found in advocacy. An unavoidable component of every project proposal, it becomes the way to reach out to the people, to involve them, to make sure that we tick the box of inclusiveness.

In this sense, the idea of advocacy is often mistaken with public campaigning, with large scale mobilisations that bring attention to pressing issues. By doing this, we hope to inculcate new ideas, to communicate to the people the urgency of concentrating our efforts for the preservation of physical and intangible heritage. Besides actions taken within the institutional framework, there are also special events that serve the same purpose.

Here are a couple of examples of individual initiatives that have quite successfully brought to the public attention elements of endangered cultural heritage.

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In 2015, Zhang Xinyu and Liang Hong, two Chinese philanthropes, built in Bamiyan a 3D laser projector to create a 50-meter-tall hologram of the Buddhas that were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban. This hologram was presented in a public event where 150 people participated.

 Another beautiful example is the “before and after” series of photographs that Joseph Eid took in 2016 in Palmyra.

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Joseph Eid/Getty

 Expressions like these are significant examples of advocacy, but I believe it is important to think beyond them. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against campaigning and public mobilisation. I am however suspicious of an approach to advocacy that is limited to that. In these terms, in fact, advocacy becomes a tactic, almost a quick fix instead of a form of strategy.

I just finished reading a book by Italian psychoanalyst Massimo Recalcati titled L’ora di Lezione. Per un’erotica dell’insegnamento.

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Massimo Recalcati, L’ora di lezione. Per un’erotica dell’insegnamento. Cover Photo.

There is no English translation of the book yet, the title roughly means The Lesson’s Hour. For an Erotic Approach to Teaching. The book addresses the profound crisis that the Italian school system is undergoing. It looks at how the great social transformations of the last four decades have had an impact on School (with capital S) as an institution as well as on the role that teachers play in the educational enterprise. This is not the right time to go into further detail about the book, but there is one point that Recalcati makes that may be useful for our discussion. He believes that teachers should reclaim their role in presenting to the students the objects of knowledge as erotic objects. In other words, the task of the teacher is to activate the desire to know. In Socratic terms, this is an unearthing process rather than an imposition. The maieutic art of teaching recognises potentials, nurtures desire and facilitates the space of expression.

I wonder if we can use the same model and re-think of advocacy in such terms. This will require, however, a serious shift in attitude.

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at a gathering of geographers and GIS experts in Bangalore in South India on the role that mapping can play in heritage preservation. Most of the participants came from a non proprietary OpenStreetMap (and a free software) background and the discussion that followed ended up focussing on the possibility of communities’ involvement and participation in the identification and geo-localisation of heritage sites. At this point a member of the audience, the only urban planner in the room, stood up and quite forcefully stated that people don’t know what is relevant; it is therefore our duty to teach them the importance of heritage. She left the room soon after, but the echo of her statement informed the rest of the conversation.

The presumption that we, all of us in a position of power and responsibility, know better than “the people” is a scary beast and it encages the nature of heritage within narrow and “managerial” parameters.

Statements like these are problematic at a multiplicity of different levels and they are – whether in a spoken or unspoken fashion – more common than one would be willing to admit. The first order of troubles comes from the fact that we (the experts, the bureaucrats, the academics) set ourselves apart from them, the people. We forget that beyond our expertise it is our cultural roots to make us who we are – be it by embracing or by opposing them. Somewhere, somehow, beyond our professional lives, we belong, we are members of a community and we are shaped and defined by a set of cultural practices, places and meanings that we share with others.

It is remarkable how quick we are in forgetting this when we wear our professional hats.

The second layer of problems with such statements comes from the fact that they ossify the idea of heritage within strict rules and regulations thereby ignoring its granular and embodied nature. In both physical and intangible terms, heritage is malleable and ever-changing, it is that particular tree, that folktale, this street corner that a community aggregates around and identifies with.

When my sister tells the story of where we come from, she loves to say that local dialects change every few kilometres and with every single village. What sets our hometown apart, she would go on, is the fact that we don’t have any distinctive dialect as the city was entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 1915.

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Photo by Lansing Callan for USGS (Us Geological Survey)

It is apocryphal stories like this one that help us shape our narratives as individuals who belong to a place and a community. It is stories like these that perpetuate a notion of living traditions.

I have recently discovered an incredibly inspiring document written under the auspices of UNESCO in 1998 in occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the Declaration of Human Duties and Responsibilities, which quite simply responds to the rights we claim with a set of duties and responsibilities that we have in order for our rights to come alive.

