- The experience of living through U.S. elections and visiting Bangladesh in summer was similar in that in both places I kept asking myself: how often do we reduce politics to partisan politics?
- We have to yet to widen citizenship to expand beyond relations of interdependency among people, because there’s also relations between people and more-than-people, like existences we call objects.
- Having too much as a society means that when you have less, you’ll want to covet the other’s resources and you will do so at all costs. This is why precarity for the upper classes (economic recession—>bailouts) leads to destruction of the lower classes (austerity measures).
- Wendell Berry writes, “If what we see and experience… does not become real in imagination, then it never can become real to us, and we are forever divided from it.” We can put a bunch of people in a room but unless they have a concept of togetherness, this abstract concept which gives them a handle on their collectivity, they won’t feel they are together. So their reality will be lost to them.
- When the animal now called “human” was first called “human” within the western logos, it was a novel event. Calling an animal “human” was not referring to a pre-existing human but bringing into being a way of thinking about animals that would produce the “human” through certain epistemic demarcations and ontological differences.
- When did this calling happen? 15th and 16th centuries.
- Who called forth the “human”? White, mostly men, humanists located in colonial centers.
- Why? a) to challenge the Church’s epistemic binary of christian vs non-christian. To be “human” was a transgression of that binary, and b) to separate themselves from the others who were pagans, superstitious folks, easterners, saracens, the moors etc.
- So the “human” comes with a certain epistemic matrix including rationality, economic arrangements etc. and a physical matrix including postures, habits, cultures, colors, preferences etc.
- In historical context, when I call myself “human” I enunciate myself through mimicking the locus of enunciation of the white, mostly men, humanists located in colonial centers in 15th and 16th centuries.
- The humanist did not wait for the other’s response when he called himself “human.” The beginning of individuation par excellence.
- The category of “human” comes with privileges of colonialists enmeshed within itself.
- Interestingly, “rights” beside “human” only appears as a result of the “human” becoming (i.e. colonialism and imperialism and capitalism) that wounded, murdered, erased so many others who did not belong to “human” and never felt they needed to either.
- That is, “human rights” is a peculiar form of western secular atonement to deal with the consequences of western epistemic categories that predates and sets up the stage for human rights violations.
- What would be decolonizing?
- Perhaps, an epistemic disobedience is where we start. Challenge the “human” of Kant and Hegel. We change the terms on which the discussion unfolds. Then move on to create a world among ourselves where “human” remains undefined. At the same time, assume an equality of becoming, an equality that holds that we are all zones of possibilities, we can all become other than who we are and that there is really no way to hold over our heads some standard of being based on which we can be exploited or dominated. But certainly we must not claim a positive definition of the “human.”
- Which is to say, decolonization is a tight ropewalking. Our gestures are decolonial only as long as we maintain our ways as an option within a horizon of plurality. If we impose one meaning of decolonization upon everyone, it becomes a second colonization. As much as we resist and challenge the western singularity in economy, power, knowledge, gender, sexuality, subjectivity, we cannot propose a counter-singularity.
the other comes
and i cannot leave
from the place of the other’s arrival
without forgetting who i thought was me
I am sitting in a group of five. There are three older people—two women and one man. All white. All strangers to me. I assume they are immigrant allies. Though, I never saw them before in our organizing spaces and events. To the left of me is a black woman, my friend who I’ve known for long. We are playing a card game that gives us prompts to share a story from our lives with others in the circle. The point of the event is to bring together immigrants and allies under one roof, giving them a chance to get to know one another.
The white man in the group reads out his card in Spanish with a U.S. accent. I don’t speak Spanish but am able to pick up a few words. In any case, I am waiting for him to now give us the English. He reads it in Spanish again. And stares at us. We are patiently staring at him too. He reads it in Spanish one more time. At this point, one of the women says that she doesn’t understand Spanish but it sounds like he is telling us to tell him something. He reads it in Spanish once more and says with confident smile on his face, “I was trying to make a point that not everybody in the room speaks the languages we speak and we need to be mindful of that. Language barrier is a problem and it can be hard to learn new languages.” I forget the exact words of course but he said something along that line. With a smirk on his face, he goes on to respond to the prompt.
I feel like I have just been schooled in appreciating non-dominant languages. Something irks me so much about this lesson he just gave us. I can’t tell exactly what it is. Perhaps, his contrived way of turning his sympathies into a little test reminded me about the grueling tests I took to prove my allegiance and devotion to English. The gate-keeping role these tests play in a neocolonial context has always strained my relationship to language tests. All these sore memories are now out of the box. Perhaps, the neat assumptions underlying his sentiment that language is about learning and learning language is hard do not align with my experiences. In a post-colonial setting, I was born into English and Bengali. I learned to speak the two simultaneously. I didn’t have to put special labor to learn the language, and I began to speak English as ‘easily’ as anyone growing up in a language environment does. Yet, when it came to exams, government documents, and interaction with people from other countries, Bengali would be considered my mother tongue and English the second language I learned. Ironically, in school it was Bengali that was the marginalized subject. We only had two classes in Bengali. In the larger scheme of things, I always had to prove to everyone that I could speak English. Imagine having to prove that you speak a language that has been ‘yours’ since birth. My suffering with dominant languages has been twisted in this bizarre way. Perhaps, why the man irked me so much is because his moment of self-satisfied schooling drove a pin into my thick history of wrestling with linguistic hybridity. I couldn’t stay in that space for too long and left.
Later I kept reflecting about where he was coming from. Perhaps, he was anxious about his whiteness, his burden of growing up in and with the dominant language. His burden of being part of a legacy of colonialism, genocide, and xenophobia. Perhaps, he was wanting to convey his anti-xenophobic commitment in making a clever statement about language barrier. To him, the performative act of empathizing with those who don’t speak English might have been about challenging his own internalized privilege, egoism, self-centeredness. Still, I can’t decide if this anxious whiteness isn’t an imposing whiteness of its own. I can’t decide if a performatively self-critical whiteness is better than whiteness without self-awareness. I wish I could meet him again and ask him about himself and tell him about myself and my doubts about his performed anxiety.
