Dec
30

Imagining Afghanistan

Quite a number of books have followed in the tradition of Edward Said, critiquing and contesting the manufacturing of narratives. Nivi Manchanda's "Imagining Afghanistan" The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge" (2020) provides a deep dive into those narratives of Afghanistan. Chapters of the book explore the use of "tribe" and "tribalism", the colonial construction of narratives, the American military deployment of narratives, the portrayal of "warlords" and women in Afghan society, as well as masculinity and sexuality. For anyone interest in this topic, this is a rich book of details. In the specific, readers familiar with this tradition of writing will find a similar meta-narrative. A few notes:

The book: "partakes in the effervescent conversation about social science's implication in empire, both past and present, and brings to the table a rather peculiar example of this implication. This is the story of imperialism in Afghanistan, a story which is perhaps best designated as that which is the 'same but different'. It is the 'same' in that it displays, even exemplifies, a steady, if not quite consistent, lineage of colonial thinking about the Other." (p. 5-6)

As reported elsewhere, but in more detail here: "What the exhibition and its curators fail to mention is how these textbooks came into being. During the mid 1980s, a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) printed millions of textbooks in Peshawar that were distributed to schoolchildren across Afghanistan. The textbooks were designed to indoctrinate Afghans against the evils of the Soviet Union and made for immensely powerful propaganda. Specialists from the Afghanistan Center at the University of Nebraska Omaha received $51 million to develop a curriculum, which glorified jihad, celebrated martyrdom and dehumanised foreign invaders. Published in Dari and Pashto, these schoolbooks taught the alphabet through Kalashnikovs and counting through guns and bullets, and had elaborate mathematical questions which drew on conflict scenarios, deploying various firearms in inventive ways, for more advanced pupils. One example read: 'A Kalashnikov bullet travels at 800 meters per second. A mujahid has the forehead of a Russian in his sights 3,200 meters away. How many seconds will it take the bullet to hit the Russian's forehead?' Although USAID funding for the project stopped in 1994, multiple copies of the texts remained in circulation in the 1990s and into the 2000s." (p 2-3)

Continues later: "… Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, founded in 1972, is still the world's only permanent research and training centre devoted solely to the study of Afghanistan.24 Set up to counterbalance the Soviets, following a lull in the 1990s, it found a renewed sense of purpose after 9/11. The centre has since provided 'training on Afghan history, culture, and language to U.S. Army Human Terrain System teams that were departing for Afghanistan'. It has trained over 600 military and civilian personnel to prepare them for service in Afghanistan. It also helped 'professionalize' members of the Afghan National Army between 2008 and 2010.25 Similarly, Indiana University recently inaugurated a National Resource Center for creating Pashto-language materials, focusing on providing 'key training for U.S. forces in Afghanistan'. Gene Coyle, a retired CIA officer, who has never worked in Afghanistan, serves as director…" (p. 9) 

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Apr
15

Slaves into Workers

For those interested in the history of slavery in contexts other than the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Ahmad Alawad Sikainga's "Slaves into Workers: Emancipation and Labor in Colonial Sudan" (1996) provides a detailed account of the rise and demise of slavery within the Sudan. "In the broadest sense", Ahmad writes, "this book examines slave emancipation and the development of wage labor in the Sudan under British colonial rule. At the specific level, the study focuses on the fate of ex-slaves and other dislocated people in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, and on the attempt of the colonial state to transform them into wage laborers" (p. xi).

This historical study shows how changes in the pre-colonial period transformed slavery from being limited to the elite to a common practice. The shifts included changes related to "taxation, commerce, military recruitment, and land tenure" (p. 35), throughout showing that there was "a strong link between slave emancipation, ethnicity, and labor" (p. 185) during the pre-colonial and colonial periods. With colonization, the "colonial economy guaranteed the continuation of slavery" (p. 39) through the types of projects its prioritized and funded, particularly in the agriculture sector. The international community would later put pressure on the colonial government to address slavery, including "continuous pressure from the League of Nations and the Anti-Slavery Society" (p. 102) resulting in moves to "suppress rampant slave trading and arms smuggling" (p. 103) toward the end of the 1920s.

"Although institutionalized servitude existed in the Sudan since antiquity, the widespread use of slaves did not occur until the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century when Turco-Egyptian encroachment was set in motion. These changes included commercial contact with the outside world, the rise of a middle class, and the development of a new ideology that justified domination and enslavement" (p. 184).

On the gendered nature of slavery, this book provides a wealth of insight. During the colonial regime, the author writes that while "male slaves had to grapple with the antipathy of the government officials and the resistance of their owners [to emancipation], slave women faced even greater obstacles to emancipation… According to official estimates, they [females] constituted three-fourths of the slave population in the Sudan at the beginning of this century. Moreover, acquisition of female slaves continued during the first twenty years of this century. As male slaves began to leave, the labor of slave women became even more vital and owners made every possible effort to prevent their manumission." (p. 54)

The book is quite formulaic in style, but offers a depth of historical research that makes it an excellent reference on the topic.
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