How Best to Not-Surrender

The first lesson I learned in resistance was to surrender. It was a hard lesson. It was the apocryphal year of 1984 and General Zia ul Haq was our leader. The General had come to power in a military coup in 1977– deposing an elected and popular Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In short order, he had hung Bhutto, for conspiracy to commit murder and corruption and had donned the mantle of a populist cleanser of political rot. When in 1979, Soviet Union entered Afghanistan, the General became the conduit for US “resistance”.

Reagan toasted Zia in 1982 as the key architect of a peaceful South Asia (Zia, in return, requested “Spread this America, Mr. President”). Zia returned to Pakistan with the full support of United States. In August 1983, Zia revealed a theological argument for his military regime: according to God and his Prophet, as long as there is a Muslim leader pursuing a strategy of bringing an Islamic state into being, there can only be complete obedience to his rule.

In 1983, Pakistan started its resistance against the General. The “Movement for Restoration of Democracy” (MRD) emerged as an umbrella for Marxists, Progressivists, PPP, followers of pirs, provincialists, feminists, atheists– all assemble only to resist Zia. They blocked highways, took over university campuses, shut-down bazaars and ports. The poets wrote verses that could be chanted. Sufi shrines become the rallying places for mobilizations. Someone stood in front of Zia’s motorcade and flashed his privates.

Zia’s regime cracked down. The army fired bullets in streets, campuses and bazaars. Thousands disappeared. Student unions were banned. Students vanished. In November 1984, Reagan won 58.8% of the votes cast and swept back into office. Not to be out-done, on 19 December 1984, Zia ul Haq held a referendum with one single question: Did the people of Pakistan support”the Islamic ideology of Pakistan?” Yes, would mean that Zia ul Haq would be elected President for five years, by the way. Well, if you put it that way.

Zia campaigned vigorously for the “referendum”. The nationalized Radio and Television illustrated the divinity of military rule, and the rule of the militarily divine. On the 20th of December 1984, he declared victory after receiving 97.7% of 60% votes cast. Lahore surrendered. My uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends all declared widely and publicly that Zia ul Haq was the “Mard-e Haq” (Man of Truth). No one would speak, in public or private, against the General.

The second lesson I learned in resistance was to remember 1983. In 2007— after September 2001, after George W. Bush– resistance came to Pakistan as the “Lawyers Movement” against General Pervez Musharraf. This history is known to the readers of this blog, so I will tell only of the shape resistance took. Like 1983, an umbrella covered the many forms of political differences into a protected space. It was on the street– the iconic black suits of the advocates of court battling the police. It was in cultural spaces– galleries, salons, tea shops. It was online– blogs, email listservs, youtube. It flashed Musharraf– making him an object of ridicule, of shame. This time I was not too young and easily silenced. This time I learned the way and power of resistance.

The playbook of the Generals of Pakistan may seem incongruous next to that of a democratically elected Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Donald J. Trump. Hence, the techniques of surrendering or resistance may seem equally alien. However, do not be too quick to dismiss. Our Pakistani strongmen had much that bolsters Trump’s appeal: the love of autocrats and technocrats, the claim to clean up corruption, the mode of ‘direct speech’ that cuts through ‘bullshit’, the claim to independence from special interests, the eye for gilded portraits, the male-ness, the love for big building projects and real estate acquisitions.

When I see Trump, I understand him and I understand the ways in which my uncles in Pakistan love him. Trump speaks that language already:Oh the Theater must always be… oh the University must endure… Oh the minorities must be protected. Trump’s hierarchies (America First) and promises (Make America Great Again) are easy analogues to Zia ul Haq’s “Islam First” or Musharraf’s “Make Pakistan Moderate Again”.

Against Zia, writers and artists like Anwar Maqsood and Moin Akhtar, used stand-up and prov sketch comedy in venues like the television program “Fifty-fifty” to subvert, to transgress, to document. Being on a National Television and subject to heavy censorship, their sketches had a pre-approved “official” reading and a reading that came clearly as disruptive resistance to the viewers outside. Performance that illustrated “all politics” is performance enabled that dissatisfaction with the “real”.

