Orientalizing Afghanistan

Ever since reading the late Edward Said’s oeuvre Orientalism (essential reading for every student of social sciences and areas studies), it is as if I have found a language to express my frustrations about the nonesense that not infrequently comes out of academia and the media about Afghanistan and the Muslim world at large.

The crucial thing about orientalism is not so much that it misunderstands or misrepresents ‘the other,’ but rather that such representations serve an agenda that bases itself on the “nexus of knowledge and power.” In other words, using certain imagery and words to represent the other is not purely scientific and innocuous, but rather a highly political enterprise, and one that is not inconsequential for both the observer and the one represented. More importantly, in the long term the represented comes to see himself in terms that are used to represent him, he finds his history and identity in the orientalist discourse.

Nearly everything about discussions of Afghanitan reeks of such orientalist stench. Frequently we see the media as well as serious scholars essentialize Afghanis as this or that – and as I have pointed out in an earlier post, not infrequently Afghans fall for this and try to seek out their own true essence in a purported “Afghaniyat” attributed to them. Such discussions are always essentialist, fatalist, and contribute to the misunderstanding of Afghanistan’s problems by both Afghanistan’s people as well as outsiders. There would be a hope for all of this to stop, were it not for the fact that they are also most of the time easy to comprehend than reality (which is far more complex), and they are somehow exotic and attractive – in one word, sexy- to the outside observer. It satisfies some urge for the exotic in the outside observer to see Afghanistan as brave, or fearless, or violent, or devoutly religious, “friecely indepdendent and individualist,” or this or that.

So you can imagine how my Afghaniyat(!) boils over in anger when I read something like this: Afghanistan’s National Pastime, a reporter for time magazine describing how watching a game of Buzkashi helped him make sense of Afghan politics.

2 Responses to Orientalizing Afghanistan

  1. warlordish says:

    Mimic-orientalism on offer: I think Afghan politics is more like Boda-na-baazi, Murgh-Jangi and—well—even Sag-Jangi; if we are after metaphors. And all local politics is just like that—to generalize a bit, in the tradition of the orientalists. I can explain should anyone be interested.

    From the Time piece: —Perhaps this new initiative will turn his (Karzai’s) reputation around. Instead of being laughed at as the “mayor of Kabul,” as his detractors often call him, he could be known as a great Buzkashi sponsor. And in Afghanistan, that’s a leader worth following.—

    Now this part of the Time article is just, to be very polite, stupid. The part of the country that Karzai is finding the hardest to reign over is actually oblivious to anything serious about Buzkashi. The people in south and south-east Afghanistan—where the two attempts we know of on Karzai’s life occurred, the Kandahar incident and the rocket fired at his plane while on campaign—it can be claimed, know and care less about Buzkashi than an exotic orientalist would do.

    If the bottle throwing scene in our Wolisi Jirga is evident enough to suggest that Afghan politics is Buzkashi, then perhaps the chair and chapel throwing in Indian Lok Sabha is a sign of Buzkashi at the pro-level. And one may call Russian politics ultimate-Buzkashi, they head butt, tackle and punch inside the Duma. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1390372.stm

    Buzkashi can make one a ‘leader worth following’!!! If it does, then tell me what is going on with our Marshall Fahim. That sardarbashi has accumulated some fine horses, and perhaps all he now strategies about is Buzkashi. I don’t know of anyone who started following him for this—or even since this.

    With the entire above aside, I do think there is potential in promoting Buzkashi—compounded by Attan and other sectarian rituals such as Ghorsai and, Hamesha, you add to the list your choices. It can lead to a level of cultural uniformity, and create sort of a fabric at cultural level to hold us together—but shall not come at the prize of compromising local distinctions…Needless to say that it is naked ‘orientalism’ when any of the above gets called ‘Afghanistan’s favorite pastime.’ Did Borat go further when he called ball-grabbing Kazakistan favorite past-time, I don’t think so.

  2. But one must allow for something here… There is a lot that one can learn from American football that bears much on the American psyche. Well developed and specialized athletes (if you can call a 400 pound man “athletic”, though I wouldn’t argue that face to face with any of the nose tackles or line backers, if anyone else wants to, please let me know, I do like to see a can of ass-whoppin’ opened), all decisions based on extensive scientific and statistical analysis, and so on and so forth.

    I do agree that most of what is written on Afghanistan is mostly useless (on account of it being repetitive) and romanticized (but who wrote most of that stuff? A college graduate who wanted to “see” the world). Makes for excellent resume stuffing to have a book or an article or two associated with your name — from a war zone to boot. Just as for the past few decades (on and off) Afghans have been the idle curiosity everywhere and all they have to do is just play the part: now the fierce freedom fighter that the West wants and now the wannabe enlightened jeffersonian democrat. As the saying goes your “fingers will be in grease.”

    So to take, Saed to extremes leads to the crisis of not having any ground to stand on and having virtually nothing to say. It is at times possible to have a moment of enlightenment through one prism or another as long as you put the time and effort into it, and so long as one is keenly aware of one’s frame of reference. To deny such possibility will be to assert another rigid framework.

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