Teaching Anticolonial Archives

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I just finished the last class of my course, The Anticolonial Archive: The Sociology of Empire and its Afterlives. I feel unbelievably lucky to have had the most amazing students, and it feels like we’ve come to the end of a fascinating, difficult, and inspiring journey. I knew the last class would be emotionally hard, because I’m not ready to let go of this space and the conversations we’ve been having.

This was my first time teaching this course, which I designed and is very close to me because of how it intersects with so many questions I’m thinking about and with so many of my passions. I got lucky because I ended up with 30 exceptional and inspiring students, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the process of teaching this has inspired me in so many ways. The photograph at the top is a collection of some of the thinkers we talked about throughout this course, as we explored colonial histories, anticolonial resistance, and decolonial futures. What does it mean to be free? And how can we practice freedom in the way we think, write and create? ‘Freedom is an elsewhere’ as Avery Gordon wrote – that elsewhere is also in our anticolonial pasts that we desperately need to recover.

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This was our last photo, from our last class together, earlier today. Below are some reflections on what we did, and why it matters.

We thought about what it means to think and write through how we feel and through our memories, of how we might think of archives as expansive and slippery.

We thought about the past through haunting, ghosts, memory, feelings, and the universe.

We thought about archives through dust, soil, documents, stories, poems, songs, names, feelings, infrastructures, dreams, ancestors, science, technology, and more.

We asked, what is an anticolonial archive? Where is it? What is it made up of? It’s both nowhere – if we think of archives in a traditional sense – and everywhere, if we think of anticolonialism as memories that are always with us.

We thought about ourselves as anticolonial archives. Our bodies, feelings, life histories, and names.

In their essays, students reflected on an anticolonial object through which they could tell stories of violent histories and hopeful futures, and how this can be done through intimate forms of theorizing. I was blown away by these, and cannot wait to read the next set of essays they curate.

I’m grateful for how much of themselves and their knowledge and experience that everyone shared. It’s not easy to do that in a classroom, or a place like LSE. But once it started, we were all on a roll. Teaching can open things up, and open us up. We can bring together parts of ourselves that we might not have even know were disconnected from one another. We can connect with each other on multiple levels, and really think through what collective learning means. We can break down binaries of intellect/emotion, us/them, past/present/future, North/South, and so many more.

The best moments of the classes ended up the last ones, because they surprised me with the most beautiful gift: an archive of sorts of the course itself, including memories, thank yous, photos, music, recipes, and so much more.

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Classroom spaces like this are created collectively, not only through reading lists and lecture topics, but through how we think about the world and in trying to practice care towards each other, towards the thinkers we read, and towards the historical events we speak about.

Academia is difficult. It’s more difficult if you’re a woman, of colour, who is invested in things like postcolonial theory and Marxism. But it’s also beautiful and a gift, because of teaching. I’m so grateful for these past 11 weeks, and feel richer and more inspired than when we began this journey. The best teaching experiences are those that leave everyone changed. I can’t speak for everyone else in the class, but I have definitely changed.

The last three weeks of this class took place over Zoom. I very much missed our Thursday 12-2.30 in room 2.05 of Clement House. But I also appreciate the space we created online, and how we managed to continue the conversations we were having while also taking stock of the crisis we are all engulfed in.

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This is a thank you to this class, and to the writers of this amazing books – books that are, too, part of an anticolonial archive.

Thank you Leanne, Majeed, Babette, Bali, Usman, Hobeth, Kanon, Amina, Husseina, Joel, Caitlin, Barbara, Talia, Saqib, Abigail, Andrea, Maria, Frankie, Anmol, Laura, Aisha, Alma, Fatma, Mara, Vasundhara, Rebecca, Michal, Haseeb, Norah, Jun, Talia, Coco and Peyman.

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Grief, reading, and the liminality of intimate work

I was doing some research for a new project, and picked up Judith Butler’s book Precarious Life. I had to read it today, because I had to return it to the library by tomorrow – the deadline was fixed. Reading it was the strangest journey, as it became interlaced with deeply personal memories, tweets about US empire, and the news that Hosni Mubarak had passed away. Serendipitous, maybe, that this was what I was reading when I heard the news about Mubarak’s passing, or when I read a tweet from Pete Buttigieg about undeserving lives in Afghanistan. Also unexpectedly painful, in that reading what is an academic text, while seated in my office and firmly in my “work zone,” I ended up coming across passages that took me somewhere else entirely. I want to reflect here on how the readings we do for academic writing seep into other parts of our lives, tearing up any supposed separation between research and life, intimacy and formality.

I began reading the book and taking notes, every now and then checking Twitter. Suddenly, a tweet by US presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg appeared on my timeline about the value of US lives versus the un-value of lives in Afghanistan. Butler was an apt reading companion at that moment – whose lives are grievable, she asks, and how does grief tell us who has a life?

I went back to reading. Suddenly I was dragged deep down into a rabbit hole of memories – this time not because of a break, or coming across something else, but because of the text itself. Grief – how do we experience it? Why do we experience it? It took me a long time to grapple with this. The memories were painful. I wallowed, and then I felt grateful to have finally found words that made sense of what I experienced years ago. “Okay, time to get back to work,” I told myself.

I went back to reading.  Another Twitter break. A DM from a friend – Hosni Mubarak had died.

This was the end of my reading journey for the day. This last piece of news was too much. In what follows, I loosely trace responses, reactions, and emotions in relation to a single text and the time in which I had set aside to read it for research purposes. What comes up when we read, and what does it mean to be open to all of it? How does intimacy seep into and structure time we think is “work time”? And how does what we read for change the way we read and the notes we might take?