The Declaration is a manifesto of the ethics of responsibility and helps us conceiving the shift between moral and legal duties: it is about what we ought to do in order to guarantee the survival of the universal democratic values we cherish and claim as fundamental.

The strive towards equality and meaningful participation in public affairs is at the core of the document.

Relevant to our context, Chapter 11 of the Declaration is dedicated to Education, Art and Culture. Within this section, article 38 reminds us that within communities there is both an individual and a collective responsibility to provide a framework for and to foster arts and culture.

It is on this note that I want to conclude my address today.

As professionals who work towards the preservation of heritage – as well as as individuals who belong to a particular community – our job is also our duty.

When we create the conditions for the protection and the full enjoyment of cultural heritage we are basically performing our civic, obligatory and reciprocal duty as citizens.

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L’esercizio della responsabilità

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Storicamente, i periodi di crisi socio-politiche sono caratterizzati da grandi movimenti popolari di protesta e rivendicazione dei diritti. L’enfasi sulla dimensione di rivendicazione da una parte implica la presupposizione di un potere che ascolta, dall’altra sposta la necessità dell’azione al di là di chi protesta.
E’ forse anche per questo che un documento tanto importante quanto la Carta Universale dei Doveri e delle Responsabilità è praticamente sconosciuta. A seguito di un processo consultivo internazionale che ha coinvolto esperti, politici (fra cui Leoluca Orlando), intellettuali (inclusi Dario Fo e Gianni Vattimo) e rappresentanti di comunità, la Carta è stata redatta a Valencia nel 1998 in occasione del 50º anniversario della Dichiarazione Universale dei Diritti Umani sotto il patrocinio dell’UNESCO. La Carta è una versione speculare della Dichiarazione dei Diritti Umani e funziona quasi da contrappunto: a tutto ciò di cui abbiamo diritto, fa da contraltare quello che dobbiamo fare per renderlo possibile.
Premessa fondamentale del documento è la distinzione di piani fra doveri e responsabilità. I primi hanno un valore di impegno morale, che si traduce in vincolo legale attraverso l’assunzione di responsabilità: se non espletiamo a pieno i nostri doveri per garantire i diritti di tutti, siamo perseguibili penalmente.
In tempi come questi, per esempio, è importante ricordare che al sacrosanto diritto al libero movimento fa eco il dovere all’ospitalità – in particolare verso chi è dislocato a causa di guerre o carestie – nell’ottica di un’equità non solo formale, ma sostanziale.
L’articolo 38 della Carta si concentra su doveri e responsabilità tanto degli individui che delle comunità di creare le condizioni e sostenere le arti e la produzione culturale.
Lavoro da oltre dieci anni nella promozione culturale, rivitalizzazione del patrimonio immateriale e sostegno agli artisti in paesi in conflitto. Fra le ragioni che muovono il mio agire c’è la consapevolezza di una profonda interconnessione tra urgenza, diritto e dovere alla libera espressione. Alla luce della Carta, la mia attività professionale è la risposta a una chiamata all’assunzione di responsabilità per cui ciò che facciamo è parte di una tutela dei diritti tanto individuali che collettivi.

Mondana Bashid

Un concerto a Manchester; una gelateria a Baghdad; un sabato sera di divertimento nel cuore di Londra; un crocevia trafficato, una manifestazione, un funerale a Kabul. Morti e feriti a decine se non a centinaia. E tutto questo senza contare quel che ci sfugge del resto dell’Iraq, della Siria, della Nigeria e di tutti i paesi che a stento fanno notizia.

Sono giorni difficili di fatica e paura. La chiusura e il sospetto sembrano la soluzione migliore: sicuramente quella più semplice. Alzare i muri e chiudere le porte. Girare le spalle a tutto ciò che è altro da noi. Ma si tratta della scelta peggiore: vuol dire cadere nella trappola, giocare alle regole del terrore, cedere al ricatto.

Manchester, Baghdad, Kabul e Londra rispondono a gran voce al rischio di scivolare nella bigotteria.

Stamattina nella metropolitana di Londra un cartello diceva: “Tutti possono cedere, è la cosa più facile che il mondo possa fare. Ma la vera forza sta nel tenere i pezzi insieme quando nessuno si stupirebbe del collasso.” E la gelateria di Baghdad ha riaperto cinque giorni dopo essere stata attaccata. E Kabul, con le code per donare il sangue e gli appelli all’unità e i dottori che hanno lavorato senza sosta e i giornalisti che non hanno mai smesso di essere in prima linea, continua a ricordarci il valore senza prezzo dell’umanità.

