Forces of Afghanistan's Northeastern Tip
The Afghan Pamir is an out-of-the-way place that lies at the northeastern tip of Afghanistan and the end of the Himalaya range. There, people live under the pressures of war, a harsh climate and restrictive border and economic policies. This is the place where I am working as a young anthropologist but also as a colleague, a tourist, a spy, a friend, a distant relative, etc. depending on the person I meet. Here, power is not to be seen in singular but in plural since different instances express particular perspectives on and apprehensions of the world – including myself not looking at everybody in the same way. Our positions are defined in relation to the persons and contexts we are confronted with, whether we perceive them as cheerful, inviting, indifferent, threatening, etc. On the other side, our gazes also reflect the ways we make sense of the world. Our eyes scan, underline particular things, order the world, classify, select things worth of attention and are in turn influenced by the things they see. In a classically dialogical approach, our eyes are thus knowledges of the world and powers (acting) on the world. My camera is an instrument that helps recording the many traces of power's existences and confrontations.
Conventionally, the realm of power encompasses claims over place, resource distribution, transmission of rights and things or legitimate use of violence but the evaluation of one's influence on another remains difficult to settle. Ethnography, as the art of noticing, is well equipped to reveal more things that matter in the complex articulation of shifting power's configurations. This essay displays here a selection of powerful things, speeches and acts that all played a decisive role for the people living in the Afghan Pamir.
In the highly contested country of Afghanistan, where society is unable to situate consensually where the right to power lies, the Afghan Pamir, considered as a remote singularity but at the crossroads of dominant spaces, promises lots of creative ways to signify and interpret the influence of powers from the margins.
There are several instances of power, the armies, the police, the Rais or Community Development Council Leader, the Khan (customary but nowadays contested leader of the Kyrgyz community), the Bai (wealthy owner), the Hajji (who realised the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca), and charismatic women. All have in common to recognise God's absolute power, while development workers try to avoid his complicated omnipresence. With the natural of the habit, people recall at the beginning and the end of meals to extraordinary forces such as God, ancestors or benefactors. Large horns and heads of wild game, bright colours or rumours on the neighbour's bad uses of their forces all make the presence of over worldly forces familiar and impressive. They constitute everyday instantiations of another kind that also effect on more worldly negotiations. Despite all these various exotic techniques of display and invocations of external forces, war made its way through the rugged terrain. "Violence always owns the last sentence", as a trader reminded me, and conditions the articulation of these contested configurations.
Powers are thus manifested in a great variety of acts, places and speeches, always different, often contested. However, "there is no stronger decision than one motivated by death's recall" told me the leader.