The Self-Flagellating Native Intellectual And The Quest For The Pleasures Of Empire

There is a remarkably succinct and clear moment in Gauri Viswanathan’s brilliant work Masks of Conquest: Literary Study And British Rule In India when she points out that colonizer’s self-representation:

…to native Indians through the products of his mental labor removes him from the place of ongoing colonialist activity-of commercial operations, military expansion, and administration of territories-and deactualizes and diffuses his material reality in the process…His material reality as subjugator and alien ruler is dissolved in his mental output; the blurring of the man and his works effectively removes him from history.

The colonized is unable to see the colonizer for his reality, but becomes hypnotized and bamboozled by the self-representation, so much so that the colonized become the vehicle for the perpetuation of the colonizers original self-representation. In the process, the colonized forgets the history, politics, economics and ideology that in fact inform and move the project of empire. Instead, the colonized – the subservient, the intellectually usurped native, looks back into himself and find himself lacking. In himself he sees the lesser actuality and the sordid materiality of his pathetic existence. In the colonizer he sees the ideal, the principled, the inspiring and aspired towards. And in the gap between the colonized self-image of being in a fallen state, and the colonizers exalted state, lies void into which the colonized casts his moral, and intellectual stones in the hope of building a bridge, however rickety, to traverse the distance.

Where The Wild Things Are!

The Pashtun of Waziristan, Pakistan has today become an avatar for violence, terrorism, rebellion, guerrilla warfare and other things deviant and vile. There is however a long heritage of depicting these people of the tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan as genetically prone to violence and culturally prone to resistance to ‘civilised’ politics. This prejudice informs any and all writing about them, their history and the wars being waged in their backyards. From British colonial ear shenanigans – given the pretty-cute euphemism of ‘The Great Game’ to veil the fact that the White man’s ‘games’ are the brown man’s death sentence, genocide, pillage, massacre, mass murder, refugee crisis etc. to current American imperial wars in the region, the people of this region have been seen as nothing more than ‘barbaric’,and  ‘fundamentalist’ and continue to be spoken about with the worst of Orientalist and colonialist simplicities one can imagine – tribal, unconquerable, rebellious, and lawless. Where the British colonialist left off, their ancestors in the American political and academic establishment and the Pakistani post-colonialist structure have continued.

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Congressional Disappearences And Drone Victim Appearences

They–Rafeeq, Zubair, and Nabeela–travelled all the way from North Waziristan to give testimony to the US Congress about the devastation and suffering caused in their communities by the American and Pakistani drone attacks. It was the first time that victims of drone attacks were “permitted” to actually stand face-to-face with those defining and defending the war policies in the region and speak about the consequences of their decisions.

But no one turned up to listen.

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Searching For Ghosts

They are ghosts, and I have spent nearly two months trying to find a trace of them. They are the 33 Pakistani men who remain imprisoned, without charge or evidence, by the Americans at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Many have not been see or heard by anyone other than their immediate families – they are periodically granted carefully censored telephone and internet video call access, for over 11 years. The prisoners are off limits to the public, the press and the legal community. These men have been silenced, their faces have been erased, the details of their incarceration beyond the eyes, ears and interest of a now compliant and cowed American and Pakistani media. Until 2012 their own government refused to recognize most of them as citizens of Pakistan.

They are the ghosts, and I have spent two months traveling across Pakistan trying to learn something, anything, about them. Details »

Trying To Make Sense Of Pakistan

It is difficult for me to talk in public about my personal projects. This is not because they are unduly complicated but because I fear to honestly speak about them and reveal the doubts, uncertainties and many prayers for luck and chance that underpin them. More often than not I do not know what it is that I am exploring, but only that I hope to find something that will educate me, inform me, and in some way, change me. I have questions I begin with, but no clear path to anything that may resemble an answer. These long term works, whether in India and now in Pakistan, are not based on any concrete hypothesis, or agenda, or righteous certainty but are little more than the one man’s rummaging through society, its inhabitants and asking some questions to learn a few things.

Unfortunately, that is not how a photographer is supposed to speak.

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The Limits of Photojournalism

It is perhaps the most interesting, creative and compelling book of photography I have ever read. I have looked and read it over a dozen times in the last 8 years.  Edward Said & Jean Mohr’s ‘After The Last Sky: Palestinian Lives’ is perhaps the only example that I know of of a brilliant writer and a sensitive photographer collaborating to produce something remarkably insightful, intelligent and provocative at the same time.

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