This essay is an ethnographic analysis of the violent world of translation in Kabul, Afghanistan, and the provinces referred to in the general idiom of “the countryside” by Afghan translators who encounter rural subjects as part of an international military campaign. It begins with the tragedy of translation as an elegiac matter of the heart closing, and it attempts to understand the metaphor of closure alongside that of strangeness and (un)translatability in a series of encounters that take us into the heart of death-dealing and wartime representation as the encounter between foreign languages.
First of all, for a moment at least, empty space—the place where the thing stood or the victim lived. Someone is sure to be found who needs this space without occupying it.—Walter Benjamin, “The Destructive Character”
By 2013 the sense of distress and anarchic upheaval was palpable in Kabul, rising like a cacophony of voices and memories of past deeds. It meant accusation and swift vengeance, for some a knife to the neck, and made both country and language feel smaller and more volatile. The protean atmosphere was one of strangeness, and of the quality of feeling Georg Simmel describes as the sense that “he, who is close by, is far, and strangeness means that he, who also is far, is actually near” ( 1964: 402). But this ambivalent unity of remoteness and proximity is also a matter of the heart, of the relation between languages in moments of violent confusion that exposes speakers to the demand for perspective and coherence, while also to space, memory and the approach of the stranger. One wet, biting cold afternoon my friend Mahmud told me he is dil tang. This means he feels like his heart is tight and closed. Like innumerable people Mahmud believes speaking and listening to another person, offering a glimpse into one’s life and thoughts, can enable a chest-opening experience. He doesn’t seek a witness. But he does want the particular, intimate kind of relief found in dialogic moments of baring oneself. He speaks to lessen his pain, which is both a physical feeling, one we all know, and something much more. Mahmud knows that there is strangeness found in speech and that speech is itself a strange and never self-same thing, and that it is inseparable from the lessening and intensifying of the tightness in his heart.
More generally, Mahmud understands that in Afghanistan speech is part of a much larger, more international endeavor, and that in the midst of the irresolution of war and the world’s largest display of industrial and modern firepower, speech contributes to this by providing an additional medium of access to subjects of violence and wartime propaganda. In this milieu, often described as a destructive, even barbaric country threatening to destabilize the greater region, it becomes difficult to discern when someone intends to cause you harm in lieu of desiring a relation. The problem is not just group and wartime formations but also the inescapable sense of fear and distrust that subtend both war and the upheaval of social, even neighborly, and linguistic life. He—in war the stranger is typically male—is crucial to the idea that it is a place without peace, at once deeply isolated from the world, and full of difficult people to understand. But from within the world of everyday relationality, urban-rural exchange, and translation, the experience of strangeness is also accompanied by the inexorable force of words and voicing. It is part of the power of verbal command and interpellation, the scenes of interrogation, peals of laughter, slips of the tongue, and moments of translational authority when the proximity between languages becomes the occasion for the violence of language as wartime exchange.1
Mahmud works in the Afghan National Archives. It is in a converted summer palace, close to the Kabul River and the city’s old and storied bazaars. The river has dried, and the peripheral neighborhood evokes a sense of nostalgia for what has since been feverishly passed over in the name of the nau (the new). Its oldness lingers in the makeshift shops and farm carts that line its dirt roads and in the animal power and child labor that animates it with the sounds and chatter of petty commerce. I spent time with him in the archives and even came to assume he lived a good life. He labors indefatigably, and although his task is underfunded by the Afghan government’s Ministry of Information and Culture, and seemingly endless, he finds joy in categorizing and reading the trove of materials hidden underground until recently during decades of armed conflict. The fear was they would be set on fire. Mahmud now seeks to preserve them. He gave me files to read and showed me the former Afghan royal family’s photo albums hidden in the basement. They had never been seen before: “You are the first person I am showing. They were so beautiful. Look at their stylish clothes and class and now they have vanished,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghans died in the large-scale conflicts (the Soviet War of 1979–1989, the Afghan Civil War of 1992–1996, the Taliban Regime of 1996–2001 and the Afghan-American War (2001–) that came to define modern Afghanistan and entwined its political trajectory with those of global and regional powers. Like many, Mahmud lived through these conflicts and rebuilt his house after it was destroyed. He lives in one of Kabul’s poorer neighborhoods where unpaved side streets intersect, and the acrid smell of urine is unavoidable. The alleyways evoke a sense of mystery and haunting absence: of domestic and familiar scenes that are not without tragedy and violence. He didn’t invite me to his home but describes it and asks me to imagine: “The curtains in my home are always shut,” he said. “Why do you feel dil tang?” I asked. “It is hard to explain how life makes your heart close,” he replied. He admits he has put up secondhand curtains and that they are tasteless but are always drawn shut even if the neighbors see their inferior quality and red color. He no longer cares what his neighbors think. The house is darker still because he insists on the unforgiving aura that makes his heart feel so small. “I accept this feeling,” he also said. I learned that Mahmud did not live a good life. His twenty-one-year-old son Taha was brutally murdered one afternoon when Mahmud was sitting with him in their kitchen. There was a repeated knock on the back door: “Tak. Tak. Tak,” Mahmud recalled. The door led to one of the alleyways and outside a group of young men, boys almost, stood in an odd state of solemnity. “I opened the door and Taha recognized them as our neighbors. They said they wanted to talk and Taha went outside to talk.”
To speak is to be exposed to memory and the other. The boys looked hardened to Mahmud but not like they were secreting a horror. At the end of the alley behind another house the young men quickly overpowered and stabbed Taha with a long blade in the abdomen and vitals. Mahmud heard his screams and ran out to find him on the ground in a pool of blood. He died within minutes in his father’s arms. Mahmud showed me an old passport-size photo of his son that he keeps in his wallet and cried openly. I didn’t ask the most obvious question, but he quickly intuited my curiosity: “Oh, we know why! He was killed for having worked as a translator [tarjomon] for the US military. There is no doubt about that. People say it. Everyone knows it.” Mahmud speaks in a pained and haunted voice of certitude, but like in a spectral encounter, he gains this certainty only when everything else he thought he knew, about life and speaking with others, and sharing the only city he has ever known was tragically undone. “Now you know,” he said, “this is what the situation is for us.”