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It began as it does on many days – through a decision to log on to Twitter that I quickly regretted.

No weapon remotely resembling what I trained on to serve in Afghanistan has any business being sold for profit near a school, a church, or anywhere in this country.

This tweet from US presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, reaffirming his commitment to US empire and militarism. It struck me, on this particular day, because of what I had just been reading. In her essay on mourning, Judith Butler thinks through what grief is, and what makes a life worth grieving.

Butler writes, “There are no obituaries for the war casualties that the United States inflicts, and there cannot be. If there were to be an obituary, there would have had to have been a life, a life worth noting, a life worth valuing and preserving.”

Who is deserving of life in this worldview, one endorsed by so many US politicians, and too many Americans? The lives lost in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries drawn into an endless US War on Terror do not count, are not seen as lives by those in the metropole.

The US military is made up of grievable lives, even as many of those lives are not grievable outside of those uniforms and inside the borders of the US.

We know he is especially militaristic. But as Butler shows, we also know that the US is founded on countless horrors, and is a deeply militaristic society whose wars, invasions and forms of violence are built on deeply felt notions of whose lives matter – both within and without. Curious to read more, I returned to the text.

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Another Twitter break (I really should stop).

A friend shared a news story, the headline of which read ”Mubarak is dead.” What did I feel in that moment? Grief, shock, an overwhelming sense of some kind of temporal rupture. Grief for whom, or for what? Was this another phase of grieving for a revolution that seems to have become nothing but a series of memories? Grief for a moment during which news of his death might have seemed more expected? Grief for countless Egyptians who lost their lives, and a reminder of who was able to pass naturally?

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The strangest part of all of this was my experience of slipping in and out of the reading. This happened while I was reading the essay Violence, Mourning, Politics. Butler writes:

Freud reminded us that when we lose someone, we do not always know what it is in that person that has been lost. So when one loses, one is also faced with something enigmatic: something is hiding in the loss, something is lost within the recesses of loss. If mourning involves knowing what one has lost (and melancholia originally meant, to a certain extent, not knowing), then mourning would be maintained by its enigmatic dimension, by the experience of not knowing incited by losing what we cannot fully fathom).

On one level, I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well. At another level, perhaps what I have lost “in” you, that for which I have no ready vocabulary, is a relationship that is composed neither exclusively of myself nor you, but is to be conceived as the tie by which those terms are differentiated and related.

What happens when we lose someone? Why does it feel as though we have lost a part of ourselves? I have been haunted by feminist writings that say women should be careful not to lose themselves in intimate relationships, in motherhood, in friendship, in professional spaces. And so when I lost myself, a specific instance that was very painful about two years ago, I was lost. I felt as though I hadn’t been strong enough. Reading this text by Butler was emotional because it made me feel reassured, in hindsight. Reassured that the way I had felt then was okay, it was how many people felt when they encountered loss.

One does not always stay intact. One may want to, or manage to for a while, but despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.

Reading this brought back a flood of memories. I was transfixed and felt like something was falling into place, even if I wasn’t sure what it was. The memories were still painful. It still felt unfinished, somehow. But it also felt good to read this, to feel as though what I experienced was somehow a “normal” afterlife of grief.

Perhaps one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which one cannot know in advance. There is losing, as we know, but there is also the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned.

As I continued reading, I found it difficult to focus on what I was reading for. Before coming across this passage, I had been taking notes that were relevant to my research project. After this passage, I was suddenly taking notes that were relevant to the memories I was suddenly filled with. I was focused, but it felt like I had lost focus. What did I need from this text? I felt as though my notes didn’t make sense anymore, that I was not taking done information I would need for my research, and that this had turned into some kind of diary.

I wonder how often this happens? Was I conscious of it now because of how painful the memories were? How often do we read academic texts and dip in and out of intimate experiences? How can this not be the case when what we research is tied to our intimate lives and histories?

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Mubarak is dead. He passed away peacefully. Whose lives are grievable? It feels like a rupture, the end of something. But what?

My friend, Lisa Tilley, said: “A peaceful death without justice is the last injustice.” Yes. Yes.

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These are the things that I come across while I read Precarious Life. US empire, memories of the Egyptian revolution, and memories of an intimate loss. They are connected and disconnected. They are all connected to grief, to loss, to mourning and to violence. They destabilised me and made me read differently, to look for different things in the text, to respond to the feelings I was encountering. Reading and intimacy, reading and grief – how often do these come together in the work that we do, and how often do we push aside feelings that might open up texts in the most unexpected of ways?

What would it mean to read vulnerably? To worry less about taking the “right notes” or getting what we need from the text?

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I took a moment to think about and feel all of these conflicting memories. I had a coffee appointment, a lunch appointment, and then came back to my desk and found the book at the page I had left it when I couldn’t process anything anymore.

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All of these markings are layers of use by other people I don’t know. Library books are amazing in that sense – markings guide you but also point to ideas other people found important; the yellowed pages suggest a book used and loved.

I go back to my reading and note-taking, more focused, back on track in trying to find material for my research. I still feel unsettled, emotionally. I push that aside, as we often do, and say I will come to that later.

I hope one day I can be brave enough to sit with it and not feel the need to “get back on track.”

