Remembering Karbala – claiming space in the city through Ashura celebration by the stateless Biharis in Bangladesh

A Bihari man performs fire breathing on a crowded street in Dhaka city during Ashura - a religious event held on the 10th day of the Arabic month of Muharram. Biharis are an ethnic minority in Bangladesh consisting of Muslim refugees displaced from the Bihar state of India during the partition of the Indian subcontinent. For nearly five decades now some 300,000 Biharis have been confined in 66 refugee camps in Bangladesh. Though they are entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship according to the country's citizenship laws, the state often does not recognise them as rightful citizens and routinely discriminate against them. Hence the camps remain as what Agamben (2005) called 'spaces of exception' where denied of citizenship rights and entitlements Biharis live as a stateless community invisible to the mainstream media and absent from the nation's socio-political imagination. The most commonly seen pictures of Biharis are thus images of victimization, acute poverty, and deprivation which are often produced for presenting to the international aid agencies and human rights organizations. This photograph stands out in sharp contrast to such tradition of producing visuals of the victimisation and marginalisation of Biharis. The fire breather in the photograph stands in a powerful, agentive and defiant posture while similar agency is also visible in the body language of the spectators documenting the event with their cell phones.

The most significant thing about this photograph however is rooted in a unique practice of Ashura celebration which enables the Biharis to build solidarity among the residents of different camps while claiming space and visibility from the authorities. Sunni Muslims commemorate Ashura as the day when God saved Moses and his followers from the Egyptian Pharaoh. To the Sunnis it is a day of solemn reflection and fasting, and does not involve any outward display or public events. For Shi'a Muslims, however, Ashura has great socio-political significance as this was also the day when prophet Muhammad's grandson Husayn was killed in a battle in Karbala, Iraq in AD 680. Shi'as interpret Ashura as a symbol of struggle between the forces of good and the forces of oppression and injustice. Historically, the mourning processions and public rituals of Ashura observed by the Shi'as have been considered as a form of resistance against oppressive regimes especially in countries where they have been a minority community. Despite being mostly Sunnis, the Biharis in Bangladesh have adopted the Shi'a way of commemorating Ashura. However, for Biharis it is a day of not mourning but of grand processions, colourful carnivals, and street performances. This allows the residents of all Bihari camps in a city to come together in solidarity - the only time of the year they are allowed to do so. The street shown in the photograph happens to be one of the busiest streets of Dhaka city that had to be closed down for the day by the police in order to regulate the processions and carnivals. For a day this enables the otherwise invisible Biharis to become highly visible to the nation - to overcome their marginalization and occupy the centre both in a physical and symbolic sense. To a certain extent they are aware of it and document the events with their cell phones for sharing among their networks. Cottle and Lester (2011) pointed out that with the advent of smart phones visuals of such demonstrations staged in one city are instantly transmitted through social media and resonate among similar communities across cities and borders. The adoption of this unique form of Ashura commemoration has thus become for the stateless Biharis an exercise in solidarity building and a form of resistance against the non-recognition of the majoritarian state of which this photograph remains a testimony.

Agamben, Giorgio. (2005). State of exception
Cottle, Simon and Lester, Libby. (2011). Transnational protests and the media

Commentary on Rachel Tanur's Works: China Old and New

Rachel Tanur's photograph 'China old and new' beautifully captures the transformation of China during the past decades. In the late 1960's one of the goals of China's cultural revolution was to abolish the four olds - old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas that were identified as the causes of China's economic backwardness. The aspirations of a prosperous and ideal future for China was produced by constructing a vision to replace the four olds with four news - new customs, new culture, new habits and new ideas. In the decades that followed China transformed into one of the largest economies in the world. In a single image Rachel Tanur has wonderfully documented this transition from the old to the new and the stark contrast between the two. The foreground of the image shows a space of serenity with open spaces and close connection to nature that is usually associated with a traditional way of life. As the viewer's eyes gradually move from the foreground to the background a towering city looms on the horizon - the epitome of modern life but at the same time disconnected from nature, dense and mechanical. The most common and popular visual representation of China's growth and development are the photographs of its cities - brightly lit cities with massive transport infrastructures, tall skyscrapers and towering building blocks comparable to the wealthiest cities of the Western world. From government websites to travel magazines, social media pages to massive billboards such visuals produce a single narrative of Chinese cities as spaces of growth and opportunities, modern living and consumer-oriented lifestyles. Such visuals carefully hide a different narrative of China's transformation from rural to urban, one that is less glittery and less glamorous. Rachel Tanur's photograph gives a glimpse of this narrative that is tied to the middle ground of this image - the sprawling suburb just outside the city located between the rural and the urban but belonging to none. The construction of China's massive cities was possible to a large extent due to the availability of a large number of migrant workers who came to the city from rural areas in search of better livelihoods. Hidden from view they work in construction sites, manufacturing industries, recycling plants, kitchens and in many other menial jobs that keeps China's growing economy running. Despite their contribution to China's growth, a restrictive household registration system, known as 'hukou', introduced by the government to limit the number of urban residents classify the migrant workers as rural residents. Due to this often even after working in the city for years they are considered as temporary migrants rather than permanent residents of the city. As a result, they are denied access to the city's healthcare and education systems as well as to many other services and amenities that urban residents are entitled to. These migrant workers end up in suburbs like the ones showed in this photograph where they are often forced to cope with sub-standard living conditions. Several studies have indicated that these workers and their family members increasingly experience loneliness and depression with the World Health Organisation (WHO) reporting three times higher suicide rates among them comparing to the national average. Mostly invisible in the glamourous narrative of China's growth and progress these migrant workers live somewhere in between the old and the new China. The process of China's urban transformation has not been favourable to all of its population in the same way and too a large extent has been a process of increasing inequality and disenfranchisement of the poor. The main strength of Rachel Tanur's photograph 'China old and new' is that it not only depicts the country's transformation from rural to urban but also draws the viewer's attention to the less seen segregated geographies of inequality in modern China.