Pakistan: What lies ahead?

Dr Amit Ranjan is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council for World Affairs in New Delhi. Here, he submits a point of view on the tensions inherent in contemporary Pakistan, and what they might mean for the future.

One of the most challenging questions that haunt Pakistanis and others too is: Where is the country heading towards? The presence of a strong infrastructure of terror makes some portray it as a ‘terrorist’ state; a few call it a ‘weak state’; and another few define it as a ‘deep state’. Conceptually, it cannot be put into either of those categories. But it indeed has a strong presence of terror within its infrastructure, which affects the socio-political system of the country. The killing on 16 December 2014 of about 140 students and staff members from the Army Public School, Peshawar, by the militants from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is a recent act of brutality committed by them. Not only the militants, but even the Pakistani state has carried out brutal attacks in the name of fighting against militancy. Since, 2001 many innocents have already lost their lives as a part of ‘collateral damage’. Continue reading

RSAA member, Tajikistan

Landmarks, memory, and a changing Dushanbe

Anna Kellar studied Political Science as an undergraduate at Yale, where she co-founded the Yale Afghanistan Forum, and is currently finishing a Msc in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics. She has conducted research on development aid in Tajikistan,  studied foreign policy in Italy and worked for an anti-corruption NGO in Slovakia. She is the recipient of a Sir Peter Holmes Memorial award from the RSAA. Here, she writes on the changing face of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

Last summer, while browsing through a collection of Soviet kitsch for sale in Dushanbe’s GUM department store, I found a faded set of Intourist postcards of Dushanbe circa 1982. The city they depict is clean and modern – blue skies, few cars, inhabitants in white shirts and sundresses. Though I recognized a few of the landmarks, many were a mystery to me. I assigned myself a mission: locate each place and see what had changed, and what hadn’t, in thirty-two years.

In the years since the postcards were printed, Tajikistan went through major upheaval, yet, despite independence and war, most of the landmarks had survived the 1990s. The statue of Lenin was gone, of course, replaced by the favorite national poet, Rudaki. I expected that; the remarkable thing was that the switch was only made in 2007. Other Soviet heroes linger on – trees have grown in front of Kuibishev, but he still guards the (mostly-inactive) train station. The hotels and department stores still stand, some with new names and new facades, but the same bones.

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Rudaki has replaced Lenin in central Dushanbe

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Sadbarg Department Store and Aini Square

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Rudaki (formerly Lenin) Avenue, and the Zindabod building

Though most of the landmarks I searched for are still there, covered with uglier facades, the surrounding buildings are disappearing. Attempting to imitate the angles of the original postcards, I searched for elevated vantage points, only to realize that the photographer must have stood on the balconies of buildings that no longer exist. Dushanbe changes slowly, but the pace is speeding up.

This scares me when I think about the fate of my favorite landmarks in Dushanbe. The sky blue towers on Pushkin Street are slightly surreal: twelve floors tall and monumental close up, they are somehow hidden, even in low-lying Dushanbe, when you are more than a block away. There are six of them, at corners to each other, the edges softened by vaguely oriental arches and the weathering of time. The balconies are mostly closed in and laundry hangs as tiny bright squares across many of the windows. Satellite dishes cover the roofs like hair on a chia pet.

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For weeks, I would snap a picture whenever my route took me near by. The towers drew me in with their decaying grandeur, their beauty in a city that is rapidly becoming uglier. It also helped that, unlike the slogan-topped towers on Rudaki Ave, of which I was also fond, these were not featured on the postcards that were guiding me around the city.  I felt possessive because I was sure no one else valued them. And as I documented the rapid rise of ugly fiberglass-clad pseudo-post-modern high rises across the city, I became increasingly sure that these relics weren’t likely to last much longer.

Every morning in Dushanbe, I woke up to the sound of construction on the apartment complex rising behind my house. When I came home at night, a single bright light on top of the skeletal framework competed with the waxing moon. The small apartment building I lived in – 2 stories, 8 apartments – was itself on borrowed time. It wasn’t much to feel nostalgic for – overgrown courtyard, broken windows and broken wooden boards in the fly-infested stairwell. But the courtyard also had two-story hollyhocks, and the neighbors shared washing machines, phone chargers, an occasional meal. I started thinking of it as a metaphor for everything good and bad about post-Soviet Tajikistan: existence in the ruins of a grand design, stagnant but made livable through the pacts of the inhabitants.

