Losing An Ocean

The landscape should belong to the people who see it all the time.

– Amiri Baraka

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“The ocean no longer belongs to us.”

I hear Khair Jan inhale deeply as he says this. I realize, when I turn around to look at him, that he isn’t speaking to me. He isn’t speaking to anyone in particular. His face is turned away from where I stand, and looking out past the docked fishing boats, and towards the bay. It is late afternoon and the sun is fading behind the cliffs of Koh-e-Batil, a promontory that creates two near perfect bays on either side. A soft purple-blue light fills the air above the waters of the Demi Zirr bay, the Eastern facing side of the promontory, and the site of a new Chinese-financed sea port. The jetty is mostly empty with a few men milling about aimlessly chatting to each other, or smoking cigarettes. A few others can be heard inside the warehouse building where the day’s auctions are held, trying to sell off the last of their day’s catch. The jetty, situated adjacent to the heavily protected sea port, is off-limits to outsiders. Only those with business there–owners and personnel of boats docked there, warehouse staff, fish traders, transportation drivers, auction house administrators, and maintenance personnel–are allowed past the police and military check posts situated along the road leading up to it. Many are rudely turned back. Unless, of course, you are with someone the security personnel know well, in which case, you can simply drive or walk past these check posts without being bothered.

This was how I ended up that afternoon standing on the fishing jetty, and walking around the area in the company of Khair Jan, a member of an old fishing family, and someone the locals, including the security personnel, knew had a boat docked at the jetty, and was a frequent visitor to the auction market itself. Khair Jan was also a celebrity of sorts; a television and theatre performer, an artist, poet, musician, and once a practitioner of the sufic spiritual arts. When I asked him what the latter meant, he just smiled and refused to explain any further. For another time, he said, smiling. Riding pillion on his motorcycle that afternoon, I became someone who could pass right through what were previously iron-clad security check-posts. In Gwadar however you can never quite let your guard down. As Khair Jan gave me a tour of the jetty, and took me around introducing me to men cleaning their boats, or those sitting at small stalls with the last pieces of the day’s catch, I was alert to the watchful eyes of the military personnel who stood quietly on various corners. They may have seemed not to care, but they were always watching. I was an outsider and someone they had not seen here before.

Late evenings are moments of calm. One can sit by the waterside and listen to the sound of the waters lapping against the jetty, the boats gently bobbing with the waves, and the song of the seagulls lulling one into a sense of peace. The day’s catch is done, and the boats sit tied to the dock. Most of the activities of the day have been wrapped up, and only the caretakers and boat owners remain, sitting drinking chai and talking to friends. A few security personnel mill about, lethargic and bored. The calm of the waters of the Demi Zirr bay, the winds blowing back in from the sea, can lull one into feeling peaceful, and carefree. But things are anything but that.

The sea port–the jewel in Pakistan’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) economic development crown–sits a kilometer away. Its tentacles however reach far beyond its boundary wall, as new infrastructure is constructed to support its operations. My eyes scan over the cargo cranes being installed, the new storage facilities being constructed, the additional warehouses being added. I can see inside the port facilities, where trucks continue to bring in construction materials, driving past the recently erected business center. Military jeeps and personnel mill about everywhere. On the far horizon, an armed coast guard boat is on patrol. Looking towards the town to my left, I can see the guard towers from where military police keep an eye on the men constructing the new multi-lane road that will connect the port all the way out to the city of Karachi, some 700 km away. The road tears through some of the oldest neighborhoods in Gwadar and has already displaced thousands. Worse, it has completely cut off access to the ocean for those who still make a living from it. 

Larkin describes infrastructures as “built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space…They comprise the architectures for circulation, literally providing the undergirding of modern societies, and they generate the ambient environment of everyday life” [Brian Larkin, “The Politics & Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 42:327–343, 2013:328]. It is a what the State refers to as a critical infrastructure, one that is associated with national security, and national economic development imaginaries [Anne Spice, “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures: Indigenous Relations against Pipelines,” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9, 2018:40–56]. 

Through media, and political discourses, the State has convinced the citizenry, and the investor class, that these are the infrastructures in need of construction, and of protection. 

Today, managing “the economy” has become a new form of governance, whose experts can displace democratic debate, and even national sovereignty [Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Verso, 2011]. It isn’t uncommon to hear ordinary citizens arguing for the importance of GDP growth, foreign currency reserves, balance of payment deficits and other economic statistics that have little to do with the actual wellbeing of the citizens (jobs, salaries, healthcare, welfare, education etc.) That these statistics have little to do with real things, or actual material progress, seems of no interest to anyone. “The economy is a concept that seems to resist analysis.” Timothy Mitchell argued. “It appears to have escaped the kind of critique that now disturbs so many other concepts of modern social theory” [Timothy Mitchell, “Fixing The Economy,” Cultural Studies, 1998:12:1, 82-101]. 

