An Invisible Violence

What is most material to some might not even exist for others.

– Sara Ahmed

Upon seeing me, she stopped dead in her tracks. A look of panic came over her as she took a step back, as if to run. But she must have seen that I was equally surprised, and she stopped and looked at me in silence. Her eyes searched my face as she reached up to adjust her bright red dupatta (head scarf), and slowly placed it back over her head and pulled a part of it to cover her mouth. I had run into her while walking through the old part of Gwadar where I had been taking some photographs of a mosque I had visited some sixteen years earlier. The neighborhood was now largely abandoned, with most homes fallen into disrepair if not completely reduced to ruins. Only the old mosque stood white and silent, in this once bustling residential neighborhood. A small shrine–a baithak (gathering place) to a holy man stood nearby. I had heard her before I had seen her. I had heard her footsteps behind me as I stood framing my shot, but her sudden gasp made me turn around. We stood looking at each other for what seemed like a few minutes. “Have you come to evict me?” Her voice was trembling, and her eyes trying to read my face. I seemed to loom over her as I struggled to understand her question. Her eyes searched my face as her hand her the dupatta to her lips. I felt a sudden flash of shame because I knew, without even asking her, what she was talking about. I must have looked like a surveyor, or a contractor working on the new sea port and four lane highway that was destroying these neighborhoods, and a way of life that had existed here for hundreds of years. To her eyes, I was yet another “educated” government employee measuring and calculating, and setting into motion a machinery of development and construction that to her was the mechanism of dispossession and displacement. I apologized, and tried to put her at ease. I realized that I was equally trying to distance myself from what was happening here in Gwadar, and did not want her to think of me as “one of them.” I doubt if she believed me. How often had she been lied to before? What promises had those who had come before me made to her, only for her to realize that they were little more than distractions and attempts at buying time? What had this constant, years long sense of vulnerability and fear done to her life? What was the cause of her panic? What did someone like me, and dressed like me, imply and mean to her? 

I remember a beautiful, powerful passage from one of Sara Ahmed’s essays: 

An experience of violence too can have effects on one’s confidence; you might feel smaller because of what has happened to you; you might try and take up less space. You learn to inhabit your body differently through this expectation that what lies ahead might be shattering. When you sense the world “out there” as a danger it is your relation to your own body that changes: you become more cautious, timid, you might withdraw in anticipation that what happened before might happen again. It might be your own experiences that lead you here, to caution as withdrawal, but it might also what you have learnt from others. You are taught or told to be careful: to be full of care as to become anxious about the potential to be broken. You begin to learn that being careful, not having things like that happen to you, is a way of avoiding becoming damaged. And you sense the consequence: if something happens you have failed to prevent it. Losing confidence might be about the work we have to do to be; a loss of confidence that registers not only as bodily fragility but also in how the world registers as intrusion, as not providing a shelter or home [Ahmed, Sara, “Losing Confidence,” feministkilljoys, March 1, 2016]. 

Gwadar is a violent place. It is however very difficult to recognize not just the violence, but also the nature of it. The apparatus of overt violence is easily seen; the many police check posts, the military jeeps carrying armed soldiers patrolling the streets, the periodic interruption of walks in the city by intelligence agents asking inquisitive questions to those who look like they do not belong here, and the soldiers sitting inside watchtowers, keeping and eye on the men building the new highway, and anyone wandering too close to the construction. There have been incidents of the “spectacular” forms of violence here previously; attacks by militants on Chinese engineers being the most well known. But the violence I am talking about isn’t the spectacular, news headlines grabbing one, but the quieter, more insidious kind of violence that seeps into the homes and lives of the people here. Phenomenology allows us to see how violence that sneaks in alongside the public promises of economic development, of economic progress and of the promise of new futures. It is a violence that, as Fanon argued, seeps into “the home and into the mind” of a people, unfolding over long periods of time, and producing “dispositions in the bodies of those facing eviction…[as]…Bureaucrats, officials and enforcement workers all work upon the bodies of the evicted to both justify and create a disposition towards displacement” [Baker, Alex, “Eviction as infrastructure,” City, 24:1-2, 2020:143-150]. 

