Over the course of the last year and a bit, CM’s own Daisy Rockwell, a.k.a Lapata, has been featured on CNN on three occasions. The first of these, on Erin’s Burnett’s CNN blog, “OutFront,” featured Daisy’s The Little Book of Terror as the subject of a sensationally titled discussion, “Norman Rockwell’s granddaughter paints terrorists,” and invited CNN readers to weigh in with their thoughts on the matter. Earlier this year in May, OutFront also conducted a detailed interview with Daisy on her translation of Upendranath Ashk’s book, Hats with Doctors. And most recently, CNN interviewed Daisy for her thoughts on the flap concerning the Rolling Stone cover that featured Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokar Tsarnaev.
CNN has been fair in giving Daisy the opportunity to discuss her work and to speak her piece without sacrificing complexity or nuance, more than one can say of most media organizations whose bread and butter, the soundbite, is the natural enemy of both. There are, however, some peculiar and telling aspects of the way in which these conversations and discussions have been framed by CNN. Peculiar because CNN’s framing directly contradicts what I think is one of the crucially important aspects of Daisy’s art and writing. Telling because CNN’s framing of these discussions also reflects something fundamental about the relationship of art (or representation, more broadly) and politics in our times, namely, a conservative turn in the culture about the subjects proper of art, writing, and scholarship.
Narenda Modi’s global makeover owes much to neoliberal democracy and the ideology of developmentalism argues Sanyasi.
The global rehabilitation of Narendra Modi is well underway. A lunch meeting in January this year at German Ambassador Michael Steiner’s home between Modi and representatives from the states of the European Union “ended a decade-long unofficial EU boycott of the 62-year-old politician” for his alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. It is not quite as clear whether the US is warming up to Modi, but some Republican lawmakers have indicated that they intend to get Modi a visa to travel to the promised land.
The same Germany and Europe who endlessly exhort the rest of the world never to forget the Jewish Holocaust have after all of a decade conveniently forgotten Gujarat 2002. The amnesia is, to an extent, explained by the West’s centuries-long history of hypocrisy on such matters, which involves innumerable instances of subordinating its professed commitment to rights to its base economic, political, and material interests. (Think of the coddling and arming of Saddam Hussein by the Thatcher regime and Rumsfeld’s role in helping him secure chemical weapons. Or, more recently, the use of Malala Yousafzai’s ordeal and heroic struggle to indict Pakistani culture at large, while laws in US states that violate American women’s reproductive rights and deny them sovereignty over their own selves draw no such generalizations about American culture. ) With his image as a pro-business, pro-investment politician, Modi promises Western economies a means for accessing India’s markets. India’s consuming middle classes are his oil, his blood diamonds. But this is only part of the story. Modi’s reentry into the civilized world–now defined as a global world in which a globalizing India anxiously seeks to assert itself–is enabled by two other factors that are more significant than the self-serving inconsistency of the West.
Excerpted from “Refuge: A Work of Memory, Cities, and Loss.”
Rising tides of wealth tossed them around, these men and their families in the one or two-storied houses painted yellow, colony after colony, a small park every three blocks, a cluster of shops every five, the children studying at the dining tables till late into the nights. But the families managed to hold on to the worlds they had created within the old city, one more layer of life in its thousand-year history, entire neighborhoods of refugees with similar sounding names, or they reached outward into the wilderness to strike new roots once more, as Delhi proliferated into new colonies, gobbling up vast stretches of plains well past the Yamuna on the east and the airport on the west. In their adopted neighborhoods, they made the strange yield to familiarity over time through the act of limiting their lives to a narrow, well-defined set of routines, of realistic, modest ambitions and precise expectations, and through denying themselves, even when they had the opportunity, the luxury of leisure or vacations.
