We Are Not Talking About Ashis Nandy – JLF 2013

[Guest post by Hannah Green. Green is a writer and student learning Urdu (and Hindi) in Lucknow, India. She got her Bachelor’s from Northwestern University in June 2012. Her writings have appeared on ThinkProgress, 3 Quarks Daily, and Racialicious. Here is a link to some of her other work, and to a very unfinished website.]

Gayatri Spivak discusses the subaltern
Gayatri Spivak discusses the subaltern

 Whose 21st century?

I didn’t know whether to be inspired or depressed by Mahasweta Devi’s keynote speech. You could hear the length of the iconic Bengali writer and activist’s life in the way she talked. You could hear the effort with which she pulled her most distant memories to the surface, as clearly as though she had just experienced them. Each of her sentences left a stark image in your head, but grouped together they didn’t seem to make a single point or leave me with a single emotion.

The fact that she was as an old woman was part of the introductory speech before she got on stage. Her introducer explained that just before coming, she’d had several injections. During her speech, she moved from memory to memory as though by free association, the way a lot of old people do, although with much more beautifully arranged words. She began by saying how not long ago, life had seemed to hold many more possibilities than it did now. I couldn’t tell if she was speaking for herself or for the world.

“I am repeating myself, repeating what has been, what is,” she told us. I couldn’t tell which was more vivid for her, the past or the present. She talked about her political beliefs, the suicide of her first lover, the irrepressible physical attractiveness she’d possessed in her youth. From her speech, I got the sense that she had felt full of hope at times in her life, but that she was not really satisfied with the state of the world or even her own accomplishments. Her involvement with the communist party and the political movements of India had not managed to suppress the hypocrisy of the Indian Middle Class or the arrogance of those who had declared themselves the first world. Our future could be as vivid as the most hopeful moments of her past. That we could fulfill all the possibilities that she had not managed to. The speech set the stage for the rest of the day, where people reminisced about the past, moved it from place to place, and even suggested, maybe without meaning to, that it would be better to go back there.

William Dalrymple on The Return of the King
William Dalrymple on The Return of the King

During the various events, whether the subject was the future of the novel, or Afghanistan, or Hindustani language, a lot of famous people lamented the present state of the world. They were full of nostalgia for a past when people appreciated literature and had long attention spans to read long novels, or when Afghanistan’s warlords weren’t being supported by the American government, or when everyone spoke one Hindustani language where they selected the most beautiful words from Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, and everyone liked the way it sounded.

I was surprised at how often I heard people suggest that the past of the West was the future of the East. In these reflections, they always seemed to wish that the Western world was more connected to the past that they said continued to live in the East. Given that the festival was taking place in India, it seemed somewhat brazenly Euro-centric to say, for example, as Edward Giradet did during a panel on the future of Afghanistan, that in Afghanistan one foot was still in the 19th century, not adding that what he meant was Europe’s 19th century. Giradet, the British journalist who had happily wandered through the mountains of Afghanistan during the 1980s, seemed pretty unhappy with what England and especially the United States governments were doing to the country he felt had transported him to a different century. During another panel on “the future of the Novel”, Zoe Heller, writer of Notes on a Scandal, lamented the diving sales of novels in the Western world. She refused to take comfort from the fact that in India, novel sales are spiking, because the future of America was the future of the entire globe. Tim Supple, speaking during a session on “The Global Shakespeare”, described his experience of producing a multilingual version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in India. He said that he was thrilled to have the opportunity to stage a Shakespeare play in India, because it allowed him to connect to “the other half” of Shakespeare- the ancient half, which modern England could only manage to ignore. Supple felt that Shakespeare in England had become superficial as directors attempted to find new ways to costume the same plays- by making the fairies into punks, for example. By staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream in India, he felt he was able to connect the play back to the ritualistic, ancient past of Shakespeare, to the “higher and the lower human reality.” 

At the end of the day, I thought that Javed Akhtar made the best point about literature and the past and the future: “so on one hand, it is always deeply rooted in its own soil and its own time. On the other hand, it’s a universal. This is paradoxical, contradictory, but … Voh apne samay main bilkul sach hai. Apne samay main uski jammein bilkul gaheri hai. Lekin voh har samay ke liyai hoti hai.” (It’s quite true to its own time, the embedding in its own time is quite deep. But it’s for all times.) Perhaps Akhtar has more freedom to say this, as he knows how to express himself in new mediums (film) as well as old (poetic forms, like the ghazal.) His speech acknowledged the fact that it is the responsibility of literature to remain relevant, and not the responsibility of society to hold onto old literature.

Javed Akhtar on the monitor
Javed Akhtar on the monitor

 Women In Film: Celebration or Commodification?

Since the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old in Delhi sparked outrage over women’s rights across India, I’ve heard one topic become the subject of hot debate on multiple occasions: The “item song.” One of my Urdu teachers described the item song as a music video that has nothing to do with the plot of the movie, but which the movie needs to become a superhit. “Item girls” similarly, usually do not have any role in the movie except to sing and dance in the item song. Two famous examples come from Dabang and Dabang 2. “Munni Badnaam Hui” features Malika Arora, and “Fevicol Se”, Kareena Kapoor. Especially recently, item songs tend to feature scantily clad women singing lyrics with strong sexual overtones.

At the Jaipur Liteature Festival, the Delhi rape has also inspired discussion of women’s issues, including the portrayal of women in film. During one session titled “Sex and Sensibility: Women in Cinema”, actress Shabana Azmi, and screenwriter/lyricist Sanjoy Roy passionately discussed and debated the commodification of women. Azmi believes that is a good thing to celebrate the sexuality of women, but not so to commodify her. So where do you draw the line? Images that fragment a woman’s body take away her identity, she said. A shot of a heaving chest or a gyrating navel is commodification.

