Being a history/ian

Sometimes I wonder: if I’d had more faculty of color mentors, would they have warned me against the project I am doing when I first conceived of the idea? Against this project of historicity, against this project of walking back through the lives of my own community to see what happened, to see exactly how we came to where we are. 

And then I tell myself,  I’m being too sensitive. I’m over thinking. I’m being too sensitive. 


Blundell and other European observes realized that indigenous governmental institutions which did not fit into the British - Indian system were decaying and that the foundations of the traditional ties of village and family life were also giving way. But business demands invariably took precedence. From Calcutta’s perspective, economic production needs were more important than accommodation to popular desires. Little attention was accordingly given Blundell’s insistence that Talaings recently freed from Buremse misrule could not be handled by Bengali methods, especially if the attempt were made in accordance with the presumptuous pattern of personal privilege set up by the British mercantile community. 

- “A History of Modern Burma” by John Cady 


A few things immediately run through my mind.

First: “Calcutta” does not necessarily imply Indian administration. The excerpt above is a *history snapshot* of 1842, when India was pretty firmly under British rule. 

Second: a flashback to a class about Pre-Modern India when a south asian student was reading about satti. She had come back to class, and after prompted, told the class about how various economic changes that the British implemented, fully knowing that they weren’t working, fully knowing how much harm they were bringing to the community,  was regardless implemented. One of the results of the new economic changes and laws was how the practice of satti became entrenched in the region. 

Third: scholars.

  • Jonathan Saha has presented John Comaroff’s argument in his book Law, Disorder and the Colonial State that colonial law should not be treated as a functional, monolithic entity. Further in his introduction, Saha points out that colinial state in history books are often protrayed as “a rational, impersonal, bureacratic actor, separate from, and yet increasingly intrusive in, society. This dominant narrative has created a dichotomous, Manichean picture the relationship between the state and society that can be mapped directly onto the binary of the colonizer and the colonized. There is little room in this framework to examine the complexities of how the state was experienced in everyday life. Nor is there much scope to study the role played by the mostly Indian and Burmese subordinate state officials; a group on which precious little historical work has been published”. [The view gave me pause: there’s substance in there but I need to read more, to think more.] 
  • Marc Epprecht wrote in his book Sexuality and social justice in Africa : rethinking homophobia and forging resistance that he is against the idea of blaming colonials for everything, but colonialism shouldn’t be discounted in relation to current events in post colonial regions.When he talked about his abhorrence of blaming everything on colonialism to make ourselves feel better, it made me laugh.
  • Uma Narayan argued in her 1989 essay, “The Project of Feminist Epistemology: Perspectives from a nonwestern feminist”, that just because an individual is oppressed does not mean said individual has “epistemic advantage” to the *oppressed* view point. She pointed out that many  of the *oppressed* group are so Westernized that they lose knowledge of their own culture. And so criticism is necessary. 


"Calcutta" does not imply British administration. Not in 1842. However, shortly after that, the Chettiyar community came to Burma, and essentially did become rich from the opportunities that opened up in Burma. We also know that though administration was essentially British, it did not mean that Burmese/Indian officials weren’t present in the administration. For instance, Maingy was a Burmese official appointed in Tenasserim after the British annexed the region in 1826. British administration. Burmese official. British administration, Burmese ambitions (Maingy started the ambitious road building project in Tenasserim which ultimately failed). 

A complicated picture. 

I go back to reading the above excerpt again. “… realized that indigenous governmental institutions which did not fit into the British - Indian system were decaying and that the foundations of the traditional ties of village and family life were also giving way. But business demands invariably took precedence”.


British ambitions. Burmese/Indian players. Burmese/Indian pawns. The destruction of old ways and emergence of new ways of living. 


A century and a half later, the identity of Muslim Rakhine is being debated in the Burmese parliament. Are they Burmese? Foreign Bangladeshis who came to take advantage of the fertile rice delta? Do they have the right to citizenship? Owning property? Vote? Hold office? 

The questions are not new. They can be traced back to the 1930s and 1940s and before when Burmese national identity was being debated. When the Chettiyar Indians - and so by relation, all Indians - in Burma were considered foreigners. When the choice to remain sovereign under India was being debated. 

Questions asked for a century have a peculiar kind of pain behind them. And so I turn back to my history books. To solve the riddle of how we came be this way.


