Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

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Why France should NOT ban the burka

June 22, 2009

This piece is a response to an article published by the Australian Herald Sun, forwarded to me by a friend who was interested in my opinion. The article in question discusses the possibility of the French government passing a law to ban the burka. In what follows, I lay out my reasons for thinking that such a ban would be an extremely counterproductive move, and that it is symptomatic of a broader drive to signal out problematic practices in the societies of the Other at the expense of turning a blind eye away from similarly problematic practices at home.

There are several points of contention with the arguments of those who see the banning of the burka as a desirable move.

Firstly, there is the assumption that women wear the burka because they are “forced” into it. The article mentions that if a pending government  inquiry into the matter found that the burka was “forced” it would “contradict republican principles”.

In phrasing the issue as such, it creates a false dichotomy: either you are free or you are oppressed, in which republicanism is associated with unbridled liberty and social and religious practices are reduced to a stifling fundamentalism.  And there is no middle ground. We are encouraged to think that the mater is completely black and white, devoid of any murky shades of grey reflect the complexities of layered identities and social expectations. Which, as any vaguely perceptive person can comprehend, is not an accurate reflection of social reality.

No individual identity comes into existence in a vacuum.

We are all products of our environments: of value systems, institutions, expectations, cultures and traditions that precede us. Through our families, we are constructed in this world through series of interactions (family, friends, authorities). Therefore, because of the fact that we are socially constructed, the notion of a completely pure choice can only ever be a fictional idea because it denies the social forces that surround us. We, as fundamentally social individuals, will always bear an element of our environment in our behaviours, decision and desires.  These factors need to be borne in mind in any discussion of choice vs. imposition

Secondly, the article mentions that “Many see the burka as an infringement on women’s rights and is being increasingly imposed by fundamentalists”. It echoes the argument that says that the burka, and even the less encompassing hijab (veil) are de facto examples of gender oppression and patriarchy. It leaves no room for arguments about why the burka can be desired by women, for example in that it conveys an culturally-contingent image of an ideal femininity, one based on humility and faith.

By the same token, it also encourages us to forget about the ways in which patriarchy manifests itself in different yet comparable ways in Western secular societies. For example, the practice of cosmetic surgery, which pushes women, often young girls, to adhere to a sexualised feminine ideal that is unnatural, often ethnocentric. Or other societal and family pressures, such as the institution of marriage or heterosexuality.

No society is completely devoid of sexism, racism, homophobia or other prejudices; to pretend so is delusional.  There are many examples in our own cultures of how gender values still form, even weigh upon, women. Therefore, when faced with the demonisation of Islamic forms of dress, I am compelled to ask: Why is it that western women feel more affronted by a woman who is humbly covered than one who is exposed? Why do we not repel in disgust at the way the sexualised female body is used shamelessly to sell anything: from fabric softener to metro tabloids (The Sun’s page 3 anyone?).

By signaling out the ways in which a cultural Other is perhaps experiencing injustice, we suspend criticism of the ways in which our own societies perpetuate similar injustices, but in different ways.

Thirdly, ‘cultures’  are never insular, self-contained boxes. Since the ancient days of the Silk Road trading through to European colonialism and then ultra-modern technologies, people have been in contact with different value systems and living, which in turn impact on the form that cultural manifestations take.

Accordingly, it might be useful to ask how the social, economic and political tides of our own times have impacted on the notion of identity of, say, migrant communities in Europe. Or how decades of increasing Euro-western xenophobia, including Islamaphobia, impact on the way that new generations choose to express and articulate their ethnic/religious identities.

The burka, as a type of dress and a SYMBOL like all others, has no meaning in itself. It only comes to acquire meaning when in a given context, and that meaning can change over time as context changes. A classic example is the wearing of the hijab in 20th century Iran: during the rule of the Shah, it was publicly banned. Consequently, women who were opposed to the Shah’s ruthless dictatorship deliberately chose to wear the hijab as a means of expressing their discontent with the regime, of revolting against the established order. To them, wearing the hijab was an act of resistance. Fast forward ten years: after the 1979 revolution and the hijab was forcefully imposed on women, it became the means through which a paranoid conservative government pushed the population into submission. Therefore, it became a symbol of oppression. So within 20 years, the same piece of fabric worn over the head came to mean completely different things to the people wearing it.

By conceiving of the issue in this way, we open ourselves to explanations for Islamic dress that exceed the liberated West vs. oppressed East paradigm. We can come to realise that wearing traditional Islamic dress is not necessarily the manifestation of some age-old archaic tradition of backward desert-dwellers that has no place in today’s society, but a glimpse into deeper issues about forging one’s identity in an ever-changing world. It can, for example, be conceived of as a phenomenon of 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants from ex-French colonies in reaction to their interaction with a hostile, often racist and supremacist, European culture. The burka can also be a means of rejecting what many see as the hyper-sexualisation of women in western cultures, propagated by rampant consumer capitalism, in which the body is just another item used to sell or to be sold.

Fourthly, there is a multiplicity of reasons why a woman could chose to wear the hijab or the burka. Inevitably, will also be cases where women will be encouraged to do so by family members, most often because it conveys the values of ideal femininity and womenhood in some Muslim circles: piety, humility, integrity. By the same token, there are numerous reasons why a woman can chose to diet and to undergo cosmetic surgery, because she is succumbing to western societies’ ideas about ideal femininity, in which one who controls her body, according to certain superficial, even pathological, ethnocentric beauty norms, is also in control of her life. Both are incidents of behaviours that can come about as a result of family/social pressure, and are therefore both problematic, and need do be dealt with sensitively and intelligently so as not to patronize those women involved.

