XQs IX – A Conversation with Julie Billaud

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Syeda Masood for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVIVII, VIII.]

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Julie Billaud is an anthropologist working on Afghanistan, Islam, gender, international governance and human rights. She is the author of Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

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1. You open the book with a quote from Bakhtin and his idea of the carnival informs your book in a big way. How did you come across Bakhtin’s theory and what compelled you to frame your book largely through his theoretical lens?

Before studying anthropology in the UK, I studied contemporary literature in France and I came across Bakhtin’s theory of language and his work on the social nature of speech in this context. It is only later on, when I started studying for my PhD, that a Mexican anthropologist and friend of mine introduced me to his writings on Rabelais and his reflections on the ambiguous and subversive potential of the carnival. Reading this text was enlightening, as it enabled me to draw similarities between the medieval carnival and the context of ‘postwar reconstruction’ in Afghanistan. Indeed, the so-called ‘transition’ is in my opinion better described as a state of liminality comparable to the one found in a carnival where the new and the old merge in unexpected ways. The joyous atmosphere of the carnival put aside, the ‘postwar/reconstruction’ carnival in Afghanistan is a moment when rules are turned upside down and when new imaginaries can emerge. For instance, the downfall of the Taliban has opened some room for free speech and for women to take part in politics; developments that could at first sight be perceived as a radical reversal of the old order. Yet these reforms have been carried out while former mujahidin and warlords responsible for major crimes and human rights violations have been brought back to power with the support of the international community. Besides deepening a sense of uncertainty experienced by the Afghan people, these contradictions are a source of intense social tensions between conflicting visions for the future of the country. Furthermore, this state of uncertainty forces Afghans to play roles and to constantly adapt their performances according to different situations. It is not the first time that Afghans are forced to engage in a play whose scenario has been written for them by others. Indeed, this ‘frame’ (to use Gregory Bateson’s notion) which powerfully impacts on people’s behaviors, creating spaces and interactions which are ‘set apart’ and understood to operate according to different rules, was also a feature of the Russian occupation of the country. Bakhtin, who wrote on the carnival in a context where communication was perceived as a threat to power, has developed an intimate knowledge of the necessarily ambiguous nature of transcripts in such environments. In the same way as James Scott understood the difficulty for subordinates to speak their minds in the presence of power, Bakhtin was deeply aware – as a witness of the Stalinist purges and as an intellectual who had been banished from the center of official Soviet culture – of the conditions of possibility for dissent to be expressed. Scott uses the notion of ‘hidden transcripts’ to characterize the critique of power that goes on offstage, behind the back of the powerful. I personally find Bakhtin’s reflection on the centrifugal force of popular culture, promoting ambivalence and allowing openness and transgression, slightly more compelling than Scott’s ‘public/hidden’ transcripts dichotomy.

2. You touch upon many themes and highlight several tensions that your interlocutors were living with like gender as self and performance, nation and occupation and freedom and constraints. What would you say is your main argument in this book?

In writing Kabul Carnival, my intention was to provide a historically, politically and culturally situated representation of ‘Afghan women’. The argument I make in this book is that the political category ‘woman’ in Afghanistan is the result of a long history of interventions in the region, which have often been legitimated by the need for white men ‘to save brown women from brown men’, to use Gayatri Spivak’s expression. These orientalist representations of Afghan women as oppressed ‘others’ have been reactivated in the post 9/11 context to legitimize the occupation of the country and the various reforms imposed on the Afghan polity. Because of the disconnect that currently exists between the liberal ideology accompanying so-called ‘reconstruction’ efforts and the harsh material reality of life under foreign occupation, the international community’s agenda for ‘gender justice’ has the paradoxical effect of triggering identitarian reactions and nationalist feelings which deeply constrain women’s capacity to speak. Indeed, the eruption of moral panics framed in terms of ‘moral pollution’ is very much related to the presence of NGOs, international organizations and military troops whose agenda and actions remain doubtful for the majority of people. Like in other colonial encounters, women are the symbolic terrain upon which a cultural battle between different versions of ‘development’ and ‘modernity’ is being fought. The book provides ethnographic illustrations of the dilemmas faced by ordinary (and less ordinary) women in their quest for a culturally legitimate voice and of the various cultural repertoires they mobilize in their everyday interactions. Moving away from representations of women as powerless victims, the book is an attempt to reveal their extreme resourcefulness and ingenuity even in the most precarious circumstances. More generally, the book is a plea to acknowledge the wounded relationships between Afghanistan and ‘the West’ and the unforeseen consequences these may have, not only for gender relations but also for the country’s political destiny.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/10144406@N06/

Continue reading “XQs IX – A Conversation with Julie Billaud”

Postcards from the Archives: Goodbye 2016

2016 began with statements of solidarity with JNU (this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this), and ended with the dawn of the Age of Orange and our renewed commitments to not-survive, to not-surrender, and to always throw shad at power. In 2016, we bid farewell to beloved colleaguesmentors, writers, scholars.

