Unexpected Journeys Or How Did You Get To San Francisco?

She turns thirteen today. She dances at San Francisco Ballet School’s Summer Intensive programs this summer. It was just two years ago that she had auditioned for the Swedish Royal Ballet’s dance school, only to be rejected at the last stage of the week-long audition. It was just two years ago that I remember waking up at 2 am that night, and hearing her quietly crying in the bathroom. Last week, when she received the letter from the San Francisco Ballet, inviting her to come and train in the Summer Intensive Program, Sofia completed a journey that began in painful disappointment. This summer is no ordinary summer. For this 13-year old, this invitation letter was not just to another Summer Intensive program, but a confirmation that hard work, a refusal to accept the judgement of others, and a determination to become what she dreamed about, was the only way to face the dance world.

Two years ago she came up to me, her iPad in her hand, and quietly asked if she could audition for the Swedish Royal Ballet. I remember that evening well – it was a typically warm December night in Kigali, Rwanda where we had lived, and where Sofia had started to take ballet seriously. Her love of classical ballet was recent – she had signed up at a local dance school run by an American woman living in Kigali. It was to keep her entertained for a couple of hours after school, but it soon turned into something far more than mere entertainment. Caroline Joan Peixoto, a young ballet dancer from New Jersey, had arrived in Kigali some years earlier and opened a dance school for young kids. When I dropped off Sofia at the school for the first time, I remember noticing Caroline – petite, beautiful, a lithe dancer’s figure, a typically American self-confidence, and an air of invincibility that I thought would be great influence on Sofia. Within weeks, she and Sofia had found a bond that went beyond that of a dance instructor and student – Caroline discovered and inspired something in Sofia during the two years they worked on ballet together. If Sofia is fighting her way into classical ballet, it is really only because of the passion for dance, and the love of movement, that Caroline was able to imbue in her. It was Caroline who also convinced her to sum up the courage to consider auditioning for the best ballet school in Sweden.

It was a six-day audition, with students put through the paces in the afternoon, and the families receiving a call later the same day to tell them to either bring their child back the following morning for the next stage, or offering an apology and wishing them good luck with other schools. We had expected Sofia to perhaps make it through the first couple of days, but did not expect her to do more. After all, she studied at an amateur ballet school in Rwanda, but was now competing for a place against young girls from pre-professional schools in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe. We had made plans to keep us busy for the week should Sofia not make it past the first few stages. But to our excitement and surprise, she kept making it through the stages. So much so that she fought her way to the final stage, held on a Sunday afternoon, and stood proudly with 15 other girls for the 12 places available at the school.

She did not make it through the last stage.

That moment was the start of yet another new journey. As I listened to Sofia crying in the bathroom that night, I knew that something had changed. I also knew that I was the father of a talented child, and that I had mostly missed this fact. I realised that what had to happen now was that she had to spend more time at more serious programs, and see if her talent was something more than just that. To see if she had the discipline and the ability to move from talent to technique. I remember opening the door to the bathroom, and gently taking this 10-year old into my arms and promising her that the following summer we would be in New York, and that she would dance with serious ballet companies there. I think she was surprised to hear my plan, but it gave her courage and encouragement. I remember her nodding her head, as if telling me that she was ready, that she just needed to work harder, and that she needed our help in doing that. I remember telling her how she had opened my eyes, about how proud I was of her, about how amazed and impressed I was at what she had single-handed achieved, and how she had made me see what I had till then not seen. I told her that she was a ballerina, a dancer of beautiful grace, and that I from that day onwards, we would be in this together.

We went to New York that summer. It was 2014. She danced at the Joffrey Ballet’s summer program, and later with the amazing teachers at the Ballet Academy East. I spent my days reading, and waiting for her to return home. She emerged as a better, stronger, more disciplined and more inspired dancer. I did not get much work done that summer, but perhaps for the first time in my life, it didn’t matter.

Sofia has a long way to go. But she has come a long way from those afternoons in Kigali.