I thought that she had a point, but what can be done about this? Should the film board censor certain camera angles and not others? Something else that she said bothered me as well. According to her, actresses who decide to feature in item numbers are kidding themselves if they think they’re making informed choices about what they’re doing. Azmi said she’s had conversations with such actresses where she convinced them to rethink their decisions by implying that their music was responsible for the molestation of children. When a six-year-old child dances and sings the words “Main to tandoori murgi hoon yaar Gatkaa le saiyyan alcohol se” (I’m chicken tandoori, lover. Swallow me with alcohol.), then isn’t this to blame for the sexualiztion of the child? No, I thought, anyone who looks at a six year old doing or saying anything and thinks of them as sexual is responsible. Or, if you don’t want the child to be exposed to such songs, then you should keep the children specifically away from them.

But I have another reason to want to defend item songs.  I tend to like them. I like the energetic and fluid choreography; I like the sense of humor and coyness in their style. But when I think about it, I have to realize that I might be more than a little brain washed too. Because I grew up listening to hits that were not unlike item songs. In my third grade music class we got to listen to a list of “top ten” songs that we made ourselves every week, as a treat. One song that we would frequently sing along to, in a classroom setting, was Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle.” The refrain goes like this:

If you wanna be with me, baby there’s a price to pay

I’m a genie in a bottle. You gotta rub me the right way.

If you wanna be with me, I can make your wish come true.

You gotta make a big impression. I gotta like what you do.

When I was 18, I looked back on those lyrics and was surprised at how sexual they are. (Now that I’m thinking about them again, I’m surprised at how Orientalist they are.) And while I still would never go so far to say that such lyrics and the images that go with them are responsible for rape, they definitely influence the way we see ourselves, especially if we internalize them in our formative years. So there is a kind of sexual power that I admire and like to see in music videos that I enjoy seeing in item songs also. And this has nothing to do with me thinking “Oh, I bet men really love her” and everything to do with the potential power of someone’s individual personality and identity. (Other examples of songs like this include “Hips Don’t Lie” and “Bootylicious.”) But I have to recognize that I value this particular kind of individual power because of the American society I grew up in, and I can understand why someone wouldn’t want this kind of thinking to creep too much into their culture when it places such a disproportionate value on looks and sex.

It’s impossible to escape the way your culture changes the way you see the world. Azmi admitted that when she started her career, she did not always make informed choices. Only after receiving heavy criticism for her film did she start to think more carefully about which roles she would play. In the film Thodi si Bevafai she plays a woman who courageously leaves her husband only to return to him with her tail between her legs and heed his warning: “Yaad rakho ke pati ke ghar ka dukh bhi maike ke ghar ke sukh se behtar hota hai”. (Remember that sorrow in your husband’s house is better than happiness in your mother’s house.) When she took that role, she just wasn’t thinking hard about what she was doing, she said, she just took any work that seemed attractive. Although she now says she’s better informed, her fellow panelists still accused her of continuing to be brainwashed. When Prasoon Joshi said that Krishna was India’s worst eve teaser. (Eve teasing is a common term for sexual harassment in India.) Azmi defended Krishna, saying that what he did was romantic courtship. Joshi told her that she was socially conditioned to think that.

Prasoon Joshi and Shabana Azmi leave the stage surrounded by fans
Prasoon Joshi and Shabana Azmi leave the stage surrounded by fans

Are They Wrong Enough?

Gandhi, it turns out, thought that although violence is always wrong, it isn’t always the most wrong solution to a given problem. At least, he felt this way at certain points in his life. I learned this on the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, during a panel discussion called “Gandhi vs. Gandhi” featuring four of Gandhi’s biographers.

Richard Sorabji, author of Gandhi and the Stoics (2012), told the audience about a series of letters from Gandhi that sparked outrage when he was writing them in 1926. In the letters, Gandhi recommended that sixty rabid dogs be killed. According to Sorabji, although Gandhi believed that in ideal society violence would never be necessary, in reality sometimes it was the better of two wrongs. It was not only important to recognize oneself as a rational human being, but also to recognize one’s individual role in society and act accordingly. Therefore, someone in charge of a municipality who has the duty to protect his people from disease should kill rabid dogs.

There were multiple times, and in different discussions, during the festival when the question of relativism came up, in terms of era and culture, and how one is situated in them. During a panel discussion on Shari’a law, most of the panelists agreed that one of the main factors that decided what was and was not allowable under Islamic Jurisprudence was not the raw text but the cultural context in which it is being interpreted. Reza Aslan, the moderator of the discussion, opened the session by quoting his spiritual guide, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf.  The Shari’a was like water, the Sheikh had said; it takes the shape of whatever vessel it is poured into.

One of the most interesting discussions that again brought up the question of moral relativism drew me in with its present day weight, as it related to recent discussions of the now famous December rape case in Delhi. I was wandering when I heard the conversation, not sure whether I should find a new event to listen to or a cup of coffee. A young Indian woman was speaking passionately about what rape means in Indian society. She was not a panelist but an audience member, and I was surprised that she was talking about rape because the name of the event was “The Public Philosopher.” The young woman was saying that rape was worse than murder in this specific society, during this specific time, but that she hoped that society would change to make murder worse. In cases of sexual assault, she said that not only were you violently attacked, you were also blamed for it, and you were given no support. Another young woman said that, ideally, rape would be considered the same as other kinds of violent assaults. That rape was considered worse was attached to the wrong assumption that a woman’s virtue is attached to her virginity. Then a young man said that it was a sign of society’s advancement, and not its decline, that sexual assault and other kinds of assault were thought of differently. A sheep probably wouldn’t care if it were raped or beaten otherwise, but human beings know the difference. All three of them spoke so articulately and with such ease that I thought they must have had these arguments before.