I visited the inside of the blue towers by accident. I was going to Iskanderkul for the weekend, and my friend was borrowing a friend-of-a-friend’s aquaintance’s sleeping bag from an apartment on the top floor of one of the towers. This was harder than it sounded: its only helpful to know street and apartment numbers if they are also posted somewhere on the building. The only signs I could see, though, were the huge faded numbers painted on the outside of each floor – for what purpose I could only imagine. We made a guess, taking a dark and creaking two-person elevator from the cramped lobby (lit with a bare bulb) up to the top floor. The top landing had four doors, all unlabeled, none of them opening when we knocked.

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But I was immediately drawn to the balcony, the view I suddenly had across the city in the late afternoon haze. From here I could see the detritus clustered on the upper level balconies of the tower opposite, screened by the delicate lacework concrete railings. Looking down, I saw one of the squat buildings nearby had a rug drying on the roof. On the way down the stairs, I read the graffiti – a large ballpoint pen drawing of a car squeezed among the usual declarations of love.

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In the interior courtyard (smelling strongly of the rotting melon rinds collecting at the bottom the trash bins) we pondered which tower to try next, until I noticed the old number sign, well hidden behind a scraggly tree: Pushkin 8. Aha! Into another dim entry, a slightly better maintained elevator, and again we knocked on the door of a random apartment, where a young girl pointed across the hall. We were foreigners; she knew where the foreigner lived. I took a last look from the new balcony: pigeons circled the top of tower I’d just been in, and the twin pastel wedding cake towers of Dushanbe Plaza loomed behind, the new wannabe-Dubai Dushanbe elite’s answer to statement architecture. As we reached the street again, I turned back for a last look, almost running into a young woman with elegant shoes and tight jeans, talking on the phone as she headed out for the night.

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Southwest in the evening

I don’t know the history of the blue towers; I don’t even know their name, if they have one. I don’t know who owns them, I don’t know if the same families have lived there for decades or if they are all rented out to newcomers. I don’t know their future, but I’ll be sad when they are gone. As an outside observer, I have the luxury to see the towers as a symbol.

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Construction in Azadi Square, with the Somoni monument in the background

Dushanbe is changing, though often these reconstructions only imply a superficial cladding over old foundations. The new forces transforming the city combine a Soviet disregard for the past with a drive for growth that only benefits a select political circle. The same story is everywhere: the drug money; the Chinese construction firms; the countless broken sidewalks and new shopping centers. There is a giant hole in central Azadi Square, where the post office used to be and a new post office has yet to be built. The site is fenced off with a massive billboard for Megafon cell plans. Something old is gone, and whether it’s lamented or not, the future hasn’t arrived yet. Not for the majority.




Invention of a Pre-Ottoman Tradition: Diriliş

Nagihan Haliloglu is an assistant professor at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. Here, she writes on Diriliş – the Game of Thrones equivalent which is currently enthralling Turkish TV audiences – and meditates on what reflections it casts on contemporary Turkey.

In November 2014 the streets of Istanbul were suddenly awash with posters of bearded men wielding swords. It took me a few days to realize that they were not advertising the same thing: one was the poster for the latest Hobbit film, the other was heralding the arrival of a new Turkish series called Diriliş (Resurrection). This double billing has been justified after five episodes of Diriliş, catering as it does for the horse, steel and fur needs of the TV viewing-public, and making use of many of the tropes found in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, both of which the Turkish audience has very much taken to heart over the years. Possibly more importantly, Diriliş also serves as a series-a-clef for the real life game of governments happening in contemporary Turkey.

Diriliş is about the arrival in Anatolia of the nomadic Turkish Kayı clan that would, upon reaching the western coast of the peninsula, found the Ottoman dynasty in 1299. The first episode starts with the camera sweeping over a computer-generated oba, tent city, the legend underneath giving the year as 1255. The producers of the series are conservative enough not to give an exact location of this Kayı oba, for we know little about the route Kayı clan took on their way from Central Asia. So far in the series, the Kayı are portrayed as inhabiting a geography that is ruled by an uneasy entente between the Seljuks in Konya, the Arabs in Aleppo and the Knights Templar somewhere in the mountains of Amanos, around Hatay. The lands that the Kayı come from, in turn, are ever present in the musical score, both in the opening sequence and in the rather numerous fight scenes. It’s a tune played on a central Asian string instrument called dombra– an eponymous genre that was made popular through Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s election campaign in 2014. Wink and nudge.