Academically I am considered unscientific
Politically I am considered a snitch
But I’d rather be a pirate with
loyalties in friction,
a window between
The Jatakas are stories about the previous lives of Buddha. But some of these stories could as well be re-read in our current sociopolitical context as sophisticated social criticism. For instance, Nandi Vishala, in one story, is a calf which belongs to a Brahmin. The Brahmin hears about a cart-drawing competition and bets on Nandi Vishala’s strength to pull a hundred carts. As Nandi struggles to pull the carts, the Brahmin verbally abuses Nandi. He calls Nandi a “rascal.” At this point, Nandi stops complying and the Brahmin loses the competition. In fact, he loses his entire life’s savings in this bet. Empathizing with the Brahmin’s sadness, Nandi approaches him and confesses that she didn’t like being called a “rascal” and that only if the Brahmin stops abusing her verbally then she will win the cart-drawing bet next time. The story ends happily. They go back to the cart-drawing bet. This time there’s no name calling. And the Brahmin comes back home with double the gold coins.
In one sense, Nandi’s character is a response to the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s “sticks and stones” adage, coined sometime in the 1800s. The one that goes: sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. Nandi embodies the evidence that names do hurt, even in the absence of sticks and stones. And that’s not all. Nandi’s power play urges us to re-write the adage as: sticks and stones may break my bones, but names certainly will cost you. One could say Nandi embodies that phase of the master-slave dialectic where the slave recognizes that her master, and not the slave herself, is the truly dependent one in their relationship. In recognizing the master’s slavery to the slave, the slave is able to seek recognition from the master: “don’t call me names,” “recognize me as who I say I am: Nandi.” Isn’t this precisely what we see in the current debates over micro-aggressions? The oppressed have realized that it is truly their supposed masters who are enslaved to the oppressed’s capacity to draw the cart of capitalism forward. Without the labor of the oppressed, the ruling class can’t go back home with double the gold they invest. Recognizing this, the oppressed class now demands: “don’t call me names,” “don’t give me your racist stares and slurs,” “don’t give me that sexist glare,” etc. One could say this power play between masters and slaves unfolds entirely on the symbolic realm of recognition where the oppressed demand that they be re-cognized in the oppressor’s social imaginary so that both are in a symbolically egalitarian relationship.
But at this juncture the happy ending of Nandi Vishala’s story could in fact be read as a warning. Although the Brahmin stops calling Nandi a “rascal” he continues to have complete hold over his means of production. In fact, Nandi is his means of production. Nothing material changes for Nandi. Nandi is still the cow in the cow shed. The Brahmin might not call her names, but a world where the cow functions as a means for the Brahmin’s ends continues. Isn’t this the predicament of social movements today? Do we want to continue functioning as the means of capitalism as long as our rulers don’t call us names? Or do we want to pursue our own collectively decided ends?
The eviction infrastructure of neoliberal governance has expanded, in the absence of grassroots organization, mobilization, solidarity and resistance, to a full blown Eviction Industrial Complex.
“These days, there are sheriff squads whose full-time jobs is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. There are moving companies specializing in evictions, their crews working all day, every weekday. There are hundreds of data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant screening reports listing past evictions and court filings. These days, housing courts swell, forcing commissioners to settle cases in hallways or makeshift offices crammed with old desks and broken file cabinets—and most tenants don’t even show up. Low-income families have grown used to the rumble of moving trucks, the early-morning knocks at the door, the belongings lining the curb.”
Speaking from experience, organizers on ground constantly find themselves in the dark about how this Eviction Industrial Complex functions. Who are the real estate developers? Where are they buying their properties? What does their market research look like? Who are the researchers? Who are the appraisers? Who are the lawyers? What is the process by which neighborhood rent gaps are determined? We could fill up the next two pages with questions organizers have. We have a great deal of ethnographic and demographic information about renter despairs, but so little actionable intelligence on real estate actors. Researchers focus on telling stories of suffering. But from the side of resistance and solidarity, the need most felt is sharp knowledge of the topographies of our battlefields, the precise contours of the processes that are inimical to people’s survival.
There are informal evictions “that take place in the shadow of the law,” never making it to the light of statistics about evictions.
“…there are other ways, cheaper and quicker ways, for landlords to remove a family than through court order. Some landlords pay tenants a couple hundred dollars to leave by the end of the week. Some take off the front door.”
Desmond writes with minute details—the furniture of the house, the sight and smell of the people, the food people are eating, the emotions of the evictees, the attitudes of the landlords, the human drama of it all. It reads like a novel, a creative non-fiction, and I even begin to enjoy it at times, a really well crafted story. The book reads like HBO-produced reality TV. I question myself at such times. I feel afraid for myself. The line between empathy and entertainment, humanizing and commodification is so blurry in a society where we spectate—from streets to social media—the brutalization of fellow beings. Perhaps, I am too suspicious, and always most questioning towards myself. Am I consuming these stories?
There’s been an explosion of creative non-fictions, auto-ethnographies. Does the proliferation of such stories, at such minute level, serve a counter-purpose than the well-meaning intentions? Thrown into the worldwide circuit of texts and citations, fragmented reader communities, do these stories sublimate our potential rage against inequality through shock and sorrow so that readers can claim to empathize without investing resources and putting themselves in the risky position of resisting the forces that evict people? A meta-analysis of readership communities of such works may be overdue.
The pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty makes a distinction between liberal theorists and liberal journalists. He argues that using critical theories to truthfully highlight systems of oppression is irrelevant today, particularly because we do not share a notion of common humanity anymore. Instead, Rorty elevates the task of the liberal journalist to produce narratives of suffering that will move people to empathize with different sufferings.
For instance, he argues, “…pain is non-linguistic: It is what we human beings have that ties us to the nonlanguage-using beasts. So victims of cruelty, people who are suffering, do not have much in the way of a language. That is why there is no such things as the ‘voice of the oppressed’ or the ‘language of the victims.’ The language the victims once used is not working anymore, and they are suffering too much to put new words together. So the job of putting their situation into language is going to have to be done for them by somebody else. The liberal novelist, poet, or journalist is good at that. The liberal theorist usually is not…
“In particular, novels and ethnographies which sensitize one to the pain of those who do not speak our language must do the job which demonstrations of a common human nature were supposed to do.”
In one sense, Desmond functions as this liberal journalist, refusing to get into the political economy of evictions. He keeps the narrative hinged on the suffering on ground. The stories are about individual renter, not the renting class. The cruelties are carried out by individual landlords, not the class of private and corporate landlords.
At the end of the book, Desmond confesses that he avoids emphasizing structural forces because that puts the issue out of reach for thinking about solutions. Rather, he chooses to focus on articulating everyday suffering. One wonders how solutions graspably ungraspable through such articulations.
An important excerpt:
“In years past, renters opposed landlords and saw themselves as a ‘class’ with shared interests and a unified purpose. During the early twentieth century, tenants organized against evictions and unsanitary conditions. When landlords raised rents too often or too steeply, tenants went so far as to stage rent strikes. Strikers joined together to withhold rent and form picket lines, risking eviction, arrest, and beatings by hired thugs. They were not an especially radical bunch, these strikes. Most were ordinary mothers and fathers who believed landlords were entitled to modest rent increases and fair profits, but not ‘price gouging’. In New York City, the great rent wars of the Roaring Twenties forced a state legislature to impose rent controls that remain the country’s strongest to this day.
“Petitions, picket lines, civil disobedience—this kind of political mobilization required a certain shift in vision. “For a protest movement to arise out of [the] traumas of daily life,” sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have observed, “the social arrangements that are ordinarily perceived as just and immutable must come to seem both unjust and mutable.” This usually happened during extraordinary times, when large-scale social transformations or economic disturbances—the postwar housing shortage, say—profoundly upset the status quo. But it was not enough simply to perceive injustice. Mass resistance was possible only when people believed they had the collective capacity to change things. For poor people, this required identifying with the oppressed, and counting yourself among them—which was something most trailer park residents were absolutely unwilling to do.
“During rent strikes, tenants believed they had a moral obligation to one another. If tenants resisted excessive rent hikes or unwarranted evictions, it was because they invested in their homes and neighborhoods. They felt they belonged there. In the trailer park, that sentiment was almost dead. For most residents, Scott among them, the goal was to leave, not to plant roots and change things. Some residents described themselves as “just passing through,” even if they had been passing through nearly all their life…”
People help each other with little things and “these exchanges helped people on the receiving end meet basic material needs; and they helped those on the delivering end feel more fully human.”
“When people begun to view their neighborhood as brimming with deprivation and vice, full of ‘all sorts of shipwrecked humanity,’ they lost confidence in its political capacity.”
Another important excerpt:
“But the ghetto had always been more a product of social design that desire. It was never a by-product of the modern city, a sad accident of industrialization and urbanization, something no one benefited from nor intended. The ghetto had always been a main feature of landed capital, a prime moneymaker for those who saw ripe opportunity in land scarcity, housing dilapidation, and racial segregation.
“Maybe it began in the late fifteenth century, the weaponry of war to blame. With the invention of the iron cannonball, cities could no longer rely on moats and modest ramparts to fend off attacks. Complicated systems of defense had to be constructed and cities had to grow vertically behind high walls. Old Geneva and Paris saw tenements climb six stories. Edinburgh boasted of tenements twice as high. While agrarian families were driven from the land to increasingly congested cities, the competition for space drove up land values and rents. Urban landlords quickly realized that piles of money could be made by creating slums: “maximum profits came, not from providing first-class accommodations for those who could well afford them… but from crowded slum accommodations, for those whose pennies were scarcer than the rich man’s pounds.” Beginning in the sixteenth century, slum housing would be reserved not only for outcasts, beggars, and thieves but for a large segment of the population.
“During its rapid period of urbanization, America imported this model. Colonial proprietors adopted the institutions and laws of England’s landed gentry, including the doctrine of absolute liability for rent, which held tenants unequivocally responsible for payments even in the event of fire or flood. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, America’s poor lived in cellars, attics, cattle sheds, and windowless rooms that held multiple families. Some slums were cut off from basic municipal services and local wells; so families begged for water in other parts of town. Rents continued to rise as living conditions deteriorated. Soon, many families could not afford their housing. When this happened, landlords could summon the “privilege of distress,” which entitled them to seize and sell tenants’ property to recover lost profit, a practice that persisted well into the twentieth century.
“Racial oppression enabled land exploitation on a massive scale. During slavery, black slaves pulled profits from the dirt but have no claim to the land. After the Civil War, freed slaves saw in land ownership the possibility of true liberation, but during Reconstruction wealthy whites maintained a virtual monopoly on the soil as lands seized from or abandoned by Confederates were restored to their original owners. Returning to plantations as sharecroppers, black families descended into a cycle of subsistence farming and debt, while white Planters continued to grow rich. The slave shacks stood, and so did the plantation mansions.