I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with all of them. There’s so much you’d have to know to really be able to say who was right. You’d have to know more than any human being has ever known, to have access to the experience of someone who was a victim of sexual and nonsexual violent assault, and then you’d have to be able to somehow isolate and analyze those experiences in the context of their individual personalities and the societies that they come from. One person’s experience wouldn’t be enough. You’d have to map out and parse out variables in hundreds, maybe hundreds of thousands of experiences. To know if rape or murder is really worse, you’d also have to know what death is. But the fact that it’s impossible to know doesn’t save society from the responsibility of having to decide. Now a lot of controversy is rising up about which cases should be fast tracked, and which crimes should receive the death penalty under Indian law. To make these decisions, you need to have some kind of rubric that says which crimes are the most serious.

In an ideal world, none of these questions would have to come up, because there would be no rape, no murder, no violent assault of any kind. That was the kind of world that Gandhi envisioned.  But even he would not have found this conversation superfluous, at least not at certain points during his life.

But there is a mind frame that my culture has provided for me that I doubt I will ever be able to escape.

Tibetan monks relax during a tea break
Tibetan monks relax during a tea break

The Kumbh Mela of Literature, The Burning Man of India (except with books instead of drugs)

Tata Steel sales gimmick
Tata Steel sales gimmick

On the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, as I walked into the venue someone handed me a newspaper with a front-page article calling the festival “the literary Kumbh Mela”. My roommate in Lucknow, who is from London, compared the festival to London Fashion Week, because of the combination of socialites and celebrities. For me, at moments I felt like I was reliving my favorite parts of college, listening to controversial and engaging discussions.

Some hipsters listen to Afghanistan panel
Some hipsters listen to Afghanistan panel

There were also bits of it that reminded me think of one of those intense long weekend music festivals, where there are five concerts going at the same time and everyone is half totally out of it and half totally pumped.  Many attendees of many nationalities experimented with interesting combinations of facial hair, head hair, and thick-framed glasses, as nerdy and fake nerdy hipsters all over the universe are wont to do. People sprawled out on the grass to try and nap between events. Others stood on their tiptoes to get photos of celebrities. Events were overcrowded, and people grappled over the space in public. It was impossible to go to every event that you wanted to, because there were too many good ones. As stimulating as the discussions were, in order to see as much as possible, by the end of the day you had to pound cups of the festival’s creamy, sugary coffee to stay awake.

When it was almost over, the Jaipur Literature Festival felt most like the end of a day at Disneyland when I was four. I was ready to collapse from exhaustion; if someone had picked me up and carried me home I probably would have fallen asleep immediately in their arms. Even so, I really didn’t want the day to end. In an exhausted haze, I lingered as long as I could.

concluding drums
Drums to conclude the festival

After the final event, a debate over whether capitalism had lost its way ensued. “In the largest democracy, one in four people go hungry. In the oldest democracy, one in three is overweight,” said journalist Pranjoy Guha Thakurta, who was on the team arguing that capitalism has not lost its way. But he believed wealth ought to be redistributed. Suhel Sheth, also on the pro-capitalism side, said in his opening statement that “Capitalism has and will continue to lose his way,” but that it would continue to correct itself. Michael Sandel, Shoma Chaudhury and Sudeep Chakraarti, who were on the anti-Capitalism side of the debate, admitted that capitalism would continue to be a necessity, but believed that it was going out of bounds. “The areas of civic life, health, education, law do not belong to capitalism,” said Sandel. “We are not arguing here to get rid of capitalism but to keep it in its place, which is not an easy thing to do.” The debate itself was lively enough to keep my sleepy self at attention. The debaters spoke with zeal, and when they were out of time a turbaned drummer in the corner of the sage drowned out their voices with music. A bagpipe band played near the exit and a crowd gathered and dance. The bagpipe player smiled coyly when he was done and people shouted at him to keep going for two more minutes.

Drums to conclude the festival


Drone City

[What precisely is a response to the drones? Recently Teju Cole introduced drones in first lines of well-known fiction works and got more tweets than any of the current drone strikes. Almost simultaneously, Himanshu Suri (aka HEEMS) released the video of his “Soup Boys” single which feature drones. Let us just say that while Pitchfork.tv is not necessarily concerned with Yemen or Pakistan or Mali and drones, they gushed about Soup Boys and its politics. There is both creativity and critique at the heart of these efforts – and where legally or morally we seem to be getting no where, perhaps creativity is the only ethical space left to marshall a defense. In that vein, I am very pleased to feature a guest post by AJK with another creative comment. Enjoy. – sepoy]


An Architectural Defense From Drones


I am not an architect. I wanted to be one, back in the day. I wanted to be many things, but I never wanted to be a lawyer. And yet…

My primary defense mechanism in law school was to get interested in non-law things. Lurking at the school of Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, reading Wael Hallaq and James C. Scott, and most fortunately, auditing a course at the wonderful Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Iain Fraser‘s “Extreme Architecture” taught a wholly different type of problem-solving than dry & detached legal reasoning. We took weeks learning about different types of tents, then went on to outer space, military bases, and St. Louis. All the while, the point was to be empathetic to individuals and find livable solutions for them. Empathy was a very alien concept to embrace coming from law, however.

Safdie - Habitat 67
Safdie – Habitat 67

The idea for my final project, an architectural defense against drone warfare, came from the realization that law had no response to drone warfare. My own understanding of the ongoing [War on Terror pseudonym] as a civil rights issue is irrelevant, we only learn civil rights as a historical happening, not a current struggle. But architecture has a proud anti-legal tradition. Architecture is a way to protect people when law chooses not to.

