Images in an Archive; or, How to See Kabul From a Distance
Kabul street, Asad Hussain, 2010
by Taran N. Khan
The headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva are located not far from the lake, overlooking mountains and the distant glimmer of water. In the basement of the modern building are the archives of this institution, spanning its 150 year old history. The organization has had a presence in Kabul since 1987, making it one of the longest stints by an aid agency in the country. So its film archives from Kabul capture something of the events that occurred through the turbulent years – from the guerrilla jihad waged against the Red Army and the Soviet-backed government by Afghan militias, to the descent of these same factions of mujahideen (holy warriors) into infighting and civil war. In the years between 1992 to 1996, the conflict moved to the capital, and Kabul witnessed heavy fighting and an exodus of civilians forced to flee their homes. There are videos from during the years of the Taliban administration, and a much larger number from the years after the NATO-led regime change in 2001. Many of these changes are reflected in the videos in the agency archives, albeit in the tangential way of newreels and advocacy material.
This spring, I spent some time watching these films from Kabul in a small room deep in the depths of the ICRC building, a room located inside a network of corridors and sliding doors. It was a silent, small room, a room with space for the past, filled up with the tools of bearing witness, from U-Matic to Beta players. Its white walls were embellished with monochrome images from what, in the jargon of aid agencies, is called the ‘field’ and what most of us would simply call ‘the world’.
In this small room I lined up tapes in a box, unspooling and arranging them as I wished. Many of the videos were rough cuts, with the shots lined up but not quite arranged. The images that played out on my screen thus occupied a visual limbo, primed for the insertion of devices like voice-overs and texts, but as yet unoccupied by such interventions. Some emerged like a city symphony, haunting images and the sounds of Kabul, cut to a rhythm that could only be imagined. In some the images moved like poetry, snow falling on streets, the camera wandering from place to place. In some there were just silences, in others the stories of various people merged into one another, with no indication of where one ended, and another began. These absences gave the videos a gravitas that was unsettling, and a dark luminosity.
The room was tiny and the staff at the archives kept urging me to leave the door open as I worked, a suggestion meant kindly, to put me at my ease. I would nod and smile and leave the door open as they set me up with my tapes and machines for the day. I would close it when they left. Inside that room was Kabul, revealing itself for me from a time I had only heard of. I had first traveled to Kabul in 2006, and had since witnessed how the heady air of optimism and hope had turned toxic, tainted with corruption and fear. On the screen, I found images documenting earlier cycles of hope and loss, different stages of destruction, the bitter presence of flight. Embedded in those images I found also the cycles of forgetting that are intrinsic to how we see Kabul, the ruptures in memory that are essential to the way in which we talk of its past, and hence can talk of its present and its future.
In a video shot in 1996, there is an image that I paused and returned to again and again. In my notes, I call it ‘the wall’, or ‘rage’. The video was made perhaps a few months before the Taliban took over Kabul, perhaps after. A voiceover in English talks about the owner of the house.
The voice says:
Today, the country has no shortage of arms, but is has been reduced to ruins, to the despair of many of its people like Khair Mohammad. A former resistance fighter, he was himself seriously wounded while his father and three brothers were killed and his home destroyed in the Red Army bombardments.
The camera then pulls back to show the skeleton of the house, and the valley beyond its ruined walls. There are white snow topped mountains in the background. Everything is gone, except the door, and one corner of a room on the first floor. It is a corner with a carved wooden panel, simple and elegant. There are flowers, and borders and embellishments. There is also a niche, a feature familiar to me from my own home in a small town in the north of India. We call it by the same name as it is known in Afghanistan- a taaq, a small ledge to place mundane household items on, perhaps a lamp, perhaps some books. The lower parts of the wall are covered with soot and the intersecting walls end abruptly to expose the mountains, and the empty space behind the ruined house.
I return to this image, drawn to this visual record of what had been an ordinary corner in an ordinary home, a place of beauty and function in the everyday that now stands exposed to the elements like a shrine to the idea of beauty in Afghanistan. Embedded in these walls is the memory of this country as a place where home was valued and looked after with care, where there was history, and craft. It is dense with thought and loss, this corner. It is imbued with memory and skill, and its destruction too. Not just the place, but the memory of the place is gone, as though it had never been.