Against Musharraf, the tactic of satire as resistance was amplified in wildly popular shows like “Begum Nawazish Ali” and “Hum Sab Umeed Say Hain” (We are all Expecting). Jokes carried over instant messaging apps, blogs, and emails poked fun at the self-regard of the dictator. I collected them and promised myself I would write about them one day, and I guess I will one day.

Artists, poets, teachers, writers are the first line of defense against tyranny. They are also the first targets of censorship, condemnation or disappearance– hence Dhaka University in ’68-’71, hence Karachi University in ’74-’76, hence Punjab University ’83-’85. Against Zia and Musharraf, these were the critical spaces of collaboration– between students and professors, between poets and reciters, between artists and viewers. I spent a lot of time in living rooms of my professors learning the trade of resistance. I spent a lot of time on street corners complicit in the making of shadow discourses. The classroom, the living room, the street corner were all fed by texts– our Franz Fanon, our Kishwar Naheed, our Manto.

How Best to Not-Survive

As a visually-read Muslim and an immigrant without the imagined protection of a citizenship, I stand alongside many others who contemplate a precarious and hostile future in United States. There are many reasons, and I am sure you know most, for the threat that Trump’s presidency holds for all of us. I know it will be very difficult and unbelievable and racist and sure, many are telling us that we will survive. But. I want to survive or not-survive, in a just and ethical way.

We can be sure Trump will increase manifold the mass-deportations that Obama– some 2.4 million the majority of which were ‘non-criminal’– has maintained throughout his tenure.

We can be sure Trump will intensify Obama’s drone war and assassinations of military-aged men in Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen. Trump will perhaps break the “city” barrier and those drones will fall on multi-story homes inside densely packed Karachi or Islamabad’s subruban bungalows.

We can be sure Trump will close Refugee Settlement plans from allies and victims of Iraq, Libya, Syria or Afghanistan.

We can be sure Trump will ask that Muslims inside America “do more”, starting with mandatory registrations so that their whereabouts are known and accounted for– akin to George W. Bush’s “National Security Entry-Exit Registration System” of Sep 2002 which targeted students and workers from “terror-prone countries”. (I remember my visit to security services and I remember friends who were picked up and never came back.)

We can be sure Trump will increase surveillance on Muslims like the NYPD’s decade long program. There is also no doubt that surveillance of data-traffic will be the first increment.

We can be sure Trump will make the path to citizenship harder or impossible for those same people.

We can be sure Trump will introduce legislations against veiling, against political mobilization and other ‘Un-American” activities.

We can be sure that Guantanamo will remain open and be re-populated.

In other words, let us not start with a notion that this is some great new rupture in the history of US or the world. Trump will not invent new tortures, new discriminations, new horrors. He will merely continue or expand what has happened for decades here. In fact, we even know Trump from countless roles outside of United State– from Afghanistan, Philippines, Pakistan, Nicragua, etc.– known as our “strong man”.

I grew up in Doha Qatar where, as an immigrant, my father and our family had no rights, no protections and no shield from draconian police state. I went to college in Pakistan’s Zia ul Haq where once during a simple reading of the daily newspaper, a dear friend cautioned me not to say General Saab with a mocking tone or else he would feel compelled to break our friendship. I was undocumented for many long years in United States.

As a scholar and a digital humanist, I have studied and written and thought about both the technologies of oppression and the technologies of resistance. This very site is a testament to some of those acts which emerged as the country willfully and forcefully invaded Iraq in 2003.