Banning the burka to combat integration problems is as senseless and unproductive as banning collagen lip implants to combat gender oppression.

The most productive tactic is engagement, encouraging public debate, to try to reveal the complex community dynamics and processes of identity construction that affect us all. That cannot be acheived by prohibition. Banning things, whether types of dress, or books or music, constitutes a types of censorship in which something is deemed unacceptable, illigitimate. By doing so, it denies a voice to people who are involved in such practices for complex reasons.

Banning the burka would also marginalize people, push them to the fringes of society which will invariably lead to increased isolation, alienation and bitterness. Instead of solving problems posed in the name of ‘integration’, it will backfire heavily, and, in the heated international climate of stigma surrounding all things Muslim, make the women and families involved feel like they are being discriminated against because of their beliefs and ways of life.

Within today’s extremely fragile geoplolitical situation, to ban the wearing of the burka or the hijab in the name of secular individualism is to accentuate the injustice perpetuated by religion. In doing so, we fool ourselves into thinking that those injustices committed within liberal secular societies are somewhat less serious, less in need of public critique and ban. To ban the burka in France is to perpetuate a myth about the superiority of a secular French identity when faced with religious social paradigms.

To ban anything is to deny people the opportunity to inhabit, explore and discuss all the myriad types of identity that exist beyond narrow tropes defined by fictional, and often politically-loaded, dichotomies.

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Back to Beirut

March 6, 2009

One moment, I’m gaping, recoiling in horror at the sight of a young child, perhaps six or seven years old, hanging off the passenger of a stationary long, sleek, black Mercedes. Gripping the ledge provided by an open window, the child suspended himself off the tarmac and arched his head into the vehicle, probably asking for money from the driver and eventual passengers. The car made small yet sharp, agitated jerks forward, obviously attempting to scare the child into letting go.

As soon as the oncoming traffic ceased and the car was able to make its turn, it accelerated abruptly, in another cruel attempt to rid itself of the urchin. As far as I could see, the child managed to hang on despite the aggressive manoevre, and as it disappeared down the hill towards Gemmeyze, I hoped for another impending traffic jam so that he would be able to safely disengage his small self.

Five minutes later, I find myself sipping a Bloody Mary in one of the jilted, trendy pubs in the area towards which that car had just sped off to, already allowing the chilled drink and even more chilled surroundings to help me forget the disturbing incident.

Fifteen minutes later, on the walk down Rue Gouraud between the pub and a nearby restaurant, we were pursued by a teenage boy in shabby plastic sandals, shoe-shining kit in hand. “Please mister, no money, no money mister,” he called out after us. “Please, just one thousand (Lebanese Pounds, about 66 dollar cents)! No money mister, no money!”

Although I considered my initially mild yet increasingly harsh shouts of “Khallas!” (Enough!) to be less violent than the dangerous driving of the Mercedes, it was blatant that my attitude conveyed exactly the same degree of brutal disregard and crude apathy.

I silently welcomed myself back to the habitual hypocrisy that seems to define upper-middle class and expat lifestyles in Beirut.

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Ode to an inanimate vagabond

March 6, 2009

My trusty travel-companion; for some time now, we have been seen rambling along distant mountain-tops, trudging over rolling sand dunes and weaving through the smoky streets of both historical metropoles and twenty-first century boom-towns.

Me, on the capturing end of a camera or keyboard; you in your intricate passive appreciation. Never compelled, in your acute and blissful ignorance of passing minutes and paysages, to objectify your surroundings, you are content in fluttering along around me, teasingly brushing the dry skin on my calves, silently absorbing the odours and dusts of every new environment into the fabric of your being.

Your steadfastness never ceases to amaze me. Confronted with my clumsiness and even sometimes abuse, you persist implacably, glimmering, torn, whimsical, and still able to impress with your subdued beauty.

For the first time in many weeks, I cleaned you today.

Working your silky layers into a frothy lather, over and over, I watched the lukewarm water turn yellow, then brown, and then a murky grey.

Washing away your most recent memories. Urban pollution from so many London and Istanbul alleys; dust lodged in the carpets of mosques and footsteps of believers; crumbs of Cappadocian limestone and snow; sprinkles of cumin, thyme, sage, sumac and rose, whirls of apple tobacco, floating through the narrow tunnels of Aleppian and Damascene souks; remnants of moss and rock, flaking away from majestic Crusader castles.

And finally, after many long weeks, sea salt whipped off the eastern Mediterranean and up towards looming Mount Lebanon, mingled with the grease of barstools and sweat of old friends.

Three, four, five times, I scrubbed and rinsed and scrubbed and rinsed until the water ran clean, so deeply embedded were these, and perhaps other, remnants from places afar that you have managed to retain in your soft folds.

Now, draped listlessly in the warmth of a Beirut spring day, you’ll begin to collect anew, spectator to the cacophonic symphony of frustrated ambulances, decrepit Mercedes and over-enthusiastic Hummers on the streets below.

Despite my meticulous bathing, I wonder what fragments you still carry with you.