The series’ central protagonist is Ertuğrul – son of Süleyman Şah, the ailing Bey of the Kayı clan- who will become the father of Osman of the Ottoman Empire fame when they reach Söğüt, just south of the Marmara Sea. The very first words we hear in the series are ‘Haydır Allah! Tektir Allah!’ (Allah is alive! Allah is one and only!) spoken by Ertuğrul as he takes turns beating a hot sword with a hammer with the oba’s blacksmith – a scene that sets the post-secular tone of the whole production. The series is full of religious undertones and overtones: people taking wudu, people reciting the Quran, people performing the salah, and not just evil and/or lower-class characters as has been in the Turkish republican drama tradition, but upright characters from the nobility- scenes that were thought impossible in pre-Erdoğan Turkey. With its religious ethos, Diriliş serves as an antidote to the internationally popular Magnificent Century that depicted the Ottomans, the progeny of Ertuğrul, as a Turkish version of the Tudors, and that drew criticism from several members of the government, including Erdoğan. Social media chatter suggests that with its emphasis on loyalty, respecting your elders, sharing the small piece of bread with the rest of the clan, Diriliş is a winner with the Turkish family-viewing public, who have already complained about the brutality of the rather well choreographed fight scenes of the alps, Turkish warriors. The nation seems to have bought into this effort of imagining of a not well-recorded period of Turkish history, as the Kayı tribe tries to wean itself off Arab patronage and also to escape the Mongol threat (who are, apparently getting their own revival, or resurrection, if you will, in Netflix’s Marco Polo). And they want to have their history lesson without having to change the channel for the good of the littler ones in the family.

While the scenes of overt religiosity can be seen as pure propaganda – or a teaching tool depending where you are sitting on the fence – they also serve to highlight the battle for Turkish souls that was still going on in 13th century. The Turks are known to have accepted and spread Islam through a very sufi understanding that is everywhere in evidence in the series. The various crafts that are associated with the Turkish tribes – and which the viewer gets to see several characters engage in – such as iron-mongering, felting, weaving, all have their patron saints/sheiks, and traditionally being a part of a guild automatically meant being a part of that sufi order. Even the axe-wielding alps are Sufis; popular tradition holds that it was through the alperens (a word that combines warrior and dervish) that the Turks Islamized Anatolia and the Balkans. In the series there’s a shamanic witch who tries to lure the folk back into black-magic, and she has already helped Ertuğrul’s evil sister-in-law to conceive late(ish) into her marriage. What monster will slouch towards the oba only the future episodes can tell.

The force of good that will counter the witch’s evil practice is – SPOILER – Ibn Arabi, considered the greatest sufi sheikh of all by many, who appears unannounced, all Gandalf, as a wise old man with a white turban and beard. He is soothing a deer that has just fled from Ertuğrul who, in a moment of obligatory compassion a-la-Stark, has pulled but not released his arrow on it. The scene also sets the tone of what kind of religiosity the series wants to resurrect in the viewer – if we should be so bold as to claim that the series has a didactic purpose. Later, when some evil Knights Templar let their henchmen loose on Ertuğrul who is fighting off the effects of a weakening potion in the Mamluk palace in Aleppo, Ibn Arabi, who is a few streets away in a dhikr session, goes into warg mode, and helps Ertuğrul fight off his drugged sleep and get rid of his assailants. Grace of God manifested through emotive music and psychedelic camerawork for the spiritual edification and entertainment of the general viewing public.

The series recognizes Ibn Arabi as the patron sheikh of the Turks, providing guidance and succour throughout the series. Ibn Arabi is quick to recognize the crusader infiltrators both in Aleppo where he sets up his dargah and on the road as journeymen. The Knights Templar, played by Turkish actors with permanent grimaces on their faces, are portrayed as forever scheming to get the different Muslim tribes to fight one another: ‘No Islamic capital will have peace anymore thanks to the moles we have placed in them’, is the mantra of the top evil crusader as he keeps releasing carrier pigeons from their cages in the castle- an oblique reference, possibly, to how Europeans have always had the lead in communication technologies. The evil warring tactics of the crusaders include sending leper militia to contaminate the food supply of the Kayı with plague germs. When caught, they dutifully drink poison, saying they are happy they will be meeting their Saviour Lord in heaven- biological warfare and suicide mission rolled into one.

Just as there is a sense of an Islamic world that needs a unifying force in the face of all the European meddling, there are also the contemporary references as to how dissension within Muslim/Turkish ranks are exploited by the Crusaders. One of the governors of the Seljuk sultan in Konya, Karatoygar (Blacklark) is in cahoots with the Knights Templar, holding Seljuk nobility for ransom, and also providing arms to Ertuğrul’s uncle Kurdoğlu who wants the kingship of the oba for himself. During an absence of Süleyman Şah, uncle Kurdoğlu even carries the standard of the tribe to his own tent – a clear reference to the current internecine conflict between Erdoğan and his one-time brothers in arms.