Drones work by detecting patterns, identifying individuals, and extracting data. I dreamed up Shura City (named in honor of Farah Jan’s photoessay on Quetta) to fight against drones with humanity and community. The city is a “black box” impenetrable to data miners and military-trained individuals but it is not a prison. It is instead a gated community, providing its society with sunshine and safety from the scary world outside.

It is at best expensive and at worst impossible to build armor that can deflect any American bomb. Shura City instead uses inscrutability as its armor, finding more solace in Said than in Vauban. Though its outer shell is fixed, Shura City’s inner walls can be moved to provide for growing families, heated feuds, or just for the change of it when Farah Abla decides she wants to be an interior designer. Its windows are protected by computerized mashrabiyas that blink and recombine into various QR codes to jam leering cameras. Its expansive courtyard is protected by latticework with backlit (by color-changing LED) windows that allow for sunshine for children and stars for young lovers, but also make face detection tricky with color blocks and changing shadows. The zebras know each others’ names, but the lion only sees stripes.


BadgirBadgirs and minarets do their part to provide wild fluctuations of temperature (so that individual bodies are difficult to identify with infrared) and to provide high-wattage radio towers to interfere with wireless communication. The latter of which was inspired by my father’s story of growing up near a radio tower and listening to the Cincinnati Reds by plugging pilfered speakers into a chainlink fence. True, inhabitants of Shura City will have to turn in their Macbooks and tablets for ethernet connections, but this is a small price to pay.

badgirs and minarets

The goal of Shura City was to celebrate humanity in the face of the mechanization of war and the mechanization of killing. I wanted to create a vibrant, colorful, fun, and peaceful place for the populations victimized by drone warfare. I wanted to give them the opportunity to create their own community far from the invasive eyes, nose, and tongue of otherwise-faceless robots. I wanted to create the same gated community I was fortunate enough to grow up in and export it to people facing far worse fears than small drugs and sleazy parties.

Ever since Napoleon entered Egypt, “Westerners” have found the “Eastern” city impenetrable. My goal was to armor Shura city in Orientalism and to turn the empire’s strongest weapons: technology, reorder, and arrogance, against themselves. It is time for the Bantustans to protect themselves against outside interference, to say “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Shura City is not a finished product (as if the sketches fooled you) but an idea, celebrating collective effort, organic change, and insider humor – in other words, society – in the face of a binary code that only sees us in binaries. Shura City is a hope. I hope it will work.

An Architectural Defense From Drones by AJKohn

A Musafir in Iraqi Kurdistan

[We thank Professor Jyotsna Singh for contributing her Kurdistan Diary to CM, along with photos and captions. ]

A Musafir in Iraqi Kurdistan, May 2012

The murmuring mass of an unknown language constitutes a delicious protection, envelops the foreigner (provided the country is not hostile to him) in an auditory film which halts at his ears all the alienations of the mother tongue: the regional and social origins of whoever is speaking, his degree of culture, of intelligence, of taste, the image by which he constitutes himself as a person and which he asks you to recognize. Hence, in foreign countries, what a respite! Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality … I live in the interstice, delivered of any fulfilled meaning (Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs 9)


 Pleasures  of Unintelligibility

Oh the magic of unintelligibility!  To experience words only as sounds, which may evoke feelings and memories, and yet whose meaning escapes us!  As a way of  re-thinking the relationship between language, meaning, and human interaction, I recall my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan (Kurdish Autonomous Region) this past May. Barthes’ celebrations of an unknown language have a special resonance for me in my recollections!

Most strikingly, I remember a dinner among Iraqis, Kurds, and two American friends/colleagues on a recent visit to Dohuk, (one of the three major KAR cities).  We were among a dozen guests, all men, who were speaking a ready back-and-forth Arabic and Kurdish.  Gradually, I recognize the seemingly guttural more forceful sounds (from male voices) of Arabic and the softer, sibilant tones of Kurdish words.  Speaking Urdu myself, Kurdish holds the comfort of familiarity; many common nouns and adjectives from a family of languages:  Persian, Urdu, Kurdish, in turn infused by the Arabic from a common Qu’ranic source.  I catch some words: duniya (world); piyala (cup); mushkil (difficulty, also in Arabic).  This particular dinner came in the middle of our trip to the region on an educational project was hosted by a senior Professor, who had invited a cross-section of academics and administrators from the university to meet us.

I recall the dinner, as increasingly convivial, like a Fellini film in Kurdistan. Feeling a bit surreal and bizarre, being the only woman amidst this all-male geniality, seemingly commonplace and normal, yet “Fellini-esque” in the over-decorous, stylized manners of the men. Women seem prominent in the university (and in the city) in Dohuk — visible everywhere as students, teachers, and staff, a mingling between the sexes quite relaxed. Thus, this dinner is unusual in its all-male cast. When all the guests initially fill the room, my American friend whispers in my ear “have you been surrounded by so much testosterone before?” I guess this was not uncommon in so many Western boardrooms or even university committees!  But perhaps in societies where demarcations of public and private – male and female – are inflected with more distinct gender codes, such a gathering invests the only woman in the room with a heavier self-consciousness.  Someone mentions the complication being that since the host and several guests were Yezidi, a distinct faith different though with some echoes of Islam, alcohol was permitted at such social gatherings. So Muslim women from the university did not want to attend.  Throughout the city, restaurants entertained family, mixed-gender crowds, but were mostly alcohol free.  Restrictions and permissions (as we found out) — in many matters moral and practical seemed open to a range of interpretations.