What we cannot do– is grant any space– intellectual or material– to isolation. We cannot survive by keeping quiet and minding our business. We cannot survive by looking out for only our interest and our concerns. We do live in perilous times, but it is incumbent on all of us to remember that the bombs have fallen elsewhere even as we loved Obama. That our victories for civic freedoms came exactly as we gave billions in military aid to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Money, power and prestige that links bombings in Yemen, migrant workers on football stadiums and Shi’a in Bahrain. Let’s not pretend that our solidarities in Ferguson and Staten Island absolve us from casting our eyes elsewhere. As Malcolm X once said, “If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad”. So pay attention to fellow intellectuals who are fighting for the same rights around the world. Resist not only the domestic policies by writing against them or canvassing against them but also global and climate policies.

There are solidarities which will matter and there are modes of being, writing, thinking and doing that will protect us and our loved ones. This site, like many others, will be a place for your thoughts and our techniques of engagement. We who can write, will write, and we who can march, will march, and we who can sing, will sing. Do our best to think outside the nation-state. Connect through distributed means. Look to our peers in India and Turkey. Create, or join, new cultural spaces; know that those domains of irony, pleasure, satire, and laughter will never succumb and cannot be subverted.

All this accompanies the daily task of being scholars, students, thinkers, artists, workers, lovers, fathers and mothers. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in prison, once wrote:

Just as now,
since forever,
have people tangled with
oppressors

nor are their customs new
nor are our ways new

Just as now,
since forever,
have we blossomed flowers
in fire,

nor is their defeat new
nor is our victory new

(You can see Faiz recite this full poem.)

I do not quote Faiz to suggest hope and optimism. Only to indicate that the hard work of surviving is continuous historically and throughout our past. In this, we can learn and grow.

A Manifesto for the Age of Orange

butterfliesWe need new metaphors. Many of us will feel tempted in the coming years to speak of Our Leader’s ‘black heart’, to call him ‘The Dark Lord,’ or to opine that we have entered a new age of darkness. Yes, I know that speaking of evil in terms of darkness and blackness is rooted in and ancient fear of places that have no light—of the dark forests of Grimm, the Black Forest, of haunted houses, and frozen winter nights—but these fearful darknesses are easily elided with the pernicious racism in our culture that seeps into our language and overtakes our intellect whether we like it or not. I vote for orange to be the new tint of evil. Orange is the new black: it’s already the name of a popular show. I love the color orange as much as the next painter, but it has many associations with evil besides the unnatural tint of The Small-Fingered One’s skin: the color of prison jumpsuits, Agent Orange, ‘nude’ stockings, that crayon that used to be called ‘skin color’ but now is labelled ‘apricot,’ and the sickly orange tinge of night skies in smog-smothered cities.

The morning after the election I woke my seven-year-old daughter to get ready for school. I was shaky, nauseous, trying to not be weepy. As soon as she opened her eyes, she asked me cheerfully, ‘Who will be president?’ I told her the bad news. She sobbed and thrashed in her bed. As I held her, she asked if this meant we would move, as we had often joked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘we’ll stay and fight. We’ll fight for our country.’ She thought for a bit, and then observed mournfully, ‘Well, at least the butterflies will be able to fly over the wall.’

So here’s a metaphor for our new age, The Age of Orange: where they build walls, our political ideas will be the butterflies that can’t be stopped by hatred, ignorance and violence. For the next four years, I pledge to use whatever means at my disposal, but especially art, to spread the ideals of true leftism and tolerance throughout this land awash in orange bile. Like the free flight butterflies, I will think of ingenious ways to make these messages seen and heard by a wide audience. I will use the internet and social media, which are being accused this week of cocooning us in bubbles of the like-minded, to traverse those barriers. I’ll think of ways to depict climate change that will make people understand the real and present danger of blowing up our planet. I’ll think of new ways to paint about tolerance, to make people question their racism and misogyny and Islamophobia. No, I don’t propose we hug it out and accept those with repugnant views into our lives, but I call upon my fellow artists of all stripes to enlist in a quest to find new metaphors. We must break down words and images and sounds and start anew, so that knowledge, tolerance, and love have a chance of breaking through the coming orange haze.