In and around these routines, followed with a fierce discipline, they added touches of an elsewhere. The chairpais converted small front yards into the traditional courtyards of bigger homes and past memory, a smattering of potted plants, a 40-watt bulb with anemic light left burning on through the night. Small dabs of bright or black paint on the sides or front of the houses to ward off the evil eye. Minor indulgences like a particular brand of shaving soap or winter socks manufactured in a city that now belonged to another country. These were purchased from shopkeepers in the old city who, in turn, obtained them through networks that did not recognize borders that to the collective memory of the city still seemed recent. In the kitchens, an egalitarianism of steel, ceramic, and plastic. Two shelves of books, the Bertrand Russells and Bernard Shaws from the Indian arms of international publishing conglomerates, others in Indian languages from local publishers bound by red or white thread and dislodged from their loud covers. The clothes washed with coarse industrial-strength soap billowing in monochromatic colors off clotheslines in balconies and backyards, plastic bottles of oil on windowsills in bedrooms, unnamed and identified by expertise alone. The habit of bringing home each day something from one of the city’s many streets dedicated to food. The men disgorged from buses and autorickshaws, briefcases in one hand, oil-stained paper bags of food delicately clutched in the other. These lightly rendered brushstrokes gave Delhi’s worlds of refugees depth beyond the brute achievement of survival. Not just in language and dress, in faith and tongue, but here, too, culture survived and grew, a compact between the old and new, the nostalgic and the pragmatic forming an alloy, distinct and unique to the neighborhoods away from the centers of official or elite cultural activity.
[ For Part I of my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012 on Chapati Mystery, see here.]
Journey to Dohuk
We fly into Erbil (called Hawler by the locals) on a bright, late afternoon. The gleaming marble airport is hubbub with activity and people, including lots of security guards milling about. The drive to another Kurdish city of Dohuk leads us through bright vistas, gradually closer into the hazy pink and yellow terrain of the low Dohuk hills.1 Our host, who drives us in his spacious American van, makes pleasant conversation. Almost everyday in the past few months, news from Iraq inevitably describes bombings, random violence, and sectarian conflict in Southern Iraq, often in Baghdad, but also in other cities closer to Kurdistan, such as Mosul and Kirkuk; thus, as we drive by small road-side communal clusters of shops, with trinkets and steel dishes hanging below canopies, small car repair hubs, trucks passing by, and at frequent intervals, mounds of water melons piled up for sale along the road side, this normalcy seems to make that other news seem surreal. Continue reading A Musafir in Iraqi Kurdistan – Part II
One year ago I visited the Kurdish Autonomous Region, flying into Erbil (Hawler to the locals) and spent a week in Dohuk, one of the three cities of the Kurdish governate. We were a small group of 3 friends/colleagues, working in a project via Michigan State University, for IREX (see Irex.org).
We returned this May in a larger, more official group of six: two senior administrators, three faculty, and one graduate student. Our visit also coincided with that of the representative of IREX in Dohuk. We had been in contact with several faculty members in the English Language and Literature Department at the University of Dohuk since our last visit. We were returning to conduct workshops for a new curriculum design for the literature program. [↩]
A version of this review essay appears in the May issue of the Caravan.
My first formal encounter with the idea of citizenship was through an eighth-standard Civics textbook in India. In the Indian educational system, Civics had the secondary status of a quasi-subject counting for about 20 percent of the combined History-Civics paper. The textbook was an object of derision for its excruciating dullness and a source of mirth because of gems such as “The President of India is a rubber stamp. Discuss.” But the awkward appending of Civics to History was neither meaningless nor accidental. Given the history of India, the objects discussed in the Civics textbook—Parliament, citizenship, etc.—were assumed to be byproducts of the successful fight for national independence from the imperial yoke of the British. Citizenship, then, was something that we automatically possessed as Indians, something that we knew intimately and intuitively or at least were meant to know so. In the many years since having to reluctantly memorize the contents of that textbook as a school student, I have routinely come across the same assumption: overzealous television anchors and holier-than-thou celebrities exhorting Indians to do their duty as citizens; Indian elites grousing about the fact that other Indians lack a culture of citizenship; or assorted groups from privileged majorities to disenfranchised minorities claiming that they have been treated as second-class citizens by the Indian state. Continue reading On ideas of Indian citizenship
[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.]
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.
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 Britishjournalist 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.
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.
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.
The Kumbh Mela of Literature, The Burning Man of India (except with books instead of drugs)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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)?
Journey to Amedia – Lessons in History and Geography
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.