New British Asian Films
Curated by Sukhdev Sandhu
From the companion catalogue:
1. Sukhdev Sandhu on "India Calling" (Sonali Fernando, 2002)
2. Michael Vazquez on "Otolith" (The Otolith Group, 2003)
3. Naeem Mohaiemen on "Bradford Riots" (Neil Biswas, 2006)
4. Jon Caramanica on "Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music" (Vivek Bald, 2001)
5. Vijay Prashad on "The Road To Guantanamo" (Michael Winterbottom 2006)
6. James Brooke-Smith on "England Expects" (Tony Smith 2004)
7. Karen Shimakawa on "Skin Deep" (Yousaf Ali Khan: 2001)
8. Kamila Shamsie on "A Love Supreme" (Nilesh Patel, 2001)
9. Mohsin Hamid on "My Son The Fanatic" (Udayan Prasad, 1997)
10. Bharat Tandon on "The Warrior" (Asif Kapadia, 2001):
11. Gautam Malkani on "Young, Angry and Muslim" (Julian Hendy, 2005)
India Calling (Sonali Fernando, 2002)
Perverted By Language
- Sukhdev Sandhu
India Calling is a work of science fiction, a dispatch from a foreign galaxy whose inhabitants have been put through a strict program of identity mutation. They are voluntary abductees, night-for-day swappers who have chosen to conceal their names in favour of those of Bondi Beach surfers, cartoon web-slingers, boldface celebrities. They contort their mouths in order to neutralize their accents and communicate in corporate upspeak. Told that their places of birth are shameful, they engage in creative teleporting, hatching new origin myths in which, or so they tell their Western interlocutors, they were raised in the wilds of Wyoming or the back lanes of suburban Penge.
India Calling is Macaulay's 1835 Minute on Indian Education brought up to date. A beady-eyed look at the efforts of international capitalism to form a cadre of cultural interpreters, 'a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.' And, what's more, 'to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.'
Macaulay's goals were thwarted; millions of Indians refused to be perverted by language or to mimic-men their way through society babbling in babu brogues. Speaking the Queen's English did not make them loyal subjects. Similarly, for all that their put-on names and laboriously articulated v-sounds give the impression that they are digital coolies and obeisant speak-and-spell robotniks, the graduates in this film gradually bridle at their lousy pay. They turn against their companies.
India Calling is a postcolonial sitcom, The Office set in modern-day Delhi. Its setting is an air-conditioned new republic lorded over by self-proclaimed managerial maestro and beergut-general David Brett, aka Rob Bissett. Yomping around in his starchy white shirt, winking to a camera he thinks is there to salute his people-skills savvy, cracking up at his own lofty rhetoric, he embodies Western self-interest masquerading as corporate philanthropy. Cherish his cheeks-flushed pride as he rewards employees with $25 bonuses. Savour his boss-class largesse as he dons a Santa costume and hurls sticks of candy from atop a knock-kneed elephant. He is quite as alien as any of the young men and women who, we can be certain, are laughing behind his back.
Sukhdev Sandhu teaches at New York University and is the author of London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined A City (2003), I'll Get My Coat (2005) and Night Haunts: A Journey Across Nocturnal London (2007)
Otolith (The Otolith Group, 2003)
Little Girls Come From the Stars
- Michael Vazquez
A certain kind of child stares into the night sky and dreams of sailing through it. Most of the time the child grows up and forgets, toils in some uncertain vineyard, blithely and irrevocably terrestrial. One child in ten million never forgets, joins the military-industrial complex, becomes a spacefarer. A few hundred million become nerds.
Kodwo Eshun is one of the great nerds of the age. A DJ, critical theorist, and artist, he is the author of More Brilliant Than the Sun (1999), a strange and lovely book about futurism and experimental music that paid more than a little attention to Herman Poole Blount, the Alabaman pianist and bandleader who called his band the Arkestra and claimed to belong to a race of angels from Saturn. Together with Anjalika Sagar, Eshun is a member of the Otolith group, named for the semi-liquid organ in the ear that is responsible for the sensation of pitch and tilt.
Otolith is also the name of an ongoing series of film projects that owes a considerable debt to the crypto-postcolonial visual essays pioneered by the Black Audio Film Collective. Otolith I is a serious work of incredible whimsy, and a terror to describe. It is personal: the musings of a 22nd-century woman about her 21st-century granddaughter, much of it in the form of quotations from letters to her 20th century grandmother. It is science fictional: the narrator is a New Woman''agravic,' in the film's pleasing coinage'the product of a 'bifurcation in hominization' that has left most of us behind, vertical and challenged, while the new mammals, hopeful monsters, live without gravity in space.
It is also political: itself an emblem of latter-day Afro-Asian solidarity (Eshun's family came to England from Ghana; Sagar's from India), Otolith also evokes a nostalgia for a time when the globe was divided in three, when the Third World turned to the Second for inspiration and instruction (and also, guns and military advisors). And it is poetical: Usha and her forebears reflect on verticality and modernity and the 'bravest woman' of their era, Valentina Tereshkova, the Russian cosmonaut who became the first woman in space.
To date only 450 people have been in space (not counting the angels), nearly all of them engineers, scientists, or test pilots. Here's hoping that the next space race takes a few poets and theorists along for the ride.
Michael Vazquez, former editor of Transition magazine, is a writer and consultant based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
Bradford Riots (Neil Biswas, 2006)
Shuldn't b callin us Pakis
- Naeem Mohaiemen
The first time I was in the middle of a fight was at the now defunct Mutiny asian underground night. The early adopters (gay boys + misfits) had been replaced by I-bankers, setting up turf wars with the hardcore borough crew. The tussle was about the usual stuff, somebody looked at somebody's girl. But as I waded into the crowd, I was pushed to the ground with surprising vigor. Muscular, angry and jacked up: these Asians were spoiling for a fight.
I always feel an irresponsible, secret thrill at these testosterone displays of masculinity. These are not the get along/go along meek Asians of my father's generation. When 1960s England turned into a nasty brutish place with bottle attacks at bus stands, my father decided to pack up the family and go 'home'. Others with fewer options had to stay and take a beating. When Bengali tailor Altab Ali was beaten to death in 1978, seven thousand Bengalis took to the streets in the largest Asian protest in England. But asswipe-in-charge Morrissey would still reminded the 'Bengali in Platforms': you don't belong here.
Tectonic shifts are underway as a muscular new asian/black identity asserts itself. That's right, we are here because you were there. The cloying accents of Mind Your Language, or the chuddy-kissing minstrelsy of Goodness Gracious Me, have given way to sharp shards on the street and screen. The thrill I felt on that New York dance floor is the same impulse in Gautam Malkani's Londonstani, as Hounslow rude boys go ballistic: 'Shuldn't b callin us Pakis, innit, you dirrty gora'. As the Empire (subjects) strikes back, a panicked white working class seeks common cause with BNP proto-fascists and the shoot-on-sight tactics of the security-panic police force. The mixture is toxic and explosive, the larger Asian community the collateral damage.
Bradford Riots commemorates one among many explosions of urban violence. On display: raw orgiastic rage, street violence as CNN of the inner city, and anarchic energy that is easy to glamorize. The burning fires of the banlieu gave me a momentary thrill: 'That's right, fuck things up!' But in the cold, hard after-light, the French riots ended up empowering Sarkozy and moved Segolene to embrace the flag. Is it really revolutionary violence if it further empowers Empire? When I'm not swept away by adrenalin rush, these conflicting thoughts come crowding in.
Naeem does art/text interventions in Dhaka + New York. Projects include ‘Oppose Us & Rome Will Not Forgive You’ and "Sartre kommt zu Stammheim".
MUTINY: Asians Storm British Music (Vivek Bald, 2001)
What Lies Beneath?
- Jon Caramanica
Early 1998: Mutmahim, Malik and their crew would come grab me in SE London's New Cross in an old beater and we'd all scoot up to the Notting Hill Arts Club, a little cocoon in W11. 5 quid at the door bought entry to a small, often dank basement space where DJs brought in tabla players to spar with, where traditional dances competed with more contemporary styles, and where the drinks were overpriced. Even when it was raging, it was still moody and somehow calm - everyone there looked like they had a sense of purpose, like just being there was important.
But was it somehow too comfortable? The regular night, a spin-off of the Outcaste record label that had become a home for progressive-minded, cross-pollinating Asian musicians, was itself ultimately a home for folks who (mostly) looked the same and (mostly) thought the same. And this 2nd generation was fashionable, too. The magazines and newspapers had caught on, and nothing seduces quite like seduction. Is it possible to be both cool and purposeful?
Maybe it was speed garage, as they used to call it, which took the spotlight away, with the mainstream press only so capable of juggling subcultures. At the end of Mutiny, many of the artists interviewed bemoan their late-90s dealings with British major labels, though I'm sure no one was honestly, truly surprised. Every artist interviewed here sees the act of music-making as an act of resistance, and the record industry was no more an ally than the government.
