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Official Statement From Defense Of Human Rights, Pakistan And The Continuing Struggle For Justice For Pakistan’s Missing

In Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on August 30, 2011 at 10:41 am

Amina Masood Junjua forward me the following this morning and I am posting it here as an act of support. For those of you unfamiliar with the work of this amazing woman, and the campaign for justice for those Pakistani’s who have become victims of the irrational, unjust and unquestioned tentacles of the ‘war against terror’ and have disappeared into Pakistani and American detention, torture and elimination. Her’s is a campaign inspired by the disappearance of her husband Masood in 2005. She has been instrumental in helping me meet families of those who have been picked up by the Pakistani military, intelligence and police, as part of my larger work on the impact of the ‘war against terror’ on the lives of ordinary Pakistani citizens.

From left to right: Reema Hayat, 3 yrs, Arshi Hayat, 6 years, Khoshair Osama Hayat, 10 years, Ali Sufiyan Hayat, 12 years, Abubakar Hayat, 14 years. Children of Shokat Hayat who disappeared into police and intelligence custody on 15th March 2009 and has not been heard of since. Copyright Asim Rafiqui from the series ‘Not Interesting If It Is Not Madness’

The writer and journalist Malcolm Garcia wrote an extensive piece about her, her campaign and the issue of the missing in Pakistan in a piece called “The Missing” which appeared in the October 2010 issue of Guernica Magazine.

Today, on the auspicious day of Eid being celebrated across the Muslim community, Amina sent out yet another plea. I am reposting it here in support for her campaign, and as another voice demanding justice and due process, the rights promised to all Pakistani citizens, regardless of their crimes or background, by the nation’s much tattered constitution.

Below is an excerpt, and you can read the original statement EidStatement2011:

Year 2011 has turned into a doubly sorrowful symbol for the families of Missing persons of Pakistan as International day of the victims of enforced disappearance and Eid fall on consecutive days. This year has an another significance because from today United Nations has also officially marked it as the International day of the victims of enforced disappearance.

For some of us it is the first Eid without one of our family member, for some it is fifth and for some of us it is tenth. But we are not talking about deceased family members whom one bury with their hands instead these are the missing loved ones subjected to enforced disappearance. Here one must remember that “Enforced Disappearance” is a legal term of international law coined by United Nation’s legal instruments. It denotes a disappeared or missing person who has been kidnapped and detained illegally by state run institutions, placing them outside the protection of law; the very institutions which are created and constituted to prevent citizens from all atrocities including kidnapping. It is like being robbed by your own watchman.

There are abundant and over whelming evidences, affidavits and eye witnesses which have already confirmed the presence of loved ones in the custody of local agencies, many of whom have been handed over to foreign agencies. The irony of the situation is that ex president Gen Perwaiz Musharraf and ex minister of interior Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao have authenticated, with a criminal pride, in their books and media statements that they have been enforce disappearing Pakistani citizens in exchange for American dollars. Even more distressing is the fact that the crime of enforced disappearance has accelerated in the present democratic government. We assert that if Gillani government denies this fact than it means that they have no control on agencies who are still in pursuit of American money.

The perpetrators of this crime not only kidnap people but harass their families so much that most of them don’t dare to launch a complaint. More than 1200 families have contacted and registered their cases with Defence of Human Rights. Due to different hurdles and lack of enough funds Defence of Human Rights is representing only 322 cases in Supreme Court. Punjab stands at number one with 174 cases whereas KPK , Balochistan, Sindh, Azad Jammu Kashmir, Islamabad Capital Territory follow with 96, 19, 25, 7, 11 cases respectively.

In a Statement by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or involuntary Disappearances to mark the first UN International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances it asserts, “Unfortunately, enforced disappearances continue to be used by some States as a tool to deal with situations of conflict or internal unrest. We have also witnessed the use of the so-called ‘short term disappearances,’ where victims are placed in secret detention or unknown locations, outside the protection of the law, before being released weeks or months later, sometimes after having been tortured and without having been brought in front of a judge or other civil authority.

This very worrisome practice, whether it is used to counter terrorism, to fight organized crime or suppress legitimate civil strife demanding democracy, freedom of expression or religion, should be considered as an enforced disappearance and as such adequately investigated, prosecuted and punished.”

On this day Defence of Human Rights Pakistan wants to draw your attention to the thousands of Pakistani families which are aggrieved for years whose loved ones, brothers, fathers, husbands, sons, daughters and even children are abducted by local and foreign intelligence agencies.

From official Eid Statement of the Defense of Human Rights, Pakistan

The procedures and tactics used by the Pakistani military, intelligence, political and police establishment against its own citizens are largely in violation of its own laws. These procedures have been utilized against domestic dissidents e.g. those from Baluchistan, and others who dared speak out against our American ally.

Justice in Pakistan is often a conundrum, frequently a miscarriage and almost always a luxury. However, we have in the need to serve the interests of this war of choice, dispensed with even these pretensions. People are simply being abducted and lost into the darkness of a domestic and international detention and torture machinery that may today be one of the largest multi-national businesses in the world.

For some of us the question is not of guilt, of criminality, of an inappropriate fundamentalism, or the crime of seeking truth and ideas of justice on the wrong side of the master narratives being dictated from Washington D.C. They are questions of due process, rights, representation and constitutionality. This may shock some, but I believe that event the worst of Al Qaeda deserves his / her day in court. As the Norwegians are demonstrating with their arrest and prosecution of the mass murderer Breivik, due process of law and protection of the humanity of a citizen is perhaps the best means of curtailing further acts of violence and criminality.

The hysteria that has been used to simply eliminate Pakistani citizens, and the many so-called humane, left leaning, liberal voices who have offered justifications for summary executions (and they say the tribal areas are wild!), rampant war and mass killings, is dismaying and frankly abhorrent. They speak often about a ‘war against pakistan’ or a ‘war on pakistan’, and yet had nothing to say as our and American bombs began to rain down on our citizens in the frontier regions. Apparently for such left liberals the idea of Pakistani citizenship and its associated rights does not extend too far from the cushioned elegance of their drawing rooms in Islamabad or Karachi.

We celebrate Eid with a heavy heart, as we have for many years.

Eid Mubarak to everyone.


The Sorrows Of Europe Or How The Burqa Helps Hide Europe’s Fraying Social And Economic Realities

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on July 28, 2011 at 12:00 am

This post was originally written in response to France’s decision to ban the burqa but many of its arguments find new relevance in the aftermath of Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of over 90 Norwegians. Many of my arguments are also echoed in a recent piece written by Remi Nilson, editor of the Norwegian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, called “Why Norway?” 

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It is not about the burqa. And it’s not even about the dignity of the woman. Neither the French, nor the Dutch will admit it. But we have to look past the hysteria to attempt to understand what lies behind it. Though we use our love of ‘women’s liberation’ arguments to wage war, repress minorities, erase diversity, deny individuality, and of course silence difference, the fact remains that what is taking place in France and other European nations today concerning the burqa or its Muslim immigrants, is just not about the burqa or about the Muslims.

It’s about Europe and the impact the creation of the European Union has had on nations, their idea of themselves, and their economic and social realities. The immigrants are merely victims of the helpless.

The Europeans are suffering economically, and her citizens are in the midst of what can only be described as some of the most gut-wrenching economic and public services cut backs in their modern history. Europe’s new generations are being told that much of the social stability, security and safety nets their parent’s generations were used to are about to be eliminated. This same generation is seeing massive cuts in its education budgets and services, an erasure of its health care coverage, a loss of its pension networks, a gradual cutting away of job related benefits, rising unemployment, greater social and economic uncertainty and much else that national leaders like Sarkozy and their apparatchiks can do little or nothing about. Most of all this is taking place because of the economic crisis gripping European economies, new-found political priorities and a determined desire to connect to the requirements of a globalized economic and financial marketplace. And though the impact is being felt within the borders of each nation, the nation-state is unable to really do anything about it.

