Here is a short interview recorded last year during the Design and Social Transformation programme in Barcelona.
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.
Agha 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.
It 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.
This article was initially published in Domus 958 in May 2012.
The Autonomous Region of Kurdistan has in recent years been in the news as the “Other Iraq”. In 2011, National Geographic described it as an oasis of peace and development, and The New York Times placed it 34th out of 41 best travel destinations— beating Miami, which finished up in last place. In reality, the region is not so much a tourist attraction as it is land prized by multinational and private investors. After Saddam Hussein’s bloody ethnic persecution, a decade of armed conflict between Iraq and Iran, two wars to export democracy, and one civil war, Iraqi Kurdistan today is striding towards a new state of political and economic stability. Its long history of war and violence has left indelible marks and scars. At the same time, however, it has created a unique situation characterised by openness and opportunity. The future is all there to be invented, there is plenty of scope for experimentation, and the direction to be followed can still be chosen. Erbil, the regional government capital and one of the world’s most ancient cities, inhabited without interruption for thousands of years, is an extraordinary example of that condition. One of the principal artifices of this growth is Nawzad Hadi, governor of Erbil since 2004. In a recent interview, with the clarity of a visionary he illustrated to me the steps required to fulfil what he calls a great dream: the building of a city worthy of being an international capital, “a new Dubai”. That is no mean statement, considering that Kurdistan is not even an officially recognised state. “I am doing it for my people, who deserve it after years of oppression.” The magnitude of Nawzad Hadi’s challenge is quite incredible. It began with the asphalting of roads and the guarantee of standard access to water and electricity, continued with the completion and implementation of a master plan and the prospect of a green belt around the city, and is now on its way to transforming Erbil into an economic and commercial hub. In an explosive mixture of individual profit and common good, the governor has embraced the city’s historic and cultural profile as the symbol of this rebirth. He has started a restoration of the Citadel, Erbil’s ancient heart, by working with UNESCO to have it included in the list of World Heritage Sites. At the same time, with an eye to the international trends of the architecture star system, he appointed Daniel Libeskind to design a museum of Kurdish memory, an audio-visual project for the historical and narrative reconstruction of the Kurdish genocide. Work on the museum is scheduled to commence this year.
The Autonomous Region of Kurdistan chose Erbil as the emblematic image of its capacity for self-government, and in this case investment in its urban growth has been notably political. Through the concession of land-tax benefits and structural support, the regional government is encouraging the circulation of private capital. This has made a significant impact on the city’s development and building prospects. In the past five years the world’s biggest corporations have staked claims in the city, luxury hotels have multiplied, and new residential complexes have sprung up suggesting the possibility of exclusive lifestyles and their desirability. Dream City, Empire City, English Village, Royal City, Vital City and Italian Village are gated communities now occupying a large slice of Erbil’s outer ring road, not far from the construction site of the Marriot Hotel and from the 23-storey Hotel Divan tower. Erbil’s economic prosperity is just one of the multiple sides of this transition to a mature state of democracy. Traces of years of conflict—and the fact that virtually all investment has been confined to the growth of this capital city—are on the other hand dramatically evident in the rest of the region. Contrasting the enthusiasm of this new prosperity are the mountain villages and refugee camps where resilience and the art of making ends meet are means of ensuring survival. Wlaxlw is a village of about 50 mud-and-stone houses, on the border between Iraq and Iran. Its geographical position made it a constant target of bombardment during the war between the two countries. To this day it is surrounded by the aftermath of that conflict in the shape of missiles, bullets and bombshells, ammunition boxes and helmets. Over the past 20 years the inhabitants of Wlaxlw have made a virtue of necessity, by utilising the debris and rubble as building material for their postwar reconstruction. Thus Katyusha rockets have become support beams for ceilings or pillars for pergolas, missile casings are converted into drainpipes, and helmets (those without bullet holes at forehead level) are used as flowerpots or to collect rainwater, while landmine warning signs serve as firewood props, and ammunition boxes sunk into the ground provide steps to the higher part of the village. Wlaxlw is a cross-section of an amazing world, a bizarre combination of a post-apocalyptic landscape and an oil painting by an 18th-century orientalist. But it is not the only example of the contradictoriness of these coexistences. Stories of this kind are illustrated by the various army buildings once occupied by Saddam Hussein’s troops stationed in Kurdistan. From the end of 1996, at the height of the civil war, these structures began to be converted into “villages”, complete with mosques, small shops and elementary schools. Ma’asker Salam, Top Khane and Raparin are three such villages, located a few kilometres from Sulaymaniyah, the second largest city in the Automous Region of Kurdistan. Ma’asker Salam is where Saddam’s army stables were situated. Today, some 300 families have found accommodation there. Not far away is Top Khane, a group of 12 buildings formerly used as an arms depot and now occupied by another 300 families. Raparin, located closer to the city centre, was in Sadam’s day a large industrial complex used to produce and repair weapons. Today it hosts a maze of self-built huts, inhabited by some 70 families. By a curious twist of fate, what were once the building-symbols of the Ba’athist regime’s military oppression have been transformed into a safe haven for hundreds of families, the place of refuge they call home, while waiting (with ever diminishing faith) for the politicians to keep their promises of compensation and assignment of public housing. During this long wait of more than 15 years, the old army buildings have changed their appearance as a result of spontaneous actions by inhabitants. Using improvised materials and traditional construction techniques, they have gradually turned this political aberration into something more like a familiar and hospitable landscape. Haji Mahmoud and Nadja, two residents of Ma’asker Salam, recount that local and international NGOs helped refugees to settle into the abandoned military structures. At Ma’asker Salam, the stables were initially divided by makeshift walls into rooms to accommodate one or more families each. In the course of time and with a growing awareness that the situation would take years and not months to be resolved, the inhabitants of these permanently temporary villages began to expand. They partitioned the rooms assigned to them in order to meet the needs of their families and to create more comfortable living conditions.