Talk of music as resistance can seem quaint in an age where, thanks to technology, more voices can be easily heard than ever before. The fantastic archival footage here - of traditional bhangra bands, Asian punks, Asian breakdancers and the like infiltrating UK television - is a throwback to the days of chipping away at the monoculture. By 1998, the questions were different, though, and what Mutiny best captures is the struggle over place. How fighting for it, or against it, can make us who we are. How having it is no guarantee of true power. And how the moment the doors open onto it is the moment it changes, ideas and sounds escaping out into the world, sometimes forgetting whence they came.
Jon Caramanica is the Music Editor of Vibe magazine. He writes regularly about music and television for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and several other publications.
The Road To Guantanamo (Michael Winterbottom 2006)
- Vijay Prashad
Patrice Lumumba Ford, son of a Black Panther, went to China as an undergraduate. There he met some of the 18 million Chinese Muslims, found succor in their faith and converted to Islam. He returned to Portland State University, where a professor remembered, 'He was devout, but he was not a missionary.' A few weeks after 9/11, a sheriff's deputy saw Ford and five other Muslims in a gravel pit at target practice. He took their names and let them off. Some weeks later, the group left the U. S. for Afghanistan, where, they claimed, they wanted to make contact with the Red Crescent and help their Muslim brethren who faced the wrath of the U. S.-led invasion. When they returned to the U. S. without getting to Afghanistan, the FBI arrested them. The Portland 7 defined the presence of al-Qaeda's Fifth Column, a deadly force within the U. S. ready to do the bidding of the enemy.
The Portland 7 is the U. S. version of the Tipton 3. These are groups of young people who bear within them the histories of imperialism, and who take refuge in Islam not for its doctrinal or theological aspects, but for the platform it provides in solidarity with Muslims who face the brunt of the war machine. African Americans (such as in the Portland 7) or British Asians (such as in the Tipton 3) turn to political Islam in response to Atlantic racism and to the sustained campaigns against lands where the populations are largely Muslim (and whose land bears rich resources coveted by the Atlantic world).
Neither Europe nor the U. S. has come to terms with their imperial pasts, and they still sees their 'minority' population as outsiders, as immigrants; neither Europe nor the U. S. accept that the world's resources can't simply be seized without the generation of anger and resentment. The Tipton 3 went to Afghanistan out of curiosity perhaps or by accident, just as the Portland 7 tried to go there to do humanitarian work (as another British Asian Guantanamo prisoner, Moazzam Begg, did). Their intentions are irrelevant to the Atlantic powers who are invested in fear-mongering about their darker co-citizens, the imputed Fifth Column, whose presence engenders fear, and silences the democratic impulses of a population who pay for these wars with blood and treasure.
Vijay Prashad, Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, is the author of many books, including The Karma of Brown Folk (2000), and The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (2006)
England Expects (Tony Smith 2004)
East London: Space of Flows
- James Brooke-Smith
England Expects maps the emergent social geographies of East End London in the era of globalization. The action takes place in and around the Canary Wharf financial district, a pre-planned island of gleaming corporate towers that dwarfs the crumbling housing estates of the working-class communities that surround it. This is an east London that has become a twenty-first-century contact zone where the human, financial, and informational flows of the globalized world collide. The narrative triangulates the uneasy relationships between the occupants of this contested social space: sharp-suited commodities traders, disaffected Asian youths caught between cultures, their immigrant parents, the struggling remnants of the urban white working-class, members of the crypto-fascistic British National Party, and the harassed public servants who distribute scarce resources from a dwindling welfare state.
The film focuses specifically on the vicissitudes of national identity in this trans-national space of flows. Alison is a Scottish trader who keeps a key-ring memento of her favoured British Unionist football club in her purse; Rashel is a young Asian heroin addict who is threatened by his mother with a return to the old country; Ray is an ex-fascist agitator who attempts to keep a lid on his boiling resentment and hold down his job as a corporate security guard. In their own ways, these characters are all trying to come to terms with their place in a new world order.
England Expects was originally broadcast on the BBC in April of 2004. It updates the British public service broadcasting tradition of social realist drama for a new generation. Its focus on local communities and class politics places it firmly in the tradition of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, but it expands on these traditional themes with its broadened focus on issues of globalization, surveillance, and post-9/11 security fears. It is a hugely ambitious film that attempts to cast a wide net over the complex social, political, and cultural energies that animate East London in the twenty-first century. Perhaps some of those complex energies will always elude the limited grasp of narrative form; but in its own messy way, England Expects manages to tap into the main channels of Britain's shifting national identity in the globalized world.
James Brooke-Smith is a graduate student of English Literature at New York University. He is writing his doctoral thesis on the pre-history of the information age.
Skin Deep (Yousaf Ali Khan, 2001)
- Karen Shimakawa
mirrors give me back to myself as you see me, skin side out.
skin marks the border separating inside and outside, me and not-me. it is where I end and everything and everyone else begins. it contains me, protects me, encases me -- it is not me, yet it is what makes me me. (not entirely true: as a container, skin is imperfect. it has holes, it leaks, it is vulnerable to penetration, to puncture, to breach.)
it’s invisible from within: I cannot see it from the inside, despite the fact that “inside” is where I am located in relation to it.
it’s all (or nearly all) that is visible of you from the outside. it is, for me, what contains, encases, constitutes you. it is the means by which -- the form in which -- you become perceptible to me.
what is the you that skin makes? law names it: mongolian, hindoo, malay, negro. in the U.S., until well into the 20th century magistrates rolled up the sleeves of citizenship applicants and compared tan lines, then peered at the veins pulsing beneath the surface as if to pierce the membrane and see the “truth” of identity it concealed. when that method of investigation failed, and noting that their own skins were far from “white” in a literal sense, they nonetheless denied the rights of those whose skins could not be properly called white by virtue of one’s education, place of birth, or parentage.
others name it: chink, nigger, paki.
what is the me that skin makes? it contains (or is supposed to contain) within it only that which belongs in/to me, that which is “proper” to me, that which is “purely” me. everything else has to be jettisoned in order for me to stay me. but the fallibility of skin means that there is always the possibility -- the certainty -- that there is that within me that which shouldn’t be there -- waste, decay, excess. it is the expulsion, shedding, scraping away of what shouldn’t be there that keeps me me. what belongs inside, and what doesn’t, and who decides?
Karen Shimakawa is an Associate Professor of Performance Studies, and the Program Director for Asian/Pacific/American Studies in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis. Her research focuses on the somatics of cultural identification.
A Love Supreme (Nilesh Patel, 2001)
- Kamila Shamsie
In Urdu, the ultimate compliment reserved for a cook is 'haath mey mazaa hai' ' the delight is in the hands. Such a claim, when made about a cook, pushes to one side the question of the freshness of ingredients, the excellence of a recipe, the sharpness of a blade. If the delight is in your hands it will transfer itself to anything it touches, any meal it prepares.
Nilesh Patel's A Love Supreme is that old, slightly worn compliment rendered beautifully alive. The hands in the film do not function as participants in the preparation of a samosa ' on the contrary, the ingredients and utensils are merely the props which the hands use for their performance.
There are two sequences, in particular, which highlight the shifting nature, the varied properties, of the hands. In the first, lemon juice streams onto and between the hennaed fingers of a woman's hand, light sparkling off the juice; the effect is sensuous, the curved fingers and the play of light on liquid calling to mind images of a body beneath a waterfall.
In the second, seen through a fish-eye lens, a pair of hands slap together like cymbals, exerting their mastery over both the ball of flour that is flattened between them and - as the slap fills our vision - over us. Who would not be intimidated by those hands, and awed by their power, their certainty'
The division of the film into different stages calls attention to the intricate layers of action that go into the preparation of a snack; but beyond this it also allows each stage to function as distinct performance space. We know we are watching the same hands throughout, but in ' or on ' each stage, they show us a new side of themselves, and by the end ' though we have seen nothing above the elbow of the women to whom they belong - we feel ourselves intimately bound to those hands which confer delight on us as we consume the images they create.
Kamila Shamsie's novels include Salt and Saffron (2000), Kartography (2002), and Broken Verses (2005). She lives in London and Karachi.
My Son The Fanatic (Udayan Prasad, 1997)
The Road of Inquiry
- Mohsin Hamid
I remember watching My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) on video as a teenager in Pakistan. I was shocked by the bravery and originality of Hanif Kureishi's screenplay. His world of British Asians was one I had no familiarity with, but I appreciated his daring in exploring themes of sexuality and drug use. I read his first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), in college and decided that this was a writer whose work I wanted to follow.
But I was disappointed by his second novel, The Black Album (1995), and by his subsequent film, My Son The Fanatic (1997). The old themes were still there, gritty as ever, but to my mind they were overshadowed by a fixation on extremist Islam. Having grown up in Pakistan and now living in America, I thought Kureishi's treatment of Muslims was exaggerated and fanciful.