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A Whiter Shade of Red

January 10, 2009

19/12/08 Urumqi, Xinjiang, China

Last Tuesday, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers won their eighth consecutive match, playing against Shanxi Zhongyu, and they continue to top the tables of the Chinese Basketball League. The stadium in their home-town of Urumqi, the boom-town city built on the back of Xinjiang’s oil profits, was packed with fiery supporters who eager to see their team continue its winning streak and consolidate their lead.

As I walked up the steps into the stadium, thankful to be out of the sub-zero temperatures that plaster Xinjiang in the winter, I was intrigued by the combination of the sickly-sweet smell of fresh popcorn being sold by the bucket and the opening chords of The Final Countdown that echoed out from the court: everything was so Americanised. This impression only grew as the game started, for were it not for the east Asian facial features of the cheerleaders who bounced around like poodles in heat in their skimpy outfits to Justin Timberlake tunes, I could have been watching any basketball match in any American city.

Indeed, the first time I visited China over a year ago, I was struck by the extent to which so many aspects of modern China emulated and amplified that global behemoth of rampant consumer capitalism. It was not only the popular culture, the imitation of the blinged-up, sexualised and slave-to-image superstar ideals exported by the West; this sort of imagery is generically regurgitated all over the world. It was much, much more.

 

It was city after city of dizzying skyscrapers, intersected by flyovers and billboards and neon signs boasting all the perks of a ultra-modern metropolis: mobile phone companies, investment banks, luxury apartment blocks, flashy SUVs. It was the clusters of shopping malls, four, seven, ten floors each, in department store layout with pretty, made-up salespeople and shiny, slippery tiles; many of which were often empty. It was the groups of middle-aged tourists who flooded the alleys and paths of UNESCO heritage sights, wearing matching orange hats and behaving more loudly and patronisingly towards the objects of their travel (often minority groups, quaintly decked out in their traditional costumes) than the worst stereotype of the brash, uncouth American in a foreign place. It was the Xinhua bookshop and the Dico’s fastfood joint in every town, even in rural areas. It was the ideals of profit and materialism on a grand scale, the stuff of nightmares for those of us who cringe at the thought of a totalising, homogenising globalisation based on an idea of modernity as the proliferation of technology and unfettered consumption.

 

* * *

 

This month, China celebrates the 30th anniversary of what it calls its ‘Opening up and reform’ policy. The policy was, in effect, a loosening of the tight controls of the Communist planned economy and a shift towards free-market competition, and it designated the end of the two year-long power struggle that occurred after Mao’s death in 1976 in which Deng Xiaoping emerged victorious. It has been credited with enabling China to achieve record annual growth rates of some 10% over the past three decades, and is the engine for the sky-rocketing development that has swept through the country in that time.

 

Since the beginning of December, the national televised media has been airing special reports, documentaries and interviews to mark the occasion. Local museums and galleries around the country have set up exhibitions geared towards highlighting the positive effects of the Opening Up and Reform policies on particular regions and cities. A couple days ago, I visited two in Urumqi. One was your standard montage of statistics regarding increases in literacy rates, access to healthcare, the length of roads built to connect remote villages to larger urban centres, etc. The other was a photo exhibition which contrasted grainy photographs of Urumqi from the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s to digitally enhances ones of recent years. The black-and-white snapshots of a ramshackle yet thriving bazaar, a patch of desolate, snow-kissed countryside a lone cyclist on a tree-lined avenue were juxtaposed with gaudy technicolour images of glass and steel high-rise buildings and geometric public parks with artificial lakes. The set-up clearly demonstrated the Chinese vision of modernity.

 

All the fanfare culminated yesterday morning when the Chinese president Hu Jintao made a speech in which he praised the virtues of “the dynamic socialist market economy”. Reading an English translation of his speech on the Xinhua website, it was unsurprising to note that a predominant lexical set throughout was one linked to the official party line, socialism. However, it did seem odd that the virtues of socialism were being proclaimed so strongly in a context that seemed to stand in sharp contrast to it, namely, the rapid capitalist development that has resulted from the Opening Up Policy.

 

Looking closer at the extensive use the word “socialist” in the speech, one comes to feel that, rather than actually being used to articulate and reinforce substantive socialist principles, such as developing a universal welfare system or reducing the ever-increasing gaps between rich and poor and urban and rural populations, it is attached to a series abstract noun in order to appropriate the concepts. Instead of tangible proposals geared towards remedying China’s existing ills or alleviating the negative impact of the global financial meltdown on China ’s export-based economy, our ears are filled with the virtues of “socialist democratic politics”, “advanced socialist spirits and culture” and “socialist modernization”.

 

The use of the word in this way makes it come across as an empty signifier, a vacuous adjective that can be used to stamp the authority of the Chinese Communist Party on the series of blatantly un-communist policies being followed by the government, which have allowed a distinctively un-socialist society to come int being. Therefore, when Hu speaks of the “socialist market economy”, something that appears to be a contradiction in terms, it is apparent that he is discursively constructing the capitalist policies which are pursued by the Chinese Communist Party as legitimate.

 

 

This is significant because, free market economics aside, there is very little substantive socialism left in China’s domestic policies. Aspects of the welfare state that are taken for granted in many western European countries, including providing universal healthcare and education, are strikingly absent in China. For example, even though the state does adhere to a policy of nine years compulsory education for its young citizens, the content and quality of this varies depending on ethnic group. As I have noted in a previous piece on this blog, most schools in Xinjiang are segregated into schools for Uighur children and schools for Han children. In the Han schools, English is taught as a second language, whereas in the Uighur schools, Mandarin Chinese is taught instead of English. Though this approach offers Uighurs the possibility of accessing higher education, which is all in Mandarin, it also means that they are much less disposed towards education or jobs outside of China.