By 2013 the situation Mahmud warns of became harder to control. Its fault line reshaped the social as the phantomlike and deadly division between the living and those suddenly closer to being marked for death. Guilt was in the air, and revenge seeking became common in Kabul and rural towns. Ordinary people were suspected of harboring dangerous affiliations, of having secret sources of money or ties with the insurgents. Liquid cash (mainly dollars) flooded the national economy and informal money market. The ingress of foreign capital and the destruction of traditional agriculture, large-scale bombing campaigns in the countryside, and the violence of the black market abetted the cultivation of opium crops and the deadly exchange of ransom, drugs, precious and semiprecious gems, timber, weapons, and suicide bombers sourced from the growing pool of unemployed young men.
This experience and sense of danger was especially invoked by Kabulis as the fantasia of a rural insurgency closing in on their city. People feared for their lives and the dissolution of social bonds, and the inescapable, arbitrary distrust of the other proliferated alongside insurgent and counterinsurgent groups, and also new reconnaissance and biometric technologies and older networks of political and military-urban violence. In some places, men were sloppily decapitated and became random lessons for each other, some were poisoned or tortured, others ambushed, and one woman, Farkhunda, was killed and her body set on fire in broad daylight in central Kabul and then tossed in the barren Kabul River. Fear became the object of social discourse to such an extent that it was a metonym for the general experience of social disintegration and wartime catastrophe. People found it nearly impossible to evade the kind of random and horrifying violence that is a common feature of war and siege, its key signifier even, but nonetheless leaves people with the singular feeling of being persecuted: “There is no place left to live. We’ll all die. Tell us, where should we go?” an acquaintance and a day laborer, now imprisoned on false charges, asked me.
In “The Task of the Translator” Walter Benjamin ( 1968) imagines translation as the provisional encounter with difference in the mode of supplemental and poetic license. Translation, he proposes, reveals the kinship of languages not through likeness but in the mode of intention that exists in every language and allows it to become other and greater than itself. It is a greatness realized only in relation to difference. Benjamin describes it as an enlightening through which translation “catches fire on the eternal life of the works and the perpetual renewal of language” (74). Translation creates strangeness and the possibility of rupture, and death, but also of a rising into a “higher and purer linguistic air . . . the predestined, hitherto inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfillment of languages” (75).2
Understanding this requires that we reckon with how translation introduces the possibility of rupture and absence, and therefore to think about translation as a “theoretical metaphor through which to think about difference” (Giordano 2014: 15; see also De La Cadena 2015 and Pandolfo 2018). It is in the latter mode, particularly in moments when speech is central to this logic, that translation subverts what Ibn Khaldûn refers to as “group feeling,” and makes it possible to wage war on those who were previously kindred.3 In these moments, the translator must also reckon with the specter of incommunicability and the rare “total linguistic barrier” that Primo Levi (1988: 88) evokes as the difference between life, the domain of war, and human finitude.
I met Matin in 2012 when he had just quit his job as a translator for the United States and the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) and lived with his parents in a poor neighborhood next to the Kabul International Airport. His neighborhood was heavily bombed by the American military in 2001 and is still under threat from surrounding construction projects. Matin remembers using a small propane lantern to help locate the bodies of his dead neighbors. On the day of our meeting he was lost trying to find the Flower Street Café in the neighborhood of Taimani. He didn’t call me for directions because he thought his willingness to initiate a phone call, and unexpectedly inject his voice without his physical presence, would cause me to think he intends harm. In conversation, he also seemed fearful that he might betray himself, and he would emphatically add to his stories, “I say all of this only because I trust you like a sister.”
In Afghanistan, the social body is marked by the coexistence of the demand for speech and its lack, and in some moments, speech becomes the site of a dangerous double bind: the medium of persuasion and, as I understand its power, an uncontrollable instrument of war that proceeds alongside the translator.4 The voice is violent, but it is interpretation, and the possibility of listening at any moment or in any place, that makes that violence brutal.5 Matin does not articulate this from within his speech, but I believe he intuits the possibility and wants to protect himself from its force by listening to different voices differently. Thus, even though he fears his own disembodied voice, and the displacement of being a subject in dialogue by the power of misunderstanding, he still speaks to me and he speaks to me differently than he does with those he meets on his military missions.
On his way to meet those people, in the vast landscape outside Kabul he refers to as “the countryside,” Matin had access to military radio transmissions through wired headphones. He would listen to them inside large armored tanks to better acquaint himself with different languages and military vocabulary. He did this not to understand the meaning and content of the transmission but to learn how to speak and thereby to lessen his chances of making mistakes in speech or when listening to different accents: for example, when he tries to understand British, American, and Scottish soldiers. He is especially terrified of mistakes like a mispronounced or misplaced word, which interpreted in a certain way, can result in the accusation that he is giving false information or even part of a covert “green on blue” plot against his unit.6 Unlike other instruments of war, speech is mysterious to itself in this way, and it thickens the space of encounter with the expectation of an excess that cannot be contained in a relation of exchange, a transcendental power Matin is painfully conscious of.
With me he seemed relieved of the weight of foreign language, and our shared mother tongue became an opening to the possibility of trust between us. Matin admits, like Mahmud, that speaking makes his heart feel better: “Sometimes I feel myself dil tang, you know, like my chest is closed, but I feel better when I talk to you,” he said. But elsewhere Matin speaks and seeks to hear something other than this kind of change in heart. When his voice is dislodged from Persian, and therefore from what I imagine he understands as the possibility of control, there is less of an opening, and it becomes more possible (even likely) that the people he encounters are also not quite themselves either, that their tongues are overtaken and that their hearts have also closed.7 He navigates this kind of strangeness and what he perceives as the difference between reality and the appearance of things. For him it is particularly dangerous when the disjuncture emerges in the City of Kabul, where, ideally, he envisions a city of articulateness and order. He tells me this hope is diminishing and that his close friend was murdered midday in his own taxi when a man, disguised as a woman in a classic blue burqa, stole his cash, shot him, and drove away in the car. “What will become of us?” Matin asks me. “We are not safe in Kabul,” he insists.
