Portraits, and thoughts on oppression

25 May 2007 / 4 Jauza 1386
Note: I have interspersed portrait-photos of Afghans I have taken. In conformance with the principles of the Committee to Protect Human Subjects–to which I am bound as an American university researcher–I must say nothing about who they are personally. However I do not intend to imply that these are “pictures of the oppressed.” Rather, this essay is about all of us as human beings. I thought it would be appropriate to see some human beings as you read this.

This morning I was re-reading Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I realized that I am forming a very different opinion about how to deal with systems of oppression, based upon what I am experiencing in Kabul. I think planning and development work should focus much more on the oppressors as the agents of resistance to oppression.

From a Leftist perspective this seems logically contradictory, and threatens to draw energy and focus away from the oppressed. But the apparent contradiction rests on the assumption that there is no difference between structure (systems) and agency (individual choice and responsibility). It assumes that oppressors are always fully conscious of their actions and fully conscious of the consequences of those actions. Rarely if ever is this even possible.

An example will help: suppose a man buys a dress shirt at a brand-name store in San Francisco rather than commissioning a skilled local tailor to make it. Is that man deliberately, maliciously supporting brutal working conditions for women in Ciudad Juarez where they make that shirt? No. There is a whole system of production which is designed to sell him a fine-quality shirt at a price low enough for him to buy it, and high enough to ensure company profit. Does that system deliberately hide the conditions of the woman in Ciudad Juarez who made that shirt? Not exactly. At the point of sale the idea is to sell the shirt. Company resources are devoted to ‘the retail experience.’ And the man is looking for a shirt, not a briefing on the political economy of Maqiladoras.

Many other examples can be cited from daily life: the man leaves the store, goes and buys a cup of coffee, gets in his car and drives off. The consequences of each of these actions may be far-removed, and it is difficult to gauge how individual, iterative acts of consumption contribute to either collective or very individual disasters far away in space and time. Chains of production, trade, and consumption today are so complex and dispersed that the process of oppression–and understanding of the nature of responsibility–can be very hard to pin down in practice. I will call this system oppression through distance, in which case the most identifiable processes which support this form of oppression are what Ananya Roy calls the management of distance. Think of anti-immigration movements; re-segregation; the promotion of social phobias. The promotion of fear of travel to “dangerous” areas.

For the current design of our economic system this abstraction by distance may be necessary because too few humans would stomach the consequences of their actions if they could observe them directly. I think few people would be sufficiently cruel to knowingly humiliate and deprive others as we currently do through more indirect action. But it may be worth looking at more direct, intimate processes of oppression from the oppressor’s side to improve the material and emotional conditions under which both oppressors and oppressed live right now.

A manager verbally abuses an employee in front of his co-workers because a job they are both working on goes badly. A white woman in Berkeley, California visibly clutches her purse more tightly when she sees a black man. An elderly Muslim man gets singled out and interrogated at length because he fits a certain ‘profile.’ Both fear and shame play major roles in each of these events. Friere points out that this dehumanizes the oppressor and the oppressed.

Over the last few centuries Christians and Marxists have engaged myriad conditions of oppression, and usually focused on helping the oppressed. The impulse makes sense: it is easier to feel compassion for the oppressed. But as a policy thinker working in Kabul right now, I must say that it is pretty apparent from here that those who oppress usually have more power to transform existing conditions. Besides which, the oppressor is you and me, demonstrated by the fact that I can create this page and you can read it–even, perhaps especially, if you are an Afghan.

There is a recursive problem here. Since oppressors are often motivated by fear and shame, perhaps exactly the same motives deter us from looking at ourselves. Far better to focus on charity for the needy. We know it helps, but it leaves existing conditions of oppression intact. Perhaps the man with the new shirt and the cup of coffee is driving to a community center where he volunteers in a literacy program, giving something far more valuable than money: his own skilled time. Does that change the conditions of inequality and oppression? Probably not, or only extremely slowly.

