A few hours after Gujarat’s polling booths opened last Wednesday, a local editor called to ask if I could write an election report for his newspaper. He and I spoke a few days earlier and I told him I would be happy to do so but instead of writing about Juhapura, I wanted to roam around the city and interview first-time Hindu voters.
That idea no longer interested him. “I was wondering, Zahir, when women in Juhapura wear the burqa, how do they vote? I mean do they remove their veil? I think this would make for a great story,” he said.
I have invited this editor many times to have dinner with me in Juhapura to show him that not everyone here keeps a four-inch beard or wears a burqa. He has never taken me up on this offer and if he did, perhaps he might see that during dinner, women who wear the burqa simply lift up their veil. No one notices, because no one thinks there is anything to notice.
In writing about these elections and meeting those covering it, I have learned that people often write their story before they reach their destination. As a result, the stories they produce often reflect more about their own anxieties, their stereotypes and ideological leanings.
In March, a photographer called me from Bangalore. I admire her work and when she asked for my help to do a photo feature on Juhapura’s residents, I gladly obliged. We met outside my apartment building, where many had gathered for my neighbor Mutassim’s wedding. The photographer’s disappointment was evident when she arrived. There was no biryani or qawalli. Most men wore shiny suits. At one point, a stage was set up and the hosts invited a dwarf to dance for the guests. My neighbor’s 12-year old daughter Sifa wore heels for the first time. She cheered the loudest when the music began.
“These are not the images I wanted,” the photographer said. “I want to show the conditions of Muslims, to show how people are facing hardships under [Narendra] Modi’s Gujarat.”
I smiled. “The only suffering in Juhapura tonight,” I told her, “is that the DJ is playing far too many Enrique Iglesias songs.”
She did not laugh.
I understand that photography is a visual medium. The problem was that the photographer had already developed the images of Juhapura before she arrived — she just needed to take the pictures. When I introduced her to Sifa’s dad, she immediately asked him about the 2002 riots and Modi. If she had not walked away when he said the riots did not affect him, she would have learned that Sifa’s dad is worried what will happen when his daughter is ready to start secondary school. The Gujarat government has failed to provide schools in Juhapura and Sifa’s dad cannot afford the area’s private schools or the transportation fees to send her to a school in a nearby Hindu area. I tried to convince the photographer to relax and enjoy the evening. It was a wedding, I reminded her, but like others I have met, she was careless about respecting people’s privacy and trauma.
In December 2012, as Gujarat held its state elections, a German journalist asked if I would introduce him to some survivors of the 2002 pogrom. He had covered Afghanistan and Iraq and I thought he might understand what questions not to ask. I took him to meet my friend Salma, a courageous woman who helped counsel many women since 2002. On the night of the tragic Godhra train attack, Salma began receiving text messages from Muslim friends who, like her, lived next to Hindus. When she heard that they had to flee their homes, Salma grabbed a bucket, filled it with water, and waited by her door. Her husband clutched a cricket bat. They stayed in that position throughout the evenings of Feb. 27 and 28.
“I was worried they would rape me,” Salma said.
The mob never came to her street but she was shaken by the news of her friends who were killed. On March 1, they moved to Juhapura, where they continue to live. She does not like living in Juhapura. She has lost touch with many of her Hindu friends; some told her she was being “too sensitive” for shifting.
“So technically you were not forced out?” the journalist asked.
Salma wore a light purple salwar, her dupatta scarf wrapped around her neck, her hair uncovered. She did not respond.
“I mean no one made you leave, right?” the journalist asked.
When we left her apartment, I asked the photographer why he did not take her picture. “Oh I am looking for something else,” he told me. Later when he allowed me to scroll through his photos, I could see a pattern: nearly all the photos of the Muslim men he took had beards; almost all of the Muslim women were wearing hijabs.
The journalist kept probing. “So do you think you can introduce me to someone who was more directly affected by the riots, maybe someone whose husband was killed? That would be a great story, especially if they were like, you know, a first-time voter too,” he asked me.
In the arithmetic of suffering, worrying about being raped was not enough.
When people visit, it is not so much that they want to see more agony than what really exists but rather it is that they envision agony to look a certain way. I wrestled with the idea of what I was seeing (and not seeing) when I attended an NGO conference in Khartoum, Sudan in 2004. One afternoon, a doctoral student took me to visit the relief camps where tens of thousands had been displaced after the Sudanese government’s brutal assault on Darfur.