Even as she arrives in San Francisco this summer, she is only just starting. But once again, this summer will see a new dancer emerge. Once again, it will be a summer that transforms her, and redefines her as an individual, and as a dancer. She turns thirteen this month, and everything about her is changing, and at a rate that I cannot keep pace with. Each day she can surprise me – a night I see her reading Assata Shakur’s autobiography in bed, or another day when she tells me about how she challenged her teacher at school because of a flippant and derogatory comment he made about Africans, or her views on the problems with a meat diet, or the need to disband all zoos. Or the incredible focus that drives her to practice each day, and then do her stretching exercises late into the night. All this while handling high school. I never had this stamina, this focus, this clarity of passion.

I am watching the arrival of a remarkable young woman – artistic, creative, intelligent, independent, and politically aware. And a ballerina. Mahshahallah.

There are things we do in life that we never expected. I was a reluctant father. I got off to an uncertain start. There are still days when I do not know what I ought to do. Should do. But Sofia guides me well – helping me not be a patriarch, find the balance between being a friend and a father. She will speak back to me when she feels I have been unjust, and offer arguments that compel me to listen. It isn’t always smooth sailing, and I have gotten much wrong. We do fight and argue at times with tremendous stubbornness. But never without respect and love. The angry silences and brush-offs never last more than a day. There are too many exciting things to share and talk about.

And so to San Francisco. A small step for most, but I know how much it means to her. And to me. I have watched her grow, struggle, fail and overcome. I have sat with her through her doubts and fears, and days when she has wanted to just give it all up. We have gone through all of this together. And we will be together in San Francisco – father and daughter, on the next stage in this adventure. It’s just a Summer Intensive program. But it’s a transformative step for a girl who just became a woman this month.

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Don’t Look Back

You could say that this piece is about the present, and about the city as experienced by the photographer today. You could argue that one need not always resort to historical realities, or trace the threads of memory when the focus is in the here and now. But, the past is not dead. It’s not even past.  If I can quote a son of the South.

This is how you white-wash (so to say!) America’s cruel, brutal, racist history – write an entire piece about a Southern town, one that still celebrates its ‘civil war’ history, one that was once the center of Georgia’s cotton trade a.k.a. slave plantations and at the heart of America’s cotton trade – so powerfully, and painfully described in Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, and never once mention any of this definitive and critical history.  Details »

Iqbal Bano – Mother of Death Row Prisoner Khizar Hayat

I have no money. I can’t even afford to pay for a rickshaw to go see him. So I collect money from relatives and friends and go see him every two weeks.

Every time I go I do not know what state I will find him in. He is no longer aware or present. When I visit him he speaks about strange things – at times he hits his head against the wall, and says that the walls are mocking him. Sometimes he appears in torn clothes, other times with no clothes at all. I often have to force him to eat, for otherwise he will not eat anything. I don’t think he even knows that I am his mother. He often denies that I am his mother, sometimes abusing me in front of everyone, saying that I am some mad woman who has come to visit him. His condition now is an extreme form of what I could see happening to him when he was under the influence of a mystic at a local shrine. Everything about him changed during those years – his habits, his appearance, his language. He drifted away from his home and from his own family – he stopped coming home, stopped speaking to his wife and children. He became an addict, spent most of his time asleep on pavements outside the shrine, or wandering the streets of the city.

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Short Documentary Film – #1 – Death Row Prisoner Khizar Hayat

The first of four short documentary films I shot last Fall are finally being released for public viewing. You can read more about Khizar Kayat and his case here. Produced in collaboration with the researchers at Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), and the editors and designers at New Media Advocacy Project (N-MAP) in New York, these films highlight the miscarriages of justice that continue to plague the Pakistani capital punishment processes. I am also working on a longer feature documentary on the same subject, which I hope to complete in the next couple of months.