The massive demonstrations that gripped nations like France were clear call and warning to governments. But the fact remains that unlike in the past, these public demonstrations are now largely futile as the decisions about a nation’s economy, its financial sectors, and the civic and social services it once promised it citizens, are no longer in its governments hands. As Serge Halmi, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, pointed out, in an editorial called ‘France Says No

France hasn’t seen demonstrations like this for 40 years. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s character, his arrogance and determination to crush the “enemy” have aroused wide opposition. But one man’s whims do not account for all the sound and fury. This is a response to a fundamental and unjust change of social direction chosen by European governments with allegiances ranging from confident right to compliant left, on the pretext of dealing with the financial crisis. Berlusconi has done no more good or harm in Italy than the socialists under Papandreou in Greece and Zapatero in Spain. They all threaten the viability of public services and social security. To please the bean-counters on the stock exchange, they all propose to make ordinary people pay for the havoc wrought by the banks, who carry on just as before, free from any obligation to show “courage” (like the workers) or solidarity with future generations.

And it is precisely at such moments, particularly in what the writer and intellectual Arjun Appadurai called Fortyn Pim’s Europe (France, Italy, Austria, Holland, Romania), when there is a clear loss of national and government sovereignty, that the nation-state turns on its ‘other’, the weaker and the ‘different’ and raises the specter of their threat to ‘our way of life’.

As Arjun Appadurai discusses in his book The Fear Of Small Numbers: An Essay On The Geography Of Anger, the rise in fundamentalism and nationalist rhetoric reflects a growing loss in economic and social cohesion and control, as governments and societies confront the realities and strains of our fast changing, globally inter-connected world. Appadurai is more articulate, and points out that we now live in a world where….

…some essential principles and procedures of the modern nation-state – the idea of a sovereign and stable territory, the idea of a containable and countable population, the idea of a reliable census, and the idea of a stable and transparent categories – have become unglued in the era of globalization… (page 6)

We are seeing a phenomenon as government’s lose their ability to maintain control over their economies and industries, turning increasingly towards managing and encouraging a greater nativism, a more infantile celebration of imagined ideas of national culture, values and heritage. France is merely a specific situation of a phenomenon we have seen in India, Malaysia, Italy, and also today in the USA. As Appadurai further elaborates, that at such moments of loss of national sovereignty, we find nations caught in….

…panics about foreign goods, or about foreign languages, foreign migrants, or foreign investments. Many states find themselves caught between the need to perform dramas of national sovereignty and simultaneous feats of openness calculated to invite the blessings of…capital and the multilaterals…the virtually complete loss of even the fiction of a national economy, which had some evidence for its existence in the eras of strong socialist states and central planning, now leaves the cultural field as the main one in which fantasies of purity, authenticity, borders, and security can be enacted…the nation-state has been steadily reduced to the fiction of its ethos as the last cultural resource over which it may exercise full domination. (Page 22, 23)

And so in France, as in the rest of Europe, where an impotent leader, unable to offer any solutions to her flaying economic issues, has happily distracted us with the ‘threat’ to the great French republic posted by about 1800 or so Muslim women who apparently are ‘repressed’ and ‘unenlightened’ and need to be saved from themselves. In a nation of 65 million people, these women are not even a statistic and yet have become the focus of a nation’s hysteria, resulting in scenes that simply shame the human conscience. As Naima Bouteldja, writing for the Open Society Foundation, tells us:

As a direct result of the political and media hubbub, niqabis who ventured outside their house found themselves facing frequent verbal abuse ranging from “ghost” and “Darth Vader” to “whore” and “slut,” used as a back-handed way of defending women’s dignity. Some also had their pictures taken as if they were circus freaks, while a small number of women were also spat on or physically confronted by passersby who tried to rip off their veils.

It takes as much prejudice, misogyny, repression and brutality to compel a woman to take off a burqa as it does to compel her to put one on. Both acts deny her as an agent, an individual, a mind, a person, and a sovereign member of a family and a society with the capacity to speak, think, act and change. If you are not convinced, look closely at this scene, and tell me you do not realize where we have arrived. Tell me that this moment is not truly one of shame and lament.

Copyright April 12 2011

In the same piece Bouteldja continues and tells us that:

Indeed  by claiming this ban on the full-face veil will protect women, the result, as Jameelah, 24, told me has been the exact opposite:  “I had the feeling that I was no longer human, that I was a monster,” she said, “while they should have respected me because at least I was a human being like them… at least for that reason I wanted some respect.”

Far from the wastelands of Afghanistan where the image of the burqa became synonymous with the repression of women and the presence of patriarchical pathologies, the urban byways of Paris have become theaters of the absurd where articulate, autonomous, independent women demonstrating on the streets of the city have been subjected to arrests, forced removal of their burqas, violent attacks, and verbal and physical abuse by the nation’s citizenry.

Oddly, these apparently oppressed women seem to have an annoying way of behaving and speaking as intelligent and articulate individuals, something that of course does not bother the righteous to reconsider their prejudice and generalizations. What is at play here is political manipulation of an old Orientalist prejudice, one that negates the independence and individuality of these women, and insists that they, regardless of what they as lucid and autonomous adults say, do not have the capacity to think and judge for themselves.

As someone said, freedom is untidy. We have to bring it to them under the benign guidance of bombings and outright war, and now also with benign laws. Its for their good. The mission civilisatrice continues.

But more importantly, as Tzvetan Todorov has warned that:

There’s a difference between criticising a triumphant ideology and criticising a marginalised, persecuted group: the one is an act of courage, the other an act of hatred.

Fear Of The Barbarians by Tzvetan Todorov

The spiral towards intolerance, and the wholesale reduction of a complex polity, like Europe’s immigrant populations, to simplistic and infantile generalizations is of course a wider trend. We have to recognize, as much as many would prefer not to, that each European nation’s immigrant populations have unique histories and relationship to their chosen European lands. The story of the Algerians in France cannot be conflated with the story of the Bangladeshis in Britain, or the Turks in Germany or the Somalians in Italy. Their stories also cannot be disconnected from each European nations colonial post, post.WWII social and economic development programs, and their specific and unique administrative and bureaucratic policies about inviting (yes, they were invited) immigrants from other lands onto their shores. It was with no small irony that Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gul, stood on front of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and warned:

Racism and xenophobia represent a major cause of concern in connection with the current economic crisis. They lead governments and political elites to take a tough line on immigration. Roma and travelers, Muslims or Jews, and more generally, those who are different, experience hostility and social exclusion in many of our societies.

There is a rise in electoral support for political parties which portray immigration as the main cause of insecurity, unemployment, crime, poverty and social problems. The rise in popular fears about immigration and minorities has led to larger popular support for marginal political parties. However, I am even more concerned by the reaction of mainstream political parties in addressing such popular fears.

The European left and her public intellectuals have failed the test of their time. Most all has scurried to the corners of conventionalism, and refused to stand by the ideals they once propounded for the likes of the victims of Soviet repression. When it has come to defend the humanity, equality and individuality of the darker races, they have succumbed to paranoia, racism and outright hypocrisy. The few that have stood consistent, and have been pilloried by the rest for their stance, include people like Ian Baruma. For the last five years, if not more, Baruma has been speaking out to Europe, trying to clarify her malaise, and warn her against her easy resort to hate. In an essay called Europe Turns Right Baruma argued that:

European populism focuses on Islam and immigration, but it may be mobilizing a wider rage against elites expressed by people who feel unrepresented, or fear being left behind economically. They share a feeling of being dispossessed by foreigners, of losing their sense of national, social, or religious belonging. Northern Europe’s political elites, largely social or Christian democrats, have often been dismissive of such fears, and their paternalism and condescension may be why the backlash in those liberal countries has been particularly fierce.

The strains on national identities that the European Union project has wrought has not been sufficiently studied. Europe is the home of some of the most desperately and violently manufactured nationalism and national identities. In complete negation of their lived reality, most Europeans think they live in ethnically homogenous and culturally uniform nations. Even the Swedes think so, never allowing facts to intervene and transform this myopia. The hundreds of millions of dead from WWI and WWII attest to methods required to arrive at our still-not-quite-pristine national purity. But it has been the project of the European Union has torn at what have until recently been a people blindly comfortable in their concocted identities and sense of national purity.