Rob Nixon referred to as a “slow violence,” one that is “incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales,” and where “casualties are postponed often for generations” [Nixon, Rob, Slow Violence and The Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011:1]. He builds on Norwegian mathematician Galtung’s concept of “structural violence,” who tried to widen our perception of what counts as “violence,” who wanted to centre the inequalities imposed as a result of economic and political measures as a form of violence. Nixon’s temporal frame broadens Galtung’s concern, and allows him to reveal acts of violence that may be “decoupled from their original causes by the working of time” [Nixon, Rob, Slow Violence and The Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011:11]. Nixon’s concern however is predominantly on ecological and environmental violence, and the many ways it seeps into the bodies of the marginalized, and for finding ways of “giving life and dimension to the strategies that emerge from those who bear the brunt of the planet’s ecological crisis” [Nixon, Rob, Slow Violence and The Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011:22–23]. 

Ann Laura Stoler pushes us beyond Nixon’s frame however, arguing that certain forms of enduring violence emerge from “ongoing imperial formations,” which she defines as the “ongoing quality of processes of decimation, displacement, and reclamation that endure beyond the formal exclusions that legislate against equal opportunity, commensurate dignities, and equal rights.” She explicitly invokes the temporal stretch, and “recursive recalibration” of colonial imaginaries and practices in the post-colonial age. She refers to such recursively recalibrated violence–one isn’t static but unfolds over time–as “duress,” which has “temporal, spatial and affective coordinates” [Stoler, Ann Laura, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times, Duke University Press, 2016:7]. She argues that it is critical for us to “train our senses beyond the more easily identifiable forms” of violence, because their “impress may be intangible, but it is not a faint scent of the past…It may be sometimes a trace but more often an enduring fissure, a durable mark” [Stoler, Ann Laura, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times, Duke University Press, 2016:7]. 

But how can we perceive this violence? What forms does it take? How do we understand it? Sara Ahmed has drawn to our attention to how sometimes that which is most material, may not even exist for some. “What is real, what is in concrete terms the hardest,” she reminds us, “is not always available as an object that can be perceived (from some viewing points), or an object that can touched (even by those who are seated at the same table)” [Ahmed, Sara, “Practical Phenomenology,” feministkilljoys, June 4, 2014]. Ahmed, using the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, wants us to think institutionally and structurally and about how materiality is not always that which can be apprehended. “It might be an arrangement of things, a social as well as physical arrangement…it might be the force of momentum that carries something forward, that picks up more and more things, so that more and more weight is acquired, so that things tend “that way,” bodies lean “that way,” almost independently of individual will” [Ahmed, Sara, “Practical Phenomenology,” feministkilljoys, June 4, 2014]. 

The violence in Gwadar is a form of wearing down, one that is designed to strip the local community of any hope of being a part of what is being constructed here. It is a violence that destroys “the sense structures of the ‘intentional life,’ making the existence of the subject and one’s act of meaning bestowal in the pre-given world difficult or impossible” [Sharma, Anuradha, “Violence and Phenomenology,” Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 92, 2013:868 – 873 ]. As concrete and steel infrastructures are built, the relational infrastructures are destroyed. Here I use the term “infrastructures” differently than we ordinarily do. Lauren Berlant describes infrastructures as that which “organizes life…Roads, bridges, schools, food chains, finance systems, prisons, families, districts, norms all the systems that link ongoing proximity to being in a world-sustaining relation” (emphasis added) [Berlant, Lauren, “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 34(3) 2016:393–419]. Unlike Larkin, who understands infrastructures as “built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space,” Berlant draws our attention to the social, the relational–with kin, land, community, and other-than-human life–that are equally important infrastructural elements for life and society [Larkin, Brian, “The Politics & Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 42:327–343, 2013:328]. For her, the solidity and sense of our social and political infrastructures are held together by affective investments. It is these relational infrastructures that are ignored when we speak only about the “politics and poetics of infrastructure,” it is they–the evicted, the worn down–who face the consequences of the indiscernible, but concrete, violence of silencing, dismissing, defuturing, and denying [Larkin, Brian, “The Politics & Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 42:327–343, 2013:328]. 