As the guests settle gradually on arrival, all gazes face a large TV screen showing the evening news read by an attractive anchorwoman, distinctively not wearing a headscarf.  The news depicts a riot in Erbil outside the Parliament building where some supposedly Islamic group is shouting and gesticulating in Kurdish we are told.  Among these are women in burqas or hijab, along with young men. The consensus among our fellow guests is that this is an instigated event, the protestors screaming against some anti-Islamic writing by a journalist, who was in turn a plant of the Islamists.  What they tell us in English gets submerged in a cacophony of Kurdish and Arabic. Turning our heads, noting the animated faces of other guests, and following what they translate for us, we quickly recognize that the complicated and fraught politics of the post-Saddam Iraq find their way into all conversations in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Who has been behind the violence in a string of cities from Baghdad and other cities in the South — violence that sporadically spilled into northern cities like Kirkuk and Mosul, only a few hours away from Dohuk? One person said later, I recall, that the problem was that no one knows who is instigating the trouble anywhere. In Mosul, for instance, it was believed that Baathists were possibly some part of the problem, or that Iran always supposedly had a hand in controlling the country.

Among other quests at M–’s are some younger professors in history and philosophy some who only speak Kurdish. I try asking them simple questions interspersed with some Kurdish words, but they shrug, suggesting little understanding. This obviously all-male animation (I think they just factor in my minor presence after a while) is no doubt fuelled by Arak, the fragrant and intoxicating liqueur similar to the Greek Ouzo and Turkish Raki — and once again, an endless round of mezzes. I am curious about what they are talking about us or whether they consider me significant for comment? And I would never know.


This dinner celebration was the mid-point of our trip to Dohuk, and important in that brought home to us the warm hospitality that so distinctive of Muslim societies everywhere – and also our foreignness as honored guests – mehmaan in farsi.  My knowledge of the Kurds and Kurdish history and culture was extremely sketchy and anecdotal, perhaps knowing more about their struggle for autonomy, with an accompanying resistance or “terrorist” movement led by the PKK in Turkey Iraqi Kurdistan has surfaced in the news recently on and off as the “Other” Safe Iraq;” many of these stories about the development, construction projects and the obvious interest of multi-nationals in commercial opportunities, and the ever-ubiquitous accounts of the oil reserves. In these accounts, we hear of Erbil the capital as a hub of multi-national construction companies and immense construction projects. (See Reccia’s blog).

I was the ignorant traveler, a musafir, even though part of a so-called development project.  Yet in this journal I have attempted to record a “micro” history, unmoored from any development or global perspective, and revealing instead, the seemingly innocuous, textured experiences of our stay in the Kurdish areas of Iraq.  Here are a few fleeting vignettes of contemporary life around Dohuk — entangled in contingent histories of the scattered Kurdish diasporic communities over several geographical boundaries.  I try to “descend into the untranslatable” to “undo our (Western) reality” in terms set by Barthes, foreign travel as a dream: to know a “foreign (alien) language and not to understand it”


Night Journey to Dohuk

 Welcome to us three by our hosts from the University of Dohuk at an upscale family dining restaurant. Al Azaim was typical of a spacious, relaxed space with personal hospitality of menus that consisted of endless mezzo and kebab, among other dishes.  Most such places did not serve alcohol and were filled with families. We were treated to wonderful meals by our hosts at such restaurants almost every day!
Welcome to us three by our hosts from the University of Dohuk at an upscale family dining restaurant. Al Azaim was typical of a spacious, relaxed space with personal hospitality of menus that consisted of endless mezzo and kebab, among other dishes. Most such places did not serve alcohol and were filled with families. We were treated to wonderful meals by our hosts at such restaurants almost every day!

Arriving at airport at Erbil past midnight – the seat of government for the KAR: with clean grayish marble interiors, it offers no striking markers of Iraq or the Middle East. Later I hear this was all built from American money!  The drive at around 2 am to Dohuk: on one side the expanse of lights show Erbil to be a large sprawling city as we head out. A very bright full moon is ahead of us throughout this journey.  The land is flat and the road – a kind of single lane highway – is uneven though mostly smooth.  On the outskirts of the city, a single Coca Cola sign oddly appears under the headlights and from then onwards, no markers of global products.  Our journey is broken by far away lights and some roadside shops and parked trucks.  And the checkpoints, around six or seven of them appear at intervals of every half hour or so. Usually two men in uniform appear and peer into the car. Our friend/driver who is Kurdish speaks to them.  Twice he shows them his work ID and they sweep us through. They make a gesture of putting the hand on the forehead, a kind of welcome sign. Only once do they actually peer and look at us and our host mutters “Amreeki” and while we fumble for our passports, they sweep us through.

The genial military men do not create any confidence in us, however, that they could respond to some large terrorist incursion. Yet, it was telling that this ritual of check posts against the engulfing darkness (and with the knowledge that violence was a daily event in large parts of Iraq) was repeated daily at all hours as an enactment of Kurdish semi-sovereignty.

The Garden of another restaurant in Dohuk with a view of the hills and roses (everywhere) behind us (reminiscent of the American southwest) the city was colored in a palette of yellow/brownish hills shading into pink buildings.
The Garden of another restaurant in Dohuk with a view of the hills and roses (everywhere) behind us (reminiscent of the American southwest) the city was colored in a palette of yellow/brownish hills shading into pink buildings.

We arrive close to Dohuk in early dawn. The moon has gone and the city sprawls before us, the colors are mostly a blur of pinkish yellow and the mountains are not very high, but rugged, angular, reminiscent of the American southwest, New Mexico or perhaps South Dakota. We listen to Kurdish music in the car as we enter the city. (Kurdish, and sometimes Arabic, music weaves into all my recollections of our trip as it plays in every car ride, long or short).  Our host, a young Kurdish lecturer, is a friendly guide to the world we are entering: his family lived in Iran for many years during the Sadam Hussein years, as he recounts the history of his grandfather and uncles being killed in their village by Sadam forces in the 1980s. But as a counterpoint, his cousin, (who was accompanying us in the car) and also from his village, had more recently lost his father at the hands of the PKK the Kurdish breakaway rebels from Turkey, “terrorists” whose relations with the Iraqi Kurds was complicated, it seemed.  The fault lines of dissonant histories!!