The wall I find in that archive, frozen on my screen, connects me to my housemate in Kabul, an economist and an administrator. I will call him Dr. B. Now in his sixties, Dr. B had spent most of his adult life abroad, in Europe and then traveling the world for his work. He returned to Kabul after 2001, to work in the ‘post-war reconstruction effort’ that was going to accompany the new era of peace in Afghanistan. Before he had left for Europe for the first time, as a teenager, he had cycled around the city and taken pictures of all the landmarks on his small camera. What premonition of farewell had pushed him to make that journey, he still cannot fathom. After all, photography was expensive and rare then. But for three days, he took his bicycle over tombs, palaces, parks and historical spots, capturing their images in a rare catalog. The slides of the Kabul of his boyhood are carefully preserved in his home in Germany. I will show them to you, he told me often, but he never did. Instead, over many evenings in our shared house in Kabul, he talked those pictures to life.
He spoke of the crockery store by the river that stocked the finest china teapots. Of the fine fabric covering cushions in every home, and the subtle simplicity of the rooms of these houses. He spoke of a cinema hall called “screen of learning”, Pohine Nindare, that showed educational films, that he would frequent on his way back from school. Sometimes, in the flow of his reminiscences, he would forget that he was talking to me, and his words and anecdotes would become a story he would tell himself. Each evening I would listen as he spun stories like a Scheherazade of Kabul, recalling only the past, only the good. These were our evenings. In the day, he would go to work for a private construction company, through streets that were slowly populated by opulent mansions belonging to warlords, shiny malls and large banks. The streets themselves remained pitted with potholes and marked by bullets. I saw him walking to work many mornings, a lonely figure picking his way through the debris of Kabul, and the tatters of its history. From him I learned the bitterness of a homecoming touched by loss, the helpless rage at being an outsider in your own home. Each day he would find something new to be angry about – the nonchalant non-respect of the “boys” he supervised at his office or the power cuts, the confectioner who overcharged him for sweets or the children being made to clean the gutters. “This is not my city”, he told me on several evenings. “These are not my people.” I pondered his words for many months before they made any sense to me. The city of Dr. B’s youth, the Kabul of a particular, sophisticated culture, had been destroyed by war. But it was in the reconstruction of peace, in the reshaping of Kabul after 2001, that it had been completely subsumed, along with the ruins of walls and neighbourhoods, the landmarks in his photos. The idea of Kabul as a place of history and learning, culture and beauty, is gone. And more bitterly, it is as if it had never been. It is an irony that is not lost on anyone, except perhaps Dr. B himself, that it takes a Kabuli who has lived most of his life in Europe to recognize this loss, and give it a name.
So when I heard Khair Mohammad speak in the video, I heard his words in Dr. B’s voice. This is what he said. “We’ve got arms and we’ve got nothing else. We are hungry and we’ve got nothing. No tools and no seeds to grow anything. What are we supposed to do with our guns? For nearly 20 years I fought besides the mujahideen. I was seriously wounded and held captive. And I never got any help from anyone. Just a spade, some shears and some farm tools from the ICRC. I have Allah, God alone to protect me.”
After he has finished speaking, there are shots of Khair Mohammad moving stones around his courtyard. Perhaps this is just for the camera, as his movements do not achieve anything. The entire house is rubble, just stones piled on stones.
Khair Mohammad’s home was ruined by war, Dr. B’s by an unjust peace. I hear their voices, separated by years, bound by the same rage, moving stones around their ruined courtyards.
The idea of Geneva, at least the name of the city, is one that you encounter often in Kabul. It comes painted in red, with the logo of the Red Cross. ‘Comite International, Geneve’, reads the text, repeated on the fronts of cars and the ID cards of officials, on boards in front of hospitals. From Kabul, this place called Geneva appears to be a place of impossible serenity, far removed from the chaos and violence that are immediately at hand, difficult even to imagine. It cannot be here, this place just outside my door, that I walk into, the cafeteria with people eating salads and sipping coffee, the city beyond with its glimmer of water from the lakefront, its bicycle paths to everywhere.
Emerging from the basement is a passing through of several shadowlands, an exercise in distances. It is an effort to reoccupy this city, so clean and efficient, so easy to like. From here, Kabul appears the way it does to the world, a place of distant suffering and poverty. After a while, with the shift in perspective comes relief, a sense of lightness at being in this place that is not Kabul. To see Kabul thus is to begin to leave it. The surprise is not in how quickly this happens, but how easy it is to continue.
