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.

Eyes, roads and barbed wire

This piece was first published in Kashmir Reader on June 14th, 2012.

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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.

The broken city – Political observations on the built environment

This article was first published in Domus, no. 967 (2013): 114-123.

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From the vantage point of a ramshackle tea stall on the south side of Hari Parbat Hill, the view over Srinagar— the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, India—is breathtaking: eagles flying above the skyline, snowcapped mountains on the horizon and an endless sequence of sloping tin roofs, interrupted only by the towering spires of the many mosques.

Hari Parbat is in itself a remarkable summary of the city’s complexity. On top of the hill stands a majestic fort, whose construction was first conceived and initiated by Emperor Akbar in the 1590s, and then completed in the 18th century by the Afghan governor of Kashmir. Just below the fort is the Makhdoom Sahib Dargah, the tomb and shrine of the eponymous Sufi saint and one of the holiest places in the valley, revered by both Muslims and Hindus. Indeed, Hindus consider the hill to be especially sacred due to the presence of the Sharika Devi Temple dedicated to the goddess Shakti, an embodiment of the goddess Durga, who is both a maternal figure and a bearer of destructive male energy. On the way up to the hill there is also the Akhund Mullah Shah Masjid, an abandoned mosque dating from the Mughal era. As well as having domes instead of spires, it is also one of the very few mosques that were historically built in stone rather than the vernacular wooden structure. People say that the Akhund Mullah Shah Masjid has hardly ever been used for worship, and there are two versions of this story: some say it was because the place was possessed by the djinns—naughty or angry genies—while others claim that it was an act of resistance against the foreign Mughal domination.

Hari Parbat Hill is a microcosmic representation of the complex nature of the city of Srinagar and of the whole Valley of Kashmir. It is a palimpsest of layers: multiple narratives and times across religions, identities and dominations. It holds both the power of the popular imagination of Kashmir as a site of pristine natural beauty (which, as historian Mridu Rai argues, is often rhetorically constructed as emptied of people) and the controversial meanings of the idea of Kashmiriyat (or Kashmiri-ness, an essential notion of what it means to be Kashmiri) beyond religious or sectarian belonging. The physical stratification of architectural styles, religious rituals and historical sites triggers questions on how the built environment can be interpreted in order to understand intricate stories that have several, and often contrasting versions. When asked how we can link the current situation of simmering political tensions with a parallel narrative of cherished cultural cohabitation and mutual influence, Professor M.H. Zafar, the former director of the Institute of Kashmir Studies at the University of Kashmir, told us that interrogating architecture is a good way to begin to understand. “Architecture does not wear its meaning on its sleeves,” he said. “It is a subtle matter that requires observation in order to understand the multiplicity of stories that it tells.” This multiplicity encompasses tales of subversion and experimentation, as well as conservative strategies of preservation.

Heritage and historical architecture, in fact, can also be appropriated and used to produce a pacified vision of controversial presents. In Kashmir, the discourse around its long-standing syncretic tradition is exemplary in this respect: contrasting parties have adopted this notion in ways that are instrumental to either communal political agendas or to comfortably preserving the precariously balanced status quo. Syncretic architecture is introduced in the discussion as physical evidence of a harmonious past in which all religions lived in peace, and it is only due to the radicalisation of their opponent—alternatively Muslims or Hindus, depending on who is speaking—that this harmony has now become compromised or even lost.

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Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 9.53.07 AMThis recollection of an ideal past is easily translated into an invitation to forget the stone (pelters) of the present and concentrate on the architecturally meaningful stones of the past. In political terms, this attitude shifts the emphasis to tourism, on the natural beauty of the Valley of Kashmir, on the richness of its cultural and culinary traditions, and becomes a clever instrument used by the Indian government to distract both visitors and detractors from the fact that Kashmir is actually one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world.

This is quite a striking detail if we consider that Kashmir is officially not a war zone.

The built environment in situations of conflict is often neglected as a possible exegetic source—it is treated as a victim, accounted for as one of the many casualties, but hardly ever addressed as a witness or a repository of memories and testimonies. This is, however, an incapacitating intellectual position that overlooks the fact that the built environment does not lie, but instead preserves the evidence of facts and stories that ideological discourses may try to efface. Following the omnipresent global argument of security, and its localised version of protection of cultural minorities and their heritage, the Indian army has appropriated temples and cultural centres across Kashmir, wrapped them in razor wire and practically transformed them into military bases. It is visually revealing to take a walk through Lal Chowk—the heart of Srinagar, a busy bazaar-like commercial hub and one of the places that has historically hosted both official political events and opposition demonstrations—and from there to the Old City. The signs of military appropriation of the civil urban space do not use a subtle language and are part of the visual landscape of Srinagar’s present and recent past. By the scenic Amira Kadal Bridge, where Kashmiri women have kept the fishmonger’s trade alive despite decades of political unrest, lies the Hanuman Mandir, a prominent Hindu temple dedicated to the monkey god. Nowadays, the temple is manned by a Kalashnikov-wielding sentry. Surrounded by barbed wire, it houses the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), who protect it from potential Islamist attacks and use the spires of its domes to stretch out washing lines to dry their uniforms. Not too far away, in downtown Srinagar, Firdous Cinema Hall tells a more hopeful story: after being occupied by the army for more than 20 years, and being turned into a security camp in 2005, the CRPF returned it to the civilian population in December 2011. Eight other cinemas, however, are still used for military and paramilitary purposes, as are a further seventy-nine hotels. According to KashmirWatch, a branch of the Europe based Kashmir International Research Centre (KIRC), in the past 8 years the army in its various capacities has cleared out of about 1,300 private and public buildings, but, as of early April 2012, 1,800 are still under their control.

Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), the poet who more than anyone else managed to express the unique mixture of beauty and brutality that seems to be the essence of the Valley of Kashmir, wrote extensively about Srinagar. Through decades and centuries, the city’s built environment has incorporated the landmarks of cohabitation, syncretism, anger, defeat and resistance. It tells stories of communal harmony as well as tales of struggle and dissent. It carries the wounds and scars of the savage military occupation of civil public space. It echoes the words of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem A Pastoral 196:

We shall meet again, in Srinagar,
by the gates of the Villa of Peace,
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear. Again we’ll enter
our last world, the first that vanished
in our absence from the broken city.

This article is dedicated to Parvaiz Bukhari

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.