Pushed by the changing global economic environment, and Europe’s need to remain competitive and relevant, and project has bought it into question issues of economic autonomy, and economic policy management. What was once a national concern, overseen by national banks and national politicians, has passed onto people the Europeans never see and can never communicate with. And with the European economies dancing with economic straits, many now bankrupt and laid waste, the fears and uncertainties are pushing it citizens to extremes of regressive and xenophobic behavior. Again, as Ian Baruma had pointed out in an interview with Der Spiegel

Immigration and the Muslim issue in particular has become the focal point of a much larger sense of anxiety which has to do with the European Union, globalization, erosion of the authority of the nation-state and economic uncertainty. That general sense of insecurity and resentment makes a country very vulnerable to the kind of populist demagoguery that you get from people like Wilders and Pim Fortuyn before him.

We have been here before, for example during the minaret ban in Switzerland, and we will return here many times in the coming months. Today they will go after the burqa, the hijab, the dupatta, claiming security and French cultural values, tomorrow they will target other aspects of the immigrants life and culture and claim that it threatens the very foundation of the republic. Maybe they will eventually go completely against the idea of Islam as a belief, outlawing it completely on the grounds that it provokes violence and represses its practitioners. The leap isn’t as large as you may think. The conversations will move from dress, to food, to modes of worship, to financial transactions, to charities, to schools, to social gatherings, to language, too much else.

Taming The Gods by Ian Baruma

Faced with a growing social and cultural complexity, confronted with economic and financial systems that today no longer respect or adhere to the controls of regional dictates, and unable to offer solutions and ideas that address the real personal and social fears of its citizens, the Europeans are reacting by trying to construct walls to ward off change.

But it may be late. The die has been cast and nothing short of an economic miracle can turn us around. The economic situation in Europe is not about to improve, and the levers of national economic control and policy will remain beyond the ability of regional governments. That is, French and other politicians will not be able to respond to the real, economic and social demands and difficulties of their citizenry. They will instead turn towards demagoguery and denigration of the ‘other’ to stave off thought and questioning of their impotence.

The only thing now left to wonder is to what level of violence Europe’s citizenry will rise against her ‘other’, for there is really no other place to go if such cultural and nationalist programs continue. The Muslim immigrants of Europe stand dehumanized and degraded in her eyes. They are the un-human, the mass that has a core ‘essence’ that programs them towards barbaric and uncivilized behavior. They are unable to change, do not have the ability to reflect, cannot contemplate, or be individual. They can only do what is in their ‘essence’, an ‘essence’ defined by something called ‘Islam’ which of course the Europeans know and can define, though its practitioners prefer to practice it in a million different and diverse ways. Shockingly, many of its practitioners choose not to practice it either, but lets not bother ourselves with that possibility.

We can now only wonder whether we will go the way of Italy, a nation that has already sanctioned the use of violence against the taint of the ‘outsider’? The violence used to wrest a young woman’s burqa, or that used by armed men to drag her to jail, should give us reason to pause because when we decide that our liberties require a resort to illiberal actions, we have crossed the line from being open, democratic, tolerant and vibrant nations that respect the right of individuals (the individual and her rights to freedom of speech, access to justice, right to life etc. being of course the central concept of a liberal state) and have drifted towards insecure, fear ridden and weakened people closing off our minds, intellects, humanity and courage to the purveyors of lies and obfuscations.

Its time to see past the veil of lies and begin to ask the hard questions about what is happening to the world around us. Europe has to turn to herself, see within herself, to transform this debate into a meaningful one. She does not serve her citizens, nor her future generations, by easily succumbing to the fear-mongering of a few elitist politicians, or the egregious racism of a few paranoid racists. The future will insist that European nations be multi-ethnic and multi-religious, but more importantly that Europe’s story and history be that of all its people who have come there, thrive there, live there and make it what it is. There is no return to an imagined pure nationalism or nation. There is no return to the Europe that never was, other than in our imaginations. We will have to return to a point where the individuality and autonomy of each European is respected, even if that means that some individuals will dress, eat, live and speak in ways that we cannot fathom or appreciate. The individual is sacrosanct, and for as long as their personal choices are personal choices and they do not impose them upon others, we will have to tolerate them regardless of how much their choices may confuse us.

The Facing Change Collective And Why It Is Not Like The Farm Security Administration

In Photography, The Daily Discussion on June 22, 2011 at 8:59 am

A new photographer’s collective takes on America’s social deprivations and economic struggles. Facing Change describes itself as a non-profit collective of dedicated photojournalists and writers coming together to explore America and to build a forum to chart its future.

They have recently announced a collaboration with the Library of Congress. My friends at the wonderful dvafoto recently wrote about this. The official Library of Congress statement announcing the collaboration likened the efforts of this new generation of American photographer’s work, to that of an earlier, justifiably famous, group of photographers who worked for what was then called the Farm Security Administration. It said that:

Facing Change … is a contemporary counterpart to the work done in the 1930s and 1940s by photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration, a federal project that documented the experiences of Americans at all economic levels during the Great Depression and World War II.

I respectfully disagree.

You see, the words ‘…a federal project‘ in the statement above caught my eye. These three words tell us so much about how we are no longer in the social, political and cultural world of the 1930s, and how in fact, this new group of talented and committed photographers faces a challenge far greater than anything the FSA group of photographers ever did.

The FSA efforts involved a group of photographers who went on to make some of the most iconic images of America in the depression years. The works they produced went on to influence almost every photographer who came later, and how issues of poverty, famine, and social deprivation were depicted for decades to come. Some would argue that the visual language they created remains the definitive measure of how such issues and stories need to be depicted. Photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and many others, under the guidance of Roy Stryker, the FSA information division, set out to show America to Americans. The works produced by the FSA photographers remains a crucial if not one of the most significant photographic documents of American history if not photographic history. 

But the Farm Security Administration’s photographic program was a government supported project, with the explicit aim of creating a visual documentation of the conditions of Americans, and providing a powerful argument for the social and institutions changed that would enable the New Deal to be pushed through. It was part of a number of programs tried out by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a federal program. Roy Stryker, the director of FSA’s photographic documentary effort, was a man who had more than a little influence on how the photographers worked in the field. More importantly, he was a Columbia University trained economist, with a stark understanding of how photography and economics can work together to make specific points. In fact, he had used photography in his work economic works. His involvement with this group of photographers was close and immediate. He worked with them on everything from the stories they covered, to the themes they needed to explore. He ensured that America’s publications made their pages available for the presentation of this work. He knew what he was looking for, and his photographers knew the kinds of works that had to be produced to make the political argument Roosevelt’s government was trying to make as it fought to push through radical new legislation that would lead to the New Deal.

Few remember the radical and transformative effect and intent of the New Deal. It’s a subject that warrants an entirely separate post. Suffice it to say, that it was a period of concentrated and determined federal intervention to chart a new economic and social course for American. It gave birth to such important programs as Social Security Systems, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the (now largely castrated but more needed than ever) Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It also gave birth to the unique Works Progress Administration (WPA) which supported artists, writers, painters, and other creative individuals with subsidies and commissions.

The publication world was also very different. The photographic works produced received massive publication support. Stryker used the media, and the media collaborated closely with him by giving the stories being produced about American’s economic and human struggles mass coverage. It was a time when media offered stories and images of change, confronting the citizens of the country with a view of their fellow citizens that was aimed to moving them to action.

It was also a time of some of the greatest American literature – Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, E Wilson, West to name just a few. The Federal Writers Program was in effect – yet another federal effort to raise awareness of the plight of the Americans and the political, legislative and economic changes that had to be implemented to lift the country from its economic depths. Steinbeck, Aiken, Bellow, Cheever, Ellison, Terkel, Wright, West were just some of the amazing writers who worked for this program.

It was a world – political, cultural, artistic, and social, completely different from what we face in American today. The FSA photographers were producing works in a political and social atmosphere that was supporting their projects, responsive to their depiction of America, anxious to read and understand it through a news media that was anxious to publish it. It was a time when there were politicians, academics, artists, writers, painters, editors, journalists, photographers, house wives, congressmen and women, social workers, and ordinary citizens who believed in social change, in radical involvement of government in directing and building the nation, on the responsibility of the individual to the collective.