I remember leaving the basement one afternoon when it had rained perhaps just moments before. The air was fresh with the smell of wet earth and the mountains shone with the kind of clear hardness that I knew from Kabul. In the Museum Ariana, across the street from the ICRC headquarters, there was an exhibition on Islamic history and civilizations. I wandered its dark basement but in the assembly of delicate porcelain and painted terracotta I found no Afghanistan.
I did not arrange the videos in chronological order. The images moved back and forth between the decades. In one instance I watched newsreel footage from 1993, from the time when Kabul had become the frontline of the civil war. Factions of mujahideen who had formerly fought against the Soviet and Afghan armies had turned on each other in an attempt to control the capital. In this footage, I glimpsed the city through holes in walls. Men wearing battle fatigues shot through those holes. The city appeared in rooms partially destroyed, images of guns resting on radiators that had stayed miraculously intact. The sky appeared through shattered roofs. At night it appeared lit up with flares, rockets tracing slow trajectories across the horizon, graceful and unending. The buildings that still stood served as documents of destruction, walls cascading in patterned falls, tracing the impact of missiles. Like x-rays that show the torn paths of bullets through organs. In the film, groups of soldiers stand guard in the middle of deserted streets, ride through the city on tanks. In one shot, they sit piled on top of a tank, carrying their guns, but not firing them. A woman walks past, wearing a blue tunic, her head covered with a large white chador (a long cloth), her face open. She carries a large bundle on her head, perhaps something to cook, something to burn, something thoroughly domestic. The woman balances the bundle perfectly, she walks on the pitted road wearing shoes with high heels.
In the same video, there is a sequence where a man talks to the camera in the middle of a crowd. He speaks with great urgency, as if his saying these words in time was crucial.
“In Kabul there is no peace,” he says. “We ask the United Nations, please if you can take our voices to the UN, tell them to help the Afghan people because they are also human.”
Stories of this place have been told before. This war has sent us a message before. Were we listening?
A few days later, I found a video filmed in 2008 about an initiative providing family access to inmates at the American military prison at Bagram air base. Located 30 kilometres outside Kabul, the airstrip had originally been built in the 1950s with Soviet aid. Bagram was a maximum security prison, where ‘high value targets’ were brought. It has also been described as “Afghanistan’s Guantanamo” for allegations of torture and abuse, and for the denial of legal rights to inmates.
The video I found focused on an ICRC initiative to connect detainees in the prison with their families via a videophone in Kabul. Often these prisoners had been missing for months, with no news of their whereabouts. I saw their families speak to them on large phones, the faces of the prisoners appearing on a screen. In the backdrop of every prisoner was a large flag of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and in the video their faces had been blurred. The families that came to talk to them appeared impoverished; many had waited hours for their turn on the videophone. There were grandparents bringing the children of the prisoners with them, or their parents accompanied by the prisoners’ siblings. Each of them wept, each of them smiled, the children were given the phone and spoke a few words. “Say salam” prompted one grandmother. The child just listened, saying “Nooo, yessss” to his father’s image, transfixed with the figure on the screen. Each of the families who were interviewed later talked about the relief of finally knowing. The blessed replacement of uncertainty with knowledge, the relief of having a place to assign for a loved one — even if it was a grave, a prison cell, a distant land. All this was better than the place that is not known, that exists only in desperate imaginations.
I think of the boy I will call Yusuf, whose family now exists in that place alone.
Yusuf grew up in Mazar e Sharif, a city in the north of Afghanistan, named for its shrine of Hazrat Ali, the son in law of Prophet Mohammad. Yusuf came to Switzerland in 2010, escaping after being kidnapped and tortured by a group of insurgents. In 2004 Yusuf had started working as a translator for reconstruction projects undertaken by the military of one of the NATO countries in Afghanistan. His family was well off, he told me, his elder brothers had lived and studied in Moscow, his married sisters worked as schoolteachers. Through all the years of war, nobody from his home had fled abroad. He is the first refugee in his family.