I was wrong. I moved to London in 2001, and in the six years that I have lived here, I have realized that the radical Muslim student groups and self-segregationist impulses Kureishi presciently described a decade ago do very much exist in Britain. Watching My Son The Fanatic now, without my hostility to what I had previously thought of as its anti-Muslim stance, I can appreciate how ahead of its time the film was.
But while the title of the film might suggest that the son is its focus, in actuality the tale is centered on the father. Parvez is a man torn between two worlds, that of alcohol, messy love with a white woman, and integration on the one hand, and puritanical rejection on the other. Kureishi's compassion for his navigation of that conflict, and actor Om Puri's sensitive performance, make theirs a film that has done more than age well: it has grown in power with each passing year.
For many of us who are exploring the experiences of Muslims in the West, both in cinema and in literature, My Son The Fanatic stands as an important marker on the road of inquiry.
Mohsin Hamid is the author of Moth Smoke (2000) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
The Warrior (Asif Kapadia, 2001)
Questions of Scale
- Bharat Tandon
In terms of scale, British cinema often finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place: the widescreen epic can seem too expansive, always risking the lapse into 'eye-candy'; conversely, that small, intimate scale, too easily identified as a 'national' aesthetic, can sometimes be used merely as an excuse for a certain aesthetic parochialism. What's so unusual about The Warrior's style is that it manages successfully to maintain both large and small scales within the same film: for all its accomplished use of open space (not least the extraordinary deep-focus landscapes), the story's most important emotional and narrative shifts are conducted in much smaller exchanges.
In the early stages of the film, Kapadia cuts repeatedly between the points of view of the perpetrators and victims of violence, suggesting an entire network of power-relations; and as Irfan Khan's protagonist continues his journey towards redemption in the mountains, whole conversations take place almost wordlessly in close-cropped exchanges of significant looks; yet the style of The Warrior never lets a viewer forget the (literally) wider background against which its dramas are set.
These mutually enriching perspectives feel appropriate, somehow, to a movie with such a diverse heritage (a Japanese folk-tale, transplanted to feudal India, made by a British Asian director); of course, as innumerable 'Euro-pudding' productions attest, such eclecticism can go spectacularly wrong, but Kapadia and the cast are so in command of their material that The Warrior's elements cohere strikingly. Critics are always quick to praise Ang Lee's ability to play different generic conventions off each other; in its own, distinctive manner, The Warrior amply demonstrates that a British director can bring off comparable cinematic coups.
Bharat Tandon, Lecturer in English Literature at St Anne's College, Oxford, is the author of Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation (2003).
Young, Angry and Muslim (Julian Hendy, 2005)
Young, Angry and Muslim
- Gautam Malkani
Here's a radical new idea: rather than simply brand as evildoers young British-born Pakistani Muslims who have taken up arms against the West, let's try to work out why instead. After all, if you want to solve a problem, it kind of helps to understand it. At least that's the basic strategy employed in science, art, business and even war. But when it comes to young, angry Muslims, this is evidently too difficult an approach both for politicians and the out-of-touch Muslim 'community leaders' they consult.
And so the challenge is met by Navid Akhtar, who appreciates the simplicity and stupidity of politicians' demands Muslims magically integrate more with mainstream Britain. Accordingly, he ventures beyond the usual 'clash of cultures' framework to show the contradictions within the two communities are often as important as those between them.
Hence CCTV footage captures the British 'yob' subculture that owes much to a drinks and leisure industry beholden to the equation that more intoxication and less conversation equals more profit. Interview footage illustrates the proverbial pressure cooker that results when parents care more for their family honour than their children's well being. Then there's footage relating to the wider world: Palestine, Bosnia - and the shameful images from Abu Ghraib that symbolise an immoral and inept foreign policy.
Against this backdrop, radical Muslim groups offer narratives that clearly appear less contradictory to the young and vulnerable. We must appreciate the extent to which these are political narratives as well as religious or cultural ones - with radical distortions of Islam becoming a seductive antidote not just to feelings of alienation, but also to apathy. After all, today's dominant 'urban' youth scene has cynically been neutered of youth culture's former political and counter-cultural content. By tackling issues of justice, poverty and the emasculation of people by powerful institutions, radical Muslim clerics take on an inspirational role once filled by the likes of John Lennon and Chuck D.
Efforts to promote a sense of 'Britishness' are therefore not as useful as promoting a more general 'civic' identity and culture to tackle political apathy. Listening to what young British-born Pakistani Muslims actually have to say is an ideal start.
Gautam Malkani is the author of Londonstani (2006) and works for the Financial Times.
[Daily Star, April 6, 2007]
I'm sorry, Choles Ritchil. I didn't believe the evidence of your body. I kept thinking the torture report was a hysterical invention. So much damage to one corpse, it seemed impossible. No, it is impossible. Isn't it? It must all be lies. Those human rights groups, we know they always exaggerate -- just to get foreign funding and create a bad image for Bangladesh.
I'm sorry, because I couldn't find the courage. We're all so invested in getting out of the AL-BNP strangle corridor, we're so euphoric that the godfathers are being arrested, we don't want to upset the process by drawing attention to your case. Must be an aberration, somebody got a little too enthusiastic. Anyway, let's move on. For heaven's sake, don't make a fuss.
I'm sorry, because I couldn't find tears. How easy it was to dismiss your face on that poster. You look nothing like me. You have what my classmates so crudely called "chinky eyes". No one in my family has ever married anyone who looks like you, and even if we did we would make sure you converted to our religion. You see, you don't really exist. This is a country for Bengalis, not anyone else. Now you realize that, slowly, surely.
I'm sorry, because I read Nirmalendu Goon's poem with a stony heart. Then I busied myself with translating it. E-mailing friends and asking, What is Chuniya village? Is Goon being sarcastic about March and "freedom"? Is "elegy" a better translation than "requiem"? Distracting myself with aesthetics, anything to blank out the memory of those pictures.
I'm sorry, because when a blogger posted the report, somebody else complained about the gruesome picture. The picture was quietly removed to page 2. A nice disclaimer was added: "Warning: Graphic Photo". Anything to protect our delicate sensibilities. How inconsiderate of you to die with so many wounds.
I'm sorry, because I said to a Pahari friend the other day, "Welcome to shadhin Bangla", and she replied, "Ami tho Bangali na, how am I shadhin?" I laughed and dismissed her. Oh these people! They will never be satisfied. What do you want anyway? Land rights? Your Language? Parliament Seats? Ministries? Quotas? Autonomy? Come on, that was for us, that was 1969. It's 2007 now. Don't you remember what Sheikh Mujib said? "From today you are all Bengalis." And some of you are now dead Bengalis, that's equality.
I'm sorry, because I know how this will go down. There will be outrage. NGOs will issue memorandum. Bloggers will buzz. Newspapers will write. Thrithio Matra will debate pros and cons. Seminars will be cranked out. And always, some "hero" filmmaker will make a documentary and win awards. Then, just as quickly, we will forget. Amnesia is our gross national product.
I'm sorry, Choles Ritchil. You lived and died protecting the Adivasi people and Modhupur land you believed in. You were gentle and nonviolent, and we paid you back in a different coin.
I'm sorry, because I'm a citizen of a nation that after 36 years fails to see you as anything more than a nuisance. My class, ethnicity and religious privilege (and army family) gives me insurance to write these words. You don't have any such protection -- naked to the world, to Eco Park, and to our vengeful fury.
But don't think you're an agacha on our national boto brikkho. When there are visiting dignitaries or sports events, your people are very useful. You sing, you dance, you wear exotic, colorful clothes. A readymade National Geographic tableau. "Hill People of CHT". "Gentle People of Modhupur Forest". Ah, the permutations are endless.
We want to keep all of you in a museum vitrine, and bring you out on special occasions -- when we need a dash of color. But please don't demand your rights. And don't even think of raising your voice. Etho boro shahosh! You see what happened to Choles. Don't make us be sorry again.
[Daily Star, March 13, 2007]
Since January, we have been gulping down a steady daily diet of chomok, washed down with a drink of conspiracy cola. Big guns arrested, crown prince in the dock, bank statements seized, Hummer H2 impounded, peacocks in the pen, Bagan Bari locked up. And then dheu tin, why is this such a hot commodity? Well it isn’t really, but it’s the one thing that’s hard to get rid of quickly. You can shred documents, stash guns, squirrel money away in Swiss accounts, release a pet croc into Hosni Dalan (very James Bond…). But dheu tin—those are heavy suckers. Na pari khaithe, na pari falaithe.
When I wake up and leaf through the papers, I’m disappointed if there isn’t a new arrest, a new revelation, a big name brought low. But this insatiable appetite for chomok also masks a structural weakness. We are busy being entertained, and then we forget about it just as quickly as new thrills (or distractions) arrive. Look up in the Sky! Indo-Markin conspiracy! Nagorik Shakti!