One of the points of contention between Süleyman Şah and Kurdoğlu is with whom they should throw their lot. It’s a tough life, the life of a nomadic tribe, having to ask the permission of the ruler whose lands you may be crossing. And given the changing dynasties and borders of 13th century Middle East – plus ça change – the idea of a permanent home starts to gain ground in the clan as Ertuğrul is sent to the emir of Aleppo to ask for a yurt – a word that can denote a whole spectrum of permanency in residence in modern Turkish – here meaning a homeland. Aleppo is the one city that keeps being mentioned in the series as a cosmopolitan centre, and the computer generated citadel looks not unlike King’s Landing. There are filler scenes of a thriving market, carpets and jewels and birds, an Aleppo that the viewers watch with immediate sad nostalgia. So far in the series the tribe is looking southwards for a permanent homeland, and they keep sending emissaries to the emir. But the viewing public knows that at some point the direction will change, and the alps will be riding towards the west, to fulfil the prophecy of the conquest of Constantinople. It is for the intrigue, the sword fights, the divine interventions that will change Kayı’s course towards their promised land that the public keeps coming back every Wednesday evening.

Iran, RSAA member

In Pursuit of the Jewels of Persia

RSAA members Max Lovell-Hoare and Sophie Ibbotson both recently were privileged to be part of a first in the history of travel – they were guides on the first private train to be permitted to cross from Iran to Europe. Here, Max Lovell-Hoare reflects on an unexpected gem he discovered in Iran during the journey.

Three days before boarding my flight to Tehran, I still didn’t have a visa. The Iranian authorities’ wariness of foreigners with journalist credentials is well-known (and, frequently, justified), but their principle reason given for stalling my own application was that I had reported for the Wall Street Journal from Tehran in 1982. Given that I would have been six at the time and hadn’t set foot in Iran before or since, this did cause me to raise an eyebrow, but the point seemed to have passed over a plethora of bureaucrats, and even once I spelled it out, my application still hung in limbo as no one wanted to countenance the fact that an internal intelligence report might be wrong. Quite whose common sense prevailed I cannot be entirely sure, but I am forever grateful. I was summoned in person to the Iranian Embassy in Dublin, the paperwork was stamped, and 48 hours later I was on yet another flight, this time to Tehran via Istanbul.

Completing the journey under steam in Budapest, Hungary (c) MEP

Completing the journey under steam in Budapest, Hungary (c) MEP

I flew to Iran to join the inaugural tour of the Golden Eagle Danube Express, the first European private train to be allowed into the country. Built in the mid 20th century to transport senior Hungarian officials around the Balkans, this was the train’s first foray east of Istanbul, and its arrival marked both an up-tick in Iran’s diplomatic relations with the West, but also gave the clear message that Iran is once again fully open for tourism. The reception we received from Iranian officials, the media and from ordinary people, was ecstatic.

Figurative bas relief carvings at Persepolis, Iran (c) MEP

Figurative bas relief carvings at Persepolis, Iran (c) MEP

In my mind, it was Persepolis that would be the highlight of the tour. The majestic ruins, set amongst an arid landscape, did not disappoint, but neither did they quite marry with the images I had first seen in National Geographic as a child. Instead, the place which utterly fascinated me, and which I could visit time and again, was somewhere had never even occurred to me might exist. It was the extraordinary Vank Cathedral in Isfahan.

Cherubs in Vank Cathedral, Isfahan, Iran (c) MEP

Cherubs in Vank Cathedral, Isfahan, Iran (c) MEP

Shah Abbas I relocated a substantial number of Armenian refugees from the Ottoman Wars to Isfahan in the early 17th century. He gave them permission to build a cathedral church in their new homeland, and the resulting building is a remarkable fusion of Islamic and Orthodox architectural and artistic styles. The sanctuary is typical of a Safavid-era mosque, but the accompanying dome is very much from the Orthodox tradition. On the walls are finely glazed tiles with geometric patterns and floral motifs, but also exquisite figurative frescos depicting scenes from Revelations, and gilded cherubs with beatific smiles. A faint smell of incense lingers in the air, and throughout most of the day a solitary priest prays unhurried at the altar.

The cathedral, small though it is, is a haven of peace in an otherwise frantic city. Perhaps it is this contrast which made its discovery such an unexpected delight, though I think at least part of the charm was that it overturned my own preconceptions about what I’d find in Iran. Logically, I knew there was still a Christian community in Iran, but it took meeting with it face to face to realise not only does it still flourish, but its cultural heritage is treasured and preserved not only by Iran’s Christians but by the population at large.