My favourite books of 2019

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It felt like there were so many amazing books to choose from this year – from Bernardine Evaristo’s magisterial Girl, Woman, Other to Yvonne Adhiambo Owour’s The Dragonfly Sea, there were endless novels to dive into. It was also such a great year for non-fiction, and I felt inspired reading work from different disciplines, places, perspectives, and times.

I usually collect my favourite reads of the year in a blog post, without describing them or saying anything about them – I ended up starting an Instragram account (radical_reading) where I post reviews and thoughts. Here is my list for this year!

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Fiction:

  1. Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo
  2. The Dragonfly Sea – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor9780451494047
  3. Theory – Dionne Brand
  4. America is not the Heart – Elaine Castillo
  5. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love – Oscar Hijuelos
  6. Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli91KUV5NzK2L.jpg
  7. Miracle Creek – Angie Kim
  8. The Book of Collateral Damage – Sinan Antoon
  9. The Neighbourhood – Maria Vargas Llosa
  10. The Labyrinth of the Spirits – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Auto-biographical:

  1. The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays – Esmé Weijun Wang
  2. How to Mend: Motherhood and its Ghosts – Iman Mersal3100075.jpg

Non-fiction:

  1. For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers – Hiba Bou Akarpid_25764
  2. May ’68 and its Afterlives – Kristin Ross
  3. Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora – Neha Vora
  4. Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman – Abdel Razzaq Takriti
  5. For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq – Ayça Çubukçu
  6. Coral Empire: Underwater Oceans, Colonial Tropics, Visual Modernity – Ann Elias9781478003823
  7. Animate Literacies – Nathan Snaza
  8. Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality – Jennifer Nash
  9. Anti-Japan: The Politics of Sentiment in Postcolonial East Asia – Leo T S Ching9781478002895
  10. Dreams that Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination – Amira Mittermaier
  11. The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies – Tiffany Lethabo King
  12. Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia – Samia Khatun9781849049696

Enjoy! And please leave a comment with your favourite reads!

Happy New Year!

Writing about decolonisation

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What does it mean to write about a historical moment, a historical event, that was as complex and emotional as decolonisation? This was a moment that changed the world and created contemporary politics as we know it. But just as importantly, it was a moment very much created through the hopes, dreams and aspirations of millions of people across the world – people who, for the longest time, had been struggling with the weight of European empire. The other side of hope is, of course, defeat, and disappointment, failure and defeat are equally part of the story of decolonisation. Given the complexities of the moment, and the emotional investments of so many people, what does it mean to write about and produce knowledge about it?

This question has preoccupied me since I began writing a book on decolonisation and anticolonialism in Egypt. Finishing it and sending off the manuscript left me feeling uneasy, and I began to explore that feeling and why it had suddenly become so overwhelming. In trying to stay away from two extreme positions – romanticising Nasserism and broader anticolonial projects on the one hand, or announcing them as failures that had never aimed to do anything but amass power into a few hands on the other – I found myself charting an uneasy path away from these two positions. To me, anticolonial state-led projects were both liberation movements and anti-democratic. This contradiction does not need to be, and ultimately cannot be, resolved by us now by reflecting back on that moment. Instead, I am more interested in sitting with this contradiction, unpacking it, thinking with it, and ultimately, letting it be.

D8dhR8wW4AEr3xg-1The moment was a complex one. It is difficult to overstate the pressures facing new nations such as Egypt. The response from the UK, France and Israel to the nationalization of the Suez Canal is just one example of how intent colonial powers were on maintaining an empire by other means. And so I have always been uncomfortable with narratives about Nasserism that write of the entire project as disingenuous, mistaken, and the worst thing to ever happen to Egypt. Nasserism as a project, after all, very much built on and then co-opted broader anticolonial energies in Egypt, from students and workers to feminists and communists. The anticolonial moment, then, was never just about Nasser as a figure, although he certainly became intensely symbolic. And while there is little doubt that Nasser’s project was an anti-democratic one, to write it off also means dismissing important changes that took place in the 50s and 60s, not least nationalisations, material and ideological solidarity with Africa and the rest of the postcolonial world, a shift away from European capital and influence, and the opening up of social services to millions of Egyptians.

To me, a more important critique of Nasserism – one that could be made of many anticolonial state-led projects – is instead centered on capitalism on the one hand, and what Julietta Singh calls “mastery” on the other. Although a discourse of Arab socialism was central to Nasserism, the continuation of state-led capitalist development at a moment during which there was such a large global outpouring of hope for a different economic way of being was a clear betrayal of the anticolonial spirit. Alongside this, the move by many postcolonial nations to govern through “mastery” – over nature, over population, over the self, and so on – represents a clear continuity with colonial modes of governing, rather than an embrace of an anticolonial politics. To me, these are the damaging and violent legacies of the anticolonial moment – or what I call the anticolonial afterlives – that we have to live with today.

All of the above points to why I believed it was important to write about Egypt’s anticolonial project through its contradictions, and to situate it within global politics at a time when there seemed to be some kind of opening, the possibility, at last, that things could change.