But a different line of questions may get at how to actually change conditions of oppression. Is that man working against his own dehumanization? Is he asserting his humanity? Perhaps he is driving to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and he is a sponsor who has to ask his client some very hard questions which he himself struggles with every day. Perhaps, in another place, the man is an American military commander who decides to go ahead with an investigation of troops under his own command, knowing that this will cost him his career. He asserts his honor; he asserts his fearlessness; he asserts his humanity.

Both systems and individuals can create oppression or dismantle it. The logic, ethics, and spatio-temporality of systems and individuals are very different, but neither can be ignored when challenging oppression. For those who have the power to oppress, and the capacity to transform systems that cause oppression, the fulcrum-questions may be fairly simple:

What quality of life do we want to enjoy?

If we really want to enjoy our lives, don’t we want to prevail over our own fear and shame? Don’t we want our humanity? That is what we have the power to claim.

ChahrRah-ye Deh Afghanan

21 May 2007 / 31 Saur 1386

The intersection at Deh Afghanan is one of the striking landmarks in the city. I photographed it from a pedestrian bridge last year. On this day I wanted to get up close to the intersection between the new, glass-clad commercial building, the older one-storey shop-fronts, and the clay-brick housing stepping up the hill.

Two modernities Scarf-seller

I call the photo on the left “Two modernities.” Obviously the glass building on the right is modern, but what is less obvious is that the clay-brick houses are too, and in fact they are a better reflection of the uncertainty, ephemerality, and deprivation that come with modernity for those we don’t want to see.

Bulani-seller 4

The boy in the left photo is selling bulani, which is fried dough with either potatoes or green onions in it.

Kabul Polytechnic: First Visit

19 May 2007 / 29 Saur 1386

Debra Frey of GIAI is a friend of Ustad Homa, one of the Architecture professors at Kabul Polytechnic University. When Debra relayed to Homa that the Kansas State team and was considering revising the curriculum at Kabul University, she asked if anyone was willing to come help the Architecture Department at Kabul Polytechnic revise their curriculum as well. I said I was willing, and pleased to have an invitation to the Polytechnic because I did not quite know how to approach this other university.
KPU Cafeteria

Cafeteria

Kabul University had been established by Nadir Shah in 1932, and in the 1960s it began to receive assistance from various American universities. Therefore in the 1970s, when the Soviets began to play a much larger role in Afghanistan, they helped build Kabul Polytechnic University (KPU), which operates more on the Soviet model.

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The mural on the gymnasium at the end of the (currently dry) axial fountain at KPU. The book in the middle has a Pashto phrase written across it which translates roughly as ‘knowledge is light.’

Arborway

There are several paths from the main axis northward to the main classroom buildings. One path is covered by trees, which shades the walk. It is lovely.

Main classroom building, KPU main classroom building facade, KPU

The main classroom building, as you can see, is high modernist style. This is the west elevation; therefore it has both vertical and horizontal sunshades forming a decorative grille pattern. On the left side you can see that the north elevation is all glass.

KPU corridor KPU corridor

The corridors face an interior courtyard, and all but the west-facing corridors are flooded with daylight. The effect is fantastic, but appallingly cold in winter.

2 brise-soleils

The west-facing corridors are shaded by brise-soleils, which reflect indirect light. If Wurster Hall had been build like this, I would not have been such an opponent of Modernist architecture. Here I can see the intentions realized.

top of stairwell Stairwell
Stairwell stairwell

The stairwells are fabulous. I have no idea about the seismic strength of this glass-and-concrete wonder, but even with years of neglected maintenance it is a delightful place to be. Needless to say, Ustad Homa and her boss, Abdul Haq Wardak, talked me into giving weekly lectures here on urban policy as a volunteer. Rather than the 12 students I have at Kabul University, here I lecture to about fifty.

Qala-e No Burj: HQ of Turquoise Mountain

18 May 2007 / 28 Saur 1386

“Qala” means ‘walled compound;’ “no burj” means ‘nine towers.’ I have visited the headquarters of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation (TMF) several times. But on this particular evening, the light on the partially-ruined complex was remarkable.

sky above Qala-e No Burj

Of the nine towers, only one remains intact. One of the ruined towers is visible on the right, clearly built using pakhsa construction. In this technique, courses of adobe are laid down in 60-cm deep layers; allowed to dry, and then the next course is added.