“In the early decades of the twentieth century, African-American families seeking freedom and good jobs participated in the Great Migration, moving en masse from the rural South to cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. When they arrived in those cities, they were crowded into urban ghettos, and the vast majority depended on landlords for housing. Ghetto landlords had a segregated and captive tenant base and had nothing to gain by improving their run-down houses. They began dividing their properties into small “kitchenette” units, throwing up so many plywood walls their apartments resembled “rabbit warrens.” Many houses lacked heading and complete plumbing. So black families cooked and ate in winter coats and relieved themselves in outhouses are homemade toilets. They came to know well the sound of the tuberculosis cough. In 1930, the death rate for Milwaukee’s blacks was nearly 60 percent higher than the citywide rate, due in large part to poor housing conditions. For the first time in the history of America, New Deal policies made homeownership a real possibility for white families, but black families were denied these benefits when the federal government deemed their neighborhoods too risky for insured mortgages and officials loyal to Jim Crow blocked black veterans from using GI mortgages. Over three centuries of systematic dispossession from the land created a semipermanent black rental class and an artificially high demand for inner-city apartments.
“In the 1950s, white real estate brokers developed an advanced technique of exploitation, one that targeted black families shut out of the private housing market. After buying houses on the cheap from nervous white homeowners in transitioning neighborhoods, private investors would sell these houses “on contract” to black families for double or triple the assessed value. Black buyers had to come up with sizable down payments, often upwards of 25 percent of the property’s inflated value. Once they moved in, black families had all the responsibilities of home ownership without any of the rights. When families missed payments, which many did after monthly installments were increased or necessary housing upkeep set them back, they could be evicted as their homes were foreclosed and down payments pocketed. The profits were staggering. In 1966, a Chicago landlord told a court that on a single property he had made $42,500 in rent but paid only $2,400 in maintenance. When accused of making excessive profits, the landlord simply replied, “That’s why I bought the building.”
“The 1968 Civil Rights Act made housing discrimination illegal, but subtler forms prevailed… Other landlords and property management companies—like Affordable Rentals—tried to avoid discriminating by setting clear criteria and holding all applicants to the same standards. But equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality. Because black men were disproportionately incarcerated and black women disproportionately evicted, uniformly to denying housing to applicants with recent criminal or eviction records still had an incommensurate impact on African Americans…
“Eviction itself often explained why some families lived on safe streets and others on dangerous ones, why some children attended good schools and others failing ones. The trauma of being forced from your home, the blemish of an eviction record, and the taxing rush to locate a new place to live pushed evicted renters into more depressed and dangerous areas of the city.”
In the book, moments of solidarity are left unexplored.
Desmond suggestions: “It is only after we begin to see a street as our street, a public park as our park, a school as our school, that we can become engage citizens, dedicating our time and resources for worthwhile causes: joining the Neighborhood Watch, volunteering to beautify a playground, or running for school board.”
I wonder: Trayvon Martin killed by neighborhood watch.
Desmond frames the issue of eviction as a matter of poverty. But what is the underlying cause of poverty in this country? That some accumulate at the cost of others suffers an omission.
Desmond writes, “Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships… And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block.”
Not really. Solidarity is not something that has been obstructed, but it is something that requires production. Community stability, otherwise, degenerates into NIMBYism.
“The United States was founded on the noble idea that people have “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Each of these three unalienable rights—so essential to the American character that the founders saw them as God-given—requires a stable home.”
In other words, the project of America is the project of homeownership.
Desmond concludes: “Given what projects had become, blowing them up was not only the cheaper option; it was the most humane one, like bulldozing a house in which some unspeakable thing had once transpired.”
But these were also sites of resistance and solidarity…
Desmond’s solutions: offer legal aid to the poor. “Good lawyers would raise defenses tenants often don’t…”
Create more regulations so that landlords can’t exploit tenants by charging high rents.
But the landlords are homogenous in this case. We are avoiding the fact that there are corporate landlords and private landlords.
Another solution: universal voucher program.
But that’s a disempowering state solution. What would Marcuse say?
Role of government:
“It is the government that legitimizes and defends landlords’ right to charge as much as they want; that subsidizes the construction of high-end apartments, bidding up rents and leaving the poor with even fewer options; that pays landlords when a family cannot, through onetime or ongoing housing assistance; that forcibly removes a family at landlords’ request by dispatching armed law enforcement officers; and that records and publicizes evictions, as a service to landlords and debt collection agencies. Just as the police and the prison have worked to triage the ill effects of rising joblessness in the inner city (like social unrest or the growth of the underground economy), civil courts, sheriff deputies, and homeless shelters manage the fallout of rising housing costs among the urban poor and the privatization of the low-income housing market.”
Desmond writes, “…public housing risks repeating the failures of the past, by drawing the nation’s poorest citizens under the same roof and contributing to racial segregation and concentrated poverty.”
Not if we create programs that build solidarity and empower people. Public housing could be turned into community controlled land trusts.
Argument for housing: “affordable housing is a human-capital investment… that would strengthen and steady the American workforce.”
Aren’t you a shrewd capitalist?
Desmond confesses, “I wanted to try to write a book about poverty that didn’t focus exclusively on poor people or poor places. Poverty was a relationship, I thought, involving poor and rich people alike. To understand poverty, I needed to understand that relationship. This sent me searching for a process that bound poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle. Eviction was such a process.”
But by focusing on the process, one avoids the substance of this relationship: which is acculumation by dispossession.
On method, Desmond writes, “To me, ethnography is what you do when you try to understand people by allowing their lives to mold your own as fully and genuinely as possible. You do this by building rapport with the people you want to know better and following them over a long stretch of time, observing and experiencing what they do, working and playing alongside them, and recording as much action and interaction as you can until you begin to move like they move, talk like they talk, think like they think, and feel something like they feel. In this line of work, living “in the field” helps quite a lot. It’s the only way to have an immersive experience; and practically speaking, you never know when important things are going to happen. Renting a trailer allowed me to meet dozens of people, pick up rumors, absorb tenants’ concerns and perspectives, and observe everyday life all hours of the day.”