Hijabi Chic: Kurdish Affect and Style

Young women in chic styles
Young women in chic styles
Typical classroom. These are young and vibrant youth full of plans and often talked of the future of the KAR, even though some among them were Arabs.
Typical classroom. These are young and vibrant youth full of plans and often talked of the future of the KAR, even though some among them were Arabs.
Another class of English literature, again wonderful images of Hijabi Chic!
Another class of English literature, again wonderful images of Hijabi Chic!

On arrival, mid-day May 6th,Sunday in Dohuk, a busy working day in many Muslim societies, with Friday being the main non-working day of the week. Late that day, we meet with the English faculty (University of Duhok) and observe the striking affect of student fashions: high heels, dresses of various combinations and bright colors, revealing and fitting. And some version of a hijab in at least 2/3rds of women, leaving flowing locks of hair falling on their faces, make up accentuating striking faces. The young men have a kind of James Dean sartorial fashion look, tight black pants/jeans and dark slick hair, slicked up into a tiny peak.  Strolling outside the building the young men often casually walk hand in hand, with a cool affective ease. But the young male and female students also display and ease of intermingling. Looking at the vibrant young people on campus, the energy, the sense of style, the gregarious friendliness, one is struck by the affective character of Kurdish culture.

Over several days, we attend various literature classes, based on a fairly canonical (mostly British) curriculum, but classes vary: some seem to follow a traditional pedagogy of memorization and formalist reading, others include students designing their own satiric skits based on “Alice in Wonderland.” We also go to the office of the head of the humanities in another building prior to the class visitations. We meet a young British teacher who tutors faculty and has been in Duhok for several months, a part of the move toward English immersion. During the trip and in later negotiations, we get a sense that they want to radically change their English, canonical, (“great books”) curriculum and include American works and literatures (in translation) that are more global, including Kurdish and Arabic texts. An elder Dean observes, “we need a new curriculum for a new nation.” Kurdology, or Kurdish studies, is a mandatory course in every department. There is a palpable sense of an autonomous Kurdish “nation” if not quite a free entity as yet.

Finally, all over the university and city, Mustapha Barzani's image (above the ubiquitous Kurdish map) looks over his people (so to speak).
In almost every room in official buildings, we see big photos of Mustapha Barzani the hero of the Peshmarga resistance to Saddam Hussein. All over the university and city, Mustapha Barzani’s image (above the ubiquitous Kurdish map) looks over his people (so to speak).

The next day in the University, we are caught in a wonderful hubbub of a graduation event in which all the graduating students wear their colorful ethnic clothes, especially Kurdish and Chaldean Christian, (instead of the typical academic regalia originating from Medieval Europe) with women wearing gold belts with coins, jeweled headdresses, and some men wearing feathered hats.   One girl tells us the gold is real, a family heirloom, the others disclose that their jewels are imitations, and would later see a profusion of such jeweled accessories in the traditional market, or Souk. Picture taking is customary and to our surprise students want to include us “Amreekis” in their graduation photos (how would they remember us strangers in their personal photos years later)?

Graduation in the English department was a special treat for us visitors. Students wore their traditional ethnic garb and jewels. Some told us the gold belts and necklaces were real gold borrowed from their grandmothers, others confessed they wore faux jewelry (which we later saw in the Souk)
Graduation in the English department was a special treat for us visitors. Students wore their traditional ethnic garb and jewels. Some told us the gold belts and necklaces were real gold borrowed from their grandmothers, others confessed they wore faux jewelry (which we later saw in the Souk)
Also graduation day, a young man who was a Syriac Christian described this as his ethnic garb.
Also graduation day, a young man who was a Syriac Christian described this as his ethnic garb.


Journey to Amedia – Lessons in History and Geography

We could see these sweeping ranges near Amedia. Beyond the hills was the Turkish border. There seemed to be only small clusters of habitation we could spot in these areas.  During the Kurdish struggles with Saddam, this hilly terrain was useful to the Peshmarga fighters.
We could see these sweeping ranges near Amedia. Beyond the hills was the Turkish border. There seemed to be only small clusters of habitation we could spot in these areas. During the Kurdish struggles with Saddam, this hilly terrain was useful to the Peshmarga fighters.
 Driving on the highway to Amedia, the city on the Citadel. This Kurdish region seems to have well-maintained driving lanes.
Driving on the highway to Amedia, the city on the Citadel. This Kurdish region seems to have well-maintained driving lanes.

10th. May –Today our last day was the best in terms of getting away from the city, into the fresh air and expansive, green mountains, just imbibing the air, the scenery and hearing from our hosts fragments of their lives and the history of the nation and region. We will be leaving soon tonight in a taxi to the Erbil airport, the long haul back home. Outside the city, we drive up winding well-constructed roads to a broad expanse of mountains (probably 4-6000 feet). These offer a terrain strikingly different from the craggy, angular hills with sparse greenery that we had encountered on entering Dohuk. Our very articulate, genial hosts, professor A — at the university, and young man who also lectures there, intersperse our drive with a mixture of anecdotes drawn from both geography and history. Each mentions having a family village past some of these mountains. We drive by a huge winding wall over swathes of land, which she says belongs to a rich industrialist. She mentions that people went there for picnics earlier, but now such land enclosures are not uncommon. We also drive past far away construction of what seem like condos. Imagining ahead few years, these scenic hilly parts will be “developed” into overuse of land, rising prices and the attendant trappings that come with it.

