AFTER I FINISHED READING, and looking at, Art as Witness, I put it away for a while and tried to hold the whole book in my head. I wanted to see, before sitting down to write about it, which bits of the book came back and remained with me most vividly or meaningfully. As the co-editor, Sana Das, explains in her opening piece, ‘Interrupting the Spectacle,’ in being made up of writing as well as photography, the book attempts to “interrupt” the verbal with the visual. The photographs are placed “in the way” of the writing, so that the reader “trips” up against the pictures and is confronted with an “abrasive, painful and less forgettable” experience. It is not surprising, therefore, that the most powerful moments—to which I kept returning, intellectually and imaginatively—were images and not opinions. Yet, oddly enough, none of these images came from the photographs; they were all in the writing.
I was riveted, for instance, by the account given by the Kashmiri journalist, memoirist and translator, Iftikhar Gilani, of how, as a prisoner at Tihar jail, he had to guard his English dictionary round the clock: “its fine paper would have been perfect for making cigarettes [prohibited in Tihar].” “When some people donated copies of the English translation of the Holy Qur’an,” he continues in his ‘Tales from Tihar,’ “the jail superintendent refused to distribute them, afraid that someone seen tearing the holy book could spark a bloody row.” This is the stuff of art as well as a rare sort of history—the history of interior, truly invisible, experience. And, as unselfconsciously good writing, it is already art, giving us access to what would otherwise have remained unrepresented, startling us into looking at the content of this book in a new and more difficult light. It compels us to reflect not only upon the nature of prisons, books and cigarettes (I was reminded of Jean Genet’s 1950 film, Un Chant d’Amour), but also makes us think about what it means to be free and unfree, afraid and unafraid. Our thoughts hang together, though, around that unique image of a dictionary being smoked away secretly in a prison.
In this book about incarceration, custodial deaths and disappearance, the death penalty and the brutality of modern nation-states, the jail as a scene of reading (and writing) becomes a recurring motif. The solace, power and fragility of books are central to perhaps the finest piece of writing in Art as Witness: ‘May I take a book with me?’ by Kian Tajbakhsh, the Iranian-American social scientist who has been in and out of Tehran’s Evin prison, and is now prohibited from leaving Iran. Tajbakhsh describes how his “attentive reading” of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, le Carré and Vikram Seth, among others, deeply enriched the solitude afforded by imprisonment and led to a remarkable change in his “perception of time.” His reflective essay–spare, stoical and devoid of sensationalism—is in a tradition of prison—writing that goes back to a Roman classic like Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and includes the writings of Wilde, Nehru and Gramsci. The essay sets a high standard for the rest of the book, not only with respect to the writing, but also in the way the book addresses the nature of art, and art’s relationship with powerlessness, injustice and suffering. “Huddled in the blanket, angled to catch the fluorescent light coming through the small barred window of the thick metal door, I read,” writes Tajbakhsh, providing us again with a simple, but masterful, image that renders photographic illustration redundant.
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