A few years after he started his job, Yusuf got a death threat on the phone from a group of insurgents, that he calls the Taliban, but says could well be a different militia, or just bandits out for ransom. The call warned him to stop working for the “infidels”. Incredibly, Yusuf ignored the call, putting it down to a practical joke played by his friends. “We used to do that a lot to each other. Also April Fools stuff.’ he said. So instead of paying attention to that call, or the ones that followed, Yusuf expanded his business, branching out into contracting supplies for the construction of schools and warehouses. Still in his twenties, he soon became a rich man, especially by the standards of his impoverished country. And this is what comes back to haunt Yusuf, each time he has the courage to think of it, or has to talk about it. If he had heeded that first call, if he had not continued with and expanded his work with NATO, his life could well have been different.
In 2009, a group of men broke into Yusuf’s house and while his mother and brother watched helplessly, he was kidnapped and driven away by his captors. After days of torture, says Yusuf, he managed to escape and make his way back to Mazar, where his panicked family sent him off to Kabul, to flee the country. He bought his way into Turkey, and from there traveled with smugglers into Greece. The money he had saved over the years paved his road, all the way to Switzerland. From the beginning of his journey, this was the destination Yusuf had in mind. “I wanted to get to Geneva, because I knew it was the place of human rights and UN.” Here, he felt, he could be sure of a sympathetic reception, and refuge. “Now of course,” he said after a long pause, “I know it isn’t like that.”
For Yusuf, the escape was an incomplete one, leaving his family hostage. In the years since he fled to Switzerland, Yusuf’s parents and younger brother were forced to leave their home in Mazar and return to their ancestral village to escape the insurgents, who were adamant on finding them. One day his father vanished while out in the fields near his house. Yusuf’s mother and brother found his body after a few days when, in desperation, they went searching for him. He was buried in his ancestral village. Yusuf got a letter from his mother to give him the news. This was the last he heard from her, he says. He does not dare call her or the younger brother she is with. Even his married siblings, he says, have been forced to cut off ties with them for fear of being targeted. In the course of a few years, his family has splintered, and now Yusuf has no place in his heart that he can call home, no place on a map where he can point to and locate his family.
I heard the story of Yusuf’s journey in a large garden in Geneva, in the shade of beautiful trees, his words punctuated by bird song and the faint sound of traffic. In the placidity of our surroundings, his story seemed outlandish, almost a caricature of violence and horror. Each day that he spends in the beauty of the Swiss countryside, Yusuf told me, each moment of joy that he has, comes back to him as a betrayal, a moving away from the unhappiness of his family. “But if I think of all that, I will always be sad”, he had added.
As he moves through the legal system and various stages of bureaucratic process, through different homes and shelters in the country, Yusuf carries one thing with him – the letter from his mother, telling him of his father’s death. It is an essential part of his legal file, a proof in his appeal for sanctuary, to be allowed to stay permanently in Switzerland. It is also the closest thing he has to a map to his own family, the closest guide to his own journey’s end.
In a video shot in 1992, I came across an image that in my notes I call ‘The Palace In The Snow.’ I failed to recognize this place, though I tried several times, slowly moving the toggle switch from frame to frame, watching the near monochromatic frames move with baffling familiarity.
But to talk of this palace, we must first talk of other things.
We must talk of a sequence in a film shot just a year after this, with a boy in an ambulance, his father sobbing with grief and then choking back his tears to comfort the son. And of the same father turning the boy’s face away gently as the child’s hand is sewn up into a bloody stump in the corridor of a hospital. Somewhere in between this process, a hospital staffer asks the father if he lives in Karte Parwan, a neighbourhood in Kabul. And the man replies with the politeness reflexive to so many Afghans, “Balle sahib, Karte Parwan”, (“Yes sir, Karte Parwan”) and he smiles, as his son loses his arm.
We must talk of the images of people leaving Kabul, walking down the shattered but still wide Jada e Maiwand, the avenue cutting a swathe through Kabul. They are watched dispassionately by a man in a uniform sitting on a chair in the middle of the street, a reminder that virtually each quarter of the city was controlled by different factions. We must talk of the debris that remained, the intact sign on the facade of a ruined building, a hand painted advertisement for a travel agency. ‘Kabul-Mazar e Sharif-Kunduz-Herat’, it said, with the image of a bus cheerily rolling along a black road. As if such roads still existed, as if such journeys were still undertaken with bookings at travel agencies, aboard cheerfully painted buses.