The heavy presence of intelligence, military, and police personnel in Gwadar reflects the importance this project holds for the State, and a national media machinery has been mobilized to help “transform [these] projects into matters of national interest” [Anne Spice, “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures: Indigenous Relations against Pipelines,” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9, 2018:40–56]. 

It has silenced the citizenry, and seduced a monied elite into collaborating in this transformation. It has held out a fantasy future where Gwadar is transformed from a historical, ancient, socially and culturally rich fishing village, into a cut-and-pasted mega-city imaginary where the future holds endless leisure and a never ending utopia of consumption and pleasure. Most outside of Gwadar have been seduced. Most inside of Gwadar remain subdued. And worried. 

This critical infrastructure comes at a cost for the local residents and fishermen: their boat routes in and out of the Demi Zirr bay are severely limited by recently demarcated shipping lanes, and dredging works; their access to known fishing spots restricted on grounds of security; their knowledge of the seas damaged by ecological changes; their right to traditional homes and common lands erased by the State’s land privatization plans and the machinations of a land mafia. Life has become interrupted, and has been disrupted by these changes. Boats bringing in their catch undergo frequent stop and search actions by the coast guards, residents living close to the port and the new road are either forced or harassed to leave their homes to clear the way for the construction work, and their movements in and around the port heavily monitored and restricted. The new road that connects the port to the main highway has completely cut off people’s access to the ocean, and to a way of life they had known for centuries. An ocean, and the lands are slowly but determinedly being taken away from the people of the city. 

So when I heard Khair Jan utter his lament, that the ocean no longer “belongs” to them, I thought he was referring to these dispossessions, and to the many ways in which the people of the city could no longer lay claim to the sea, or to their ancestral places. I assumed that he was lamenting the loss of access to the ocean, the ways in which people had lost their homes, their shared lands, their proximity to the water front, and that now, as the ocean and land are commodified and privatized, ownership had passed from the mahigeer to privatized domestic, international and transnational entities [Ong, Aihwa, “The Chinese Axis: Zoning Technologies and Variegated Sovereignty,” Journal of East Asian Studies 4, 2004:69-96]. 

But I had misheard him. I realized my mistake only after I started to listen more closely to the stories about himself, his family, the city and the landscape that he told.

Khair Jan was the youngest in a family of traditional fishermen–a mahigeer family. But he had never gone to sea; certain health conditions had prevented him from pursuing a life on the ocean. But he had gone on to become a number of other things: an artist, an actor, a musician, a practitioner of sufic spirituality and briefly, a fisherman. He knew every nook and cranny of the city of Gwadar, and I became fascinated listening to him point to a seemingly innocuous mound of sand, and tell me a story behind it, or point to a crumbling gravestone and reveal a legend of the two lovers buried there, or point towards a tree in a courtyard, and explain how djinns reside there, and the days and hour of the night when they can be heard speaking to each other. When he told me about himself, he did so through stories, and through the events and experiences that had happened to him, and through the landscape and world around him. These stories were connections, revealed relationships, and outlined lineages.

But there was something more; I noticed that the stories he told me, the legends that he shared, and the metaphoric language that he used to describe the sea, or the mountains, or even the changing seasons, imbued the landscape, and other-than-human entities with agency, intentionality and even ethics. They were not just things but beings that had intentionality, agency, and ethics. What a person did on land, could have a profound affect on the sea, and how one conducted oneself in life determined how generous the land and the sea was to him in return. The immoral behavior of the community could have an impact on the sea’s willingness to give up its bounty of fish. Or the moods of the sea had a profound impact on whether the fishermen decided they could go out to find catch. 

The stories seemed to create connections between people and the other-than-human and suggested a sense of obligation and responsibility to ensure a balance between them. There were relations–with the land, with the environment, with the ocean, and the climate–that were constantly being articulated through metaphor, figurative speech, legends, and myths. This relationality was made concrete through practices of fishing the sea, cultivating the land, and emotionally and spiritually narrating the landscape. And hence, his relation to the ocean, which in his telling was not merely “nature,” but a being, one to which he had obligations towards, and one from which he expected certain returns. It was a relation that was based on laboring with it, and because of it. At times the sea was spoken in anthropomorphic terms, and through that, given agency, moods, and intentions. Gods had to be appeased, the evil eye warded off, djinns had to be heard and obeyed, prayers had to be offered, signs had to be read in the sand, the sky or in a boat accident. There were forces at play that one did not know, but whose consequences one felt. Mountains had moods, the sky had emotions, the land had feelings, and the changing colors of the light reflecting of the face of the Koh-e-Batil were messages that you could not ignore. 