But once I began to dig deeper, it seemed to me there was something else that was part of the unease, something to do with language, representation, and academic writing. It felt as though there was always some form of injustice being done in trying to represent such a complex and highly emotional moment. I wonder, still, if academic writing is the best way of capturing politics that are so tightly interwoven with hope, despair, disappointment, and fear? I found myself cringing at parts of the text where I said things like “this shows that…” or “they failed to…”

8577334On the one hand, I think it matters that we make claims to knowledge based on anticolonial and decolonial perspectives, given how marginal these are, especially in Area Studies. And so I don’t think that the answer is to remove such claims. But I do also see how they work to concretize something that was not concrete; to solidify and fix into place things that were fluid and expansive. This hit me when I re-read Arwa Salih’s memoir recently, where she so evocatively paints a picture of the Left under Nasser and then Sadat. A memoir perhaps opens up more space to delve into what it means to live with the afterlives of such momentous political times. The book is a reckoning, a call to think about the political projects we support without thinking through what that may mean for the future. Here I remember again Singh’s reminder that projects built around mastering something – anything – are projects that have not extracted all colonial residue from within themselves.

There are also so many things I simply don’t know about anticolonialism in Egypt, so many questions I still have. It haunts me in the way it haunts Egypt – it is a moment we know matters very deeply, but we can’t always express how, or why. How do we speak to the ghosts, and what might they want?

I have already noted a shift in how I write. I say ‘explore’ or ‘think through’ instead of ‘argue’ or ‘demonstrate.’ Instead of ‘using’ scholars or theories I think alongside them. And instead of trying to tone down the centrality of emotions to politics, I centre them. 2011 was another reminder that it is not just that the way we feel is political, but that feelings create politics. The two are always intertwined. I am also less interested in making things legible to audience X, whether that is sociologists, American sociology, policy-makers, a wider British audience, etc (all things I’ve been asked to do recently). Making things legible is an injustice because that mode of translation is never politically innocent. Anticolonial work already has an audience, and to me, that is the only audience that really matters.

These disparate reflections are the product of an on-going attempt by me to sift through feelings I’ve been feeling for a few years now. I have had so many conversations with friends about my anxieties about mis-representing this period of Egyptian history, or being read in certain ways. Ultimately, though, it helps me to think about this work as a process of reflection and thinking-through rather than resolving old questions or representing a particular moment. Anticolonialism as a moment in Egypt can never really be represented, and certainly not in an academic book written in English. It affected so many people, and had so many contradictory effects, that it would be too much to cover in any piece – or even body – of work. Instead, it seems to me that what could be important is to draw connections, between then (1952) and now (2011), between theorists who aren’t always read together (in this case, Fanon and Gramsci), and between hopes, dreams, and disappointments that colour different moments in ways that sometimes collapse the time between them.

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Avery Gordon writes, “To be haunted is to be tied to historical and social effects.” To write stories of exclusions and invisibilities is to write ghost stories. Ghosts represent loss, paths not taken, alternative roads never traveled down. In a sense, this means that they can also—at the same time—represent hope, and future possibilities. As Samah Selim writes:

Legacies are ambivalent things. The hundreds of thousands of young men and women who took the streets in 2011 were also haunted by the ghosts of the past; their language, their songs and symbols, their remembering of bygone battles all drew on a history rich with the struggle for freedom.

Nasserism haunts us precisely because we are tied to its historical and social effects – both the productive and destructive ones. Ghosts are there because they represent unresolved tensions. They point to holes in the social fabric, suggest moments in our neat nationalist histories that are not as pristine as we like to think. 2011 may have been an attempt to confront the ghosts of past revolutions, but it, in turn, has created its own ghosts. Revisiting decolonisation, then, is less about resolving debates or old questions, and more about meeting these ghosts, and thinking about what they could represent.

Traveling tiles, traveling empires

I recently traveled to Ecuador and Peru, two countries I found extremely beautiful and inspirational in lots of different ways. While I was in Lima, I visited an old Franciscan monastery, and come across these tiles throughout:

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Our tour guide briefly mentioned that these tiles were brought by the Spanish from Andalucía when they conquered Peru in 1532. He also noted the many Arab influences throughout the monastery, explaining them again with reference to Andalucía.

Thinking of these tiles as traveling tiles, it struck me how often histories of empire are separated from one another rather than connected, especially in disciplines outside of history. The Spanish arrived in the Americas in 1492; in Peru in 1532; and began expelling the Muslims and the Jews from Andalucía in 1609. All of these events, coming under the rubric of the Spanish Empire, tell us a lot about the beginnings of European empire and the start of a global and universalist racial project.

Something as seemingly innocent as a tile from Sevilla appearing in Lima represents more than just artistic influence traveling from one part of the empire to another. It represents an Andalucía in which Arab influence was widespread across cities, towns, and lives. This history is often erased in modern-day Spain, where even tours of the Alhambra can forget to mention who built it and what that says about Spanish history.

Similarly, I was struck by placards in various Peruvian museums that represent the Spanish conquest almost neutrally and objectively, as though it was something that was inevitable. In this particular monastery where the traveling tiles can be found, we were told that indigenous people “loved” and “cherished” the Spanish. This is a very different story from the ones indigenous Peruvians tell about the history of the conquest, and about how the Spanish set out to destroy everything and everyone. In this history, a place like the ruins next to the Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) can only be understood in relation to the excruciating amounts of violence the Spanish subjected indigenous peoples to, leading one million people to flee to this mountain-top and cover the trail behind them.

We heard stories about the Quechua people that did not fit neatly into Europeanised binaries. They did not have “religions” or “genders” in the way we understand these categories today. They understood nature in ways we can never hope to achieve, and don’t even want to achieve – as can be seen from our climate crisis. Their use of gold, silver and other metals had nothing to do with material gain or calculation and everything to do with what these metals represented in terms of belief. It’s during moments like these that we begin to glimpse what has been lost, how entire life-worlds and ways of being were almost entirely eliminated.