The lack of a viable egalitarian politics in comtemporary China means that, like so many ideologically charged cousins before it, including “freedom”, “liberty” and “democracy”, “socialism” is condemned to the death of rhetorical redundancy. Nevertheless, it is a purposeful death, a meaninglessness which perpetuates the raison d’etre of the CCP.

 

It was obviously tough for the architects of the Opening Up and Reform Policy to forge an image of continuation between the radical new measures and the founding principles of the Party. One of the mechanisms they used to do this was to officially conclude that Mao Zedong was “70% right, 30%”, through which they granted themselves a margin for effectuating change without rejecting the legendary image of the Chairman.

 

Still today, explicit links are made between a romansicised version of China’s communist past and its recent economic boom. CCTV 9, the English-language international channel of China’s central broadcasting agency, has been airing adverts for its series of shows commemorating the 30 year anniversary under the headline “China’s New Long March”. Interestingly, that slogan is being used for programs that interview farmers who are allowed to voice the hardships that they endured under Mao’s rule, such as being forced to eat leaves and bark in order to fend off starvation.

 

While initially this may appear to be a contradiction, on one hand eulogising an era while on the other revealing some of the horrors that took place within it, it actually serves as a dual-pronged way to congratulate the actions of the current government while maintaining their ideological putiry. Firstly, the articulating of the difficulties of the past is only allowed because it enables a point of comparison for the the ways in which peasants are relatively better off now then back then. The woman who spoke of feeding her family on soup made from the leaves of oak trees was then shown in her kitchen, cooking a meal with a variety of ingredients and modern appliances, even a microwave.

 

Secondly, the over-arching image of “the New Long March” links the present accomplishments with a grandiose, mythical past. Together, they encourage people to be both grateful for their embetterment (despite the persistence and aggravation of social inequalities), and to rally around the current policies with the same fervour that they alledgedly granted to the Red Army along its 2-year long retreat from the Guomindang in the 1930’s. Though the authenticity of the interviews with the peasants and their apparent wealth could be questioned, and while I am assuming that similar programmes are also broadcast on the other CCTV channels targeting a Chinese audience, I feel that, on the whole, the consolidation of the legitimacy of the CCP in the face of its capitalist policies is a message which is being conveyed loudly and clearly throughout this vast nation.

* * *

 

As the photographs in the Urumqi gallery illustrated, China is a vastly different place today than it was thirty years ago. But the same can be said of many other places in the world, so what makes China special? A variety of factors, doubtlessly among them the scale of its geography, the immensity of its population, its expansive history and its contemporary dogmatic commitment to a Machiavellian view of progress.

However, one thing seems to rise above the rest, namely the fact that the Chinese government remains able to walk the tightrope between a Westernised modernity and a sinified Marxism. It is impressive that the CCP, once demonised as an international pariah regime and now both coveted as an invaluable ally and feared as the looming impending superpower, has been so successful at surviving the rise and fall of the various tides that have been the ebb and flow of its history. It will be interesting to see for how much longer it can proudly, and, perhaps, justifiably, celebrate its increasingly White policies without completely renouncing its Red credentials.

(It will be more interesting to see if the CCP can appropriate another noun with deeply entrenched connotations, and shift the popular view of the colour Pink from one suggesting femininity to one representing its ideological limbo… Pink, methinks, is the new Red).

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The Politics of ma la dofu

January 10, 2009

30/11/08 Kashgar, Xinjiang, China

During my first visit to China a year ago, I developed quite a taste for Chinese food. But to say this to people who have never visited China is misleading, because often their only exposure to Chinese cuisine has been the greasy, MSG-saturated stuff that gets ordered for take-out in those quaint little white cardboard containers. And although Chinese food in China is, admittedly, both greasy and coated in a fine layer of MSG crystals, it is worlds away from the stereotypical, bright orange sweet and sour dishes with a side of egg fried rice.

The majority of Chinese restaurants in the West are Cantonese, which is only one of the many types of cuisine present in this vast country that encompasses over 50 different ethnic minorities and with each region boasting its own unique speciality. From the classics including Peking duck and steamed dumplings, to more obscure dishes such as Nanning dog; from fiery Chonqing hotpot and spicy Sichuanese dishes laced with taste bud-tingling Chinese prickly ash (’ma’), to the fresh fish fare of the Bai and the goat cheese of the Naxi in Yunan; from the barley- and yak product-based staples of the agriculturally-poor Tibetan plateau, to the laghman (pulled noodles) and pollo (similar to central Asian plov) of the Uighur in Xinjiang; the diversity of the Chinese empire is reflected in the proliferation of palates of which those who have not visited the Middle Kingdom are seldom aware.