Violence in Gwadar is not just physical, but perhaps more so, phenomenological. This violence appears as a sensation in the air, and in the way bodies are allowed to move, stand, speak, look and hear. It is the erection of walls, the declaration of refusals, the denial of what was once taken for granted, and all that which defined an individual’s sense of being in and of the world. It scratches against your skin each time you realize you children will not have a future in this city, nor can you promise them a tomorrow you had once imagined. It raises the hairs on the back of your neck as you sit in silence as the local authorities ignore you requests for cleaner water, more regular electricity, a functioning sewage system or even just safer streets. It appears in your nightmares as the sounds of construction reminds you of your imminent displacement and eviction. It fills your heart as you watch you children leave the city one last time, heading towards the metropolis to find a new way forward. It pours from your brows as you work on your last wooden boat, knowing that no more orders are on their way. It weighs heavy on your shoulders as you see the till at the local convenience store empty, as fewer and fewer of your customers seem to return. It stops your pencil as you stare at the job employment form and realize that you are unqualified for the opportunities that are available, most of which are being filled by outsiders from the metropolis. It is the tide that no longer comes as it once did, and in the seas that no longer offers you a bounty it had for hundreds of years. It sits disconsolately on your desk as your writings about the history of Gwadar go unpublished, as the concrete past is swept away behind the swagger of a fantasy future. It drives past you in car with blackened windows, carrying men who arrive for meetings that no one knows are even taking place, but everyone knows that they are not privy. 

“Our sukhuun is gone.” He said, pointing towards the trucks and construction machinery working on the new highway alongside his home. I am sitting in the home of a young musician close to the shores of the Demi Zirr bay. He remembers a childhood where the waters were at his doorstep. Now, a massive stone filled wall, and a newly constructed highway, block not just the access, but the entire view of the water. Truck, bulldozers, military jeeps and laborers work day and night, building an artery of asphalt that will connect the port to the city of Karachi and elsewhere. Sukuun (سکون ) means peace, calm, but also reconciliation, and brotherhood. There is that sense of the relational again, and the tearing away of bonds. He is a musician because he can’t be a fisherman–the sea is inaccessible, the livelihood has disappeared, the fish cannot be found, and that idea of the self is dying under a new regime of privatized land, industrial infrastructure and corporate employment. That which was to be handed down to him as legacy, inheritance, history and tradition, is no more. Instead, what has been handed down to him are questions, fears, uncertainties and an apathy without end. Certain ways of being, worlds that were once taken for granted, are no more. Bodies and lives that were once shaped through earlier habits, are now out of place. Gwadar’s much celebrated and anticipated infrastructure projects are creating a vulnerable community, one which is in the way of the projects, and not the beneficiary of it. It is a designed vulnerability, and creates an atmosphere of violence that begins by “a refusal to respond to the appeal of the other” and as a result “violate(s) her, i.e, her embodied being and/or the claims that make up her self-referential integrity” [Staudigl, Michael, “Towards a Relational Phenomenology of Violence,” Human Studies, 36, 2013:43–66]. 

We can see this designed vulnerability in the very structure of the Gwadar masterplan and the way it disappears the very local community that can claims it as their historical, cultural and situated home. Gwadar is “a demolition project that is eminently modern…a form of power that slashes a scar across a social fabric that differentially affects us all” [Stoler, Ann Laura, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times, Duke University Press, 2016:7]. The vulnerability that sits on the bodies of the people here, that one hears in the guarded discussions, or senses in the darting eyes, the interrupted sentences, the sideway glances, the dismissive smile given to inquisitive questions, those never ending silences in the face of an outsider, are symptoms of an ecology of violence that now surrounds the city. Staudlig, in his discussion about phenomenological understanding of violence, argues for a need for violence to be “analyzed at a more fundamental level. Phenomenologically viewed, it is not only destructive of pre-given sense, but also affects our being-in-the-world, i.e., our basic capacities for making sense” [Staudigl, Michael, “Towards a Phenomenological Theory of Violence: Reflections Following Merleau-Ponty and Schutz,” Human Studies, 30:2007:233–253]. 

