[Sarover Zaidi is an anthropologist, obsessing on architecture, art and other modes of being. Besides she runs ‘Elementary forms and the city’ and an itinerant future Guild for those who stand between the academy and the street. She has previously studied philosophy, worked in rural public health, loved and left Berlin, and worked in a bank.
The author would like to thank Samprati Pani for editorial and other lifeline inputs.
Dedicated to the memory of my father, who died February 2017, my eternal witness.
They ask me to tell them what Shahid means—
Listen: It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “Witness” in Arabic
—Agha Shahid Ali, In Arabic, 2003
Ali Shariati, the Iranian revolutionary and socialist, died mysteriously in 1977. Shariati, also a sociologist, wrote Jihad and Shahadat, a rendering of the historico-mythical battle of Karbala, retelling it as the first red revolution. Composed as a testimonial to the dead, Shariati portrayed the female protagonist Zainab as the last witness to this bloody battle of loss, death and mourning. Unfortunately, at the peak of Cold War politics, prior to Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran (1979), Shariati had been found dead under mysterious circumstances (1977). Shariati’s own death went without witnesses or testimonials, or the image and space of mourning it demanded. Forty years later, Azadeh Akhlaghi, a photographer, provides a testimonial to Shariati’s death, in her experimental series ‘By an Eyewitness’. Continue reading “On two modes of witnessing: Azadeh Akhlaghi and Gauri Gill”
50 years ago, Gillo Pontecorvo won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with his revolutionary masterpiece The Battle of Algiers. CG Entertainment, an Italian start-up, organised a crowdfunding campaign to publish the restored edition of the film. To support the initiative, they asked me to gather some thoughts in response to the work. The initial English version of the text, To Resist is to Existwas published by With Kashmir. What follows is an expanded version of that article with a further reflection on the idea of resistance.
Fifty-two years ago Gillo Pontecorvo shot The Battle of Algiers, a revolutionary film that tells the story of the Algerian resistance. The film is a three-year-long flashback reconstructing the initial steps of the liberation movement: from 1957 all the way back to November 1954 when the leaders of the National Liberation Front started gathering people and consensus. The story is narrated from the militants’ point of view and gives a very humane insight into the choices that paved the way to the dramatic, but necessary process of decolonisation.
Five decades later, the film still speaks to the present with immense relevance. The historical terms may have changed, but the substance remains the same. Oppressors, fascisms, colonialisms both past and present reiterate trite arguments to perpetuate their own existence and assert an idea of an immutable past to legitimise their privileges. The benevolent paternalism of power, the infantilisation of the Other, the discrimination on the ground of religion and skin colour survive their own stupidity. Continue reading “The Idea of Resistance”
Monday, March 20, 4-6pm | University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Co-sponsored by the Tricontinental Solidarity Network (Tricon), Islamic Studies Program, Asian / Pacific Islander American Studies, Center for South Asian Studies, South Asia Solidarity in Michigan (SASMI)
[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: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII.]
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.