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The massive, white-washed wall with high windows reminds me of the Potala in Lhasa. The one intact tower is visible on the left.

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The light behind the qala was exquisite.

6 4
In the photo on the left, the wall was re-topped with adobe, leaving the streak-pattern over the older whitewash. On the right, the ruined tower looks like something out of Mordor.

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A girl was also watching the sunset, and then she saw me (another foreigner at TMF) taking pictures. She was amused that I photographed her as well.

A day in the life

17 May 2007 / 27 Saur 1386

I have just learned enough Dari to ask politely if I can take a picture of someone that might be sensitive.

Wheeler

Due respect and admiration goes to the Afghans who have lost a limb, and need to navigate the streets. It is one reason why I am unequivocally in favor of applying accessibility design guidelines here in Kabul. I think the accessibility guidelines are the most important design innovation that Americans have ever made.

Wheeler with sign

As the gentleman wheeled off, I saw something I had never seen before: he had an advertisement mounted on the back of his wheelchair. I assume he gets some income from this. I was stunned by the audacity of the idea; neoliberals want to make everyone into “entrepreneurs.” Here, rather than the state developing the capacity to help the disabled, the disabled get some revenue from being turned–literally–into part of the expanding advertising market. Systemically, I have a problem with this. But on a human rights level, I guess it is objectionable if it hurts the dignity of the gentleman in the wheelchair.

Inspection mirror

Sorry for the oversize picture, but this one depends a lot upon the composition. It is just a normal thing, like the still-life photo of a shovel laid up against the wall. But it is a truck-mirror and flashlight welded to a stick so that you can inspect the underside of cars for explosives. I like the texture against the rough-plastered wall.

Tired cart driver

Part of my challenge is to show how Kabul in so many ways is modern and ‘normal’ in your reference frame while still being different in some ways. Most of the traffic is cars. But some people still use horse- and donkey-drawn carts.

some fries with your human rights?

I was having a quick lunch with my students when I noticed the wrapping-paper for the french fries. Many foreign publications are funded by international donors and are therefore not only free, but also printed on good-quality paper. I don’t mean to be sarcastic, because human rights are very important to Afghans, as you will find on other pages I write. But just that the environment is a little weird when this is the available wrapping paper.

However, with the following sound clip, I am being sarcastic. This is one minute of a popular show on Tolo TV. Enjoy!

A little reality-check

16 May 2007 / 26 Saur 1386

Imagine life in Afghanistan under the Taliban, who ruled Kabul and most of the country from September 1996 to October 2001.

Okay, now let me contest that vision. Yesterday I met a fellow who is specialized in information technology. We chatted for a bit, and he said that he had worked in IT support in the offices of the Municipality during the Taliban. That’s right: dealing with Microsoft Windows, and networks, and whatnot to keep the city government computers working.

What was life like in Kabul under the Taliban? Well, the economy was very bad, and they passed a number of “stupid” (I quote) laws by decree, but it was stable.
Let me put that in context. The US-supported mujahideen pushed out the Soviets in 1989, but the communist government persisted in Kabul until 1992. When the mujahideen took Kabul in 1992, there was a brief period of government under Sighbatullah Mojaddedi, and then the civil war started. This was a war between mujahideen factions, and it took place in Kabul. Before that, there had not been military combat in Kabul itself. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the city between 1992 and 1994, as hundreds of thousands fled. Since the factions were no longer fighting atheist communists but rather other Muslims, it was no longer appropriate to call them mujahideen; from that point forward they were just commanders. Law and order broke down between 1992 and 1994, and remained collapsed until the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. As the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan point out, women became effectively housebound under the commanders, because women who were out alone at midday were seized and raped daily in Kabul.

So the Taliban were welcomed into town like the Magnificent Seven. They were very heavy-handed, and their forms of public discipline were similar to what the Romans, French, and British used to maintain law and order (Public executions make quite an impression). The Taliban required that women be accompanied by a male relative outside the house. Grossly sexist, yes; but also a way of engaging the populace in assisting with policing, because they could not protect the honor of every woman everywhere in Kabul. And honor and public morality were very important to the Taliban. In that sense, I think The Kite Runner and the film “Osama” misrepresent the Taliban.

