September 12th, 2019
We talked with Alla Ivanchikova to discuss the author’s upcoming book, contemporary cultural production on Afghanistan, and the way this cultural production serves as a litmus test for a producer’s political and geopolitical beliefs.
Ivanchikova’s book, Imagining Afghanistan: Global Fiction and Film of the 9/11 Wars, examines how Afghanistan has been imagined in literary and visual texts that were published after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion.
Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?
Alla Ivanchikova: The two decades of the 9/11 wars have seen a production of thousands of titles on Afghanistan, and the book tries to make sense of what has transpired in this corpus of works. I argue that Afghanistan serves as a mirror upon which contemporary cultural producers project their values and beliefs, as well as their presumptions and biases.
Q: What are some of the most common ways this projection manifests?
Ivanchikova: The most obvious one is the belief in benevolent humanitarianism. Since the end of the Cold War, humanitarianism has become the only mode through which we were able to imagine relating to distant others and to their suffering. It was a direct consequence of the collapse of the socialist bloc. Humanitarianism replaced the relation of comradeship or solidarity as being on the same side of a common struggle, which defined the era of anticolonial liberation movements, of which many were left-leaning. Afghanistan is a case study in the humanitarian imaginary: the two cultural products that came to stand for Afghanistan are the Afghan Girl from the National Geographic cover and Khaled Hosseini’s bestseller The Kite Runner. Both give us striking, unforgettable images of suffering children on behalf of which we are compelled to intervene. The less obvious way in which this projection manifests is the anticommunist imaginary, still pervasive in the NATO-centric contexts and my book unpacks the distortions and mirages it creates.
Q: In the introduction to the book, you reference Afghanistan being referred to as a “dim object” prior to the 9/11 attacks. More specifically, “it emitted no light, attracted no attention, and the eyes of the world were not on it”. Do you think this absence of a cultural presence made it easier for these post 9/11 cultural producers to project Afghanistan in their own light?
Ivanchikova: Afghanistan’s cultural invisibility between 1989 (Soviet withdrawal) and 2001 reflects how cultural production is tied to geopolitics. The era between 1989-2001 was one when the Afghan state suffered a complete collapse and people’s suffering was the most intense, but hardly any works have been produced during this time period. So it’s not the intensity of suffering that determines the production of humanitarian images, but geopolitics, and humanitarian images and stories are used, again and again, to justify military interventions. You are right, however, in suggesting that after 2001, there was a sense that Afghanistan was somehow “rediscovered,” and was an unmapped territory. This resonated with many writers who were invested in neo-imperial fantasies of “wild” Afghanistan.
Q: What motivated you to take on this subject?
Ivanchikova: The conflict in Afghanistan spans the entire course of my life. I grew up in the USSR during the Soviet-Afghan war. My early adulthood in the US was dominated by the crisis of 9/11 and the foreign wars that followed. In both cases, the true nature of these conflicts has been largely withheld from the public. I wanted to investigate. As a cultural studies scholar, I did my investigation mostly through analyzing cultural texts—fiction, memoirs, graphic novels, and film. I discovered that Afghanistan poses very specific representational difficulties: whoever writes on it, has to struggle with how to articulate various aspects of its past: its socialist history, the invasion by the Soviet Union, the role of the US in the fuming the flames of the “Afghan” jihad, and the failures of the US-led intervention that followed the Taliban ouster. Immediately and inevitably, one finds herself in the domain of not only history, but ideology.
Q: So given the nature of Afghanistan, it’s very hard to cover while maintaining the appearance of being ideologically neutral, or without espousing some kind of ideology?
Ivanchikova: Yes, that’s correct. Afghanistan serves as a litmus test of a sort, either revealing your political and geopolitical positioning, or revealing your confusion as to how to position yourself. In my book, I don’t argue for objectivity, however, but insist on the value of having many different stories. Unfortunately, the first wave of writing and screening Afghanistan, between 2001 and 2009, produced texts that told only one type of a story—the story of Afghanistan as a relic of soviet barbarity, to be saved by the West’s helping hand. This was in line with the official US view, as articulated by Donald Rumsfeld, for example. There was particular investment in, and fascination with, the figure of the suffering Afghan woman.
Q: Why is this problematic?
Ivanchikova: It is important to remember that the crisis suffered by Afghan women was a direct consequence of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (a socialist state that championed women’s rights) being defeated by ultra-patriarchal radical Islamist groups supported by the Reagan administration. This is an uncomfortable story to tell in NATO-centric contexts, because instead of making the reader/spectator feel good about liberating Afghan women, it implicates them into the very scene of crisis. So barely anyone wants to tell this story. But these stories needs to be told for any work of transnational reconciliation to begin. The other story that needs to be told is one of the Afghan effort to build socialism. Afghanistan suffers from the same problem that affects the entirely of the former second world: the absence of a language in which to talk about the defeated socialist projects in the aftermath of the Cold War’s end. We need more stories that bring into view the Afghan revolutionary subject—women and men who dreamt of and fought for economic and social equality and fought for the revolution rather than against it. We have tons of books that romanticize anti-statist (patriarchal) insurgency in Afghanistan—men who fought against communists. How many stories do we have that feature Afghan revolutionary women? Almost none. Ultimately, it is this very erasure of Afghan revolutionary history that results in a humanitarian capture of Afghanistan’s present.
Q: Where do you feel a person would find the most accurate representation of Afghanistan in contemporary culture?
Ivanchikova: I especially like Nadeem Aslam’s work as he tries to unpack the multiple layers of Afghan history present simultaneously in a landscape, like a palimpsest. In my book, I talk about his two novels: The Wasted Vigil and The Blind Man’s Garden. I also recommend Qais Akbar Omar’s memoir, In a Fort of Nine Towers. It is a very accessible, didactic work by a survivor of the civil war era—precisely the era during which Afghanistan became a dim object. It has particular relevance for the current moment: by describing what it meant to have lived through the destruction of Kabul as it was captured by the warring jihadist groups in 1992, the memoir gives us a glimpse into what it means to have survived the sieges of Fallujah, Mosul, Palmira, Raqqa, or Aleppo in the twenty-first century.
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