What is Aleppo?

 

What is Aleppo?
What is Aleppo?

Aleppo is a city in Syria. Aleppo is a city near-destroyed by civil war. Aleppo is besieged. Aleppo is a refugee crisis. Aleppo is the site of an international proxy war. When ill-informed Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnston asked this question on a cable talk show this fall his hosts didn’t even know where to start. Did he think he was on Jeopardy? Did he answer any other questions in the form of a question? What levels of ignorance would cause a politician running for major political office to ask ‘what’ Aleppo is, rather than ‘where’ it is?

When I was first asked to participate in a group exhibition organized around the theme of the painter Grandma Moses’s artwork at our local museum, I laughed. I couldn’t imagine what I could contribute. Grandma Moses painted ‘primitive’ style landscapes populated by tiny people—usually pastoral Vermont scenes. What could be further from my work? But after some thought, I realized that Moses’s technique for creating in her paintings a totality of a place by ignoring various features of realism such as perspective and proportionality were a perfect way to capture something I’d been thinking about a long time: how to portray life in the war zone of the Syrian city Aleppo.

As an artist who is in fact located in the pastoral and idyllic setting of Vermont, far away from the horrendous civil war in Syria, I have only scattered glimpses of the landscape in Aleppo. The primitive style allows me to piece together these shards, gleaned from photos on the internet from journalists, civilians, and even militants, and construct an imaginary piece of city. The organizing principle of my painting, and the inspiration for this reconstruction is a civilian by the name of Muhammad Alaa Aljaleel, a man who fled the city with his family to Turkey, but returned alone, unable to tolerate the idea that Aleppo would be totally abandoned by civilians. Muhammad then set up a cat shelter, where he feeds cats who have been left behind in the city, either because their owners have died or have fled. He also looks after dogs and even farm animals and works tirelessly to help out orphaned children left in the city.

There are no good guys in the Battle of Aleppo, which has been ongoing since 2012, with over thirty thousand dead. The Syrian government is backed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and others, and the rebel forces are fragmented, some backed by Al Qaeda-allied militant groups and covertly by the US and NATO. The UN has called the Syrian Government’s relentless shelling of civilians ‘an extermination.’ Similarly, they have expressed horror at the indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets by the rebel groups in the current round of fighting, in which the rebels are attempting to break the government siege of the city which has isolated the eastern part of Aleppo from all supply lines.

Muhammad Alaa Aljaleel’s cat shelter is located in the besieged rebel-held eastern section of the city. Every day, Muhammad posts to Facebook numerous photos of dozens of cats gnawing on bones and eating little scraps of meat. These images are in fact some of the only signs to the outside world that civilian life still exists in eastern Aleppo and that all the residents are not dead, wounded, or long-fled to fates that have been proven to be just as deadly, and welcomes that have been far from warm.

It could be argued that a state of siege and civil war is hardly a time to concern one’s self with cats, but I believe that Muhammad’s shelter is an amazing act of protest against the inhumanity of perpetual war. His refusal to turn his back on living creatures, or choose sides, or take up arms, all this is a powerful demonstration of non-violent resistance to the inhumanity of war.

This painting will be for sale in a silent auction to benefit the Bennington Museum, in Bennington, VT. The auction will be open for bids from November 25th to December 29th, 2016. Half the proceeds will go to the museum, and the other half will be donated to Muhammad Alaa Jaleel’s cat shelter in Aleppo, which is still able to receive funds. Please contact the Bennington Museum with bids after November 25th.

On Writing

Gentle Readers,

Today, Sep 19th, marks the official janam din for A Book of Conquest. In light of this occasion, some thoughts on writing it.

Where I started:

The book began as my dissertation but it bears only a faint resemblance to that document. Most critically, I jettisoned much of the analytical framework that was there for the dissertation (memory) as well as the focus of that text (Muhammad bin Qasim). This was due to conversations, readings and publishing decisions that occurred in the year after the dissertation was finished. Since 2012, I published two journal articles which resembled the task of the book but, nothing that would go directly into a new manuscript. In essence, I was starting the book from scratch (which was my preference).

Workflow:

The first thing that confronted me was the mechanics of writing and the workflow. I had some criteria: I wanted my work to always be accessible no matter how many years in the future. I wanted to produce different forms of documents from the same source text. I wanted to have version controls and document forks (basically that I could amend a particular text and have those versions available). For the first, there is only one choice, which is to write in plain text (think your notepad or textedit). Yet, as scholars we also need to do headings, italics, footnotes etc, so we need some light markup. Hence, Markdown, coupled with YAML provides everything one may need.

