On the table – Thoughts about Kashmir

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Two weeks ago I was making dinner: pasta with lamb as in the tradition of the part of Italy I come from and doon chettin, a walnut chutney typical of Kashmir. I wanted on our table the rough but heartwarming flavours of both his mountains and mine.

That evening, after dinner, we got to know that Khurram Parvez, a Kashmiri human right advocate who has been working for decades to denounce the brutality that his people has been subjected to, had been arrested (with accusations devoid of any legal justification). The day before his arrest, he was disallowed to board on a plane to Geneva where he was meant to speak at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission.

I can’t stop thinking about the flavour of that dinner, about the comfort that comes from the food from home. I also can’t stop thinking about Khurram Parvez’s wife, who does not know when she’ll share a meal with him again, and about all those women in Kashmir who are crying while preparing the favourite dish for their sons who have been killed in the past three months.

After 84 days of crackdown in Kashmir, winds of war blow between India and Pakistan. On both sides, armchair strategists invoke the power of a nuclear attack. Inebriated by nationalistic fascism, they do not consider that the border that separates them is only a fictional line traced on paper and that the possible consequences won’t stop at the frontier to ask for permission to cross.

Newspaper headlines and the occasional international attention, have used this chance to concentrate on the abstract dimension of the conflict sweeping aside what this actually means for the people. Yet again Kashmir is discussed as an expanse of land on either side of a line drawn on a map rather than as a land that belongs to a people who has been fighting for decades for the right to decide for themselves and their future. The abstract geopolitical discussion becomes the excuse to ignore that the armed forces destroyed the yearly apple harvest and burnt the cultivated fields; to look away from the seized ambulances, the night raids and the undiscriminated arrests.

How many more empty places at the dinner table, how many more meals full of absence are going to be needed before we recognise that the right to self-determination is inviolable and sacrosanct? How many more mothers will have to cry for the loss of their sons before we understand that violence and brutality will not eradicate the quest for freedom?

A tavola – Pensando al Kashmir

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Due settimane fa preparavo la cena: pasta col sugo d’agnello come da tradizione abruzzese e doon chettin, una salsa di noci tipica del Kashmir. Volevo che a tavola ci fosse tanto il sapore delle sue montagne che delle mie: sapori ruvidi che scaldano il cuore.

Quella sera, dopo cena, siamo venuti a sapere che avevano arrestato (con accuse prive di giustificazione legale) Khurram Parvez, un attivista per la difesa dei diritti umani che da anni lavora per denunciare la brutalità di cui è vittima inascoltata la gente del Kashmir. Il giorno prima di essere arrestato, gli era stato impedito di imbarcarsi sull’aereo per Ginevra dove avrebbe dovuto partecipare alla riunione della Commissione per i Diritti Umani delle Nazioni Unite.

E’ da quella sera che continuo a pensare al sapore di quella cena, al conforto del cibo di casa, ma anche alla moglie di Khurram Parvez che non sa quando potrà condividere di nuovo un pasto con lui e a tutte quelle donne che in Kashmir in questi giorni piangono mentre preparano il piatto preferito dei propri figli che sono stati uccisi in questi tre mesi.

Dopo 84 giorni di scontri ininterrotti in Kashmir, tra India e Pakistan tirano venti di guerra. Da entrambe le parti, gli strateghi da salotto cantano le lodi di un attacco nucleare. Inebriati di nazionalismo fascista sembrano non considerare che il confine che li divide è una linea immaginaria tracciata sulla carta e che le possibili conseguenze non si fermano a chiedere il permesso di varcare la frontiera.

I titoli dei giornali e la poca attenzione internazionale hanno raccolto al volo l’occasione per concentrarsi sulla dimensione astratta del conflitto lasciando passare in secondo piano quello che questo scontro significa per la gente. Ancora una volta il Kashmir ritorna ad essere discusso come uno spazio conteso al di qua e al di là di una linea sulla mappa invece che come il luogo di appartenenza di un popolo che da decenni lotta per il diritto a decidere per sé e per il proprio futuro. La discussione geopolitica diventa la scusa per distogliere lo sguardo dai raccolti di mele distrutti e dai campi coltivati bruciati dall’esercito, dalle ambulanze sequestrate, dai raid notturni e dagli arresti indiscriminati.

Quanti altri posti vuoti a tavola, quante cene piene di assenza ci vorranno prima che ci si renda conto che il diritto all’autodeterminazione è inviolabile e sacrosanto? Quante altre madri dovranno piangere i propri figli prima che ci si accorga che la violenza e la brutalità non riusciranno a sradicare il desiderio di libertà?

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