The sounds, movements, transformation in social relations, and disruption of socio-economic worlds of Gwadar are completely destroying the people’s sense of identity, place and relations. They are leading to “the loss of the person’s ability to enact and to uncover for itself the senses that make up the world one shares with others and, finally, of one’s habitual ways of self-appearing.” The people of Gwadar experience this loss, and are reminded of it every day, through sounds, social relations, and even the life choices and decisions they are compelled to make. These experiences signal a dispossessing, displacing and destructive forms of invisible violence that are rarely seen let alone acknowledged. They underline the erasure of known worlds and ways of being and the associated vulnerabilities, insecurities and fears that they bring with them [Chuengsatiansup, Komatra, “Sense, Symbol and Soma; Illness Experience in the Soundscape of Everyday Life,” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 23: 1999:273–301, 1999]. 

The construction of the port and road infrastructure is present for all to see, and the main interest of most journalists, academics, pundits, politicians and investors. But there are equally material social, administrative, bureaucratic, intelligence, security, economic, and professional “brick walls” and doors being erected, through which only certain bodies can pass, while others are blocked. Ahmed’s calls for “practical phenomenology,” to experience and understand “the brick wall”–those institutional, social and organizations arrangements that otherwise disappear into the background but become apparent to certain kinds of bodies that do not belong or no longer fit [Ahmed, Sara, “Practical Phenomenology,” feministkilljoys, June 4, 2014]. These walls are social, bureaucratic, administrative, and personal acts that block, stop, refuse, reject and close. They are manifestations of a phenomenology of violence against bodies that no longer fit, and are no longer attuned to the new world that is emerging. To sense, see and feel this violence, we have to see the world from the perspective and experiences of those no longer a part of it. Or, as Sara Ahmed herself, put it, to see “the world from the point of the body that is not attuned is to offer a different account of the world” [Ahmed, Sara, “Practical Phenomenology,” feministkilljoys, June 4, 2014]. We have become used to not seeing violence, where “some forms of violence are understood as trivial or not even as violence at all,” and where “violence is reproduced by not being seen as violence [Ahmed, Sara, “You Are Oppressing Us!” feministkilljoys, February 15, 2015]. 

What would this different account look like? How do we perceive the violences in this account? Kleinman speaks about a violence that is part of the “processes of ordering the social world and making (or realizing) culture that themselves are forms of violence: violence that is multiple, mundane, and perhaps all the more fundamental since it is the hidden or secret violence out of which images of people are shaped, experiences of groups are coerced, and agency itself is engendered” [Kleinman, A. “The Violences of Everyday Life, the Multiple Forms and Dynamics of Social Violence,” In V. Das, A. Kleinman, & M. Ramphele (Eds), Violence and Subjectivity, University of California Press, 2000: 226–241]. He is speaking about the violence of everyday life within communities, but we could extend this frame to include the violence in communities left in duress caused by legislation, administration, bureaucracy, planning and design that does not include them. There is a need to account for this slow demolition, its varieties of social afflictions, and of the phenomenology of violence as lived in the daily lives of those who will be expelled or forever left as refugees in place [Sassen, Saskia Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, Harvard University Press, 2014]. Here, expulsion isn’t about merely physical displacement or relocation, but about those who are made refugees in place as they lose their lands, the resources and are “left stranded in a place stripped of the very characteristics that made it inhabitable” [Nixon, Rob, Slow Violence and The Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011:19]. My eyes and ears are drawn to the narratives of this invisible violence, one that is phenomenological, and experienced in the ways daily life is stripped of all that was once familiar, and replaced by the unwelcoming and the alienating. 

How do we register, represent it, and make such forms of violence visible? How is this violence embodied and sensed? How do we see the feelings, reactions, reflections, and responses that such sensations provoke? What do conventional ways of seeing violence not allow us to sense and experience? How do we trace the intergenerational and temporal scales of such violence? How do we speak about them? How can we discriminate between the bodies that are allowed through, and those that no longer fit? How do we perceive the “walls” that can’t be seen, but block, restrict and stop? Is there a way to reveal the almost daily fears, struggles refusals and rejections that are the real and material consequences of the infrastructure developments taking place here?

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