Just seventy years later, a decree was passed expelling Muslims and Jews from Spain itself. The ways in which the Spanish Empire understood value, race, civilization and progress played out in these different contexts, in parallel time, with radically different outcomes. As someone who studies postcolonial theory, I have begun to wonder why the Spanish Empire is so often left out; why we begin with the Dutch or British empires. As decolonial and indigenous scholars have long pointed out, 1492 was the start of it all.

Traveling then, even when all that has traveled are some colourful tiles, is never ahistorical, and never innocent in the context of an expanding empire. It has a lot to tell us about erasure, extermination, race, greed, and power. We could tell a nice story about these tiles that would us feel good about how art travels and spreads and crosses boundaries; or, we could ask how art comes to be made, by whom, what happened to those artists, and what happened to those who the art was brought to.

Favourite books of 2018

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As usual, I’m in denial that another year is coming to an end. I always look forward to writing this particular post though, because I get to go to my Goodreads account and pick out my favourite books of the year. This year was also the year in which I started an instragram account dedicated to reading (radical_reading). I’ve had such a nice time getting to know other book lovers, and curating all of my favourite books in one space. Generally, I’ve had an extremely busy and exhausting year on multiple levels, and am ready to spend the next few weeks doing nothing but reading novels. Given my general feeling of tiredness, I assumed I hadn’t had an exciting reading year. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to remember some of the amazing, life-changing books I spent time with this year. Below, I’ve put them in the order in which I read them.

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill –  Gabriela Soto Laveaga

 Unthinking Mastery – Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements – Julietta Singh

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Trumpet – Jackie Kay

The Intimacies of Four Continents – Lisa Lowe

Policing Transnational Protest: Liberal Imperialism and the Surveillance of Anticolonialists in Europe, 1905-1945 – Daniel Brückenhaus

For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India – Anjali Arondekar

A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut  – Toufoul Abou-Hodeib

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

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Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women – Brittney C. Cooper

The Stillborn: Notebooks of a Woman from the Student-Movement Generation in Egypt – Arwa Salih

Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam  – Stefania Pandolfo

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The Year of the Runaways – Sunjeev Shahota

Crossing the Bay of Bengal – Sunil Amrith

Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ‘Arabi, Gender, and Sexuality – Sadiyya Shaikh

Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership  – Brenna Bhandar

Salt Houses – Hala Alyan

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The Diaries of Waguih Ghali – Volumes 1 & 2

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy – Irvin Yalom

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh

The Water Cure – Sophie Mackintosh

Algiers, Third World Capital – Elaine Mokhtefi

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The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing – Merve Emre

Refuge – Dina Nayeri

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype – Clarissa Pinkola Estés

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby – Cherise Wolas

The Burning Chambers – Kate Mosse

The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make – J Lorand Matory

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Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race – Neda Maghbouleh

Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism – Iyko Day

Prozak Diaries: Psychiatry and Generational Memory in Iran – Orkideh Behrouzan

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I’m so glad to have ended the year with Prozac Diaries; I couldn’t have asked for a better book to leave 2018 with. Please do leave your favourite books/any book recs in the comments – excited to see what 2019 brings! Happy New Year everyone!

Slowing down

I wrote this post in June, and just found it in my drafts. Thought it would be nice to share these feelings!

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I finished my PhD at the end of 2016, and started a research and teaching fellowship right away, one that is now coming to an end. I’m starting a new lectureship, which has meant moving to a new city and getting to know a new institution. The past six years, then, have been a whirlwind of reading, researching, writing, presenting, teaching, supervising, mentoring, discussing and defending. This whirlwind steadily intensified, and it’s not an exaggeration that the past year in particular has been the most intense out of the six. The pressures of publishing, teaching, understanding how higher education in a new country works, and applying to jobs has meant that the past 12 months have gone by just like that. At times it felt like all I did was work – and not always the nice type of work. Marking, going to conferences, filling out job applications and dealing with bureaucracy have dominated much of my life recently.

Emotionally, anxiety, worry, stress, and exhaustion have seemed to increasingly be where my head and heart space are. This particular month, with conference after conference, has brought up all sorts of insecurities around my research and where it is going – and no surprise there; presenting your research more than five times in one month – laying everything bare that often – is nerve-wrecking! On top of that, things in my personal life have been affected too; because of the stress of this past year, I ended up making decisions that had horrible effects on my life more generally.

What has made me reflect on all of this is a book I just finished – Knot of the Soul, by Stefania Pandolfo. The book looks at psychoanalysis, Islamic healing, colonialism and postcolonialism, and how people and societies deal with political violence. What struck me about this book is how much time it took her to research and write it, and how much care and thought she puts into what she writes. The project spans over twenty years, and is largely based on ethnographic work she did in Morocco. This ethnographic work, however, takes place over very long periods, and is done consistently over the twenty year period. Ethnography, in many ways, is such an important research methodology because of how well it captures complex dynamics and changes (when it’s done carefully and critically of course – too many examples of it being done wrong).

But more than the ethnography, there is a thoughtfulness in this book that touched me. You can sense that she took a lot of time and care in writing every single sentence, and that what you have in your hands is a piece of work that was lovingly crafted. All of these reasons make this book such a brilliant and important intervention. Indeed I found it one of the most challenging books I have ever read, and felt that reading it was an intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience.