We no longer live in that world. The photographers of Facing Change must face an America that is politically and culturally the polar opposite of the one the FSA photographers faced. The Facing Change effort is being initiated in a time when there is little or no political support for social welfare intervention or federal focus on the needs of America’s working class. It is a time of the individual over the public. It is a time of wealth over welfare. It is a time of the corporate elite, whose interests are overwhelmingly served by our political leaders and done so at the overt detriment of our ordinary citizens. It is a time when our media outlets are busy producing entertainment and voyeurism, refusing to see their responsibility to the citizenry and the Republic. Owned largely by corporations, or trading on the stock exchanges, our news papers and news magazines are beholden to the marketplace priorities of their owners, and the profit/return algorithms of their accountants. In their pages the intolerable, not-so-beautiful American working class can only spoil the appeal of the Photoshop-perfect fashion models and always-smiling American mall shopper. In their pages today, they justify trillions for wars, while insisting further cuts for programs for our citizens. It is a time when our political leaders are more interested in games of violence, racism, petty posturing and cozying up to corporate power. It is a time when citizen intervention in government affairs or a demand for accountability of our leaders, is considered treason. It is an American whose collective idea of itself is not the struggling working class, but the individual corporate elite, jet-setting across the globe, consuming at the boutiques of SoHo, New York, and partaking of the consumerist pleasures and luxuries that only excess money and excess acquisitiveness can offer. It is an America where we no longer produce important writers, merely navel gazing ones. Just look at the collective works of the modern giants of American literature like Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon and you will see writers who refuse to engage with American realities and American social concerns. They are just in a world of their own, completely insular, and completely indifferent.

This is a new America.

Unlike the FSA, which was a program sanctioned and supported at the highest levels of government that consisted of people attempted radical social and economic change in a struggling America, Facing Change is largely a grass-roots efforts in an atmosphere of the highest level of government indifference and impotency in the face of a struggling America. In many ways I believe Facing Change may be the braver effort given the world in which it has been given birth, and the world into which it must now fight to have its works seen, published, promoted, discussed and acted on. The FSA was near propaganda, while Facing Change is activism, and hence more democratic, and in a political world that is increasingly less democratic, a more difficult effort.

So I will, as I said before, respectfully disagree with the Library of Congress. The importance and relevance of photography comes from the social and political context in which it is produced. Mere documentation does not make it important. It can make it a record, but it cannot make it relevant. When Helena Zinken of the Library of Congress states that “we feel confident that t…he documentation provided in these contemporary photographs will be treasured by historians, photographers and the public—much as the FSA collection, which arrived newly minted back in the 1940s, is treasured by all those groups today,” she forgets that it was not documents of history alone that the FSA set out to produce, but documents of immediate political and social change. That the importance of the FSA effort was in its intent, its use, and its impact on political, economic, and social realities of America. It changed the world we lived in and we never looked back.

That impact on the world is what made FSA the amazing and important effort that it is now rightfully seen to be. Whether Facing Change becomes that amazing and important effort, the equivalent of the FSA, is less a matter of photographic skill and documentation, but about the ways in which we can work to link their stories and images to political action. This is the key challenge of the moment, and the Library of Congress can do much more I believe to help make this happen. This work has to transform political will in an America where political will is today confused with political wealth.

This is a brave project, and it is a talented group of photographers. I can’t think of a better collective with a stronger commitment to the nation and her citizens. Their individual works point to their commitment and determination. I can only wish them well, and say that I write this post out of respect for what they are trying to do, and to remind us that they are doing it against some of the greatest odds we as citizens have ever faced. The challenges they will encounter in getting their works to make a difference, is the same challenge we citizens face today in getting our politicians to give a damn about our public and social welfare.

I wish the photographers of Facing Change all the luck in the world. Theirs is not an enviable task.

Delhi Gets A Major Photo Festival And It Is Inviting Submissions

In Just Fun Stuff, Photography, Photography Workshop, The Daily Discussion on June 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Delhi gets its first major photo festival, and they are inviting submissions. The final pieces are still being put together, including the list of workshops and seminars so I will not say much more than that.

The organizers have been very generous and invited me to present my work from India, focusing on how the project idea came about, how I have pursued it over the last three years, where I have sought funding for it, and how it is being executed in the field. I have also been asked to present a discussion with two other photographers (the list is being finalized) on how to conceive, propose, fund, plan, structure and execute long-term photography projects. The focus of the seminar will be on new and non-traditional ways of finding support and the three participating photographers will talk about their experiences with their own projects. Finally, I have also promised to make myself available for random meetings under various trees and stairwells of the India Habitat Center (the site of the festival) for those who wish to engage in a more one-on-one discussion about their projects, portfolios or even their personal life. Its just the kind of guy I am.

As submissions are still being accepted, I encourage everyone to send in their works. This is the festival’s first year, but nevertheless I am confident that it will be quite a production and just simply a fun event to participate in. Given the breath of works being produced in India, it promises to reveal new talent, and surprising new stories from a country everyone thinks they know, and yet which never fails to surprise them.


Silent No Longer Or Photojournalists Take On Poverty In America

In Journalism, Photography, The Daily Discussion on June 12, 2011 at 7:21 am

In a post titled The Strange Silence Of The Conscience that I wrote over a year ago I lamented that:

As I look across the recent photojournalism awards, and scan for works in newspaper websites, I see a dearth of serious and committed interest in the hollowing out of America. There are a few stories here and there, a large number based on news reports about the health care debate and the foreclosure crisis. Matt Black has been working away with his usual tenacity and dedication. But this is far, far more than about a news blip, or a protest march, or the foreclosure of a home or two. It is about a fundamental surrender of government and national responsibility towards the very citizens both are supposed to serve. It’s about finding ourselves in this strange, irresponsible, unconscionable and immoral place in history where we can approve billions for foreign wars – illegal, unjust and paranoid as they are, and yet fight tooth and nail to stop even pennies for the care of our own.

Pointing to a series of social and economic statistics,I argued that the silence of the photographers was confusing and disappointing. There just did not seem to be as many people looking back at ourselves, at what was happening at home, while so many were running into the coddling embrace of our military to help depict illegal wars and war crimes as campaigns of liberation and freedom. We seem to have an infinite pool of financial and legislative resources to throw at wars, the security state, the handful of financial goons on Wall Street and its cohorts.

So it is with some pleasure and surprise that I learned about the collective work of the photographers Danny Wilcox Frazier, Jon Lowenstein, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Eli Reed, Andrew Lichtenstein, Richard Sennott, Steve Liss and Stephen Shames have come together to produce the project AmericanPoverty.org. And I can’t be happier to be proven wrong.

The shamelessness of an elected administration, one under the leadership of a man we pinned so many hopes on, that continues to pursue fantasies of global domination, regime change and Sisyphean attempts to eliminate various proper nouns while our citizens face dire choices and futures is simply staggering. These duffers (I have to thank the Pakistani writer/journalist Mohammed Hanif for reminding me of this fine word) are not only irresponsible, immoral and reprehensible, but reflect the stupidity of public politics and government that has become our modern reality.

It is simply unconscionable to allow such disparity, inequality and injustice to exist within our borders. It is unconscionable that this social and economic deprivation is not the only issue our politicians and power mavens are talking about. But it is clear that there is a direct correlation between the increasing resort to a rhetoric of fear and paranoia, and the abnegation of responsibility towards our citizenry that most all politicians now demonstrate. It isn’t a lack of ideas  – even a cursory look at the recent writings of Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz or even the more conservative Robert Reich will reveal, but a lack of interest. I say lack of interest rather than lack of will because it is clear that money, greed, narcissism and careerism are the main determinants of our political landscape today.

This is a brave effort on the part of this photographers collective. It is an important effort. And I think that is what I most like about the work. It is important. It is important in that it is attempting to create a dialogue that does not exist in our mainstream ideas of our selves. It is important because too often we are told that poverty is penance, and not a manufactured social consequence of policies and priorities. Since the years of the hideous Bill Clinton – a man who most still fail to realize was the most Republican President we ever had, we have been brow beaten into accepting that the poor are the cause of their own deprivation, thus allowing our policy makers off the hook for supporting social, economic, corporate and political institutions that manufacture and sustain poverty amongst certain segments of our society.