For Matin, to live in Kabul is to know something about life and the way the world works, and therefore to have a voice capable of openings that lead to more life and which is both a voice and a sign of the fullness of life and intellect.8 Thus, as he speaks in his Kabuli dialect, and professes he is media savvy, he undoubtedly feels closer to a “language-of-power” (Anderson 1991) that is not only a sense of national duty but a duty to life and being. Outside Kabul he has to speak in a different voice, one that sets him on the path of discerning the failure of this potential in rural places, where words and propaganda are readily exchanged in the effort to bring those populations under government control, but where the speech of the local remains without sense and life.9 “They are all illiterate,” he remarks, and “they don’t know how to speak,” and because they only possess unintelligible speech and cannot write, Matin believes they misunderstand both image and word; he tells me they are immune to accountability: they compulsively lie, deceive, and live like violent “brutes,” he says.10
The rest of the country, and its unpredictable populations, weigh down on him like rocks on his chest. It changes the way he speaks to me. Matin reckons with the partial and “simple truths” of these stories; he tells me these are things I must “already know,” and he confesses them again as the truths of the countryside that are predictable like the rhythm of its seasonal economy. He wants me to envision a volatile and vast backwater where people shepherd animals and tend to crop in lonely fields, and because of this extreme isolation, “they talk nonsense and are all nomadic.” “There is no life there,” he adds. He resents that country folk desperately try to “pour into” Kabul from the other side of its mountains to feel safe, and although he acknowledges, having barely survived the early years of war himself, that “to feel safe is a very precious feeling,” he doesn’t think it justifies their arrival. The difference between Kabul and the provinces is like the infinite one “between ground and the sky,” he triumphantly describes. The chasm is wide enough to contain not only the variations of geography and dialect but also the preponderance of life and death drives, of true intellect and its woeful, destructive mimesis.11
Matin carries with him the conviction that there is a latent danger inside rural peoples that translation can help reveal. It kindles the fire of perspective. “Have you been to Helmand?” he asked me. “Not yet,” I replied. “You should never go even if someone promises your safety. You may not make it back alive and, speaking as someone who has transported bodies back to Kabul, it’s a horrible sight. Bodies bloat, and bruise. It’s horrible, just horrible.” He also imagines himself being seen and recognized by “one of them.” He says: “I look different now, from when I was on missions. But can you imagine if one of them recognizes my face? They’ll know. They’ll kill me right away.” “But what about all of the time you have spent in Kabul, without harm, and all the relationships and friends you have?” I ask. “That doesn’t matter,” he replies, and he continues:
Listen. In Mazaar-e Sharif [a city in the north of the country close to the border of Tajikistan] “they” [the Taliban] caught a guy I knew on the side of the road. You’ll never guess what happened. They took his cell phone from him. Poor guy must have been terrified and he handed it over, of course. They called someone from his recent call list and pretended they were merely helping him out after an accident. An ordinary act of goodwill! They asked about his identity.
Matin quickly reenacted the hypothetical conversation on the other line: “ ‘Oh! Dear God! He’s my good friend! He’s a commander in the Afghan National Army. One of our own. Please take good care of him brother!’ Well, they hung up and slit his throat right then and there. They are primitive people, they care nothing for humanity.”
He voices the imagined voice of the other to indicate there is no place left to go, and that even from within the symbolic order of narrative, there is a closing. Even his face, which looks different in Kabul because it is clean shaven, bared of disguise, no longer assures he can traverse between place and mode of appearance. For Matin, the closing is not only of dialogue but of city and countryside, two atmospheres that have become spaces of reciprocal strangeness and dangerous crossings, offering no respite from the possibility of violent retribution. The figure of the stranger that determines the ordinary spatial and psychic boundaries of the group and city has now transformed into the much more dangerous corollary of the “inner enemy” who moves between spaces and retains, as Simmel (1950: 404) also describes, an objective air composed of “distance and nearness, indifference and involvement.” And owing to this, for Matin, both country and language are smaller.
Helmand is an ancient agricultural province in the south of the country where British forces launched an enormous operation called “Operation Panther’s Claw” in 2009 in an attempt to wrest control from the Taliban and establish an ISAF military presence. It is now the world’s largest opium-producing region, and a place of dialect that Matin encounters not through headphones but with his naked ears.12 One afternoon while he was out on patrol by a large cornfield he thought he saw someone. Suddenly a shot was fired at him and his commander. He recounts how bewildered he felt, and that he was taken aback both by the loud burst of gunfire but especially the green color of the field. The dusty haze and thick air came together like two additional elements of an effortless camouflage that nearly killed him. Out of nowhere, a mard-e-ajeeb (strange man) appeared. He was out in the open holding a large cob of corn in front of his face and trying to hide a sardonic look. Matin didn’t actually see his face, but this is the look he suspects was on it as the inimitable trace of a sinister truth-being. Things were as clear as day:
I knew it was him. I know he shot at us. It was as obvious as day. But he pretended like he had gone into the field to get some corn to eat, he tried to cover his face with a shawl and then he started pretending to be insane, so we just let him go, but I knew it was him. I remembered his face. You won’t believe what happened next! A few days later that same man, now clean shaven, was introduced to us as the local police chief who we were supposed to support and train. He had trimmed his beard and cut his hair. That’s how it is. You don’t know who anybody truly is. I confronted him, and he denied the whole thing. He was very articulate, he started to laugh, and he said, “OK. OK. It was me. Let it go.” One day they are with the local police force and the next they hide in cornfields and shoot you. They mock and fool you.