All of this made me reflect on my own research experience, and the way I write. I often feel that the tempo of modern-day academia makes it very difficult to get settled into long, thoughtful projects. This is especially the case if you have just finished your PhD (which is the closest you get to a long project) and are on fixed-term contracts. I have felt that the pressure to publish, to present, and to engage in ‘impact’ means that I am always writing and publishing pieces that I feel aren’t where they need to be. This goes beyond just individual pieces; it is also about the broader questions I am interested in. I feel that what I want to do is stop researching and writing and presenting, and just take a year or two to think and read. To figure out what I want to say, and how, and why. To let things sink in, and to just sit with what I’ve done so far.

I find myself telling friends that maybe now I’ll have the space to do just that, since I’m not longer on a fixed term contract. More often than not, I’m met with: “No, it never really ends.” The pressures continue, even if they are different. So I guess that leaves it up to us to navigate these pressures and somehow produce thoughtful work that contributes to knowledge and that doesn’t leave us burned out, while at the same time playing the academic game. Easier said than done, of course, and I am very aware of certain privileges I have that make this easier for me than many others. Academia by design is easier for those privileged in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability. But still, I wrote this post in an attempt to remind myself ow good it felt reading Knot of the Soul, and how much I would love to one day write a book like that.

Favourite books of 2017

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This year has been the year of fiction. Mostly because it was an especially intense year in terms of work, and when I find myself overwhelmed with academic reading, writing, and teaching, I find fiction a much-needed way of relaxing. There are two fiction books I am currently making my way through which I hope to finish before the end of the year, but I haven’t added them to the list; one is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and the other is 4321 by Paul Aster (1200 pages!) Pachinko in particular is just stunning, and it’ll be a painful one to say good

I had big dreams to buy the Neapolitan novels in paperback (only have them on Kindle at the moment) and read them over the summer, but I couldn’t find the time. I did manage to re-read Ahdaf Souief’s In the Eye of the Sun at the start of the year, for the fifth or sixth time. I’m so in love with this book; I could read and re-read it endlessly.

Anyhow, here are my favourite books of 2017!

  • Cruel Optimism – Lauren Berlant
  • Monstrous Intimacies – Christina Sharpe
  • Industrial Sexuality – Hanan Hammad
  • In Other Words – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Third World Protest: Between Home and the World – Rahul Rao
  • Femonationalism: In the Name of Women’s Rights – Sara Farris
  • The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Arabic Freud – Omnia el Shakry
  • The Language of the Night – Ursula Le Guin
  • A Prehistory of the Cloud – Tung-Hui Hu

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  • Familiar Stranger – Stuart Hall
  • Human Acts – Han Kang
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
  • The Idea of the Muslim World – Cemil Aydin
  • Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism – Elizabeth Povinelli
  • Names of the Lion – Ibn Khalawayh, David Larsen
  • Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee: Leisure and Lifestyle in the Eighteenth Century – Dana Sajdi
  • This Census Taker – China Mielville
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami

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  • The Return – Hisham Matar
  • Living a Feminist Life – Sara Ahmed
  • The Calcutta Chromosome – Amitav Ghosh
  • La Frantumaglia – Elena Ferrante
  • His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet
  • Swing Time – Zadie Smith
  • Hitler’s American Model – James Whitman
  • Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Last Utopia: Human Rights in History – Samuel Moyn
  • The Mushroom at the End of the World – Anna Tsing

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The Bandung Moment

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Scholars working on decolonisation have all in one way or another touched on the Bandung Conference. Bandung was a pivotal moment in the 20th century that signalled a new way of doing things; a new postcolonial world in which nations of the Global South were staking their claim in the international sphere. Bandung has been widely criticised—and sometimes rightly so—for a variety of reasons, ranging from its lack of concrete goals to some of the uncritical rhetoric that was used around modernisation and development. Like so many other aspects of decolonisation, Bandung seems to have been held up to exceptionally high standards. In many ways, Bandung became symbolic of the process of decolonisation as a whole. Bandung was more than just a conference; it was the ultimate symbol of anti-imperial resistance and its success in dismantling the various European empires. For this reason, Bandung should always be placed within that particular moment. The hopes and dreams of billions of people that things were changing; that they were now able to participate in the global, in politics, in economics. This was an attempt not to fit into politics as it was—politics that was thoroughly colonial—but rather to change politics; to create a new international form of politics.

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Underneath all of this was the hope that this was a new world; a postcolonial international. Bandung and decolonisation were about more than simple self-determination. Sovereignty was at stake, yes, but a new type of sovereignty. Sovereignty did not mean indirect rule; it did not mean controlling resources and people on terms set by the West; and it certainly did not mean being sovereign in an emerging neoliberal world order. The question of a postcolonial international hints at a different understanding of nationhood and sovereignty; one whose ultimate aim was to transform the international; to create a new form of world politics; to create an economic system in which sovereignty meant economic sovereignty above all.

We can see beginnings of this project in different parts of the world. The drive towards industrialisation as a way of delinking from a dependency on Western capital and expertise; the move to create social welfare policies; the massive investment in indigenous culture, arts and education. Focusing specifically on Africa, these trends were clear across the continent. Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kenneth Kaunda, and others were not simply mimicking a Western project of modernisation and development. Nor were they simply power-hungry dictators who wanted to enrich themselves. To simplify the politics of these nations to this extent is to reproduce racist assumptions about the capabilities of Africans to partake in politics and to—ultimately—govern themselves.