Poverty is manufactured. It is a construction of society. It is made. I know this from my work in Pakistan, Haiti, India and other nations where we have come to expect poverty. So it is wonderful to see a group of talented and clearly passionate photographers, with deep connections within the communities they are documenting, attempting to raise these realities and present them to us. And possibly help us realize that there are connections that have to be made between our policies in Washington D.C. and our poverty in Washington D.C. and elsewhere. Look at these stories and tell me that it is acceptable that we continue to fund wars (note, we are escalating Libya and Yemen as I write this!), bail-out criminal and irresponsible corporations, cut crucial educational funds and yet turn to our own citizens and say ‘Hey, its your fault and if we help you we will set a bad precedence of dependency!’ Our social welfare programs for corporate interests retain their trillions of dollars, while our social welfare programs for our citizens continue to be cut each week.

This cannot continue.

Crossing Boundaries Or Where I Realize That Some Of The Most Creative Photographers Are Not Even Photographers

In Photography, Readings, The Daily Discussion on May 12, 2011 at 3:01 pm

The borders this book crosses again and again are also those where academic writing meets popular journalism, and political poetry encounters the work of documentary photography.

Amitava Kumar, Passport Photos

This [After The Last Sky: Palestinian Lives by Edward Said & Jean Mohr] is not a normal tandem of word and image, neither a coffee table book with a long, glorified caption nor a work of prose propped up here and there by sheaves of shiny pictures. Mr. Said writes to the photos so assiduously and with such effect as to make one powerful essay. And at times, we realize with a sobering lurch, he writes not to the pictures but from them.

Richard Ben Cramer , Acts Of Continuance, The New York Times November 9th, 1986

When Professor Ammiel Alcalay recently emailed me to inform me that his new book had just been published and that I may find it interesting,I assumed that it would be a work related to the question of the Sephardim. Professor Alcalay and I had recently been discussing my intention to produce a work that explores the lost heritage and last remaining vestiges of Jewish community in Northern Africa and the Levant. But I was surprised when I read the back pages of that work that Professor Alcalay had chosen to…

…comb through photographs, correspondence, memorabilia, journal entries, and newspaper clippings from the era, and incorporated them into [a] book; the result is a personal investigation into the relationships of context to text, memory to nostalgia, and present attention to the multiple traces of the past.

Professor Alcalay had emailed to tell me that he had in fact published a photography book!

Neither Wit Not Gold by Ammiel Alcalay

Even a cursory examination of Professor Alcalay’s work reveals the fascinatingly creative ways in which personal photographs, archival images are used to recover memories, provoke ideas and illuminate imaginations. This work of a poet, historian, translator, writer, journalist and academic, contains more complex, more creative and more experimental play with photography and text than anything I have seen from the world of the ‘professional’ photographer. In fact, even the format and scale of the work is such that it invites you to lift it, page through it, bend its corners, write within it and simply carry it about.

Sample Page, Neither Wit Nor Gold by Ammiel Alcalay

All things that so many ‘pristine’ works of photography do not allow you to do. Alcalay’s work is a work for the public, and one designed to encourage engagement and entanglement. It refutes the idea that has become so popular these days of designing and producing photography books as ‘works of art’ or ‘collectables’ that are simply vanity plates for the desperate. Large, heavy, expensive and hence inaccessible to the general public and the casually interested, they are often as useful and interesting as an exquisite glass vase. Nice to look at, but damn if I want to stand anywhere near it.

The same desire of accessibility and public reach can be seen other photography works produced by those the ‘community’ would label as non- photographers. One such work that comes to mind is photographer Jean Mohr and academic/critic Edward Said’s remarkable collaboration After The Last Sky: Palestinian Lives. It is a work that I have discussed on a number of occasions in this blog itself.

After The Last Sky by Edward Said & Jean Mohr

Edward Said, reacting to a United Nations decision to remove all text from an exhibition of Jean Mohr’s images of Palestinian refugees that was to be displayed in the main hall of the UN Headquarters, decided to engage the images and use them to construct a textual response. As he states in the introduction to the book:

The whole point of this book is to engage this difficulty, to deny the habitually simple, even harmful representation of Palestinians, and replace them with something more capable of capturing the complex reality of their experience. Its [the books] style and method – the interplay of text and photos, the mixture of genres, modes, styles – do not tell a consecutive story, nor do they constitute a political essay….

Many Palestinian friends who say Jean Mohr’s pictures thought that he saw us as no one else has. But we also thought that he saw us as we would have seen ourselves – at once inside and outside our world. The same double vision informs my text.

There is a remarkably insightful revelation of the close interplay between the image and the text in Said’s introductory essay to this book. It is precisely as the reviewer Ben Cramer of The New York Times pointed out, that Edward Said is writing ‘…not to the pictures, but from them.’ This is perhaps one of the earliest challenges to the tiresomely predictable use conventional photojournalism, editorial and mass media publications and even curatorial spaces have made of the craft of photography.

A similar thought about the crossing of boundaries – of the mixing of modes, genres and methods, is revealed in Amitava Kumar’s brilliant and piercing work Passport Photos.

Passport Photos by Amitava Kumar

Here, yet again, we see the theme of crossing boundaries. In fact, Kumar’s book deals with the immigrant experience in the West and attempts to add the narratives and histories that are typically missing from the artifacts of the nation state: the national ID, the passport, etc. His is an attempt to return the complete humanity behind an individual labelled as ‘alien’ or ‘immigrant’. As Kumar himself states in the book’s Preface:

[The book attempts to]…restore a certain weight of experience, a stubborn density, a life to what we encounter in newspaper columns as abstract, often faceless, figures without histories.

These are not merely pretensions. These works of Alcalay, Said/Mohr and Kumar are attempts to arrive at new, more insightful truths about our modernity and about those we frequently choose to (inadvertently or intentionally) silence. Their resort to using many different forms of expression – photographs, essays, poetry, journalism, personal journal entries etc. are an attempt to break down the clichés and lazy generalities that frequently pass as ‘truths’ in media and also very often in academia. To break down these clichés these writers chose to break down the walls that separate disciplines, and producing works that go beyond our obvious expectations about use, insight and provocation.

The photographer Oliver Arthur and I recently had a brief discussion where we touched upon the fact that most photographers tend to narrow their ‘influences’ to the world of ‘officially’ sanctioned photography. That is, our inspirations tend to be just other photographers. But it is obvious that many outside this small, cloistered and frequently navel-gazing world are producing some amazingly interesting, creative, and unique works of photography that question the very idea that photography ought to be seen as a separate craft, art or creative act. Oliver herself is, as she told me, working to bring more text into her work. Or, as she put it, more text into the very way in which her work is constructed, her photographs seen and captured. The same sentiments underpin my work in India.

Works such as After The Last Sky remind us of the possibilities that come from collaborating with different forms and methods. The also remind us that we as photographers are also storytellers, with the possibility (if not always the creativity or the intelligence) to turn to methods outside of the technical, to create their narratives. If photojournalism and documentary photography seemed trapped in tiresome, repetitive, and clichéd forms (as I have frequently argued on this blog as such as here, here and here amongst other pieces), perhaps it is because we have forgotten that over time a photograph can become more a metaphor than an actual, complete and comprehensive reality. That is, the most popular and generically popular images (think National Geographic style, famine photography from Africa, prostitutes in Asia, a drug addict in Afghanistan etc. ) work as metaphors do – they transform ideas into (pre-packaged, commonly understood) images. Our challenge remains to redefine these metaphors and we cannot do it through more of the same. It is writers such as Kumar, Alcalay and Said remind us that in fact the real possibilities of photographs to offer new insights, to challenge conventions and enforce new understandings lie in their interplay with words, and their openness to being informed with content from without. The link between a well worn metaphor and its image has to be broken.

The Dead Can’t Dance And I Refuse To Either Or Why I Insist On Remembering While Others Insist On Drinking To Forget

In Musings On Confusions, Our Wars, The Daily Discussion on May 3, 2011 at 10:06 am

We have invaded two nations because we were told that we must. Both illegally and in violation of all known international law.

We have murdered possibly over a million Afghanis and Iraqis and Pakistanis and others in the process. And continue to kill them at will in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We have displaced and dislocated from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan other millions, forever ruining their lives and humanity. And forever consigning them to the void of suspicion, fear and prejudice.