The arrival of the Coalition Forces, the Northern Alliance, and Karzai into Afghanistan have brought a lot of money. Although it is very unevenly distributed, the economy has generally improved in Kabul since 2001. But we cannot evaluate a new regime only by getting the urban population above starvation-level. There is a question of legitimacy. Has rule of law improved in Kabul since 2001? Rapes are on the rise again. Prostitution–including the trafficking of Chinese prostitutes into Kabul–has become a major new phenomenon, as has AIDS. And now that land is valuable, land seizures are a serious problem in Kabul and in the provinces.

We need to remember that the Taliban were pro-business. They were initially backed by the Afghan trucker’s guild, who were tired of losing an unpredictable amount of their cargo to ‘taxes’ at scores of checkpoints across Afghanistan in the early 1990s. As Ahmed Rashid points out in Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad and Unocal even began negotiations with the Taliban for a pipeline that would bring gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.
Government revenue was a chronic problem for the Taliban. The Soviets has scorched the countryside, the commanders had traumatized the capital, and a drought had set in. It seems that bin Laden was able to buy the Taliban state by replacing scandalous opium-revenue with donations from himself and other hard-line Gulf Arabs. Unfortunately for the Taliban, bin Laden had a broader agenda that brought the Americans down on their heads.

At Bonn in December 2001, the US legitimized the commanders and most of the spots at the negotiation table were given to them. But now that you know this bit of history outlined above, did the US just let the foxes back into the coop? Furthermore, how do we understand the transition from the Taliban to the Karzai government? Perhaps the official-name transition is more accurate: from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Not night and day.
Did the US have to reinstate the commanders? The apologist reply has been: Who else could run this devastated country? Implicit in that rehetorical question is the assumption that the Taliban (and now Karzai) are the whole state. That is why I began with that little anecdote about the IT specialist. There was an administrative apparatus in Kabul and the provinces. That continues to be the apparatus which runs the day-to-day business of the government. The presentation of the Taliban period as some surreal suspension of all government justifies the reinstatement of a thin layer of very corrupt leadership at the top of the state. The US did this at Bonn in December 2001.

Other bits and pieces of information challenge the prevailing Western view. Refugees started returning to Afghanistan in the late 1990s, because the Taliban had finally reestablished stability and security, even if they did not manage economic recovery. Afghans who had fled to the West also began to return and reclaim the houses they had abandoned in the 1980s and early 1990s. And apparently there was land-grabbing and certainly plenty of land-occupation of abandoned houses. So disputes and reclamation of property began under the Taliban, and only accelerated under Karzai. The implication of a ‘break with the past’ in 2001 has nothing to do with the reality on the ground in Kabul.

Khak Bad: the “dust wind”

15 May 2007 / 25 Saur 1386

Generally the wind blows from the north here. But starting in May, the wind sometimes blows from the west. It is one thing for strong wind to pick up all the dust in the streets of Kabul. It is quite another to have the city enveloped in a 2,000-foot-high rolling cloud of fine dust.

I cannot convey the sinus headache you get when this happens. But at least this sequence of images will give some impression.


What it normally looks like…

Khak bad arrives
You know it is coming when the sunlight changes color.

Khak bad abates
It arrives suddenly, but it abates slowly as the fines settle down.

post khak bad
Afterwards you can still see the squall-line of the wind-storm moving off.

I got caught outside in such a storm last year without a scarf. I had a hacking cough for the next three weeks which progressed into pneumonia. Many Afghans have tuberculosis, and I feared I had contracted that. I found out later that I am unlikely to suddenly contract TB, because I am not malnourished. The difference in access to a balanced diet alone means I am living in a different world than many of the Kabulis around me.

Sultan’s Qala, Shomali Plain

12 May 2007 / 22 Saur 1386

Hill of roses

I was invited on a picnic to Sultan’s qala just north of Kabul. Here, Sultan is growing roses which he hopes that Kabulis will buy, rather than the plastic flowers which are the current fashion.

Sultan with roses

Sultan, maestro of roses.

qala in distance

Next to Sultan’s land is a qala which was built in 1941. The interior is now in ruins.