Matin encounters disguise as a natural feature of the landscape, first on the man’s face, which is clean shaven like Matin’s will be later, and then the ultimate disguise: the false bearer and representative of the Afghan state. The space of translation, and therefore of his paid expertise and the easy exchange he has come to take for granted between language and money, is the uncontrollable scene of shifting representations where no expert intervention or condition of knowledge can prevail. In its stead, Matin encounters radical alterity as the other side of translation: a side impossible to surveil and control, irreducible to madness, but nonetheless a space where the reality principle is entirely overtaken by the dangerous play of representations. This duality, between his desire to know the truth of the place and the proliferation of false signs, renders interpretation impossible for him. He encounters a redoubled world of strangeness where an already ambivalent relationship intensifies into a nonrelation.
Matin implores me to understand and fear this as much as he does. When he senses my reluctance, he offers another story. He urges more caution. He changes his tone. He wants me to perceive, like he has seen and heard, the truth of rural society as the impossible task of translation. This is the aporia he repeatedly encounters, and there is only an uncontrollable opening, toward uncertainty, rupture, and maybe toward death. Matin repeats his warning to me: “You should never go to Helmand.” He recounts his initial bewilderment, a moment even more disorientating than the man from the cornfield:
I had never been to Helmand before. They are so different! I’d never seen or heard anything like that before, it was my first time, but the difference between those people and Kabulis is like the difference between the ground and sky. They don’t know how to speak! I couldn’t bear it. They are completely illiterate. There are basic things they don’t understand, that they don’t know how to say or express. But that’s not all. We would give them gifts and in return they would plant IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and land mines by the roads. All they cared about was their crops. Mainly corn and wheat. We would have to use their lands because all the major roads had roadside bombs and mines. Our convoys would pass through their agricultural fields, and of course, the chained tires would destroy the crops and land, and they would come to us for compensation. We always gave them more than the price of their harvest, and sometimes they invited me over for dinner and sometimes they tried to kill us.
To go to Helmand and speak with the locals is to open himself up to the possibility of a total failure of the gift, which he gives in the form of monetary compensation for the destruction of agricultural land, and thus the collapse of the reciprocity of exchange he understands as the logic of relation between war and the compensation of its brutal violence. Instead he encounters the dangerous mimesis of exchange: the planting of bombs and roadside mines in a place where the planting of crops had become impossible. He faces strangeness again, and in the midst of this confusion, he also cannot escape the voice of the stranger. He hears it as the truth of what he already knows, of something familiar, for example, a dinner invitation, but also the voice of remoteness that disrupts his sense of space and narrative: “They don’t know how to speak! I couldn’t bear it,” he says.
Matin experiences the dissonance with a sense of transporting anguish. He feels he has entered a different time and ascribes precisely the kind of remoteness that is a hallmark of modern warfare and the will to kill (Freud  2005) to those on whose behalf he is tasked to speak and bring peace. There is what Carlo Ginzburg (1994: 50) describes as an “inward shift” in his perception “projected into a geographical scene.” The scene is the space of nonrelation. It is a kind of social world that raises enormous problems for him, especially as he struggles to convey meaning between English and local dialects, mostly in Pashto. He describes this struggle as “the only way.” For Matin the shift is also the terror of an encounter indifferent to shared meaning, and therefore alien to the promise of translation from the very outset. For him, Helmand is strange and foreign because it is also foreign to signification as he understands it.13 I believe this is the difference he perceives between “ground and sky” and between social life and violence, and also between the generality of law and sense making and the chthonic lure of drives that find expression in the heightened experience of a mobile power that later “finds” him in Kabul city. “How much money is worth the risk to your life?” I asked him. Matin replies:
Well, $715 a month is a pittance for this kind of work. My God, we are in an active war zone! At my old job the American soldiers would give us some charity sometimes, hand-outs and such, but it wasn’t enough. Now, from here [Kabul], when I think about the risks I took I am horrified. You know, I used to not even tell my own parents where I was. I’d lie and say I was in Mazaar-e-Sharif, and that my cell phone reception wasn’t working and that’s why I hadn’t called. They had no idea I was in the middle of a battle.
Matin lies. The more he calls home and speaks to his family in Persian, the more he conveys in his mother tongue, and the higher the chances he is suspected of harboring the same proclivity for violence as those he encounters on the missions. He understands this:
You see, they [the Americans] were very scared. Even though I wasn’t allowed to use my phone. They didn’t trust us entirely and thought we might be cooperating with the insurgents.
“How so?” I asked.
Well after a long time, they would learn to trust us. Initially they suspected us of helping the insurgents plant the roadside mines and explosives. But we deserve that kind of surveillance because Afghans behave in suspicious ways. Some of them fight with the foreigners or steal from them. Even the Afghan police officers behave like that. This has an impact on how we are perceived and treated. When they [foreign militaries] transition their teams every six months the new commander has to be informed about the local area, its topography, the strength of insurgency, and the quality of the Afghan translators. As a result, there were many problems between Afghan and foreign security services. There was always a lot of theft. The Americans were afraid of the Afghans. Afghans, well you know this, we are a very stubborn and proud people. The Americans hate that more than anything.
I can give examples. The Americans would send an Afghan to clear the road mines, and he would refuse to do the job. He’d say, “Why should I care about a mine here or there? Why should I be the one who clears them? I’ve traveled all these mountains and roads, and I’ve never been hit by a mine so let these guys take their chances too. They are not better than us.” That kind of talk. I’d try to explain that this was an area prone to mines. I’d explain this is war and he just wouldn’t care. They would do other things too. They would steal from the fridge that was only for the Americans. Things like milk and juice. Just lift something if they wanted it.
“Why do you think they steal?” I asked.
Listen. I’ve been on the frontlines. I’ve seen how it is. The American soldiers they get their goods, supplies, and food from helicopters, but not the Afghan soldiers. They only have rice and beans. Sometimes they don’t even have bread. I understand why they steal milk, juice, and food. You have to understand these are areas with very heavy fighting, with ambushes on all the roads that connect to surrounding towns and villages. This means the roads are effectively closed off and you cannot do anything via land. Only via air. Translators were moved around in heavy-lift helicopters—we call them “chinooks”—and so were the soldiers, but the problem for our Afghan soldiers is they don’t have anything of the sort, nothing like the Americans. As a result, they do what they have to do. It’s natural.