“One is not formed as a self in isolation,” Govindrajan reminds us, “but through the ‘doing and performing’ of relations–both desirable and undesirable–with a host of other beings whose paths crisscross one’s own in ways that defy the integrity of bodies and communities” [Govindrajan, Radhika, Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas, The University of Chicago Press, 2018:4]. These relations were created through practices that bought people into “intimate relation to the many other kinds of non-human beings that make…[this land]…their home” [Kohn, Eduardo, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, University of California Press, 2013:5]. Realizing these “intimate relations” with other kinds of nonhuman life, as Donna Haraway argued, and with a broader world of life and land, that we can break out “of the circular closure that otherwise confines us when we seek to understand the distinctively human by means of that which is distinctive to humans” [Kohn, Eduardo, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, University of California Press, 2013:6-7]. 

Khair Jan’s lifetime practices of sustenance, of learning, of play, of care, of pleasure, of ethics and of worship were not only the foundation of his relations to the city’s landscape, and to its many non-human life forms, but equally, the basis of his knowledge of himself. “Knowledge is the subjective accumulation,” Ingersoll has argued, “of what a person has absorbed, experienced, and imagined through sources of sound and touch, processes of sight, essences of taste, constructions of memory, and structures of language that create an emergent self” [Ingersoll, Karin Amimoto, Waves of Knowing, Duke University Press, 2016:125]. Basso reminds us of our relationship to place, how identities and places are created together, and how place is embedded in people’s ontology and ethics [Basso, Keith, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache, University of New Mexico Press, 1996]. This is similar to Sara Ahmed idea of affective kinship, where the “encounter with the object–through pain, pleasure, anticipation, and reliance, shapes us–our trajectories, orientations, and desires–and create relations [Ahmed, Sara The Promise of Happiness, Duke University Press, 2010:22]. Khair Jan’s map of Gwadar was a densely populated one with where practically every nook and cranny had stories, histories, myths, legends, and memories. It was a map that although never drawn, confirmed a people’s relationship to a place, a sea, and a landscape and acted as a people’s claim of ownership. 

It was only when I began to see the richness of what lay around me, and began to realize some of many entanglements, relations and inter-connections between the people and broader world around them, that I understood what was being lost here. I began to see how the destruction of the city under the juggernaut of the new masterplan, the construction of the sea port, and the fantasies of a new Dubai, were tearing to shreds a complex network of associations, hundreds of years of carefully constructed human to other-than-human relations, multiple layers of histories and memories, and a deep-seated and historically situated sense of a people’s identity and sense of self. It took a while to realize all this; the trick was to pay attention to how the stories reveal the relations between humans and the non-human. 

That afternoon when he had spoken his lament, I thought I had heard him use the word “belong” as one would when referring to something one owns, or possesses. Like a piece of land, or private property, or an object that one could hold and possess. I had used a modern listening, one that heard through the frames of dualist thinking that naturalized the divisions between nature/culture, us/them (modern/non-modern) and the subject/object. “The problem,” Escobar warns us, ”is with the ways in which such divides are treated culturally, particularly the hierarchies established between the two parts of each binary,” which then justify the “categorization and hierarchical classification of differences, leading to the suppression, devaluing, subordination, or even destruction of forms of knowledge and being that do not conform to the dominant form of modernity” [Escobar, Arturo, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds, Duke University Press, 2017:94]. 

For Escobar, this is an ontological issue, and my ontology was a modern one: raw resources (fish, land, water), private property, shipping lanes, sellable commodities and all else that could be parceled, packaged, and divided for sale. All around me, there were things that existed outside of myself, in the “real” world, and independent of me, which could be possessed, extracted, utilized, measured, studied and consumed them. My relation to them was based not on “doing and performing” with them, but only through exchanging them. For Escobar, “to think new thoughts…requires stepping out of the epistemic space of Western social theory and into the epistemic configurations associated with the multiple relational ontologies of the worlds in struggle (emphasis mine)” [Escobar, Arturo, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds, Duke University Press, 2017:68]. 

Could we re-imagine infrastructures as the practices and relations that tie humans to the other-than-human and not merely as physical “networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space?” Can our understanding of “infrastructure” change if we shift our onto-epistemic eye? “In order to accommodate ‘ontology’ with ontological politics,“ Isabelle Stengers argues, “we need to disentangle it from epistemological presuppositions implying a mute reality available for many worlding and wording ontologies” [Stengers, Isabell, “The Challenge of Ontological Politics,” A World of Many Worlds, 2018:86]. Even Larkin recognized, that it is a specific “cultural [ontological?] analytic that highlights the epistemological and political commitments involved in selecting what one sees as infrastructural (and thus causal) and what one leaves out” [Larkin, Brian, “The Politics & Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 42:327–343, 2013;230]. 