In Afghanistan, dove una cultura cortese dà ancora valore al rito di scambiarsi i saluti, ho imparato uno degli auspici più belli: Mondana Bashid – che tu possa non essere mai stanco.

Non penso ci sia niente di meglio da augurarci a vicenda in un momento del genere quando la stanchezza, la paura, lo sfinimento, il senso di impotenza rischiano di prendere il sopravvento.

Mondana Bashid ai cittadini di Kabul, ai medici di emergency, ai miei amici afghani che credono nel futuro.a tutti e ciascuno di noi; a tutti quelli che, ovunque si trovino nel mondo, hanno ancora il coraggio di continuare a sperare e lavorano per rendere le cose un po’ migliori.

In search for words

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Photo by Kevin Frayer / AP

Yesterday Afghanistan has lived through yet another bloody day: three attacks in three cities (Lashkar Gah, Kabul, Kandahar) and tens of casualties. We had barely managed to process the horror of one event that another followed. It has been a difficult time and our thoughts were once again with those whose only fault is to work in the wrong place.

At a personal level, days like these add doubts to the emotional tiredness of being an indirect witness of a war that never seems to end. On days like yesterday it seems more difficult to give myself a convincing answer on why not only is it important but also necessary to work on art and cultural production in a country like Afghanistan in a moment like this. The uneasiness that this hesitation generates is difficult to manage both for myself and for those who are close to me. Silence in these circumstances is never productive neither is indulging in the malaise. The frustration, however, is there and needs an outlet.

Yet, I’ll never cease to be surprised by the fact that answers always come when you least expected them.

I met an old friend, K., who told me a story. Last November I organised a training for 120 artists from various disciplines coming from different corners of Afghanistan. K. took part in the training and since then he has been telling me what a unique opportunity of exchange and encounters it was. I really don’t like flattery so more than once I told him that he was exaggerating and was being so kind only because we are friends.

Sipping his tea, he told me that, without me knowing, one of the artists participating in the seminar was illiterate: a musician who can play wonderfully, but cannot read and write. The participatory and inclusive method that characterised the seminar, as well as the fact that it was conducted in local languages rather than in English as it is generally the case, allowed him to take part in it and draw from it great motivation.

In order not to waste the possible fruits that could come from this achievement, K. told that he made a deal with the musician since for the first time his work could be promoted and supported irrespective of the fact that he cannot read and write.

The deal is this: K. offered to help the musician to fill the form to apply for the grants that my project offers on the condition that he would enrol in an evening school.

The musician, whose name I don’t know, has started attending a literacy class at the beginning of January.

Moments of hope like this one give me strength and are an unexpected gift that provides me with the words to give an answer, however temporary, to my doubts and questions.

Alla ricerca delle parole

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Photo by Kevin Frayer / AP

Ieri l’Afghanistan ha vissuto l’ennesima giornata di sangue: tre attentati in tre città (Lashkar Gah, Kabul, Kandahar) e decine di morti. Nel corso della giornata facevamo appena in tempo ad assimilare l’orrore di una notizia che ne seguiva un’altra: sono state ore pesanti, col pensiero ancora una volta a coloro che hanno come unica colpa quella di lavorare nel posto sbagliato.

A livello personale giornate così aggiungono il dubbio alla fatica emotiva di essere testimone indiretto di una guerra che sembra non avere mai fine. In giorni come quello di ieri sembra più difficile darmi delle risposte convincenti sul perché sia non solo importante, ma anche necessario, occuparsi di arte e di produzione culturale in un momento come questo in un paese come l’Afghanistan. Il malumore che genera questo affanno diventa difficile da gestire sia per me che per chi mi sta intorno. Il silenzio in questi casi non é mai produttivo, così come non lo é indulgere nel proprio malessere. La frustrazione resta e cerca vie d’uscita.

Eppure, non finirò mai di sorprendermi del fatto che le risposte arrivino sempre quando uno meno se le aspetta.

Ho incontrato un vecchio amico, K., e mi ha raccontato una storia. A novembre scorso ho organizzato un seminario di formazione per 120 artisti di varie discipline, provenienti da ogni angolo dell’Afghanistan. K. ha partecipato al seminario e da allora continua a dire quanto sia stata un’occasione unica di incontro e di scambio. In generale non amo le lusinghe e quindi più di una volta gli ho detto che stava esagerando ed era così generoso solo perché siamo amici. Sorseggiando la sua tazza di te mi ha raccontato che, senza che io lo sapessi, uno degli artisti partecipanti al seminario era analfabeta: un musicista che suona meravigliosamente, ma che non sa né leggere e né scrivere. Il metodo partecipativo e interattivo che ha caratterizzato il seminario, e l’uso delle lingue locali invece dell’inglese come solitamente accade, ha consentito al musicista di partecipare e di trarne grande motivazione.