We stop at a shuttered family style restaurant with a magnificent view; the building is shuttered and at the back, we run into a droll scene two garish, bedraggled sofas with a satin backdrop and pink satin hearts, probably a setting for a wedding, but which now looked like a decaying like a decaying movie set.
We stop at a shuttered family style restaurant with a magnificent view; the building is shuttered and at the back, we run into a droll scene two garish, bedraggled sofas with a satin backdrop and pink satin hearts, probably a setting for a wedding, but which now looked like a decaying movie set.

These Dohuk hills are also the site of two of Saddam Hussein’s palaces or getaways before the 1991 war… possibly when he still had direct control over Kurdistan. The first palace we drive by quite fast, but the second one on a hill surrounded by a long winding wall on the hillside, and we can glimpse a cluster of buildings.  Our host (like others during our trip) gives anecdotes of Saddam that show the generosities and cruelties of the man. She mentions that he used to keep deer in this palace and have them run races, but of course, if anything went wrong with the deer he would punish those in charge. Others we met – of the older generation– remember Baghdad before the 1991 war as a great, cosmopolitan city to which people from the Middle East flooded for cultural freedom and prosperity etc. So these stories are a part of the collective imagination of these people we met, and while perspectives on Saddam Hussein differ among Arabs and Kurds, they all seemed to be filled with a genial generosity. On the same route we also pass by an elegant sprawling villa, which we are told belonged to the former King of Iraq in the 1950s and was now a hospital.

 Kurdish Dancers on our journey to Amedia. We ran into busloads of young men, many in the traditional Kurdish Shalwar, stopping by the hillside engaging a wonderful rhythmic group dance with whom we "kind of" participated.
Kurdish Dancers on our journey to Amedia.
We ran into busloads of young men, many in the traditional Kurdish Shalwar, stopping by the hillside engaging a wonderful rhythmic group dance with whom we “kind of” participated.

Close to Amedia, which we glimpse on high natural mountain ridge, as we turn a corner, we are suddenly accosted by a group of men in a circle dancing to loud Kurdish music from buses parked close by. Our hosts inform us that this was the beginning of the summer break for all students. The men seem in carefree spirits and we get off and my American companion joins them in the circle with ease; and the men seem to think that entry as most natural.  Later they want to pose for pictures with us, the ubiquitous photo taking of our trip.

Bahdinan Gate Plaque -- Before us lay the expanse of mountains bordering Turkey, and below us grew a profusion of blood-red poppies, history, geography, and myth came together.
Bahdinan Gate Plaque — Before us lay the expanse of mountains bordering Turkey, and below us grew a profusion of blood-red poppies, history, geography, and myth came together.

From this turn in the highway, we can see Amedia, the town perched on a jutting mountain ridge, which makes a striking image as a natural fortress. We learn that formerly it was only accessible by a narrow passage.  The town is not distinctive, except 1-2 formal government buildings, one housing the police station, where we have to pay a fine for forgetting to wear a seatbelt. An ancient minaret tower marks the middle of the town square, but we head to Bahdinian Gate, the archaeological find with competing histories on the edge of the town. The plaque at the entrance reads that it is not clear “to which period it belongs” since pre-Islamic images of figures and symbols such as the snake and sun mix with Islamic charts.  The history of Amedia as a kingdom goes back 3000 years B.C. when it was a part of ancient Assyria, and later it was ruled by a prince who broke away from the Caliphate and was from the Ahmad family; it was a part of the Bahdinan emirate from the 14th century onward.  Even today it is known as a Kurdish and Assyrian town, with a mixed population.

Picking some Poppies below the Bahdinan Gate
Picking some Poppies below the Bahdinan Gate

A gate and crumbled stairway hanging on to a steep hillside, with an archway of some shapes of figures constitutes the Bahdinan Gate, as it stands today. Part of the gate has a stone frieze. We go gingerly down the crumbling steps and out of the gate emerges a spectacular view of the sweeping mountains before us. Growing around these steps are clusters of poppies, which remind me of the Adonis story – of being killed on steps where poppies spring up every year, symbolizing his blood.  We see the highest mountain from there I think with swirls of mist.  Amedia is only 10 miles from Turkey, which lies behind this mountain range, though the main border crossing is about 50 miles away. Of course, I also think of the broader sweep of history, before the British carved out the boundaries of modern Iraq in the early 20th century, the Ottomans administration held sway over all this and large swathes of territory now known as the “middle east.”

We sat by the Gate with sweeping vistas and no tourists!
We sat by the Gate with sweeping vistas and no tourists!

Then oddly, almost uncannily, suddenly few men follow behind us through the gate, one of them is an American lawyer, a big portly man from Los Angeles with two of his local Kurdish friends. We chat and share our reasons for being there – on this outpost of perhaps America’s current neo-colonial empire – and he tells us he had helped his friend with a law case dealing with American army or contractors during the Iraq war — and this visit was his friend’s reciprocal hospitality. He is the first and only American we had met during our trip. His friend the Kurd mutters something in halting English about times now being better, about hope for the Kurdish region. I would have liked to have a more sustained conversation with him or others we saw or encountered in these hill villages and towns — in these small cafes and kebab restaurants, in shops selling trinkets, some shopkeepers in Kurdish shalwars, others in the Arab head dress, the kaffieh.  But on the other hand, did it matter that we sought, extracted, or acquired empirical knowledge that could predict the outcomes of development? Or could we know whether these Kurdish cities would remain relatively safe and violence free? In a way, it was more enriching just to take in all the affective impressions and experiences and listen to all the individual stories.