And what one “leaves out” is the recognition of the local relations and practices that create deep bonds and dependencies between human and the other-than-human. Fishing, was far more than the “catch,” but a “constellation of activities” that involve the “fish, the environment, and other people in order to try to get a fish” [Todd, Zoe, “Fish pluralities: Human-animal relations and sites of engagement in Paulatuuq, Arctic, Canada,” Études/Inuit/Studies, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 1/2, Cultures inuit, gouvernance et cosmopolitiques / Inuit cultures, governance and cosmopolitics, 2014:217-238 ]. 

It is a question of relationships that not only generate a social and cultural infrastructure of support, but equally, a system of ecological and experiential knowledges that are shared between individuals. Today, it is equally a question of futures. “The development of new modes of earthly habitation,” Escobar warned, “has become an imperative, which means changing the practices that account for our dwelling in ways that enable us to act futurally instead of insisting on the strategies of adaptation to defuturing (future-destroying) worldly conditions that are on the offer at present” [Escobar, Arturo, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds, Duke University Press, 2017:40]. 

Ironically, the men and women of Gwadar, those among the most dismissed, silenced, marginalized and ignored, may hold the key to “new modes of earthly habitation.” 

Standing there, staring out towards the ocean, Khair Jan had spoken in Urdu and had used the word ہمارا (hummara) meaning ours, which could mean something about belongs to us, but equally, it could mean something that is related to us. If I think back, I believe what he had in fact said was; 

“The ocean is no longer related to us.” 

It was a requiem to a relationship with the ocean that was ending in the shadow of the port construction and expansion. An emotional relationship–one that gave joy, inspiration, imaginations and rhythms to his life–was being severed. “Infrastructures [are] often the means of dispossession,” Deborah Cowen argued, “and the material force that implants colonial economies and socialities” [Cowen, Deborah, “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance,” Verso blog, 25 January, 2017, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3067-infrastructures-of-empire-and-resistance]. Equally, they are a means of “generation, maintenance, reproduction, and naturalization of settler ontologies” [Spice, Anne, “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures: Indigenous Relations against Pipelines,” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9, 2018:40–56]. Looking out across the Demi Zirr bay, Khair Jan had recoiled at the sight of capitalist and commodity based socialities that were arriving, and may have felt the end of “relations that sustained the collective life of [the] peoples: the human and non-human networks that…supported [local] polities” [Spice, Anne, “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures: Indigenous Relations against Pipelines,” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9, 2018:40–56]. 

What Khair Jan could see disappearing was something concrete, real and a form of social, cultural, and performed infrastructure of relations and a set of life and living practices to the land, to the environment, and to the ocean. The State’s critical infrastructure was eradicating the community’s relational infrastructure; one that was not simply “an assemblage of ‘things and relation between things,’ but rather a set of relations and things between relations…[The] relations that require caretaking, which [local] peoples are accountable to” [Spice, Anne, “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures: Indigenous Relations against Pipelines,” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9, 2018:40–56]. 

Listening to Khair Jan, I realize that I face many questions here. Could I understand the many different composite forms of knowledge that exist here? Could I document the destruction of something that wasn’t apparent to us “moderns,” and yet, may hold the key to a modernity that we have yet to build? How did one see the relational infrastructure here, one that wasn’t merely a “designed and planned technical systems”? [Jensen, Casper Bruun & Morita, Atsuro, “Infrastructures as Ontological Experiments,” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 1, 2015:81-87]. 

Could I see and feel what Khair Jan saw that evening? 

––

References:

Basso, Keith, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache, University of New Mexico Press, 1996

Cowen, Deborah, “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance,” Verso blog, 25 January, 2017, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3067-infrastructures-of-empire-and-resistance

Escobar, Arturo, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds, Duke University Press, 2017

Govindrajan, Radhika, Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas, The University of Chicago Press, 2018

Kohn, Eduardo, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, University of California Press, 2013

Jensen, Casper Bruun & Morita, Atsuro, “Infrastructures as Ontological Experiments,” Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 1, 2015:81-87

Larkin, Brian, “The Politics & Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 42:327–343, 2013;328

Mitchell, Timothy, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Verso, 2011

Ong, Aihwa, “The Chinese Axis: Zoning Technologies and Variegated Sovereignty,” Journal of East Asian Studies 4, 2004:69-96

Ricœur, Paul, Oneself as Another, The University of Chicago Press, 1992

Spice, Anne, “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures: Indigenous Relations against Pipelines,” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9, 2018:40–56

Todd, Zoe, “Fish pluralities: Human-animal relations and sites of engagement in Paulatuuq, Arctic, Canada,” Études/Inuit/Studies, 2014, Vol. 38, No. 1/2, Cultures inuit, gouvernance et cosmopolitiques / Inuit cultures, governance and cosmopolitics, 2014:217-238 

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