Matin’s voice cannot be contested, and yet he returns to the problem of speech. He doesn’t see the predicament of the Afghan soldiers and translators to be only the lack of resources, nor the apparatus of surveillance they were themselves under, even as they were imposing it on the native population. The problem is that native speech necessarily leads to confusion and therefore to the subversion of strategic interests (which abound on all sides), and this opens up its political force, a force he would like to silence even while he cautions that it cannot be taken too seriously. It is like a bad dream. He explains the predicament to the American soldiers:
I’d say: “Look these people are different from you. They are uneducated. They don’t know how to use language. They don’t know how to talk. They talk for an hour and the translation takes five minutes because these people are undereducated. They’ll repeat themselves ten times. They never get to the point. They add so much flourish to their words. They absolutely hate responding in a straightforward manner. They will make you dizzy! Running around this way and that way with their words and after an hour they get to the damn point you wanted from the beginning. They’ll repeat it in ten different ways. They don’t want to shed light on your questions or give you answers. You have to force them. They daydream while talking.”
Their language is a version of collective dreamwork verging on lunacy, and they do not offer straightforward answers to his questions. We have reached a moment in Matin’s experiences that is also a turn in the nature of his bewilderment. For him the figure of the Afghan “brute” now speaks an unreal truth while directly standing in for the chasm between the desired effect of speech as a medium of wartime suasion (i.e., ideological conversion and military pacification) and the failure of translation to secure a space of meaningful exchange. The brute has become the forbidding difference between the content and capacity for speech. But at the same time, and I presume this is equally bewildering for him, the power of speech is revealed to the degree that it is also about its absence: about speech as the site of lack, and most certainly about what has not been said.
And then there is the surrounding land. One afternoon he was out on patrol in a village when someone shot at him and his accompanying soldiers with a pistol from inside a lone house. There was no doubt it was from the house. It was the only one in the area and “surrounded by all land,” he describes. The pop was unmistakably that of a pistol. Usually, the soldiers would carry a ladder to get into houses, which they asked Matin to carry on his back this time. Matin refused. “We pay you to do this!” a solider yelled at him. “I am here to give you my tongue. You pay me for language. Nothing more,” Matin replied. He recalls that he pulled out his contract, which he kept in his back pocket: “Show me right now where it says I am to carry a ladder on my back. I am not here to lift ladders!” He mobilizes the language of contract and value, the relationship between language and exchange that he now connects to the violence of inclusion in war, and to the problem of supplement he has come to embody in this most literal of ways.
We are a long way from Benjamin’s understanding of a supplemental relation between languages. For Matin, the experience of proximity in alienation, of closeness to the scene, to uncertainty in power, to the ideology of war and resources of battle: tanks, headphones, field manuals, but also local crops, dialect, and foreign languages make Matin feel stranger still. He cannot be both translator and supplement. His refusal offers itself as a complex moment of reckoning, but unlike Taha, who paid with his life, tragedy is avoided here in part because Matin does not yet live in the aftermath of translation. He still wields a powerful foreign code: English, and he retains the power, however shifting, to bring war to the inside of peoples’ homes, where English demands its own translation, and where Persian and Pashto signify what Afghans either do not know or cannot communicate through speech alone.
Matin’s body, as an instrument and precaution, is unambiguous. It is an enhancement to ground warfare and access, an addition that intensifies the reach of his military unit, adding itself to an already rich arsenal of weapons. But on the other hand, his body is also a representation, a sign that sovereignty does not proceed unaided, that it incorporates the danger it seeks to neutralize, and therefore that the fiction of wartime translation as a medium of exchange is as much about the hierarchizing of difference as it is the structuring of local life around the twin imperative of question and answer: around interrogation and senseless reply. They had no ladder that afternoon and so they banged on the door instead. “Put your women in another room!” they yelled. They barged in, and several men were sitting in the main room. No women in sight. The American soldier ordered Matin to ask the obvious question: who shot the gun? “Shots? What shots? We didn’t hear anything. What a shame. Someone shot at you? We’re sorry to hear that,” one man, speaking on behalf of the others, clumsily responds.
The incredulous soldiers searched the isolated house and also tested the men’s fingertips for gun powder residue. They eventually found the gun. The man who was speaking pleaded with the soldiers, and they spared him. But he never admitted to actually shooting anyone. Instead, he implored and wanted them to try to understand the radical contingency of the situation. He wanted them to understand the shift in reality when strangers approach your house and tell you to hide your women: “Wouldn’t you be afraid if you lived in a place like this? One lone house in the middle of nothing. And, out of nowhere, all of a sudden, a bunch of men show up! You’d shoot too! Just to show, for the sake of showing, that you are ready to defend yourselves.”
I imagine the men were in a double bind they understood as a part of their rural life. In many areas, like in other guerrilla wars that bear heavily on the role of rumor and gossip in the countryside (Taussig 1987), and where personal disputes are readily solved by going to foreign military personnel and framing other locals, they were perhaps suspects before the shot was even fired. And yet, despite living with the possibility of interminable accusation, they do not remark on it. But they do perceive that there is no room for their language, for the possibility of speech in the moment of wartime encounter, and by extension a meaningful place in the symbolic domain that can also secure, through the abstract order of political right, what Hannah Arendt (1968: 296) calls “the existence of a right to have rights.” At the same time, they had to demonstrate that they understood this. They shot the pistol to say they live in the house surrounded by all land, and also with the competing forces of language and war. This is in part also revealed by the fact of a single shot, which is not nearly enough to counter the firepower of a military unit typically armed with rifles, machine guns, long-and short-range sniper rifles, grenade launchers, and more. There is an unexpected truth in the men’s feigned incredulity when they ask, “What shots?” The men express how invasion changes the nature of relations between persons on either side of the conflict as mediated by the translator: in the context of total war, where civilians and combatants are presumed indistinguishable, the locals understand that to speak (instead of shooting first) is to risk their life. It is precisely their readiness to shoot at the translator and the soldiers first—because they need to demonstrate they are willing to engage in self-defense and do not believe speaking will defuse the situation—that Matin cannot fully understand, translate, or escape, because as part mediator, and part instrument of war, he is caught in it.
