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.

Una tazza di te salato

Non capisco chi non capisce che la politica passa anche dalla pancia. Oltre alla visceralità dell’esistenza politica, per me ci sono anche sempre fattori contingenti che, per caso o per necessità, mi riconducono al perché di quello che ho scelto e di quello che per cui vivo.

Oggi l’occasione è stata una tazza di te salato, tipico del Kashmir e delle valli himalayane al di qua e al di là del confine contestato tra India e Pakistan.

Un paio di giorni fa ne parlavo con uno dei miei colleghi; lui viene da Hunza, una valle a 2500 metri d’altitudine nell’estremo nord del Pakistan. Discutevamo di variazioni regionali nelle ricette, di abitudini e tradizioni del te salato. Sapendo che mi piace molto, me lo ha preparato stamattina per colazione. Quello che lui chiama shur chai è una versione (con il burro e senza il bicarbonato) di quello che io conosco come noon chai e che per me rappresenta il sapore che associo col Kashmir. Mentre io bevevo la mia tazza, con la testa a Kabul e il cuore a Srinagar, lui ha riempito una ciotola con pezzi di pane vecchio, poi ha versato il te e lo ha mangiato come una zuppa, pensando con nostalgia alle colazioni di quando era bambino.

La mia tazza di shur chai mi ha messo di fronte a quello che da giorni cercavo di evitare.

Sono quarantatré giorni che sento il bisogno di scrivere di quanto sta succedendo in Kashmir, ma ogni giorno che passa rende più difficile trovare le parole. Ho continuato a procrastinare, incapace di affrontare l’impensabilità di tanto orrore. E con ogni giorno che passa cresce il senso di colpa perché sento che il mio silenzio diventa complice.

Sono quarantatré giorni che la Valle è sotto assedio. Dopo l’uccisione del giovane comandante di uno dei gruppi ribelli che combattono il controllo indiano in nome dell’autodeterminazione, il Kashmir è insorto e l’India ha risposto col pugno di ferro. Con una violenza inaudita e difficile da comprendere. In quarantatré giorni sono state uccise quasi settanta persone e centinaia sono state colpite, per lo più agli occhi, da fucili ad aria compressa. Fuor di metafora, l’esercito indiano sta sistematicamente rimuovendo la possibilità di guardare al futuro in maniera diversa da quella immaginata da chi sta al potere. Nei giorni scorsi il coprifuoco è stato esteso tanto al giorno che alla notte, rendendo praticamente impossibile anche solo comperare il latte. L’altro ieri è stata impedita la distribuzione di carburante e hanno sparato all’autista di un’ambulanza che trasportava dei feriti all’ospedale. Penso ai miei amici lì, a chi ha un posto molto speciale nel mio cuore, alle madri degli adolescenti che protestano per le strade. Alla rabbia, alla paura, al diritto di scegliere e di decidere per se stessi.

Come si scrive di tutto questo? Dove si trovano le parole? Oggi un amico mi ha detto che scrivere è inutile perché in tempi come questi non ci resta niente da aggiungere. Forse è vero, non ci sono parole che possano dare la misura dell’orrore e quello che scrivo è irrilevante, ma mai come adesso il silenzio mi sembra colpevole.

A volte vorrei tanto vivere in un mondo semplice in cui una tazza di te salato potesse essere sufficiente per cominciare a cambiare le cose.

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.

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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.

A Wealth of Voices in Kashmir

About a year ago, Rich Autumns and I started discussing about the blog-sphere in Kashmir. It was before my trip to Srinagar, I thought I would use some of the time of my visit and meet bloggers and feel the pulse of the place.

A few hours after I arrived in Srinagar the snow came, loads of snow, so the plan faded, but I consoled myself with the good company of friends and cup after cup of noon chai.

Just before the end of 2014, the debate around blogging in Kashmir sparked again on Twitter – following the momentum, Rich and I decided to get back to our list, a modest one of maybe twenty-five links or so. Within a few hours, we decided to make the list public and look for contribution from those who were taking part in the discussion online.

To our greatest surprise, suggestions and recommendations started to flood in with great enthusiasm. Haamid Peerzada has been particularly helpful and without his contribution the list would have not taken the shape that it has today: almost two hundred names!

The list can be found here and it is still very much a work in progress. My hope is that I can make sometime soon to write a proper review of what we’ve found, for now I am thrilled at having stumbled upon an immense treasure: a wealth of voices and a great desire for expression, which feels me with hope in such a delicate political moment in the Valley.

 

A journey to the Other Iraq

This article was initially published in Domus 958 in May 2012.

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Photo Credit: Sebastian Meyer

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.

Devices for Political Action

Photo Credit: dpr-barcelona

Photo Credit: dpr-barcelona

My new e-book with a brilliant photo-essay by Leo Novel is finally out!

Devices for Political Action. The Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan looks at the case of Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan as an example of how State interventions on the ground are often instruments utilised to implement broader political plans. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s the Iraqi government made full use of spatial planning as a constitutive part of the strategy of “dealing with the Kurdish problem”.

The Ba’ath regime adopted urban planning and space design as social engineering devices in its larger scheme of shaping society into a more homogenous and simplified form.

The Iraqi government used the combination of ethnopolitics and a centralised ideology of modernisation to heavily intervene in the management and design of territory, causing a systematic disruption of local knowledge and practices.

The book is part of dpr-barcelona’s Emancipatory Space Series and can be purchased here.