Dhaka, city of bazillion conspiracy theories, is so busy with this daily kathu-kuthu, not many are bothered about the hard work needed to actually successfully prosecute cases. The same Special Powers Act we used to protest is now our temporary savior (“temporary” because one day we will have to face this law that has been abused by both AL and BNP). Of the SPA’s “prejudicial acts” clauses (sovereignty, defense, friendly relations with foreign states, public safety, communal hatred, law and order, etc), perhaps only “economic or financial interest of the state” clause is relevant to mass looting, corruption and abuse of power now on the dock. Given the inevitable irregularities in detention, interrogation, and evidence gathering, you can see how a sharp, well paid lawyer can start taking apart the cases.
No doubt the CTG is in hyper-drive to try to lock away as many of the black money all-stars as possible. But what are the resources they have? A new Attorney General (Fida Kamal) and AAG (Salahuddin Ahmed), but underneath them the same team – including almost 100 staffers appointed by the BNP-Jamaat coalition (some lawyers have started discussing reform proposals to remove about 60 on grounds of inefficiency and partisanship).
Consider all the political interference we saw in the lower courts in last fifteen years, and even in the Supreme Court in last five years: partisan appointments, cancellation of previous regime appointments, leapfrogging in appointments of judges (including chief justice), new appointments without consultation, mark sheet forgery, Supreme Court musical chairs, vacation bench manipulation, phantom litigants, chief justices revoking judge’s powers to rule … the list is very long. When you probe through these recent maneuvers, you wonder how there can be effective prosecution for the detainees in a court stacked with contradictions, bad precedents and partisan appointments
Consider also, the imbalance in resources between the accountability police and those who are hell bent on avoiding it. Knee deep in conspiracy chatter, people imagine the CTG as a steamroller that is rumbling along
Consider the resources (and partisan, and in some cases not highly competent, lawyers) the government has to track down the money trail and actually put the rui kathla away. Then contrast that with the resources the government had for the Ershad cases. Instead of 40+ detainees, there was only one man on trial. The government committed serious resources, including top lawyers and international investigation teams. But after all those efforts, they landed him only on charges of weapons and cash possession. There were also some charges about a “machine at home for watching foreign TV channels” (kids, it was once illegal..), and a “mobile satellite phone.” But high profile detainees are sometimes caught on precisely these small charges (Al Capone was in the end busted on income tax evasion, this may explain the current dheu tin seizures). Scimitar, Jamuna boat purchase case: all of these big cases have stalled. And of course, with BNP-AL election games, Ershad is out. Oh wait he’s being retried. No out again…makes you dizzy.
Some analysts have looked beyond the BMW shine in newspaper headlines and called for more resources for prosecution teams, replacement of partisan lawyers on government teams, more comprehensive investigation of the allegations of corruption and bias brought against certain judges, professional investigators, clean evidence gathering teams, appointment of independent lawyers (if private lawyers won’t take pay cut to go to AG’s office), and forensic accountants. And always making sure these are fair trials, and not kangaroo courts. Will all that happen, or are we too busy cooking up theories and being entertained to concentrate on hard work?
Here’s a small motivation—if you think last fifteen years were bad, imagine a scenario where all the cases fall apart and the big guns come out of jail – fed up of that jail pocha bhat diet and ready to rumble. The revenge games would reach every inch of the country. No time for fence sitters. Like Howard Zinn said, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.
If you look at the state of 1971 war crimes trials, you can see what happens when enthusiasm and emotion replaces the more mundane, non-glamorous, back-breaking work of evidence gathering. Too busy with songs, slogans and emotions, we gathered little evidence, recorded few witness statements. We thrilled at abstract, performative and emotive events, rallies and slogans about “war crimes.” No international war crimes tribunals, no truth & reconciliation committees, no methodical prosecution process. Three decades later, there’s a big fat zero in the justice and accountability column.
Can we control our fundamental windbag tendencies? Take a little break from fists, slogans, rallies and utthejona. This time around, let’s have a little less emotion, and a lot more hard work, thorough research, and follow through.
Naeem Mohaiemen does film/art interventions.
The Truth, Twisting In The Wind
[Daily Star, March 8, 2007]
Major General Manzoor has been on my mind lately. The Manzoor of the morning of May 30th, 1981. The man whose team assaulted Chittagong Circuit House with rocket launchers, made Ziaur Rahman’s body jahjhra with bullets, in pursuit of another bloody coup. But also, the Manzoor of June 1st, hiding in the tea garden coolie quarters, watching his rebellion fail as troops defected and crossed over into Suvapur, all his plans of starving
I remember hearing on the radio that Manzoor was captured. It seemed only moments later that another announcer said he was dead. How, when, why? The conventional narrative was that a group of angry troops surrounded the jeep and dragged him out: “khunike payyachi!” Later he was found face-down in a drain, with a gaping hole in the back of his head. No sign of the mob. The thing that sticks in my throat is that post mortem report, signed by Lt. Col. A. Z. Tufail Ahmed (reproduced in Mascarenhas’ book): “a big gaping hole 4”x2”” from a shot to the head and “no other injury on the body.” A smooth one-bullet execution, and not a single achor on his body -- by an angry mob? No, somehow, something about it never seemed right.
No tears for Manzoor. But weep for the truth. Our history is littered with dead men -- Khalid Musharraf, Abu Taher, Mohammad Abul Manzoor -- always taking uncomfortable stories to the grave. From 1972 onwards, this country was rocked by intrigue, agitation, and violence. Somehow we muddled through, and here we are, still standing, still shadhin. But who did what, who knew what, and who kept silent and watched? We don’t even know what we don’t know.
You’re too skeptical, said a friend. Maybe the truth is exactly what we know. The public narrative is the only narrative. Maybe so, but at every wrenching historical turn, the people who planned intrigue always seem to conveniently die before they can name their partners. And when you read books about that period, every eyewitness is dead, out of the country, or someone who has incentive to exaggerate or downplay their own role.
Manzoor has been on my mind again because of the JMB verdicts. After exhausting all legal channels, their request for clemency has now been turned down by President Iajuddin. The JMB convicts have repeatedly said they want to talk to the media and name their patrons, but Law Adviser Mainul Hosein said that won’t be allowed, because there’s no precedent.
If nothing else changes, they will hang by April, and I bet there won’t be outraged reactions from rights activists (the same people who were shocked by the Saddam snuff video). Personally, I’ve always opposed the death penalty -- it does nothing for justice but everything for our bloodlust and revenge mentality. But that’s not even where I’m coming from today, I want these men to be spared, because we need to get to the whole truth.
Let’s just spell it out. Do we really believe that a fantastically well-coordinated, accurately planned, micro-second timed, nationwide bombing campaign in 64 districts was pulled off by this small group of “radical Islamist” cells? Do we really believe that the government, after denying the existence of militant groups for so long, suddenly transformed into an ultra-efficient, SWAT team that managed to scoop up the entire militant ring, as soon as international pressure became a bit too much? All that chatter about the new breed of suicide bombers, ready to blow themselves up to establish khilafat, and suddenly they all surrendered? How come none of those bagha bomaroos blew themselves up when the police surrounded them? The government was so sure things would go according to plan, a three-ring circus of TV cameras was even invited along to capture every moment of Bangla Bhai’s capture. And thrilled by “Breaking News” coverage, we forgot to ask any hard questions.
Like, where are the real puppetmasters?
The JMB captures are super convenient for all concerned. Attacks on cultural functions? Machete attacks on Humayun Azad and Shamsur Rahman? Mysterious
In a country where bureaucracy moves at molasses pace, and cases can hang in court for years, why did the JMB case get such speedy treatment? Why the mad rush to hang them before the Caretaker Government took office? After a BNP MP's explosive allegation of links between JMB and high-ups in BNP, and press reporting of the same, Advocate ZI Khan Panna filed a Public Interest Litigation (WP No. 8621 of 2005), asking that investigations regarding the bomb attacks also take into account such allegations. After the High Court gave a positive direction to the Police and others to extend the range of investigation, the former Attorney General AJ Mohammad Ali, on behalf of the 4-Party
The death penalty is wrong on humanistic grounds, but also tactically in this case, because it chokes off the investigation trail. There is still time for this CTG to commute the sentences to life imprisonment, make public all documents from investigations to date, and continue interrogating them, through neutral, non-partisan investigation officers -- until we get to the whole truth.
Maybe some people are lusting to see bearded faces turn black and blue, tongues bulging out, twisting in the wind. Mar shala gulo ke. The truth would be the real casualty. Once again, chuno putis would die, while puppetmasters roam free.