In Kandahar, a province in the southern part of the country, surrounded again by what he understands as a “brutish” atmosphere of deceit, these tensions become impossible for Matin to balance as part of translation’s promise. There is no longer any language for the madness, and along with the Afghan soldiers, he discovers he must resort to excess, the kind of reckless mimesis he ascribes to the locals but that now becomes his own prerogative. The Afghan soldiers typically make do with much less food and supplies than the Americans, and this was as true in Kandahar as it was in Helmand. As a result, they sought access to roads and towns, but in Kandahar, again like in Helmand, the roads were effectively closed off by roadside mines. Aside from the dramatic possibility of airlift and support, Matin and his Afghan National Army counterparts (who he was conveying information to over the radio) felt blindsided in yet another place they simultaneously desire to transform into the purview of government control. Things became so difficult that Matin had to go into the mountains:
I went on a lot of missions in the mountains when I was with the special forces. Their missions were almost always in the mountains. We were close to a village, and our mission was to support the local Afghan police. There were a lot of ambushes. That was their tactic, and of course they laid roadside mines and bombs on the major roads. So we would go out primarily at night, at two or three a.m., and wait for them in the mountains so they would not attack the Afghan police. They would try to attack every single night. Every single night members of the Afghan police were killed, at least two or three dead and I’d see their bodies. There were too many dead bodies, sometimes even six or seven of them. Or they would be badly hurt.
“What did you do?” I asked.
What did we do? We tried to ambush first. We would try to ambush them beforehand, while they were traveling to the villages, sometimes we got caught by an ambush instead. I got hurt when a mine went off and hit the person in front of me.
Matin casts the situation for us as one in which anticipatory attacks are merely the expression of state interest. There is in fact no distinction here between the state and terror, a real and planned ambush attack, between the event and its ideation or even the taking of native life and “access” to his environment, in this case the roads, the escape path “they” had also presumably booby-trapped. It is the scene of a total collapse. From the mountain, the difference between ground and sky Matin understands as the domain of enclosure and local life becomes the space of the abandonment of translation, and instead, the taking on of the deadly play of destruction: the reply not in dialogue but in the form of a kameen (ambush). Matin finds himself engulfed in the same attitude of readiness he misunderstood as the singular expression of local life and language. The situation deteriorates rapidly. Nobody knows who was responsible for the ambushes or laying of the mines. The locals were terrified, accusations proliferated on all sides; the play of ambush-before-ambush and of shadows and planting in the middle of the night created an atmosphere so terribly pervasive that Matin recalls even his own nearly deadly injury during an explosion with chilling nonchalance. He even jokes, “I’d show you my scars, but it is a shame they are on my legs.”
What is the role of the translator during an actual ambush? In the scene of fighting? I ask.
There isn’t a lot of communication during those moments, but state [Afghan] security forces are in touch with us. They communicate the attacks that will be [emphasis mine] made on them. They perceive dangers, and we have to relay that, their perceptions, to the Americans who are in turn supporting the Afghan forces. The Americans tell them what to do, how to respond to situations, and of course the local villagers play a role too.
The atmosphere is devoid of speech in the present tense, but also of the attempt to speak on behalf of others. Matin describes his role during this encounter as communicating between two parties, on the same side of war (American and Afghan soldiers) but separated by the foreignness of tongues. By contrast, this is precisely what fails when it is demanded of the locals themselves, who suffer for speaking in a representative capacity, despite what Matin says is everyone’s shared interest in resolving the problem of the land mines. By the time Matin comes down from the mountains, speech had become impossible. The locals would not communicate what was “in their hearts.”
We would sit with them and hold councils [jirgas]. The local villagers were hard to understand. They wouldn’t open up to us. They wouldn’t communicate to us what was in their hearts, if they helped us the Taliban would punish them later. We couldn’t be there to protect them, and the Taliban kill, literally cut the necks off of anyone who talks with foreigners or helps them. They have no tolerance or mercy. At one village meeting, a man got up, like a representative, and spoke and encouraged the other villagers to help us, to not let the Taliban use their village to plant mines. That very night they found him. They cut his head off. He wasn’t young, maybe thirty years old.
The disembodied voice Matin thought I would fear over the telephone is here the voice of address, the attempt to speak to and on behalf of others, and then, by that same evening, a headless body incapable of future speech. Perhaps there is nothing more vivid than a beheading to illustrate the rupture of the real, and while it recounts for us one of the key presuppositions of counterinsurgency, that Afghans live in an intractable, acephalous society, the scene of the jirga realizes that representation in literal form; it transforms the idiom of territorial and organizational difference, and of asymmetric warfare, into the redoubling of revenge and lack. We know from Matin that by this point it was impossible to tell who was planting which mine, and that the nature of one anticipatory ambush attack for another resulted in an atmosphere of chaotic confusion and limited access to the closest town, and therefore a sense that nobody could quite escape the village where they were all in deadly proximity. I imagine they felt strange and yet intimate with one another.
The young man was in fact very young, and he was beheaded because he spoke on behalf of another double bind. In this context, to allow a convoy to officially stay the night was to not only appear to collaborate with the foreigners but, more crucially, to accede to the force of ambush-style attacks as the condition for entry into rural villages and therefore as the basis for holding that ground (as opposed to being entrapped in it). In a sense, the young man was beheaded to communicate that nobody else should dare communicate on behalf of such a state of affairs. He was beheaded for bringing into language the reality of a situation in which nobody could protect or trust one another, and a state of affairs that the locals and foreigners shared with no end in sight, and thus a state too early to put into language or a fixed representation. There was only a general sense of what was transpiring, and to speak on its behalf was to make it more real than anyone could bear.