And we must talk of the images of the falling snow, making the jagged edges of ruined mud homes smooth
Then we can talk of the snow that covered this palace that I failed to recognize, though I tried for a long while. I finally recognized it when I saw it again, in a video from a few years later. It was by then the familiar ruined palace I had seen so many times in Kabul, called Dar ul Aman, the ‘place of peace’. I gazed at it again, erasing from it its wholeness, the intact turrets and the roof, to be able to place it in my memory.
Memory flows backwards in Kabul, landmarks derive from their destruction.
Most evenings after I finished my work in the basement of the ICRC archives, I wandered restlessly through the city, walking as I had once walked in Kabul. On those expeditions from years ago, I had learned that you need to understand the code on which cities are formed to be able to read them. Otherwise the city will deceive you, as Geneva did to me, with a smile for my camera. You can be tricked into thinking you see it from taking pictures of its churches and shuttered windows and red flowers, placed so well, like a flourish, a perfect ruse.
I walked through the streets of this city, aware of my distance from it, until somehow looking at images of Kabul turned into a map of Geneva, a key to deciphering the city that had so far eluded me, or to at least exploring one version of it.
For those who seek to see it in a certain way, the streets of Geneva are marked with the striving for peace, its pavements embossed with the idea of justice, of being a sanctuary. Among the names that mark these roads is Avenue de la Paix, the ‘street of peace’, with its statue of Mahatma Gandhi seated under the shade of trees. When Afghans think of refuge, (and when others do, as we all do) they must think of something very similar to this, if not precisely this. But what is this city, that is refuge to so many who are present and absent here, in the minds that turn to home? Or to ask this question another way, how do those who seek refuge in Geneva, seek to make it theirs?
I remember walking through leafy streets to seek out the only mosque minaret in the city. It is one of the four in Switzerland that predate a controversial 2009 ban on the structures. I found it tucked away in a quiet residential neighbourhood of the already quiet city, close to the Palais de Nations, headquarters of the United Nations. It was small and diminutive, barely visible unless you were looking for it, hardly seeming to be worth the trouble and the emotion of banning.
And I remember getting on a tram one evening and hearing the azan, the call to prayer that usually sounds from minarets. The sound seemed entirely natural, with the sun dipping and the evening so clear and beautiful around us. But it was also transformative, imbuing the boulevards and the facades with a familiarity that had evaded me so far, like a door opening to reveal the real river behind the one I had seen every day, the buildings and the people that I passed imbued with its rhythmic melody.
Instinctively my eyes scanned the horizon looking for the mosque. And then I looked around, at the people with me on the tram. The large but silent group from Japan, the chatty ladies from Sudan. And the father and son who had been speaking softly to each other Pashto. As the azan came to an end, the older man reached into his pocket and silenced his phone.
How do those who seek refuge in distant cities, seek to make them theirs? Or, to put it another way, how many minarets can you ban?
On the days I was not working in the basement archive, I spent time looking through family albums in the homes of Afghans, memories of people who had left Kabul for Europe in the 1970s and 80s, who had built lives and raised children without seeing the city again, who sometimes turned to ask me with curiosity why I went there, what was it like? The homes of many of these families were shrines to the city they had left behind, perfectly preserved enclaves of a Kabul that no longer exists in Kabul. “To hear my mother speak of her city”, said one young girl, “you would think it was the most beautiful place on earth.”
I returned most often to what I called the personal archive of Karim Amin, a friend met on my first journey to Kabul, and met again in Geneva. I returned to a film he had made that began with images playing out on the screen- a gnarled old hand, a child with a kite, images of the jashn, or republic day parades, in 1970s Kabul. “Just as I tried to catch you, you slipped out of my grasp”, says Karim’s voice.
Karim was raised in Vevey, a world away from his father’s home in Kabul. But his childhood was surrounded by family, as most of his aunts and uncles also moved to Switzerland, fleeing the war. He grew up in the middle of cousins, in the middle of a current that flowed between Europe and Afghanistan. One of the first pictures he showed me was of him with his cousin Tariq, both boys hiding behind a car wielding big toy guns. The caption, placed by Karim years later, said ‘Geneva Training Camp’. Another day he showed me a short newsreel video he had found in the archives of a TV station from the 1980s. The journalist was Karim’s father, reporting on the arrival of a group of mujahideen, still freedom fighters battling against the Soviets, who had come to Switzerland to be treated for their injuries before returning to fight the same war again. After 2001, Karim traveled to Kabul himself for the first time with some cousins to visit his paternal grandfather. The old gentleman had moved reluctantly only as far as Peshawar during the civil war, and had returned home as fast as he could. Karim was then in his 20s, and he carried a video camera to record what he saw for the cousins who could not join the trip.