Markdown has grown tremendously since I used a version of it for the dissertation writing in 2008 (via Scrivener). The availability of Pandoc meant that producing a .pdf or .docx file from my markdown (.md) files would not a hassle. (To learn about Plain Text/future-proofing your work, see this introduction). So the workflow at the outset was to write in a lightweight text editor (I used Sublime Text but you can also try Atom or really any plain text editor) and then use pandoc to produce a pdf for sharing/proofing. I used a GitHub repository (and Google Drive as backup) to keep the files and version control. (If you use Atom, it helps with that).

Once I had a chapter draft complete– meaning all the text I’d imagine writing, plus all citations, and some preliminary copyediting– the file would move into an “Alpha” folder. It was only at this stage that I had friends read that chapter and offer any feedback/suggestions for revisions. I would then make those revisions and give that file to my editor for copy-edits. When that file would get back, I would move it into the “Beta” folder. The Beta folder– with the .md files converted into .docx according to the Press’s specifications was submitted to the Press.

Co-Presence:

A colleague and I began the writing process together. We did so after a number of conversations about the solitude and stress that long writing projects induce. We did not have a lot of science behind this, except the understanding that much of academic self-presentation is masochism, self-aggrandization and needless self-harm. We began with the idea of “co-presence” as a way of both motivation and solidarity but also re-thinking writing as a solitary pursuit. We were lucky that we both had offices in adjacent buildings. So we alternated our writing– a day in one office followed by a day in the other.

We belong to different disciplines and were writing different books so there was not much of an overlap there. However, we did some things like share the number of words written that day; share coffees, lunches and walks around the blocks; think out aloud any problems or issues with the writing. The solidarity of co-presence was perhaps the most critical strength through very long, rough, patches. Soon after we started, a number of other colleagues joined in co-presence and everyone worked under the same set of guidelines (workworkwork).

Chalkboards

In terms of writing, I am a visual thinker. So I invested in a small erase-board (picked it up on the street) and also worked in a room that had a chalkboard. I would draw argument flows constantly and those chalkboards would help me think as I wrote the sections/subsections. It really helped me especially when I would get stuck because I knew where I was (visually). (Incidentally, this is why I worked in SublimeText because it shows a visual map of the document)

Form:

In the last decade, I have written around 1.5 million words for this blog. Add on another 40k for opinion pieces, review essays and such for other media (print or online). Add another 170k for a dissertation and a book. Add some 40k for articles in academic journals. Add some more in 140 character bites for twitter. My one take-away from all that writing has been that each medium, message, requires its own form. Further, that forms should never be consecrated or calcified. Knowing when to be obedient to form and when to rebel is, thus, a necessary skill.

For the book, I did extensive fieldwork between 2011 and 20014 in Uch Sharif. My method consisted primarily of long walks and conversations. It informed my understanding of the contemporary world but it also informed the types of questions I was bringing to bear on the medieval text. I needed to make sure that the resultant book bore witness to this process but also to the friends and helpers I encountered in Uch Sharif and Ahmedpur Sharkia.

It was thus a natural decision to introduce myself as a participant into the text of the book. I did not hesitate with that decision and each chapter organically opened up with a small contemporary incursion into Uch Sharif. I hope the readers will see the logic and necessity of that move– as a method and as a ethic. I believe, and have argued, that the texture of the scholarly work ought to reflect the texture of the evidence that it is built upon. Artifacts of the past and present– their form, shape, appearance, structure– informs the secondary analysis and revisitation that we understand as scholarly work. Any number of critical voices are available to buttress this observation– Gloria Anzaldua, Carolyn Steedman, Greg Dening, Quratulain Hyder– being those particularly trenchant examples.

Alongside the form, is the notion of the audience, the framework, the “whats-at-stake” sets of issues. At least for me, there were specific conversations with senior colleagues and my Editor which clarified my own particular answers and which ended up being the “frame” for the book. I am really grateful for those conversations in shaping the work.

Publishing:

Some of my concerns were that the book be available in South Asia and that the Press be able to put out a reasonably priced volume. Being a first book author in the academic scene is a hard task for any of us in that position. Harvard University Press was a genuine pleasure to work with and I am very happy with the final product. If people are interested, I can post more about the publication process and/or the publishing scene for medieval South Asia in particular (though, frankly, there aren’t a whole lot of us).