When I visited China last year, I had not yet deviated from my 6-year-long stint as a vegetarian (which has since been forfeited with the introduction of lamb into my diet during my travels through central Asia: see here). Being a vegetarian in eastern China was a real thrill: with an abundance of vegetable- and tofu-based dishes almost always on offer, there was always something to satisfy my backpacker’s hunger. Even in the cities of Xinjiang, where the central Asian influence renders the local food heavily meat-based, there was always a Sichuanese restaurant to which we could flock in order to get our fill of our veggie favourites , including ‘fish-like aubergine’ and ma la dofu (hot and spicy tofu). It was only occasionally, when we ventured from the beaten-track, such as when we travelled into the more remote mountain areas of Xinjiang and stayed with both Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in yurts and went hiking southern Xishuanbanna near the Burmese border, that our dietary particularities were more difficult to abide by. But, like I believe every good traveller should, our sense of gratefulness in response to hospitality outweighed our principles, and we politely stomached the yak, lamb and wild boar that appeared on our plates.

This time round in Xinjiang, however, in the context of our desire to observe the various means by which the Han Chinese-dominated government maintains a tight control of the region and the implications of this on the livelihoods and culture of the Uighur people, we have found some ethical problems with our penchant for ma la dofu. More precisely, if we are morally opposed to Han Chinese control of and migration to Xinjiang, on the grounds that it represents an act of cultural imperialism that systematically disempowers the Uighur and seeks to undermine their culture in the name of national assimilation, then is it not morally objectionable for us to support Han businesses in the region?

By posing the polemic in this way, I am not implying that my personal choice to not support certain patrons will in any way threaten their business, or, for that matter, have any significant impact on them whatsoever. However, I do feel that consumption is an inherently political act, seeing as it has as its corollary production, and that those two together constitute a whole system in which undeniable power relations are present. Along these lines, the theory of ethical consumption goes that not only is hitting someone in their pocket is where it hurts most, but that it is an opportunity to use one’s economic power to draw attention to objectionable practices. To purchase something is to partake in that system, to have a degree of agency in its perpetuation. Conversely, to choose to not to place one’s purchasing power in a given system because one opposes certain methods used within it (in terms of production, advertising, transportation etc) is a means of expressing one’s dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The ethics of consumption have come to the forefront of popular discourse and debate in many ways over the past twenty years. These have taken various forms, most prominently academic boycotts as a means of criticising repressive regimes, such as in the cases of apartheid South Africa and Israel; divestment from certain banks or companies that have shares in arms companies and hence have vested interests in the continuation of certain conflicts, for example Sudan; and trends discouraging the purchase of goods produced using unsound methods (including those which use child or sweatshop labour, destroy ecosystems, or monopolise certain retail areas of geographic spaces) while encouraging alternative, more ethical products (organic, fair trade, low carbon-footprint etc).

Taking these sorts of arguments seriously, during these past couple weeks in Xinjiang, we have made concerted efforts to purchase from Uighurs, whether at in small shops or market stalls. In some places it has been easier than others: in the Han-dominated city of Gulja, outside the bazaar, it was nearly impossible to find shops owned/run by Uighur people to buy groceries from, whereas here in Kashgar, there are many more centres of Uighur commercial activity.

Nevertheless, there are some realms where we have no choice but to buy into Han business because there are no other options, most notably in terms of accommodation: all the hotels are run by Han Chinese. We got our hopes up yesterday when we heard about a guesthouse in the old Uighur quarter of Kasghar, thinking that we could finally stay with and economically support an Uighur family, only to be disappointed by learning that it was run by a Han Chinese. When questioned about why there were no Uighur guesthouses in the charming old town, with its obvious appeal to travellers, our interlocutor said that it was very difficult for Uighurs to get permits to house foreigners.

When it comes to eating a hot meal, we try to go to Uighur restaurants as often as possible. The problem is that even with our newly-nurtured lamb tolerance, neither J nor I find a bowl of lakhman noodles, or even the occasional shwar (kebab), to be as gastronomically pleasing as a Sichuanese spread, encompassing salads, stir fried veggies, the obligatory ma la dofu and some steamed rice. Compared to the explosion of colours and flavours offered by the latter, the appeal of the former fades. But every time we chose to eat in a Sichuan restaurant, are we not savouring a cuisine whose very presence in every town of Xinjiang betrays the extent of the Han conquest, and therefore implicitly condoning it? Isn’t eating in a Han restaurant in Xinjiang antithetical to our opinions about the region? Isn’t it hypocritical?

I suppose, on one hand, that Kashgar, being a key city on Silk Road, has a past of ethnic and cultural plurality. Its history as a cosmopolitan centre where different peoples met and merged has existed for a much longer period of time than its more recent statute of ‘traditional’ Uighur town. Therefore, to reject that history of diversity in favour of positing the Uighur as being in some way the most ‘authentic’ inhabitants of the region is inaccurate and misplaced. Consequently, my reservations about eating in Han restaurants could be accused of romanticising the position of the Uighur in Kashgar.

However, on the other hand, this analysis does not hold so true for some other cities that we have visited in Xinjiang, which really do fit the term ‘Uighur towns’, and that are being transformed into Han super cities. In those places, and within the broader context of Han migration and the unequal distribution of employment amongst the ethnic groups of the region, I think it is pertinent to be critically aware of where we place our purchasing power.

* * *

As the sun sets and we begin to contemplate what to have for dinner, I really do feel like I shouldn’t give in to that little voice inside me that proclaims its desire for ma la dofu. But today, I think I may have less of an internal debate with myself: I have a chest infection and have been moping around coughing up phlegm all day. In this condition, I don’t particularly feel like eating spicy stir fry, but nor does a steaming bowl of laghman seem appealing as that was my breakfast… So tonight, I think I’ll take the middle road and mosey on down to the Pakistan Cafe round the corner for some dahl and saag aloo… Kashgar must have the best South Asian food in all of China, and as long as it isn’t annexed by Pakistan anytime soon, I have no moral dilemmas in enjoying it!