“No one really knows why some people unfurl like this in front of a stranger with a notepad and pen, why they open the door and let you in.”
In a society that always watches us, we also learn to love to be seen and heard.
“My policy was to intervene as little as possible…”
Isn’t presence itself an intervention?
Desmond writes, “Everything about you—your race and gender, where and how you were raised, your temperament and disposition—can influence whom you meet, what is confided to you, what you are shown, and how you interpret what you see. My identity opened some doors and closed others. In the end, we can only do the best we can with who we are, paying close attention to the ways pieces of ourselves matter to the work while never losing sight of the most important questions.”
the old friend comes
fold by fold
decades stacked in cases
smelling of mothballs
until there’s nothing
left to pack again
and in one evening i learn
to depart without arriving
Let’s think about the discourse of migration. Isn’t it curious that almost invariably migrants are portrayed as fleeing their own countries out of necessity be that economic or political? We hear: they have high unemployment and poverty in their country because of neoliberal trade policies. We hear: they are religiously persecuted. We hear: there’s war there, that’s why. I am not saying these are not valid reasons. Certainly, these are reasons for which many migrants move from one place to another. But what about those who don’t move for such reasons? What about those who move because moving is their desire? Those like myself, for instance, who move out of their organic relations and societies to invent other lives in new places with new people. Their desires have no respect for national boundaries. Their desires can’t be trapped within the discourse of necessity. Desire pushes the body beyond necessity and that is the life of desire. Is this not an acceptable mode of migration? Perhaps, in such desiring subjectivities we witness the dawn of a borderless world.
In Uttara I see two rickshaw pullers sleeping in each other’s arms. One’s head rests on top of the other’s chest. One wearing an unbuttoned shirt and the other shirtless in the heat. They are resting on a rickshaw parked closely beside another rickshaw.
In a working class neighborhood close to Bashundhara, I see two young men grinding against each other and hugging. No kisses. Just this grinding between two clothed bodies and their necks rubbing against each other. The skinny brown bodies locked together look like one disturbed shadow in the dark corner of an empty mechanic shop.
Both of these sights I absorb in passing, and in passing the question comes: How would these men identify their practices of being together? How would people around them identify their practices of being together?
Perhaps, development NGOs concerned about the health of these men would categorize them as ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSM), a supposed-to-be neutral term.
Perhaps, one of these men would identify himself or be identified as koti, someone who is physically male but feels spiritually female, someone who feels more like ‘receiving’ than ‘giving’. Perhaps, this man would have used any of the other vernacular categories: panthi, doparata, giriya.
Perhaps, none of them would claim to be hijra, since they didn’t have the cultural make-up of hijras but then who knows?
I feel fairly certain that none of them would claim to be gay or bisexual. It’s only among mostly-muslim able-bodied youth with access to internet and education that you hear ‘gay’ as a self-identifier. They also happen to be currently or prospectively transnational subjects (for education/business/profession) with cosmopolitan aesthetics. There is a class line here, a line at and above which privileged youth weave themselves into the globalization of LGBTQI discourse and demand sexual minority rights in Bangladesh.
This act of inserting oneself into a globalized sexual rights discourse has two impacts: 1) it allows Bangladeshis to forge solidarities with queers in other national spaces, and 2) it allows Bangladeshi lower classes and reactionary factions (religious and otherwise) to conceptualize ‘gay’ Bangladeshis as extensions of U.S.-led western empire. The recent killing of Xulhaz Mannan, a Dhaka-based LGBTQI organizer, was an intersection of both of these class identity dynamics.
There’s another story below the class line I mentioned above.
When NGOs with foreign funding get hold of low-income non-heterosexuals, they weave these subjects into koti, hijra, MSM typologies for the sake of securing their funding sources, claiming neutrality, and statistical necessity/convenience. We must also note the Bangladeshi government does not recognize ‘gay’ as a valid category of social existence. These typologies also overemphasize health issues like AIDS and inadvertently produce a social milieu where non-heterosexual practices are almost always seen as cautionary tales about sexually transmitted diseases.
Gay rights activists challenge NGOs on the ground that MSM categories exclusively reduce sexuality to sex and STDs. NGOs charge gay rights activists with cultural universalism, that somehow being gay is the epitome of modern emancipation. NGOs claim to prioritize health conditions of men (who have sex with men) over the legal right to identify in a certain way. I am not sure why there isn’t also a category called women who have sex with women within such development discourse.
Outside the demands of rights-based activists and development-based experts both of whom reify certain sexual categories, the reality of sexual subjects is complex and transient. We hear of trans Bengali women who mourn the loss their manhood. We hear of intersex persons who identify as koti, hijra, MSM, gay depending on the NGO or gay rights organization they want to access in a society with scarce resources for the non-heterosexual. We see men falling in love with men and marrying women, then living dual lives in open secrecy.
I find the health focus of NGOs way too narrow for any social transformation. Maintaining health of the working class in this context seems to only serve the purpose of maintaining cheap labor force for the global economy. Even men who have sex with men do much more than just having sex and those social needs and practices require social, cultural, and economic support and infrastructure. For example, places where men can safely gather and socialize. And jobs that are stable and safe.
On the other hand, the Bangladeshi gay rights activist organizing focuses too narrowly on mostly-muslim able bodied men. Lesbians, disabled people, bisexuals, indigenous voices, non-muslims rarely make it to the scene. I do not blame the activists entirely for this situation, but its causes are worth investigating. Furthermore, the tendency of rights-based discourse to depend primarily on one’s ability to identify oneself runs counter to the phenomenon of subjectivity, which is that there is no fixed self. When there is a self, it is invariably fragmented and transient. The self is a set of changing relations. The rights based organizing ends up sexualizing as much as they want to secure sexual rights.