We constructed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military bases and detention centers in Afghanistan and Iraq. And now use them for ‘forward projection’ in the so-called war against a noun.

We continue to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan and use massive military force to retain our jack boots over their necks while funding and supporting illegal and completely illegitimate governments that we described as ‘democratic’ and ‘parliamentary’.

We have invited private militia and corporate mercerneries to the party and given out contracts worth billions to make it appealing for them.

We have detained innocents, including American citizens, indefinitely and still refuse to give them appropriate justice. President Obama willingly continuing the illegal and unjust policies of his predecessors

We have tortured them relentlessly (oh, sorry, we have enhanced interrogated them!)  and strong armed our civilized courts and bureaucratic apparatchiks to justify our actions.

We have renditioned them and sent them off to our ‘allies’ in other parts of the world to be tortured, maimed and killed. And there is no end to this program.

We have illegally eavesdropped on our citizens, violating our own laws in the process. And it continues.

We have sent American men and women into useless wars and watched thousands of them die to cover our lies and greed. And thousands more will die in the coming days.

We have curtailed civil rights and liberties within the USA all in the name of a war against a noun. And there is no turning back.

We have handed over trillions of dollars to the military and to private contractors just as our own economy has gone bankrupt and our citizens are being thrown out of their homes, jobs and futures.

We have handed over trillions of dollars to Wall Street, while the ordinary have been begging for pension handouts and calling it ‘revolutionary’ action. And each time I ask why, I am told that it was the good of the nation. And its security.

We are closing down our schools, reducing our welfare programs, cutting back public and state budgets, taking away what little healthcare we could afford, allowing our infrastructure to rot, corporatizing our congressional and house leadership, inflaming Islamophobia because we have run out of political and public service ideas and all while simultaneously approving more money for security programs, anti-immigration programs, military invasions and wars, and new and improved intelligence programs.

We have been doing this for ten years, and as my nation sinks into economic pointlessness and desperation, I am being told that I should celebrate the killing of a largely if not completely irrelevant ‘Enemy #1′.

I am supposed to forget all this for the sake of a party and a beer. I am supposed to just not ask the hard questions, never look back as Obama so stupidly said Look Forward, Not Backward. 

I am supposed to ignore the sheer hideousness of the fact that what actually got this useless trophy took nothing more than a few months of intelligence work (can bribing the Pakistani ISI be considered ‘intelligence work’?), a small commando unit, and a raid in the city of Abbotabad – one of Pakistan’s largest military cantonment cities and less than hour away from its capital Islamabad?

Am I to believe that no one bothered to look inside what must have been the strangest and most conspicuous house in the entire town – 12 foot walls, barbed wire, clandestine comings and goings, high security controls, etc. to see who may be there? A house smack in the center of a major Pakistani military city, under the very nose of Pakistani and American intelligence. Am I to believe that we waged years of drone wars in the mountains, leaving thousands of dead and tens of thousands displaced, while never bothering to look over the walls of our city offices? If not I, then would not the thousands of dead want to know the answer to this question.

Why do I feel that I have just been made a fool of and am now being told to hold the Star Spangled Banner and dance around like a monkey? Why can’t I get over the feeling that I have just been sold a lemon, and the salesman is laughing while counting my cash?

Perhaps it’s just me but I can’t celebrate or wave this flag. I can’t get past the horrors of these preceding years. I can’t stop hearing the echoes of the arrogant lies, nor the screams of the millions of innocent lives lost to pave the road of our righteousness with their blood and souls. I can’t help but lament this fraud, since nothing changes, and all paranoid fantasies of ‘invading demons’ continue as before. More wars, more security, more torture, more fear, mor screaming hysteria about the dangers to ‘our way of life’.

I beg for mercy. Please don’t ask this American to dance. I beg for mercy. Please don’t demand that this American forget. I beg for mercy, please let this American remember. There is still so much more to come. So much more that I will have to remember for future days when I will be told to forget. Please let me sit here….and remember.

Ernesto Sabato 1911 – 2011

In Book Responses, Readings, The Daily Discussion on May 1, 2011 at 9:01 pm

He was my introduction to Latin American literature. Before I came to Marquez, Bolano, Paz, Allende, Galeano, Borges, Rulfo, Carpentier, Bastos, Llosa, Fuentes and Vallejo I had come across Sabato. And it was this work  – dark, nightmarish and frenzied that seduced me, and was my doorway to this amazing group of writers.

Angel Of Darkness by Ernesto Sabato

It was the book that led me to so many other amazing works from the region. My original copy of Sabato’s Angel of Darkness is one of the few books from my high school years that still survives my many travels and dislocations. I am forever grateful for this gift that he gave me.

Ernesto Sabato died on April 30th 2011.

The Travails Of Our Post-Colonial Subconscious Or What Does The English Language Have To Do To Be Recognized As An Indian Language?

In Background Materials, Book Responses, Just Fun Stuff, Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on April 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm

A very curious essay appeared in the recent issue of The Caravan magazine. Written by Nilanjana S. Roy, titled ‘How To Read In Indian‘, it veered uncertainly between discussing the emergence of the phenomenal success of Indian writers writing in English, and a discussion of outsiders writing stories about India. Subtitled The Long History of a Literary Argument That Refuses to Go Away it clearly meant to be a literary discussion, but in fact it quickly diverged into a discussion about the outsider writing about India.

Roy begins by recounting some of the debates at a gathering of Indian writers and intellectuals at Neemrama Fort Palace, and moves towards the criticism that so-called Indian critics have made of those from the so-imagined outside writing about India. Roy mentions Mulk Raj Anand’s criticisms of Salman Rushdie, various criticisms hurled against V.S. Naipual and his works on India, and a strange reference to Pankaj Mishra’s recent critical study of Patrick French’s new book on India. As Roy elaborates:

In a sense, we have always been sensitive as a nation to what is written about us; nonfiction about the US, for instance, seldom draws as many reactions, fuelled equally by anxiety and exasperation. The anxiety comes, in the reading of many, from seeing any narrative that interrupts the neatly seductive story of India Shining; the exasperation comes from a smaller band of Indians who are tired of having what they already know and consider familiar explained to them in exhausting and unnecessary detail.

But somewhere in the middle of the essay, the focus turns to the question of language. The example of Bankim Chatterjee is given – a Bengali writer who made a conscious decision to never writing in English and instead speak ‘to his people’ only in the native language of Bengali. As Roy states, that for Bankim…

…the question of whom he was writing for became urgent in his mind. He could not, he felt, write unless he was addressing his people, his countrymen, in their tongue

It seems to me that this is an entirely different question from the one that was first offered in the essay. One is a question of perspectives on India – the insider vs the outsider. The second is a question of language as a marker of belonging, and ideas of nationhood and community. The first is a criticism about what is said about India and by whom. The second is a question of what means ie language is used to write and whether English (and yes, lets admit that this is about English, about our colonial scars, and about our desperate post-colonial ideas of our indigenous cultures) qualifies as an appropriate language to use to speak about, and to India.

I am willing to admit that there may be overlaps in these discussions, but it seems that to make sense of either we should, to help with the discussion, keep them apart.

Ω

The first issue has come up quite bit lately. A certain group of self-appointed guardians of literary India have taken it upon themselves to pillory Europeans who have had the temerity to work in India, say something about her and her culture, and perhaps most egregiously, find a place of celebrity and social and cultural participation in India itself.

This peevish stance was recently seen in Hartosh Singh Bal’s recent tirade against the writer William Dalrymple that appeared in India’s (English language!) Open Magazine under the heading ‘The Literary Raj‘. It made for painful reading, riddled as it was in a language and presumption so provincial that they defied belief. The essay was inspired by Dalrymple’s prominent place in organizing and appearing at the now very popular Jaipur Literary Festival, a fact that seems to have upset Singh Bal’s Indian, and lets admit it, nationalist and cultural sensibilities, leading him to ask:

I have been told that Dalrymple is a personable man, and in my own encounters with him I have indeed found him so, but what is of interest in this context is not Dalrymple the man, but Dalrymple the phenomenon. How did a White man, young, irreverent and likeable in his first and by far most readable India book,’The City of Djinns’, become the pompous arbiter of literary merit in India?