Per non perdere i possibili frutti di questa conquista, K. mi ha detto che alla fine del seminario lui e il musicista hanno fatto un patto visto che concretamente esiste per la prima volta la possibilità che il suo lavoro venga promosso e sostenuto nonostante non sappia né leggere e né scrivere. Il patto é questo: K. si é offerto di aiutare il musicista a fare domanda alla fine dell’anno per accedere ai finanziamenti previsti dal mio progetto a condizione che cominciasse ad andare alle scuole serali.

Il musicista, di cui non conosco il nome, ha iniziato infatti il corso di alfabetizzazione per adulti all’inizio di gennaio.

Sprazzi di speranza come questo sono un’ancora di salvezza e un dono inaspettato che offre le parole per dare una risposta, almeno temporanea, alle mie domande.

Learning to read

I have been studying Dari for a year now and I finally reached a functional level that allows me to ask to change the dynamo of the generator, check with the plumber that the sewage finally works properly and converse with taxi drivers – mostly about God and religion, conversations that – beyond the language barrier, often leave me with questions that I am not capable to answer.

I have learnt the alphabet since the very beginning, but it has only need a week since I started reading out loud.

It made me feel like a little girl again and Sister Fidalma came to mind – she was the incredibly old nun who gave me reading tuitions when I was in school. When I was little, it took me a very long time before I learnt to read properly. My first oculist got my prescriptions wrong and, despite huge baby-pink specs, I could hardly see anything and the letters on the page would hopelessly blur.

It is funny to think now that my first active relationship with books was one of effort and frustration and it makes me happy to look back and see how much things have changed.

Learning to read as an adult is turning into a funding moment in my personal development. It is a humbling experience where I have to look at myself and my limits without filters or excuses: there is no bluff and there is no hiding. Reading out loud a syllable after the other is embarrassing – I have the impression to blush every time I finish reading a word; making banal mistakes is frustrating, but reaching the end of a sentence – exhausted after barely five words – is a priceless and unforgettable pleasure.

Sayed, my fantastic teacher, has found the right balance with me: he pulls my leg and encourages me at the same time, he helps me laugh at my efforts and not to take myself too seriously.

There is so much that we take as a given, we hardly question our abilities and all those things we believe we are entitled to.

Starting from scratch again is reminding me of the importance of humility, of the satisfaction of small steps, and of the genuine joy of simple achievements.

Imparare a leggere

Studio il Dari ormai da un anno, sono arrivata ad un livello tale per cui posso chiedere di cambiare la dinamo del generatore, verificare che l’idraulico abbia riparato la fogna per bene e conversare con i tassisti – spesso di Dio e di questioni religiose a cui difficilmente riesco a dare risposta.

Sin dall’inizio ho imparato l’alfabeto, ma è solo da una settimana che ho cominciato a fare esercizi di lettura ad alta voce.

Mi sono sentita di nuovo una ragazzina e mi è tornata in mente Suor Fidalma, la suora vecchissima che mi dava ripetizione di lettura. Da piccina, mi ci è voluto tantissimo tempo per imparare a leggere. Il mio primo oculista aveva sbagliato la prescrizione delle lenti e nonostante avessi dei giganteschi occhiali rosa confetto, fondamentalmente non vedevo un granché e le lettere sulla pagina si confondevano.

Strano pensare come il mio primo rapporto attivo con i libri sia stato caratterizzato dalla fatica e dalla frustrazione, ed è bello guardarsi indietro e vedere quante cose siano cambiate.

Imparare a leggere da adulta si sta rivelando un’esperienza fondamentale nella mia formazione personale. E’ un confronto con me stessa e con i miei limiti: c’è poco da bluffare e non ci sono sconti. Sillabare ad alta voce è imbarazzante – ho l’impressione di arrossire ogni volta che leggo una parola – fare errori banali è frustrante, ma arrivare in fondo alla prima riga, stanchissima dopo cinque parole, è un’esperienza assolutamente indimenticabile. Sayed, il mio fantastico maestro, ha trovato la giusta misura: mi prende in giro e mi incoraggia, mi aiuta a ridere delle mie difficoltà e a non prendermi troppo sul serio.

Si dà così tanto per scontato, su noi stessi sulle nostre capacità e su quello che ci sembra ci sia dovuto. Ricominciare da zero, mi sta ricordando l’importanza dell’umiltà, la soddisfazione dei piccoli passi e la gioia genuina dei traguardi semplici.