In Bangladesh the root cause behind structural and daily oppression of sexual minorities is heterosexism. Heterosexism is the assumption that heterosexuality is the natural and normal thing to do for all people and there is no better way to live sexually in the world. Backed up through various religious and pseudo-scientific ideas, heterosexism justifies dominating, curing, excluding, infantilizing non-heterosexuals. For example, activists made possible for hijras in Bangladesh to be legally recognized and given an ID card. Now with this ID card, hijras are still failing to enter the job market. Although they are legally allowed to apply, they are socially excluded from employment because employers and other employees don’t want to work with ‘abnormal’ people. In this way, the rights-based approach fails when it doesn’t challenge heterosexism.
Another principle of heterosexism is that sex is exclusively about baby making under the auspices of a Bengali marriage. As long as the datum of marriage—>sex—>baby is not threatened, and men and women marry according to heterosexist norms, relatives to family members to broader society is even willing to turn a blind eye to non-heterosexual sexual adventures of married people. In Bangladesh, a man or a woman becomes a man or a woman without wanting to be a man or woman. This heterosexist structure of socially locating each subject within a binary is worth challenging. After all, it is precisely because of heterosexism that there arises a set of subordinated, pervert, subversive subjectivities.
We have two choices: 1) keep fighting for securing every resistant subject’s rights, or 2) destabilize the gaze that prescribes and normalizes our experiences.
I am for the latter, because that entails a widespread social transformation (including material redistribution) which would also liberate those who suffer under heterosexism and do not give themselves a chance to live outside pre-determined relationships. So that when we see two men sleeping with each other in broad daylight on a rickshaw, the question “how would they or others identify their sexual practice?” doesn’t even appear.
After Gulshan attack we heard the story of a young man named Faraz who didn’t leave his friends behind even when given the chance to save himself. He was muslim and his friends were not. The attackers were only killing non-muslims that night. His act of staying back has been variably drawn into multiple narratives of humanism, decency, bengali ideals of friendship and chivalry. Today his brother retells the story as: “Our mom has raised us to always respect and protect women and he did so till the end.” In this case, Faraz’s action is about a knightly man believing in his sworn duty to protect and respect women. We might never know Faraz’s own motive. What we do know see, however, is another evidence of how in Bengali culture one is made a man without already always holding the position of a man.
I am trying to disambiguate my thoughts regarding the role of religion in terrorism within a political economy.
It would help to see extremism as an intersection of social relations like gender. Nobody is born man or woman but functions as man or woman in specific social arrangements. The same could be said for extremists. It is the function they play within a certain social arrangement that makes them extremists. The more we focus on each individual extremist’s story, the more we lose sight of this social arrangement. The more we believe in confessions of extremists, they more we give in to their ego narratives that veil the superstructures that shape it. So what should we look at when we look at social arrangements?
One aspect would be how a social arrangement justifies itself. In the case of Bangladesh, the gender division, the communal divisions, the economic positions are often justified along the axis of religious mythologies and assumptions among the muslim majority. Assumptions such as the “right ideals” are established by God in his Book and propounded “accurately” by Muhammad. These are the ideals that are used to justify the various roles that people take on.
Of course, the muslim housewife’s function is extremely different from the muslim attacker’s function. Even their beliefs about what their religion demands from them is extremely different. Yet, they both sustain these unstated assumptions. At one hand then there is an underlying commonality—the assumptions that provide justifications. On the other hand there is the political-economic capacity of individuals to carry out what they perceive to be their functions under those assumptions. For instance, without support poor people from rural areas can’t muster the money to travel to Iraq or Syria to join ISIS. But rich students from urban centers can muster that amount from their parents. So they are able to fulfill the role they see themselves serving under those assumptions. This is what leads to what I call a responsibility differential. The unique matrix of responsibility each one bears for the role they are able to adopt within an uneven capitalist economy but under certain unstated common ideological assumptions.
The more we get into discussing the roles people are able to adopt and execute within an uneven capitalist economy (the attacker, the peaceful priest, the innocent housewife), the more we get away from the underground assumptions that are same among all of them. And this is a significant blind spot. Because, if the political/economic capacity of a subject gives him the force of execution, the network of assumption that everyone around him and he himself sustains exerts on him a force of prescription that guides his execution.
Gandhi gives us a clear boundary line between active and passive resistance. In active resistance, someone blows “others to pieces from behind a canon.” In passive resistance, someone approaches the canon to “be blown to pieces.” In both cases, someone is refusing to comply with what offends their conscience, their morality. I wonder what Gandhi would say about the Dhaka attackers, who went in gun blazing into the restaurant, knowing full well that most of them were not going to come out alive? In the figure of the extremist attacker we have an intersection of active and passive resistance. The attacker refuses to comply with society as it is and therefore blasts others as well as submits himself to being blasted.
June 18: A group of clerics in Bangladesh announced that those who kill in the name of religion will go to hell. Progressives around the world have been demanding for the longest time such pronouncements from the religious establishment in muslim majority countries. The fatwa condemning killing in the name of religion was also circulated far and wide.
The question we must ask ourselves is: what happens after such symbolic pronouncements? In what material ways do such pronouncements manifest themselves? Are we going to change the curriculum, the laws, the social policies within which killing in the name of religion is ordained? Furthermore, in what ways do such symbolic gestures uphold the very assumptions that makes a certain metaphysical narrative unwillingly company to violence? Why must anyone be fearful of hell in order to not kill others? Can we strike at the narratives of fear that have been spun to control our lives? Can we not kill out of love, compassion, good feeling and solidarity?
People who are surprised about Gulshan attack have no touch with the day to day reality of Bangladesh.
People who are calling for unity after the Gulshan attack are creating more smoke around the issue. It is precisely now that we have to ask: unity under what/whom? A government that jails free thinkers under the name of protecting them? A people that watch silently the murdering of their fellow citizens? A business elite that steals the country’s labor and resources everyday?