On another afternoon, in a remote village, there was another jirga. Again, representatives of both sides came to speak to each other. Matin describes it as a particularly dangerous place, where combat was fierce, and that the locals had gathered in an open field to be addressed by Matin and his unit. Taliban fighters had cordoned off the village. The level of tension was high, and nobody was quite in control of the exchange of words or the situation. Matin addressed the Afghans and asked for a night of safe rest in the village for the entire convoy, and as a gesture of goodwill offered to play a game of soccer. Some of the village men asked Matin, “What is a soccer ball?” Matin was stunned. He demonstrated by putting together a bunch of scrunched up plastic bags. They tried to play that way, and the local men fumbled and fell; Matin recalls the comical scene: grown men tripping like children.
The soldiers pulled out their smartphones and began to take pictures and video. They laughed at the scene unfolding before them and archived it for future amusement. Matin felt very uncomfortable, and the horror he intuited was realized the next day when his unit rode over a massive roadside bomb on the side of the same field they used for the game. They hadn’t checked for mines because they assumed that even through the laughter, or perhaps owing to it, even though it was never shared, that a bond was forged nonetheless. They were confused, in a way they could not permit Afghans to be, and they were also dead wrong.
They were crying, the ones who survived, one man was crying a lot, and would ask “how could they do this? We just played a game of soccer with them yesterday and today they tried to kill us all.” I said to him, “take out your phone.” I showed him the pictures and videos he had taken. He was completely unaware of how offensive that had been, how murderous offending someone can be around here. He still didn’t understand. “Why would they kill us for taking pictures?” I had to explain: “You played music, you made fun, you turned them into entertainment and they did that in response. You have to respect them.” They listened to me after that, I told them not to walk around without their shirts off or go swimming in their underwear, which they used to do regularly. They only learned to listen to me after something this violent occurred. Otherwise they were deaf.
The nature of playing a game in this place was misunderstood in the same way that the nature of speaking out was misunderstood in the first jirga. The defeat that photography and laughter was to preserve, a form of capture James Siegel (2009: 60) describes in colonial Indonesia not as “a tool for the preservation of a culture, but a technological device devoted to its defeat and to the recording of the remnants of that defeat,” becomes the scene of another game. This game is one of refusal and destruction. It is a game in which there could be no recording and no shared laugh but only the violence intensified by proximity to the jouissance of laughter. But unlike the outcome of the first jirga, this was a severance in keeping with the photographic form, the kind of severance Marilyn Ivy (2009: 828) tells us “severs the moment as event”; by severing the real and continuity of signs, it “incites desire to bring something unapproachable closer . . . the photograph ‘transcends’ time and space as it feverishly circulates, without origin and without final destination.” So too, we might say, does the laugh of the invader. Refusing its own origin, the laughter instead becomes about exchange and death. Matin is the only person in his unit who now seems to understand this. He understands that the atmosphere has become impossible to mitigate, that no translation will suffice to make it clearer, to make the foreigners less “deaf” to the reality of the lifeworld they have structured along the fatal divide between play and annihilation.
The Poisoned Gift
By way of concluding I’d like to consider a final story about exchange. Matin was hiding in what he describes as the thick of the jungle, close to the agricultural town of Marjah, in Helmand Province. A group of Taliban fighters were hiding there too, and their bodies and weapons were in deadly proximity. The Taliban fighters would come out at night. Matin says they were “stealthy and sneaky,” and they came out to plant roadside mines. They didn’t realize Matin and his unit put surveillance cameras in the trees, and so they walked through some ponds, Matin describes, some marshland, and on land. There were only two homes in the vicinity, and Matin, who wore real camouflage during these missions, befriended one of the owners. The owner was an elderly man. In return for his friendship and goodwill Matin promised to protect him from any retaliatory violence. He couldn’t bear another fatal outcome like the young man who spoke in the jirga and was beheaded. One night, Taliban fighters snuck into the old man’s backyard and planted an explosive mine inside an old can of cooking oil. They fled after-ward. Unbeknownst to them, the man would typically stay up all night long and guard his own home. He saw everything that transpired, and the next day he went to see Matin, or as he calls him, “Mr. Translator.”
“Hi, Mr. Translator. I brought you something.” Matin immediately took the oil can in his hands, mistaking it for cooking oil, or the gift of homemade food.
“What is it?” Matin asked.
“Oh. It’s a mine.”
Matin said he almost collapsed on the spot, but the old man spoke some more: “Don’t worry. I removed the battery, don’t worry,” he said.
Matin alerted the military personnel and they immediately came out to examine it. The old man kept repeating: “Relax I removed the battery. It doesn’t work. Relax. I removed the battery it will not go off.”
By this point, the man’s fingerprints were all over the device, and Matin, knowing how readily accusations were made against locals on the basis of biometric evidence, didn’t want him questioned or biometrically enrolled. The biometric system used in Afghanistan is called the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection System, and many men in rural areas are routinely “enrolled” (as they are in Kabul when they seek employment on military bases). Enrollment means having your fingerprints and iris scan entered in the system. It produces the potential for complicated scenarios; for example, if someone handles a piece of scrap metal before it is used by someone else to construct an improvised explosive, their fingerprints might still be on it, and if after testing the explosive the fingerprint matches someone in the system, who may have been entered after obtaining a job on a military base, they can easily be accused of both constructing the device and gaining entry into the base to plan an insider attack. Matin understands all of these possibilities. Thus, fearing that the enrollment would likely result in the man’s interrogation, possible torture, or even deportation to Guantanamo Bay, Matin struck a deal with all sides instead. They would go back to the man’s backyard and bury the mine again. They would replant it and watch the house until the original perpetrators returned to take back what was left of it in the event of explosion (and thereby remove their own fingerprints from the scraps and scene of the crime). Matin planted the mine, and after a day, when the perpetrator-strangers did not arrive, went back and unearthed it himself. He spared his friend any further involvement. In the south of the country, he said, “people do support the Taliban, and I was very afraid. They demand your respect, and if you show it to them, they are kind.”
