Perversion of cultural space

Published February 17, 2022
The writer is the author of the Dark Side of News Fixing: The Culture and Political Economy of Global Media in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The writer is the author of the Dark Side of News Fixing: The Culture and Political Economy of Global Media in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A SYMBIOTIC relationship exists between what we actually see around us and the way life is culturally reproduced. This interdependence — of life and its representation — not only shapes and inspires our imagination, but also tells us about the political character of the space we inhabit.

A brief search on YouTube reveals how Pashto music, especially lyrics, has been influenced by persistent militarisation in the Af-Pak region. For instance, singer Sitara Younis croons, “Magarza pamapsy dhoka yema dhoka/ khudkasha dhamaka yema” (“Don’t chase me, I am an illusion, a suicide bomber”). An audience comprising people of all ages is shown in the video performing with the stage artist apparently in some Gulf country.

Released in 2012, this song was the first one to commercially profit from trivialising violence. It was a time when US drone strikes and Taliban bombing rocked the border region. Given its popularity, similar commercial songs hit the market. “Za kaom pa stargu stargu drone hamla” (“My gaze is as lethal as a drone strike”) are the lines of one song; another goes, “Za py weshtal kawama, stargay may braghy tamachy de” (“I shoot with my eyes, like twin pistols”). These trendsetting cultural artifacts, while laying the foundation of a genre, have glorified terrorism beyond its actual geographical context.

Systemic violence could not be limited to a commercial genre of popular cultural expression. Many Pashto tappy also appeared in the same period. Arguably the oldest genre in Pashto literature, a tappa (plural: tappy) is a couplet with nine syllables in the first line and 13 in the second. Though attributed to women, it is anonymous and has been used as a popular vehicle of resistance. For example, “Ka tor orbal may meratege/ pa watan jang dy janan na mny kawoma” (“Even if I risk becoming a widow, I will not stop my lover from defending the homeland”). But although tappy remain a motivating source of unity against foreign invaders, the Af-Pak region’s splintered militarisation has transformed the subject of these poems.

Cultural terrorism symbolises and extends a space which thrives on real violence.

Many contemporary tappy emerging after 9/11 have thrived on systemic violence. For instance, “Zmka Asmn rabandy tang show/ Kata khudkash dy bara drone hamly kawena” (“The earth and sky have shrunk upon me, the suicide bomber is raging on the ground, the drones humming above”). Another goes, “Pregda chay drone may sal tukray ke/ pa askare janan za dera nazedama” (“Let the drone shatter me into a hundred pieces/ I was too proud of my beloved warrior”). The most popular of all, circulated in many versions, especially in war-hit Swat where the militant cleric Mullah Fazlullah had challenged the state resulting in his death in a US drone strike in Afghanistan, goes “Za laka da drone janana sta pa latoon garzma/ ta shway Fazlullah janana hes pata dy na lage” (“I, like America, am chasing you with drones/ My beloved, you like, Fazlullah, are out of my sight”. As the neo-imperial war has become an everyday reality, this depiction not only trivialises violence, but also uses the technology of power targeting the oppressed.

There are tappy in which a beloved, who has betrayed the lover, is deemed worthy of death by drone: “Che matlab darna pora kre bia dy pragde/ dasy khalqo bandy drone hamly pakar de” (“They desert you once they get their interests; such a beloved deserves to be struck by a drone”). Some of these artifacts, in contrast to conventional similes and metaphors of love, compare the beloved’s eyes, smile and lips to drones, bombs and fire. Appearing in movies, literature and even truck art, this imagery has taken the form of an urban sub-culture, representing an indistinct cultural zone — the overarching influence of the hinterland, where death and destruction go underreported, of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Interestingly, despite the state’s role in perpetrating violence on its own people, these artifacts highlight the presence of the formal sovereign (ie state) through its absence — representing the impotency of the ruling elite to defend a vulnerable population. It could also be the outcome of a cultural system of self-censorship that would not even spare the anonymous text of tappy. Either way, the sovereign has become irrelevant, just as the regional semi-tribal structure has become ineffective. Because both the state and tribal structure have failed to deliver, death operates at multiple levels and in multiple ways determining the intensity of fear and violence. This shows the shrinking space for the effective articulation of resistance that otherwise is the essence of tappy.

The emergence of such claustrophobic space is deliberate. The ruling elites, using material and discursive measures, are filling every bit of this deathly space through criminalising speech and securitising local actions. From the destruction of their homes to the annihilation of their communal spaces, Pakhtuns, as a population, symbolise this existential crisis in all their relationships — the erosion of traditional patterns of trust and honour. Differentiating between love for a man and love for a Talib is getting difficult. Also, identifying a person as an enemy or friend and a site or communal space as home or a target is no more possible. Voicing this agony through contemporary tappy, the Pakhtuns seem to surrender their agency, pleading for mercy through the voice of the dead.

This loss is articulated at two levels: the ‘domestication’ of masculinity and the blurring of the difference between norms and exceptions. As the lover’s inability to fight against drone technology has displaced the conventional image of the heroic tribesman, the past cannot be realised while living under the reign of drones. Calling herself a ‘suicide bomber’, therefore, the beloved reveals not only a negation of both self and love but also the subversion of the romantic equation as it is traditionally perceived. In this situation, the destruction of the body and social space is the ultimate end. This destructive transformation is what I call ‘cultural terrorism’, a negative imagery symbolising and extending a space which thrives on real violence. Rooted in the local displacement, this imposed cultural violence is the outcome of the securitisation of pre-existing traditional forms of a system of life.

The writer is the author of The Dark Side of News Fixing: The Culture and Political Economy of Global Media in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The article is based on a research study in progress.

syedirfanashraf@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2022

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