These short documentary films add to my ongoing project Law & Disorder: A People’s History of the Law In Pakistan. I am working on two new essays, both of which are ready as drafts but need some serious editing. The first discusses the history of capital punishment in Pakistan, and its connections to the introduction and experimentation with capital punishment during the British colonial administration in India. Pakistan’s penal code still retains many of the core tenets of the (British) India Penal Code first introduced in the mid-19th century. The second essay looks at the ways in which the pre-colonial Sharia systems of jurisprudence were re-interpreted and modified to serve the interests of the modern colonial and post-colonial nation-state.

As always, each essay has me working with material far beyond my current knowledge, requiring extensive research and what can only be described as many re-readings of texts. But, I plow ahead and so does this vast project.  

The other three videos will be released in the coming days. 

And, What Is Your Favourite Colour Of Photographer?

This came across my email, forwarded to me by the Magnum Foundation.

I have serious misgivings about this initiative.

There are a number of reasons, not the least of which is how the title – “Photographers of Colour” – works off the assumption of “White” universality as the norm, while others require to be defined in a ‘special category’. Whereas I can understand the instinct that gave birth to it, I am confused as to why this instinct was even considered valid and one worthy of an initiative of its own. I am surprised that more people did not raise an objection to the rather overt objectification of photographers of non-White origin this initiative demands. This entire effort requires people to self-identify themselves along ethnic and racial lines and is based on the belief that somehow ethnic and racial belonging gives them ‘credibility’ to cover stories and issues in regions of similar ethnic and racial spaces and geographies. This is a terrifying ghettoization of our craft, and in fact, reflected well in the example given in the introductory text alone where an editor’s need for African photographers to cover an AFROPUNK event – black people sent to cover black people – seems to have provoked the idea. Why would being African be enough of a qualification to cover this event?

(Note how the questionnaire does not even ask, until the very last question, the photographer’s race. And then to, as by US law, o a voluntary basis. So what’s the point in the first place? A generic questionnaire such as the one offered demands self-identification along ethnic and racial lines. That is, it demands that a human being reduce her/himself to merely her official race category. This is simply ridiculous to even demand, or to follow!)

But here is the most egregious problem with this effort: it absolutely ignores and/or veils the fact that it editor offices that are predominantly occupied by White / Caucasian people, and that it is here ethnic and intellectually diversity is most needed. To get and find a diverse set of photographers, you need to find a diverse set (by experience, by class, by intellect) set of editors!

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Reading White Feminism: A Most Masculine State by Madawi al-Rasheed

Selections from recent readings against Western feminism – in particular, its racist and Orientalist origins and its continuing centrality in Western liberal imperial practices and discourse.

A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia

Reading White Feminism: “Sexual Decoys” by Zillah Eisenstein

Selections from recent readings against Western feminism – in particular, its racist and Orientalist origins and its continuing centrality in Western liberal imperial practices and discourse.

Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in an Imperial Democracy by Zillah Eisenstein

Reading White Feminism: “White Women’s Righs” by Louise Newman

Selections from recent readings against Western feminism –  in particular, its racist and Orientalist origins and its continuing centrality in Western liberal imperial practices and discourse.

White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States – Louise Michelle Newman

Unexpected Journeys Or How Did You Get To San Francisco?

She turns thirteen today. She dances at San Francisco Ballet School’s Summer Intensive programs this summer. It was just two years ago that she had auditioned for the Swedish Royal Ballet’s dance school, only to be rejected at the last stage of the week-long audition. It was just two years ago that I remember waking up at 2 am that night, and hearing her quietly crying in the bathroom. Last week, when she received the letter from the San Francisco Ballet, inviting her to come and train in the Summer Intensive Program, Sofia completed a journey that began in painful disappointment. This summer is no ordinary summer. For this 13-year old, this invitation letter was not just to another Summer Intensive program, but a confirmation that hard work, a refusal to accept the judgement of others, and a determination to become what she dreamed about, was the only way to face the dance world.

Details »

Dubai – a rework

a room of my own. #dubai #uae #metaphorsareboring #cynicalcelebration

A post shared by Asim Rafiqui (@asim_rafiqui) on

Musings & Confusions: 8th Feb. 2017

Still love reading these amazing stories…Carlos Saavedra’s work…

…and Mashruk Ahmed’s 

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