To end here is not to say the final word is “kind.” It is ironic that the planting is a substitute for the structures of recognition and speaking on behalf of others that have come undone in this agricultural place, and that amidst the proliferation of false representations, it is the human capacity and gaze (certainly not the camera’s) that discerns this falsity for what it is: an opportunity to rescue others from the violence of literalism. But to accede to the possibility of exchange in the aftermath of translation’s failure, and the violence of total war, is to still reckon with the empty places where victims stood to speak, where the improvised mine, first mistaken as a gift, did not detonate. It is to traverse, as I’ve attempted, across transcripts and places of ambush and disguise, the cornfield and the destruction of agricultural land, the fields where men were beheaded, inside the tenuous link between the translated phrase and maddening dreamwork of local dialect, and finally in the closing of the heart (the tangi, or tightness) that becomes the predicament between languages. But alongside these spaces there is perhaps one more, one that requires the opening Matin and Mahmud desire as the compensation for their survival, not to attest to the force of translation but to witness the catching on fire of dialogue in the place otherwise left unoccupied.
This essay is an expansion of a talk delivered in the Departments of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis, and University of California, Berkeley. I am especially indebted to Rosalind C. Morris and Stefania Pandolfo for their guidance, and to Marilyn Ivy and Nadia Abu El-Haj, who read an earlier version. I would also like to thank Cristiana Giordano, Alan Klima, Victoria Gross, Natacha Nsabimana, Michael D’Arcy, and Milad Odabaei. This essay would not have been possible without the generous invitation to participate in this special issue. For that, and for their suggestions as part of a larger collective review, I thank Madiha Tahir, Shamus Khan, Jesse Goldberg, Caren Kaplan, and Andrea Miller.
In the introduction to IlluminationsHannah Arendt (1968: 49–50) explains that this purer language is about the place of history in language, and that for Benjamin language is not “the gift of speech which distinguishes man from other living beings, but, on the contrary, ‘the world essence . . . from which speech arises.’ ” Arendt explains that this is the language “whose existence we assume unthinkingly as soon as we translate from one language into another.”
Ibn Khaldûn (1989: 223–24) describes the wartime notion of “group feeling” as the site of loss and intensification. It enables war to erupt not only between enemies but former neighbors once close to each other, and hence those privy to social envy. His discourse is distinct from Sigmund Freud’s ( 2005) understanding of ambivalence and guilt in relation to the dead, but it shares the assumption that warfare possesses a psychic force and requires the bond of sentiment to also transcend it.
When I describe the transmission of words as uncontrollable, I am also thinking with Jeanne Favret-Saada (1976: 9–10) and the nature of words in witchcraft, when “deadly words” become the source of a power that precludes the impartial participant and “tie or untie a fate.” I also draw on James Siegel (2005: 50), who illustrates that the phenomenon of witchcraft is also about speaking and immediate access to unconscious power, a power such that words and signifiers can suddenly “link anything with anything even if the result is catastrophe.” Translation and witchcraft are not the same thing, but they do share the proclivity for excess that begins with the word and is realized in the uncontrollable linkages that emerge from the act of saying. For an evocative account of another way of thinking the power of words in relation to the emergence of excess(es), and therefore understanding the translation between languages and worlds to simultaneously be about the partial connection of differences and similarities (which are never simply just one or the other), see Marisol De La Cadena’s Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds (2015).
It is important to note here that all voice is also interpretation, and that even the presymbolic voice, for example a child’s scream, is about desire and anticipating the other. See Dolar 2006: 29.
“Green on blue” attacks refer to incidences of violence when embedded Afghans turn on their foreign military units, usually in the form of a shooting.
The voice (and song) is also the rendering of testimony to the event, and the voice that is both a “present corporeality” and “an impersonal agent of strangeness, inscription of alterity” (Pandolfo 2008: 109).
I would contrast this sense of voice, which indicates for Matin the powers of intellection and also lawfulness, with what Roland Barthes (1977: 181) describes as the “grain of the voice.” For Barthes the grain is the dimension and materiality of voice inseparable from body, and it illustrates the “encounter between a language and a voice” while remaining irreducible to personality (or civil identity). It is the singularity of voice (something more than its timbre) that is like a separate body and “bears along directly the symbolic” (i.e., renders the symbolic) and speaks from within body and within language the significance of language as opposed to communication or the mere expression of feeling (1977: 182). This twin sense of voice, at once bodily and structural, is what Stefania Pandolfo describes as the possibility of a voice and counterpart that is (in the experience of Amina in the setting of a psychiatric hospital) “corporeal expression, material and ‘insubordinate’ . . . yet which is rooted in a field of power of which her voice is the trace and ‘condensation’ ” (2018: 67).
On the relationship between voice and capital for Karl Marx, and of voicing to representation and dialectical thought, see Morris 2016. Rosalind Morris (2016: 235) illustrates that in the context of the working day “voice names the quality of a saying that cannot be reduced to the said but also of a real that contradicts (speaks against) the concept.”
Historically, the project of linguistic assimilation is part of “print-as-commodity” and the rise of national consciousness alongside the age of mechanical reproduction and generalized experience of reading print language (Anderson 1991). Anderson ( 1991: 44) argues, “Nothing served to ‘assemble’ related vernaculars more than capitalism, which, within limits imposed by grammars and syntaxes, created mechanically reproduced print-languages capable of dissemination through the market.” This not only enables national consciousness but also creates “languages-of-power” and dialects that are closer to print-language. Vicente Rafael (1993) offers a different account of how native vernacular circumscribed the universalizing impulses of Christian colonial rule in the Philip-pines and the ways conversion and translation between Spanish and Tagalog “produce the vernacular as that which simultaneously institutes and subverts colonial rule” (1993: xv).For a beautiful account of the “grain of voice” and its reemergence at the margin of national culture and its desire(s) in Japan, see Ivy 1995.
For a mapping of this operation see BBC News 2019. For an account of the relationship between policing and the calibration of intensity (the “more-or-less-ness” of things and ethnic identities) in crossings between Indonesia and East Malaysia, see Andrew Carruthers’s “Policing Intensity,” in this issue.
To think signification and meaning in relation to the foreign, I turn to Jacques Derrida’s (1997: 262–63) reading of Georges Bataille on the question of sovereignty, specifically, on how sovereign silence and a continuum that is the experience of a “sovereign operation” is also, as Derrida contends, the “experience of absolute difference.”