Musings on Absence: Planning, Policies, and Conflict in the Indian Administered Kashmir

By Francesca Recchia

Francesca Recchia is an independent researcher and writer based in Afghanistan. She is interested in the geopolitical dimension of cultural processes and in recent years has focused her research on heritage, urban transformations and creative practices in countries in conflict. 

She tweets at @kiccovich

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Srinagar

At the time of Partition between India and Pakistan, in 1947, the whole of Kashmir was divided between the two countries – a decision that has been disputed ever since. Kashmir is the only state in India with a majority Muslim population and its annexation to the country has been an object of contention since the inception. As early as 1947, the Indian Government promised Kashmir a plebiscite that would allow its people to determine their fate. To this day, the plebiscite has not taken place and India has enforced a tight military control over the region in order to preserve the integrity of its national territory – or, allegedly, to protect its people from Islamist insurgents and separatists alike. The infamous Line of Control (LoC) – the 2897-kilometer-long border between India and Pakistan – is tightly monitored to prevent civilian movements and militant infiltrations. Despite the fact that Kashmir is not “technically” a country at war, it is one of the most militarized areas of the world with a ratio of one armed forces personnel to every seventeen civilians – a ratio that is higher than that in both Afghanistan and Iraq at the peak of the US-led invasions. The repercussions of such figures on the ground are admittedly tremendous.

An analysis of the landscape and the built environment can provide important insights into the understanding of such repercussions.

The design of space is neither neutral nor innocent. The State or the military often utilize such an instrument to implement broader political plans. Beyond aesthetics and functionalism, urban planning and space design can be understood as devices for social engineering: they are often adopted as subtle tools to implement the larger scheme of shaping society. In contexts of open conflict, the control over landscape and natural resources, as well as the management of infrastructures, play a fundamental strategic role. The segregation of urban functions and the definition of movement patterns determine access and exclusion, shaping people’s decision-making and patterns of behavior. Continue reading “Musings on Absence: Planning, Policies, and Conflict in the Indian Administered Kashmir”

The Conditional World of the Refugee

 

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[A guest post by Zirwat Chowdhury]

What would little Aylan have become if he had grown up? Riss’s recent cartoon in Charlie Hebdo does not hesitate to prognosticate about the future of this child. And yet it was the termination of this future, pithily captured in the photograph of Aylan’s lifeless, facedown body, washed up against the shore of a beach in Kos that haunted viewers for days. Days only, it seems. We learned his name, but never caught sight of his face. Named but faceless, Aylan could become an icon of the moral outrage of liberals. Lifeless but untarnished, his body foregrounded the tragedy of the loss of an innocent life but did not confront viewers with the forces responsible for it: the brutality of an authoritarian regime and its challenger, the manic power play orchestrated within global politics in alliance with and response to it, and the forced renunciation of a right to (meaningful) life that accompanies the refugee’s endless traversing of unwelcoming borders.

Since its publication, the cartoon has received predictably mixed responses. Some, embodying the moral outrage I mention above, have decried it with disgust. Others have suggested that it mocks not refugees but Marine Le Pen’s recent opinion piece about the alleged dangers that immigration poses to the achievements of Western feminism. Le Pen attributes the sexual assault of “hundreds” of women to immigration and, with a quick turn of phrase, criminalizes all migrants – suggesting that they hold Western laws, especially the rights of women, in contempt. She then declares her fear that women might once again be subject to barbarism. But Le Pen is not alone in positing this causality between immigration and sexual violence. News sources reporting the testimonies of the assaulted women were quick to invoke ethnicity – “North African or Arab in appearance”– in describing the perpetrators. My point here is not to challenge the ethnicity of the perpetrators, but rather to highlight the accounts’ use of ethnicity as a marker of criminality; something that the cartoon does not do, even though its caption refers to the “groping” mentioned repeatedly in the accounts. Indeed, far from challenging the rabid imagination of those who fear immigration, the cartoon trivializes the enduring hardship of the refugee and even makes him culpable for it.