Are current kalar-Bama relations wholly the result of colonial practice and greed? How much can be blamed on the subordinates? There were so many looking for more opportunities, who also played a role in the colonial state. How much is my own history intertwined in this pain?

I don’t know. There’s so much more I need to read. And so I pause.

Perhaps I am over thinking everything.  Being too sensitive. Regardless, I have a lot more reading to do. 

"Sometimes: you have to become what you are judged as being to survive that judgement."

Sara Ahmed

It’s funny. Rangina Hamidi also talked about that. About how she/fellow Muslim sisters were perceived as these quiet things that couldn’t speak up for themselves. Especially in hijab. So Rangina Hamidi put on the hijab. To live all the stereotypes. And the combat them all. Because she was like, “I’ll do whatever I want. In hijab. Watch me go” (I’m paraphrasing). 

Sara’s quote doesn’t completely relate to what Rangina said/did. But the two remind me of each other. So here they are going to be. 

A chat with Rangina Hamidi of Kandahar Treasure

A few weeks ago Rangina Hamidi of Kandahar Treasure came to our college to present her NGO and issues of Afghan women. She was incredibly eloquent. I had the chance to have dinner with her afterwards and she was an incredibly self-possessed and humble. It was such an honor to meet with her and she left me with a few things to ponder about. 

In her presentation, she talked about Afghan women and about the entrenched patriarchal system present there. How a lot of girls don’t go to school because of old belief systems etc. How illiteracy is so painfully high among girls vs boys. How it is affected by poverty and itself feeds into the cycle of poverty. Where Kandahar Treasure comes in, and how it is received well because Kandahar Treasure works within the system to uproot it. She was very critical of American liberalism and how so many NGOs have failed Afghanistan as they are more concerned with the need of western donors rather than Afghan aid recipients.  She talked openly about how she has been critiqued for “upholding patriarchal structures” and how she doesn’t care because her work is long term, and the affects of it are long term. It was an incredible presentation. 

During dinner, I asked her if she ever got concerned that orientalists would use her talks and presentations as a tool against Afghan women, against Muslim women, against what she fundamentally stands against. That these women are oppressed, and need saving. That I get concerned, nay, afraid, and so I don’t speak up about so many issues that need speaking up. 

She smiled and said she understands. And then said (and I’m paraphrasing) that those who use her words out of context are the ones who are guilty, That they should not be the reason that we should stop our work, that we should stop speaking up. Because if we ourselves don’t speak up, we’ll be in deeper trouble than we started off with. 

It was such a pleasure meeting her. 


When President Bush introduced the NSLI in January of 2006, in addition to platitudes about protecting and spreading freedom, he mentioned the practical and urgent importance of learning these “critical” languages in a direct way that is hard to find on the websites of many of the centers it ended up funding: the initiative, according to him, is to help in giving troops, intelligence officers, and diplomats “all the tools necessary to succeed.” In comments made after the speech, David Chu, then Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, added some geographic specificity. He argued that it was “critical to mission accomplishment … to obtain more personnel fluent in Pashtun, which is spoken in Afghanistan, and Arabic, which is spoken in Iraq and across the Middle East.” In other words, the US government needed speakers of Arabic and Pashtun to help it win its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In “Harm’s Way: Language and the Contemporary Arts of War”, Mary Louise Pratt writes about the use of language and culture in these two wars in particular: “Language … is not a side effect to the acts of war being carried out; it is itself a weapon integral to the war making.” She recounts an event that illustrates this in a horrifically eloquent way. The incident was recorded by an Australian photojournalist embedded with an American combat unit in Afghanistan. The unit, blasting music by Pink Floyd, races towards an Afghan village where an American and an Afghan soldier have been killed the day before. The unit’s interpreter is instructed by a psychological operations specialist, Sergeant Jim Baker, to encourage the villagers via loudspeaker to turn over the perpetrators of the killing that had occurred the previous day. When he receives no response, Sergeant Baker then orders the burning of the bodies of two Taliban fighters killed the day before. Baker surely knows that the burning of bodies contravenes Islamic law: bodies are to be buried quickly and the head is to face Mecca. While the bodies burn, the interpreter is instructed to insult the villagers: “You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to come down and retrieve the bodies….Your time in Afghanistan is short. You attack and run away like women. You call yourself Talibs, but you are a disgrace to the Muslim religion and you bring shame upon your family. Come and fight like men instead of the cowardly dogs you are.” Sergeant Baker explains to the journalist recording the incident that the idea is to flush the Taliban out with these insults and then to shoot them. Pratt’s description of these events illustrates quite graphically, the tactical use of “foreign language and cultural awareness” as a weapon.

