A war game, gone terribly wrong

Kishwar Rizvi
Kishwar Rizvi

By Kishwar Rizvi
Professor in the history of art, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

September 11, 2001, is a Tuesday. At 8:46 and 9:03 in the morning, two hijacked planes fly into the World Trade Center. Six hours later, I give my first class of the year, in Street Hall. It is unclear how the afternoon will unfold, but as the class gathers, we find comfort in each other’s presence.

The unconditional empathy and bravery shown by my students that day 20 years ago is something I carry with me. It is a necessary requirement for studying and teaching about Islam today. Art and architecture, framed through social and political discourse, serve as important conduits for understanding the history and culture of West and South Asia — the epicenter of the “War on Terror” launched soon after 9/11. I find clarity in the work of Shahzia Sikander and Lida Abdul, women artists from the region.

The seeds of Al Qaeda, and ultimately 9/11, were sown years before. In 1999, Shahzia Sikander painted a sharp critique of the intertwined histories of the so-called Middle East and the United States in “The Many Faces of Islam.” It references Indo-Persian manuscript painting, but includes quotations in English from prominent politicians and intellectuals — from King Faisal and Ayatollah Khomeini, to Nawal El Sadaawi and Malcom X. The painting is of an open codex, with a dollar bill unfurled between the two pages, its corners held by two women. The one on the left, a figure copied from a historical painting, sprouts two right arms, one holding Liberty’s lamp and the other a small cup. AK-47 rifles point both at her heart and towards the face of Khomeini, highlighting the brutal marriage of war and idealism propagated by the United States at the time.

The Many Faces of Islam
Shahzia Sikander's “The Many Faces of Islam,” 1999

As Sikander unveils the entanglements that preceded 9/11, Lida Abdul, an artist from Afghanistan, serves as a witness to its aftermath. Her poignant films speak to the futility and despair faced by Afghans suffering under sequential occupations, by the Soviets and then the Americans. “White House,” from 2005, shows the artist standing on the rubble of a bombed building, a former presidential complex on the outskirts of Kabul. Dressed in black, she painstakingly paints the remnants white, an absurd exercise that nonetheless highlights the multiple incongruities, starting with the name of the piece itself, that defined America’s relationship with Afghanistan: the recurrent drone strikes juxtaposed against the rhetoric of reconstruction; the military contractors and humanitarian aid agencies jostling for space in a country in ruins.

White House
A video still from "White House."

Abdul’s “In Transit,” is chilling in its prescience. The film narrates the story of 16 young Afghan boys, who have found a destroyed Russian airplane in an abandoned landscape. In dream-like sequences, Abdul shows the children collecting cotton wool and playfully stuffing it in the bullet-holes and cervices of the wreckage. They’ve tied long ropes to the airplane, at once holding it down and willing it to fly. The references are many, from Gulliver pinned down by the Lilliputians, to the white bulbs of poppy flowers that are sourced for opium, the main export from Afghanistan. And of course, to kite-flying, a popular national pastime.

In Transit
A video still from Lida Abdul's 2008 film “In Transit”

In 2008, Abdul characterized the piece as playful fantasy, the innocence of childhood overpowering the gloom of violence that had defined the past decades. Today, the film evokes another powerful image — of an American military plane evacuating thousands of foreign and Afghan nationals from Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul, after the recent Taliban takeover.  The news footage shows men, young and old, hopelessly hanging on as the airplane takes off. Some fall to their death. Hope is here replaced by despair, a war game, 20 years long, gone terribly wrong. Where might those young boys be today, what is their future?

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