Tattered blood-green flag: secularism in crisis
[Daily Star, Feb 26, 2007]
Last winter, I was filming a follow-up to an earlier project, Muslims or Heretics. With the first kuasha of the season had come, like clockwork, a new program of anti-Ahmadiya rallies. Khatme Nabuwat, now splintered into two groups, had announced yet another gherao of the Bokshibazaar mosque.
The anti-Ahmadiya rallies were on Friday (baad jumma, a toxic mix of misinterpreted khutbas and hate speech). The secularists announced a counter-rally — on Thursday. At the Thursday rally, I found myself the lone cameraman; but on Friday I was joined by scores of others: stringers for AP, BBC, the usual suspects.
The footage from the two adjacent days were a study in contrasts. The anti-Ahmadiya marchers were stern young men dressed in kafon white -- steady gazes that express conviction, confusion, or both. The rallies of the secularists are gender-mixed, with women dominating the chants. There is no uniform, but everyone is in colorful saris and warm looking shawls. Inside the camera frame was an inspiring (and cinematic) sight of fluttering green and red flags, with marchers chanting Ekatthur er Rajakar / Ajker Bomabaj and Al Badar Rajakar / Ajkei Bangla Char.
But outside the frame was the startling fact that the secular rally had drawn only a few dozen people. As they marched through
I thought of this footage again recently after the Awamis cancelled the MOU with Khelafat that (temporarily) legalized fatwas. Lost in the scuffle of why
Secularism today is in a deep free fall. This is not just the crisis of betrayal and maneuvering by political players. The deeper issue is that in thirty five years, we have yet to articulate a strong cultural, economic or political argument for secularism beyond “this is why we fought in 1971.” In our version, secularism stands for nothing, only against something – a mish-mosh of opposition to
What do we do when 1971 is no longer enough?
Humayun Ahmed once had a TV serial where a parrot was taught to say thui rajakar. In each episode, the parrot would mouth the same line (well, that’s what parrots do..). These days, secular arguments that invoke 1971 feel like that –– pretty to look at and easy to ignore. Over-use has blunted all effectiveness.
Islam as a political force is taking over the vacuum left by the global collapse of the Soviet-aligned left (and the Latin American resurgence has yet to touch
1971 as the sole rationale for secularism hinges on anger, memory and villains. Jamaat’s smart response to this was to remove Golam Azam from the leadership –– knowing that he was a lightning rod for controversy. They still have Nizami, Mujahid, Sayeedee and other liabilities – but increasingly you start to see the rise of new “brands” within Jamaat. Within a decade they will have a brand new leadership, a majority of which will be of the post-71 generation. At last week’s midnight hour at shaheed minar, we listened to a litany of names of people giving tribute. First CTG, then (reduced) BNP, then AL, then the rest. My friend turned to me and said, “Any moment, we’ll hear, Jamaat er omuk coming forward with flowers!” A joke right now, but how much longer before they appropriate these symbols as well?
Sharp Islamist minds have already appropriated many icons, while the tired figures of Ghadani/Bangla Academy/et al recycle stale slogans and photo ops. The man who was once "Kafir Nazrul Islam" is now Jamaat’s icon as a Muslim poet. This year, Islamist-aligned newspapers touted a slogan for Ekushey “Matri Bhasha Allahr Sreshtho Daan." DVDs are being sold on a Jamaat history of the language movement that has the logo with Bengali calligraphy in Arabic style.
Gone is the Jamaat of murthad campaigns, anti-Grameen slogans, and NGO-tree choppers. Today’s Jamaat occupies Industries Ministry and negotiates with the “malauns” of Tata. Instead of fighting NGOs, they form their own giant NGOs with Arabist money. Slowly, always patiently, Islamists are infiltrating the civil service, banks, and all sectors of the national infrastructure. All with an eye on the long-term, and more integrity, consistency and ideological honesty than any mainstream party.
As Khatme Nabuwat, Khelafat e Majlish, JMB, occupy the loony right, mainstream Islamists like Jamaat start to look moderate, rational and normalized. Nor has it escaped collective attention that there are very few Jamaat men among the list of big crooks bring hunted by the CTG. Expect even more “We want Allah’s law/And Honest Men’s Rule” slogans at the next election.
In the end, what are our arguments for separation of mosque and state? “1971 er Pak hanadar” is emotionally resonant but insufficient in 2007. As time passes, historians will start looking at 1971 with a more analytic, non-melodramatic eye. As with all national liberation struggles, uncomfortable gray areas will emerge: including how deep was
Flaws and contradictions are expected in any foundation mythology. A normal maturing process leads to a more open discussion of these issues. But along with that, the opening will weaken the traditional argument for secularism. It’s time, really urgent, to support secularism for its own sake, not for 1971.
Many of us have always been for class-based politics that targets the incredible wealth disparity, obscene money race, and insane, unsustainable consumption that is poisoning the globe. But secularism is the missing part of this equation. We are not only a class elite, but also a Muslim elite that ravages this country and renders all others as shadow citizens. From the Vested Property Act onwards, there are laws, “understandings,” social norms, politics and quiet discrimination that have rendered our Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Adivasi, and Pahari citizens as subhuman —- frozen out of schools, jobs, politics, culture and lived life.
(But look, I’m busy right now, says my friend. Writing a letter to Daily Star – the situation in Iraq-Palestine is intolerable, we must fight injustice.)
Many of our crises are due to greed, power play and discrimination impulses being played out on the vulnerable second class. But in the absence of real ideology (what exactly is AL/BNP/JP’s position on Globalization? Structural adjustment? Unionization?), religion is still a powerful political cover for these agendas. If you try to oppose it, the answer is always the same. This is Allah’s law as I choose to interpret it. If you speak against me, you are a murtad.
Time to imagine a completely different movement, one that is for class politics that also incorporates secularism within a Muslim identity, not the inadequate, irreligious fig leaf of “ek shagoro” brand pseudo-secularism (easily bought off with a parliament seat and Pajero). Many of us are comfortable inside, and speak from, a Muslim identity -- either as a religious/cultural identity at home or as ethnicized shorthand for “other” or “immigrant” in western diasporas. But we can be inside that identity and still fight to our dying breath to build a left-progressive, equitable, and secular state.
This is a battle cry for secular Muslims. And we are legion.
These Guys Are Artists, And Who Gives A Shit
Scenes From A Looking Glass War
"Play some more Bach. We won't shoot."[i]
Scene 1: Mufathalle, Munich
The weekend event is part of a series called Dictionary of War. Twenty five artists and academics, presenting themes based on a word they had chosen about warfare. Camouflage, Declaration of War, Desertion, Heroes, Liberation, Mobilization, National Anthem, Negotiation, Resistance, the list was exhaustive (my word: Prisoner of War). As we present our concepts, the Lebanon war is in its second week. There are accommodations made to reflect this rude insertion into our mannered program. Mansur Jacoubi joins us from Beirut for some clunky IRC chat (somebody asks him "can you describe the situation there?", I wince). Akram Zaatari flies in from Paris to present some earlier work––stranded outside the country, he's available to us. E-flux brings in all their Lebanese videos.
I feel the cramp of anxiety. Will all these well-sculpted words have an impact outside this room? Somehow I'm missing the codec to transmit all this theoretical, creative energy into real world action. I've been scolded for seeking use-value in art, but I can't restrain this tourette-like impulse. Back in Dhaka, friends are organizing rallies to protest the war. But they are worried because the main organizers are Islamist groups. I send them the announcement for Dictionary and get a withering response by e-mail "Sitting in a room discussing war, while the Middle East burns down–– a luxury indulgence."
I try to muster up an appropriate response as to why representation, aesthetics, theory, all of this still matters, even in this moment. I believe in everything I say, but today I feel small comfort, because the external geopolitical context seems so extraordinary and extreme. In an attempt to band-aid the situation and, yes, insert "direct action" into the Munich event, I talk to the organizers. Could we issue a statement from the artists calling for an immediate cease-fire? More importantly, there is a peace rally in downtown Munich, perhaps we can take a break and join it. People like the idea in principle, although the logistics are challenging. Eyal Weizman is particularly enthusiastic. But in the end it fizzles out. Before too long, the weekend is over, everyone is bolting towards the airport–– no rally, no statement. I feel deflated, even though the weekend went as promised. But, is that all there is?
Scene 2: Soho gallery, New York
Valentin Manz of London's Vision Machine is very persuasive. Somehow he has persuaded a gallery, not previously known for patronizing political work, to host his group show. "I don't understand," I ask as we start installing my piece. "On what basis did they give you the space? Did they see the title? Rule of Law? What do they think it's about?" According to Valentin, the curators had seen his exhibition of glass pieces in Williamsburg, and that was enough. They didn't comprehend that the gnarled glass shards were exploded Iraqi heads. Perhaps, I suggested, your labels were hazy enough to succeed as illusionists.