That said, we also know how the moment of decolonisation ended. The projects that were started were let incomplete; and many nations ended up worse off decades later. The authoritarianism of many of these leaders has also been highlighted—excessively, I believe—and it is often they who have been blamed for the way things turned out. And yet this is to turn a blind eye to two things: the massive hopes that were placed on this historical moment; and the structural limitations these nations faced by the very international sphere they were trying to change. Because of the symbolic importance of decolonisation and all it stood for; because of the incomprehensibility of events like Bandung just twenty years earlier; and because of the continued attempts at neo-imperialism by European, American and Soviet states; because of all of this, this was a historical moment that was heavy with expectations.

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I think many post-independence leaders were aware of the heavy weight of these expectations, and that they did try to fulfil them; I also think this was—from the start—a doomed project. Because while this was a moment of hope and freedom for many, it was also the beginning of a shift in imperial exploitation. Empires as they had existed for centuries were no longer tenable; instead we see a move towards free market capitalism as a means of imperial domination from afar. This was only to get worse with the start of the neoliberal revolution in the 1970s. Aside from this shift in imperial strategy, there was also the ropes that still bound these nations to older forms of imperialism. Take a country like Egypt, whose economy had—for over 100 years—been structured to serve the needs of Britain; where cotton was the main export to the benefit of few Egyptians; where there was a chronic over-reliance on foreign capital in Egyptian business ventures; where the majority of the population were in debt, servitude, or generally repressed. Given these conditions, and given new forms of imperial domination, what were the odds Nasser was up against? What happens when we contextualise his years in power through this lens? What happens when we take into account the formation of the state of Israel, the continued British, French and US imperial attacks, the refusal to allow Egypt to industrialise on its own terms? How have these become footnotes in the story of Nasser, of Nkrumah, of Lumumba?

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Frantz Fanon once asked: don’t African leaders have the right to govern themselves badly? It is this question that was at the heart of Bandung. It was a space in which postcolonial nations were—for the first time—talking about what they wanted the world to look like. It was a space where imperial powers were unwelcome (much to their anger!) and where racism and imperialism were openly condemned. After centuries of European colonialism, this must have been a truly momentous event. I can’t think of any event like that since then. There have been many conferences; many events. We have the BRICS. We have the East Asia Tigers. We have the UN and their many annual conferences. But these are all clouded by the neoliberal moment we are in. indeed it is these conferences that very much reproduce the rhetoric of modernisation and development. Given what existed before and what came after it, Bandung seems like a breath of fresh air.

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This post was inspired by two books on Bandung that recently came out:

Dutch elections and colonial continuity: The history of race and racism in Dutch nation-building

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Today is the Dutch general election to determine which parties will control Dutch parliament. It is essentially a race between Geert Wilders and the PVV and Mark Rutte and the VVD – one a far-right party and the other a center-right one. This election, and the campaigning around it, should by now prove two things: the first that the political spectrum in the Netherlands has moved to the right to such an extent that the term leftist politics is all but meaningless; and the second is that the emergence of Islam and race as central topics of debate is not something “new” and is not even an emergence in any technical sense; if anything it represents a continuity with older colonial modes of self-identification.

In an Al Jazeera piece on the elections, this quote caught my eye:

“We will get the verdict this evening after an election campaign that has been very divisive and has seen expressions from different party leaders concerning Islam, immigration and the economy” (Dominic Kane).

Those three core issues that have defined the election are in no way separate from one another. Islam, immigration, the economy. These three issues – framed as “problems” each political party wants to “solve” – have a much longer historical presence than is admitted in much of the analysis on the so-called “emergence of Islamophobia” in the Netherlands. What happens when we label something an emergence? What happens when Holland is categorized as having “departed” from its liberal, tolerant, reasonable past? What happens when Holland is commonly understood as “decent” and that this decency is now lost after a shift to the right?

I want to posit instead that this election has not marked the emergence of Islamophobia as a form of racialized politics; this election has merely made transparent the fact that for the past few centuries the Netherlands has operated within this framework of racialized politics. Citizenship rules and regulations, categories of belonging, media, educational and everyday semantics – all of these structures that organize daily life are thoroughly racialized. The famous categories of allochtoon and autochtoon (indigenous and non-indigenous) rely on colonial understandings of who was part of the Dutch empire and who was not. Debates about who has integrated well (Indonesian colonial subjects) and who has failed to integrate (Surinamese, Antilleans, Moroccans) are also based on clear colonial legacies, where the violence Indonesians faced when they came to the Netherlands is erased, and the racism and lack of support Surinamese, Antilleans and Moroccans were met with when they arrived is pushed to the side.

When we begin tracing these historical legacies, it becomes clear that modern nation and state building in the Netherlands was a racial project from the very beginning. When migrants began to arrive from North Africa and Southern Europe, much of the discourse surrounding the white working class was extended to these new migrant groups, specifically the notion that they needed to be civilized into Dutch culture. Another example is the way in which Surinamese men were discursively portrayed as violent and aggressive in the 1980s. Yet in the 1990s this portrayal extended to and became focused on Moroccan men. One should note, however, that such shifts are never complete. In the Netherlands today it is clear that negative assumptions about the white working class prevail, and that Surinamese men are still often portrayed as violent and aggressive. This highlights the enduring nature of these discursive formations. They are resilient precisely because they are linked to class formation and nation building through bourgeois notions of “civilized”. In other words, the identity of the rational, white bourgeois Dutchman is constituted in a dialectical relationship with numerous “Others”—thus making the discursive formation necessary to Dutch identity. This draws our attention to the continuing need in Dutch society to create “Others” in order to both construct the identity of the civilized Dutchman, but also, by extension, legitimize certain social political and economic policies. These policies range from increasingly tough stances on immigration to the increased policing of post-migrant populations and populations of color.