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Pave the bazaar, put up a Han santing

January 10, 2009

25/11/08 Kuqa, Xinjiang, China

       We are now in the third town on our journey around Xinjiang, and the only thing that seems to differentiate these various urban centres is the degree of Han Chinese encroachment on and domination of public space.

       I regret that I used the word ’sprawling’ to describe Alamty; for it would have been much more accurate had I used it to describe modern Chinese urban planning. Having been to China before and having experienced the enormity of all the features of Chinese cities (shopping malls, roads, train and bus stations, parks…), I didn’t expect that my most recent arrival in China would yield any surprises on that front. Maybe my memory was not up to par; or perhaps it is that I expect such magnitude from the provincial capitals but not from remote towns;   more probably, it could be something to do with the contrast between the Han sides of town and the Uighur quarters: whatever the reason, I have been truly gob-smacked by the size and newness of the cities in north western Xinjiang.

       To the untrained eye, these cities could have sprouted up randomly out of the virgin desert sands like mushrooms after an autumn rain; brand spanking new cities purpose-built to accompany the largely oil-related industrial developments in the region, reminiscent of those icons of economic-growth architecture in the Gulf, such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Indeed, there is not much left between the 3-story KFC’s, 5-story KTV’s (karaoke bars), Colosseum-sized Bank of China’s and gaudy apartment complexes to remind the visitor that, five hundred years ago, these used to be proud Silk Road towns. There is not even much to remind the onlooker that  a mere 10 or 15 years ago, these used to be Uighur towns.

        As I mentioned in my previous piece, the Chinese government has been encouraging Han migration to and settlement in Xinjiang  as a key element in their strategy for controlling the region. This has been accompanied by the construction of massive metropolises, which are being built on the sites of already-existing Uighur towns. The differences between the two are glaring: the single-story, brick Uighur houses with brightly painted doors, sometimes left slightly ajar through which one can glimpse the courtyards with their wood piles and outdoor stoves, stand in stark contrast to the high-rise apartment blocks, multi-story strip malls and 50 metre-wide avenues.  The modern parts of town house all sort of Han businesses, including restaurants, shops and banks. Uighur businesses, for the most part, seem not to be present in these ultra-new, ultra-modern complexes.  

       From the architecture and layout of the new towns, it appears that little to no effort is being made to integrate the styles of housing and traditional livelihoods of the original inhabitants. From what we have seen so far, one of two things is happening: either the Han settlement is built adjacent to the Uighur town, thus creating clear dichotomy between the old and the new and reaping the connotations of that division (backward vs. modern, primitive vs. civilised); or the Uighur town is, quite simply, bulldozed over, flattened out, made an empty lot upon which a ‘civilised’ centre can be built.

 *     *     * 

       The town of Gulja (Yining to the Chinese), in northwester Xinjiang near the Kazakh border, is an example of the first model of appropriation of space.   The Uighur part of town winds itself along quite narrow streets, where at many junctures two cars cannot pass abreast of each other, surfaced with paving stones upon which the click-clack of donkey carts echoes off the houses. Light blue seemed to be the colour of the moment in Gulja, and the azure panes of windows and doors beamed out from behind the willow trees lining the street. We wandered through this residential area, getting odd looks from the people we passed; as it is probable that not many foreigners venture into Gulja itself, let alone the old town (not marked on the Lonely Planet map!).

         We eventually came to the bazaar, where, like in many other towns of Central Asia, all senses are tickled by the vibrant stimuli of the bustling surroundings. The air was smokey, laden with the scent of cumin-infused meat grilling on charcoal, and through the fragrant clouds bursts of colour rose up before you, taking shape as we approached, becoming basket after basket of apples, mandarins, pomegranates, pears, and then further on piles of raisins, dates, apricots, roasted sunflower seeds. After that, hundreds of just-baked breads piled up like full moons next to a still-smoking clay oven, and then rows of soft, second-hand leather and fur lined coats…           

          Heading north through the bazaar, the landscape began to change from outdoor market stalls to the epitomization of Chinese modernity: the concrete and neon jungle in which over-sized bright red Chinese characters glare down from billboards and shop fronts, advertising all consumer products under the sun, or indicating the presence of staple source of Chinese gastronomy, the Han santing (Han canteen). One part of town ends starkly where the other begins. There is hardly any overlap between the two, and when it does occur, it is lopsided: the Uighur part of town is notably devoid of Han Chinese, while Uighurs are seen in the odd Muslim restaurant or as a bus driver in the Han part of town. Like the compulsory teaching of Mandarin in Uighur schools compared to Han ignorance of Uighur, it is apparent that one group is obliged to assimilate into the other, while the latter is perfectly willing and able to live in a constructed cultural bubble.

                                *     *     *            

             In Korla, south of the Tian Shan mountain range from Gulja, the Uighurs have not been so lucky. The heart of their own town, pleasantly and strategically placed on the banks of the Kongque river, is all but standing. While the modern town, which exhibits the same characteristics as those already mentioned, is less than 20 years old, amongst the remnants of the old town we stumbled upon a mosque which had a plaque on the inside stating that it had been built in 1892. I say ‘old town’, but this is an overstatement: it is only really the skeleton of a town, in which vacant, rubbish-littered lots outnumber the brick houses that are still standing. Sandy-coloured walls and dirt roads fade into crumbled piles of stone and accumulated filth.        