Our trip was a part of a university exchange that is organized by a non-Profit company, Irex, supported by the US State Department. http://irex.org/. The experiences of this journey were shared by my two colleagues, Salah Hassan and David Stowe. My thanks to David Stowe for his constant encouragement in the genesis of this journal and article.

Berlin Sketchbook IV: Ghosts

[see earlier in the Berlin series: I, II, III (also, earlier: I, II, III) On the city, see companion series on Lahore: I, II, III, IV, V, VI]

My first ghost sighting in Berlin was on September 8th, 2009, on the fifth floor inner balcony of a building at the corner of Duisburgerstrasse and Brandenburgerstrasse in Charlottenburg. It was early afternoon, and I saw her standing in the sun. Her head turned at an un-natural angle, so that the meagre rays of the sun lit her up her neck. On seeing her, I nearly jumped from the balcony from fright.

When I was living in the hot burning sun and society of Doha Qatar, we used to love the thrill of the firangi ghost stories. In that desert, jinns were everywhere, and fairies too. There was the hotel for new immigrants that was run by a family of mean, mean jinns. There was the puchchal paeri taxi driver you would hail in the late evening ocean mist. There were the black magic witches of Oman with their secret words and chin tattoos. Each of these stories was tied to a specific place: the hotel was on Corniche Drive, the taxi was in al-Thammama, the witches in the old bazaar. These stories were how we (a group of 9-12 year olds from Pakistan, India and Srilanka) made sense of the desert to which our parents had brought us – the place where a houl was jinn. There I heard, for the first time, a ghost story. It took place in London. In mists and graveyards, and overhanging trees, and it starred a woman, in white, and it had the narrator frozen to the spot, contemplating this other worldly intruder inside his home. I remember being scared out of my wits. The narrator was the elder brother of my best friend who had lived in London and this was what had happened to his best friend, in a house near where they lived. He swore, he thought, he too was a witness to the ghost, on another occasion. This was terrifying. You flee the jinn. You lash out at the churail. This ghost, this white woman, she turned you into a statue.

I did not see a white people cemetery until I moved to the Midwest of the United States. I did not see a ghost, but I did hear many more ghost stories. They seemed to not tell me anything about the city. They were about houses, rather the interior of the houses. They were inside doors, around the corner, by the bathroom. How was I to understand Dayton, Ohio from the inside of a house? I stopped caring. There were no jinns in United States (at least not pre 2001).

The ghost in Berlin turned to me and spoke. She said words I did not understand. She struggled to find another language. I did not know any that she knew. She lived nearby. Just three doors down. Her son had moved her there some three years ago. She had survived the Shoah. She was a Polish woman who had spent the last 20 years in some town in Russia. She had just had her 92nd birthday. She died some months later. Though I kept seeing her.

I learned about Charlottenburg via her. I learned of the Russian migration post War. The scores of sex kinos, gambling dens to cater to the young male industrial worker: sites where German women worked. New immigrants all. The neighborhood was changing rapidly, though the Russians had their own ghosts there. She told me about Vladimir Nabakov’s house on Paulsbornerstrasse just down the street from us. She told me about Walter Benjamin’s street just to the north of us. She told me about Robert Walser’s shopping haunts just east of us. In the months that followed, I rarely left the neighborhood. I traced the ghostly city outlined in Nabakov’s Berlin crime novels, and Benjamin’s childhood memoirs. I tried to find the contemporary names of the streets, the corners, the businesses. Of course, it was rare that I actually saw anything. Ghosts have a tendency to not be visible.

The second ghost I saw was after I left that neighborhood, and I left my own body behind. I had acquired a new one. I lived now near David Bowie’s ghost city and the one of Christopher Isherwood: actually exactly equidistant between the two. But I never saw them, or any of their ghosts. I saw him while biking at night. It was really late. I was whizzing by. He appeared out of nowhere, causing me swerve and stop almost touching him. His name was Johann Trollmann, and he had won a amateur boxing championship in 1933 on Fidicinstrasse. He was a Sinti, an impure German. To punish him, he was stripped of his title. He changed his name, dyed his hair blonde and tried to fight again. They disqualified him, and later sent him to the worker’s camp. There they kept making him fight to live. He kept winning, until he made the mistake of defeating a white prison guard. They beat him to death. He stood there by the side of the road, and told me this Berlin. His gym was right there. He told me of the camp that they had taken him, in Marzahn. I went and saw the graves and the ghost of the enclosure, still with bricks embedded in the grass. It is now a cemetery. This cemetery was full of ghosts of gypsies of Berlin.

The third ghost. This is where it gets tricky. You remember I told you I had left my body, yes? Would it surprise you, then, that I was the third ghost? I know what you are thinking. I have been telling you lies all along. These “ghosts” are not “ghost story” ghosts. When I arrived in Berlin, I understood one word out of well any. So, I stopped listening. When you stop listening, you stop talking. I lived mute and deaf in Berlin. I made no eye-contact. I saw no one. No one saw me. No one said anything to me. I walked un-noticed. A citizen of Berlin invisible to his neighbors, his fellows. Slowly, I began to show myself. I remember a gentleman in car – desperate – yelling an address at me. I answered him. Relieved, he took off. He was the first person who saw me in Berlin. It was August or so, of 2010. Emboldened, I started to show myself elsewhere. I began to find those brown and black spaces where ghosts hung out. I began to move in a crowd. They notice you in a crowd. Four brown people are noted on the UBahn – scared and noted. One day, there were 8 of us and then we really got noted. They denied our corporality in public.

I have written, in this series, I now realize about those ghosts that I met in Berlin – the ones who haunt the landscape and tell stories – the Egyptian quarter, the Pakistani parts, the Punjabi cricketers. Being a ghost in Berlin had its advantages, sometimes.