An inset on the top left recalls the photograph of Aylan and repeats its facelessness. But it also does away with the reference to scale that crucially helps the viewer identify the body in the photograph as that of a child. Furthermore, unlike the soft curves of a child’s limbs that we see in the photograph, the stark lines of the inset denote an adult human body, albeit one in rigor mortis. Thus, even before we exit the inset, at the margin of which we find the accompanying caption enquiring about his future, we are confronted with Aylan in the conditional; that is, as an adult. The caption asks in the past conditional: Que serait devenu le petit Aylan s’il avait grandi [what would little Aylan have become if he had grown up]? Note that it asks what (que), not who (qui), Aylan would have become. Que here asks about Aylan’s professional future ­– Tripoteur de fesses (ass-groper) – and the accompanying image depicts his performing with gusto what the caption predicts. But the snout-nosed, bulging-eyed creature that we see in the image also invites a different reading of que. It makes one wonder if the caption asks what kind of animal little Aylan would have become in adulthood, and in so doing echoes the judgment of the likes of Le Pen, thereby leading defenders of the cartoon to assert that it is a caricature of the right-wing’s imagination of refugees. Going above and beyond the right-wing’s fear-mongering about rapist immigrants (note: not refugees), the cartoon shows snout-nosed creatures with outreached arms running in pursuit of an equine woman whose gaping mouth and bulging eyes suggest excitement about, rather than fear of, sexual violence. Riss’s cartoon visualizes not the fear of sexual violence but of racial miscegenation. Without the twinned prejudices of racism and misogyny, the white men of Charlie Hebdo would need to save no one from no one.

My ire against Riss’s cartoon is because of the way in which it deploys the past conditional; not, as liberals complain, for its toying with a future otherwise denied, or for its replacing the unseen face of a dead child with the caricature of a hybrid man-pig. Placed under the caption “migrants”, the sentence “Que serait…” seizes, transforms, and trivializes a grammatical tense and mood that, with its inherent sense of contingency and uncertainty, textures the day-to-day life of the refugee and highlights the discrete temporality of refugee life. On each boat, in each van, on the margin of every border, at each camp, over each meal, at each farewell to a loved one, at each reunion, at every instance of clinging to and handing over a document of identity, at every reminder of the lost home, against the gaze of every unwelcoming stranger, the life of the refugee necessitates the perpetual incantation of “what… if…” against the unknown that lies ahead and the violence that is routinely expected within it. Furthermore, “What… if…” spaces a painfully unbridgeable gap between refugee and migrant. Riss’s cartoon may caricature the right-wing imagination, but its caption fails to grasp, and even conceals, that the future projected onto refugees is the very source of their conditional present. Here a productive dissonance between caption and image arises. Placed in the indefinite blank space of the cartoon, the phantom Aylan chases after the object of his desire. However, like the refugee, he goes nowhere.

The phantom Aylan, the cartoon tells us, is a tripoteur de fesses. The noun is derived from the verb tripoter, ‘to grope’, or ‘to fiddle’. The noun in the caption affirms the realization of a desire that, however, remains unfulfilled in the accompanying image. Indeed, unlike the promise of its caption, the image shows us something else: outreached hands, not groping ones. As I noted above, the cartoon displaces the refugee’s experience of the conditional (the “what…if…”) onto the future that the right-wing predicts for it. Similarly, it also seizes the refugee’s gesture of plea and both misrepresents and mislabels it.

The word caricature, used in both French and English, derives from the Italian caricare (meaning ‘to charge, exaggerate, load’). The Italian root illuminates a critical aspect of the history of caricature in what is often heralded as its Golden Age in the 18th and 19th centuries: the caricaturist’s emphasis on the exaggerated or overloaded line. Thus, for example, Charles Philipon could, with a few strokes, simplify and distort the outline of the face of Louis-Philippe in 1831 into the shape of a pear in a caricature published for La Caricature. The transformation of line not only allowed the caricaturist to create new meaning out of old forms, but it also enabled him to reveal the meaning latent (indeed, concealed) in the original form. In this regard, the image’s dissonance with the caption was in some instances as formative of the caricature’s critique, as the consonance between the two was in others.