What does such an event have to do with the Language Flagship Program specifically and military funding for language training more generally? A 2012 article in the University of Texas at Austin’s Life & Letters entitled “Humanities and the Military” describes a collaboration between Flagship students there and Texas Army National Guard soldiers in a “weekend-long language and culture workshop conducted by the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Center for Middle Eastern Studies for soldiers who will soon be deployed to Afghanistan.” One of the coordinators of the program is quoted as saying “All of the participants seemed intent on learning as much as they could about Afghani culture because they knew that this information might help them accomplish their mission more effectively.” This collaboration is painted in positive terms: linguistic and cultural information being used to help improve relations between two culturally disparate groups. The context for this contact, though, is war and occupation, and such information, as we have seen, can be used to gruesome effect. The university seems to be aware of this potential, or at least of the danger of having its government funded students associated with such a collaboration. In a subsequent version of the article, all references to the Flagship program have been removed, as has the following statement by the director of the NSEP: “We are proud of the partnerships that The Language Flagship programs have made with ROTC and the services.”

Even if not a single US student were using the language and culture he or she learned to such ends, it is important to think very carefully about how our knowledge and expertise might be used by the entities that fund this education. After my stabbing, an Egyptian friend tried to counter some of my doubts by telling me that a knife-maker is not responsible for the uses his knives are put to. Perhaps not, but what if that knife maker happens to be sponsored by the military?


Teaching Arabic in the US after 9/11 

If you’re a student of Arabic studies/Middle East and North African studies or even anthropology, you should really click through the link and read it. 

"When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would."

— Zadie Smith, 10 Rules of Writing (via annie)

(via teachingliteracy)

Tags: quotes


Like many other concepts that shape our understanding of medieval history, the idea of a “Muslim Golden Age” is a historiographical construct. It promotes the notion that, until at least the early thirteenth century, the Muslim world experienced an era of unprecedented stability, prosperity, and cultural production. More particularly, it emphasizes that the period between roughly the ninth century and the thirteenth century (sometimes extended to the eighteenth century in order to include the Ottomans and Mughals; the Safavids are usually ignored) can be considered to represent the pinnacle of human endeavor in the Muslim world. There are many problems with this perspective. Putting aside the fact that it imposes an anachronistic framework on medieval Muslim history, its main argument that the period between the eighth century and the thirteenth century can be characterized mainly by tolerance, cultural efflorescence, political unity, and religious harmony is contrary to many of the facts that one encounters upon reading the history of the various civilizations which are subsumed under the category of “Islamic civilization,” a phrase which conceals the linguistic, cultural, intellectual, theological, and political diversity of the lands in which Muslims resided during the medieval and early modern periods. This is to say nothing of the fact that the narratives promoted by these “Golden Age” perspectives are usually a reworking of official histories that do not take into account the realities of marginalized groups during the same period. The “Golden Age” perspective is also problematic because it is in many ways reactionary and a response to the many political, religious, and intellectual challenges faced by the Muslim world in the modern period. History, or rather particular historical narratives about a “Golden Age,” therefore becomes an important repository for the “greatness of Islamic civilization” and a refuge in which Muslims can seek solace in order to refute the idea–promoted mainly by those hostile to Islam–that Muslim civilization was, is, and always will be characterized by death, destruction and chaos.


There are hundreds of other examples that can be deployed to “demonstrate” the violence of Islamic civilization, just as hundreds of examples can be cited to “prove” the toleration of the medieval and early modern Islamic world and the shining examples of art and literature that were produced as a result of inter-faith and inter-cultural cooperation. It is very irresponsible to take either the examples of “tolerance” or the examples of “intolerance” and string them together into a narrative that sets out to cast the Muslim world in a particular (polemical) light. It is worth mentioning that many of the same dynasties and civilizations responsible for much of the intellectual flowering, magnificent monuments and cultural production during the early modern period were also capable of the worst examples of intolerance. This is something that is worth paying more attention to and it just underscores the uselessness of “Golden Age” (or “Dark Age”) paradigms that reduce the complexity of civilization to a singular mode of conduct without taking into account that very often “tolerance” and “intolerance” were by-products of the same civilization. The problem with the “Muslim Golden Age” paradigm, moreover, is that it does not acknowledge the complexity of Muslim societies and history and tends to gloss over inconvenient realities (read: facts) in its attempt to portray a rosy picture of the Islamic past. This is no different than how many anti-Islamic propagandists seek to demonize Muslims today by pointing to the less-than-rosy anecdotes drawn from the Muslim past. In any case, to reduce a civilization–any civilization–to a mere category of “tolerant” or “intolerant,” is therefore to exhibit major ignorance of the reality of human societies. It is best relegated to the realm of polemic or apologetic.