In one article, referring to the student who stayed back with his friends, the writer says: “They brutally killed… one chivalrous Bangladeshi young man who stood out for his female friends.” The use of the word “chivalrous” in conjunction to the man who stayed back for his female friends tickles me. I can’t help but read it as a practice of Bengali gendering. The young man had to be “chivalrous,” knightly, gallant, noble when he stayed back for his female friends. He couldn’t be decent or just human because in the Bengali psyche one is made a man without wanting to be a man.
The business sector is drumming up fears about how the ready-made garments industry will see losses due to Gulshan attacks. Framing the RMG industry as the economy’s savior (providing jobs and contributing to GDP), they claim that foreign investors will pack up and leave, slowly turning Bangladesh into Pakistan. First off, RMG industry is booming in Bangladesh because labor is cheap and disposable, and will continue to grow as long as that’s the case. Second, there’s nothing heroic about this industry. This industry is spearheading the neoliberal assault on Bangladesh. It gives people jobs as much as it keeps the usually displaced and mostly female labor force working in degraded, near-death conditions. It contributes to economic growth as much as it was/is built through denationalizing and privatizing other major industrial sectors. It holds a significant position in the present as much as it has no sustainable future to offer in Bangladesh. Third, although due to risk perception many investors don’t visit Pakistan, “exports of readymade garments have increased nearly four times in value from 1990 to 2013, from $1 billion (USD) in 1990 to $ 3.9 billion in 2013.” In other words, this false connection between extremism and RMG industry will only be used as a rationalization to push down wages and further exploit the labor force to “attract” investors.
we are locked in a cage
where we cannot put into words
the evidence of our imprisonment.
What’s missing in this country
is a democratic public sphere,
the practice of mutual association
based on shared ideas, and attempting to
change the common world for the better of
those who speak for themselves without
silencing the voice of others.
I refuse the tendency of religious folks to ultimately fall back on claims of psychological well being when they can’t defend their positions on dialogical ground within public sphere. Like self-help discourses, this turn to therapy discourse depoliticizes an issue that is inherently political.
On the Gulshan attack:
As if no further independent investigation is required, the current administration dished out the same explanation of extremism and promise of security heard many times before—the opposition is behind this and we are going to crack down with more force.
Among other things, “peace loving Bangladeshis” who are the muslim majority is a trope worth rethinking. These are the same peace loving people that pour their money into hate-inspiring public lectures of tele-evangelists. These are the same people who donate to mosques that want to put up CCTVs in parks and streets to monitor “socially harmful activities.” These are the same people who go about their daily lives like nothing happened when atheists, queers, trans, hijras, and religious minorities are individually and collectively oppressed, brutalized, murdered. I do not mean to ascribe a violent intention to the muslim majority, but am rather pointing to how our isolated benign beliefs connect to extremist actions, a connection which we do not want to know.
A few nights ago dad comes home from mosque and says people were forming a group to “defend the mosque from hindus” in response to some conflict between mosque-goers and local police at the other end of the city. They were arming themselves with machetes that night. Though the instigators were not mosque officials, that such organizing can happen within the mosque ought to make us wonder: what is happening?
My father continues to donate to this mosque. I am still urged to go to this mosque. After that night, I haven’t heard any further conversation regarding what happened in media or elsewhere, because we are peace loving people after all—until one day when we’ll get the news of murdered hindus, like it happened last Friday.
Sociologically speaking, I think religions in this post-colonial nation can’t be discussed without connecting it to the capitalist looting that has been underway.
Speaking experientially, discussing neoliberalization only is a favorite activity of people who don’t want to give an account of their religious beliefs and how those beliefs promote, through tacit support, media platforms, mindsets, spaces where extremist organizing does happen. No wonder radical folks organizing against MNCs looting Bangladesh still have a space in the public sphere, while anti-heterosexist/non-theist organizations have been decimated. In this particular context, in Bangladesh, discussing only neoliberalism has become as depoliticizing as the assertion “Islam is a peaceful religion.”
In Italo Calvino’s novel Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan stories of a city that is always expanding, under perpetual construction, where scaffoldings have scaffoldings and the city’s plans are written in the ever-changing stars of night sky. So the dwellers of this city are moving without pauses, building around and between buildings night and day, etcetera. Behind the beautiful story of urban hustle bustle, I think there’s something poisonous at play. A city with such booming growth might also be the perfect capitalist city where real estate business never ends, where construction workers are exploited, where working class population are displaced and moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, subject to the whims of night sky. Dhaka is this capitalist city. Whatever direction one looks, there is a fiery spurt of growth. So much cement, concrete, rebars, scaffoldings and scaffoldings around scaffoldings.
Taking a walk or a drive around Bashundhara gives one plenty of examples. Bashundhara is primarily a real estate corporation that extended its operations to manufacture, trading, media, and finance over the years. One of their real estate projects, called Bashundhara Residential Area, is on Dhaka’s north-east side. Here you will find 3 katha (2160 sq ft) to 5 katha (3600 sq ft) plots for residential use. The picture below shows a 3 katha plot with overgrown weeds. This plot is at the far end of the project, which is still barren land. Some interesting bits about this.
With regards to the overgrown weed, Bashundhara has an overlapping ownership model. You can buy the piece of land there, but you won’t own anything on it until you construct your building. Bashundhara corporation weeds these plots themselves and sell these weeds as construction material for cash. Individual owners don’t have this ownership. Given the extent of the land, the corporation is able to make a few hundred thousand taka on this weeds sale alone.
Meshed in with the weeds, we find touch-me-not flowers and mother takes all the time playing with them. She touches them one by one, saying, “why so shy, why so shy…” I haven’t seen her so playful in a long time.