2016 was a fairly busy year at CM. The highlight surely was the publication of Sepoy’s A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia. Here are some reviews: linklink, link. Sepoy shared his thoughts on the writing process, here. Lapata graced CM with her art and essay on Aleppopoetic translation, and thoughts on the art of translation. We continued our XQ series with an interview with Eric Beverly and Nayanika Mathur; featured an interview with Sheldon Pollock (see also, Sepoy’s Why Sheldon Pollock); organized a roundtable on Kamran Asdar Ali’s Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism 1947 – 1972 (IB Tauris) / Surkh Salam: Communist Politics and Class Activism in Pakistan 1947–1972 (OUP – Karachi), featuring reviews by Ahmed Kanna, Sarah Besky, Junaid Rana, Arvind Elangovan, and Atiya Singh; and maintained a focus on city-writing: Lahore: Marks It Bears IIRickshaw diaryThe City and the City*: Space and Semiotics of Muslim Bombay**,  Musings on Absence: Planning, Policies, and Conflict in the Indian Administered Kashmir. Other notable guest pieces are Zirwat Chowdhury’s The Conditional World of the Refugee, Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah’s Nanu’s Poetry, and Taimoor Shahid’s Meditation on Borders. Yours truly also said some things, about Zindagi Gulzar Hai.

If I were to pick, my favourite chapatis were Lapata’s Lessons Learned: Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph, in memoriam, and Sepoy’s The Work of Humanities.

PS. A rogue splinter group of “artists of all stripes: painters, dancers, musicians, poets, etc., to share their art of protest and come for inspiration. Scholars and other savvy individuals are also welcome[…]”

PPS. Thinking about the Last Hindu Emperor

Previously: 201520142013201220112010

A Book of Conquest

Gentle Readers,

It has been a while since we last spoke and much has happened– good and notgood– and I have been remiss with my absence. In a few short weeks you will be able to buy my book, A Book of Conquest from your online or retail bookseller in US, EU and South Asia.

I finished writing the book in earnest last August (2015) and submitted it to the Press. It took until around May for copy-editing and indexing and other things to get set– and almost exactly a year to the date, I have the physical book in my hand. That feels amazing (and actually it is amazing given usual publication schedules are 18 months).

What can I say about the book: It is mostly the history of a Persian text, Chachnama which was written around 1220s. It is mostly a history of the region of Sind from the 9th to the 13th century. It is mostly about a political theory that existed before the Mughals and about which we know little (in general). It is mostly about the notion that Muslims are outsiders to South Asia. It is mostly about how we seek answers in origins (wrongly). It is mostly about a method of doing history as post-partitioned subjects. It is mostly what I wanted to say and I am glad that I was able to say it and I am grateful that you will be able to read it.

I was planning on writing some short posts about the mechanics of the book writing and publishing and whatever I learned from it. I say “was” mainly because I am drowning in other writing assignments and classes are about to start so I don’t know how/when I will get to it. Yet, it is a priority and I will.

In the meanwhile, this note is meant to say:

There will be some more book-related news in the next few months.

The City and the City*: Space and Semiotics of Muslim Bombay**

By Sarover Zaidi

Anthropologist, architecture obsessed, studied philosophy, worked in rural India ten years.

[This text was commissioned as a guest column in The Funambulist Magazine 4 (March-April 2016): Carceral Environments. The issue is available in printed and digital versions on The Funambulist’s website.]

 

jj flyoverThe JJ flyover was built in record time with pre-fabricated concrete blocks in 2002 over what is known as the ‘native’ ‘Muslim’ town of Bombay. The narrative dominating its quick construction was explained as ‘decongestion’, an easy freeway over the old Muslim town, leading one to the financial centre of south Bombay with ease. Seen as an architectural feat the flyover running at 2.4 kilometres in length asserted what Eyal Weizman terms as a ‘sovereign verticality’ over the area below it. Covering all of Muhammad Ali road, the spatial aorta of the native town of Bombay, the JJ flyover set a new horizon of surveillance over the Muslim ‘ghetto’ of the city. What else did it do in a city already entrenched with vegetarian buildings, arbitrary arrests of Muslim boys, firing and rioting in Muslim areas and mosques, and a generally discriminatory everyday life for the Muslim populace? A swift bureaucratic decision solved not just the issue of congestion, but also provided a bypass to the ‘Muslim problems’ of Bombay.

The area below the flyover, historically dominated by different Muslim trading communities, was strongly reconstituted as a ‘problem zone’ after the Bombay riots (1992-93) spread across the different neighborhoods of this area. The stigma of the riots and the presence of the underworld involved in the Bombay bomb blasts (1993), saturated this area with a signification it could never really escape. Hence the Musalman, the outsider, the terrorist, the rioter, the anti-national came to form a metonymic chain, contrasted and highlighted heavily by the then right wing ruling party, the Shiv Sena — the Shiv Sena emerged as a Hindu right wing political party at the time and was involved in orchestrating the riots and looting in Muslim neighborhoods. If neighborhoods bear the weight of these historical events of the city, then bodies participate in this narrative through everyday locations of living with violence. Recently a public intellectual of Bombay exclaimed: “Look at these Muslim boys speeding across town, no respect for rules, civic space, probably a hangover of riding camels.” He was referring to the Muslim boys who ride their bikes between the old Muslim neighbourhood and the colonial city, today the elite financial area of Bombay. These boys due to the festival are made allowances to transgress city spaces, beyond the old Muslim neighbourhood and venture into the zones of the elite colonial city. On other days they are usually stopped, checked and fined by the traffic police, speeding or not.

The city functions as a doppelganger on itself, with different sets of rules applying to different areas, and of course to different religiously affiliated communities. Continue reading “The City and the City*: Space and Semiotics of Muslim Bombay**”