As we put up photocopied statements by Alberto Gonzales, neatly labeling them with artist (A Gonzales), media, year, I wonder if there will be a "freak out" moment before the opening. I've been here at least once before. Everyone was all smiles until a few hours before that opening, when a museum director made the rounds and read labels. Then came frantic scuffling, a quiet meeting and then the junior curator coming over to me, and with maximum tortured, circuitous prose explaining that, well, you see, I don't quite know how to say it, but, um, there's a slight problem, no nothing big, but we were just wondering if, that is would you consider...
But somehow, this time around, the entire install goes off without a hitch. I'm not entirely delusional. It is August, "dead time" to most galleries as their patrons are away. The opening is, as a result, over-representative of the activist community. The same faces I had been seeing at meetings of Action Wednesday, an anti-war group, were out in force. The art crowd having gone on summer break, a different energy permeated the room. The staff at the gallery seemed a bit nervous. Nobody here looked like they had money, and not even in that neo-Factory, lower east side, almost famous manner.
Still everyone is polite to us until two friends start debating Hezbollah's role, liberators or destroyers, very near the drink table. The woman serving the drinks gets increasingly jittery. Very soon, there is no more wine. Valentin is puzzled–– he also bought a case of wine, that can't be gone too? Then one of the gallery assistants informs us that because it's summer, they have to close the place early. Sorry, the opening is not until 8 pm after all. It's all very rush rush, almost as if someone broke wind and the room needs to be cleared. As I walk towards the exit, I spot one potential source of trouble. One of our friends had kindly assumed -- well, from the name of the show-- that this was an appropriate venue and had left copies of the IndyMedia newspaper at the front desk. There, splashed out in garish outrage, were images of bloody warfare in Lebannon. A little too much of a reality intrusion, like Linda Blair's possessed girl walking in on a party, peeing on the carpet and blurting out: "You're going to die up there"[ii]
Enough anecdotes, let's start the rest of our conversation.
Permanent War, Elusive Peace
"Every morning, Shamshad Hussain goes to his rooftop, just opposite Red Fort, to enjoy a cup of tea after the azaan, his ears catching strains of prayers from the nearby Jama Masjid. Today, he carried two cups — the second was for the sniper on the rooftop."[iii]
It is almost banal to start by talking about the ongoing Iraq apocalypse. After thousands of lives, and many multiples more of ink and video have been spilt, what more remains to be said about this manifestation of permanent war? Those who marched in anti-war rallies can now feel some schadenfreude at the unraveling of the entire project for a New Century. But at what a terrible price we earned the right to say "we told you so". Even after all the interventionist fantasies have shattered, there is no post-war peace dividend. The madness of the Neocon project only replaced by the equally insane Islamist project of the Mahdi Army, and the ethnic cleansing and forced partition dreams of the Shiite and Sunni death squads.
The New York Times has just printed the most unflattering and bizarre photograph of Condoleeza Rice. Confronted by a chorus of furious opposition by both Democrats & Republicans (but we all know that this too will pass), Rice looks angry and cornered. Her hands are raised in martial pose, warding off noxious peaceniks and liberal harpies. A friend remarks that she looks like a Bollywood villain. Her body language spelling out a Gabbar Singh-like threat, "Mei thum sob lokogo tukra turka korenga" (all of you people, I will cut you into pieces). We have a good laugh. But a day later, newpapers carry a headline about Rice's threat come to life. Senior administration official Charles Stimson tells a radio show that corporate America should cut off business from all law firms that have represented Guantanamo detainees. He then lists all firms that are representing Muslim detainees. Even after a drubbing at the elections, the war on terror shows no signs of winding down, or opening itself up to logic. The world's largest (for now) superpower is still lost and thrashing around, doing untold damage to the world and, to a greater degree, to itself. Should we sit silently by? Well, friends don't let friends drive drunk.
It is fatuous to talk of "since 9/11" as if history started on that day and the current global conflagration is something new or unexpected. The previous century was in fact the most violent in recorded history–– ranging from world wars to colonial expansion, anti-colonial struggles, civil wars, revolution, guerilla warfare, urban war, genocide, and witch hunts. Simply to hint at the astronomical toll of the Stalinist terror alone, Martin Amis recalls this argument between his father (Kingsley) and A. J. Ayer:
"In the U.S.S.R., at least they're trying to forge something positive."
"But it doesn't matter what they're trying to forge, because they've already killed five million people."
"You keep going back to the five million."
"If you're tired of that five million, then I'm sure I can find you another five million."[iv]
Surveying the post "Good War" scenario of the other camp, Mahmood Mamdani[v] casts a cynical eye on the maximalist expansion of the US sphere of influence and destructive interventions in Africa and Latin America. In the blue-sky rhetoric of the time, countries were divided by the Heritage Foundation into compartments for "rollback" (Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, Libya, Nicaragua, Vietnam). The skeleton closet from this period seems endless. What to do, for example, with the recent admission by Peter Matthiessen that he was a CIA recruit in the 1950s and used The Paris Review as his cover? It has been far too easy for cultural figures to be drafted into larger war-strategy programs, in the past through active recruiting, and now through silent assent.
Compared to these cowboy interventions, today's conflicts seem to have a slightly finite boundary––a sizable Muslim population is needed to qualify as a threat (Nepal or Sri Lanka never grab as many headlines). This reassures until you start counting the countries, or sizing up the growing internal populations of Europe and North America. With a renewed intensity not seen since the era of "negros with guns"[vi], the state is monitoring the internal "fourth column". "Muslim" serves as an ethnicized shorthand for migrant populations that were in the past seen as an obedient taskforce (North America) or a non-assimilating welfare nuisance (Europe), but now are seen as a ticking time bomb. During the Vietnam protests, "bringing the war home"[vii] meant gumming up the daily industrial, commercial and cultural machinery that made possible the prosecution of a napalm-orange war in Indochina. Today, the term has been perverted to mean the shadow surveillance of frantic citizens.
Even in countries that launch ferocious tirades against the new Rome, there is also a move to clone its tactics against their own citizens. After a rash of suicide bombings, the Bangladesh government passed far-reaching surveillance and enforcement measures, the language of which seemed to have been taken directly from Homeland Security's playbook. The paranoid mindset of endless security checks has now infected Southern nations. During a screening at Dhaka Public Library, a bearded musolli walked into the middle of the screening, blocking the projector. We had already gone through security checks, those same security guards rushed up and grabbed the man, and a tremor of thrill and fear ran through the crowd. Was this it, is this how it all ends? "Amare chaira den, ami kichu kori nai!" cried the poor man in a feeble voice. It turned out he was the night watchman for the Library. He had been looking for the prayer room, and had stumbled into the auditorium. The madrasa recruits are an icon of fear and resentment for the Bengali middle class, just as they are to xenophobes and power structures in the US and Europe. For the Dhaka elite, madrasa graduates are people who can't afford to drink Coke, have Josh ring tones on their phone, buy bar-coded fruit at Agora mall, or wear jeans from Westecs; they cannot exist in our consciousness. A similar frisson rises in the mind of the Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris or Rome pensioner as they see the hijab-clad (over-used cultural signifier), or bearded paan chewing migrant shuffling towards their bus stop. Why don't these people learn to speak the language properly, they mutter. The pensioner may not be Goldhagen's "ordinary German"[viii], but he will agree quietly as a national security state is built up to police these undesirables.
The "Necessary" War & Saviors for Civilian Life
" What, what if they don't even want the sheik, have you considered that? What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we're doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit?"[ix]
There is now the terribly seductive idea of wars as "necessary" and a force for good. Paranoia is the driving factor, and the astonishing abundance of flags in today's American urban landscape is one demonstration of this out of control, emotional response. Fear eats the soul, as Kalle Lasn writes: “Is everybody crazy? … If you add up all the psychological ailments Americans complain of, the portrait that emerges is of a nation of basket-cases.”[x] Post-traumatic witnesses also incentivize programs of revenge killing on a micro scale and necessary war on a global scale. Amitava Kumar described this impulse in the context of the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogroms: “I saw from the way in which he recited the details that, in the name of charity and the need for news, this little boy had been turned into an automaton or an agony-machine. Insert a coin into the slot, and hear a recitation about rape.”[xi] Borrowing from Malcolm Gladwell, there is also the idea of the flash point event, whether it is an assassinated Gemayel, the purloined Prophet’s hair in Kashmir, a missing German industrialist, or a racial slur on an Australian beach, that can give rise to the "justified" response. The results are predictable–– justifiable wars inflame things even further. As the anti-war sign in Boston warned: "Bombing For Peace Is Like Fucking For Virginity"
In the middle of many righteous protest rallies, I encountered at least one conflict that truly put me in mind of pre-emptive violence. Like clockwork, another petition arrived in my email inbox, accompanied by the rote, garish, vaguely pornographic, jpeg. A large red target was drawn on Belgrade, and the slogan said "STOP NATO/STOP US". No, I have to admit, I could not cheer that slogan. We had been watching the genocide in Bosnia unfold for over two years. "Never Again" had been mouthed ad nauseum, but nothing had happened. Like the Rwandan and Darfur genocide, the world was watching (as Chicago '68 announced), but also sitting quietly on its' hands. Having read Robert Kaplan, they had concluded that "Balkan ghosts"[xii] were "primeval histories", not a place for modern intervention. In that scenario of stupefying inaction, even the Clinton and NATO bombings, however convoluted their motives, were a relief. At last, someone, somewhere was doing something. Sure enough, soon enough the Serbs were back at the negotiating table.