The first construction happening in this undeveloped land is a mosque. When Dhaka was part of Bengal, it was known as the city of mosques. Perhaps, for this very tendency of building a mosque to christen (or islamicize?) a land. If one wanted to be facetious, one could call this a colonial tendency.
This is the view inside the mosque under construction. I walked around most of the site and saw an all male labor force. Not sure if this gendering was intentional or for only a certain phase of the project.
Right beside the mosque is a private graveyard that belongs to Bashundhara’s owner. A certain imam, a muslim community/mosque leader, is buried here. The myth is that it was through his blessings that the corporation flourished and took control of so much wealth. I heard other tales like this from people in business. Forget political economy. Forger great wives behind successful men, as the stereotype went. That still gave women prestige. Materialistically successful men have spiritually successful men behind them. A closed loop of homosocial material-spiritual mobility. If the Wealth of Nations were written in Dhaka, the invisible hand would be spiritual hand of the Islamic universe. Economy and religion is tied together inseparably in such a social universe.
This view is the most depressing thing I have seen in years. Here, there were villages on the side of rivers. Mother and father both tell me stories about this village, which functioned as a site of entry for rural migrants into the city. It was a buffer zone between rural and urban. Now the urban sprawl has taken it over. Bashundhara forced these villagers out of this land, filled the rivers, and invented real estate. Nobody can tell me where the villagers went. Ghosts don’t have homes.
Another day I visit one of the largest shopping malls in South Asia, close to 2 million sq ft. The space is nauseating. Someone has to study the replication of architectural styles from global north with regional tweaks in the global south. The brands are pretty much the same ones I have seen in U.S. malls, including the ones that sell goods made from Bangladeshi garments factories where thousands die in eruptions and millions die slowly through the rigmarole of assembly line lives. Bangladeshis buying goods bloodied with Bangladeshi blood—there’s something of a cannibalism in national space here.
The photo below is a bad one because I didn’t capture the contrast. Right opposite to this was a fast fashion women’s clothing store with mannequins that barely had any clothes on. Relatively speaking.
Walking in these streets, looking at people suffering malnutrition and hunger, one begins to believe in the neoliberal trope of developing nations as hungry nations, international economic basket cases as Kissinger once put it. But beneath the surface of emaciated bodies is an untold history of hunger-making. Food scarcity in Dhaka is entirely artificial. Very unsurprisingly, this study concludes that majority of Dhaka’s land is highly to moderately suitable for agriculture. I would bet majority of Bangladesh’s land is highly suitable for agriculture. If there are no urban gardens in the city, it’s the result of neoliberal governance that is more willing to produce citizen entrepreneurs for finance capital than food growers. If farms are dying in rural areas, it’s the result of international trading that’s killing local farmers and development of energy extraction sites and highways that are destroying vast stretches of agricultural tracts. An exception: an initiative called Nogor Krishok that’s aimed at creating rooftop farmers and farming in Dhaka.
We meet up near a museum dedicated to the father of the nation. He, wearing a fresh red shirt with the map of Bangladesh printed in white over his chest. I, wearing a seven year old white shirt. I knew him as a talented young artist, his pencil always poised like a sniper between his fingers, ready to open fire precision strokes to draw you, me, or anything, sometimes with a touch of magic realism. He looked like his pencil, too—slender, sharp eyed, straight as a wooden plank.
“You want to get a souvenir from here?” he asks.
“No,” I say, “I could get that another time. Looks like these are pretty nationalist books too. Not a patriot, really.”
He doesn’t respond.
Seven years from when we last met, now he looks like an eraser. Shorter, stocky, head bowed low, the spark in his eyes no more.
“Look at my shirt. It’s all Bangladesh,” he says.
“Yeah, I see that. Really nice colors.”
“Do you want one? My friend has his own t-shirt press. I can get you one.”
“Not sure right now. I have so many t-shirts.”
“It’s only 50 taka, way less than what you’d pay in the U.S.”
“Unless I am buying sweatshop shirts…”
Moving through the city, he keeps pointing to this building and that tower. “I started this one.” “I started that one.” “I did the first floor plan of that one right there, between those two buildings.” “I’m about to go do a first survey of a land where folks are building a school.”
“Did you ever finish any of these projects?” I ask him.
“I didn’t like the projects. These buildings get boring in a few months. You see all this – this whole city. Everyone thinks they are making really beautiful buildings. After a few months, all look the same. It’s all boring.”
So we move through the city of boring buildings as he narrates to me a trail of erasures—him erasing himself from people’s lives, from massive architectural projects, from jobs, from assistantships, from internships.
“Are you always departing?” I ask.
“I’m a freelancer,” he says with a chuckle, “but people don’t give me money. Most don’t.”
“But you do the work?”
“Yeah. I get experience. And they’ll give me money, one day.” His voice sounds like it disbelieves his tongue.
“Did you bring me a gift from the U.S.?”
“No. I didn’t.”
He has already pulled out a book from his bag. Title: People and Democracy. The current prime minister wrote this book. He gives it to me, “a gift, for you.”
I accept it. “Now I must reciprocate your kindness. I will give you whatever I have in my bag.”
There’s Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra with me so I give the book to him. “I love this book,” I tell him, “You can keep it.” The back cover says, “God is dead.”
He says, “You never believed in religion, did you?”
“No, not really. At least not in the traditional sense.”
“And that must have increased once you moved out of the country,” he guesses.
I don’t know what to say.
“Well, even if you don’t believe, god has a way of shaping your life. You’ll know much later.”
“Do you want to survey that land with me? You’re a civil engineer. You can do this,” as he steps out of the car.
“Not this time. Another day.”
“OK. How about this, umm, throw an iftar party. Make it next week. Invite everyone we know. Let’s eat together.”
“Uh, I’ll see what I can do.”
The next instant he is gone.
The face that lingers in my vision is sad but interesting.