Noah Coburn. Bazaar politics: power and pottery in an Afghan market town. xi, 254 pp., map, bibliogr. Stanford: Univ. Press, 2011. £19.95 (paper)
Article first published online: 25 JAN 2013
© Royal Anthropological Institute 2013
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Volume 19, Issue 1, pages 199–200, March 2013
How to Cite
Lindisfarne, N. (2013), Noah Coburn. Bazaar politics: power and pottery in an Afghan market town. xi, 254 pp., map, bibliogr. Stanford: Univ. Press, 2011. £19.95 (paper). Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 19: 199–200. doi: 10.1111/1467-9655.12011_17
- Issue published online: 25 JAN 2013
- Article first published online: 25 JAN 2013
This book is based on an ethnographic study of Istalif, a small town north of Kabul. Istalif has been long famed for its pottery, its vineyards, and as a picnic spot for leisured Kabulis. Between 2006 and 2008, when Coburn lived in the town, it was an administrative centre with a population of some 30,000 souls. The majority, and most of the population of the immediate region, call themselves Tajiks: Persian-speakers who supported the Panjshiri Ahmad Shah Massoud during the jihad against the Soviets and in the civil war that followed. As a centre of resistance to the Taliban, Istalif was destroyed, but the town has recovered a considerable degree of prosperity since the American occupation. However, a number of townspeople now work in Kabul, some even commuting daily.
It is good that new ethnographic research on Afghanistan is being published. This is one of the earliest of a number of books due to appear. At first sight, Bazaar politics promises to be wide-ranging and bold, though in the end it disappoints for lack of detail. Coburn argues that neither his analysis, nor Tajiks themselves, conform to the earlier ‘tribe and state’ accounts of local politics. Given the long history of war, this is not only likely, but fascinating and an important counter to the pernicious stereotypes about Afghan lives. Coburn, however, offers little ethnographic material (whether genealogies, household and neighbourhood surveys, or case studies) to document and explore this thesis. Analytically, there is also a lack of clarity in his handling of the key notion of qaum, or ‘local descent group’, and his reification of the state.
Coburn's strongest opinions emerge when he writes about local NGOs, and about the presence of international military and development groups in the town. But again he provides little detailed material to support his reservations. Coburn suggests that the Istalifis avoid conflict through ‘masterful inactivity’, or ‘the politics of stagnation’ (p. 145), but only in the final ten pages of the book does an argument begin to emerge: that people are frightened of finding themselves the object of attention of anyone with power – the local police, the local commanders, the military, the wealthy businessmen who've made their money from emporia in Kabul and as carpet merchants in Pakistan, or corrupt politicians. So the ordinary people keep their heads down. This does not necessarily mean that disputes don't emerge and fester, or get settled, behind closed doors, yet we learn little of these processes. Rather, in the first part of the book, Coburn repeatedly describes all kinds of situations and events as ‘complicated’, while in the latter part of the book the adjective ‘ambiguous’ is reiterated in a similar way. Both usages suggest a lack of ethnographic material. In the final pages of the book, Coburn also begins to consider the undoubted connection between Istalifi circumspection and the ongoing war against the Taliban, the American occupation, the vulnerability of the Karzai government, and the uncertain future of the country. He is fond of the idea that things have ‘symbolic’ importance. The fact that the American Bagram airbase, prison, and detention centre are only a few miles from the town must be at least of that order of significance.
I would have liked to learn more about the Istalifi potters as people – though Coburn does insert short ‘Interludes’ to capture some of the ‘emotions of fieldwork’ (p. ix) – and more about their trade and the bazaar as a market and tourist destination. And the women of the pottery families, who, ‘while involved in some aspects of production, never assisted in the firing process’ (p. 48), are absent, though Coburn's wife seems to have been with him in the field, and he clearly talked to the staff of several women's NGOs. The most systematic information is drawn from Coburn's survey of shops in the bazaar. Of these, 212 were owned by forty-six men, some six of whom owned more than ten shops each. Only eleven men owned a single shop, and no pottery shop (of which there were twenty-five, p. 53) was owned by its shopkeeper (pp. 164-5). These are intriguing facts. They raise many questions about class relations in Istalif and in the region, and other important questions about the effects of current styles of imperial war on everyday lives. So much more could be said about the structures of opportunity and squandered human potential, and about who benefits and who is harmed by the war, market capitalism, and international aid, that, in the end, I suspect the Istalifis were well able to keep their heads down and hold another, at least potentially powerful, outsider at bay.