One of the sequences in the film was shot in Karim’s family village in the Panjshir valley, north of Kabul. As the camera wanders over the fields and the countryside, it encounters an elderly man cutting wood. “Whose son are you,” he asks, “whose nephew?” Once he had placed Karim accurately, he sent a message to Karim’s father and uncles, his old classmates in the village school. “I pray to God you are all fine, and safe,” he said, standing by the river that had been a part of their childhood games, under the trees of their village. “I pray to God that you are doing well where you live, abroad.”
In another sequence, Karim recorded his grandfather sitting in the courtyard of his Kabul home, soaking in the mellow winter sunshine. He is talking to Tariq, asking him questions awkwardly, fondly, in the brusque manner of elderly men showing affection. “Are you doing well there? Do you make enough money?” asks the older man. “What do you eat? How do you cook?” Tariq replies in halting Persian, “I make something simple, something hot.” Their words mean nothing. But in the conversation is an attempt so familiar, so moving – to bridge the distance of years and continents, an attempt by men of different generations who have nothing in common to explain their unfathomable lives to each other. The words are poor symbols for the bond that holds them together, deeper than distance. Call it blood, call it love.
“As I tried to catch you, you slipped away.”
Karim returned to Kabul soon after that, spending several years working with the nascent media industry, getting to know his grandfather. Within a few years, the old gentleman passed away. Karim made the film I saw as an elegy to the man he had known so briefly, to the mysterious relationship he had with a home only imagined, never really known. A film that I read as an elegy also to the city he knew intermittently, yet intimately. Back when we had first met, I had spent several nights driving with Karim through the streets of Kabul, hurtling from one party to the other, caught in the buzz of his large, eclectic circle of friends. All those years later, I experienced the same feeling in Geneva, driving between cities on Friday evenings, to apartments where music poured out of open windows and the air was thick with smoke and chatter. Kabul seemed to be all over Geneva on those evenings, on the old friends we picked up from supermarket parking lots, to the stores we passed owned by Karim’s cousins, to the greetings we called out to shop-owners from Pakistan, careless of turning heads and startled looks in the decorous streets. Once when he was living in Kabul, Karim told me, he had lit a cigarette while standing outside an auditorium. Within minutes, he had got a call from his angry father in Geneva, demanding to know if he was smoking. “Where are you”, Karim had asked, bewildered, before he realized that the news had traveled within minutes through the network of relatives and friends, across the oceans and continents, from a courtyard in Kabul to his father’s home in Switzerland. Soon before I left Geneva for my home back in Mumbai, I joined Karim for a family wedding. His aunts were delighted to see me, a bonafide Indian, mostly because of their love for Bollywood films of a certain vintage. In the French countryside that was the location for the wedding, they insisted that I sing and dance with them to the Indian film tune I have heard at every Afghan wedding. “Ghar aaya mera pardesi”, they hummed along with me, “My beloved is returned home.”
Karim now works as a cameraman with a large TV station. He travels widely and often, and is on different continents nearly every week. The first time we spoke in Geneva, he told me he wanted to take me to see his new place. It was in the countryside and overlooked the snowy peaks that ring the city. “Sometimes”, he told me on the phone, “I see the mountains and think I am in Kabul.”
To see Kabul in flashes, from a basement and from homes in a distant city, is to learn to see the range of experiences and stories that flow between the ideas of refuge and home. And to learn to see Kabul from a distance is to learn to recognize it everywhere. To see Kabul from afar is to gaze at a street in Geneva, and see an image form in black and white, flecked with falling snow. A door stands framed by mountains, as if awaiting the home around it.
About the Author:
Taran N. Khan is a journalist and non-fiction writer based in Mumbai. She has been traveling to Afghanistan since 2006, working with filmmakers and media producers in Kabul. Her writing has appeared in publications in India (The Hindu, Caravan, Indian Express, DNA) and abroad (Himal Southasian, Gulf News, Al Jazeera). Research for this essay was supported by a Pro Helvetia Studio residency.