This was also the watershed moment when Christopher Hitchens broke with the American Left over its' refusal to endorse limited intervention. Unfortunately, Hitchens then made the leap to extend the lessons of Belgrade to Iraq. Operation Infinite Justice was also a "necessary" war that must be fought and would be won. Like many armchair pundits, Hitchens has neither experienced nor learnt from the brutality and unpredictability of war. His chorus was joined by hawks such as Thomas Friedman (on a break from touring Victoria's Secret factories in Sri Lanka), whose rhetoric recast war as a series of bloodless analogies: "You know, honey, the wheels aren’t on tight out there", "It’s O.K. to throw out your steering wheel as long as you remember you’re driving without one", "If we don’t turn around now, we may just get where we’re going", and of course re-quoting Lawrence Summers: "In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car."
With an avalanche of such bastardized reasoning making the case for preemptive war, low-level strikes, mass detention, secret prisons, and leave-no-marks torture, the idea of ends-justify-any-means has infected other spheres of civilian life as well. We see this now in the extreme prejudice and brute force being applied to law enforcement, which increasingly resembles the dystopian vision of 2000 AD's Judge Dredd or Paul Verhoeven's Robocop. The first time I saw lethally over-armed and cocoon-wrapped riot police was during the first major anti-WTO battles in Seattle. Since then, the model of machine-tooled lethal force is a common sight at every demonstration–– from Genoa to Doha, and of course always in New York.
Along with a military-level increase in the ability to police, enforce, detain, harass, spy, and attack, there is also a rise, especially in developing nations, of an expanded military role in governments. As democratic experiments fail, the idea of the benevolent dictator is back in vogue. This was evident even in genteel events like the Asia Society's Asia 21, where some Singaporean speakers battled democracy advocates by expounding on "Asian Values" and "stability not democracy." We see this played out in the images that appeared on Flickr after the Thailand coup, showing people placing flower garlands near military checkpoints––the Vietnam protest image of long-stemmed flower placed inside a National Guard rifle, played in reverse. The army man in (or out of) khaki is a specter again in countries such as Algeria, Turkey and Fiji, and Parvez Musharraf proves that opposition to military coups is always conditional and opportunistic. Reflecting on the seductiveness of warrior-solutions to the messy business of democracy, the late writer Humayun Azad predicted: "One dawn morning a General will take over the country. He will call in a judge, that stupid judge will believe that he is the one who is really running the country. Then the general will keep giving the country boot-sunglass-left-right democracy. All the famed opportunists (this word is now praise) will come to the shade of his boot. One day that General will be immortal."[xiii]
Artist in Age of Diminished Expectations
"Strangely, life was becoming almost bearable. I don the robe of hermit without a cry, he thought. On the phonograph, music played, quiet and unhurried. Outside, the vampires waited."[xiv]
Without devolving into an endless litany of all the soft and hard conflicts in the world (there are so many to choose from), we can conclude that the post millennium world is in sorry shape and in need of many interventions. And so, we can dive into the conversation about the potential, ability, and responsibility of cultural actors. In particular, many of us have felt a growing realization over the last few years that the visual arts are conspicuously absent from today's contentious political debates. An explosive art market has created a "Green Zone" inside which we are bubble boys[xv], insulated from external, grim, realities. This is not to place a relative value judgment on artwork that is not (or is) socially engaged. But we need to fight against profit calculations that marginalize and punish those artists who do choose to engage political issues directly in their practice. Also of concern is a critical impulse that reflexively categorizes such work as didactic. These cultural equations and frozen positions must be urgently critiqued and dismantled.
We live in an age of reduced expectations and diminishing returns, especially in the area of political dissent. In spite of numerous rallies over the last four years against the Afghan invasion, Iraq war, Darfur carnage, Guantanamo black hole, Abu Ghraib horrorshow, and continued racial profiling of the "other", tangible victories have been dishearteningly rare. Of course, people come out to register vocalized, visible opposition even in the absence of results. But facing an endlessly resilient power structure, the movement faces exhaustion. At the first anti-Guantanamo rally of 2007, Pakistani poet Sarah Husain sms'ed me angrily from the freezing streets: "Where is everybody?" I typed out a flippant reply from my warm apartment. That was the theme and fate for many recent organized protests. Getting bodies on the streets sometimes feels like an exhausted tactic, new methods need to supplement and replace them. I'm vaguely embarrassed even by that moment of euphoria when we were chanting "George Bush Corporate Whore/We Don't Want Your Oil War." I fear that footage from those rallies will suddenly appear on YouTube–– like Joschka Fischer's street-fighting years, we're suddenly embarrassed by youthful optimism.
The role of the cultural producer in these times requires dissection. Richard Hulsenbeck told a 1918 conference audience: “We were for the war. Dada today is still for war. Life should hurt. There is not enough cruelty.” Of course Dada had a distinct war critique, but others took on the role of creating fascist mythos that assisted in annihilation projects–– Foujita's theatrical wartime paintings[xvi], Leni Riefenstahl's paean to the fetishized Aryan body, Syed Ali Ahsan's poetry for the dictator, or Amitav Bacchan's saber-rattling in jingoistic filmi projects. There are also the military dictators who were frustrated artists, famously Hussain Ershad, who wrote poetry, and Idi Amin, who displayed filmmaking elan for Barbet Schroeder.
Beyond critiquing this impulse to grease the military machine, how do we understand and support the cultural practitioner who actively opposes war culture? Their role may sometimes be direct and confrontational, at other times a quiet, post facto reflection. For those who do take on the role of last man in front of Tiananmen tanks, it is important to understand the structures that militate against them. Looking at an exhibition of Soc-Art (or "New Red Art")[xvii], I thrilled at the documentation of blotchy, hand-lettered "Solidarnosc" slogans jammed on top of a Polish news broadcast. A live, pre-digital hijack of the television signal that gave an electric shock to Warsaw living rooms. I'm waiting for someone to similarly hijack one of the giant billboards in Soho, Times Square or Piccadilly Circus and commit creative vandalism. Why is it only Banksy who still dares to sabotage a Disneyland ride with visions of orange jumpsuits? I keep hoping for gangs of culture jammers, not within the rarefied confines of "street culture" gallery shows, but mounting full assaults on the warrior-friendly mediascape.
There are of course numerous adventurous artmakers who are tackling these issues head-on, but there are many institutional barricades that impede their path. Wishful nostalgia is dangerous, but reading the narrative elsewhere in this book of the 1980s' Artists Call project reminds us that it is possible for artists, even in a go-go art market, to find a space for meaningful political dissent that brings tangible results to people outside the gallery perimeter. There are several factors preventing a similar impulse and result today, and we can consider at least three of them:
"I heard some rumor that the CIA like, just arrested Lawrence Weiner 'cos of his beard' and I was like 'dude, that sucks. I'm gonna grow a beard in protest' and my dealer was like 'dude, that's so cool and it's gonna be real helpful in sellin' your work 'cos collectors are, like, goin' crazy over beards at the moment.'"[xviii]
First of course there is the problem of politics simply as a faddish layer or category, Just as ethnicity can be a lucrative categorization, so can a sheen of politics–– especially if it is the unthreatening, Prada-clad, faux Marxism variety. Can we think of another icon that has been so completely stripped of revolutionary or historical potential as Alberto Korda's photograph[xix], a point only (inadvertently) underscored by Victoria & Albert Musuem's exhaustive documentation of the hundred faces of Guevara. Similarly, when I look at Marianne Boesky gallery's invite for a show by Donald Moffett, I see a faux sticker with the word "IMPEACH." Later I realize it's not faux at all, in one hidden corner is a "Peel Here" tab. But will the show's visitors leave the gallery and start guerilla stickering all over town? When memorialized graffiti bombing and packaged bohemia is the bleeding edge of gallery-based "subversive" art, it is a struggle to overcome the commercial instrumentalization of genuine political positions. If political art becomes uber-trendy, the first victim is politics. Bemoaning the deafening silence of the artworld during the most recent Lebanon war, Emily Jacir wrote in her blog: " I am sure there will be conferences organized, teach-ins and always the "hero" filmmaker who will risk life to make a documentary, the readings, the art exhibits, and the art world will eat the Lebanese artists like pieces of chocolate."
