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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To Resist is to Exist

images50 years ago, the revolutionary masterpiece The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. To mark the anniversary, the film has been restaured and CG Entertainment launched a campaign to published this new edition (in Italian). To support the initiative, they asked me to engage in a conversation with this great work of art. My thougths are below and this is the link to support the campaign.

 

We live in dark times, in a precarious equilibrium between fear and inurement. The big engine of the empire huffs and puffs, hit at its core by lone wolves and organised terrorists. The chasm between us and them grows wider, defined by shortcuts and superficial understandings that seem convincing because are worded in the incontestable language of reassuring populism. We live in dark times that are nurtured by historical courses and recourses: History does not teach, human kind does not learn from past mistakes, the thirst for revenge is more satisfying than the desire for transformation. The dystopia of the present builds isolating and fragmentary geographies, designed in the negative and founded on divisions. In this grim picture, instead of the possibility of encounters, the only thing that seems to multiply are separating devices and mechanisms of exclusion: concrete walls, thousand-eyed drones, coils of barbed wire.  

Read the full article on With Kashmir 

A good person

The last few weeks have been quite difficult and emotionally exhausting. I went through a rough patch and ended up being face to face with the tangible risk of becoming the person I don’t want to be: impatient, detached and surrounded by a big, black cloud of bad mood.

However trite it may sound, it proved to be true that you need to be confronted by darkness in order to recognise the light.

The result of the exhaustion of the past days has been in fact that I finally understood that my main objective in life is to be a good person. It may sound naive, but in this historical conjuncture I believe it may turn into a radical political choice: not giving in to fear and suspicion, keeping a curious, open and allowing attitude.

I think such a choice may represent the sole root to cultivate in order to transform our social dimension and contribute in a constructive manner to rethinking the sphere of the collective. This is perhaps the only way to emancipate ourselves from economic and political models that channel us towards a grey and faceless uniformity.

I am thinking about my parents’ decision to retreat to a simple life, I am thinking about my sister’s professional choices based on respect and inclusiveness irrespective of visible and invisible differences.

The investment on integrity, both at the level of the person and that of the practice, is the only way to survive these terrible times and to resist the vulgarity of shoutings, spitted hate and violence.

We were discussing it last night with Sandi Hilal in one of our very special transoceanic conversations. The great challenge for our future is to keep cultivating the courage to leave the doors of our houses open, to keep investing on hospitality and exchange. The difficult step is to realise that this personal choice becomes a civic responsibility, that the way we choose to live our today has immense political repercussions.

The biggest ambition is therefore to be a good person – while regaining the courage not to worry about being out of fashion.

(Dedicated to Sandi Hilal)

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.
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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 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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A Contemporary Arts Library in Kabul?

As some of you may already know, in the past year I have helped Berang Arts, a collective of young artists, to set up a small, independent Contemporary Arts Academy in Kabul.

We’ve now decided to move one step further and we want to try and set up an art library and specialised resource centre that artists can access and use for their research. This is a non-NGO funded initiative, it springs out of our time, enthusiasm and commitment.

As there is no international donor to fund this, we are looking for friends and patrons who are willing to support us – by donating a book, getting your friends to donate books or, for those who come and go from Afghanistan, make some space in their suitcase to help bring books in.

We are looking for books on contemporary arts and related subjects in English and Persian. Any contribution will be very very welcome!

Please get in touch if you want to know more [ kiccovich (@) gmail (.) com] and feel free to pass my email on to those who may be interested in contributing.

Thanks for your support!

 

 

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.

***

Srinagar_01

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.