Nadja lives in a corner house and changes the colour of its interior three times a year. With her husband she has laid out a garden, its flowerbeds bordered with stones and broken bricks. There are also three trees, grown from the kernels of fruit and each planted to mark the birth of her three daughters. “All I’d like is a nice house,” she says, “nothing more”. With snow-capped mountains on the horizon, the landscape of Ma’asker Salam and Top Khane has a surreal look. The picturesque impression of mountain villages clashes with memories of a cruel and dramatic past which the inhabitants have not yet managed to cast off. The old stable buildings at Ma’asker Salam are today barely visible. Covered with satellite dishes, they are now a mass of irregular dwellings built from cement blocks, stone and rough earth bricks, and wrapped in coloured striped plastic sheets for winter insulation. In a surprising combination of improvisation, recycling and vernacular architecture, remnants of plastic and metal mark out Haji Mahmoud’s garden, where birds are kept off by scarecrows made of snipped plastic bags. In the courtyard next door, his son and daughter-in-law have built a pergola with the wooden poles of building sites, while their neighbour has used the door of a derelict car as the gate to a courtyard surrounded by a dry wall. Between the sushi bar on the 21st floor of a 5-star hotel in downtown Erbil and the Katyusha rockets used as construction material in Wlaxlw, observing the anthropised landscape can be an outstanding means of interpreting what is often, abstractly, defined as a postwar dimension. The iniquitous distribution of wealth derived from the postwar reconstruction efforts has left indisputable signs of the temporality of a twisting and frequently obstacle-strewn path. In Iraqi Kurdistan, improvisation and resilience are the other side of the coin to massive urban development and the dream of becoming the next Dubai. Torn between far-sightedness, forgetfulness and selective memory, territory is revealed as neither a neutral nor an innocent platform, on which political debate and intervention are staged and the future takes shape.
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.
A couple of weeks ago I was in San Francisco and had the great pleasure of meeting Nick Sowers.
Nick defines himself as someone who “constructs space with sound” and we soon found ourselves talking about space (obviously), cities, walking and everything urban. We talked about how sounds and noises influence the perception of our surroundings and the role they play in terms of memory and orientation.
That’s when I told him that I have written for The Little Book of Kabul a musical score for a construction site. This piece was originally conceived as a fully fledged sinfonietta (that the amazing composer Giovanni Dettori checked for musical and compositional accuracy). For reasons of space it became a much shorter piece, but it is a fundamental part of the book anyway.
I had visited the construction site of what would become Rahim Walizada‘s Design Cafe in Kabul several times. I took notes and spoke to people, but then after a while I was at loss for stimuli: didn’t know how to interact with the place anymore and was getting pretty bored. I then decided to sit in the corner, listen and write down all the sounds I could hear, their intensity and where they were coming from. I didn’t have anything specific in mind back then, but when I went through my notes months later while writing the book, I realised it was an incredible opportunity to experiment with writing and explore different ways of describing spatial relations.
I told all this to Nick, we understood we spoke the same language and he invited me to join him in his sound studio and asked me if if was OK with him trying to make my musical score play. I was completely thrilled.
His studio is a remarkable little place where he set up a sound device that allows you to experience the three-dimensionality of space through sound. We didn’t have much time, but we played around and we could both feel that there something there that was worth chasing.
As we parted ways, Nick told me that he wanted to spend more time with those sounds and make something out of it. The idea made me really happy: there was the chance for my words to morph, to take body in a different shape and substance. I don’t think I could have asked for anything better.
A few days later, Nick got back to me and sent me his reinterpretation of my music score.
(You can read his take on our encounter here)
When my sister Susanna Recchia, who is a dance artist, listened to Nick’s piece, she immediately said that she would love to try and use it for one of her performances. This is yet to happen, but I am really hoping that it would soon become a further chance of collaboration and one new embodiment of experimenting with words, sounds and space.