The refugee camps were horrific but it was not what I expected. One person had a larger TV than me. But there is a problem in looking at people’s experience solely through the lens of class. In the refugee camp, this Sudanese man had many things that others in the world do not have — access to a clean toilet, a TV, even a refrigerator nearby. Unlike others though, he also watched his village burned down by men on horses.
The size of his TV—or indeed the size of a bungalow in Juhapura—is not the point. The issue is how a people are made to feel, how they are pushed off to the side, how they are blamed for their own conditions, how their story is trivialised, perhaps unintentionally, when we tell them that people elsewhere are worse off.
But it is not only journalists who have to be careful of how they understand an area. I have seen heads of Gujarat-based NGOs exaggerate the conditions in Juhapura to convince sceptical donors. I do not condone this activity but I understand their reasons as Juhapura is an area that the state neglects and I have seen the benefits of NGO work here.
Muslim groups do the same. The worst example was when a family friend who runs an Islamic charity came to visit last year. I introduced them to about a half a dozen teenagers, each of whom articulated their needs. Later that day, this same family friend asked if I could take him to meet a particular sub-caste of Muslims that he and I both belong to so that he could distribute his money within “our own community,” a phrase I have come to hate. I refused and I asked what was his purpose in meeting other children if he only wanted to help this particular sub-caste in the first place?
“I just wanted to see,” he said. He did not donate any money.
I understand the good intentions behind these visits as well as the limitations of journalism. Writers these days have to file more stories in shorter amounts of time, leaving little time for depth; donors have limited funds. I also recognise the interest in this subject, given Modi’s role in the 2002 pogrom and his tenuous relationship with Gujarat’s Muslims.
And I accept my own culpability. In my articles and on social media, I have told people to visit Juhapura, to see Modi’s development model from a different angle. I am happy that many more are writing about the 2002 riots and Juhapura. These stories are important, as are the articles about the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits and gender-based violence, because they challenge us to view ourselves in new, difficult ways.
Yet we have failed to expand our imaginations. We go on Dharavi slum tours in hopes of capturing their “squalor” but we seldom ask Mumbai’s elite how they justify encroaching on other people’s land with wide-spread impunity from the state.
Likewise, journalists who want to see a “riot-affected” space in Gujarat almost always visit Gulbarg or Naroda Patiya, where some of the most ghastly massacres happened in 2002. But what chilled me about witnessing the riots is that middle class mobs drove SUVs and also attacked the upscale Muslim-owned business like Pantaloons and Metro Shoe stores on Ahmedabad’s posh CG Road. Today this area is almost all Hindu and few see it as a riot-affected area. Almost no one asks shop keepers on CG Road what those days were like.
This is our collective failure—we do not interrogate the displacers, the ones who carried the trishuls, the people who stood idly by as their neighbors homes burned. Instead we place the burden of these stories on the “victims” and we grumble when they do not want to speak.
I have learned to examine the limitations of my gaze. Over the past few years, I thought I made every effort to understand the experiences of women in Juhapura. But it was only when a doctoral student named Charlotte Thomas, who has been studying Juhapura since 2009, came to visit that I learned how much I had missed. Was I asking the wrong questions? Yes, partly. But it was also that as a woman, Charlotte was able to witness things—the marginalisation and sexual abuse of women, for example—that I could not access. Much of what Charlotte described I had never seen but that was her point: as a male in a patriarchal society, why would I see these things?
Last year, a Palestinian friend told me an expression that best describes my experience living in Juhapura: if you spend a week in Palestine, you will write an article; if you spend a month, you will write a book; if you spend a year, you will be too confused to do anything. I have learned to embrace my confusion. And I have learned to recognise that each time I ask questions of others, I have to ask many more to myself.
Often when I begin writing these days, I try to remind myself of these ethical questions by listening to the Palestinian poet Mahmood Darwish whose seminal work, “Passport,” was masterfully turned into a song by the Lebanese oud player Marcel Khalife.
They didn’t get to know me in the shadows that soak up my color in my passport.
And my wound for them was like an art gallery for a tourist who is enamored with collecting pictures.
This article originally appeared at Scroll.