The protean nature of caricature thus prevents the neat demarcation of its politics. Indeed, published in the same years as Philipon’s roi-poire were caricatures that besmirched the working classes and sought to maintain the social order desired by the Parisian middle class (Cuno 1994). Riss’s cartoon may depict Le Pen’s predatory migrants in order to mock her opinion piece. But it also caricatures or “charges” the conditional world of the refugee. A gesture of plea that underlines the refugee’s submission to the conditionality of hospitality now becomes the source of his affirmed criminality. As such, just as Le Pen accuses refugees of criminality, so too does the cartoon charge them with the source of their own destitution. Now recall that Aylan is dead.

 

References:

James Cuno, “Violence, Satire, and Social Types in the Graphic Art of the July Monarchy,” in Petra-Ten-Doesschate Chu and Gabriel P. Weisberg, The Popularization of Images: Visual Culture Under the July Monarchy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 10-36.

Many Deaths of Mullah Omar … and One for Mansoor

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Joseph Goldstein’s first two sentences in a New York Times story on Mullah Omar’s death read: “The Taliban, it turns out, had been sending the world messages from a dead man. And the world kept answering him.”

***

Amir ul-Momineen Mullah Omar Mujahid of Emirate Islamia Afghanistan has not been seen since he made his escape on a Honda motor cycle from Helmand in 2002. Even before that he was only rarely seen outside his inner circles. His presence was made known, at first through his edicts that were often scribbled on silk paper cigarette wrappings, and then through the website of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in the form of Eid greetings and other messages on commemorative days. The last of these greetings came on this Eid and contained overtures of peace towards the Afghan government, which President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan duly acknowledged and welcomed. But then the news broke through that Mullah Omar was in this world no more and hadn’t been so for a long while–by some reports, maybe little over two years. Rumors of his death had been circulating since late 2001 when he vanished from the scene. According to Goldstein, the last he was heard, by some of his commanders, was in 2008-09.

In any case, whenever and in whatever way he died, he is dead now; and that is the point all agree on ― a veritable death by consensus. It was confirmed by Hafiz Saeed offering a ghaibana namaz-e janaza (funeral prayer in absentia of a deceased body) in Lahore; a few days after the news of his death. By dint of it, they were to prove that the death was of recent date. Otherwise, a specter of lapsed prayer lurked over their exercise ― two years too late or maybe more. Whether it would have made any difference to the departed soul is entirely an inconsequential matter.

***

Commenting over Mullah Omar’s late official statements ― dead man sending messages ― a western diplomat said: “If you had never gotten confirmation that Mullah Omar had died, this would have gone on until he was 110.” Certainly, Mullah Omar’s death has some consequences, one of which is that his statements have ceased to be in circulation. But, by the same token one can affirm his death since those statements have not been forthcoming. That raises an interesting question: what does it take for Mullah Omar to be really dead? A corollary of this question is a prior question, for he must have been living prior to his death in order for us to ask: what was this living, or in what way was he living that in relation to it he is now dead? Continue reading “Many Deaths of Mullah Omar … and One for Mansoor”

In Plato’s Cave

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The above image is taken from the second of the five videos released to showcase Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad by the US Department of Defense after the 2 May, 2011 operation of US Navy Seals that was to kill or capture him. It was told that the footage was found among the treasure trove of data collected from his compound. This is a remarkable image. The body, which is supposed to be terrorism personified (let’s call it terrorism-body, for more than being of a terrorist, it represents much that is terrorism and the War on Terror), is hidden from view by a blanket wrapped over it and a winter skull cap on the head. Its rear side view doesn’t reveal much; only a side glimpse of a face with a beard and a hand on remote control being its revelatory organs. For all that is hidden, this is its only manifestation: a terrorist Muslim’s body that has its hand on the trigger.
Continue reading “In Plato’s Cave”