Still, I tried to think forward through the process. Through a departmental initiative, I participated in a manuscript workshop where a set of senior faculty gave me invaluable feedback and corrections. Through a grant, I paid for copy-editing before the text went out to reviewers to get it into some good shape. These two things, I think, made the rest of the review process easier. I made an effort to meet every single deadline on the publication schedule (submission, reader responses, copy-edits, proof-edits, indexing) so that I did not insert delays in the process. I paid for services outside the publishing process (pre-submission copy-edit and indexing) via grants that I applied for (institutional). This was a luxury that I had, and I took advantage of it.

The whole process took 18 months during which I also taught three courses. Some of that period was easier and some was rougher but it went, more or less, according to the plan I sketched out in November 2014. That plan was what saved me in the darkness.

I hope you read the book and I hope this above is of some usage. Thank you, as always, for reading.

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.

Poetry Management

Shubham Shree[Shubham Shree’s irreverent Hindi poem “Poetry Management” has been awarded the 2016 Bharat Bhushan Agrawal Prize by renowned Hindi author Uday Prakash to howls of rage from the Hindi poetic establishment. Below, I share my translation of the poem, and Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral explains what’s got them so mad. Urdu readers can check out Aftab Ahmad‘s translation by clicking here. Many thanks to Hindi poet Asad Zaidi, editor of Three Essays Collective, for introducing me to Shubham Shree’s work and to Aftab Ahmad for invaluable translation assistance.]

 

Poetry Management
By Shubham Shree

(Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell)

Writing poetry is bogus!
Yeah, and useless!
Totally.

Unprofessional profession!
Part time!
Why didn’t I do some MBA-type thing?
It’d be a blast, man!
I’d write a poem; the SENSEX would fall
The poet Mr. So-and-So has written a poem against capitalism
The SENSEX has fallen
Chatter on the channel
This is an example of the fall of American imperialism
Will America be able to control poets inspired by Venezuela?
Assurance from the Finance Minister:
Have faith, small-time investors!

The RBI will immediately increase the repo rate
Hubbub in the media
A contemporary poetry collection is coming out:
What do you think, how will the common man, the aam aadmi, deal with this collection?
SMS your response to us
But hey, the glory of the CPO (Chief Poetry Officer) will skyrocket!
Ads will show up for every program:
Reliance Digital Poetry
makes life poetic
Tata poetry–
every word just for you
People will hang poetry in their drawing rooms
Ooh, it’s so lovely!
Seems like something by someone from Sahitya Akademi!
No, sir, it’s imported
The original is worth millions of dollars
This one’s a copy
Children will write essays:
When I grow up I want an MPA
LIC Poetry Insurance:
Your dream is ours too
DU, Poetry Honors, cut-off sky-high
The girls have come in first again
in the PAT (Poetry Aptitude Test) exams
Students have burnt the VC in effigy
protesting PAT reservation cheating
Approval granted for eight new poetry institutes
At only three years of age, three thousand poems memorized:
India’s tiny miracle
America, anxious about the situation in Iran–
defeated by the Farsi poetic tradition!

This is All India Radio
Now you’ll hear the news in Hindi from Seema Anand
Namaskar!
Today the Prime Minister departs for a three-day International Poetry Conference
All the country’s poetry groups are participating
The Foreign Minister made it clear that India will not change its poetry policy for any price
The India-Pakistan Poetry Negotiations were again unsuccessful
Pakistan demands India retract its claims on Iqbal, Manto and Faiz
China again tested new poetic adornments
Sources say these adornments will now create the most powerful
poetry collections in the world
India’s foremost poetry producer, Mr. Wandering Lover—Ashiq Awara—died at dawn today
More attacks on Dalit poets in Utter Pradesh today
In the meantime, in games, for the third time running, India
has won the gold medal in Antakshari
India won the match in straight sets, 6-5, 6-4, 7-2
That’s the news for today!

Today’s Hindu, Hindustan Times, Dainik Jagaran, Prabhat Khabar
The kids are going crazy for the latest poetic hairstyles
Poetesses share their short and long vowel secrets
30-year-old MPA boy—seeks homely, convent-educated, traditional bride
25-year-old MPA girl: fair, slim, tall—seeks suitable groom

Dude, this is fun
Keep talking
I’m gonna be a hero
Handing out autographs everywhere I go
It’s gonna be awesome, dude
Shut up, man
Third Division MA
Who’s gonna pay for an MPA?
Enough of your bullshit!
Sit down and proofread

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