"Our friend is an artist and he says his art is political, but he says it is also totally ineffectual and, therefore, is not activism."[xx]
The challenge for cultural producers is to find a meaningful balance between aesthetics and their desired political engagement. Okwui Enwezor delineated some of the issues embedded within critiques of Documenta XI when he wrote, “If we take on board the idea that combining aesthetic procedures with documentary/ethical questions presupposes the corruption of the autonomy of art we immediately face problems they each pose to our comprehension of reality in the context of art works, images, and events as they appear in exhibitions and institutions of contemporary art."[xxi] Paul Chan solves this by forcefully separating his activism from his art, Dread Scott opts for an extremely conjoined practice. There is a built-in cynicism towards perceived ideological agendas behind a direct approach. When the approach is more elliptical, it is more accepted territory (although here they may be charged with “trivializing”). An endless questioning can even manifest in negation, as in Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Happen. Some seek space in a continuum between direct and the poetic, putting into practice William Carlos Williams words: “It is difficult/to get the news/from poems/yet men die miserably/every day/for lack/of what is found/there” All this can lead to a false dichotomy between "genuine" art and "political" art, pushing the latter towards some rarefied ghetto. This logic even led to the recent pronouncement of Amiri Baraka as a "marginal figure" or as Stanley Crouch scathingly observed, "[he] could have been like Saul Bellow, but with his own style and perspective. If a writer goes into politics, he should maintain his independence."[xxii] Forceful political positions have frequently doomed artists to precisely this sort of dismissive indictment.
"I was seeing work in studios and I was realizing that this work wasn't being presented in galleries because the galleries didn't know how to contextualize, engage, and sell it. It's a whole other side of the system, it's a monster, in a way."[xxiii]
Related to the above is also the real risk of politically engaged art as career suicide, especially for the young, struggling artist. Outright censorship comes usually from right-wing institutions, as when the plans for the Drawing Center at Grand Zero floundered over Amy Wilson's Life In A Free Country. The more subtle pressures come because disapproval of (some) political art manifests itself through the quiet sidelining of these artists' careers. Or even more insidious (because self-censorship is the best censorship) is when the artist starts to move away from direct political work because they realize their careers are going into free-fall. When an artist's more socially engaged practice gets relegated to "something she does on the side", while her other work is patronized and sold, most would make the logical choice. The starving artist mythos is only romantic to those who don't have to live it. Moaning about money in the artworld has become another tired trope. Of course the market is crazy and overheated, but it has always been this way–– people have been predicting apocalyptic collapses since the 1980s (and there was of course one such dip). Anyone with a modicum of interest in the future of the arts cannot possibly be upset that artists are now able to make a comfortable living from their work, at many multiples of what was possible before. Neither is early, hyper-professionalism necessarily a betrayal of some sacred trust. The real issue is not the presence of money, but whether by its' presence it is neutering politically challenging work. It is essential to carve out a space for continued vigorous thought and dissent, protected from the punishment of the market.
Engage Or Die
"From those of us who are left behind: you will be remembered, you were the one I needed, I loved you in my dreams."[xxiv]
In an effort to jolt the hyper art market out of its' current juggernaut path, Jerry Saltz wrote: "The agenda needs to be set by artists, not the market. Supply-and-demand thinking has to shift to production-and-experience thinking. Small communities or cells of artists, curators and critics should band together, take positions, make cogent arguments, and put those things out there."[xxv]
It is our desire to stake out a clear space for engaged political art that can (once again) fulfill the potential of artists as public activists, intellectuals and agents of progressive, political change. This show came about propelled by that impulse–– not to launch a grand manifesto but at least to lob a small hand grenade into smug paradigms that "manage" the artworld as if it is a trading floor or investment fund, as opposed to something with potential to shape visions of other possible futures.
This show's title borrows partially from Chris Hedges' book[xxvi] on warlust. The title of this essay similarly came from Casey Kasem's radio rant, as appropriated by Negativland. In the original radio show, America's comforting music father figure is caught in an off-air moment railing against U2: "This is bullshit, nobody cares. These guys are from England, and who gives a shit?"[xxvii] Free-associating between U2's ferocious legal response and the Gary Webb spy plane incident that inspired Negativland's guerilla warfare, I started wondering if this would be the fate of artists making (or choosing not to make) political art interventions. As the world continues to slide towards national security panic, people who do not engage with these issues risk becoming irrelevant to vital cultural dialogue. Recent Biennials seemed to operate in magnificent isolation, oblivious to a world split asunder by violence. Now that there is blood in the water and it is safe (and fashionable) to attack the American Imperial project, they have belatedly started programming political work. Will this be a temporary dip, before the art world resumes regular programming, isolated in splendid art fair echo chambers? We hope rather that it will become a robust trajectory, fostering artists and art institutions active role in deciding political futures.
In an effort to challenge hermetic trends, this show is our small contribution to a dynamic conversation that is already under way in many locations. While a small minority of these artists have exhibited at venues such as the Whitney, Venice and Sydney Biennials, we also discovered many of these works while attending protest rallies, going to concerts, browsing a comic book store, and surfing YouTube and Flickr. Within the (soon to be expanded) silo of political art, certain conflicts tend to dominate. So we sought out and emphasized conflagrations that slip under the radar. These include the Beslan school raid, rebranded School of Americas, East Timor library, Oaxaca burning, Darfur refugee camps, Rome assassination, Iraq's managed chaos, "Safe" Area Gorazde, D.W. Griffith's Night Riders, Vietnam's burning monk, Oliver Stone's 9/11 blockbuster, Jetblue's t-shirt policy, Paris' cat graffiti, Newsweek's Rwanda amnesia, Iranian embassy takeover, Che Guevara's New York visit, Bangladesh's gun culture, and Thailand's rose coup.
The current "poverty of responsive, socially active visual culture"[xxviii] needs to be challenged head on. The best response to the question of whether political art can play a viable role in shaping mass culture, world events and politics is to look at these and many other artists who are drawing out plans for their own rebellions–– both inside the frothy art market, but also far away from white cubes, in neo-situationist art practices, independent pedagogy and teaching, rebellious intervention, aesthetic innovation, street action, and public dialogues interfacing with our daily lives.
[Naeem Mohaiemen is an artist working in New York and Dhaka. Thanks to Media Farzin, Jesal Kapadia, Brian Holmes, and Doug Ashford for comments on an earlier draft.]
[i] Response to Mikhail Goldstein's concert in besieged Stalingrad, described in William Craig, Enemy At The Gates, Penguin, 2000
[ii] Linda Blair as Regan in The Exorcist, William Friedkin dir., 1973
[iii] Charu Sudan Kasturi, "Tea With Sniper", The Telegraph, 8/15/06
[iv] In the end twenty million, as exhaustively enumerated in Martin Amis, Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, Knopf, 2002
[v] Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Pantheon, 2004
[vi] Title of Robert Williams' incendiary pamphlet, later channeled into founding of Deacons for Defense
[vii] Martha Rosler, Bringing The War Home: House Beautiful (1967-72), and also as popularized by New Left radical movements like Weather Underground and Rotee Armee Fraktion
[viii] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Knopf, 1996
[ix] Denzel Washington in The Siege, Edward Zwick dir., 1998
[x] Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America, William Morrow, 1999
[xi] Amitava Kumar, Husband of a Fanatic, The New Press, 2005
[xii] Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, St. Martin's Press, 1993
[xiii] Humayun Ajad, Rajnithibidgon, Agami Press, 1998
[xiv] Richard Matheson, I Am Legend, Bantam, 1964
[xv] I borrowed this phrase from Asif Saleh's post at drishtipat.org/blog
[xvi] Phyllis Birnbaum, Glory In A Life: A Life of Foujita–– The Artist Caught Between East and West, Faber & Faber,
[xvii] Polish Socialist Conceptualism, curated by Lukasz Ronduda and Barbara Piwowarska, Ochard gallery, New York, 2007
[xviii] Brock Jones, "Hair Today", letter to Frieze, 1/07
[xix] Korda's daughter successfully sued Bruce LaBruce for his film riff on Baader-Meinhof Strawberry Reich because of "unauthorized" use of this icon
[xx] Mike Bonnano (The Yes Men), Who Cares, Creative Time, 2006
[xxi] Okwui Enwezor, "Documentary/Verité: Bio-Politics, Human Rights and the Figure of “Truth” in Contemporary Art"
[xxii] "A Return to Rage, Played Out In Black & White", Celia McGee, New York Times, 1/14/07
[xxiii] Dead Daderko, Who Cares, Creative Time, 2006
[xxiv] Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park, Knopf, 2005
[xxv] "The Battle For Babylon", Jerry Saltz, Village Voice, 9/16/05
[xxvi] War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges, Public Affairs, 2002
[xxvii] Negativland, "The Letter U And The Numeral 2", U2, 1991
[xxviii] Doug Ashford, "Finding Cythera: Disobedient Art and New Publics", Who Cares, Creative Time, 2006