            Gazing down these dilapidated streets, our vision would be accosted by a crane towering above a giant, solid blue- and peach-coloured apartment blocks: a single image portraying all too clearly the destruction of tradition upon which the construction of modernity is being carried out.  And if there was any doubt left as to the drive of the government towards an ideal model of modernity, the remaining walls of the town have been covered in red characters spouting government propaganda phrases such as ”Strengthen civilisation throughout the whole country by striving to build civilised cities”.       

           The remnants of the Uighur town, which I imagine would have once stretched over both banks of the river, is being flattened to make space for luxury apartment complexes. One of the promotional awnings of these building sites had a photograph of a Han man and woman in track-suits, jogging through emerald-green parks, with a text underneath reading: ”Lives in the park, lives in the nature. 300 Chinese acre peacock parks: My private back garden”. A private back garden built on the ashes of a hundred-year old Uighur town.

        Where did the people who used to live in that part of town go? Have they been moved into the more modern accommodation that has replaced their original homes? Or have they been relocated completely, either as a strategy of the Chinese government’s self-styled civilising mission, or of the Uighur people’s own rejection of that project? 

                               *     *     *       

            In the town of Kuqa, some 300 km southwest of Korla, we came across some tentative answers to these questions. Kuqa is on a similar path to Korla, albeit at a lesser stage of advancement, in that the old parts of town, with their low housing sitting on either side of long, straight roads lined by tall poplar trees, are being demolished in order to make place for apartment blocks. It is on one such street that we befriended a young Uighur who cooks up some exceptionally scrumptious grilled mushrooms and tofu. For two days in a row, we warmed ourselves on the charcoals of his mobile restaurant, savouring his wares and chatting about this and that.        

          When we felt comfortable in our exchange, J pointed to the pastel-coloured monstrosities emerging over the roofs of the Uighur shops, and asked how long they had been there. Two years, the young man said. J went on: ”Before, what was there?”. ”It was like here”, he replied, indicating the street on which we found ourselves. He continued, saying that in two more years, this street and the ones adjacent would also befall the same fate. J asked about the price of the new apartments, and he said they were very expensive.        

             And then he made the most interesting comment of the conversation; he said that when they knocked down his street, he was going to move further out of town. With the new buildings usurping the space of his home and business, he did not want to stay, so he would leave town, implying he would set himself up in a similar place somewhere beyond the claws of the expansionists.       

           I wonder how many other Uighur feel the same way, preferring to leave the cities  and thereby maintaining both their traditional livelihoods and their dignity by not partaking in the Chinese government’s hegemonic project of modernity…


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Uzbekistan in retrospect

November 8, 2008

            7/11/08 Shymkent, Kazakhstan

            I am aware that my writing during the three weeks that I spent in Uzbekistan has not been as stimulating as it was while I was in Iran, nor has it offered as many interpretative ‘snapshots’ of Uzbek people or life as I feel my Iran writings did. I think this is because I engaged much less with Uzbekistan, in the sense that I both learned less about it and felt that what I did learn was, perhaps, somewhat superficial. I feel like I left Uzbekistan with a piecemeal idea about its history and a glimpse of its geography, but no comprehensive sense of Uzbek social dynamics, no hint of individual perceptions, tastes or hopes, which are aspects that I felt I gained a minimal yet significant exposure to in Iran.

 

            One of the biggest causes of this sense of lack was definitely due to the fact that I experienced much less interaction with Uzbek people than with Iranians. In Iran, I felt that I had several meaningful encounters with different people, even within the frame of ‘foreigner’ or ‘tourist’ to which I am inescapably bound in my travels. Generally, I suppose, I found Iranians to be more open, more curious, more eager to strike up a conversation in which they inquired about me and spoke about themselves. Moreover, while they actively sought my point of view on ‘touchy’ subjects such as politics or religion, I was surprised to find them willing to express often dissident opinions about those matters. When I expressed such surprise to one Iranian man quite early on in my trip, he said that he was not afraid to voice his disapproval to foreigners (when asked his opinion about Ahmedinejad, he had replied, without a second’s hesitation,: ”asshole”), but that he would never choose to act on his feelings because he felt that there was too much at stake. I found that his comment shed light on the ideas that condition the circumstances under which many Iranians feel more or less able to manifest their opinions.

 

            In Uzbekistan, I was privy to only a handful of conversations with Uzbeks, and their scope was far more standard: origins, education, family. On one hand, I think it had something to do with the language barrier: more people spoke English in Iran, and Arabic is far closer to Farsi than it is to both Russian and Uzbek, which had proven very useful at times. (I managed to make some headway with the ethnic Tajiks we met near Bukhara and Samarkand, because Tajik and Farsi overlap quite heavily).

 

            But language aside, I felt that many Uzbeks reacted to my foreignness with a certain distance. In the rural areas, I felt this translated into amusement, where my linguistic ignorance was often met with laughter.  In the cities it expressed itself less endearingly, and, especially Tashkent, I felt general apathy, manifested in a scarcity of smiling faces and a lack of willingness to help. This stood in such drastic contrast to the hospitality of the Iranians, the scale of which I had never encountered before. Perhaps mistakenly, I attribute the relative disinterest, even coldness that i experienced in urban Uzbekistan to a combination of the proliferation of mass tourism and the indifference and anonymity that accompanies the way that Central Asia has come to be atomized along post-Soviet Russo-European lines.