Understandably, William Dalrymple did not take kindly to these suggestions, and fired back with his own piece in the same magazine titled ‘The Piece You Ran Is Blatantly Racist‘. Hartosh Singh Bal’s retort followed in the form of a piece called ‘Does Dalrymple Know What Racism Really Is?‘. as well as one by Pramod Kumar, one of the founders of the Jaipur Literary Festival, entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘.

A similar accusation of ‘how dare you!’ was leveled against – and I say this with no small irony, by Patrick French against the Indian born Pankaj Mishra. Yes, it may seem odd to say this, but that is precisely what happened when Pankaj Misrha wrote a ‘not so enthusiastic’ review of French’s new work on India called India: An Intimate Biography Of 1.2 Billion People.

Mishra’s criticisms, offered in a piece called (provocatively I will admit) ‘A Curzon Without An Empire‘ and published in India’s (English language!) Outlook Magazine, were leveled against French’s truncated understanding of India’s modernity and her economic development. Mishra’s criticisms reflected ideas already raised in many Op-Ed and other pieces he has written about the phenomenon of Shining India and the deep inequalities and injustices it is inflicting upon the majority of her citizens.

French, however, took it personally, and retorted with what can only be described as an attempt to singularly mark Mishra as an ‘outsider’ who pretends to be a ‘insider’. He chose to discredit Mishra in a response, with the rather catty title ‘Cameron’s Cuz Is More The Curzon‘, not by taking on Mishra’s socio-economic arguments, but his ‘outsider’ character:

It is a pity Pankaj did not pursue his burgeoning career as a novelist, or produce the promised short history of modern India. Instead, he has ranged widely, sitting on eminent literary prize committees, popping up as a visiting fellow at assorted foreign universities and jetting about denouncing “business-class lounges” and their elite inhabitants. It is not clear whether Pankaj—travelling the globe for high-paying western publications, while busily condemning “late capitalist society”—ever uses these lounges himself, or whether he prefers to take a downgrade to cattle class. For a long time I have appreciated his chutzpah most of all, though he remains a writer of promise. He has been successful in imparting his “authentic” take on India to the West, and one American intellectual even adjudged our reviewer to be “the young Siddhartha Gautama himself: a scholar-sophisticate” after meeting him at “the lower Manhattan holiday party of a stylish magazine”.

As these debates have raged it seems that we have lost sight of the key issue ie what is being said and not who is saying it. We can see this tendency in Singh Bal’s and French’s reactions. Instead, we have focused on who is saying them.

What should matter is not that Dalrymple or any other writer is an ‘outsider’ or an ‘insider’ but only whether what he says about India is intelligent, insightful, articulate and informative. We have to accept that many Indians have written rubbish works of fiction and non-fiction about their own country, and many foreigners have in fact written some fabulous works in the same categories. It is not the origins of the writers that matter, but the content of their writing. Dalrymple has in fact written some powerful works on Indian history – White Mughals: Love And Betrayal In 18th Century India and The Last Mughal: The Fall Of A Dynasty: Delhi 1857 being two such works.

Dalrymple’s place in India’s literary circles is not the result of a ‘Johnny come lately’ but reflects many decades of passionate engagement with the country and its history. We can’t fault him and others like him for his origins, but have to engage him, and all others, on the basis of their ideas and contributions. Which is what Mishra did when he critiqued French, though French preferred to offer a rebuttal that was if anything petty and venal.

A focus on the ‘what’ vs the ‘who’ helps distance us from debates that can quickly become mired in racist and xenophobic stances. They allow us to remain above the treacherous and slippery terrain of identity politics and nativist generalizations. It allows us to focus on ideas, insights, and information, without coloring our judgments on the basis of color, ethnicity, race, religion and class. Literary and intellectual criticism has to adopt this position if for no other reason than to be consistent and rigorous.

Ω

We next turn to the question of Indian writers writing in English. This question became an urgent issue of concern particularly since Salman Rushdie’s set off a fire-storm of indignation when he very careless suggested in the introduction to the The Vintage Book of Indian Writing that:

The prose writing–both fiction and nonfiction–created in this period [the fifty years of independence] by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen “recognized” languages of India, the so-called “vernacular languages,” during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, “Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. The True Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind.

Few have managed to get past this dismissal of India’s vernacular literature, and many have been fighting tooth and nail to argue for the importance and relevance of India’s so-called ‘vernacular’ languages.

And Roy too can’t get away from speaking about this. What is confusing is that she keeps returning to this question of language, which appears to have been her original motivation for writing the piece, sporadically while focusing far more on the issue of who writes about India. What is perhaps confusing is the underlying privilege she herself grants to Europe, its markets, its audience and its ‘reading’ of India.

What we are all uncomfortable acknowledging is that the West—shorthand for the complex markets and divergent reading tastes of the UK, the US and a large swath of Europe—has a sharply truncated view of Indian writing. Imagine assessing all of European literature by reading only works in Polish, or only works in Italian—that, in the absence of a market for translations of Indian fiction, is the position the West is in when it reads “Indian writing”. And as long as the market is open only, or chiefly, to Indian writing in English, this blindness cannot be overcome. There is also the question of economic power: with access to larger audiences abroad, publishers outside India can and do dictate who has that access, what kind of stories travel from here to there, what books will be considered future Indian classics. There is an inequality in the system, inevitable, inescapable and often resented.

There is just so much wrong in the above paragraph that I do not even know where to begin.

First, it is ridiculous to complain that the West reads only those works that are written or translated into English. I mean, what else would they be able to read? Furthermore, the critic has nothing to say about the fact that the initiative to translate works from various Indian languages into English or other European languages often comes at the behest of European publishing houses. If indigenous Indian writings are to find a global audience, they have to be placed into an Indian publishing structure that makes them i.e translates them, available to a larger audience. I suspect that the answer is not merely about translations though but also about the relevance and resonance of the stories.

Second of all, the statement carried within it an hypocritical thought: that it is Europe that does the reading that actually matters. Despite the writings attempt to complain about the value set on works that are recognized and celebrated in the West, she himself sets Europe up as the audience that actually matters and should in fact be reading India more broadly and in a less truncated way. Their reading us, and all of us, is very important and the determinant of value. She laments their ‘truncated’ reading of us, as if their reading is what really matters. This prioritization of the Western audience underpins all such complaints of ‘truncated’ views, and is the unspoken background prejudice of such critics. A need felt for stories to ‘travel from here to there’ belies a belief that arriving ‘there’ is somehow the achievement that matters. Here she is again:

She also ignores the reality that there are large markets for vernacular literature in India itself. Kerala alone boasts a market of nearly 33 million readers, and all in their native Malayam. As described in a piece in Le Monde Diplomatique called ‘Kerala: Mad About Books‘:

Outside the big cities, a very small minority of Indians – only seven to eight million – read in English. India has an overall rate of 65% literacy – measured in people’s own mother tongues. But where India drops into the Indian Ocean, in the state of Kerala, home of Malayalam literature, literacy is close to 100%. Not surprisingly, the population of Kerala – some 31 million – reads books.

Returning to the issue at hand, when will we accept that English is an Indian language? How many years, and what history, allows us to call a language ‘Indian’? Is it 10 years, 100 years, 400 years? I would argue that English is fundamentally an Indian language and has as much right to be called that as Urdu, or Tamil or Hindi or any other language that arrived into its present form and place as a result of settlement, communication, commerce, conquest and creativity. In fact, Roy herself admits that:

The Census 2001 figures, released late last year, revealed that English had, effectively, become India’s second language, behind Hindi. Many of the new English speakers come from the small towns or belong to metropolitan areas that lie outside the charmed circles of privilege…as this generation begins to tell and write its stories, it may not need to beguile the souks of the West with its Indiennisme.

