The photo that wasn’t there

NMA motto copy

Afghanistan National Museum Motto

Yesterday I went for lunch at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University to see Nancy Dupree. I count the pleasure of her company among the most precious gifts I received from this city. We spent a couple of hours together and we ate an enormous plate of garlic beans and a bowl of sour yogurt.

Nancy is an amazing raconteur and an inexhaustible source of enchanting stories: her intimate knowledge of the country offers, to those who have the privilege to listen, a vertiginous journey across space and time.

Over the years, it never happened to me to spend some time with her and leave without a memorable story to cherish and remember.

Yesterday, when I arrived to her office, she was working on a photo-gallery about the pre-historic tools that are part of the collection of the National Museum. As a cover image for the gallery she wanted to use a photo of the façade of the museum before it was destroyed during the Civil War. She told me she went looking in her extensive photo archive and to her great surprise she could not find any image of that kind. She then went to see the director of the museum to ask him for a copy from their own archives, but he said they did not have any even there. Ever more surprised, she reached out to those who were in town in those years or could have had access to documents of that time. Nothing. It seems that before the Civil War no one considered taking a photo of the façade.

Her story ended there and our conversation moved on, but the thought of the photo that wasn’t there stayed with me.

There are so many moments and details that, there and then, appear entirely unremarkable. There are so many things that we take for granted and let slip away without thinking twice. It is strange to think that these details can then come back unannounced and reveal themselves through their absence in an unexpected future. It is strange to think that they end up becoming witnesses of a past that has left no visual trace.

La foto che non c’era

NMA motto copy

Afghanistan National Museum Motto

Ieri sono stata a pranzo all’Afghanistan Center at Kabul University da Nancy Dupree. Conto il piacere della sua compagnia fra i doni più preziosi di questa città. Abbiamo passato due ore insieme e abbiamo mangiato un piatto smisurato di fagioli all’aglio e una ciotola di yogurt.

Nancy è una grande narratrice e una fonte inesauribile di storie appassionanti, la sua conoscenza intima del paese offre a chi ha il privilegio di ascoltare un viaggio vertiginoso nel tempo e nello spazio.

Nel corso degli anni, non mi è mai capitato di lasciarla dopo un po’ di tempo passato insieme senza una storia memorabile da conservare.

Ieri, quando sono arrivata nel suo studio, stava lavorando ad una galleria fotografica sugli strumenti preistorici conservati al Museo Nazionale. Come immagine di copertina voleva usare una foto della facciata del museo prima che fosse distrutto durante la guerra civile. Nei giorni scorsi ha cercato nel suo archivio fotografico e con sua grande sorpresa si è accorta di non avere nessuna immagine di questo genere. Mi ha raccontato di essere andata a trovare il direttore del museo per chiedere a lui una copia dai loro archivi, ma niente neanche lì. Sempre più sorpresa e incuriosita, ha mandato messaggi e chiamato tutti quelli che in quegli anni erano in città o potevano aver avuto accesso a documenti di quel periodo. Niente. Pare che prima della guerra civile nessuno si sia preoccupato di fare una fotografia alla facciata.

Il racconto è finito lì e la a conversazione ha poi preso un’altra direzione, ma il pensiero di questa foto che non c’è è rimasto con me. Strano pensare a quanti momenti e quanti dettagli là per là non sembrano affatto degni di nota, quante cose diamo per scontate e tralasciamo senza considerazione. Strano pensare come questi dettagli poi possano ritornare e rivelarsi nella loro assenza, in un futuro inaspettato, come testimoni di un passato di cui non restano tracce visive.

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.
Pellet-scars-Mir-Suhail-Aug-12-2016

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 cup of salty tea

I don’t understand those who don’t understand that politics comes also from the belly. Beyond the viscerality of a political existence, for me there are always contingent factors that, by chance or by necessity, bring me back to the reasons of what I chose and the values for which I live.

Today the occasion has been 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 about it with one of my colleagues, he comes from Hunza a 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, he made it for me for breakfast. What he calls shur chai is a version (with butter and without baking soda) of what I know as noon chai and what for me represents the flavour of Kashmir.

As I was sipping from my cup, with my head in Kabul and my heart in Srinagar, he filled a bowl with bites of old bread, poured tea over it and ate it as a soup, nostalgically thinking of the breakfasts of his childhood.

My cup of shur chai made me face what I have been avoiding for days.

It has been for the past forty-three days that I have felt the need to write about what is happening in Kashmir, but every passing day made finding the words more difficult. I kept procrastinating and my guilt kept growing as I felt that my silence was becoming a form of complicity.  

For the past forty-three days the Valley has been under siege. After the killing of a young rebel commander fighting against Indian rule in the name of self-determination, Kashmir took it to the streets and India responded with an iron fist and unprecedented and unimaginable violence. In forty-three days almost seventy people have been killed and hundreds have been hit, mostly in the eye, by pellet guns. Quite literally, the Indian Army is systematically removing the possibility of looking at the future in a manner that differs from what is envisaged by those in power. Over the past few days, curfew has been extended to both day and night, making it almost impossible even to buy milk. The day before yesterday they prevented the distribution of petrol and an ambulance driver was shot at as he was taking several wounded people to the hospital.

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? Last 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 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.

Gulkhana

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It is hot. I sweat slowly.

Deciding to come back to Kabul has been difficult: from afar, the idea of gathering enough strength to face the journey is overwhelming, something that seems beyond actual capability.

But then, it only takes a second: the doors of the plane open and Kabul welcomes you with her typical heatwave, with that sultry air that smells of dust and that, for some obscure reason, makes you feel at home. It only takes a second and the city, with her inexplicable charm, absorbs you and makes you part of her again – seamlessly.

Kabul is always the same, yet this time everything seems different. There is a sense of tiredness that, for the first time in many years, is dramatically tangible. I spent the whole of last week adding names to the long list of those who have left the country. Those who can, leave: exhausted by war and the lack of a horizon. In a country without a present like Afghanistan, this brain-drain is a death sentence for the future.

Yesterday a good friend, one of the most talented young artists in town, wrote me to say that he hopes to come and show me his new drawings soon. He went on updating me about the fact that he was not entirely happy with the progress of his work: for several months he could not draw as he ran out of paper. Luckily, he added, he had gone on a trip to Pakistan with his family and hence could buy more paper and resume drawing. The matter of fact tone with which he wrote stayed with me: there was no resentment. This is how things are here, 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 I should probably re-start as well.

My new office is in the greenhouse of one of the most beautiful old buildings in Kabul: it stayed surprisingly intact despite decades of bombs. In Dari, the greenhouse is called gulkhana, the flowers’ house. At this time of the year, its heat is unbearable, but I specifically asked to sit there: I thought it would be a beautiful starting point. My desk is surrounded by windows and flooded with light: it is torrid in this season, but it carries the promise of a gentle warmth during the long winter. I look around and I am happy about the choice I made. It makes sense to be here: it makes sense to be here now. It makes sense, but I wonder how to feed the determination to keep going with what may somehow seem an ungrateful task: to work towards the future with no guarantee of immediate results in the present. The promise and the vision of a broader perspective that goes beyond contingencies is certainly a source of motivation, but finding the root of that motivation in the little everyday steps is another matter. I hope I’ll stay lucid enough to be able to keep reminding it to myself.

The windows of he gulkhana face the garden, which is never barren as it has been designed around the cycle of seasons, around the tireless, round pace of time: simple, unpretentious wisdom that has a lot to teach.

This post was published on The News on the 26th of July 2016.

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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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.

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.