 

            By the same token, I must acknowledge my own agency in not connecting as much with Uzbeks as I felt i did with Iranians. Two months of travel (coupled with a week’s worth of traveller’s diarrhea) have doubtlessly drained my explorational energies. My laziness manifested itself as much in my lack of efforts to learn Uzbek or Russian as in my favouring  early bed-times over nights out in local haunts, which is where I could have potentially met and chatted to more people.

 

            The amalgamation of these factors, set against the frequency and depth that characterised my conversations with the Iranians I met, led me to feel that my interactions with Uzbeks revealed to me less about aspects of Uzbek society. This might sound patronising, but I did not find that my conversations with Uzbeks were as eye-opening or as insightful as those that I had with Iranians.

 

*          *          *

 

            Personal interaction is not, of course, the only source of knowledge, but unfortunately, the information that I acquired through other channels proved hardly illuminating either. There is undoubtedly a plethora of material artifacts and architectural structures that bear testimony to the hayday of Uzbek history, the glorious days when the Silk Road was the centre of the world. However, I failed to find the curation and presentation of these stimulating. Something that i found particularly offputting in the ancient Khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand was that each mosque and madrasa was being used more as a market stall than a place of archaeological import. When one enters through the huge, arched, blue mosaic-tiled entrances of the centuries-old structures, instead of being able to absorb the characteristics and imagine the past life of the building, one is encountered with flocks of old ladies clad in colourful head-scarves peddling embroidered bags, throws and carpets; terra cotta plates and bowls with intricate geometric designs; and small boxes with hand-painted miniature scenes of courting, music and feasting.

 

            Now, do not doubt the craftsmanship and consequent appeal of their wares, for both are evident. But I felt that it was inappropriate to allow four hundred year-old courtyards, celebrated as prestigious centres of learning of Islamic world some 500 years ago, to serve as platforms from which unsuspecting tourists could be wielded out of a few dollars. Although it could be seen as infusing otherwise ‘dead’ places with a new commercial life, I found that it distracted me from being able to imagine their histories. The vaulted rooms which were once the classrooms of the Islamic world’s most ground-breaking philosophers, doctors, astronomers and poets had been transformed into tourist bazaars. Sight-seeing came to be quickly replaced by browsing and, eventually, shopping. Yes, time and time again, i was sucked right in.

 

            Even the History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan, aka national museum, offered a shallow overview of over 10,000 years of human history, beginning with the stone tools of Neanderthal man and ending with fragments that represent the modernity of post-Soviet Uzbekistan: the production quota of chemical plants; various Olympic medals; Visa cards and Mastercards. Admittedly, some of the more interesting material concerning popular Uzbek uprisings against Russian and then Soviet imperialism was not translated into English, so again language proved a significant barrier to learning.

 

            Thankfully, one avenue of cultural/historical discovery was opened for us: we were fortunate to be able to get tickets for a production at the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent which had English subtitles. Ecstasy with the Pomegranate told the story of a Russian painter who had been sent to live in Tashkent in 1916, as part of the Russian conquest of Central Asia. Against the background of the ‘civilizing’ mission of imperial Russia which sought to replace traditional Uzbek culture with Russified values, the painter finds his objects of both artistic and social interest in a group of ‘bachas’, male dancers that perform in a sexual, homoerotic style similar to Arab belly-dancing. The themes were multi-faceted, ranging from traditional Uzbek gender roles (one character is a girl who dresses as a boy in order to be able to fulfill her passion for dancing); the dynamics of the colonial encounter, including the sexualisation of the cultural other which stimulates unconventional affections (a Russian soldier who falls for a young bacha) and the difficulties in blindly applying the Russian legal system in a completely different cultural context; and the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on both Russians and non-Russians.

 

            It was a long production, almost 3 hours, and though i nodded off during the last act (shame!), I found it was the most interesting representation of Uzbek history and culture that I had encountered in Uzbekistan. I left the theatre feeling like I had engaged emotionally with Uzbek history as well as having witnessed a snippet of the avant-garde contemporary arts scene, which, judging from the fact that the show was sold out, seems to be in full bloom.

 

            *          *          *

 

            I think that ultimately, though, my overall disappointment with my time spent travelling in Uzbekistan is a consequence of the fact that all experiences are perceived of comparatively. Generally, the interpretation of any experience is significantly influenced by the past, and therefore the ways in which we come to think about or see something new will always be imbued with previous encounters. Our perceptions will always be influenced by the many factors of our own construction. We can never experience something as it is; but only according to the conditions that structure our encounter with it.

 

            In my mind, my experiences in Uzbekistan will always stand in relation to my experiences in Iran because I visited the two countries as part of the same trip, in which one followed nearly immediately after the other (save the brief four-day transit through Turkmenistan). I believe that this relationality dampened my appreciation of the country, which also means that should have made extra efforts to break through my high-expectations. Therefore, I wish to mediate my previous negative comments about Uzbeks, their hospitality, the organization of their tourism etc by stating that I realise that my interpretation is equally, if not more responsible for the mediocraty of my experience than any of the flaws i previosly pointed out.

 

            And this is not a disclaimer! It is only the meager efforts of a wandering wonderer to bring sense and meaning to the many different, often conflicting emotions that the (largely indulgent) act of perpetual vagabonding entails….