But while doing so, refuses to see that the question of Indians writing in English and Indians not writing in English is only interesting if you privilege and value the judgment and commercial power of the European. An insistence that if it’s not being ‘read’ by Europe than it is being marginalized, ignored and under-valued reflects a very severe post-colonial inferiority complex that holds the European ‘audience’ on a higher scale of value and relevance. The question to ask ourselves is why this is so? Is it simply because they throw more money at it, and can hence create a greater aura of glamour, celebrity and fame around their industry? Is it because their voice continues to matter to us even far above our own? It reminded me of something Partha Chatterjee said, though in a different context, that despite our best efforts our…

…thought accepts and adopts the same essentialist conceptions based on the distinction between ‘the East’ and ‘the West’, the same typology created by a transcendent studying subject, and hence the same ‘objectifying’ procedures of knowledge constructed in the post-Enlightenment age…There is consequently, an inherent contradictoriness in…thinking, because it reasons within a framework of knowledge whose representational structure corresponds to the very structure of power…thought it seems to repudiate it.

Chatterjee, Partha Nationalist Thought And The Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? Page 38

What also remains unexplained is that given the growing appetite for Indian writers in Europe and the USA, why there has not been a greater effort from within India to have its many vernacular works translated into languages that can be read by the Europeans and the Americans? This is something yet remains to be understood, and as far as I know has not been sufficiently examined. A part of the answer I believe lies in the point I made earlier: that it is the universality of a story that matters, not merely its translation. I am sure that this is not the whole answer, but we cannot ignore this fact. And the naturalness of it: the European is under no obligation to read our stories and we should expect her to be.

Finally, I would add that the reason why we don’t just read Polish literature to understand Europe is because Poland comes to us not just as a separate language, but also as belonging to a separarte nationalism. The prejudice of Indian nationalism prioritizes her Northern Indian elite and mythologies, complete with its preference for English and its strong historical and cultural links to the West. I need to say more about this, since this may inflame some serious objections, but we cannot ignore the preponderance and unfair weight of North India when it comes to being mistaken for India as a whole. That is why we can assume that an Indian from a narrow, middle-class segment writing in English represents all of India because Indian nationalism itself has been articulated by this class since such nationalisms very inception, if not earlier. A very small elite speaks for the entire region, and many regions are marginalized in the process. This is a broader issue that require more explanation for which I do not have space here.

Ω

Underlying all this concern of course are some very nativist ideas of what it means to be Indian, and who can claim that privilege. These ideas are of course inflected by the definition of an Indian nation, cemented by the pillars of official nationalism: borders, states, languages, flags, passports etc. But literature is about ideas, not geography. It is about the human imagination, not cities of birth. The idea of India cannot be confined to within India’s physical borders. Her post-colonial modernity defies such simplistic definitions of what it takes to be Indian. A vast, diverse diaspora is one reality that undermines the country’s geography. The cosmopolitan lives of even so many millions of her resident citizens – lives that see them living, studying, conducting business in a number of different geographic and cultural domains, is another reality that can’t be ignored. Into this modernity of cultural and geographical flows we cannot place rigid and fixed ideas of ‘belonging’ or ‘culture’ or ‘vernacular’ languages.

Our citizen’s lived realities are far more interesting than fixed identities and out-dated ideas of ‘Indian-ness’ require. It is specious, if not a complete waste of time, to argue about whether a certain language is Indian or not. If we keep in mind that it is mere historical fate that Assamese is an ‘Indian’ language and Pushtun is not. It could just as well have been otherwise. And we should not forget that even today people in regions like Kerala and Tamil barely speak Hindi, with many absolutely refusing to do so.

We are better off, whether it is when we discuss fiction or non-fiction, judging a work on the merit of its content and imagination, rather than on merely its mode of communication. We are better off accepting the absolute hybridity of our lives, the many ways in which they are embroiled and mixed with the lives, cultures, histories and intellectual trajectories of societies, peoples and ideas beyond our geographical borders. Today more than ever – in an age of global media, the internet, accessible long-distance travel, inter-connected marketplaces and business, we no longer live and experience this world from within our geographical frontiers. Our imaginations are influenced by things we can’t even really enumerate, and perhaps largely by ideas that come to us from way past our known horizons. We don’t have to like this modernity, but it would be foolish to pretend to ignore its reality. It would be equally foolish to pretend that we can today set a clear definition of what it takes to be considered Indian, and who can claim the right to speak for it, to it and with it.

The Mughal Miniature As An Act Of Resistance Or Whether An Ancient Tradition Can Save A Modern Pakistan

In Essays Related To Pakistan, Just Fun Stuff, The Daily Discussion on April 15, 2011 at 5:36 pm

The Naqsh School of Arts in Lahore’s Old City is perhaps the only institute of its kind in Pakistan. Located in building next to the founding family’s haveli near Lahore’s Bhatti gate, it was created to preserve the classical art form of the Mughal miniature. Stepping into its first floor, which I did for the first time in 2008, was a little like stepping into a world last seen some three hundred years ago. In a large hall that acted as a gallery and a studio, a teacher sat on a low platform covered with cushions and a wooden drawing table, while a group of students sat on low sofas around him following instructions, copying classics and quietly murmuring suggestions and advice to each other. It seemed a world given to tradition, and largely removed from the maddening modernity of the city of Lahore around them. My impression of a school isolated from the lives we lived was exacerbated by the fact that I knew little about the history and tradition of the Mughal miniature and the many ways it in fact did remain relevant to our times.

At another arts institute in Lahore not too far away from this very traditional art institution, the students however have been exploring ways to not only preserve, but to profoundly transform this classical art form. At the Lahore College of Arts, the instructors and students have taken quite a different path and transformed the art form in radically interesting ways.

One of its students, the much celebrated artist Shazia Sikander, has already transformed our understanding of the possibilities of the Mughal miniature, pioneering ways of what was perhaps the most conservative of arts into something living, and modern. The National College of Arts in Lahore, Sikander expanded the possibilities of the miniature form bring together drawing, animation, installation, video, and film. Sikandar has already been recognized as a MacArthur Fellow and continues to push her work into new directions.

DissonancetoDetour2 by Shazia Sikandar

DissonancetoDetour2 by Shazia Sikander

Dissonance to Detour by Shazia Sikander

Dissonance to Detour by Shazia Sikander

However, there is yet another move towards modernizing this classical art form and it t involves giving it a voice that is resistance and dissenting. The Mughal miniature was never meant to confront, to challenge, to subvert or to question. Largely confined to issues of beauty and narrative, the artists focused on technique and artistry. Patronized by the powerful, it was as Virginian Whiles says ‘...aristocratic art with corresponding limitations.

Virginia While, a lecturer at the  Chelsea College of Art, University of the Arts, London, has written a fascinating new book that explores the new, polemical and critical directions of art in Pakistan, and in particular the emergence of the works of a handful of artists trained in the precision and tradition of the Mughal miniature but putting it to use for explicitly modern uses.

Whiles points to the shift that took place at the school in a talk she gave at the Khoj International Artists Association in Delhi, India:

…the teacher who eventually promoted it as a major study, Bashir Ahmed, disciple of Ustad Sheikh Shujallah, disciple of Ustad Haji Mohammed Sharif, declared miniature painting’s autonomy within a separate department…Renowned for its rigorous discipline, defending the concept of an ongoing Mughal tradition in face of postmodern infiltrations, the department’s state of flux may well motivate the current explosion of energy manifested by the very different miniature production over the last few years.

The critical shift is to be seen in those works commenting on actual issues: fundamentalism, violence against women, corruption and nuclear warfare. Substantial debate is taking place between the protagonists and antagonists of the miniature practice. For example, the politicisation of content is viewed by certain students and teachers as reflecting a modish political correctness; others reject outright the miniature medium on modernist grounds of its dependency on traditional values; whilst in beween the question has been raised as to whether: “… the miniature project is a postcolonial quest to retrieve cultural identity.” (Hashmi 2000)

Many of these issues cannot be clearly answered, but they do open up room for dialogue around an art form many may consider too traditional, too outmoded to be relevant today. However, Whiles book perhaps asks us to rethink this idea, and to attempt a closer look at the works of a group of Pakistani artists attempted to bridge their heritage and the many humiliations of their modernity. Perhaps on a larger level it opens up the question of whether art can in fact be an act of resistance and dissent in the face of the leviathan of our modernity. This is a question that calls not for an answer as an absolute, but for an answer as a vision and an aspiration. How we choose to imagine and construct the answer may well decide what kind of society Pakistan will find itself to be.