Qala entry

One of the brothers who owns the qala let us in to see it.

Qala tower

This method of construction is called pakhsa. Adobe (gil) is laid in courses about 60 cm high, allowed to stabilize, and then additional courses are added. The foundation-stones are dry-laid, to prevent ground-moisture from wicking up into the adobe and rotting it. Flat capstones protect the pakhsa from rain, as does a re-coating every two to ten years.

Maranjan hill

11 May 2007 | 21 Saur 1386

On this Friday I went to Maranjan Hill with Samiullah.

Maranjan Hill and city center

View of the old city from Tapa-e Maranjan. The straight avenue that heads towards the pass is Maiwand Avenue. It was cut through the Old City in 1949 by the mayor, as part of the work to modernize Kabul.

Tomb of Nader Shah

This is the mausoleum of Nadir Shah, who ruled from 1930 until his assassination in 1933. His son, Zahir Shah, succeeded him and remained king from 1933 to 1973. At that point he was deposed by his cousin Daoud Khan. Daoud ruled as President from 1973 to 1978, at which point the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) executed him and his entire family, and established the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Their revolutionary program was so aggressive that they immediately provoked a rural insurgency. By September, 1979, it looked like the PDPA regime was going to collapse. Soviets sought to stabilize the communist regime, but in December they decided that only direct occupation would prevent a civil war on their border.

Meanwhile, Zahir Shah lived in exile in Italy from 1973 to 2001. He returned to Afghanistan, and has played some role in the establishment of the Islamic Republic, but did not push for reestablishment of the monarchy. His son has worked on environmental protection of a poor neighborhood just north of this hill, and his grandson is a member of the new United Front movement in Parliament.

hill and city center
This is a view of Kuh-e Asmayi from the east. Compare with the May 8 panorama.

Maranj tower
I have used this tower to frame previous shots with a foreground element. But the tower itself is pretty interesting as a ruin.

infrastructure

In the old Macrorayan the pipes for the district heating are being replaced. A Ukrainian firm, familiar with this type of Soviet housing block, is carrying out the contract.

Ashiqan wa Arifan

10 May 2007 / 20 Saur 1386

Our fourth field trip was to Ashiqan wa Arifan, one of the oldest existing neighborhoods in Kabul. I took the class there on our fourth field trip, to see conservation, restoration, and the role of historic urban fabric for urban identity.

Entry street
Entry street in to Ashiqan wa Arifan neighborhood
Open area
Reconstruction raising dust
old wall Mosque door
Older, timber-laced construction Entry to mosque. Note the post inside.
Courtyard facade detail of facade
Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has restored this house. Most of the facade is carved cedar (archeh).
room interior jalsiya screen
The upstairs has a central room divided from end-rooms by screens. Rather than closets, niches are built into the walls.
mosque courtyard balcony assembly
Courtyard of the mosque of the Uzbeks (masjid-e Uzbekha). Poplar (chenar) is used for most posts and beams.
entering prayer hall glazed back wall
The caretaker of the mosque. The enclosing windows are a 20th-century addition.
describing remodeling diagonal view
Engineer Habib describing AKTC’s restoration-decisions here. The mihrab of the mosque has a clock rather like Saint Gregory’s.
mihrab and minbar detail
The minbar, on the right, is built into the wall. People who often come to pray leave their prayer rugs in the mosque. Mud-plaster finish has been restored on the right; but painted wood has been left as is.
street stair
A repaired street, outside another restored house.
The students discuss materials and choices made.
The combination of wood and plaster is
reminiscent of historic Japanese houses.
cornice details M. Nazir
Mud-plaster detail work is often quite delicate. Muhammad Nazir was born in this neighborhood.
Nawin and worker happy Nawin
Nawin discusses restoration with the carpenter. Nawin likes this house.
cantilever sar-e sarak
This restored street reminds me of Fes. You can build out over the street if your neighbor
agrees to it; but you must build the supports.
covered drain street scene
Drains run down the middle of the street.
These covers allow easy clean-out.
The beams and braced frames of overhanging floors create wonderful forms and shadows.