It is crucial to note that the underlying argument in the cases of both internal and external “Others” was a racial one. The white working class was often portrayed as being genetically different from the rest of society. While it is true that in the Netherlands there was a strong discourse that blamed class differences on context rather than genetics, it remains the case that the working class was often seen as inherently inferior. The same logic was used when it came to the external Othered, who were seen as genetically inferior because of both racial and cultural attributes. When Southern European and North African immigrants arrived in the Netherlands in the 1960s, their constructed racial Otherness was understood through cultural differences. Culture became the vessel through which racial difference was understood and class the vessel for understanding the racial difference of the Dutch working classes leading up to the 1960s. In both instances, racial constructions were hidden under the label of either class or cultural difference.

And yet, despite this, there is a tendency in the Netherlands to locate racism in individuals, as isolated incidents. As Melissa Weiner points out: “Ask a White Dutch person about racism in their society and most will quickly respond that, except for maybe a few right-wing politicians and individual racist incidents each year, racism does not exist. Indeed, it cannot. Because, according to many, ‘race’ does not exist in The Netherlands.” At the center of this process of othering is the construction of the Dutch self-image as tolerant and thus of Dutch society as excluding racism, homophobia, sexism, and so on. Dutch society is constructed as tolerant and open, and indeed this has become a universal image of the Netherlands. Attempts to argue that this election shows how the Netherlands has “changed” and lost its tolerance/liberalism/decency are problematic and plainly incorrect precisely because building the nation was a racialized project from the very start. Islamophobia is only the most recent expression of this project, but it is not new, nor a departure.

Here the emergence of the welfare state is key, and its specific ties to colonial and working class history. In an excellent post, Egbert Alejandro Martina shows how the emergence of the Dutch welfare state represented an attempt to make the white working class “fit for (bourgeois) society” which was seen as preferable to improving conditions of the working class by raising the standard of living. This shift occurred through imagining the welfare state as a disciplinary force that would deflect attention away from structural inequalities (in this case economic inequality between classes) and instead shift the focus onto disciplining the working class and making it socially acceptable. Thus the welfare state acted as a disciplinary force that, through biopolitical means, absorbed and neutralized any “threat” coming from the white working class. This later transformed as a means of disciplining bodies seen as racially and/or culturally different. Attention was deflected from structural inequalities, this time regarding institutionalized racism, and instead focused on framing such bodies as in need of socialization through intervention.

What I want to argue is new is the broader material context in which all of this is taking place, namely the crisis of neoliberal capitalism and the dismantling of the welfare state. It is not a failure of integration that forces politicians to discuss Muslims; rather it has been an extremely successful tactic that has deflected attention away from the state’s role in dismantling the social services Dutch citizens have had since the 1950s. By privileging capital over labour, the state and various political parties have sold out the social democratic pact and this is having massive ramifications on the choices, opportunities and daily lives of Dutch people. However it is not as simple as immigrants or non-whites being scapegoated either. It is not that “during economic crisis people naturally become more racist” or want to blame anyone who is different. It is not a natural human response or justifiable. It is a concrete result of the particular ways in which the Dutch elite have constructed Dutch nationalism and the Dutch state. It did not have to be this way and it is not a natural human response. It is a result of historical processes of class and race intersecting to produce the political effects we see today.

The tendency to ignore the Dutch colonial past – social forgetting as Weiner calls it – is important here in understanding why there is so little resistance to the extreme racism rampant in the Netherlands today. This Dutch colonial history is not something to be navigated or worked through, and indeed can be presented positively or, at least, as a relic of a time that was not necessarily “wrong.” The denial surrounding both its status as a colonial empire (as well as the fact that the Netherlands controlled territories until 2010) and its neutral moral position on colonialism allows the Netherlands to construct a national imaginary based on tolerance. Similarly, Gloria Wekker’s excellent book White Innocence, focuses on:

…a central paradox of Dutch culture: the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia. Accessing a cultural archive built over 400 years of Dutch colonial rule, Wekker fundamentally challenges Dutch racial exceptionalism by undermining the dominant narrative of the Netherlands as a “gentle” and “ethical” nation. Wekker analyzes the Dutch media’s portrayal of black women and men, the failure to grasp race in the Dutch academy, contemporary conservative politics (including gay politicians espousing anti-immigrant rhetoric), and the controversy surrounding the folkloric character Black Pete, showing how the denial of racism and the expression of innocence safeguards white privilege. Wekker uncovers the postcolonial legacy of race and its role in shaping the white Dutch self, presenting the contested, persistent legacy of racism in the country.

It is this archive that is important to remember. White innocence, along with social forgetting, have functioned to hide the central role of race in Dutch nation building. The Dutch self is a racialized self. This is not new, but as old as the Netherlands itself. This is why I believe the newly established political party “Artikel 1” is an important intervention in contemporary Dutch politics. Because it is based on anti-racism and not just class politics, it breaks the silence surrounding this topic – a wilful silence I would add, not an innocent one – and provides what the Dutch left has long failed to provide: a politics that is about race and class and gender and sexuality – not just about class in a reductionist sense. There is still a long way to go, but speaking about race and racism is a necessary step.

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Parts of this post are from an article I co-wrote with Vanessa Eileen-Thomas: Old Racisms, New Masks: On the Continuing Discontinuities of Racism and the Erasure of Race in European Contexts.