Beyond ‘Tolerance’ and ‘Intolerance’: Deconstructing the Myth of the Islamic Golden Age

"I wanted to understand and carefully document what serial war had done to Afghans. I felt the discipline of anthropology was the most suitable for this task. I was born and raised in the U.S. and my family hails from Pakistan. These two countries have systematically created the conditions that constitute, and destroyed, contemporary Afghanistan. I thought that I should systematically study war and the work of war. The first time I went to Afghanistan to conduct anthropological research was in 2003. I went back in 2006 and stayed (off and on) until 2011, which required me to change my entire life, really. […] You bomb a country, make many widows and then you take care of them — this is what renowned anthropologist Talal Asad describes as the cruelty and compassion of the liberal state."

‘Humanitarianism is as culpable as war’ - Anila Daulatzai

I came to realise to what extent neo-liberal agendas are part of the aid industry, and thus also of the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Neo-liberal agendas are fundamentally changing what it means to be a widow. Afghans would suddenly say things to widows like, “why don’t they go and work?” I had never seen this before in Afghanistan. It is because programmes for gender-mainstreaming were focussed on jobs. The only concept of helping widows was making them work. Of course there were widows who wanted to work, saying it kept them busy, etc. But if this is the only form of care you are going to get, it fundamentally alters so much, and it’s ultimately a neo-liberal, neoconservative agenda — while social institutions like Islamic charity are being rendered irrelevant and/or suspect. In America, it’s greatly problematic and everywhere else too, but here is a country that has been subjected to serial war. There are ultimately very few programmes that reflect any understanding of how to implement projects to people who have been subjected to serial war, and that coincide with sensibilities of people who consider themselves to be Muslims.

(via mehreenkasana)


from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

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Close - Telepopmusik


Resistance to pairing criticality with friendship rests on two, inter-connected assumptions: a) that criticality is a relation of negativity and division, a mode of being which sours relations with negative affect and distanciation, and hence is antithetical to the affirmative relationality of the convivial; b) that ‘true’ friendship is meant to carve out spaces of refuge from the tyranny of competitive, judgmental life in the polis, materializing an anti-utilitarian idyll where absolute tolerance of difference is paramount and solidarity is freely given.

The perspective from which these assumptions emerge has been with us for a long time. For Epicurus, “friendship is valuable because it is one of the greatest means of attaining pleasure.” Trust, security and reciprocity are the building blocks of friendship, and ataraxia (tranquility) is the goal. So why overthink things and make drama? Friends don’t let friends be drama queens.

The strength of the Epicurean approach to friendship lies in the wedge it places between why we hang and what we get out of it:

“There are certain preconditions that require satisfaction before one can pursue friendship. The most important of these pre-conditions is the very self-sufficiency that we seem to view as in tension with the desire for friendship […] For Epicurus, the person who is able to go into the world and pursue friendship the way it is supposed to be pursued is the same kind of person who is not dependent on those friendships, who can most enjoy them for their own sakes, rather than with a view merely to their own self-interest.”

There’s something ennobling about seeing friendship as a space of pure, mutual satisfaction; more than this, Epicurus presents friendship as a space in which one becomes virtuous by becoming self-sufficient. Friendship
“begins, as Epicurus argues, from some hope or expectation of mutual benefit; yet, with time, continued contact, and deeper understanding, it grows to a genuine affection, void of any expectation other than the sheer pleasure of having another human as one’s friend.”
From this perspective, friendship is always-already political, without being critical. Friendship is the embodiment of resistance, non-representationally. Then why push? Why prod? Just sink into the warm greyness of love. The outside world can wait.


critical friendship studies by Jad Baaklini

critical friendship studies part ii

Tags: literature